Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Even in Twitter age, nothing beats news in a newspaper

Great journalist: Keith Waterhouse
Great journalist: Keith Waterhouse

A young media studies student asked me recently what I had learned about the communications trade over my long career.

The media business was so different when I first became a journalist that I feel it's almost presumptuous to give any advice to younger people.

But note that word 'trade', because it underlines one of the major differences between then and now. It was emphasised to me, when I first became a reporter in the 1960s, that I was entering a trade, not a profession.

"We don't want any of your hoity-toity Varsity types here," an old news hand told me. "Graduates with their fancy ideas. We want keen lads and lasses who came up the hard way."

Yes, there was prejudice against graduates in the media then. Now it would be hard to get a job without one. Journalism is a much more respectable profession these days – and it is now regarded as a profession. It is infinitely less drunken, rough and rackety. That is partly because there are more women in journalism.

There were fewer women in journalism when I started out and those who were successful were sometimes tougher than the men.

"Oh, she always gets the story all right," I was told, when the male reporters were discussing an ace female reporter. "That's because when the men are drinking in the local taverna, on foreign trips, she goes around and sleeps with the chief of police." Talk about bitchy.

Some of the lessons I learned were distinctly unedifying and useless to media aspirants today. But some of the experience remains serviceable.

One of the hallowed principles, handed down by veteran journos, was "names make news". Wherever possible, mention a name and give it a context – age, place of residence and marital status.

Names not only make news, they also make customers. When the Cork Examiner in 1912 published the name of every passenger who joined the Titanic at what was then Queenstown (now Cobh), the hope was that each passenger would purchase several copies of the newspaper. It also turned out to be a matchless record of the doomed liner.

Another adage which still holds good, even in the era of Twitter and Facebook, was that "there's nothing like news in a newspaper". A reader should exclaim, "I never knew that" when perusing any text of the written word.

Reporters should pursue campaigns, but only campaigns that they can win. There's no point in campaigning to end poverty or conquer cancer.

Pick a specific subject that can be declared successful – saving a hospital from closure, say.

Never assume general knowledge, or familiarity, about a topic just because you are familiar with it. Every time Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is played, someone is hearing it for the first time.

A catfight in your back alley is more interesting than a famine in China – a cruel dictum issued by the press baron Max Beaverbrook, but with a grain of truth.

We can't always process the impact of great tragedies; the small, personal story can have more resonance than any big event far away.

A professional writer should be able to turn their hand to anything. A great journo, Keith Waterhouse – author of the immortal Billy Liar – once said that, if he was asked for an opera libretto, he would answer: "When is the deadline?" ("And how much are you paying?")

And always remember: the Editor is always right. Even when he's wrong. Because a successful newspaper is a benign dictatorship, which depends on leadership. Still true today.

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