Working for the ‘Evil Empire’ part 2

As all good things must come to an end, so must my work experience placement at the Sunday Times. It’s been an interesting two weeks and I’ve definitely picked up some very useful skills, but very little in the way of facetime with anyone other than those working on my desk. Counterproductive? Possibly.

On the one hand, I’ve established myself as a reliable and hard worker who can turn his hand to any of the type of articles that the section needs. On the other hand, virtually noone away from my old desk knows my name. (except for the columnist who threw a tantrum because I emailed her details of an interview request from the BBC instead of phoning her mobile and telling her about it, bearing in mind the columnist hadn’t even introduced herself and I only had the company address book – which doesn’t include phone numbers – to work with)

All said and done, I can still add “work experience at the Sunday Times” to my CV so I’m not going to sweat about it too much!

Stuff wot I learnt:

  • Sentences must be no longer than 27 words (random but important)
  • People-locating skills, in conjunction with commercial locating services
  • Preparing cuts
  • Importance of regularly updating articles about breaking stories
  • Researching – and writing – appropriate content for regular features
  • Transcribing interviews (the most uninspiring, if necessary, task I’ve done over the fortnight)
  • Contacting agencies and publishers to sort out interview opportunities and permission to publish their content
  • How to successfully deal with press offices

I’ve learned how office-based journalism works, which is cool, so now I want to find out how local news works. Time to approach the local paper!

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Working for the ‘Evil Empire’

I had a real stroke of luck the other day. The MA course I’m on has been running for a few years now, and the majority of graduates have worked their way quite firmly into the industry. One of these kindly souls emailed our tutors asking if any students were interested in work experience at the Sunday Times.

The entrance to News International's building in Wapping

Naturally, when I heard about this, I leapt at the opportunity. Even better was the timing; being between Christmas and New Year meant that most of the regular staff were off on holiday … and what better way to impress than coming into a short-staffed newsroom and taking up the slack?

To cut to the chase, I’m currently at the News Review section of the Sunday Times, based in East London’s Docklands.  I have to say, News International’s Wapping HQ seriously dwarfs you and puts you firmly in your place; I am a tiny cog in a vast machine of news. All of News Int’s titles are now based in this 10-storey building, plus a firm of bankers who sneaked in on one of the floors, so you can imagine just how big it is.

That said, I do feel valued up on the 4th floor. Last week saw just me, the section editor, the deputy section editor and one columnist actually in the office, so I got stuck in fairly rapidly. It might just be the festive season, but the Sunday Times newsroom is almost silent. People even talk in hushed tones on the telephone. You also need a swipe card to go anywhere within the News Int empire – even to the men’s toilets – and there’s a £5 fine if you’re caught without your ID card, according to the company handbook. Oddly, though, the women’s toilets aren’t behind a locked door, which I find intriguing. I’ve also been on the sharp end of the Deputy Managing Editor’s finely-honed tongue: lesson learned, don’t make jokes about stereotypes! However, the morning receptionists are a lovely pair of girls who’re always ready for a cheery chat.

Wapping High Street. Courtesy of Julian Walker, Flickr

The area itself isn’t great. Wapping is in the heart of the old docks, which have been substantially regenerated over the last decade or two. It’s quite haphazard, though – on Thomas More Square, for example, there’s an old brick wall that’s clearly stood for 150 years. Right next to it is an ultramodern steel and glass office block, and I find this obvious clash rather jarring. There’s lots of trendies wandering around (peacoats and scarves for the men, long winter coats with leggings and boots for the women) and I struggled to find a pub that hadn’t been boarded up. I suppose the area’s bearable, but there’s no life or soul to it: just office blocks and dormitory after dormitory of new flats with a sprinkling of coffee shops in between.

So, what have I been working on? I started with the news in briefs – 100-150 word summary of a key story from the week. Key to this is your ability to concisely put across the facts; every journalist’s most important skill, as well as your research ability. News Int uses Factiva, a corporate search engine that supports Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT, etc etc) so knowing how to work with these is essential. Knowledge of advanced Googling (how to use “+”, “-” and “site:”) also helps! Talking of public search engines, avoid Microsoft’s Bing: it simply doesn’t return as many relevant results as Google.

I also did the classic work experience ‘drudge job’, transcribing a 45 minute telephone interview. I didn’t bother using shorthand, instead just typing it straight into MS Word. I knew all these years of touch-typing would come in useful! The interview subject was Jacqueline Dillion, who’s just been appointed as the live-in caretaker of Thomas Hardy’s house in Dorset, Max Gate. I won’t spill any details but she’s lived a very varied life so far and she’s very passionate about Hardy.

I was also lucky enough to be asked to come up with some Quotes of the Week. You need either lots of time or good instincts for this! Some knowledge of people likely to come out with outrageous things, or the publications you’d find these in, helps. Gossip columns seem like the obvious one, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I found this quite difficult. Obviously you don’t want to be recycling quotes that others have used already!

Vanessa Feltz's decolletage. Copyright McKenna Townsend PR

The Sunday Times’ approach to quotes of the week isn’t much different from Private Eye’s excellent Pseuds Corner column; they use quirky, amusing things that people have come out with during the week. One that I found (which I’m told will appear in tomorrow’s edition) was from Vanessa Feltz warbling on about her breasts: “I’ve been dusting them off and getting them out for nearly 40 years now. They’re like a couple of faithful Reliant Robins that never let me down!”

