Lessons from the Field

I was 16 years old, and had just moved from the Netherlands to London. It was a long summer holiday, I didn’t know anyone in London and I had nothing to do. So I ended up writing an article about the only thing I knew anything about: Dutch cricket. My dad rewrote it. Then I sent it to The Cricketer magazine. Soon afterwards I got a typewritten letter from the editor, offering me £30 for the piece. Suddenly, I was rich. It was July 1986, and it was my debut as a professional journalist.

On my 25th anniversary in our proud profession, I hope I’ve got better. My dad doesn’t rewrite my articles anymore (my wife does). And yet as a journalist, however old you get, you always feel you are labouring in the dark. That’s mostly because this is a profession with barely any professional education. If you want to become a lawyer or doctor, you spend years in graduate school learning how. In journalism, all I got was a degrading four-month course in a dead English seaside resort where I woke up each morning feeling more stupid than the day before. Otherwise hardly anyone ever taught me anything. I wasn’t even told how to hack phones. In journalism, you are expected just to pick things up. Here is what I have picked up these 25 years:

Have a memory. Typically, the person who taught me most about journalism was a politician. One boiling afternoon in 1995 I went to the House of Commons to interview the Labour MP Frank Field. (He is now “poverty tsar” in David Cameron’s government.)

We sat outside in the bar by the river. “I wanted to ask you about pensions,” I said. “I was going to ask you about that,” said Field.

It was too hot, and we ended up talking about journalism instead. Most journalists (I seem to remember Field saying) didn’t know the history of their field. When the minister said, “We have a whizzo new scheme for social security,” everyone wrote about the scheme as if it really were new. But, Field said, it almost never was. British governments had given some sort of help to poor people for about 400 years. Most schemes had been tried before. If a particular scheme wasn’t law now, that was generally because it had failed at some point in the past. However, said Field, few journalists knew that. They just knew what the minister had said that morning.

Any journalist with a memory was a treasure, said Field. (This applies in all fields of journalism. Seymour Hersh, who covers intelligence for The New Yorker, is an example.) After that, I tried to be that journalist. On a shelf in my office are nearly 150 indexed notebooks containing every interview I’ve done since 1998. If someone said something to me once, I can often find it. I’ve tried to build a memory. Then last year I switched to this general column. At a stroke, my specialist knowledge was rendered almost useless. Still, I tried.

Avoid press conferences. A corporate executive once asked me over a drink in a bar: “Why are journalists so stupid?” It was a serious question. He explained that when he read an article about a topic he knew, it was usually wrong. I said: “That’s because you’re always lying to us. We’re left having to guess the truth.” I pointed out that the reason we were talking in the bar was that if we had met at his company’s offices, he’d have had to tell me half-truths in the presence of a press officer. The problem is worse now that journalists are outnumbered about six-to-one by public relations folk.

In journalism you are usually writing about people who are lying to you. They will keep lying, but at least we can waste less time listening to them. I eventually economised by cutting out press conferences, where not only do you listen to lies, but you listen to the same lies as your rivals.

Only one idea per article. I once offered an editor an 800-word article. I told him various brilliant points I wanted to make. He pretended to listen patiently, and then said: “Most readers can remember only one idea from an article.” Just make one good point, he said, and buttress it with facts and anecdotes. If an hour later the reader can remember your point, that’s a triumph. Since then I have tried to make only one point per article, though not today.

But the best advice I ever got from another journalist wasn’t about journalism. “When you’re in a bar or on the train, and you stand up to leave,” he told me, “always look back at your seat. Often you’ll see something you’ve forgotten, like your bag.” He was quite right.


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