15 years… but I’m only just starting, really

Our Sir Stan tribute.

Our Sir Stan tribute.

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

Journalism isn’t broken so be careful what you wish for

Bankers must be going to work with a spring in their step these days. Those who still have a job, that is.

No longer are they the sole pariahs of British society.

It seems journalists are the new hate figures as the BBC staggers like a punch-drunk boxer from one crisis to the next.

As newspapers await the verdict of the Leveson Inquiry, the scandals enveloping the Beeb suddenly look just as big – if not bigger.

A few weeks ago it was the corporation’s management and practices during the Jimmy Savile era that were making the headlines.

Today it is the catastrophic investigation (I use that word advisedly) which smeared an innocent politician as a paedophile that is dominating the news agenda.

It has already caused the BBC’s Director General George Entwistle to fall on his sword and left the BBC Trust’s chairman Lord Patten considering his position.

To make matters worse, we have the unedifying spectacle of national newspapers lining up to put the boot in to Auntie.

Indeed that boot is on the other foot to such an extent that none-other than the whiter-than-white, small screen star that is Gary Lineker OBE is showing his displeasure at the press treatment of his employer.

He Tweeted: “Whilst television has made some appalling errors of late (and apologised for them), the hypocrisy of some newspapers is truly staggering.”

Of course, our Gary overlooks the fact that, at times, the BBC – or rather some of its presenters – have been undeniably smug and self-righteous as the Leveson panel has been giving print media hacks a good kicking.

Talk about dog-eat-dog.

How sad it is that amid the indignation and the resignations the real stories are being lost.

A hysteria akin to that surrounding the Salem Witch Trials seems to have set in and the genuine issues of note are being lost in the hunt for scapegoats and fall guys.

What began with an eminently-justifiable probe into the reprehensible actions of a minority of national newspaper journalists and executives has morphed into a sort of collective paranoia about the media.

Politicians licking their wounds in the wake of the expenses scandal undoubtedly viewed the Leveson Inquiry as the perfect excuse to bring the out-of-control press to heel.

It was pay-back time and the likes of Labour MP Tom Watson set about the task with relish.

However, as a result of this vindictive witch hunt we seem to have lost all perspective.

We can no longer see who has the moral high ground because there are so many people clamouring to be up there.

No-one can justify illegal phone-hacking and those newspaper employees and executives who used it or who sanctioned its use should, of course, be held to account.

By the same token I’m sure every right-thinking person wants a thorough investigation into the way in which former BBC star Jimmy Savile was able to get away with what, on the face of it, appears to have been the systematic abuse of children during his time with the corporation.

And, following the shambolic Newsnight programme which wrongly accused a senior Tory peer of abuse, it is only right that the Beeb’s editorial practices are rigorously reviewed.

However, none of this means that we should allow a few bad apples to spoil the barrels.

Journalism isn’t broken and neither, for that matter, is the BBC.

For the most part, the national newspapers in this country do a fine job of keeping us informed – precisely because they are irreverent and they have a heart unlike their counterparts in, say, the U.S.

Yes, they make mistakes – as any large organisation does – and perhaps Leveson will clean up the murkier side of the national press, but they are certainly not beyond redemption. Neither is the Beeb whose journalists must now feel somewhat besieged as their print cousins have been for the last 12 months.

Granted, I’m only 40, but for as long as I can remember, the BBC has been a reliable, trusted medium and remains so – irrespective of the current furore.

The work of its journalists and presenters is required listening for me – whether it be Radio Five Live stalwarts Peter Allen and Nicky Campbell or my friends and colleagues at BBC Radio Stoke.

Let’s not forget that the important issues here are phone-hacking, alleged child abuse and an horrific mistake made by senior editorial executives on one programme.

What worries me is that, as we await the results of the Leveson Inquiry, and as the BBC becomes a rudderless ship there is a very real danger of lasting damage to journalism in the UK.

The profession, at its best, is a cornerstone of our democracy. Journalism holds our leaders and institutions to account and, crucially, it gives the majority a voice and a form of redress.

In my opinion a neutered press and a BBC afraid of its own shadow cannot be good.

We must be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water as the many and varied investigations into the media come to a conclusion.

Those enjoying the trial of the national press and the BBC ought to be careful what they wish for.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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

Why, amid the furore, I’m still proud to be a journalist

The outrage from all quarters at the latest phone-hacking allegations levelled at the News of the World is as predictable as it is understandable.

People simply can’t fathom how anyone could stoop so low as to intrude into the privacy of families dealing with tragic loss.

Phone-hacking by journalists is indefensible and, if these allegations prove to be true – and I think they will – then I hope that those responsible are prosecuted.

This sort of thing has, however, been going on for years and so I’m a little surprised that anyone is surprised.

Do you remember the infamous Charles and Camilla tape scandal of 1992? Or the the “Squidgygate” tapes involving the late Princess Diana and James Gilbey?

The fact is that some red-top tabloids have, for decades, been involved in some pretty nefarious activities in order to get the big story – usually involving celebrities or ordinary members of the public thrust into the public eye by tragedy.

People who buy these newspapers are deluding themselves if they think otherwise.

Don’t be surprised if, over the coming weeks, more skeletons are revealed. Perhaps members of the royal family had their phones hacked, or more celebrities. Nothing would surprise me.

It is fair to say that, in recent years, the pressure on national newsrooms has ratched up – in part due to the celebrity-obsessed culture we live in and in part due to the challenges posed by 24-hour broadcast media.

However, while this watershed moment should certainly be used to clean up the practices of a small number of journalists, there is a danger here that we throw the baby out with the bath water.
Like it or not, the free British Press is feared – and for good reason.

