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Mirror’s reopened trainee scheme: It is ‘a factory of talented young journalists’

By Alan Selby

When Press Gazette revealed that Trinity Mirror was bringing back its training scheme this year the decision was applauded across the industry. A brief look at its 30-year history and it’s not difficult to see why.

The scheme has nurtured the talents of many of the country’s best-known journalists, from Nick Davies and Alastair Campbell through to Tom Newton-Dunn and Ros-Wynne Jones, the list of alumni reads like a who’s who of the British press.

Since 1993, when ex-trainee and then chief executive David Montgomery last relaunched the scheme, four out of every five trainees have gone straight into jobs on national papers.

The success rate secured the Mirror’s reputation for running “the Barcelona of the training schemes”, according to current deputy managing editor Aidan McGurran.

There was, then, an inevitable mix of shock and anger when ex-chief executive Sly Bailey axed the programme in 2008 amid a series of cost-cutting measures.

And interest in the scheme is reflected in the fact more than 500 hopefuls have applied for one of the three positions on offer.

While its return was hailed as a positive move, the state of the industry today bears a strong resemblance to 2008 – revenues are still in decline, and jobs continue to be lost, particularly at Trinity Mirror. So why was the scheme axed in the first place, and why has it now been relaunched?

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Knee-jerk reaction

McGurran says the decision was ultimately borne out of management’s recognition that axing the scheme had been extremely counterproductive.

“We’ve been banging the drum to bring the scheme back in some form for quite some time, and obviously there’s a change in the top of the company, and they’ve fortunately, and quite wisely, facilitated that…

“There’s a desire to invest in the future, and the trainee programme historically has produced some of the best journalists around. We’ve been deprived of that for the last few years, and I think we’re quite keen to get that back on track.”

The decision to axe the trainee programme was not an easy one for those responsible, but was ultimately a mistake, he added: “What you’ve got to bear in mind is that in 2008 the world economic situation fell off a cliff, and newspapers were particularly hard hit.

“It was very sudden – especially the advertising revenue, it absolutely fell off a cliff… I can understand, given the severity of the economic situation at the time why that decision was taken.

“But I think, looking forward, and in terms of the costs involved and the actual benefits to the titles, and us as a company, I think it probably was a bit knee-jerk.”

Former Mirror Group political editor David Seymour described the decision to axe the scheme in rather more forthright terms, and said he was thrilled Trinity Mirror’s new management had decided to bring it back.

“It was absolutely ridiculous. I mean, it was typical… One of the first things that goes – ridiculously – when there’s a recession and cutbacks seems to be training, and bringing on and helping young people who are the future lifeblood of the industry. I thought it was outrageous when the Mirror stopped their involvement with the scheme.”

False economy

Daily Mirror reporter David Collins (pictured) won News Reporter of the Year in 2012 for his role in the conviction of Milly Dowler’s killer. He was one of the final Mirror trainees to be taken on, in 2007, and says management made a huge mistake when they closed the scheme a year after he started his training.

“I was stunned when they did it. It was ridiculous, because it was how the company for years and years got its talent in. I do think there was a massive gap when the trainee scheme shut down. There was a big gap in new talent coming through.”

But he also suggested the scheme’s relaunch showed its value had been recognised, and that the decision reflected positive moves being made by Trinity Mirror’s management, in spite of wider job losses.

“I thought it was brilliant. It was a real sign that the company’s going in the right direction editorially. I’d been saying for years to people that they should bring it back, because you can make it cost-effective, you can make it in a format that fits everyone and it works for the Mirror in 2013.

“But also you can get such great, bright young stars who are keen and hungry for great stories – what newspaper doesn’t want that?”

One of the most well-known trainees is Ryan Parry, whose infiltration of Buckingham Palace and subsequent Mirror front page made headlines in 2003 (see bleow).

Parry is now a senior reporter at The Sun, having left the Mirror last year. He was still a trainee when he broke the story, and agrees that the young talent brought in by the training programme was sorely missed after its closure.

“I’ve always been a big supporter of the Mirror scheme. I was very disappointed when it stopped a few years ago, and I’m very glad that now it’s returned… It was a false economy, because they just looked at a financial sheet with x amount of thousands next to the graduates who were coming in, when in fact they were getting young people on a very low wage who were hugely enthusiastic and brought a lot to the newspaper.

“And I think that that was something we were lacking – you need young people to do certain jobs. You need people who are enthusiastic and you can send out there, and they’ll run around, and get the stories that you want. Every news editor needs those kinds of people in a news room.”

‘An invaluable experience’

Tom Newton Dunn, political editor at The Sun, graduated from the Mirror’s scheme in 2000. He said his training was “an invaluable experience” that taught him most of what he knows about news reporting – particularly after he was “thrown in at the deep end” whilst covering the Good Friday agreement and Omagh bombing during his placements at Trinity Mirror papers in Northern Ireland.

