Times chief investigative reporter and journalist of the year Andrew Norfolk says he owes his success to a "bullying bastard of a news editor" he worked with on the Scarborough Evening News.
Norfolk, who was named British Journalism Awards journalist of the year in 2014 for his investigation into gang sexual abuse, talks about his experience of journalism training in How to be a Journalist – a print supplement published by Press Gazette today.
Norfolk's career in journalism began as a trainee on the Scarborough Evening News, which sent him to Harlow College to study for his National Council for the Training of Journalists qualification.
He said: “I draw, daily, on what I learnt back then. Legal issues, in both criminal and civil proceedings, take up far too much of my professional life and have featured heavily in the past four years.
“And how could you begin to grasp the labyrinthine layers of power and accountability with a story like Rotherham’s, where you’re trying to assess who knew what, and when, without first understanding the structure of local authorities, departmental responsibilities, multi-agency working, safeguarding boards, etc?
“Slow and often indecipherable as it is, I’d be adrift without my shorthand. And as for interviews… well, this entire story was built on slowly winning damaged people’s confidence and trust to the point where they became willing to sit down and talk to you. To tell the darkest of stories.
“Those were just about the most important, sensitive, challenging interviews I’ve ever done. If there was one quality more important than any that was required for this story, I think it was probably empathy."
Talking about his time working on what was then one of the smallest evening newspapers in the country, he said: "It sometimes felt as though if you farted in Scarborough we’d stick it in the newspaper.
"To fill the pages for each edition was a daily challenge.
“There was, of course, the daily routine of police calls, magistrates court, council meetings, vox pops, press releases. Pretty soon I thought I was getting quite good at all that. I also fancied myself as a bit of a writer.
"I started doing features, theatre reviews. I started, almost, to feel quite pleased with myself. At least maybe I would have done, had I not been landed with a bullying bastard of a news editor who wouldn’t leave me alone.
“He was always on my back, pushing me to do more, telling me to go out there and start to find my own bloody stories instead of being handed them on a plate. It took a while, but eventually I realised he was right.
“He looked at me and saw a soft, privileged prima donna. He saw a kid who’d had it easy all his life, and who needed to get his hands not just dirty but filthy. And who was never going to make a decent journalist until he did. I sulked; he bullied. And in the end I did what I was told.
“He’s now one of my best friends."
While Norfolk has won numerous awards in recent years for his Times work, he said nothing compares to the feeling of getting his first exclusive front-page story in Scarborough Evening News based on a chat he'd had in the pub.
"I was told something that sounded outrageous, did a bit of digging and it turned out to be true. And it was my story, my first little investigation. And they gave me three days to work on it. Undreamt-of luxury. It was dodgy dealing in a further education college.
“The principal, to boost a funding stream that was based on the number of students you had and the number of courses you taught, had invented an entirely bogus course for adults with learning difficulties.
“The paperwork looked good but the students supposedly enrolled on the course were actually babies and young toddlers – the offspring of the teaching staff – whose time at the college was spent in its creche.
“That was a story, albeit a little story, that someone in a position of local power didn’t want us to tell.”
Asked what advice he would give to an aspiring journalist, he said: “If you feel it’s in your blood and you’ve got the curiosity and sense of wanting to tell stories that people don’t want you to tell I’d say go for it.
“And if you start on a regional newspaper and get your initial training with the NCTJ I think you will be getting a great grounding for the future."