Friday, 24 October 2008

In the Eye of the Hurricane

This past week I've been working in the newsroom of my local paper, the Bath Chronicle, as well as it's sister papers the Somerset Guardian and Somerset Standard, on the sports department. I got the weeks' work experience through a contact which I think I mentioned in my previous post.

I turned up at their offices on Monday morning with that all too familiar feeling: Nervousness. After being let in via the telecom outside I walked up to the newsroom with sweaty palms and jelly legs wondering just what I was going to be doing for the next week.

After meeting my contact (that sounds a bit MI5, doesn't it?) I was taken over to the sports department. To get there I had to walk through pretty much every other department and I cast a keen eye over all that was before me. Rows and rows of desks lined the large office area, all with nattily dressed journalists going about their jobs and television screens with news channels on them. I was shown to my desk, given a couple of newspapers to pour over and then given a list of tasks to do. I had the feeling that everyone assumed that I knew how a newsroom ran and I tried not to let on that I had no idea whatsoever.

My first task was to edit an abundance of match reports emailed in to the papers by various amateurs like myself. I learned my first lesson instantly: edit like you were working for the Nazi propaganda machine. I could see where they were coming from; a lot of the articles sent in concerning local football, rugby and hockey teams were by biased fans who seemed to have a suspect grasp of the English language. However, at the back of my mind there was the issue that these people were like me and they had probably stood through a couple of hours of largely mind-numbing amateur sport to write out 200 words or so. I felt cruel hacking away large chunks of their reports like an Amazonian explorer, changing sentences and basically re-writing them, but this was the method and who was I to argue?

Despite sifting through reports on sports which I am not all that interested in (including OAP bowls' tournaments which included what sort of cake they ate afterwards) I was thrilled to be there and each report took on the significance of a World Cup final, even if it was hockey match between Devizes and Melksham.

Once I had completed these I was given three telephone numbers to call. They were the numbers of local football managers whom I had to interview with regards to their teams results over the weekend. Now, this might surprise you but I was quite nervous about ringing people up who I had never met and asking them questions about their sides' performances - what went right, what went wrong, how the team was feeling confidence-wise for the next game et cetera - so I picked up the phone, hand physically trembling, to call these would-be Sir Alex Fergusons. The interviews were fine, the managers more than willing to talk in cliches about their team, although what I found most difficult was writing down what they were saying as they were saying it. After each phone call I looked at my notes which just looked like I'd been doodling on the paper. I then had to write these interviews up, selecting key quotes and dropping in the odd bit of information about the teams' recent run of form. This was pretty much my first day.

My second day was similar to the first although by this time my nerves had wained somewhat and I now felt comfortable about making phone calls.

On the Wednesday I was asked if I would like to go along to a press conference at Bath Rugby with another journalist with regards to their next game. For those who aren't that into rugby (and I count myself amongst you) Bath are currently top of the Guinness Premiership, England's Premier League of rugby. The club also has a distinguished history, being the Manchester United of rugby in the late 80s and 90s (i.e. bloody good)

I wasn't expecting the conference to be all flashbulbs and macho sports journalism but I was excited to be going along. Once we were there there were a number of local journalists chatting to various players and also the head coach was sat at a table in the middle of the room, just prattling on about this and that, with anyone able to come over, sit down and place their dictaphone in front of him. It wasn't particularly long but it was interesting meeting some of the players, shaking their hands (although they were more like shovels) and generally feeling physically inadequate.

Once we got back to the newsroom things were starting to get a bit panicky. The paper is out on Thursday and the deadline for it going to print was looming like a starved vulture. It was a totally different image to what it was on the Monday morning with people working in their own relaxed rhythms, casually chomping on apples and laughing through the day. By Wednesday afternoon people were pacing around, printing off drafts of pages, swearing, huffing and puffing, and possessing a manic look in their eyes. I was given the duty of proof reading some pages which probably sounds quite easy but the days were taxing on the old noggin and although I might have read something 100 times I would go back to it again and see a comma out of place or a slight problem with the layout, and this, in the world of journalism, is Unacceptable.