He too extolled the virtues of giving young journalists a helping hand in the industry: “Every paper should have a training scheme… It’s a duty to give young people a break. Scrapping them always seems a false economy, when labour costs are so small anyway.”

David Seymour said the training scheme had been “a great feather in the Mirror’s cap,” ever since its first incarnation in Plymouth and paid tribute to the famous names it had produced.

“Apart from anything else it has produced some of the best young journalists of the last 20 years. I mean, you almost don’t want to name names because the implication is that the others aren’t as good.”

He also suggested the benefits of the scheme extended beyond the immediate impact it had on trainees, because their experiences filtered down and inspired young journalists. This was particularly apparent after Parry’s Buckingham Palace scoop.

“I remember the week it all broke – it was in the news for days on TV. He came and spoke to the NUS student media conference, and it was fantastic – there was this guy who wasn’t much older than any of them coming along, and he was like a big hero.”

Features writer Ros Wynne-Jones has won multiple awards for her work since her time as a Mirror trainee, and believes trainee schemes are an important way of ensuring journalism remains accessible to people from all walks of life.

“Media is an industry that is in danger of becoming more and not less elite – especially now that so many pathways into journalism rely on internships favouring young people from better off backgrounds.

“The relaunched Mirror training scheme will be a place where young people from all backgrounds can learn the basics of journalism from some of the best journalists around.”

And she said her training in the tough world of tabloids was the perfect training ground for her journalism career.

She said: “Having now worked for several different papers, I think the thing about the Mirror scheme is that the training for working on a tabloid paper is the hardest you will do.

“The need to express complex ideas in an accessible way is a life lesson for any journalist. I still write for the Mirror, but whoever I’ve written for the training has stood me in great stead – whether in a warzone, a celebrity interview or a 3,000 word feature.”

Nature or nurture?

Former Trinity trainee Alastair Campbell was succeeded by Seymour as political editor in 1993. Campbell said the scheme’s success did indeed owe a lot to “the reputation of the paper, which is what attracted so many applicants for so few positions,” and the “rigorous interviewing process” which he had to endure before making it onto the scheme in 1980.

But he also said it was the training and guidance that made sure trainees were successful – “and, above all, the time spent on local papers then owned by the Mirror Group.”

Campbell’s views reflect a consensus that, while the Mirror was spoilt for choice when it came to selecting trainees, it was the programme of intensive training and regional placements that ultimately drove trainees on.

Tony Johnston was head of training at Trinity Mirror before he took the reins at Press Association’s training outfit when they began running operations at the Trinity Mirror training centre in Newcastle in 2006.

“The key to any successful training scheme is to hire talented people. The Mirror graduate trainees have begun their careers on the Newcastle training course since the early 90s.

“Many will already have done MAs in universities, but our course provides them with a far higher level of practical journalism training. When they reach Canary Wharf, they have a really solid foundation on which to build their careers.”

Aidan McGurran said these benefits were obviously apparent to the 500-plus candidates who applied this year: “It doesn’t surprise me that people are chomping at the bit to get on it, because to be fast-tracked in this way, and to have the training and the experienced staff to mentor them and look after them is an amazing opportunity.”

Emma Pryer, now Showbiz Editor at Love It! magazine, said her training had been a “baptism of fire” which kickstarted her journalism career.

“It definitely opens up doors in your career path. I got headhunted to work at More magazine off the back of being at The Mirror and being a Mirror trainee, and then off the back of that headhunted to work at The Sun.

“With The Mirror training you’re not just on news – you’re on news, features, showbiz… you’re trained in investigative journalism, hard news, soft news, features with dropped intros, real-life stories – you know, the works. It’s just a really thorough all-round training. 

“It is a baptism of fire, absolutely, but I think it’s better to have that early on in your career and have the bar set really high than to go in coasting along in a really easy job and never really being challenged.”

She also said Trinity Mirror’s decision to bring the training scheme back was extremely positive, particularly given the instability of the industry.

“I’m glad that at a time when so many newspapers and magazines are bringing in voluntary redundancies – and just normal redundancies – at a time when the industry’s contracting it’s great that there are still training opportunities out there for young, enthusiastic people. I think it’s a really positive thing.”

Says Parry: “We were all really proud of the Mirror graduate scheme…

“It really was a factory of talented young journalists. I don’t think you have to give it much explanation really. It’s there for you to see what that scheme produces – the proof is in the pudding.”

This year’s successful Mirror Trainee Scheme candidates will follow the same tried and tested route as trainees in previous years: four months’ intensive training in Newcastle before several months working at regional Trinity Mirror titles, and finally returning to Canary Wharf (pictured) for placements across national Mirror titles.

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