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On the Record: PA editor-in-chief Pete Clifton - I’m still 'properly obsessed' with news

PA editor-in-chief Pete Clifton, 57, tells Press Gazette saving local journalism is “a fight that needs to be won”, about the time he reported a goal that hadn’t happened and the importance of shorthand.

What was your first paying journalism job / big break?

Junior news reporter on the Chronicle and Echo evening newspaper in Northampton. I had worn them down with endless stories about my school, but I actually ended up getting work experience there because my dad did the garden of the managing director.

That was my big break and they ended up giving me a job.

Why did you want to become a journalist?

I loved writing at school and the arrival of the Chronicle and Echo through the door of the family home every night was always a highlight.

Starting with the Cobblers (Northampton FC) or Northamptonshire cricket on the back, and ending up at the front.  But the penny hadn’t really dropped about a career.

I asked a mate at school what he wanted to do, when we were about 14, and he said “a reporter, you get to meet loads of people and write about them”. From that moment my mind was made up – I don’t know what my mate ended up doing, but it turned out to be the right call for me.

What is it you enjoy most about journalism?

That’s changed down the years. It used to be getting out and reporting, or covering sport, meetings loads of people and getting on the phone to file copy. And that could be quite a task.

I remember one Blackpool v Northampton Town game where I had to file 50 paragraphs of running copy down the line to the copy-taker, and it was a 0-0 draw. At the end of the game the Sports Editor came on and asked for “a quick eight pars of analysis”.

These days, I love having brilliant teams of journalists around me, and the thrill of a breaking news story will never subside.

What is the one thing you couldn’t do without as a journalist?

Shorthand. I can still do a half-decent note, and it can be very handy for a quick quote we want to send out, or to capture something completely mad someone has said at a meeting.

And, of course, there’s no point applying to be a general reporter at PA without it – completely indispensable for court reporting, comments on a doorstep, phone calls in the office.

Even if you can record something you’ve still got to listen to it back, when you could be reading it straight from your notebook.

Away from work, where do you get your news?

Anywhere I can, I’m still properly obsessed. Checking the PA wires on my phone, national newspaper websites, BBC, Sky, ITV, and my local Maidenhead Advertiser.

What piece of work are you most proud of?

In my early days I kept in close touch with a family whose son was fighting in the Falklands War. He ended up being one of the last people to be killed before the Union flag went up at Port Stanley.

Getting the interview with the parents soon after they’d found out was difficult. But they spoke to me because they trusted me, which I think underlines the importance of local journalism.

In slightly more recent times – and if you can call it “a piece of work” – I’d probably say launching the BBC Sport website, and all the things we’ve done over the past couple of years to transform PA’s services to customers.

What’s your biggest mistake / regret as a journalist?

My biggest mistake was filing a “goal flash” to the Extel Sports agency when it wasn’t a goal – and news of the “goal” immediately went out on national TV and radio.

I clearly hadn’t been paying attention and probably should have been sacked, but I got a spectacular, expletive-filled tirade from the desk instead. I still get a cold sweat thinking of it now.

It does mean that if someone makes a mistake these days, I can always assure them that I’ve done worse.

Professionally, my biggest regret is moving inside to be a sub and then an editor a bit too soon. It’s been fun and rewarding, but you can’t quite beat being out and about.

If you could change one thing about the UK media industry today, what would it be?

I feel very nostalgic about the thriving local newspaper industry that was around when I started off.

Covering every crown court, magistrates court, inquests, council meetings; filing a stop press cricket score to the final edition after 3pm, “Sports Pink” reports finished at 4.50pm on a Saturday and on the streets at 5.30pm.

But you can’t turn back the clock and I admire the way regional and local publishers are fighting the good fight, re-inventing their propositions and looking at new ways to fund local journalism.

I don’t think people’s interest in local news has gone away, so it’s a fight that needs to be won.

How does being editor of a news agency differ from, say, editing a newspaper?

We are always on a deadline, 24 hours a day, which is different to a newspaper – though I guess every paper has a website now which can face similar “always on” pressures.

The public is one step removed from PA, because our content is provided to media organisations for them to publish. So we have to focus on the needs of our media customers and make sure our services are changing to meet their – and their audiences’ – needs.

There’s also a lot of pressure to make sure we get our facts right, because our content will end up on countless outlets in the UK, Ireland and around the world.

We don’t have our own consumer-facing website, so historically we didn’t have access to real-time data on how PA content was performing – but these days we have some pretty neat ways to track where our content appears.

If we see lots of it broadcast, and published in print and online, we know we’ve got it right.

Are news agencies still relevant in the age of citizen journalism by smartphone?

They are more important than ever. There is so much nonsense recycled on social media, half truths that become common currency and ill-founded rumours that turn into breaking news too soon.

The role of an agency like PA is to establish the facts (or non-facts) and tell our hundreds of customers as quickly as possible. With so much noise, it’s absolutely vital to have news sources that can be trusted. I think the familiar call in a newsroom – “it’s on PA” – is as reassuring as it’s always been.

What’s the funniest / most outrageous thing you’ve heard in any newsroom?

I remember the day the Extel Sports agency merged with PA Sport and the two teams met up rather uneasily in the Fleet Street newsroom of PA for the first time.

One of the former Extel copytakers had to be hauled out and sent home almost immediately amid cries of horror – but for a jaw-dropping reason I couldn’t possibly reveal here.

These days, the laughs we have in the PA newsroom – even in the heat of battle, and often about very inappropriate things – help make the job worthwhile.

What is your top tip for aspiring journalists?

If you are going for a job: no spelling mistakes in your CV, make sure you know the day’s news agenda, have some extra story ideas, and do your homework on the company you want to work for.

They all sound simple, but they still happen at interviews I do, even with really senior candidates. “I’m sorry, I’ve been travelling here for the interview and haven’t had time to check the news”, isn’t going to wash, I’m afraid. And a CV with a spelling mistake goes straight in the bin.

Pictures: PA

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