Why go into journalism? . . . spotting the fainthearts . . . a tough start . . .
familiar types of student . . .abysmal applications . . .
age-limit problems . . . a late-night hoax . . . ex-students far and wide . . .
Why do you want to be a journalist? Not surprisingly, that was a standard question facing all those seeking a place on the one-year pre-entry course. What was surprising was the number of applicants who, faced with this pretty predictable poser, couldn’t come up with a decent answer. They liked meeting people, they said. They were good at English at school. They didn’t fancy a nine-to-five job. They enjoyed a challenge. A few - too honest for their own good - explained earnestly that they really wanted to be doctors or architects but were applying for the journalism course in case their other options evaporated. Some said they were going to be famous novelists and thought that newspaper-reporting would fill the time nicely until that glad day arrived. Many claimed to be ‘creative writers’ who, since their talents had already been spotted by perceptive teachers, were only a 36-week course away from an enthusiastic welcome at the Guardian. Most had never met a newspaper reporter and had only the haziest idea of what the work involved. A memorable response came from a bubbly girl who, asked what she knew about journalism, grinned and replied: ‘Well - I’ve seen into the Doncaster Evening Post offices from the top of the bus!’ We took her on and didn’t regret it. She dropped me a line a year or two later, to say she was enjoying her work. I sometimes wonder where she ended up.
A serious effort was made to get the right people on the few courses that were available, for the very sound reason that the 300-or-so students in any one year were all heading, with justifiable confidence, towards real newspaper jobs within days of completing their studies. The NCTJ insisted that there had to be three people on an interviewing panel - a college lecturer plus two senior newspaper people, one of whom had to be a working editor. This last requirement was a real headache - editors always seemed to be addressing the Rotary Club that day, or overseeing the installation of new computers, or playing golf. But the system certainly provided for pretty accurate assessment of the young hopefuls, and much earnest discussion preceded the allocation of every place.
Despite these conscientious efforts, I always made sure that the class registers were initially filled out in pencil - there were always one or two who left the course in the first week and it was annoying to scratch out their newly-inked-in names and spoil those pretty pink registers so early in the year. Why did a few depart so abruptly? In some cases it was simply that they were homesick, but mostly it was that they had discovered that real work was going to be involved. The vague notion that they would become hard-hitting hacks overnight had been replaced by the late realisation that they would be sitting at school-type tables for 32 hours a week wrestling not only with with journalistic matters but with shorthand and the intricacies of local councils, government bodies and the law.
To ensure that the faint-hearts departed as swiftly as possible, for everyone’s sake, I decided to make the first couple of days a tough test of commitment. We’d give them a realistic idea of what life was like for a reporter. Those who imagined that a journalism course meant lounging around discussing the relative merits of The Guardian and The Daily Mirror were in for a shock . . .
The morning of Day One. About 20 new students shuffle into the classroom and start to settle in (even at that early stage you can spot those who intend to tuck themselves away on the back row and those who swagger into a front seat from which they will be able to fire barbs of wit). Silence falls. The students wonder what this first ‘lecture’ is going to deliver. The lad on the front row is already grinning in anticipation of the entertaining interruptions he plans to contribute. I produce a set of cards each bearing the name of a trade or profession - florist, taxi-driver, receptionist and so on. ‘Pick a card,’ I say, moving round the room. The students take cards at random and are puzzled to read ‘Caretaker’, ‘Window cleaner’, ‘Bus driver’ . . . There’s a buzz of conversation. Silence falls again.
‘Right,’ I say. ‘You are unfamiliar with Sheffield. Off you go - down into the city. Wander round. Find someone who fits the description on the card you’re holding. Have a chat. Simple as that. It will probably be more interesting than you think. Everyone has a story to tell. Be back in this room after lunch, at 1.30.’
There’s much muttering, especially from those who have made themselves comfortable to doze their way through a one-hour lecture on The Importance of the Press in Society. Within minutes I am alone, and from the third-floor window of the warm lecture-room I can see the students straggling out of the gates. With a bit of luck it’s pouring with rain. Realism, that’s what we’re after.
After lunch. The students settle back into their seats, many of them busting to recount the morning’s adventures. I produce another set of cards. Not trades and professions this time, but city locations - the town hall, the railway station, the art gallery and so on. ‘Pick a card,’ I say. ‘Then go back into the city and find the place that’s named. Speak to someone there. It will probably be more interesting than you think, and you’ll have made a contact. Be back in this room at five o’clock.’
