Showing posts with label Journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Journalism. Show all posts

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Moving On, my second novel - out as an ebook TODAY

Moving On, my second novel, is published as an ebook today – and I’m over the moon. It’s the novel I’m most proud of so I’m hoping that new readers will enjoy it.

When the book was first published it had a lurid pink jacket with daisies scattered across the front but now publishers Piatkus Entice have given it a gorgeous mauve cover (I must say I rather covet the heroine’s green and black spotty shirt) and it looks far more stylish.

Like my first novel, Moving On is set in the world of newspapers. But this time round the main characters are two sisters, Kate and Laura Hollingberry. Their father, HH, is a mega-successful newspaper tycoon, but they know next to nothing about their mother, Clare, who walked out in mysterious circumstances when they were little.

The two girls are close but they’re poles apart in character. Laura is happy to get an undemanding job until she finds Mr Right, while Kate is fiercely ambitious and wants more out of life. Determined not to rely on her father's money or influence, Kate takes a job on the Bowland Bugle, a struggling weekly newspaper in the wilds of Lancashire. It's her first job and her first bid for independence. Anything can happen – and it certainly does.

Kate arrives in the north of England as a naive, inexperienced reporter (hmmm, shades of autobiography there), but is forced to grow up fast. Especially when she’s faced with a distraught couple whose teenage daughter has gone missing, a boss who seems hell-bent on tripping her up at every opportunity and a love affair that doesn't go according to plan. Meanwhile, back in London, Laura is facing her own heartbreak and the future of the family business is looking uncertain...

Moving On by Emma Lee-Potter (Piatkus, £3.99)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Hankering after my old job...

Tony Blair reckons he’s better equipped to be PM now than he was during his Downing Street years. He says he’s learned “an immense amount” and would love to have another go, even though it’s unlikely to ever happen.

I was never a Blair devotee, but his words – during an interview with Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands – made me think. 

In my 20s I worked as a news reporter in Fleet Street, haring around on the stories of the moment. I could be covering a grim murder trial at the Old Bailey one week (they often gave me nightmares) and sitting in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Saudi desert with Prince Charles and Princess Diana the next. The deadlines were eye-wateringly tight, the bosses scary and the pressure intense, but life was never boring.

A quarter of a century on, I wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of being hired as a news reporter (in a profession that’s getting younger by the minute, I’m far too old).

But the ridiculous thing is that I’d actually be a far better reporter now than I was then. I’ve lived a hell of a lot more, had children, lost people I love – and understand so much more about everything (well, except for polymers, the offside rule and the ins and outs of the West Lothian question. Deadlines don’t scare me  and nor do tough news editors. When I’m working I focus 100 per cent on what I’m doing, rather than planning nights out with my pals or worrying about my love life. My children are almost grown-ups themselves so I don’t even have to fix childcare.

So, yes, like Tony Blair, I’d love to have a go at my old job. And yes, like him, I know it’s unlikely to ever happen.

PS. The picture shows a cutting from my reporting days. My writer friend Jane Gordon-Cumming found it in a pile of papers when she was moving house. We only met two years ago so she was stunned to find she had an article of mine dating back to the 1980s!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Alexandra Shulman's debut novel - and how my 80s began

Alexandra Shulman, the brilliant Vogue editor-in-chief, has just written her first novel. Can We Still Be Friends is set in the 1980s and relates the lives and loves of three female friends. I’ve ordered the book from Amazon and can’t wait to see how her memories of the decade compare with mine.

Shulman gave readers a vivid snapshot of her 80s in a first person piece for The Times Magazine at the weekend. “My 80s began in the summer of 1980 when I was dumped by my boyfriend,” she said. “He chucked me the day I learnt my university degree – a 2.2 – so I began my 80s walking the streets of London in floods of tears.”

The image Shulman conjured up was so striking that I got to thinking about how my own 80s began. In the summer of 1980, I’d just graduated too – with a degree in history and politics that I’ve never used to this day.

I spent the long summer holiday driving through France in a bright green (and very temperamental) 2CV with my boyfriend of the time and arrived back in September to start training as a journalist.

I nervously drove the highly-strung 2CV from my parents’ house in Dorset to Plymouth, where the Mirror Group Newspapers training scheme was based, and booked into the YMCA for the first few nights. After teaming up with fellow trainees Fiona Millar and Jenny Craddock, we looked for somewhere more permanent to live together and ended up in a tiny ground-floor flat in a place called Mutley. Within a couple of months, though, Fiona moved to the Tavistock Times with Alastair Campbell, while Jenny and I were dispatched to the Mid-Devon Advertiser in Newton Abbot. We moved to a house in the wilds of Dartmoor, where it rained so much I had to start the 2CV with a liberal dosing of WD40 every morning to stand the faintest chance of getting to work.

My starting salary was the princely sum of £3,300 and mostly went on rent, petrol, the pub and trips to London to catch up with university friends who I thought were leading more glamorous lives. My favourite clothes came from French Connection, In-Wear and a shop in York called Sarah Coggles. I whiled away lots of evenings playing Elvis Costello, The Pretenders and Carly Simon on my (oh dear) record player. It wasn’t quite a wind-up gramophone, but not far off…

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Tribute to a fine reporter - Patrick McGowan

Sitting on the Oxford Tube on the way home from London last night, I flicked idly through the Evening Standard. There, on page five, was a single column paying tribute to one of the most outstanding reporters on the paper – Patrick McGowan, who died last week at the age of 60. 

Pat was a straight-talking Yorkshireman, who joined the Standard in 1978 and for nearly 30 years covered all the major stories of the day. He was a brilliant newsman, able to turn his hand to anything the news desk threw at him without any fuss.

During my first months at the paper I was a bit nervous of him. He was so calm and unruffled about reporting, even five minutes before the edition deadline, when the atmosphere was tense and everyone’s nerves were on edge. But he was kind and funny, with a dry wit that got right to the heart of things.

I didn’t realise until I read the Standard tribute (written by friend and longstanding colleague Paul Cheston) that it was Pat who coined the famous phrase “the wrong kind of snow.” The saying caught the imagination of thousands of fed-up commuters when London train services were completely disrupted in the winter of 1991 and went down in history. Every time I hear it now I’ll think of Pat, one of Fleet Street’s finest. RIP Pat.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

London Fashion Week - guest blog by student journalist Lottie Kingdon

As a student in London, I’m living in the fashion capital of the country, some might say the world. This is one of the many reasons I was adamant I had to come and study in London. Never in a million years, though, did I dream of getting a press pass to attend London Fashion Week. But it turns out that student media is regarded as highly valued publicity for designers, and that the tightly packed rows either side of the catwalk are not just full of fashion editors, bloggers and buyers, but student journalists too.

My first London Fashion Week was last season, SS12, and took place in September 2011. I attended on behalf of Fashion Hacks, the fashion branch of Wannabe Hacks, a website for aspiring journalists. Turning up on the first day was scary. For a start, I had swapped my heels for my flats on the bus there. So at 5ft 7in I was a good few inches shorter than anyone else crossing the courtyard at Somerset House. Collecting my press pass made me feel a bit better. I suddenly felt like I fitted in a bit more (even though I wasn’t wearing vertiginous heels, a neon pleated skirt or carrying a Proenza Schouler bag).

But once I got the hang of it, attending shows wasn’t daunting at all. Sitting alongside the catwalk when the lights go up at the start of a show is so exciting. Knowing that you are among the couple of hundred people to see a designer’s creations for the first time is a privilege and I got such a buzz from running to the press room to file show reports to be published online in double quick time (you can tell I’m the daughter of a hardened reporter!)

This fashion week, AW12, I feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m here with my student publication, Cub magazine, and attending shows, tweeting, taking pictures (like Carlotta Actis Barone's show, above) and filing copy is fun. My latest challenge was being asked to interview designer Bernard Chandran, after his show. I had a slight hiccup when I had to argue my way into the show in the first place - the show was so packed that the organisers shut the doors and refused to let anyone else inside. But the show was spectacular and Chandran was absolutely lovely – I think I got pretty lucky for my first interview.

So to conclude, London Fashion Week isn’t scary. Yes, it is full of ludicrously well dressed people in heels, but looking at what everyone is wearing is great fun too. In fact, waiting for a show to start is probably one of the few times that it’s fine to stare at complete strangers. When it comes down to it, what is important is what the designers have spent months and months creating. And there is some incredible talent about.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The PR who made me feel like a museum exhibit

The PR glanced at my scribble-filled notebook and did an astonished double take. “You write shorthand?” she gasped. “Wow. You’re the first journalist in ten years I’ve seen do that.”

Her words made me feel like a museum exhibit from a bygone age. But then again, shorthand is one of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned. Before I started as a trainee reporter on a small weekly paper on the edge of Dartmoor I spent eight weeks in a shabby Plymouth Portakabin mastering the rudiments of a shorthand called Teeline. Our teacher was the delightful Ella, who must have been in her sixties and thought Teeline was the bees-knees. Only when I’d got up to a decent speed did my editor send me out to cover the local magistrate’s court, industrial tribunals and the thing I dreaded more than anything, the district council’s planning committee meeting.

Even now I use my 100 words per minute shorthand every day. It's a bit scrappy these days, with the odd word written in longhand, but when it comes to tight deadlines and interviewing people on the phone, a notebook and pen are still the best tools for the job. Far easier and far speedier than laboriously transcribing from a tape recorder. And there are still places where you can’t use a recorder, like courts for a start.

