(UPDATE: Tim Dowling you’re in luck – Hackney Gazette is looking for a chief reporter…)
The Guardian has kicked the year off by sending its crack team of feature writers off to explore their dream jobs.
Imagine Press Gazette’s surprise when Tim Dowling – a writer sans journalism training – admitted to secretly hankering a desire to trade in his comfortable wage and two or three pieces a week for a bash as a local reporter, conducting death knocks and cranking out copy for a miserly £15,000.
‘I have always harboured dreams of having the benefit of training and a long apprenticeship,’Dowling wrote.
‘A day’s work experience as a reporter on the Hackney Gazette wasn’t going to provide either, but it might give me some sense of what I’d missed.”
On presenting himself to editor, Malcolm Starbrook, Dowling found it ‘immediately dispiriting’to discover that had he been a prospective employee he wouldn’t have been taken on.
‘Successful recruits have usually already completed an accredited course and have a minimum shorthand rate of 100 words a minute, as opposed to my zero.
‘There is no shortage of applicants, even though the pay is terrible. ‘We can afford to be quite tough at the interview stage,’ says Starbrook.”
Presumably, the fact that ‘Starbrook’ becomes ‘Starbuck’ halfway through the article would also be a reason not to hire him.
Dowling is then dispatched with reporter Victoria Huntley to follow up a story from the previous week about a man who doused himself in petrol and set himself alight in front of his estranged wife and their two children: ‘Feeling the blood drain from my face. I want to go home already.”
‘I’m hoping we’ll fail to find anyone to talk to. The police haven’t released the dead man’s name, and the details are sketchy. It’s the sort of story that, if it wasn’t reported by the Hackney Gazette, wouldn’t be reported at all.
‘When we arrive at the road in question, we find a pile of flowers and cards. Several of the cards mention a man’s first name, but they all spell it differently. Undeterred, Huntley picks a house opposite the flowers and knocks.
‘When she gets no answer, she tries the next one along. A woman comes to the window, then the door. She is barefoot, wearing a blue bathrobe and holding a cat. She is, it transpires, the mother of the estranged partner of the dead man. Huntley asks her a few questions in a soft voice, noting down the woman’s answers in elegant shorthand.
”When he said he was gonna do it, we didn’t believe him,’ says the woman. That’s about all I manage to write down. I stare down towards the end of the road, where a bendy bus is passing. The interview will form the basis of next week’s front-page story, headlined HUMAN FIREBALL HORROR.
‘On the way back to the office I realise that although the death knock was a lot of things – grim, tragic and an experience I would never care to repeat – it didn’t seem particularly intrusive. The woman seemed quite keen to explain things.”
Dowling then returned to the newsroom to work on a far duller sounding story about a film project- but such is the life of a local reporter: tragedy for breakfast then tedium for lunch.
‘Then I kick a wire under my desk, accidentally unplugging four computers, including mine. I try to log back on using a succession of passwords suggested by colleagues, eventually locking myself out of the system. IT has to be called and I decide I have delighted the Hackney Gazette long enough.”