More muttering (and I think I can already spot one or two who are going to pack it in before the week is out). A couple of the braver ones complain that if they had been told earlier about the afternoon exercise they could have stayed down in town and saved themselves a lot of running around. ‘Exactly,’ I reply, savouring the moment as I prepare to deliver my pompous coup de grace. ‘Newspaper reporters don’t know in advance what’s going to happen after lunch. They enjoy challenges and sudden changes of plan . . . provided that they are the right people in the right job.’ The heavy hint is not lost on these would-be wordsmiths. Off they trot into the city. The rain, I am pleased to note, has turned to sleet.
Five o’clock. An evocative school-cloakroom smell hangs in the air as a score of damp students assemble. They don’t bother to sit down - something tells them they will shortly be on the move again. Certainly the chances of a cozy lecture seem remote. ‘Right then,’ I say, with a friendly, welcome-back smile. ‘The refectory is open. Go and get yourself some tea. Be back up here at 5.45 and we’ll find out what sort of a day you’ve had.’
Renewed mutterings, murmurs of disapproval even. ‘We thought we finished at 5.15 . . .’ That’s my cue. ‘Newspaper reporters never know exactly when they finish,’ I announce, with suitable solemnity. ‘You might be halfway out through the door when the news editor sends you to a fire or to an evening meeting that he’s only just heard about. That’s what life is like for a reporter. That’s the fun of it. Back here in 45 minutes.’
Some of them are loving all this, you can tell. They ring home at night and tell mum and dad about their stimulating and unpredictable first day. They are going to enjoy being journalists. Others are bedraggled and totally dispirited. They have learned a valuable lesson already - they want to be bank-clerks or teachers after all. Some will say so when they turn up next morning. One or two, in fact, may not turn up at all. They will send a message to say that the course wasn’t for them, thank you very much. That’s fine. We are left with a select body of youngsters who really want to be reporters. It’s going to be fun working with them . . .
Yes, this was indeed a journalism course, but ‘journalism’ is a wide umbrella under which are huddled a number of inter-related occupations . . . and Richmond, as I emphasised earlier, took very seriously its mission to produce newspaper reporters. During the first week of a full-year course, I used to video the new intake, inviting them to introduce themselves and say a few words about their ambitions. I still have one or two of those tapes . . . and it is noticeable that, almost without exception, the speakers wanted newspaper jobs. There was a burgeoning notion at the time (and it has well and truly burgeoned by now) that colleges should teach newspaper, magazine, radio and television techniques on the same course. Expressions such as ‘multi-media’ and ‘multi-discipline’ had started to appear in brochures. We could understand that it was a tempting idea in some quarters - if there’s a demand, let’s expand and pack ‘em in. But it seemed to us like running a DIY course and claiming that each student emerged as a qualified plumber, electrician, plasterer, decorator and carpenter. Newspaper editors, we argued, needed recruits with relevant skills, not smarty-pants youngsters who imagined that they could also handle microphones and cameras, run radio and television newsrooms and breathe new life into ailing glossy magazines. Ah, it was all so simple then!
In accordance with the NCTJ’s realistic target figure of new entrants (‘realistic’ in that they could all expect a job when the course ended) we would be allocated, say, 60 in a particular year. The selection procedure was a long-drawn-out business - a whole day of written tests for all comers and, weeks later, half-hour interviews for those who had managed to come up to scratch on paper. Panels of three, usually one lecturer and a couple of editors, grilled the candidates in the various colleges and made yes or no recommendations, but the final decision rested with an NCTJ panel that could view the overall picture. Successful applicants were normally sent to the college of their choice, where they had been tested, but the panel could shunt them off elsewhere if they needed to balance the numbers more satisfactorily.
Remarkably swiftly, once through all these hoops and installed behind their desks, the widely-assorted students from all over the country slotted themselves into a small number of categories with which all lecturers and teachers are familiar - the pushy ones, the earnest ones, the silent and thoughtful ones, the surly ones, the eager and smiling ones, the troublemakers.
Troublemakers usually showed their colours within a few days. They mostly didn’t intend to cause trouble - it just happened when they were around. Some people are like that. They got lost on the way to the lecture room, and their subsequent late arrival not only interrupted the session but caused them to miss the announcement that everyone was meeting in the lecture theatre at three o’clock. The result - they sat in an empty classroom wondering where everyone was, during which time the others learned what was planned for the morrow and further seeds of confusion were sown. They mislaid books, asked for afternoons off to take the cat to the vet, misunderstood instructions, fell down the stairs, selected large lunches and then found they’d got no money. And so on. Asked to write down their date of birth they wrote the current date, causing the college records - at the start of every year I was there - to register the mysterious presence of someone aged zero. We’d guess immediately who the culprit was.
