Ben Dowell

23.06.04

It’s a topsy-turvy life on a Sunday national. Working as we do from Tuesdays to Saturdays, the news reporters, in common with all on Sunday titles, enjoy weekends on Sundays and Mondays. So Tuesday is the start of the week and we are expected to hit the ground running.

And forget making arrangements on a Friday night. You’d be a fool to imagine getting away before 11pm.

Ideas are the key to writing news for The Sunday Times. The newsdesk quite rightly expects high standards when you work on a paper of our calibre and demands fully formed stories or ideas for subjects to be looked into on Tuesday and Wednesday. So there is no chance to relax and bask in the previous week’s achievements. If you have had a few good hits the week before, the same is expected again. If you haven’t, the pressure is on to come up with a corker.

Often I have a lunch arranged early in the week – lunches are meat and drink, so to speak, to all who cover entertainment and arts news, as I do – so I come in early on Tuesday and work out what evening events I will attend in the week. I am out most nights, at parties, theatre aftershows, exhibition launches or film screenings.

I’m rarely home before midnight – if I am, it feels like I’m slacking.

This week, Tuesday was free and today’s lunch is cancelled. A replacement with a valued contact is arranged and I book a more than decent restaurant. The better the contact, the better the nosh.

An evening at the Tricycle Theatre’s West End transfer of its moving play Guantanamo yields some interesting “chat” (as my friend at the Daily Mirror, Cameron Robertson, calls it) at the aftershow party. But the worry is the presence of other hacks from the dailies, all sniffing around the same people for similar stories. There is nothing more annoying than having a story, only for it to appear in the Mail or The Guardian on a Friday. Home at 1am, the usual story. But there is hope with one story that will placate the news editor when he calls me early in the morning to check what I’ve got.

24.06.04

The desk likes the story, but a successful hit depends on it not appearing elsewhere. I just have to sit and wait and look for other ideas.

Another contact lunch yields some potentially interesting tales, but they sound like they would be better suited to our much-respected diary column, Atticus. My instincts are proved right, as they are with the videotape I’m given of Zara Phillips’ first television interview, on Five. Only problem is that Zara’s interview is too anodyne to provide a killer top line, and the best of what she does say centres too much on her private life rather than anything more serious or worthy of the kind of issue-led debate our readers are interested in. As it happens, the News of the World runs a double-page spread, leading on the boyfriend stuff. It’s just not our thing, as I explain to the Five people as soon as it’s given the thumbs-down. Eventually it doesn’t get in Atticus. The pressure is felt on a Thursday and I make about 60 phone calls and send about the same number of e-mails today, hunting for stories.

25.06.04

The daily newspaper diaries seem not to have picked up what is for us the essence of my Guantanamo story, which is pleasing. Otherwise it would be back to square one. My other ideas are reasonably well received, but it’s a particularly strong paper this week and any stories will have to be pretty hot to stand a chance of inclusion. I am off to Glastonbury to cover the festival and follow up a lead on Michael Eavis, the festival’s charmingly garrulous founder. I manage to complete my Guantanamo story at midnight, and drive to my hotel for 2.30am.

26.06.04

I am chasing Eavis around Glastonbury (amid 150,000 people) by 8am.

Absolutely knackered. And it pisses down all day. Eavis confirms the story, revealing that he was offered a knighthood but showed “very little interest” in the offer. Sadly, these sentiments are shared by the news editors – who are really under extreme pressure today – and decide that the story would fit better in Atticus than the “hard news” pages, as they regard it as having more of a diary feel. Fair enough, they’re probably right. And Atticus is one of the best-read sections of the paper. At least it appears in our paper first and the Glastonbury organisers will be satisfied with an extensive and well-written front-page piece in our sister section, News Review by Cosmo Landesman. A call at 4.30pm from the desk confirms that my other story is in – they want to check the final version is accurate and fair.

I can now enjoy the festival and seek out more stories for next week.

28.06.04

Funnily enough, the Eavis story gets most follow-up in the other papers, one sign of a story’s strength.

Monday is nominally a day off, but I “lunch” a music business contact at J Sheekey’s. I still have my Glastonbury head on and can talk out a story from an area I am meant to be “over”, to use newspaper jargon. He comes up with something, but it needs work.

Attend a preview of West End play We Happy Few. I am filling in for Richard Brooks in the Culture section for the next two weeks and this play – written by actress Imogen Stubbs and directed by her notoriously newspaper phobic husband Trevor Nunn – may provide a talking point.

Personally, I can’t bear its gooiness, but I suspect the luvvies will rally round and give them a charitable time of it.

29.06.04

In work early. Drinks with contact tonight may have to go the way of the Tate Britain launch of its Sixties exhibition and party. An A-list event, not to be missed, particularly with the boss man, arts editor Richard Brooks, sunning himself in France. Stay late and pick up some tales. We’ll wait and see if the desk likes them. A mantra, it seems, for me these days.

30.06.04

One story they do like, so pressure eases a bit. No lunch, so lots of calls.

Have to go home though, before 8pm, for the first time in ages. I am moving house and need to pick up the keys.

Otherwise it would be a reception or a play, in search of that killer top line that keeps me in a job.

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