Fleet Street. Until new technology revolutionised the newspaper industry and national paper head offices were scattered to the four corners of the capital, to work in Fleet Street was the aspiration for all young journalists.
And I worked there. Ok, all the papers had moved out and I was only there for three months until my employers moved to Victoria, but I can always say, I worked in Fleet Street. I have had a pint or several in famous watering holes like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and The Punch Tavern, where the walls still seep nicotine and the ghosts of old hacks still take long liquid lunches with their contacts, sifting through the gossip for the next day’s big exclusive.
My career had been firmly in the local press, rising from trainee reporter to Deputy Editor at the Sevenoaks Chronicle, my home-town paper, and then on to the production desk of the Kent Messenger’s now defunct evening paper.
In the mid-90s the national newsagency, the Press Association, advertised for sub-editors for the first time in more years than anyone could remember. Old subs never left PA, they simply moved on to the big newspaper office in the sky direct from their desks. But two vacancies had arisen and I was lucky enough to be offered a job.
Six months later and I had done something right as I was promoted from the relative serenity of the subs desk to the bedlam of the newsdesk.
National newspapers employ relatively few staff reporters. Much of the content you see in your daily comes from PA. In the 90s, the agency also supplied the news for Teletext (remember that?) and getting breaking stories on screen before the BBC’s Ceefax service was not an option, it was a requirement.
Today, when you see Sky News or the BBC roll out the breaking news ticker, the chances are that the lead has come from PA’s news feed.
We had to be fast, we had to be first and we had to be 100 per cent accurate. Nothing else was tolerated and the newsdesk, where 14-hour shifts were not uncommon, was the conduit for all the national news, seven days a week.
As news editors, we had to be experts in politics, economics, business, health, transport or whatever subject the big story of the moment covered. Reaction to breaking news was everything and we got by on a diet of caffeine, stress and adrenaline.
I was running the desk with a skeleton staff of reporters the Saturday night a bomb went off on a bus in London’s Aldwych, and on the one and only night in its history when the National Lottery draw machine broke down.
Despite the often distressing nature of the stories, there was a very special atmosphere that came with events like that, made more enjoyable by seeing your work reproduced word for word in a range of national titles the next day.
After a brief foray to Leeds to liven up PA’s sports operation, the chance came to return to the KM, initially as chief sub (overseeing the team ensuring reporters’ copy is accurate and grammatically correct), moving on to posts of Production Editor, Editorial Manager and finally Senior Editor Special Publications, looking after the likes of Kent Business and What’s On.
A change in pace, certainly, but still the opportunity to research and write about a wide variety of subjects, each requiring a different tone and approach.
That experience, particularly at PA, of producing accurate copy that can be taken and used with little or no alteration, proves invaluable to me today at Maxim.
The media is a very different world now, with staff greatly cut back. Where newsdesks used to take press releases and alter them as a matter of pride and principal, now a well-written, timely piece is often received and used with few changes.
And you never do lose that buzz at seeing your words in print.
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