Shorthand seems to be a dying art so I was delighted to see it in the headlines this week. Why? Because a diary kept by First World War veteran Edward Sigrist has just been discovered in his family’s attic. It’s written in an obsolete form of shorthand and gives a vivid account of the dangers and discomforts of life on the front line.

Like most journalists I’ve hung on to most of my old notebooks. They’re stacked up all over the place in my office – but somehow I don’t think historians of the future will be poring over them.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Why aren't there more women reporters in Fleet Street?

I’ve never met a journalist who isn’t obsessed with their byline – for the uninitiated, that's the line between the headline and the story giving the name of the person who wrote the article. Maybe it’s because hacks are an insecure bunch, or maybe it’s because we’re preoccupied with seeing our names emblazoned in lights.

It’s certainly why an article by Kira Cochrane in today’s Guardian caught my eye. Back in June, Cochrane had the gnawing feeling that she hadn’t seen a female byline on newspaper front pages for weeks. So along with a colleague and two researchers, she decided to put her hunch to the test and started counting them.

The results were alarming – well, women journalists will think so, anyway. As Cochrane writes: “There wasn’t a single day, on a single newspaper, when the number of female bylines outstripped or equalled the number of male bylines.”

When the team averaged out its figures after a month, the results were as follows: Daily Mail - 68% male bylines, 32% female; The Guardian - 72% male, 28% female; The Times - 74% male, 26% female; Daily Telegraph - 78% male, 22% female; Daily Mirror - 79% male, 21% female; The Sun - 80% male, 20% female; The Independent, 84% male, 16% female.

It's pretty damning stuff, but the trouble is that Fleet Street doesn’t make life easy for women journalists. When I started out as a reporter on the Evening Standard, I was one of six women reporters in a news team of around 24. Twenty years later, only one of us works in Fleet Street, the Guardian’s brilliant Caroline Davies, while loads of the men are still there. And of the men who aren’t, the vast majority continued to work as reporters till they retired.

There’s no doubt that working as a news reporter isn’t compatible with having young children. When I worked for the Standard, I was rung in the middle of the night once or twice a week and told to get to Manchester or Calais or a crime scene round the corner from my Clapham flat – like, er, NOW. So if you’re the mother of young children but haven’t got a live-in nanny or a saintly husband, it’s just not workable. I’m sure it's why so many women leave Fleet Street in their thirties. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Once women reporters take career breaks to look after their children, very few ever return to their old staff jobs. A few turn to feature writing, columns or reviewing but most work as freelances, with no job security whatsoever.

It’s ironic really, because I reckon that I’m a better journalist now than when I was young and green. I know a hell of a lot more about life, not to mention interviewing and writing. So could my generation of women reporters make a difference in news rooms these days? You bet we could.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The uplifting story of the journalist and the Afghan teenager

Few people, if any, have a good word to say about journalists these days. As the Leveson inquiry reveals shocking new details about deception, trickery and intrusion in our newspapers, it’s hardly surprising that us hacks are regarded as the lowest of the low.

Yet most journalists I've come across are honest, hard-working and dedicated to their profession. I don’t know anyone who’s hacked a phone or tricked someone into telling their story against their will. And in amongst the gloom, there are still examples of journalists who’ve gone that extra mile to make a real difference to people’s lives.

Jerome Starkey, the Afghanistan correspondent of The Times, is a case in point. I’ve seen his by-line loads of times but until I read his Times 2 feature yesterday I had no idea about the amazing role he has played in helping to transform the life of a young Afghan boy called Najib.

Starkey’s and Najib’s paths crossed in Helmand on August 20, 2009. Najib was cycling along an empty street with his younger brother Hamid on the back, when a rocket hit the road beside them. Starkey witnessed the attack but managed to scramble for cover. But Hamid died instantly and Najib was left badly injured.

As Starkey wrote in yesterday’s piece: “Neither of us knew it, but that rocket was to entwine our lives. It would propel Najib – the son of an illiterate cobbler – towards unimaginable opportunities that would change his life forever.”

Thanks to an American charity, Solace, Najib was eventually flown to the US, but doctors were unable to save the sight of one eye. When he returned to Afghanistan, he threw himself into his schoolwork, aided by an international charity that helps to get talented Afghan students to schools and universities in the US. He and Starkey stayed in touch and earlier this year Najib asked the journalist to help him study in the UK.

Thirty-year-old Starkey had no idea where to start but he agreed to email Anthony Wallersteiner, the headmaster of Stowe, his old school (above).

