The portfolio of cuttings from his fast-track college course looks impressive. In-depth investigations, colourful features, fact-packed council reports, plenty of online experience.
He’s got his shorthand and all his prelim exams. The boy done well, and here he is being interviewed for his first job by the editor of a small-town weekly.
‘Of course,’says the editor, ‘you can’t expect to be doing all this high-powered stuff at the beginning. We’ll kick you off on the basics – handouts, vox pops, wedding reportsâ€¦’
‘Weddings?’the wannabe frowns.
‘Grassroots stuff, full of names – names sell papers. The big boys don’t bother with them, but here on the Piddlethorpe Trumpet they’re what the readers want. We’ll give you some to do during the next few days, make sure you know how to handle that kind of thing before signing you up. Shouldn’t be a problem –â€‚you must have covered all this at college.’
‘Well,’says the wannabe, ‘not exactly… we did do this, like, really major feature on the problems of inner-city single-parent families, but weddings, actually writing about a wedding, no.’He laughs nervously. ‘Tell you the truth, I’ve never even been to one.”
The editor sighs. ‘How about funerals?”
Sitting at your busy daily newsdesk, you may smile. Weddings and funerals? This is the 21st century. How many papers still cover them?
The answer is surprisingly many. I met half a dozen weekly editors at an NCTJ meeting a few days ago and they all said they regularly carried detailed wedding reports and found room in the paper for funerals. Two editors print lists of mourners at ceremonies marking the departure of prominent local figures. There are a lot of Piddlethorpe Trumpets out there still.
When I was asked by the NCTJ to put together an introductory textbook on reporting, I unashamedly scoured my college library’s bookshelves to see what was already on the market. There’s a lot of excellent material out there, but I couldn’t find anything telling trainees how to turn a turgid, ill-written wedding report into readable copy or how to cope with uncooperative mourners filing through three different church doors at once.
Not a lot on the logistics of vox-popping, either, or exactly how to cover several village shows all taking place on the same wet afternoon. I looked in vain for a mention of how to dictate stories over the phone and handle short-tempered copytakers – yes, they still exist.
All elementary stuff, and I’m sure the best college courses cover things like this. But too many of the young reporters I meet on NCE refresher courses tell me their training skipped over these fundamentals or ignored them altogether. They suspect some tutors feel such things are a bit beneath them and are too eager to get on to the sexier arts of feature-writing, investigative journalism and online production.
We want trainees to cover these advanced areas, of course. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of those essential skills still sought by the editor of the Piddlethorpe Trumpet and his readers.