One way or another, I knew I always wanted to work with words (with the minor – and notable – exception of that period when I was 6 when I decided my talents lay in designing fashion for guinea pigs… what?).
Because, obviously, Making Things Up was not a proper job as far as the younger version of me was concerned, I spent the greater part of my childhood believing I was going to be a journalist when I grew up. It was either that or go into advertising copy-writing (and here I refer you to my earlier point about “Making Things Up”).
I actually did my work experience at a newspaper: the Llanelli Star, if you must know. It’s one of those local tabloids that has had a slightly creaky little office which smells of photocopy toner and instant coffee, on a street somewhere near the station as long as anyone can remember. Most towns have them, usually called the Something Enquirer, or the Wherever Bugle. My hometown actually has one too – the Star was not it, but then I went to school in Llanelli, so that’s where I was sent.
Somewhere in those archives, there’s still a couple of stories with my by-line. You’d have to look incredibly hard to find them, but they’re there. One was, I think, something to do with Terry Griffiths (who I still remember to this day as the man who kept a stack of signed photographs in the boot of his car) and one was vaguely connected to a rest home of some description. I think. Maybe. As you can see, my knack for recalling detail and my razor-sharp insight would have made me a spectacular investigative journalist.
Anyway. I came out of university and ended up Not Becoming A Journalist at all, despite being offered an internship at a more-than-slightly disreputable periodical (and no, I’m not telling). The closest I came to it, in fact, was working in one of the larger buildings on Fleet Street. I hated the job, and I think it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the job hated me, and our office was a boxy little partitioned space, but I loved that building.
It was just across the road from St Brides – the journalists’ church – and close to the Reuters building, which wasn’t abandoned by them until 2005. It had a sweeping staircase which wound around the original lift: creaky security gate and brass push buttons and all. The office was only on the first floor, but sometimes I used to ride the lift up and down anyway. Built as the headquarters for Thomas Cook in the 19th Century, the building had since been home to the Guinness Book of Records and who knows what else – but, with the exception of working there and studying Pravda at school, that was the closest brush I ever had with grown-up journalism.
Not to say I ever lost interest in it – and that’s why I so wanted to see Page One, a documentary covering one year in the life of the New York Times, as the editorial team and their staff try to come to terms with the possible collapse of mainstream media, the digital revolution, paid-for content, bloggers, WikiLeaks, falling revenues, iPads, media corruption and the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq (and a war which, arguably, one of their reporters helped to create). I was particularly taken with the Media Desk Editor, Bruce Headlam, whose cries of “Did you send it?” and whose utter bemusement over the television coverage of Iraq (“How do you cover the end of a war that’s not ending?”) were only matched by his approach to wordcounts (“Yeah. That’s not happening.”) and his explanation for the giant “Citizen Kane” poster on his office wall.
More than anything, it’s a fascinating portrait of a newspaper which isn’t currently embroiled in the all-too-familiar scandals and political point-scoring of UK ones. Any political agenda it has is completely lost on me, not being American or as actively political as I could be. Instead, viewed as a complete outsider, it becomes an interesting look at not just how a newspaper functions in the perceived Age Of Free, but what drives the people who keep the wheels – and the presses – running.