The long and the short of it is that after interviewing Najib on the phone, Dr Wallersteiner agreed to award him a sixth-form scholarship, covering the Buckinghamshire school’s £28,000 a year fees. Najib, now 17, moved to Stowe in September and by all accounts has settled in well.

Starkey is acting as his guardian and as he wrote at the end of his uplifting piece: “I could almost cry when I stop to think about how far he has come.”

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times - A movie every journalist should see

“Journalism is alive and well and feisty, especially at the New York Times.” Those were the upbeat words of journalist John Lloyd after a special screening of Page One: Inside the New York Times at Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse last week.

With the hacking scandal still unfolding and journalists universally unpopular, many critics would take issue with his view. But there’s no doubt that Page One shows journalism at its very best. Some have compared it to The September Issue, the brilliant film-documentary about Vogue – and I loved it just as much.

Film-maker Andrew Rossi followed journalists on the NYT’s media desk for a year and the hacks emerge as a sparky and determined crew, dedicated to getting their stories right. Two writers who stick in my mind are Brian Stelter, a go-getting young reporter who juggles phone, two computers and Twitter-feed at lightning speed, while the maverick David Carr, a gravelly-voiced ex-drug addict who’s been writing about the media for 25 years, comes across as a larger-than-life character devoted to his craft.

Several things were puzzling though. As Lloyd, a contributing editor at the Financial Times as well as director of journalism at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, pointed out at the lively debate after the Phoenix screening, hacks in the UK would be astonished at the amount of time Carr gets to produce his reports. At one point he tells his boss that he’s got two more weeks of interviewing and research on a story he’s covering, followed by a week of writing it all up. That’s a luxury that doesn’t happen on this side of the Atlantic any more.

I was surprised, too, that none of the reporters seemed to use shorthand and that when they conducted phone interviews they typed their material straight on to their computers. Not a notebook in sight.

Set against a backdrop of the Wikileaks revelations, charging for news online and the demise of many fine newspapers, this is a movie that every journalist should see. But even if you aren’t a hack and you don’t even buy newspapers any more (shame) it’s definitely worth a look. You never know, it might even make you see journalists in a different light.

PS: Today is Day Six of NaBloPoMo - a fifth of the way there!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

How to write a feature that works

From Emily Carlisle to Sarah Duncan, fellow bloggers have given me loads of fantastic advice over the last few months. I’ve gleaned tips on where to go in New York from Liberty London Girl (the High Line and the Strand Book Store were just two), picked up delicious recipes from Eat Like A Girl and kept up to date with life in France from my old friend Colin Randall at Salut!

Desperate to think of something to offer in return (well apart from the best pubs in Oxford and must-read books), I’ve realised that just about the only thing I know about is journalism. So, if you’ve got an article to write, here is my five-point crash course on the basics of feature writing for newspapers, magazines and websites.

1. Structure. All publications are aimed at different readers and have their own unique style – so your piece must take account of that style. If you’re unsure about your writing, use concise sentences and short paragraphs. Be consistent when it comes to tenses and avoid clichés, waffle and long, convoluted sentences that are tricky to understand.

2. Introduction. The first paragraph of your feature is probably the most important of all. It should grip readers’ attention immediately and compel them to read on.

3. Body of the text. Although your intro is crucial, the rest of the article must fulfil the promise of your stunning first paragraph. Develop your theme, message or argument step by step and make sure, too, that each paragraph flows logically to the next.

4. Quotes. Admittedly some people are more quotable than others, but strong, accurate quotes help to bring a feature alive.

5. Ending. A good ending should tie up any loose ends. But remember that a feature isn’t an essay, so avoid simply recapping all the points you’ve mentioned before. Don’t finish the piece too abruptly or let it tail away either. If in doubt, a good quote often works well and rounds the piece off in style.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

My short-lived teaching career and Kelvin MacKenzie's explosive speech

My teenage son’s trying to decide which universities to apply to. The only trouble is that after poring over countless websites, they’re all starting to blur into one. Neither of us can remember which university boasts 22 Nobel Prize winners or which has a library with four million books.

But one thing I know for sure is that my university ambitions are over. I learned my lesson the hard way a few years back when I was mad enough to sign up for a teaching course. I can’t for the life of me think why, but on the spur of the moment I foolishly decided to ditch the day job and retrain as a college lecturer.

Within days of registering it was obvious I’d made a terrible mistake. After years of working as a solitary freelance I loved being with other students all day but I couldn’t stand the endless paperwork. We all had to practise teaching our fellow students, which seemed perfectly reasonable. But then we had to fill in reams and reams of forms – everything from what teaching principles our lessons demonstrated (I mostly didn’t have a clue) to whether the class seating plan was up to scratch.

