I still remember the moment I realised – beyond doubt – that I wanted to be a journalist. It was the autumn of 2006 and Leo Whitlock, then editor of the Kentish Express in Ashford, had invited me into his newsroom for a week of work experience.
The work was the usual fare assigned to the eager but inexperienced: bashing out a bit of filler and the chance to grab a byline or two with some safe human interest tales. But what I remember to this day was my disbelief that this was actually considered work. Here was a room full of clever people, being nosy and argumentative, drinking tea and cracking jokes – all while producing something that thousands of people would read each and every week.
I knew immediately that this was the kind of life I wanted to experience for myself.
And once I had landed myself a job as a trainee reporter on the Dover Express I discovered the life of a newspaper reporter to be everything I’d hoped for and more. Yes, it could be extremely stressful. The hours could be unsociable. And the experienced hacks intimidating. But it was never boring, and I learnt so much during the four years I was on the paper that it’s fair to say I walked away a different person to the lad who pitched up in the newsroom in May 2007.
What really made those years some of the best of my life were the people I worked with. For a time our newsroom in Dover consisted of myself, reporter Yamurai Zendera and news editor Kathy Bailes. We were a small team, but this meant we got to know each other well and in time we were working as one to produce what we believed was an excellent newspaper.
Kathy was a fantastic news editor. Always helping to hone your reporting skills, always backing her reporters and their work, and always ready to muck in with the less glamorous tasks to ensure we got the paper out on the streets each Thursday morning despite our limited resources. My day-to-day relationship with my colleagues – the joking, the batting about of ideas and developing stories, the criticism when warranted – helped to make me a better reporter. I have no doubt Kathy equipped me with many of the skills that have helped me to successfully navigate my path since I left the Express.
And it is this experience, my experience of life as a trainee reporter, that makes me saddened by what appears to be a growing trend towards the breaking up of newsrooms, or in the words of Local World, the freeing of journalists from ‘the constraints of an office’.
In recent months we have heard senior managers in the local press championing the freedom being given to staff as a result of office closures. Closures at Luton on Sunday and the Northampton Herald & Post. Closure at the Crewe Chronicle. Closures across the South Wales Valleys. Predictions that swathes of local newspapers would be lost as a result of the financial crash may thankfully have proved false, but many newspaper offices in the heart of their communities (including that of the Dover Express) have been lost in recent years.
And with each new announcement of office closures we hear the same refrain from the senior figures wheeled out to try to put a positive spin on the news.
The comments of Local World’s Richard Duxbury following the decision to shutter the offices of Luton on Sunday and the Northampton Herald & Post sum up the tone of most of these pronouncements from on high: “We continue to build our town centre presence in our key markets now that our employees are mobilised and can generate sales and content without the constraints of an office. The Luton and Northampton hubs will offer a greater service to our clients and bring us closer to our local audience.”
I’m all for the adoption of flexible working practices made possible by technological advances. And I’ll leave it to you to decide if closing newspaper offices is the best way to get closer to your readers. But what will be lost along with our physical newsrooms is the sense of camaraderie that makes working for a newspaper so special, the bonds between colleagues that ensure knowledge and skills are passed down effectively from editor to senior to trainee.
The world changes and working practices change. But having experienced just how exciting a workplace a newsroom can be I can’t help feeling deeply sorry for those young reporters who find themselves cast out with a laptop, a smartphone and directions to the nearest coffee shop. Yes, you can report with those tools. But can you learn to be a reporter?