Exciting, exhausting… and I wouldn’t change a thing about my days as a cub reporter

We bought an iMac at the weekend after our computer died. Literally. Other PCs are, of course, available but I have to say it’s a great piece of kit. Stylish, powerful and – most important of all – a brand that is intrinsically-linked to my days as a cub reporter in the Mother Town some 20-odd years ago.

The purchase got me thinking about those crazy early days of my career as a journalist.

While studying for my A-levels at Sixth Form College in Fenton I got a Saturday job working for the Smith Davis Press Agency in Tunstall – shortly before they moved to Burslem.

I was 17 and had applied for a full-time job I wasn’t eligible for just to get a bit of work experience.

The directors – two ex-Sentinel men called Peter Davis and Dave Smith – took pity on me and had me in at the weekends.

I made tea, fetched and carried and got to go to Port Vale and Stoke City games with writers who, unlike me, could string a sentence together.

Most importantly of all I was taught the basics of journalese – in other words, how to write news, sports and features stories.

I thought I could write. I was wrong. I could cobble together history and English Literature essays and the odd bit of (bad) creative fiction but that didn’t mean I could write in the real world.

At Smith Davis I learned how to construct a story and to avoid repetition.

I learned about the who, what, where, how, why and when questions. I learned about drop intros and the need to check your facts with more than one source.

Those lessons in the basics, from a couple of veteran newsmen, were backed up by rollickings from the news editors from national newspapers who would shout very loud and turn the air blue if there was a single error in the you copy you had filed down the ‘wire’.

Let’s just say anyone who has had me as a news editor really doesn’t know they’re born. Suffice to say I learned quickly. It was a case of having to. It really was sink or swim. It didn’t matter that I was part-time at first and it certainly didn’t matter how old I was.

I had it drummed into me that you were only as good as your last story.

I did OK. Well enough, in fact, to be offered an £80 a week contract when I left college – which led me to turn down offers from three universities and enter the world of work at 18.
No-one tells you what to expect when you walk into a newsroom.

You have an idea in your head based on television and films but the reality is, in fact, a world away.

It’s seldom glamorous, often laborious, and certainly does not involve sitting in a pub all day.

Indeed, you’re more likely to spend the day with a telephone attached to your ear – like yours truly in the picture above. Back in 1989, the industry was very different to the modern day media world.

The internet was in its infancy and wasn’t yet on our radar. There was no email, no mobile telephones and no 24-hour TV and radio news.

Agency reporters – or stringers as we were known – really were (and still are) the dog soldiers of journalism. I worked Monday to Saturday and was on call 24/7 and carried a beeper – just like a hospital doctor – which would wake me up at all hours of the day and night.

I ran with the national ‘pack’, did regular work for Central TV, Granada TV and Signal Radio, and cut my teeth on Vale and Stoke match reports and the occasional exclusive for nationals – ranging from The Times to the Today newspaper and even the Daily Sport.

I was fingerprinted in a murder inquiry, tailed back to the office by special branch, went undercover at General Election time (can’t tell you), was threatened with a shotgun, met and photographed royals – including Princess Di, went clubbing with Vale players (those were the days) – and broke a couple of major national stories from which I’ve still got the clippings.

Looking back, I recall it was exhausting, exciting and I wouldn’t change a thing. I realise now that those five years were the best possible training a hack could ever receive.

Then one day we upgraded to new computers – funky new Apple Macs – and my colleague Andy Jackson started talking about something called the internet and electronic picture transfer which he said would hit our industry ‘like a train’.

He was right. Andy often was. Suddenly the landscape changed and newspapers were under threat from digital communications.

Some people will tell you that the print media is doomed. They’re wrong.

Take it from someone who’s had newsprint on his hands for two decades or more.

People like having something tangible in their hands. Something they can pass around and show their missus or their mates – something they can cut out from or keep.

There’s something reassuringly familiar about the product I am privileged to help create – my home town newspaper – which is what convinces me there will always be a need, a demand for its vital, grassroots kind of local journalism.

It’s been a long time since I’ve run with the pack and in recent years my profession has taken something of a pounding. What’s more, the technology involved and the demands and challenges we face are greater than ever.

But I still believe in the ethos of the job which I picked up in those early days: That our role is to inform, to educate and to entertain and that journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy.

I certainly wouldn’t still be doing it, if I didn’t. And I wouldn’t be doing it at all if it wasn’t for those boys at the agency in Boslem.
This one’s for you, gents.

This article is dedicated to some wonderful colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from over the years – especially the late John Hollinshead (Smith Davis photographer), the late Jeff Henderson (sub-editor with the Chester Evening Leader) and the late, great John Abberley of The Sentinel.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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