‘Let me tell you – the girl who sat at that desk before you, she really was great.’
Hardly the most heartening words to hear on your first day. My search for some ‘hands-on’ journalistic experience had brought me to the offices of a small news agency, where instead of being thrown out into the field, I was somewhat relieved to find myself plonked on the office-bound features desk for the first couple of days.
My predecessor, it transpired, had gone on to blag a coveted job at Take a Break magazine, and left in her wake a raft of high expectations, which I was only too ready to disappoint. My boss was a friendly yet formidable man, who prided himself on his ample Fleet Street experience. As head of the agency’s features arm, his role is essentially that of a middle man, liaising with tabloids and ‘real life’ magazines on behalf of people wanting to sell their stories.
The other responsibility of the features desk was attempting to find people to meet the briefs for various newspaper or magazine features, which earned the agency an easy 50 quid a time. Emails poured in, dozens a day: ‘seeking bold ladies to bare their bums for a fun and tasteful summer feature’ … ‘Do you know anyone who’s lost 20 dress sizes in one month?’ … ‘Were your mates banged up in last year’s riots?’ … and so on.
On the upside, this did help to solve the ever-puzzling question of how magazines source their bizarre features. On the downside, I was haunted by the spectre of my predecessor, who seemingly knew someone for every possible eventuality. I, in contrast, was left wishing I knew more lunatics, exhibitionists and criminals. But as became increasingly clear, this was the easy side of the job. I quickly realised that those magazines trading in scurrilous stories of treachery and intrigue, the type I only encounter once a year on a sun lounger in Majorca, are big business, and that a softly-softly approach isn’t always good enough to convince someone to sell the story of their tragic life.
That’s not, of course, to say that there’s any coercion involved – plenty of people freely turn down the enviable opportunity of appearing in Closer – but I had rather thought that the staff of these magazines would have it easy, with people throwing themselves before the editor, keen for a couple of grand in exchange for fifteen minutes on the phone discussing their ill-fated existences. Unfortunately, as with much of life, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Sourcing people with life stories, both dismal and uplifting, requires commitment, connections and an unrivalled ability to trawl through newspapers. A canny method I learnt was to seize upon the letters page, where an unsuspecting Daily Mail correspondant might inadvertently hint that they had a great story to tell. My job then was to use the wonderful resource that is the internet to track down potentially interesting characters and find out if they would be interested in making some easy money.
Here, as with the news side of the agency, I was constantly aware of being at the tough end of journalism. Every story had to be worth something for the agency to stay afloat and targets had to be met. When working on the wire, you may find the story you’ve spent all week covering isn’t picked up at all, and even if it is you’re unlikely to get a byline for it.
This was true of the first news task I was sent on, where a reporter and I spent a day at an employment tribunal (generally recognised as the most paltry of assignments), only for the write- up not even to make it into the local press. I was left with the impression that often the reporters’ sole purpose was to be a junior tabloid reporter’s dogsbody – if the Mirror wants to see the death certificate of some Z-list celebrity’s great aunt, but they can’t be bothered to send one of their own people to that part of the country, they would pay someone from the agency to do it.
This does, however, have its benefits. While newspaper hacks in London spend a great deal of time holed up in offices rehashing press releases and wire stories, working for an agency means actually getting out there and reporting. One of my highlights was being sent to court to watch high profile cases reach their climax, finding out what you could and could not report, then learning how to craft a short article out of a day’s worth of proceedings and a dense notebook of shorthand.
The same was true of my previous week, spent at a national news agency in London. Here, desks lay empty during the day, with all the reporters out on the scene. Sometimes expeditions would prove fruitless or tedious, as when we waited expectantly for Bob Diamond to arrive for his Treasury Committee appearance, only for him to go in through the back door, or the time when we waited hours for the ‘terror threat’ electronic cigarette blighted Megabus to arrive back in London. But at other points I couldn’t believe my good luck.
One assignment saw me meet Paula Radcliffe at a press junket, while another gave me a sneak preview of the new James Bond exhibition and a free breakfast. Even a trip to film rain-drenched tourists for a piece on the abysmal weather proved exponentially more interesting than being chained to a desk number-crunching, as I imagine a typical banking internship would entail. Sure, I wasn’t paid, but no one goes into journalism for the money, and I found out a lot about where the real work in reporting goes on.