Breaking news: an explosion rocks the Birmingham NEC. Or not. But that was the fictional news story I was writing a report about at the free journalism workshop I attended today. Run by News Associates in Manchester Piccadilly; it was a taster of their National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) accredited course.
I misjudged the length of the bus journey (“Sorry I’m late, but I set off late.”) and arrived 15 minutes late, just as the introduction was wrapping up, and had to be buzzed in. As a result I was the only one there who didn’t know what to expect as we went along. It also meant I had the shame of being buzzed in and interrupting it for everyone.
The workshop allowed us to see a bit of what it’s like working for a daily news paper, but the skills are transferrable to all kinds of journalist jobs: feature writer, weekly or monthly periodicals, editor, etc. First we got a hand-out detailing 17 points that contribute to a story’s newsworthiness. One of the three workshop leaders read them out and we had to chip in examples of recent news stories. I made sure I spoke up first, and ended up feeling like a me sir, me sir swot. Then I sort of glazed over for a bit, stared at the wall and yawned. Then I joined in again.
Then I realised I was wearing my baggy jeans with the belt too tight, which creates an unfortunate bulge at the front, looking like I am pitching a trouser tent (actually more like a gazebo). I wriggled uncomfortably in my seat, convinced in my delusion that everyone was staring. Nobody was, so I had some more good ideas and piped up a few more times.
Then we were given a sheet of 12 news stories, put in groups, and told to judge the three best and one worst story, for a paper called the Wimbledon Guardian. I disagreed with my group about the worst (I was right, they were wrong, even though there were apparently ‘no wrong answers’), and got outvoted. As the fictional paper was based in Wimbledon, loads of the stories mentioned other areas of London, so I spent most of the allotted time wondering if the locations were nearby. Is Wandsworth near Wimbledon? Mitcham, Merton and New Malden? Eventually I just grabbed the sheet of paper and wrote down three. It turned out my instinct was right, as another group and the workshop leader had made the same choices.
Next we were told to have a cigarette break, or make ourselves a cup of tea. I went over to the kitchen corner and started fiddling with teabags, milk and a kettle. When I turned around with my brew, a workshop leader was stood waiting to start the next bit, and everyone was staring patiently.
Suddenly we were thrown into a weird situation: It’s 2.30pm, and you are scrabbling to find a front page story for the Birmingham Mail, which goes to press at 4pm. Nothing has happened so you are clutching at straws trying to find any old crap to drag into a story. But what’s this? Breaking news: reports of an explosion at National Exhibition Centre. You need to write the story in 250 words, being mega careful of style rules, name spelling, etc. Apparently if you spell a single name wrong in any of your NCTJ examinations you fail the entire course.
Now we are in a simulation of a real news room, and the pressure is on. The three workshop leaders are prowling around, barking out information as it comes in. First a clip from Sky News: an explosion, and an unnamed witness claims emergency services are on the scene. Quickly extract an eye-catching opening paragraph from the scant details. Apparently some people are injured.
Here is a Wikipedia printout of some facts about the NEC, that should fill up the word count a bit. But wait, a bus driver on the radio is claiming that he heard the bang nine miles away – wow, that’s a bit bang. What’s he saying? Write it down, get a quote. Here’s a map of Birmingham: look how far away the bus driver lives.
Now there is a rumour that there is a busload of school children unaccounted for. And a Press Association general alert is out. They report that a local BBC radio station is receiving calls about the explosion; no further details available. We go to press in one hour.
Now a bloke is on the radio going on about how he was having a fag outside a hospital and he saw some people suffering serious cuts arrive by ambulance. “It’s like a war zone,” he blahhed. “You just don’t expect to see this sort of thing.” Another bloke is on the TV stuttering about people running, three or four loud bangs, and apparently the fire exits were blocked up.
Now the traffic news is in and it’s all chaos; roads closed, an accident on the M6, bus routes diverted. And in comes a press release from the West Midlands Police. It tells us the exact time of the explosion, no details about the cause, tells us which hospitals are treating the injured. A lot of half formed information to go in the story... Word count is 20 either side of 250. 35 minutes to press.
A reporter has spoke to the head teacher of the school the missing kids are from (remember them). More information, and some quotes to go in the story. Oh no, those poor kids; nobody can get in touch with them, or their teachers.
Another press release from the police. Deputy Chief Constable Andrew Satterthwaite (remember to spell it correctly, it could cost you your job) is leading the operation. 30 casualties to this hospital, 20 to that one. We are trying to get DCC Satterthwaite on the phone. Make sure you have questions and follow ups prepared. Ok he’s on the phone, and he sounds like his not in the mood to be fucked about.
Other’s in the group have the mobile thrust at them before me and use up all the good questions. What was the cause of the explosion? A gas leak. Are there any truth to the rumours of a terrorist link? Absolutely not. Any news on the missing children? Yes they are fine, they were in another area at the time (no story there – excise all about the kids from your wordcount).
The workshop leader whispered in my ear to ask about the rumours the fire exits were blocked, then as the Constable finished speaking the phone was thrust into my face. “Is there any truth to the rumours that responses were disorganised and fire escapes were blocked?” “NO, NEXT QUESTION,” he shouted, and the phone was whisked away before I could follow up. A dirty trick.
Ok, the deadline has been pulled forward because we are going to press sooner; extra editions are to be printed. You’ve got all the info you are getting. Make sure all the useless crap from the start has been excised and replaced with more complete, up to date info.... And print it. STOP.
Fucking hell, what a stress. How do these daily paper journalists deal with that every day. Halfway through the exercise I realised I was dying for a piss, and zoned out thinking about my bladder. Then I snapped out of it and scraped together a pretty good story.
Then they gave us sandwiches, juice and we all had a lovely chat about it all. I stuffed my face, then stepped out into the rain, with a bag full of handouts and a lot to think about.