Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Warts and all

Every day, we read about how journalism is changing forever. And so it should - not just because of the opportunities online offers, but because of some bad habits MSM has got into. Far cleverer people than me are debating which qualities should be saved - but I thought it would be fun to compile some of the more, er, frivolous aspects, specifically of local newspaper life which I hope will endure.

First up, and inspired by the reaction I got to this tweet today - the honourable tradition of newsdesk ritually humiliating reporters by making them do stupid stuff - all in the name of a good read. Dressing up is the favourite - tweets and office banter revealed we've been made to dress up as dogs, chipmunks, Lara Croft, monks, pirates, 1930s spivs and David Beckham. At my last place, we even had an arrangement with the local fancy dress shop - costumes for plugs. Abseiling was also a surprisingly popular choice, with @dankerins revealing he'd been made to: "abseil 220ft with a 92-year-old woman, whom I had to interview half way down. Interview was one word long."

The beguiling hush which falls over the office when someone gets a challenging call. Usually the person on the other end is a little unhinged and the reporter can be heard excitedly getting details of the scoop, gradually realising there isn't one, then desperately trying to get them off the phone. Other favourites are the mum of the guy who's just been up in court over some unpleasantness threatening to "have you" for printing her little darling's name - and the 100th birthday girl so deaf the reporter has to shout embarrassingly dull questions at the top of their lungs: "How has life changed since you were a girl?"

The way office banter turns into stories. You get a phonecall about a missing tortoise, which sparks a conversation about how far it could have crawled since going awol - hey presto, there's your page 3, complete with cut-outs of Tommy the tortoise wearing a beret, on top of Stonehenge and perched on the  shoulder of the Angel of the North. I'm sure there are many more examples out there (This one's probably closely linked to the ritual humiliation one).

Gallows humour. I still want a job tomorrow, so I won't post any examples. But feel free to leave yours...

Puncturing pompous, jargon-laded or just plain incomprehensible official-speak. Best example I've heard recently is from @murraykelsoWM who tweeted: "Ambulance quote: 'She suffered injuries incompatible with life". No, really. That was the quote. I didn't make it up. You couldn't.'

And closely related to that would be developing an acute sense of moral outrage, which can be sparked by the important or the trivial, but especially when denied the opportunity to report something, comparable to that seen with this week's Carter-Ruck vs The Guardian saga.

Hearing about stories which no family friendly newspaper could run. A dog born with two willies was a recent one. The way every single bin in Brighton has been vandalised so instead of having slots labelled Butts and Gum, they invite Butt and Cum is another. Related - daring the news editor to see if he can sneak said stories into the paper under the editor's nose.

More treats can be found on Stuff Journalists Like, Newsroom Quotes and a recently discovered favourite, Glum Councillors.

8 comments:

Alison Gow said...

Dressing up - the one thing every reporter vows never to do to a colleague should they get on the desk, and which they always end up forcing on someone once they reach said position of power.
And yes, I've done it to someone - they got sent Big Cat hunting in the Forest of Dean.
I also like the phonecalls that start off: "Worridiziz...", the defendent who tells you his gran doesn't know he's in court so if you could, like, keep it outta the paper cos it'll kill her to see it and the summons from reception that starts off "There's a gentleman here with a (insert improbable item here) to see you". For me, when the call came through the improbable item was the corpse of an otter. While people around him tried to submit birth notices and cars for sale adverts.
Anyway, without wanting to plug shamelessly, here's my take on newsroom rules...

Louise Bolotin said...

Having worked in magazines rather than news, I consider myself fortunate to have been spared such newsroom humiliations. On mags, being roped in usually involves a perk of some sort - like the night a car weekly I subbed for paid for half a dozen of us to get steadily drunk, the only proviso being to check in every two drinks to test a portable breathalyser for a drink-driving feature it was running.

Joanna Geary said...

I've had the phonecalls from the people who have "concrete evidence" MI5, The Royal Mail, a TV celebrity is trying to get them killed.

While on work experience I was sent out to meet the Scientologists who had set up a tent on Centenary Square - much to the amusement of those back in the office.

David Higgerson said...

As the number three on the newsdesk I once worked on, it fell to me to take the looney calls. A repeat offender was a well-meaning old lady who was convinced al qaeda had taken over a cake shop in a small town I'm convinced they would never have an interest in, to which one of the subs replied: "If they have, tell her to leave them to it. Their cakes have never tasted so good."
But you can always tell a lot about a place by the sort of post which is sent to the local paper. Our nature writer never used to appeal for animal skeletons, but did used to get sent them. And there was right fuss when an evelope of white powder arrived in the post - it turned out to be the boyfriend of someone in advertising sending her love hearts in the post. He hadn't twigged they might get crushed...

Kevin Matthews said...

I once had a tip off that a man, who lived in the patch I was covering, had the name Elvis Presley. I popped around but there was no answer. In his back garden was an eight foot wooden cross with a Confederate flag flying from it. I left my card and next day, back at the office, I had a call from reception. I went down and there was Elvis performing All Shook Up to the embarrassed reception girls.

There was another time when my news editor sent me to interview a glamorous granny. She proudly told me her daughter was a model. She unveiled a stack of publications in which said daughter had appeared in: Mirror, Sun, Star, gulp Daily Sport and a centre spread in Big and Beautiful (I think that was the name). "Lovely," I said, "You must be very proud." She was.

And I'm not even going to go into the viking enthusiast, an IT specialist called Kevin by day, who drew blood when he stabbed me to show how a sword would have been used, or the time I interviewed a 12 year old boy who died in 1956 but through a spiritualist told me where I could find parts of a dismembered woman.

Jo Wadsworth said...

Fantastic stories all. As I'm a competitive anecdote teller, I'll leave another one:

Three *very* naughty reporters (not one of whom was me, sadly) once thought it would be funny to intercept the fishing columnist's weekly fax and replace it with their own, stuffed full of fake fish and fly names (lesser warted hogfish, striped flibbertigibits, etc). They figured the sports editor would spot the fake a mile off - but no, it went in, and they braced themselves for the worst. The result - not a single call, letter or email. Not even from the fishing columnist. They must have been more convincing than they thought . . .

Jo Wadsworth said...

Oh, and Kevin - did you find the body?

sarahhartley said...

My favourite story happened when as news ed at the Northern Echo we had a photo journalist go to the site of the discovery of ancient, rare bones. An amazing find which had been painstakingly revealed by scientitst with the little brushes working away for weeks - only for the clumsy journo to topple into the 'grave' while getting the shot. True, I promise!