The upper age-limit for one-year courses was initially 20, and all the students had in common the fact that they had recently completed A-levels. The age rule was strictly observed and I sometimes feel a faint guilt, to this day, about those unfortunate applicants who were apologetically rejected as ‘too old’ by only a few weeks or months. There was a gentle let-down line that I always used in any such rejection letter - ‘Don’t be too disheartened, as I am sure that if you are really determined to get into journalism you will manage it by some other route.’ It was true.
Those who did abysmally badly on the selection tests were, of course, another matter. Telling them they would make it one day would have been pure hypocrisy. I still have the letter that one unhappy youth sent to me on March 14, 1988 after being rejected. I have faithfully copied every detail below. Spot the errors . . .
Dear Mr Kreibich,
Thank you for informing me of my failure in your recent selection exam.
Obviously this has been a dissapointing setback to me, although I still intend to follow a journalistic career. As you said in your letter, there are many ways into journalism. I am therefore writing to ask your advice as to how I should spend the next year, paticuarly regarding another application to Richmond College. I am somewhat dubious about seeking training from a newspaper directly, so I would be gratefull also for your comments on this. I have already enroled on a typing/Word Processing evening course as a hopefull forefront to my journalistic career and would apreciate your comments regarding its validity to you course. Yours Sincerely . .
Clumsy over-typing of certain letters further marred this miserable missive. I had to concede that he had spelt ‘sincerely’ right, but that hardly qualified him for a career in journalism. I wrote back on March 18 . . .
Thank you for your letter. I understand your disappointment - but I am afraid this letter will disappoint you again.
I checked your marks on the English paper and they really were terribly low. I feel it is only fair to tell you this, since you are obviously keen to get into journalism.
I have enclosed a photo-copy of your letter on which I have marked the spelling mistakes. You will be horrified to see them, I’m sure. If you made six spelling mistakes in one short letter, think how many mistakes you must have made in the NCTJ test.
If you are REALLY determined to get into journalism, your next move is obvious - you work hard with a dictionary and a grammar book and prepare seriously for the tests that will be held in a year’s time. One book that may help is ‘A Journalist’s Guide to the Use of English’ by Ted Bottomley and Anthony Loftus, published by the Express and Star, Wolverhampton and available - I think - from the NCTJ.
And here’s a tip for you, Fred. Buy a pocket-sized dictionary and one of those fluorescent-type pens that make words stand out brightly against a yellow background. Then, every time you check the spelling of a word (which you ought to do often) you highlight that word with your bright pen. Within a few weeks you have an invaluable personal dictionary that reminds you of all your shaky spellings every time you flip through its pages at a quiet moment. It’s honestly worth doing and cannot fail.
If you do these things you ought to pass the NCTJ tests next year. Then . . . when you get to the interview stage you tell the panel all about your determined and methodical work to improve your English and they cannot help but be enormously impressed!
My very best wishes for the future. Let me know sometime how you get on with all this. I’d be interested to hear.
GERRY KREIBICH, Senior Lecturer in charge of journalism courses.
I haven’t heard from him yet. His name was not really Fred, of course. I have given him anonymity, which is only fair as he may by this time be a prominent figure in society - an artist, a politician, a television personality, a Member of Parliament. He may even be a journalist. If he happens to read this, I hope he drops me a line . . .
When the upper age-limit of 20 was removed a few years later we were suddenly in uncharted territory as a result of applications from what one of the staff (I think it was me) rather unkindly described as a flood of old-age pensioners. That was an exaggeration - the oldest student I remember was 47 - but the new policy did cause a few problems by appearing to put us on a par with adult-education classes. There was little realistic chance of students in their fifties landing jobs as newspaper reporters, no matter how skilled they might turn out to be, and somebody somewhere decided on a compromise age-ceiling of 30. Even then there were just-over-the-limit dilemmas, as there always are in situations where strict lines are drawn. I remember a graduate candidate who had worked for years in a shoe shop and was within weeks of reaching his thirtieth birthday. He told the interview panel of his repeated attempts to get directly into journalism and begged them to offer him a full-year place because time had almost run out and he would never again be able to apply for a college course. We took him on. He was an exceptional student - and within a few months of leaving he telephoned us and suggested we look at the centre-spread of one of the nationals. There, topped by a satisfyingly fat by-line, was his exclusive piece on some chap who had given up a mundane job in the UK and become an Afghan rebel. It had come about, he said, as the result of a conversation in a pub, and he wanted to thank us for equipping him to take advantage of his chance encounter. We appreciated that - and spooned out encouragement to all our students by telling them about his flying start in the real world that lay beyond the classroom.
