I have been asked to talk to English and journalism students about being a journalist. Only about half the expected number have turned up, but they seem keen enough, so here goes. . .
I tell them that my first job on a newspaper started when I was still in the sixth-form at grammar school. I worked on the Daily Mirror at the weekends, chugging into the centre of Manchester in my Honda 50 moped. I was a copyboy: I put messages into vacuum bottles that were shot to different parts of the building and I attached page designs to wires by which means they trundled off to another part of the office.
One of the editors took a kindly interest in me. He’s a ghost now, hardly more than a shape in my mind; probably a real ghost, too. Perhaps that’s where it all began, as if by inky osmosis. Or so I tell myself.
I don’t tell the students that my younger brother had the same Saturday job as I did and that HE ended up a professor. Maybe that old story is a bit of smudged romanticism, echoed by the Saturday sub-editing job I had ten years later at the Observer.
I do tell them about that job, although I miss out the part about working alongside a man called Michael Jacobson, who had a wild, white beard and was nicknamed by the printers Captain Birdseye . Me they called Captain Birdseye’s Son.
We worked an awkwardly-timed shift, so when it came to taking a lunch break Mike arranged for us to join the senior staff in the boardroom, where there was cheese and wine. I don’t remember many of the names, but Robert Harris was one. He was the political editor all that time ago, before turning himself into a bestselling author.
I am not in touch with the Observer, other than as a reader, but it would be a fair assumption to make that wine and cheese are no longer served on a Saturday lunchtime. That had all stopped by the time I left, one summer’s day in 1988.
I tell the students about my other jobs, on the weekly newspaper in south-east London and then at the Press in York for all those years of editing and writing. I tell them about the freelance feature writing; and I tell them about editing stories two days a week here in Yorkshire for an Irish Sunday newspaper.
I tell them that if they want to be journalists they need to be persistent, to stick at the job. That you have to keep pushing at things — politely, nicely — and mustn’t give up.
Wearing my optimist’s hat, I tell them that newspapers may be struggling but that they will exist in some form or other for a while yet. And after that, I say, there will still be journalists working on websites and so forth.
I tell them all this and I believe it to be true. Or at least I hope that it is true, which isn’t the same thing. I don’t tell them that they’d be mad to want to be a journalist nowadays. I don’t tell them to go and be teachers instead, even if it might be good advice.
I don’t tell them those negative things because I hate when one generation tells the next that they missed the boat. And that nothing will ever be good again. And that life has gone to shit.
Instead, I tell them positive things and send them away with good thoughts.
‘Was that helpful?’ I ask the keenest-seeming student as she leaves. “Yes, it was,” she says. And hopefully she isn’t just being polite.
I don’t tell the students about Newsquest and Newport. It wouldn’t interest them. The other day Press Gazette reported that the Welsh government gave Newsquest a grant of £246,000 to help it set up the subediting hub in Newport. The subbing hub that cost so many jobs around the country; the subbing hub that is now being shut down, causing another layer of jobs misery.
What on earth was the Welsh government doing giving grants that effectively destroyed the jobs of English journalists, mine included? And, now that Newsquest is abandoning Newport, will the Administration ask for its money back?
But I don’t share any of this with the students, not wishing to appear bitter or anything. Even if, some days, I still am.
Working with students is enjoyable, and the best part is watching them grow as writers. Some are better than others, but that’s life for you.
And with luck the good ones will find a way through.