Because we were teaching over 16s, we had to explain what we’d do if students texted, swigged alcohol, spat, swore, took drugs or even pulled a knife in our lessons. Eeek! They wouldn’t do anything like that, would they?

I lasted precisely six months before I threw in the towel. And no, I’m glad to say I never taught anyone who carried a weapon or a flask of whisky in their back pocket. But the experience wasn’t entirely wasted. I don’t get fazed at speaking in public any more, I can do a PowerPoint presentation and my admiration for teachers knows no bounds. Trust me, it's an awful lot harder than it looks.

PS: Newspapers are in the news again after an explosive speech from Kelvin MacKenzie this afternoon. The ex-editor of The Sun never minces his words (that’s putting it mildly) and sure enough, during his appearance at the Leveson inquiry he turned on everyone from David Cameron to former News International boss Rebekah Brooks. Years ago I was on the receiving end of Kelvin’s straight-talking style after I was offered a job at The Sun. I’d just joined a Sunday paper and when I pitched up at Wapping to meet Kelvin (no one ever calls him Mr MacKenzie) his first words were “you haven’t had much in the paper yet, have you?” I couldn’t argue. He was dead right.

PPS: I'm not usually a fan of herbal teas but I’ve just discovered Summerdown’s delicious peppermint tea (above). I'm so hooked that I'm on my third cup of the day.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Working the night shift - and memories of Fleet Street

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I wake in the grey light of dawn, fretting that my student daughter has got home to her flat all right. She’s working weekends in a chic Shoreditch bar from seven pm till six am and I can’t help worrying. Actually, I didn’t even realise bars stayed open till six, but then again I don’t think I’ve been inside one since about 2002.

The upside of the job is that by the time she’s finished serving drinks, stacking glasses and clearing up, it’s daylight and she’s on her way home. The downside is that she misses half the weekend because she’s asleep.

Nurses, doctors, security guards, DJs (a big shout-out to Radio 2’s lovely Alex Lester – the only person capable of making listeners laugh at three am) all know what it’s like to work through the night. A friend of mine who worked for breakfast TV said her body clock got so mixed up that she found it difficult to eat. The answer, she found, was to live on cereal - the only food she could face eating at any time of the day or night.

Years ago I used to work night shifts as a young news reporter on the Evening Standard. For one week every three months I’d pitch up at midnight and toil till eight in the morning, manning the news desk phones, commissioning copy from foreign correspondents across the globe and sifting through the morning papers in search of stories to follow up for the first edition.

One of the worst tasks was having to ring some poor hapless reporter when a story broke unexpectedly at two am and telling them to get out of bed and drive to the other end of the country – er, like, NOW. It could be an apocryphal tale but a night reporter once answered the phone in the early hours to find a drunken hack at the other end. “I’m in a hotel overlooking a river - but I don’t know where I am,” he garbled. Slowly and patiently, the night reporter embarked on the tricky task of helping him work out where the hell he was. And more to the point, why.

The best part of doing nights was the moment the bright-eyed day staff arrived for their shifts and I could run down the office stairs, out of the door and jump straight on the bus back to Battersea. Those days are long gone now, but even today, just smelling stale coffee in a Thermos flask or strolling past the posh offices that were once home to Fleet Street’s finest, takes me back to those far-flung times.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Madonna and the secret of youth

From facelifts to Botox, we’re all preoccupied with capturing the smooth brows and wrinkle-free skin of our youth. None more so than Madonna, who appeared at the Venice Film Festival yesterday looking barely a year older than her Papa Don’t Preach days. Wearing a gorgeous butterfly Vionnet dress, sky-high scarlet stilettos and a slash of red lipstick, she could have passed for a decade younger than her 53 years. She swears blind it’s all down to her religion, Kabbalah, strict macrobiotic diet and even stricter exercise regime but I have my doubts. How many other 50-somethings have a complexion so silky, skin so unwrinkled and eyes so clear and bright?

I’m as obsessed about how I look as most women I know. I’m forever asking the lovely assistants at Space NK in Leamington Spa about new products to try, booking teeth-whitening and eyebrow-shaping sessions and seeking my teenage daughter’s advice on whether I look “old.”

But the one thing I draw the line at (metaphorically speaking) is cosmetic surgery. Why? Because after three scary eye operations there’s no way in a million years that I’d go under the knife just to look younger. At the risk of sounding “preachy,” surgery is intimidating enough when you need it – without going through the experience when you don’t have to.

Whether it’s actress Leslie Ash and her “trout pout” or the terrifying-looking Bride of Wittgenstein, the newspapers love reporting cosmetic surgery that hasn’t gone according to plan.

And it’s not just facelifts either. Botox terrifies me - even more so after a highly-respected beauty journalist wrote about a bad Botox experience that left her with terrible headaches, swollen eyelids and looking “like a train wreck.” When the effects finally wore off five months later, she said it was such a relief to get her smile back that she’d never have Botox again. I’d rather put up with a few wrinkles and lines than go through that.

