How to be a journalist

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Wednesday 5th August 2015

Fleet Street 2Rooting through my old files I’ve just found a piece about journalism that I wrote as a young reporter. I can’t for the life of me remember who it was for but here, completely unedited and slightly dated, is an account of my route to Fleet Street.

Don’t even contemplate going into journalism if you are highly-strung, sensitive to the slightest criticism or expect to be on the 6.03 train home every night.

You’d find it hell.

If, on the other hand, you have an insatiable curiosity about everything and everyone, a skin like a rhinoceros and no objection to being sent to Aberdeen in the middle of the night at a moment’s notice, you could well be perfect reporter material.

Contrary to the impression given by some, journalism couldn’t be less glamorous. It’s often traumatic, sometimes terrifying and always takes over your life.

A well-known reporter who had earned the undying respect of people up and down Fleet Street once told me that there were days when all he wanted to do was work in a shoe shop – with no deadlines, no pressure and no one itching to tell him their life story.

I started my career in journalism on a small newspaper in the wilds of the Devon countryside which sold the grand total of 16,000 copies a week.

For the year I worked there I smiled wryly as friends joked about reporters chasing fire engines, interviewing film stars and spending long afternoons knocking back whisky in the pub.

Chance would be a fine thing.

I spent most of my time covering flower shows, funerals and weddings or listening to local councillors discussing at length whether to put a new set of double yellow lines along the high street.

But for all my moans and groans, working on a provincial newspaper proved to be an excellent training ground. Even now, most seasoned hacks still regard starting out in local journalism as absolutely essential – indeed it’s with nostalgia that many of them look back on their years on the Totnes Times or Golborne Gazette.

The day comes, however, when it’s time to move on.

The big test for any reporter worth his or her salt comes after they’ve mastered the intricacies of shorthand, understand the implications of libel and defamation and decide they want to have a bash at national newspaper journalism.

Each year hundreds of eager young reporters arrive Dick Whittington-style from the provinces, determined to make it in Fleet Street.

Armed with several year of experience, plus their NCTJ Proficiency Certificate (it sounds like something out of the Girl Guides but it’s a professional exam for journalists), they proceed to write to every news editor in Fleet Street listing their qualifications, scoops and endless capacity for hard work.

Newspapers rely heavily on freelance journalists – or casuals as they are known – to supplement their existing staff, particularly on night shifts and over the summer.

Staff reporters tend to work days, covering the most important news stories, while casuals work late nights and early mornings.

As a casual, you often feel as though you are living in a twilight world, starting work when everyone else is going home and staggering back in the early hours.

Often you spend nights writing stories that have no chance of making the following morning’s paper. Just occasionally though, you’ll get the chance to prove yourself when a big story breaks at night.

The better you do, the more chance you’ve got of being asked to work day shifts – when the bigger stories tend to happen.

For everyone, the ultimate goal is a staff job.

I admit that after six months of working day and night, never turning down a shift and developing unbecoming black shadows under my eyes I began to despair and accepted a job on a women’s magazine.

It was a huge mistake. I realised as much the moment I walked into the couth office, complete with a posh coffee maker, pot plants and Anglepoise lamps.

It was a very far cry from the down-at-heel newspaper offices I was used to – filled with piles of cuttings, dog-eared telephone directories, brimming ashtrays and reporters battling to catch the deadline for the next edition.

Fortunately for me, the mistake was one that I eventually managed to rectify. It took me two years of shifts but I am now working as a reporter for a London evening newspaper. And I’m happy as Larry.

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