Discover more from Rarely Certain
Never be afraid to be real - and always ask the stupidest questions
A couple of fond journalistic memories, just for fun
I cut my first professional teeth wandering the streets of The Manor - Sheffield's reputedly toughest council estate. It was 1986.
Back then, a career in journalism typically involved first becoming a local reporter. Nearly all journalists were therefore newshounds and feature writers, not the essay writers of today. You dealt in fact, rather than opinion or 'analysis'.
For us trainee journalists at Richmond College, Wednesday afternoons were the most daunting part of our learning. They were reserved for honing our 'news gathering' skills.
This involved being sent out onto the the streets of the Manor, with strict instructions not to return without a story for the Manor Mercury. The Mercury was a weekly newsletter we produced for local residents, serving the dual purpose of PR for the college and turning us into real hacks.
I duly wandered around, on that first lonely afternoon, eyes peeled for escaped pythons, raging fires, crashed cars or fleeing bank raiders … anything that might count as news. Nothing was happening and no one had heard about anything happening.
After several hours of dispiriting trudge, awkward conversations with locals and scared to return empty-handed I happened on the regional office of a trades union.
Unions were always in the news. It was the Thatcher era, with government disinvestment laying waste to the public sector.
And there I was, outside the regional office of COHSE - the Confederation of Health Service Employees.
There was bound to be a campaign against something closing or, at the very least, an upcoming march against this or that. It was unlikely to be news specific to The Manor and its residents but it was worth a shot. At least the office was operating on the estate. Arguably a local angle.
Throwing myself on the mercy of a friendly receptionist, I was quickly shown into the office of Regional Secretary Bob Quick.
Over a mug of tea I explained my predicament.
"I was arrested in Leningrad last week" said Bob, "will that do"?
What a bloke.
I had a story. And an experience that forever dispelled the fear of going onto a new 'patch', cold, with no contacts and space in a newspaper to fill.
Bob had been arrested for jaywalking, taken to a police station, questioned about what he was doing in Russia, fined a few roubles and released.
As news events go, it was small beer. But it was funny and human. And the Cold War was on, to add a hint of drama. Being arrested behind the Iron Curtain had a certain edge.
Unwittingly, I'd done just the right thing.
I might have asked Bob "are you on with any new campaigns"? "Are you fighting any hospital unit closures"? "What big issues are COHSE dealing with that are relevant to people on The Manor"? Obvious questions for a trainee hack. But unlikely to produce news that hadn't already been covered by the actual local media.
Instead I'd just said I hadn't a clue what I was doing and wondered if he could help.
It turned out to be one of that week's 2 best stories in The Manor Mercury.
One of my rival trainees (yes, we were extremely competitive) had the other one. About a local butcher's shop promoting its 'beef buggers'. It wasn't a spelling mistake. It was a cheeky ruse to spark conversations about their meat patties and it had increased sales. Or so they said.
This is probably apocryphal, but a story was drummed into us trainees about rival reporters covering a house fire. It was designed to teach us that there are no stupid questions.
One local paper had devoted a 'news in brief' paragraph to a house fire in which no one was injured.
The other splashed a front page photograph of a parrot and a dramatic account of how the bird had saved a sleeping family by squawking in alarm, as fire took hold in their home.
Same fire. Two stories. One reporter had only wanted to know if there were any casualties. No doubt following the old journalistic motto - if it bleeds, it leads.
The other had asked 'how did you know the house was on fire?'
This probably never happened. But I’m willing to bet that the lesson landed and stuck with all of us.
Rarely Certain isn’t usually fun, like this. But if you like surprises and you haven’t already, please sign up right away.
One of the most boring intros I ever wrote got me onto the property ladder.
It was 'Industry Year 1986' and Esso were sponsoring a prize for student journalists to write about it.
Off we went, on a coach, to tour a fuel distribution plant. All I remember about this is learning that the 'roof' on those gigantic oil storage tanks is actually afloat, rather than fixed. And that they're higher than they look, once you're up there.
Back to Sheffield we went, with a brief to write about Esso's contribution to Industry Year.
Being a news junkie, I was aware that falling oil prices were causing problems in the industry, but apart from that I could think of little to add to the information we were given by Esso themselves about what a great job they were doing.
One of my colleagues was into tabloid style writing and I'll never forget his intro.
Put a tiger in your tank, they told us in the 70s. Now the big cats of the oil industry are springing into action....
He had a gift for this kind of thing.
I thought he would be in the running for the prize, just for making his copy sparkle like that.
My intro was awful. Stilted, like a school essay.
Something along the lines of
It is ironic that in Industry Year a collapse in oil prices is creating challenges for the businesses that fuel Britain's economy.
Anyway, I won - and the prize was £2,500. A lot of money, at the time.
It made the deposit on the first house I bought (with my then wife).
I'm sure I could turn these two stories into those LinkedIn parables all right-minded people detest, but I won't.
They were quite good lessons, though. Maybe to do with not faking it, I guess.