I’ve been at The Times for nearly a year now. Within that time I’ve locked myself in the toilet by accident twice (you need your keycard to leave the toilets for some reason), I’ve been here on big news days such as when Thatcher died and that baby popped out and worked shifts so bizarre and silly (11pm-7am) five days a week at some point) that my Mum would ring me every 72 hours and ask “Are you okay Scott? Are you really really okay?, believing that every reply of “I’m fine” to be a complete and utter lie.
The thing is though, I’m off. I’m leaving the paper. I didn’t expect to leave so soon, but I’ve been offered something different role elsewhere. I wasn’t a full on journalist here (my role was doing their social media and shouting the words “BREAK” on there every 36 minutes), but still, working for a national was a very different experience than what I expecting.
There are three big differences in fact. Things that I think all people who write ‘aspiring journalists’ anywhere should know about. And just like a column WOWZA here the reasons are how convenient:
Working for a newspaper isn’t that special.
You think that newspapers are powerful giants don’t you? Front pages decide elections, investigative journalism changes the opinions of the masses and industry and titillation and insensitivity cause people to go “OMG” in outrage on twitter day after day. Okay so we don’t read them as much as we used to, newspapers spend most of their time these times being criticised by airhead blabberheads on Sky or BBC News in “paper reviews” late at night. Or they are being proudly shown off to the camera at an angle one-by-one on Sunday morning political news programmes, as if it was being done by a smug parent showing off their son or daughter’s proud academic trophies whilst you don’t give a shit. Still, we’re still powerful creatures.
You’ve read our history, that we were once located on Fleet Street next to our printers, that everyone bashed out copy on typewriters then went to the pub and got pissed. You’ve seen footage of printing works on site, giant whirring machines that somehow manage to tightly zips and folds 96 pages in a zip of an eye, before cackling along a conveyor belt upside down with our front page name, one occasionally being lifted off and held by a proud proprietor, before being chucked into a lorry to your local newsagents. You expect, if summoned to a newspaper late at night (don’t ask me why, just imagine alright?) you were walk into a building like 80 stories high with like LAZERS coming out of the top or emitting bat signals notifying our scarred and scared world of our editorial opinions.
And yet, for most of the time that I have been working here, I haven’t felt as if I have worked for a newspaper at all. There’s nothing here that screams NEWSPAPER. In the office there’s a row after row of computers, a circular bit where the senior editors work, a room for the editor (a room that you will never ever sit in), chairs, the world’s worst coffee machine… that’s it. Not many banners boasting our name, no funky interiors or light fittings. It’s just a white office. Our facilities consist of a reasonably decent canteen, a Pret a Manger at the other end of the courtyard outside, a Shell garage over the road and being near the City of London, a sea of concrete outside the window when you look in any direction for miles and miles. We occupy two floors of a building, not eighty. And you know those big printing works historically next to us… they’re not here anymore. Our printing works have been relocated to a big old warehouse in a picturesque concrete industrial park only metres from the six lanes of the M25.
Even though you see the pages been put together, even though you see people talking about stuff that later be in the papers and even though you later see the paper in the shop… nothing. It’s an office.
The only times that you realise that you work for a newspaper is this: when people ask what you do and you tell them that you work for a newspaper. That’s it.
When you get in the newspaper you don’t join the best friends club
This is the other surprising thing about working in newspapers – we’re not a big club of best friends. You see journalists interacting and buzzing each other on Twitter, interacting like some big intellectual clique and blocking the general public out like a big a paywall of reputation and employment credentials, so much so that you expect us to do the same with everyone in the office. Shouting goss across the room, flapping our hands from one side to the other yelling “RT”, acting like we’re all in an episode of Cheers (disclaimer: I have never watched Cheers).
Yet in the newsroom, none of that. The office is whisper quiet. Most of us don’t know each other. Your colleagues who share the same role as you know you, the people who need to interact with so you can both do your job know you… nobody else. There’s too much to do on a day basis. Everyone is on different shifts between the hours of 7am to 3am. It’s manic. You just do your job.
I have sat in my desk for nearly a year but could I name some of the people who sit more than five metres away from me? NOPE.
It’s even weird when you see somebody big, like the editor or a well-known columnist and journoceleb. You think that you’re in there, that since you both share the same employment keycard you have the right to knock back some wine together and get wasted at 3pm on top of the photocopier. But do they know you? No. Does anyone know them? Not really. You end up reacting like you would do if you see them on the street – your eyes light up, you feel that you are going to screech their name, but then you realise that you’re British so you keep looking as if you never saw them. Maybe take a secret subtle photo of them on the toilet later on. That’s it.
Think being an intern is vulnerable? Imagine what being an employee is like.
When you’re an intern and you’re trying to get into the media industry, you spend most of your time clinging on to the edge of the cliff, anticipating that somebody would step on your fingers and smile fondly as you scream to the rocks below to die (note from me before publishing: please don’t be so cynical). There’s no money involved, you constantly worry that everyone in the office hates you because you’re spending your time ‘putting yourself forward for things’ or writing hours of transcription. You feel proud of yourself because after two months after sleeping on someone’s kitchen floor in Shoreditch you’ve upgraded to a sofa a foot shorter than you are in Clapham Junction (me: that’s better).
So when I got a job in journalism, I naively thought that I was it. I was no longer scared. I was no longer vulnerable. I am now in the protective cocoon of a contract with hours on and suitable holiday entitlement. That now the hardest work and suffering was over, and that thank goodness I managed to get in somewhere.
However I slowly realised that this wasn’t the case at all. For you see my position here at The Times was never in any vulnerable position at all, but the whole media industry as a whole is. You can feel the change happening every day in the office – that we can’t keep doing the same thing in the way that we market, find and write up the news. Speakers at big corporate journalism events would start rubbing their thighs at this point and say it is all “INCREDIBLY EXCITING to be in the media at this time when everything is shifting to digital”, and would advise to any young upstart the benefits of learning as many multiplatform skills as physically possible to get noticed, but it doesn’t also mean that they’re right, that everyone who is talented is going to get hired and that we’re all going to be here to see the benefits on the other side.
But never fear… if getting into the media is your ultimate ambition some traditions of journalism still exist and will never change. The fact that you spend the entire time panicking about deadlines, the fact that as journos are never free there’s never any long meetings (fake voice: “oh nooooooo”) and that without coffee, paracetamol and quite a considerable amount of alcohol we’d all be dead in about five hours.
No wait. Scratch that. Two.