“They Laughed When They Heard I Wanted To Be A Journalist But When They Saw My Front Page Headlines…”
(How a trainee reporter on £5,400 a year became a highly sought after strategic copywriter and what it means for your business)
Were you ever offered a careers “chat” at school?
I can remember what teachers at my old grammar school told me as if it were yesterday…
“It’s a very tough profession to get into, Spinks. Have you thought about doing something else?”
Those words from the school’s “careers adviser”, delivered with a snorted laugh and a look which translated to “If I had a pound for every boy who said he wanted to be a journalist…”.
A few teachers were supportive. Others offered little encouragement.
“Being interested in and good at English is one thing. Being a journalist is another. I’m not sure it’s right for you.”
“You have to be an extrovert to be a reporter. There are so many people wanting to be journalists and very few make it.”
Their words might have convinced another 16-year-old student to take off in a different direction.
If anything, it made me even more determined to become a journalist.
If you have an instinct, if you have a vision, if you have a dream – you have to follow it, don’t you? It might even be the reason you do what you do now. The reason you chose to be an entrepreneur or be in business.
However you got to this point, let me guide you through the rest of the story. As it unfolds you’ll find it all falls into place.
So let’s continue…
Arriving at university I knew what was needed besides a degree in English, History and Film – a portfolio of relevant skills and experience.
To start, I taught myself to touch type. I covered each key to hide the letters, symbols and numbers. Then practised. And practised. And practised. Slowly at first, then with more speed. Stage one complete.
Naturally I wrote for the student newspaper. It would be the first thing an editor looked for on your CV.
That wasn’t enough for me.
I also created a magazine for our film society. Spent spare hours at cinemas watching films for a pound to write reviews. Put in cinema listings. Made up competitions. Promoted our film club’s Friday night screenings. Talked excitedly about actors and genres.
It didn’t look anything special but the content had quality.
Here were the first seeds of a career in writing and marketing.
Getting involved in a national campaign to “save” the British film industry taught me about “Crowd”, audience, the value of statistics and the potency of social proof. It also brought reward – a personal “thank you” letter from my favourite film critic, the BBC’s Barry Norman.
Persuading a local radio film critic to help me could be viewed as my first ever JV, or Joint Venture. He would lend me tapes of interviews he’d done with stars like Mickey Rourke. In return, I would promote his station show to the student community. I typed up his interview transcripts and published edited highlights in my movie rag.
Producing the magazine every month gave me early lessons in planning, creativity, design and the power of the image. All the time keeping up with my academic studies.
Getting the magazine out to every campus provided early experience of distribution and marketing.
Early skills intended for a career in journalism. The same skills I would later use as a copywriter and marketing consultant.
It’s funny the way some things work out the way they do.
Naturally the story didn’t stop at university…
… (Though my life did almost come to a full stop during a summer swimming accident in Germany. I nearly drowned. Saved by a German doctor on holiday at the outdoor poolside. How lucky was that?)
But let’s not digress. The story continues.
Stay with me here because what I’m about to share in a moment is relevant to 85 per cent of businesses…
After graduating I signed up at a Kent college to learn shorthand – a critical skill for journalists then and still useful today.
I was the only guy in a class of nine. The tutor Mrs Doyle was an excellent teacher. After months and months of persistence with Pitman New Era, I emerged with a certificate proving I could write at 120 words per minute. You only needed 100wpm for the journalism exams but I like to push myself.
Typing, tick. Shorthand, tick.
Essential skills for a journalist. Valuable early training for a future copywriter.
But as you and I both know…
Having the skills is one thing. Convincing someone you can do the job is another.
Getting a job as a reporter would require some marketing and “selling”.
Did I say I was determined earlier? I probably meant stubborn. Possibly persistent to the point of annoying.
The local Folkestone newspaper was my target. It was where I’d spent much of my childhood.
Every week I would write to the editor. Each letter would follow the same format – “Hello. Read the paper this week. This is what I liked. This is how you could make it better.” Every week the same result. Nothing. Not even a reply.
My chances of becoming a local news reporter were not looking good but I never gave up. I kept writing with naive enthusiasm week after week after week.
Then fate or something similar intervened.
The temping agency keeping me in work at this time knew about my ambitions.
For a bloke to be doing “secretarial” work in the 1980’s was rare. A strange route but it proved to be the key to entering my dream profession.
One day the agency rang. There was a short job going at the local paper… as the Editor’s Secretary. Holiday cover.
I didn’t hesitate. I took it.
One day the editor, also called Gary, called me into his office.
Time to deal with readers’ correspondence. He handed me a pile of letters to go through. As I started to read one letter I recognised some familiar handwriting. It was mine. It was my latest letter to the editor.
I handed the document back to him and said with a smile: “I think this is for you”. When the editor realised who the letter was from he blushed and blurted out in embarrassment “Yes, yes, we, er… yes, we must talk about that some time”.
