A £500 pay cut and a demotion. That’s what it cost me to land a job here at The Sentinel in October 1998.
To be fair to the then Editor-in-Chief, who I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by, there were no vacancies on the Newsdesk and so I began life at my home city paper as a reporter.
As for the pay cut, I think it was perhaps his way of saying: ‘You’re on probation. Just another reporter. Show me what you can do.”
Against all odds, I’m still here – 15 years later – having seen off (in the nicest possible way) two editors and almost 200 journalist colleagues who have retired, been made redundant, left the company, or, in some sad cases, passed away.
To say that The Sentinel has changed a great deal during that time would be an understatement – both in terms of our working environment and what we do.
When I started, our photographers were still developing prints in the dark room.
Fax machines were still de rigueur. There was no internet and mobile telephones were still like bricks.
Few people had them and the idea of sitting there and being ignorant of the world and everyone around you while fiddling with a phone would have seemed preposterous.
The internet was still very much a geek thing and if you wanted information you couldn’t just ‘Google it’ or fall back on Wikipedia.
You either telephoned someone, picked up a reference book or looked in our library – which is probably one of the reasons I have such a healthy respect for our archive.
Many of my colleagues (particularly the crotchety old, cardigan-wearing sub-editors) at our Festival Park offices would disappear off to the pub at lunchtime for a couple of pints to ‘liven them up’ for the afternoon.
Half the journalists regularly frequented the ‘smoking room’ which was located up a corner of our vast ground floor editorial department.
It stunk to high heaven and every time someone opened the door the awful smell wafted across the newsroom.
Those early days are a blur for me. Within two weeks of starting my job I was doing shifts on the Newsdesk – the engine room of any newsroom.
The hours were long, as they still are, and I’d be up at 4am to drive into the office and prepare the news list for morning conference.
We had seven editions back then – all printed on site and staggered throughout the day. I couldn’t help but feel proud of working here.
Within a couple of months of me joining the paper the gaffer had appointed me Deputy News Editor.
Since then I’ve been privileged to be News Editor, Head of Content, Assistant Editor and now Deputy Editor and columnist.
My memories of colleagues who have moved on are still fresh and my recollections of each role vivid.
Our campaigns – such as Proud of the Potteries, in answer to some half-baked survey which said Stoke-on-Trent was the worst place to live in England and Wales – really mattered to me, as a local lad.
When Sir Stanley Matthews died I remember the UK Press Gazette (the trade magazine for hacks) lauding the Blackpool Gazette for its special 24-page tribute to the great man which had been produced by its journalists who had worked ‘through the night’.
We had worked 24 hours straight and produced 64 pages for the next day. From scratch. I’ve still got a copy.
I recall our 20,000-signature campaign for a new North Staffs Hospital – taken to 10 Downing Street by a little lad who must now be old enough to go the pub.
I remember the first time I planned and compered a Sentinel event – Our Heroes in 2006. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat a thing and spilt red wine down my tux.
I remember the first Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest – with a queue of entrants snaking round the Victoria Hall at half eight on a Saturday morning.
I recall planning our first Young Journalist Awards and Class Act competition which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools.
I’ll never forget the sheer terror of walking on stage at The Regent theatre in panto for the first time – and the strange mixture of elation and sadness as I took my final bow 33 shows later.
More recently I returned to news writing to help expose wrong-doing by former directors at Port Vale and was proud to be involved in the subsequent battle to save the club.
I was also privileged to travel down to London with two veterans to present our 17,000-strong petition to save the name of The Staffords.
And so it goes on.
Fifteen years ago this week I joined The Sentinel and now I look around the newsroom and there are only a handful of people who have been here longer than yours truly. Suddenly (and I’m not quite sure how it happened) I’m one of the old heads.
Thankfully I’ve still got Rob Cotterill, Dave Blackhurst, Steve Bould and Dianne Gibbons to look up to.
Astonishingly, they’ve more than 150 years’ service between them.
All local. All proud.
I guess I’m only just starting, really.
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel