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News > Alumni News > Turning Over a New Leaf

Turning Over a New Leaf

Interested in a career in journalism? Owenian, Mervyn Gilbert, details his career experience in this sector and provides some words of wisdom....

Go inside anyone’s house, look inside the chest of drawers and you are likely to find bits of junk that you would immediately consign to the waste bin. Not the owners, though.

To them the bits of ‘rubbish’ are valued items of nostalgia, linked to their past and to be retained come what may.

The home my wife Bernice and I share in Woodford Green, Essex, is no different. Yet what she might describe as important or valuable, I would describe as clutter. She would say the same about some of the items I keep stored and what she might say are taking up unnecessary space.

Let me explain. Resting among the myriad of items are two newspapers.

Some of you Owenians may never have heard of these two publications, but I can tell you they have played a significant role in the media world.

The Sporting Life, once published by the mighty Odhams organisation, was once the ‘bible’ of the horse racing and betting fraternities. It was a must read and a wonderfully produced daily paper, of which I, for my sins, was an avid reader.

I have kept the last edition (dated May 12, 1998), which I treasure.

Similarly, hidden among the rubbish (my wife’s description) in my bedside drawer is the July 10, 2011, issue of what was once the biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, the News of the World. That, too, is the last edition of this publication.

Other names from the past are the Daily Herald, News Chronicle (absorbed by the Daily Mail), the Daily Sketch, Sunday Pictorial and two evening papers, the Star and Evening News.

Similarly, loads of regional titles and glossy magazines have, over the past 20 years or more, gone to the Fleet Street in the sky.

The press industry is no different to commerce in general. Everything has its day and when the time comes, the pages close for the last time. Financial constraints are normally the reason, with advertising prices rising and readership declining. Consumer tastes are changing and more and people are simply going on line to find out what’s going on the the big wide world, assuming they can’t fine enough on television. There are also constant  changes in the business structure of a particular sector.

According to figures I found on line (even at 80, I use the internet constantly), circulation of printed newspapers dropped by 40% between 2010 and 2016, while over the past two years the leading nationals saw a drop of 20% in their readership.

Expenditure on daily papers dropped by £9.9bn in 2005 to just over £3bn in 2021. And that’s allowing for the vastly increased cover price between those years.

When I was a junior reporter (more than 60 years ago) on the leading local newspaper group in the country, there were no such things as mobile phones or computers and the internet was a pipe dream. Note books were a necessity when interviewing anybody, as was shorthand – a means of abbreviation so you could save vital quotes as your subject was in full flow. Some even used tape recorders, allowing them to play back the contents of a conversation so that nothing was missed.

While Fleet Street, running between St Paul’s and Charing Cross in central London, is still recognised as the generic name for the newspaper industry, the number of publications to which this location was home has declined out of all recognition. In addition to the aforementioned newspapers that have ceased publication, the Daily Mail and Daily Express, which once had major offices in this street, have moved elsewhere.

One structure which is a throwback to the past is the red brick building towards the Law Courts which still carries the name of the Dundee Courier, although there is no longer activity here connected with this Scottish daily, still published six times a week as a hand-held newspaper.

What of my own career? As I said earlier, I began as a junior reporter in Woodford Green, just a mile or so from where my wife and I now live. I lasted a year, working on the weeklies (or should I say weaklies?) Woodford Times and Loughton Express & Independent. I later learnt my short-term employment was largely because the newspaper group thrived on juvenile, cheap labour, so when I asked for a rise, it was my time to go. Another youthful hack would be  waiting in the wings to take my place.

I moved on – not on newspapers, but some of the leading trade magazines of their time, including the Fish Trades Gazette, where I wrote about , uunsurprisingly, fish & chip shops and fishmongers; AdWeekly, which covered the press and advertising businesses; Caterer & Hotelkeeper; The Grocer; and Cash & Carry Management.

I held senior positions on all of these, including three editorships.

Much as you will learn from your editorial tutors about writing and expressing yourself in the best way to achieve your goals, I have always believed that innate ability is, by its very nature, something with which you have been blessed.

Without sounding boastful, I have always been able to string a few words together – something I derived from my dad, who used to write letters to the local  council from our neighbours in Hackney if they felt aggrieved about anything. I also did well in French and German.

Maths is a different thing. I could always add up and subtract in an instant and wasn’t too bad at algebra, but when it came to geometry and trigonometry, I was hopeless!

For yourselves, do take advantage of the many journalism courses that are available. If you didn’t already know, there are 10 establishments in the UK whose details are listed on-line.

One last piece of advice: When interviewing anybody, famous or otherwise, don’t be reluctant to ask what you feel needs to be asked, even though you may feel you are possibly overstepping the boundaries. Pussy footing won’t get you what you want and your article will be much the weaker for that. And remember not to mix singular and plural in the same sentence. It’s something that still gets me wild when I occasionally read through a daily paper.

Good luck in your career!

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