PS: Madonna was in Venice for the premiere of WE, her second film as a director. And just to show you can’t have everything, the word from the critics is that, Andrea Riseborough’s superb performance as Wallis Simpson aside, it’s awful.

PPS: “I have been having a nostalgic day and am looking at some old photos tonight. You probably have the attached but they bring back lots of lovely memories so I thought you might like to see them again.” That’s the email that pinged into my inbox yesterday from my old friend (and my son’s adored godmother) Wendy Holden. The 80s picture above (showing me with fellow Evening Standard reporter Peter Gruner) was one of them and I laughed like a drain when I saw it. What on earth did I think I was wearing?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Don't go into journalism for the glamour

Journalism can be exciting, nerve-racking, mind-numbingly dull and, at times, very very annoying. But unless you’re a film critic or showbiz correspondent, it’s rarely glamorous. One minute you’re reporting a murder trial at the Old Bailey that gives you nightmares, the next you’re up to your knees in mud writing about an eccentric recluse living on a Thames houseboat.

When I worked in hard news I’d arrive in the news room at 7am knowing full well that by the end of the day I could be anywhere – Paris, New York, Scunthorpe, you name it. Actually, if I’m honest, it was Scunthorpe more often than Paris.

It’s hardly surprising that there are barely any women news reporters with young children working on national newspapers. I’d leave home at the crack of dawn and was often on the tube to Euston or Heathrow by 8am. My husband still quotes the time I left a note on the kitchen table saying “gone to Nairobi. Don’t know when I’ll be back.” A British doctor had set out to climb Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa, six months earlier and had vanished into thin air. My news editor decided I was the person to find him – a tall order considering the police had totally failed in their attempts. Not surprisingly, I returned home a complete and utter failure ten days later.

Now I’m a freelance writer, journalism is still full of surprises. I recently had to write a piece about a school in the wilds of Northamptonshire. I spent the morning chatting to the head, was shown round by two delightful pupils, who proudly insisted on showing me the contents of every single cupboard, and then got invited to stay for lunch. I haven’t had a school dinner in nearly 30 years so, curious to see what they’re like post Jamie Oliver, I agreed.

As I walked in, the head directed me to the end of a long wooden table that looked like something out of Hogwarts. Grace was said and we all sat down. But as I gazed along the table I noticed lots of expectant faces staring back at me. And then I realised why. I was sitting at the head of the table – so it was my role to be the dinner lady and dish up the roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and watery cabbage. As I said before, you don’t go into journalism for the glamour…

PS: I reckon this gorgeous vintage table (above) I bought in the Pedlars sale is one of the best travelled pieces of furniture around. Originally from France, I spotted it on the Pedlars website and reckoned it would be perfect for the House With No Name. It’s crossed the Channel more times than I have this summer!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The first freelance journalist to take on an apprentice

After a decade of working in Fleet Street news rooms I went freelance when my daughter was born. Working from home, I juggled looking after her with writing features for newspapers and magazines. There were a few tricky moments when I had to bring telephone interviews to a close in double-quick time because she’d woken up from her nap, but mostly it worked fine. And these days, when my children are fiercely independent teenagers and I can write full-time, I’m so glad I persevered with my career.

The one thing I never considered, though, was employing a trainee journalist to help run my business. But that’s what freelance education journalist Jan Murray has decided to do. Two days before this year’s A level results (fingers crossed for everybody), she’s written a piece for The Guardian, outlining her decision to become the first freelance journalist to take on an apprentice.

“I’ve decided to recruit an apprentice to assist me with research, transcription, developing story ideas and – once they have enough experience under the belt – possibly even the writing of articles,” she says.

“They’ll work for me four days a week and spend a day a week working towards a business administration apprenticeship at Harlow College... I want to give them as much hands-on experience as possible, so I’ll be taking them along when I go out to cover stories and, where appropriate, getting them to do some interviewing.”

Jan’s idea is an innovative one, and I’m sure loads of ambitious youngsters will apply, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to train journalists. As she says, trainee hacks need to be accurate writers, possess good research skills and have “plenty of initiative and determination.” But I reckon these skills are best learned in the news rooms of local papers.

I did my training with a group of weekly newspapers in Devon, where I spent two years writing about flower shows, parish council meetings, golden weddings and village fetes. It wasn’t exactly cutting edge stuff but it taught me a lot of skills that I still use today. After eight weeks of learning shorthand (still essential for journalists), public administration (how local government works) and law (so we knew what we could and couldn’t report in the local magistrates court without committing contempt), we were let loose in the news room to do the job for real.