It was always pleasing to hear from former students who were enjoying life. One lad rang us one day and seemed only to want a chat. But his big moment came when I asked ‘What are you doing nowadays then?’ ‘Oh, I’m still on a weekly,’ he replied, enjoying reeling me in. ‘Which one?’ I enquired. ‘The Sunday Express,’ he said. You could hear him smiling. Letters from students who were pleased to have passed their proficiency test (the NCE qualification of yesteryear) were commonplace, though none the less welcome for that. But I remember only one end-of-course letter thanking us specifically for the help and guidance offered throughout an eight-week block-release course. It was from a young reporter on the Worksop Guardian called Neil Wallis. The next time I heard of him he was deputy editor of the Sun, and later he became editor of the People. He's now deputy editor of the News of the World. I hope I don’t embarrass him. (ADDED NOTE: Neil's fortunes took a new turn in 2012 during the Murdoch-empire upheaval that closed the News of the World. Look it up yourself . . !)
On a handful of occasions during my time at Sheffield I encountered groups of students with whom I had such a congenial relationship that I invited them to visit my wife and myself at our home in picturesque Matlock Bath, Derbyshire. Music was invariably involved, and one June evening in 1988 produced an unexpectedly magical few minutes. The students were all members of a graduates’ block-release group, brought together by chance from newspapers all over Britain. One of them, Piers, brought a guitar, and it turned out that both he and classmate Sarah, a singer, performed folk music. A delightful rendition of ‘All around my hat’ was the off-the-cuff result, and I was so impressed that I set up a tape-recorder and asked for a re-run. I still have the tape, complete with the raucous, enthusiastic applause of young journalists who by now could be just about anywhere in the world.
Former students still occasionally cross my path. A few years ago I met one Mike Sassi, who was then on the news desk at the Derby Evening Telegraph and later an editor in Lincolnshire. ‘Do you remember,’ he asked, ‘when a friend of mine won a Rio trip for two and you gave me time off to go with him because it was too good a chance to miss?’ I did remember. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve felt bad about that ever since. I made the story up. There was no competition. Sorry about that.’ I generously forgave him, and he walked away with a lighter step.
A late-night hoax phone call to my home turned out to come from an old student, though I didn’t find out for a couple of years. My wife answered the bedside phone at around midnight and a purring woman’s voice told her that I had left my wallet at the Pussycat massage parlour that afternoon. My wife, bless her, calmly handed me the phone. ‘It’s for you,’ she said. Going along with the joke, and expecting a burst of laughter at any second, I assured the mystery caller that I would pick up my wallet when I next called. ‘That would be perfectly in order,’ said the woman, and rang off. We waited tensely and horizontally for the ‘gotcha’ call. Nothing happened. And it was years later, at an in-house training session, that one of the reporters let slip the name of the culprit. ‘Oh, I thought you knew,’ she said in some confusion. I thought up a great wheeze to play in return, but I never got around to it. I may do one day. So, Joanne, beware . . .
I took early retirement in 1989 when the journalism vessel on which I had happily sailed for about 18 years seemed about to be scuttled by a huge reorganisation of the way in which the college was run. I didn’t fully understand what would happen when the cloud called ‘tertiary’ finally came overhead - I don’t think anyone did - but our small team of full-time journalism lecturers was clearly going to be broken up and it seemed a good time to jump ship. Other crew would no doubt come aboard and steer a new course. So off I went.
But I missed the daily contact with students and it wasn’t long before I wrote a ‘where are they now’ letter to Press Gazette. There was a gratifying response from scores of young reporters dotted about all over the country, and I laboriously drew up a chart of who was working where and posted a copy to everyone involved. (I say ‘laboriously’ because these were the days of clacking on a typewriter and correcting every little error with the ubiquitous Tippex.)
One former student, David Icke, sprang dramatically into the public eye in the early 1990s by declaring that he was the Son of God. At least, that was what the papers said he claimed - David himself seemed to wriggle out of it later by saying he was a son of God as everyone else was. (Had he still been at his college desk we could have had a rousing classroom debate on the importance of definite/indefinite articles and the need to know where you stand on the caps-or-lower-case question.) I looked at pictures of David in the tabloids and found it hard to believe that this was the amiable young chap who had been with us on an eight-week block-release course from the Leicester Mercury. I am a great hoarder of documents and in my files there is still a letter from his office that says: ‘Icke will be 24 in April and has settled down happily as a member of the reporting team and is covering satisfactorily a wide range of assignments.’ When we met briefly in a Sheffield shopping precinct some years later, David shook my hand, turned to the two women who accompanied him and said ‘This man taught me all I know.’ Just a joke, I think, though perhaps it was genuinely a warm gesture from a man who at that time was strutting the world stage. Either way, I assured the two women that David was being altogether too kind to this humble lecturer.