I’ve also done quite a lot of background research on people. News Int has a corporate subscription to Tracesmart, which searches the electoral register by (amongst others) name, date of birth and geographical area. It’s a decent way of find people’s contact details but it can be frustrating; like all of these databases, it relies on what people choose to reveal (fail to opt out of?). I also found very handy for this, especially for people who’ve already appeared in the media.

The other thing in doing background research (and presenting cuts to your seniors, especially if they’re writing something up) is context. Does your mark run a company? If so, have a look at their accounts over at Companies House. What are their interests? Maybe they’re a sportsman in their spare time, or perhaps they’ve just joined a new social club – look up their favourite venues and see if anything controversial’s ever happened at them. Find them on Twitter with Google’s excellent Twitter search and see if they’ve said anything interesting there. Look them up on Facebook – although these days most savvy people have locked their profiles right down. I also had problems with Facebook search in that there aren’t many advanced features, and if you’re looking up somebody with a common first name you end up with thousands of irrelevant results.

Doing the obituaries was one of my last tasks for this week. This wasn’t too dificult, chiefly because it’s a review section: therefore the aim is to take obits from another newspaper and trim them down, whilst crediting the original publication. This isn’t too taxing, but as there’s 3 obits – one 500 word, one 275 word, one 150 word – the short ones can be challenging. As always, it’s about preserving the most important facts about a person’s life, and I did have to chop out some interesting ones to make them fit.

Tower Hill Station - a welcome sight at the end of the day! Courtesy of Kake Pugh, Flickr.

Overall impression? I like working there, especially as I’m putting my newly-learned skills to use and I do feel that my efforts are appreciated. However, all said and done, it is a large corporate venture and – purely from the nature of the work – rather impersonal. I’m not getting any bylines or pay from this fortnight, although I can claim expenses which is a relief because the 80-minute commute across London is costing me £10 a day. I will say that, as far as I’ve been able to tell in the last three days, there isn’t any big pressure on people because it’s part of Murdoch’s empire; we just get on with the task in hand.

It’s been valuable experience, though, and I think it was about the best choice I could have made at this stage; I’ve developed my skills in a newsroom that isn’t too highly pressured, meaning I can make the odd mistake here and there without major repercussions. I’m made some solid contributions and, I like to think that I’ve proved I can hold my own amongst professionals.

Would I go back post-qualification? If they’d take me, yes I would.

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The future of UK journalism?

It’s interesting to look at all the doom-and-gloom predictions for the traditional British print media.

UK national newspaper circulation is declining

Newsprint - consigned to history?

Political Betting has an interesting post featuring the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ figures for the major UK daily newspapers. If you follow the discussion in the comments below, there’s a very telling one by “My Burning Eyes”:

Lack of investigative journalism/high quality analysis? This is the thing the blogosphere can’t compete with the press on. The NYT sometimes runs top notch analysis that is the result of getting subject experts spending 2-3 months of data-mashing, something I’ve not seen much of in the British press. Big scoops still draw paper sales, but they’re rarer, and increasingly tackier. Gossip and leaks rather than in-depth investigation form most scoops, but they’re often just tittle-tattle.

So perhaps what people want from newspapers is quality, perhaps at the expense of frequency, rather than quantity?

I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of “quantity = quality”. It’s my unwritten mantra every time we start producing Le Nurb (the Brunel SU newspaper) because, like any other student newspaper, we’re always crying out for articles. Similarly, you can also see the appeal of putting something out every single day; it builds awareness of your product amongst your target audience. Yet perhaps media organisations are creating a ‘white noise’ effect by putting out so much content?

Twitter is a prime example of the white noise effect in action. Now, I can’t stand Twitter at all, nor do I particularly see the point of it beyond self-expression. Avid Twitterers claim that this is because I’m not cool enough or don’t understand its beauty or that I’m not following the right people. But no – I can’t stand it because there’s so much junk in there in amongst the rare gems, and (as far as I know) nobody’s yet developed a Twitter search engine that can tell the difference between “lol my dog just fell in a puddle” and “omg a bus just skidded into my front garden”.

If somebody took the time to go through a week’s worth of tweets and presented me with just the interesting ones, then perhaps I’d take the time to have a read. I think this is where the mainstream press falls down; in their need to fill column inches, they simply can’t afford to filter out the less interesting content.

And I think that this is where the future of quality journalism lies – as is amply demonstrated by The Week. My prediction is that, with leading journalists predicting that more localised journalism is the future, regional publications along the lines of The Week (perhaps fortnightly?) will be the salvation of the industry.

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And another thing…

So here we go. This is (yet another) aspiring journo’s blog, set up to get him some public exposure – oh alright, more like catch the eye of an editor who’ll pay him for his pieces based on what he reads here – and a place to generally sound off about being a trainee student hack.

If you’ve stuck with it this far, congratulations, we’ll clearly be seeing more of each other in the days to come.


So, who is Gaz and what qualification does he have to call himself a ‘journo’?

Well, I’m a graduate and I’m studying for a masters in journalism at Brunel University in West London. I stayed sober for long enough to earn a good BA in English with Creative Writing there, and managed to become editor of the SU newspaper by loudly demanding to know when I could start, thus cunningly avoiding the usual trap of asking patiently and waiting for weeks on end.

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