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 was when I was still in the sixth-form at my grammar school. I worked on the Daily Mirror at the weekends, going off to the centre of Manchester in my Honda 50 moped. I was a copyboy. I put messages in vacuum bottles that shot to different parts of the building; I attached page designs to wires and saw them trundle 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, and 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 and 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 nick-named Captain Birdseye by the printers. Me they called Captain Birdseye’s Son.
We worked an awkward shift when it came to having a lunch break, so 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’s 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, then on 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 working on editing stories for an Irish Sunday newspaper here in Yorkshire for two days a week.
I tell them that if they want to be journalists they need to be persistent, to keep at the job. You have to keep pushing at things – politely, nicely – but you mustn’t give up.
Wearing the hat of optimism, I tell them that newspapers may be struggling but that they will exist in some form or other for a while yet. And that after that there will still be journalists working on websites and so on.
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 it when one generation tells another 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 the Press Gazette reported that the Welsh government gave Newsquest a grant of £246,000 to help it set up the subbing hub in Newport. The subbing hub that cost jobs around the country. And 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 to in effect destroy the jobs of English journalists? And as Newsquest is now 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 much better than others. But that’s life for you. And with luck the good ones will find a way through.