One exercise I was given on Wednesday afternoon was to come up with headlines for the sports articles. At first I thought it would be relatively easy but it soon became apparent that there was such little space, page-wise, to work in and I realised there was an art and craft to this otherwise taken-for-granted aspect of the newspaper.

And so it came to Thursday. I picked up some newspapers by reception, took them to my desk and starting to look for the pieces I had written as well as the pieces I had edited and greedily claimed as my own. There was an immense amount of satisfaction seeing the end product after putting time and effort into it and it was the biggest sense of achievement I've had since finishing my degree. To see my name next what I had written gave me a distinct feeling of triumph and although it was what the people around me do for a living, this being just another paper for just another week, it meant a lot to me to see that I could at least hold my own in that environment and muck in without making too many mistakes or having to be carried by someone else.

More midweek sports reports soon came in and I was back re-writing them but because the sports department mainly deals with things that happen at weekends, it was quiet on Thursday. At one point during the day a lady from the news department came over to my desk and asked me if I could write a small piece for her. In the local papers there is a 'Down Memory Lane...' type feature which involves people sending in old photographs and asking readers if they know any of the people in it or otherwise just sending them in for purely nostalgic, Hovis reasons. The particular photograph in question was of a football team from 1930 sent in by a gentleman called Brian Morris. Along with the photograph he included the names of the players and what trophies they had won but it was my job to ring him up and try to coax more information out of him. I rang him up and started chatting to him, asking him questions such as why he was sending the photo in, who he knew in it et cetera and because he was old and, I assume, lonely, he started talking to (at) me about all sorts of things. A typical answer of his, after asking him if he had any information on the players, was 'Well, Burt Saxton was the local milkman and Eddie Jones was a miner and played the trombone.'
'Was he any good on the trombone?' I asked, for no apparent reason.
'Oh yes, very...'
Today (Friday) is my day off as the guy I arranged the week with doesn't go in on Fridays. It has been a great week and one which has given me an even greater appetite to write for a living. I still feel like I'm undecided about the sort of publication which I would be interested in writing for but the thrill of working for a newspaper has left me feeling good. When I look to the future my confidence about writing for a living peaks and troughs but right now I'm feeling quietly optimistic.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A Break of Some Sort

Within the past few weeks I've managed to secure my first 'gig' as a writer. Those who know me would not really associate myself with the world of which I'm writing about but bear with me nonetheless.

Along the road from my house is my local rugby club, Combe Down RFC, and after chatting to the right people, making a couple of phone calls, I am now the club's official match reporter. Like I said, I don't think many people would associate me with the rough 'n tumble world of local rugby but having played a little bit at school I like to think I know enough to at least write about it.

Although I've only reported on two matches the reports are posted on the club's website for all (who's interested) to see. Despite it being unpaid - I get free drinks at the end of the game so I guess that's payment of sorts - I consider it to be quite a tidy little project to get myself involved with and a necessary step in my undoubtedly arduous journey into journalism.

What I am most proud of, however, is that the first match report I did ended up in my local paper, The Bath Chronicle, after I sent it in to their sports department. The local paper is weekly and after frantically searching through the pages of the sports section there it was. My first ever published piece. 150 words of solid fact and limited elaboration. I've only just sent in the one from this Saturday and will flick through the sports department with similar gusto this Thursday.

Next weekend I am reporting on my first away match for the club. I think this might involve me going on the team bus and having to listen to dirty rugby songs whilst being assumed to be something of a pansy due to my reporting and also my refusal to wear something resembling a tracksuit. Despite this near-inevitability I managed to talk to some of the players after the match on Saturday and they're not all typical rugby lads. In fact they all want me to put in a good word about them in my reports so I'm not going to have my head flushed down a toilet just yet.