My worry with Jan’s idea is that her apprentice will spend most of his/her time doing general admin, like transcribing interviews, printing out cuttings and sending out invoices. But in my view it’s the buzz of working in a busy news room, seeing a variety of experienced reporters in action and crafting a great story from an initially unpromising interviewee that teaches you how to be a journalist.

I hope Jan’s initiative is a brilliant success but I’m not convinced it’s the way journalism training should be going.

PS: Thanks to Liberty London Girl's entertaining and informative blog I've just discovered this lovely Anthony Burrill poster (above), which I'm going to order for my office wall. Work hard and be nice to people - I can't think of better advice for us all, trainees or otherwise.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Why journalists need proper training

We’re living through extraordinary times. After the dramatic events of last week I assumed last week’s media storm would die down for a while over the weekend. Hopping on the Eurostar on Friday night I decided to abandon Twitter and enjoy spending time with my teenage daughter in Paris (see above).

But the minute I arrived back on Sunday night I sneaked a quick look at the latest tweets and discovered the story hadn’t let up for a second. Not only had Rebekah Brooks been arrested and questioned for nine hours but Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson had just resigned. By Monday the story looked set to run and run, with Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Brooks all set to appear before the Parliamentary select committee for Culture, Media and Sport on Tuesday and MPs meeting in emergency session on Wednesday to discuss the latest developments.

One point that’s struck me forcibly in recent days though is the importance of journalism training. When I started out as a reporter 25 years ago virtually everyone cut their journalistic teeth on local newspapers. I trained with Mirror Group Newspapers alongside spin-doctor-to-be Alastair Campbell, his partner Fiona Millar and a host of other ambitious young trainees. We spent eight weeks in a tatty-looking Portakabin on a Plymouth industrial estate getting up to speed with shorthand (Alastair cracked 100 wpm way before anyone else), law, local government and how to report fairly and accurately, before being dispatched off to weekly newspapers across the West Country for two years.

During my days on the Mid-Devon Advertiser, a newspaper based in Newton Abbot and edited with great panache by former Morning Star journalist Lance Samson, I learned how to write a news story, how to cover a court case and how to interview and quote people correctly. It wasn’t glamorous or ultra-exciting but it taught me the journalistic skills I needed - and still use a quarter of a century later. It also meant that by the time we made it to Fleet Street we were professional reporters who knew what we were doing.

Lance (father of novelist Polly Samson) could easily have thrown up his hands in horror at the inexperienced trainees thrust into his news room. But he was generous with his time, encouragement and support. He was a stickler for doing things by the book too. One day my fellow trainee Keith was sent home from the office for wearing a polo-neck instead of a shirt and tie. “What would happen if I had to send you out to interview the Archbishop of Canterbury?” demanded Lance (slightly unlikely considering we were based in a sleepy mid-Devon town where the most exciting thing to happen most weeks was the planning committee meeting, but still.)

In the second year of our training we progressed from our weekly papers to the heady heights of the Sunday Independent, which covered the whole of the South West. It was the era of the Falklands War and while we spent much of our time writing stories about golden weddings and village fetes, Alastair showed his star quality by scooping Fleet Street's finest on a story about Prince Andrew. It was obvious he was going places even then.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Sylvie Guillem at Sadler's Wells

I stopped and did a double-take when I spotted the news on Twitter. Halfway down Oxford Street to meet my teenage daughter from work, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. After 168 years, the News of the World was being shut down following the appalling phone hacking scandal.

The death of one of our oldest newspapers was still buzzing around my mind when we walked into Sadler’s Wells a couple of hours later. We’d booked seats months ago to attend a special gala performance of 6000 Miles Away, Sylvie Guillem’s new ballet, and couldn't wait to see the 46-year-old legend onstage. The tickets cost a staggering £75 each but with proceeds going to the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Appeal and the knowledge that we were truly privileged to see one of the world's finest dancers in action, I didn’t begrudge a penny of it.

As soon as the curtain rose and the lights went down, everything else - newspapers, work, exams - was forgotten. When Guillem dances, you can’t take your eyes off her. Her long, sinuous limbs perform moves that simply don’t seem possible and her sheer confidence and charisma are breathtaking.

Guillem clearly lives and breathes dance. When Sarah Crompton, the Daily Telegraph’s arts editor, asked in a recent interview if she ever thought of stopping, the star was astonished. “...sometimes you think, why do I do all of this?" she replied. "Because you feel a little bit lost, a bit tired. But then you wake up a bit more and you go and you are excited by what you do.”

The other thing that struck me at the end was how graciously Guillem responded to the audience's rapture. As she took bow after bow with a neat nod of her head , the clapping showed no sign of abating. Her performance had been so magical that none of us wanted it to be over.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

My royal reporting career

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 11-day tour of Canada and California has got me thinking about my own brief sojourn as a royal reporter.

