Monday, 8 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 5 & 6

In which the British Government have a morbid Friday and I have a morbid Monday

Day 5 at the office was actually Friday - last week - and I would have posted if I had not been out all this weekend. By Sunday I was absolutely shattered. Maybe there really is no rest for the wicked!

After the stress and adrenaline rush of Thursday, I was feeling considerably more relaxed on Friday. I don't normally take Tube trains in London as I don't like London Underground - it's dirty and smelly and crowded and puts me in a terrible mood. Unfortunately for me, it's the best way to get to the newspaper offices, so I have no choice but to use it. I was feeling so relaxed, however, that it genuinely didn't bother me. And not having to be at the office until ten or half-ten means that I avoid the rush-hour crowds by the time I have to get on a Tube train.

Plus, I was musically entertained by these guys - who played a lively foot-stomping Irish jig to the whole carriage:
...they didn't seem to mind me blatantly taking photos of them as they believed (in their words) that they were very photogenic! Hmmm...

Thanks to my two big deadlines being out of the way, I was able to finish fact-checking that Andorra travel article written by a freelancer... only to find that the editor had checked it as the deadline for submission (for publication) had actually been Thursday. So I was a day late, and I didn't even know as I hadn't been told. Oops.

Aside from another article for the Travel department I was given to fact-check (fortunately this one had fewer errors to correct than the Andorra article, so it was much easier) the editor asked me to do some research for his column - about fatality statistics. I had to find out total figures, from the last 20 years(!) of deaths on Britain's roads by different vehicles, deaths on Britain's railways, and deaths by terrorist attacks both inside and outside the UK. Surely this should be an easy task, I thought - our government will publish these on the Office of National Statistics website, right?

Unfortunately for our government, they were having a bad day right inside of our very eyes. As I'm sure most of you know, the European elections were on Thursday 4th June (yes, I voted, in case you ask) and while London wasn't holding local council elections (because we did that last year), other parts of the country were. For non-UK readers, the local council elections aren't the same as our General Election - which is our big election equivalent of the Presidential Elections in the US last year - but the local council elections are considered a barometer of the public mood if there was a General Election to be held. Seat after seat fell from the current Labour government to the other political parties, blaring out from the large plasma TV screens all around the office. It was quite exciting to be in the thick of it as the news came in.

Even more surprising was the flurry of high-profile government resignations before the full results had been announced. The "BREAKING NEWS" banner on the TV screen usually just revolves the same two or three news stories for the whole day, but on Friday there were so many resignations flooding in that the "BREAKING NEWS" banner hardly stayed still.

The office was abuzz with excitement. Later in the afternoon Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a press conference and made a speech live on TV, and so shocked was everyone at the surprise government resignations that people actually stopped what they were working on, turned up the volume on the TV screens and listened in silence to what Gordon Brown had to say about it all.

"There's gonna be no-one left in the Cabinet at this rate!" said one of the staff excitedly. Gordon Brown was in a defiant mood though: despite the clamour of the journalists at the press conference to step aside, he refused, even after the fall of some of his biggest generals. To say he - and the Labour party - had a bad Friday is an understatement.

And now, on to Day 6.

My Monday - today - was morbid in a different way. Yes, I was still looking up those death statistics. I actually spent the whole day sifting through various mortality documents from the Government's official statistics body. There were so many documents about road deaths that I ended up simply phoning up the press office at the relevant government body (working at the newspaper means that nobody will speak to me unless they're from their organisation's press office). It took several phone calls before I got through to the correct people, but I was directed to the correct report for road deaths which, fortunately for me, contained more than the 20 years of data I wanted. They were slightly suspicious though, simply because I said I was from the media: they wanted to know who was writing the article, what it was about, when it was due to be published, and for which publication.

Rail death figures were slightly more tricky. The relevant data was spread over four separate reports, so I had to collate all of it in a collection of Excel spreadsheets. This is where my accountancy training came in useful: everyone who has ever worked in any Finance job becomes an Excel spreadsheets whizz-kid sooner or later as you use the damn thing so much. Sorting out a jumble of statistics in an Excel workbook was therefore something I was quite used to doing...

And then I came undone. After plenty of ringing around, some bloke at the Home Office told me they don't keep statistics on deaths by terrorism. WHAT?!?!? How can that be true? What about all those newspaper articles with all the terrorism statistics and so on? Isn't ANYONE keeping a record every time it gets reported in the papers? Doesn't sound right, does it?