The editor kept his word. We did have that talk. We both asked lots of questions. We both gave answers as best we could. I told him I’d work for free if it meant a chance to learn the trade. The editor said he’d think about it. No promises. We left it at that.
Two weeks later I received a call…
The 11-minute call that would start my journey as a professional writer and lead two decades later to a career in copywriting and marketing.
The editor made me an offer.
It wasn’t the weeks of work experience I’d asked for. No, he wanted me in as a full-time trainee reporter. And I would get paid! The starting salary? A miserly £5,400 a year. Half what I was earning at the time but I didn’t care. This was what I wanted to do. I took the job.
The result of pure persistence. The reward for promoting what I had to offer again and again.
And this is the bit I wanted to share with you.
This is the thing 85 per cent of businesses forget to do. To keep marketing themselves again, and again and again.
Why do you think the washing powder companies keep putting commercial Ads on the TV? They do it because it makes people go out and buy their products. It works. It makes them profits.
To the big players it’s just commonsense.
If that makes sense let’s continue with the story…
We’ll get to the bit about James Bond and my brush with a Hollywood actress in a moment.
Before that there’s something important to say about the job which launched my professional writing career.
Yes, I was a tabloid newspaper journalist.
But NOT the slimeball phone-hacking-scandal type you might have in your mind.
This was old-school journalism when mobiles were the size of a house brick and only in the hands of executives, sales reps and “Yuppy” traders in The City.
This was working in a town where people knew where to find you at the paper’s side-street office if you got things wrong.
This was a a job based on building contacts, earning trust, doing your research, getting the facts, knowing your patch, understanding your audience, giving them what they want.
When you think about it, journalism and marketing work in a similar way.
The more I reflect on it the more I see that’s the case.
What I don’t agree with is this.
Some people say journalism is a “glamorous” profession. They probably haven’t taken one step near the trade.
Sure, being a journalist has its perks.
And I enjoyed my fair share…
James Bond and The Snowball Fight
… There was a free trip to Switzerland with walking, mountain biking and a hotel with the most comfortable bed in the world.
The tour included a cable car ride to Piz Gloria and it’s restaurant on top of Schilthorn in the Bernese Oberland. You may know it better as arch-villain Blofeld’s research hideaway in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Staff gave the group of journalists a champagne breakfast. We provided them with the entertainment… a spontaneous snowball fight outside as the sun broke hesitantly through thick curtains of cloud.
We were just like kids at school play time. Only this playground was just shy of 10,000 feet above sea level. One thing I can tell you. At this altitude snow, in a ball shape, hits you hard!
It wasn’t my only trip to the Continent…
Taking The £2.6 Million Motor For A Spin
One assignment took me to Germany and I was offered a spin in a vehicle which, at the time in 1995, cost around £2.6 million.
Now, if you’re imagining me behind the wheel of a sleek and stylish sports car around the famous Nürburgring race track you may be disappointed.
There wasn’t a Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari or Maserati in sight.
This was Sennelager, a training camp for soldiers and home to the Challenger 1 battle tank!
It was a beast of a vehicle. Bulky. Noisy. Dirty. A hulk of armour designed for menace. Armed with advanced technology that turned war into gaming. Hitching a ride on one was a perk of writing a series of features about the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, dubbed the Welsh Cavalry because so many of its soldiers are recruited from the Principality.
So much for the Beast. Time for a Beauty…
Up Close And Personal With The Darling Bud Of May
Another job much closer to home was to cover a celebrity visit to a tourist attraction in Dover.
It was my task to interview a young Welsh actress who was starring in the gentle ITV drama “The Darling Buds of May”. The actress who would go on to Hollywood and Broadway success, and marry actor Michael Douglas.
It was, of course, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
She agreed to a quick interview but it would have to be done “on the hoof” – walking through the attraction rather than sitting down.
I asked the simple questions first because I knew there was one question which might cause a problem. At the time the media was obsessed with her private life. It probably still is. The actress was said to be dating a TV presenter. So I had to ask the question. Was she?
It was the only question she wouldn’t answer. Fair play, she brushed it aside with good humour. And it has to be said – she did look gorgeous.
Yes, we did find out the answer anyway.
And, yes, you could say there were some perks to being a journalist.
There were the odd moments of “glamour”.
But the truth is…
These were rare treats.
For the most part, being a local reporter involved week after week of uninspiring routine. Check-in calls with the emergency services, council meetings, parish meetings, minor events and photo captions…
… but you still had to be ready for anything.
Especially on the bigger daily regional papers.
One week talking to the street homeless, the next questioning a cabinet minister or business leader. One moment sitting in a council chamber meeting listening to local would-be politicians waffling on. The next called to a flat with two people found dead.
The really big stories were few and far between. Any journalist worth their salt wanted to work on these.
To get a story in the paper felt good.
To get a page-lead story printed with your “By Gary Spinks” byline on it was really good.
To get THE front page story was something special.
It meant you had the biggest news of the week or day.