Apparently more than 1,300 journalists are covering Kate and Will’s visit, including hacks from as far afield as China and India. My sympathies are with them. For a start, they’re having to be more fashion writers than newshounds. Knowing their Issa from their Erdem and their Mulberry handbag from their Anya Hindmarch clutch is absolutely key. But not only that, with the media showing endless images of cheering Canadians and beams from Will and Kate (see above), it’s tricky to fulfil the demands of rolling 24 hour news and be fascinating at the same time.

I spent a couple of years following the royals for the Evening Standard back in the 80s. Princess Diana was splashed across the tabloid front pages virtually every day – for dancing onstage with Wayne Sleep as a birthday surprise for Charles (he clearly wasn’t impressed), dressing up as a policewoman for Fergie’s hen night and taking William to his Notting Hill nursery school for the first time.

But my most vivid memories are from Charles and Diana’s Middle East tour of 1986. As the royal couple progressed through Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, lunching in the desert, going to the races and attending endless banquets, it was hard to come up with new stories to file. Daily Express columnist Jean Rook (the only other woman reporter in the press pack) even resorted to dressing up in a burka to see what women’s lives in Saudi Arabia were like. Meanwhile the rest of us got worked up about whether the Saudis had been offended by Diana wearing a dress that showed her ankles when they flew into Riyadh.

For a lot of the tour they both looked utterly miserable. But at that stage even seasoned royal-watchers didn’t realise the rot had set in. Most of us simply assumed the tour was too long and gruelling, that Diana was missing William and Harry and that once you’ve seen one falconry display you’ve probably seen them all.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Game, set and... yawn

Am I the only person who’s bored rigid by Wimbledon?

It may be the world's greatest tennis tournament but I couldn’t care less about Andy Murray’s quest to snatch the men’s title or Rafael Nadal’s foot injury.

The two-week championships were ruined for me when I covered them as a news reporter. Instead of watching matches that kept me on the edge of my seat I regularly spent Wimbledon fortnight chasing news stories. The sillier they were, the better show you got in the paper. One year an American player called Anne White dominated the front pages of the tabloids for days. Not for her serving prowess or backhand skill, but because instead of wearing a modest white dress she wowed the crowds in a skin-tight white cat-suit. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club were not at all impressed.

When nothing much else was happening, the press pack would resort to old favourites like royal visitors, ticket touts, corporate hospitality (yawn), rain (this was before that swanky new sliding roof) and the price of a punnet of strawberries.

If three or more journalists requested a post-match interview with a player the tennis stars had to talk to us. They'd pitch up at an unprepossessing bunker beneath the Centre Court and while the hacks from the red tops quizzed the players about their sex-lives, the more serious-minded American press retaliated with questions about why they’d hit a volley at break point in the third set.

After four or five years of this I was so exasperated with the game that I pleaded for a change of scene and got switched to court reporting at the Old Bailey instead. I’ve never watched a single Wimbledon match from that day to this, and I don’t intend to in the future. The rest of the country may be glued to action on the Centre Court, but count me out.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sticking up for Liz Jones

Columnist Liz Jones is a mass of contradictions.

She’s forever complaining she’s broke, yet buys Prada, Bottega Veneta and most recently a top-of-the- range facelift. She splashes out on a rambling Victorian pile on Exmoor, complete with 46 acres, then gets fed up and puts it back on the market, saying: “It’s too big. I’ve got seven bedrooms and six bathrooms and about 400 animals.” She finds the men in her life exasperating, especially ex-husband Nirpal Dhaliwal, but is now canoodling with an ageing rock star. Incidentally, she refers to him as RS but he’s widely thought to be Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr.

As a result of her foibles (chronicled meticulously each week in You magazine) the 52-year-old writer comes in for more stick than virtually any journalist on the planet.

But even though she’s definitely high maintenance and at times slightly flaky, I’m a big fan. I’ve cut down massively on the Sunday papers over the years (just too much to wade through) but I turn to her page before anything else.

I occasionally get fed up with accounts of her huge menagerie of animals but even so, she writes so well and with such disarming frankness that her diary is a must-read. Apart from India Knight and Caitlin Moran, I can’t think of any other women columnists I can say that about these days.

PS: It was my birthday last week (coughs quickly when asked which one) and my lovely teenagers cooked an amazing family lunch. “I’d love Ottolenghi sort of food,” I told them beforehand, but never thought for a moment that they’d take me literally. My 16 year old son cooked chilled red pepper soup and my 19 year old daughter did roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey. Afterwards they turned to Nigella and made me these Happy Birthday cupcakes (above). They looked – and tasted – amazing.
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