It is also true that some national newspapers do quality investigative journalism – such as the Daily Telegraph’s expose of the MPs’ expenses scandal.

Indeed, it is little wonder that so many MPs are falling over themselves to abuse the national press and calling for it to be reformed, given that a great body of them were embarrassed as a result of a cracking, relentless campaign to highlight their greed.

Journalists sometimes have to step outside their comfort zone to get a story – that is the nature of the beast.

Sometimes they deal with tip-offs and leaked information and our country is all the better for it.

God forbid we ever see the day when every newspaper is full of press releases and propaganda.

If you want some reassurance then look no further than the regional press.

There is a very clear distinction between the way in which some of the more sensationalist national newspapers operate and the activities of the regional press.

Despite years of cutbacks, the challenges posed by the digital age and very little in the way of forward-planning by industry chiefs, regional newspapers continue to provide an invaluable public service.

We don’t pay for stories, we don’t hack people’s phones and, crucially, we care about our ‘patch’.

Campaigning, challenging local organisations, championing its readers and highlighting great human interest stories is the bread and butter of a good regional newspaper and I’m proud to work for one of the best.

We shouldn’t let a few rotten apples spoil the barrel because the vast majority of trained journalists do a decent job because they see it as a true vocation.

Hope for our fine profession

I’m putting the finishing touches to the script for tomorrow’s Young Journalist Awards ceremony. This is something we’ve been running in conjunction with Staffordshire University for a couple of years now – giving primary and secondary school pupils as well as college students the chance to have their stories published in The Sentinel and online. It’s all about encouraging the journalists of the future and I don’t think there has ever been a greater need to promote our fine profession. In this age of 24/7 broadcast media, regional newspapers particularly face their most difficult challenge to date as they struggle to remain relevant and desperately try to get to grips with the internet revolution. There is hope, however. I think people are starting to appreciate that there’s something about having a quality, tangible news product in your hand – something you can pass around and share, cut out or keep. You see, we don’t all spend every waking hour glued to a PC or mobile phone. Blogging and broadcasting is all well and good but, for me, print journalism will always be where it’s at. There’s very little room for error with print journalism – particularly when it has your name on and readers can come in to your office waving the paper at you.  Anyone can write a blog – as you can see – but not everyone who does is a trained journalist. They haven’t all sat in council meetings, inquests and court hearings. They haven’t all covered a football match or done a death-knock. They haven’t all had their ears chewed by a News Editor on deadline. The truth is you have to earn your stripes in this game. We should beware the ones who haven’t… and cherish those who have.

Home is where the help is when it comes to education

The look on his face was priceless. “It’s long hours,” I said, “you work late nights and plenty of weekends and you don’t have a social life. Oh, and the pay’s not great.”

Well, there’s no point in sugar-coating it, now is there?

I’m not quite sure what he was expecting, but the lad in question was only 12 and has a few years yet before he has to start fretting about career options.

Thus, I figured the truth wouldn’t do any lasting damage.

Fair play to him, because at his age I was too busy playing Dungeons & Dragons to give much thought to what I wanted to do when I left school.

Although I do remember attending a careers evening with my mum and dad a picking up all sorts of glossy brochures – none of which aided me on the path to full-time employment.

I also recall visiting The Sentinel’s man (who shall remain nameless) that night at Holden Lane High and coming away thinking that he was dull and he had put me off newspapers for life.

In my defence, I did tell all the students at Painsley Catholic College in Cheadle that journalism was one of the best jobs in the world, that no two days were the same and that you get to meet some fascinating people in my line of work.

Thus my mantra won’t have put too many of them off following in my footsteps.

In two hours I was visited by 32 pupils, aged 12 to 15, and their parents.

Happily, there was always a queue. Meanwhile several solicitors, architects and accountants had fallen asleep against their impressive display boards.

Indeed, apart from Staffordshire Police (who seemed to be cheating by giving away freebies), The Sentinel’s table was possibly the most popular – which just goes to show that the lure of a career in the media is still as strong as ever in this age of soundbites and overnight celebrity.

Hopefully, I disabused all my visitors of the notion that media work entails chasing Cheryl Cole around 24/7 or writing just the one showbiz exclusive each week.

In doing so I filled their heads full of the joys of learning 100 words-per-minute shorthand and covering court cases before tempting them with what I consider to be the unique selling points of the job.

You see, I am acutely aware of the fact that, unlike when I was ‘choosing my options’ back in the mid-1980s, the students of today have very long academic lives ahead of them.

A much higher percentage of them will go to university than in my day when only the cream of the crop went off to enjoy cap and gown land.

This also means most of them will be saddled with a huge tuition fees debt before they’ve even earned a bean.

That simply can’t be right – especially when youngsters north of the border are being given the same opportunities for free. The joys of devolution, eh?

Talking to Painsley’s pupils was strangely humbling and I felt privileged to be there.

They all came across as polite, articulate and confident – a credit to their school.

But the thing that struck me most, as a bloke with two young daughters and as a school governor myself, was that every one of them was accompanied by a parent or guardian.

I was very fortunate to have supportive parents and remember my mum spending countless nights reading with me and helping me with my homework.

Now she’s doing it all over again with my daughters and exhibiting the same patience she showed with me.

As for my career choice, well that was down to my elderly next-door-neighbour, Joan Harding, who – while helping me revise for an English exam one evening – suggested I play to my strengths and find a job that involved writing.

She also gave me my first shorthand book – Pitman’s, of course – none of this newfangled Teeline business.

Which all goes to show that you can receive great advice and have the best teachers in the world but you can’t beat having help at home.

So thanks, mum… and thanks Mrs Harding.

We all know who deserves the real credit for anything I achieve.