It meant the public read what you had produced first. It felt like you were the one responsible for making someone choose to buy the paper from the shelf or rack in the newsagents.
Online media had not yet taken off.
Print was still king.
And when those old teachers saw my name in the paper, with the headline and my story on the cover they didn’t laugh then.
They were pleased for me. Surprised but genuinely pleased.
To be fair, it was a school that celebrated success.
I managed to get a good number of front page stories over the years.
And these were the moments that got you really excited.
Everyone in the office knew how important the top story was. Especially when you were up against the competition. Other papers, TV, radio and “stringers” – freelancers who found stories to flog to the nationals.
It was high-pressure and sharp deadlines got the adrenaline pumping.
You had to work fast and then faster. Multi-task. Work in a way you weren’t even sure you could. And then sit back and enjoy the result.
Front page headlines…
“Fighting To Survive”
“Mother’s £11,000 Credit In Two Months”
“Exams Bungle Over GCSE”
One big story got me in the national press and had local TV and radio reporters all wanting interviews.
A rare taste of celebrity.
Yet despite all that…
Trust me, most weeks it was far from glamorous.
It was hard graft.
From a trainee reporter on weekly papers earning just £5,400 a year I worked my way up. To senior reporter, deputy news editor, sub-editor and ultimately a specialist writer for two of the UK’s biggest regional dailies.
And when I say newspapers, let me make one thing clear.
These were nothing like the feeble freebie rags you may get shoved through your front door by a spotty teenager today. These were the days of proper community papers. Quality papers. Jam-packed with news, feature-length articles and regular campaigns.
I was taught by the best.
My first news editor used to work on the Daily Mirror.
Paula would send back your copy again and again unless she judged it ready. One time she made a reporter re-write a simple photo caption FIVE times before she let it pass because it didn’t include all the information. That made the rest of us laugh. But not for too long. We knew it could be our turn next.
To me, Paula looked and sounded a bit like the sadly departed agony aunt Claire Rayner. Fantastic journalist but you wouldn’t want to get on her bad side. She was both fierce and fearsome.
There were exams to take, of course, but everything worth knowing about journalism I learned on the job.
As it happens it proved excellent grounding for a future in copywriting…
How to gather the right information.
How to find the best angle for the story.
How to write big powerful headlines to grab the reader’s attention.
How to insert sub-headings to catch the eye of people who like to scan or flick through the pages.
How to write such a strong opening paragraph or “intro” the helpless reader has little choice but to read on.
How to structure the story, layer in the facts and create a natural, logical flow.
How to use quotes to illustrate and support the facts.
How to write to precise length and sharp deadlines.
How to use simple words and short sentences so even a 78-year-old granny could understand the story. No room for waffle, jargon or fluff.
How to design pages with a visual punch that persuaded people to stop, look and take note.
How to caption pictures (knowing this increases attention to the page – something most marketers miss)
How, where and when to use photos for maximum effect.
In a nutshell.
The same critical skills required by the expert marketer.
The same skills which helped me as a freelance journalist to write with expertise about all sorts of subjects – from property to politics, energy to environment, wine to wildlife.
The same skills applied when I moved on to be a mentor, coach, trainer and consultant – working across education, charity and business.
The same skills which have allowed me to be my own boss.
Through it all my biggest lesson was this.
The better I got at my marketing, the better my life became.
It wasn’t just about meeting the mortgage repayments, paying the bills or putting food on the table.
I love to travel and earning money has allowed me to explore some amazing parts of the world. Not only in Europe, the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. But also places like Russia, Syria, Lebanon, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Iran.
The power of marketing drew me into the world of copywriting.
It wasn’t long before I realised I seemed to have a knack for it. People started asking me to write copy for their businesses. It took off from there.
There are some simple truths journalism can pass on to entrepreneurs, businesses and the world of marketing.
If nobody buys the newspaper, nobody reads the story. However long it took to produce. However brilliant the story might be.
If nobody reads the pages nobody gets the news. The message is lost.
If nobody reads the headline they won’t see the story.
It’s no different in business.
If nobody knows about you there are no leads or prospects.
If nobody reads your story you have no buyers.
If you have no buyers you very quickly have no business.
Journalists know how to sell a story.
How well is your marketing selling yours?
It doesn’t happen by chance.
To reach this level has taken me 27 years of writing for a living…
… Millions and millions of words. Reading scores of books. Study. Practice. Training. Testing. Practice. Research. Analysis. More writing. Practice. Masterminds. Mentoring. Practice.
One day there may be an opportunity to share with you some legendary stories from my journalistic past. Stories like…
… The colleague who was held hostage. The schoolgirl who survived a Greek ferry disaster. The embarrassing incident with a former cabinet minister’s wife. The alarming Channel Tunnel secret which almost got me arrested.
My writing used to help sell newspapers. Today it’s used to serve entrepreneurs and businesses who want something more from their marketing.
Maybe I can help you?