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

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Our Heroes’ stories give us a true sense of perspective

Journalists are, by their very nature, cynics. It should be a prerequisite of the job.

As it is, most of us enter newsrooms as reasonably well-adjusted individuals then, over time, we transform into something akin to Victor Meldrew.

It happens for two reasons. Firstly, we learn through bitter experience not to take anything at face value, because accuracy is king and you’re only as good as your last story.

Secondly, we become cynics due to simple over-exposure to real life.

On an average day a local newspaper journalist deals with deaths, road accidents, fires, crime, job losses, complaints and public sector ineptitude – along with all the associated moaning and misery.

Over time you become inured to it all. Very little surprises you and even less inspires you.

It’s sad, but true.

Then once in a while something comes along which lifts you out of the monotony and reminds you why you do what you do.

This may smack of navel-gazing but I believe the newspaper I work for has always been very good at leaping to the defence of local people and aiding worthy causes.

Whether it be our Proud of the Potteries campaign to answer the spurious claim that our city was the worst place to live in England, helping to launch a local children’s hospice or raising a 19,000-strong petition calling for a new hospital for North Staffordshire, The Sentinel has certainly done its bit.

For years our slogan was ‘A Friend Of The Family’ then at some point, almost by stealth, it changed to become Local and Proud.

I like to think we are still both.

This emphasis on community has, in recent years, led to a heavy commitment to events such as the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent, and the forging of new relationships with the city council and The Regent theatre.

They’re big, positive, annual events which help to show off all that is good about our circulation area.

The bean counters – who consider us journalists to be overheads – might argue that such events don’t sell us many newspapers.

My rejoinder would be that they touch the lives of thousands of people, generate enormous goodwill and a sense of pride in our region.

Tonight is the climax of one such campaign and yours truly is lucky enough to be going along.

In early 2006 my gaffer outlined his vision for an annual ‘Oscars-style’ community awards night. You know – staging, music, videos, red carpet, the works.

Later that year Our Heroes was born and the first awards ceremony took place in September.

Four years later and The Sentinel has published more than 400 stories of human endeavour, skill, bravery and selflessness.

During the same time, our campaign sponsor – Britannia – has given away around £40,000 in prize money to individuals and groups.

Tonight Children of Courage, Adult Carers and Charity Champions will rub shoulders with celebrities, sporting greats and civic dignitaries who are giving up their time free of charge to honour ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives.

The great and the good will all be there – the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, the Bishop of Lichfield and the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, along with the likes of Gordon Banks OBE, Anthea Turner, Nick Hancock and Jonny Wilkes.

But it’s not their night…

The real stars will shuffle in from the car park nervously adjusting hired dickie-bows, or smoothing out their new frocks and feeling rather embarrassed by all the attention.

Because the truth is Our Heroes are all self-effacing, humble people who have to be dragged (sometimes literally) into the limelight and told just how wonderful they really are.

It’s my job to organise the event, write the script and compere the show, and it is a privilege.

There is something genuinely life-affirming about being involved in an event like the Our Heroes awards night and gaining a brief glimpse into the lives of some truly remarkable people.

No matter what is going on in your own life, you can’t help but be touched and inspired by stories of the award nominees.

They give you a sense of perspective that can all too easily be lost in the chaos of your everyday existence, and they remind you of what’s really important.

OK, such events may not sell us many more papers.

However, this ageing hack is very glad that his newspaper still understands the value of championing the people it serves.

Perhaps we’re not all cynics, after all.