Another David pops up regularly at my home, but only on the television screen. He is David Shukman, a long-time correspondent for the BBC and a prominent nightly commentator during the tense days of the onslaught on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. I remember him as a serious but engaging member of a Richmond College ‘grads group’, struggling - as they all were - to master shorthand. When I see him now in America, Italy, Africa, Russia, I wonder if he ever managed 100 words a minute in Teeline.
Against the familiar background of the hillside Hollywood sign, Helen Moreton (GMTV, later SkyTV , BBC Look North and Channel Five) used to project her radiant smile into our sitting room, but in my mind’s eye this young Grimsby girl is sitting at a desk in Sheffield or queueing in the refectory for a portion of Mrs Beeley’s chips. (She is now Helen Fospero.) In the Daily Telegraph I used to spot a Nicholas Comfort by-line, and I was instantly back at Richmond constructing elaborate limericks with a bunch of graduates - one such laborious verse concerned a man who removed his underpants, explaining ‘I like knickerless comfort, you see’. (If this sounds too frivolous even for a short fun-session on being concise, note that a skilled wordsmith with a decent vocabulary can pack an astonishing amount of factual information into five lines by ensuring that every syllable earns its place!)
Columnist and broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson was another ‘one of ours’ who became a household name, partly through the witty originality of his prose and partly by being entertainingly outspoken on the subject of cars. Even as a student, on block-release from the Rotherham Advertiser, he used to roar across the college car-park in some sort of souped-up mini. His mother had made the first-ever Paddington Bear in 1971 - as a Christmas present for Jeremy and his sister - and founded the firm that produced the popular toy for 25 years. ‘My mother would like me to go into the firm but I want to be a journalist,’ he told me one day.
Chance encounters with former students have resulted from my occasional freelance work. When I noticed in 1997 that Railway magazine was 100 years old, I submitted a nostalgia piece about a 10,000-mile rail journey with a difference - my daily trips to school on a stretch of the Warrington-Manchester line in the 1940s. Editor Nick Pigott bought the piece. And on the end of his letter he scrawled a note recalling his days at Sheffield in the 1970s. The same thing has happened on the telephone when I have had occasion to speak to a national newspaper, magazine, radio station or TV studio. ‘Are you the same Gerry Kreibich who . . ?’
Such recognition is largely the result, of course, of having an unusual name. Our son Simon, a detective-sergeant, experiences it at one remove when he is questioned by some reporter. ‘D.S.Kreibich?’ they say. ‘Are you any relation to . . ?’ Simon, who once considered journalism as a career, enjoys ticking off those who say ‘I don’t suppose there’s anything doing’ or who beg him for ‘something newsy’ because it’s a quiet time. ‘What a lousy approach,’ he tells them, to their great surprise. ‘I bet my dad didn’t tell you to do it like that!’
One prominent television broadcaster who did not pass through our hands at Sheffield is John Sergeant, for many years a BBC man and later political editor of ITN. I mention him only because I was pained to find, in his otherwise entertaining and informative autobiography, the sort of disparaging reference to formal training that, in my experience, usually emanates from people of lesser calibre than Mr Sergeant. As a trainee reporter on The Liverpool Echo in the 1960s, he attended a course at one of the other colleges. With what seems to be uncharacteristic pettiness, he writes: ‘I disliked writing fake copy for imaginary newspapers, to be judged by tutors who, I could sense, had failed in the profession. All those who seemed to thrive in that atmosphere sank without trace’.
The tacit suggestion that only those whose names and faces are widely recognised have been ‘successful’ seems to me to be an unwarranted swipe at countless skilled journalists on national and regional newspapers throughout the land. There is something quite offensive, too, in the implication that the tutors who were seeking to help the young John Sergeant were there only because they weren’t up to the ‘real’ job. But the daftest suggestion is that there is somehow no value in writing ‘fake’ stories and that beginners should immediately be allowed to practise on the public. It might work on radio - Mr Sergeant recalls that on only his second day as a radio reporter he wrote out a one-minute news item in longhand and read it into a microphone, for inclusion in the One O’clock News, without any help, advice or criticism from anyone above him. But newspapers don’t work like that.