Monday, 13 July 2009

The nationals part 1

Almost any reporter can work on the nationals - for a week's work experience.
But to stay on the nationals for any length of time takes something more. Something special.
It's hard to define exactly what that 'more' is but most of it comes down to sacrifice, plain and simple.
Let's say, for arguments sake, reporting for the nationals is the very pinnacle of this profession.
(Now I know that isn't true. If us local boys had a quid for every one of our stories that had been ripped off word for word and appeared in the nationals a week later we would probably have a big pile of quids. But bear with me.)
I reckon about ten per cent of all people who start working as reporters end up working shifts on the nationals. (It may be higher but I am considering the drop out rate just from our own area.)
I further estimate that only ten percent of THOSE actually end up working for the nationals in either a long term contract position or as a staffer.
(I am limiting this to news - all other areas are merely professing to be reporters).
There has to be a reason for this enormous drop out rate and I think it comes down to the reporter realising they either do not have what it takes to do the job or they don't want what it comprises.
The first thing you learn when you become a news reporter for the nationals is that you now have NO life outside of news.
When I was a casual on a national, if I got out of work after 8.30pm it was considered a day off. A 12 hour day was the norm but 16 hours was more regular than it should be.
What you could almost always rely on was the call from the news desk with your tasks for the next day.
Now, this call could come at any time. Whether you were in the pub, cinema, theatre, shagging. Whatever, whenever. They did not care. The night desk attitude was 'if we are working so are you' regardless of the hours already spent in the office/on the road.
That dreaded call could send you anywhere and you always had to be there 'first thing' (before 8am). If you got the call you had a mixture of dread and excitement. If you didn't you often stayed up late wondering why not?
The last thing the desk shouted at you as you left the office was 'make sure your mobile is on'. It is very rarely off since. (Some hacks would even email the boss to let them know if they were going to be in a bar which had no mobile signal and reporters were actively encouraged to let the desk know where in the world they would be on holiday in case it kicked off nearby.)
I remember one job I was sent on (at 11pm) where I had to be up at 4.30am and, after it turned out to be bollocks at 5.30pm, the desk still asked me to 'pop in the office on your way home'. I was three hours from the office!
I often talk about being aware of what is going on around you and the importance of making and keeping contacts.
There is no greater reason to have these skills than going out on your own against the other national reporters.
Imagine story. Dog chews up nipper at granny's house. You have all seen it before or maybe even been sent out on the story.
Can you imagine the pressure of being called at 2pm to get to the house 50 miles away to a job you know every national paper either already knows about or - in the worst case - is already there.
Excuses don't matter here. If you don't have a family member, chat and a pic of said mauled kiddy by 5.30pm you are fucked.
Adrenaline courses through your veins and stress starts to suffocate your being. Until I got to the address and surveyed the scene I mainly just felt sick.
If you are aware and clued up you have already started making calls as you head to the patch. Local paper, freelance snapper, copper you met at that federation meeting, RSPCA, local plod, ambulance service, other national hacks who you know are the district men.
You become an information whore. Willing to sell your first born for a salient fact or snippet of gossip. Most of the time you only make these calls to find out how far behind you are. If you are lucky most hacks are the same as you - shitting themselves and wishing for the ability to teleport to the address. If you are unlucky, they are so smug you know they have the collect and the chat in the bag and are searching for more.
Regardless, you need to produce a lead and pic and the next few hours just pass in a blur of phone calls, door knocks and more phone calls.
If you know who has what, you can get it. If you know nothing you are the chump getting a strip torn off them the next day by the news ed.
By the way, this is the same every single day if you are on the road.
Still fancy it?
My missus (ex) used to ask why I put up with the incredibly rude phone calls from work at 11pm. It's just the way it is, I would say.
It was the same thing I said when weekends away were scuppered by Friday night murders or holidays in Greece were interrupted by sinking ferries. Dinners became suppers while hunting for case studies of cancer victims for a late breaking splash; drinks out with friends were ruined by a trilling mobile with subs questions; arguments were always about why I was never home.
And all the while I was hooked to it like a smack-crazed masochist with ink in my veins and a typewriter for a heart. The worse the request, the more I moaned. But once I had overcome any feeling of self sacrifice or loss I was back in the game. I loved it. Every story became 'The World's Biggest Story' and after I made it as a staffer it got more and more addictive.
It's fucked up my life in so many ways, but I wouldn't change it for the world.
Now ask yourself are you still game?

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