I sifted through an entire 400-page report on "Causes of Death in the UK 2007/2008", but that didn't help. Not to mention that I really didn't know there are so many ways to die. I swear it - the causes of mortality ran into the thousands. It was really quite discomforting. Even more discomforting was finishing the report without the information I wanted. It had seemed so promising, only to come to nothing about an hour later.

Quite by accident - and contrary to what that bloke at the Home Office said - I discovered that the number of deaths in the UK due to terrorist activity IS in one of their reports: it's actually a very tiny statistic in one of the crime reports - an appendix called "Homicide in England and Wales" or something equally unpleasant.

Finding deaths due to terrorist activity outside the UK was virtually impossible. I'm SURE there must be a report with the stats available somewhere: I refuse to believe that no-one in the Government's statistics department is keeping a record of these things. However, I couldn't find one, so I had to do what that guy in the Press Office of the Home Office suggested: rely on Google and look up newspaper articles on the web. Yeah, thanks mate(!)

I think this was even more unpleasant than reading the homicide and mortality reports. I'm not going to go into some of the things I read about Brits being killed as a result of terrorism abroad. I gave up after a while as you can't possibly find every single article ever published in the last 20 years about Brits dying in horrible ways abroad and determine whether it was a terrorist act or not - and I'm not sure I'd want to, either. By the time I finished up at the office today (8pm) I was so sick of reading about death and dying I swear I never want to look at another fatality statistic ever again.

On a lighter note though (because I don't want to finish on something so morbid) in the shiny marble-floored atrium just outside our newspaper's office workspace, there was an exhibition being held for London's artists to see which ones could do the most creative things with old, used newspapers. I couldn't take pictures of all of them without it being obvious what I was doing, so here is one that I quite liked - a stool made entirely out of old newspapers. There were other works exhibited too, most notably newspaper jewellery and statues. The most impressive piece was an actual ballgown made from used newspapers, but unfortunately I don't have a picture of it. So I thought I'd share this one instead.

Thanks for all your comments and support, it's been a real pleasure receiving them even if I don't always have time to respond to them - I will definitely reply when I can, so do keep 'em coming!
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  1. That's great they've got you writing up articles on your placement - good for you! Is it helping you decide on what to do? I am on the tube at 6:30 so the other side of the rush hour which is equally as peaceful! I hope the strikes are called off tomorrow!

    On the morbid front, did you read about the 20 year old who was randomly killed by that 50 year old man for no reason? Sometimes I wonder how much of what is printed in the Metro can be true... Good luck with your final week!

  2. Good grief! No, I didn't see that at all. There's some really sick people around, and that's an understatement.

    I'm with you on that one - I hope the Tube strikes are called off tomorrow as well! Normally Tube strikes don't affect me as I walk everywhere, but this place is a bit too far for me to walk. I've got the bus there before and it takes ages, so the Underground really is my only option. I agree, travelling outside of "rush hour" is far more pleasant.

    Mind you, if you need to be on the Tube at 6:30AM tomorrow... how come you're still out of bed?!?! :-D

  3. I love these updates! I feel like this whole experience could be a book in itself - or a classroom in which I'm getting a behind the scenes look some of the real life aspects of journalism. Keep them coming - love reading them!

  4. Hiya Laura!

    So good to hear from you again! Glad you like the updates. I was hoping to provide as much insight as possible - too often careers advice documents simply don't tell you enough of what a job is REALLY like, and despite all the things I've read on journalism, there were still some things about the role I didn't know. Let me know if there's anything else you'd like to know!

  5. Great update...and I gotta say...I love music on the subway..make the time pass a little more quickly!

  6. Wow ... it sounds like your new job is fascinating and tiring and exhilarating. As I read your account, a couple of things came to mind ... the first was that taking the tube is so Eco-friendly. I wish we had something like it here (North Carolina, U.S.). The second thing that I was struck by was how things seem to come to us when we need them. It seemed all but impossible to get the information you needed and then ... there it was! Fabulous!

    Thanks for the updates ... and continued best wishes!

    Small Footprints

  7. Optimistic Pessimist:
    Glad you like it! Thanks for your comment - and music on the Underground is always great :-)

    Small Footprints;
    Hello again! You know, I never thought of the Tube as eco-friendly, but I suppose you're right. Personally I prefer to walk everywhere, but walking an hour and a half from the train station to work wasn't practical :-) hope yoi're well!

  8. Apologies, I meant to say "hope you're well" but this bloody iPhone keypad is so tricky :-) Incidentally, this isn't my new job - it's just a fortnight of work experience, which I'll be finishing on Friday.