THE feeling of bewilderment I can still remember vividly.
A harassed looking reporter had come down to reception at Thomson House to greet me on my first day of work experience at the South Wales Echo, circa 1995. Up the steps we went, through the double doors, turned right, walked past the library hutch and then….
Given it was still only 8.30am I was expecting to see office life unfolding as I’d always imagined it would at what, to a recent university graduate, was still something of an ungodly hour. You know, a few early arrivals hanging up coats, computer screens still largely black, blinds flapping at an ajar window, kettle boiling. In short, the sights and sounds of a workplace wearily cranking into gear.
Poor naive fool. I can only equate crossing the threshold into the newsroom to walking off an aeroplane on arrival at a tropical destination, the blast of heat symbolising the level of activity across crammed desks buckling under the weight of stored newspaper copies and stained tea cups.
What a buzz. You had designers shouting for ‘a string of nibs for page 12’ mixed with journalists frantically trying to gather information by telephone to meet the 9.30am ‘off-slate’ deadline. Everywhere you looked there were correspondents punching away at keyboards with facial expressions that suggested they were actually trying to decode an explosive device about to blow up half of Cardiff (now that would have been a story!)
Immediately I felt like the sap on an army training exercise who oversleeps, misses breakfast and turns up on parade bumbling and dishevelled.
And yet without having even sat down, without having even exchanged awkward introductions with preoccupied hacks or desk bods already on their third coffee of the day, I had learned something.
This was how a newsroom functioned. This truly was work experience.
A quarter of a century later and the Trinity Mirror title that gave me such a precious schooling in the realities of coalface journalism is now under the umbrella of a company – Reach plc – proposing to close dozens of newsrooms across the country, even after the Covid crisis is over, and to require just 25% of its workforce to be based in an office.
Reach will divide its human resources three ways; those who will work permanently from home (primarily production staff), those who will divide their time roughly 50-50 between home and the office (journalists predominantly) and a few hardy souls (telesales for example) who will still need to commute every day.
The company points to a staff survey which reveals many are perfectly happy with the arrangement, and the few ex-colleagues I have spoken with seem to be on board too.
Reach is keeping open office ‘hubs’ in most of the larger cities where it has a presence. The Media Wales HQ at Six Park Street in central Cardiff – Media Wales now occupies just one of the building’s six floors – is being kept open.
But while investment will be needed to facilitate a formalised remote working environment, the opportunity to slash the costs associated with high street site occupancy is the overwhelming attraction for the UK’s largest publisher.
It has not been difficult to see this coming. In terms of working from home the pandemic forced upon us a situation that in ordinary times was looked upon by many company strategists as unnecessarily radical. So now we know it works, those once skeptical have asked, why go back?
The economic case is as robust as it could possibly be. As far back as August last year a third of media organisations in one study were predicting revenue hits of more than 35%. By the time a post-Covid world genuinely becomes a reality, who knows by how much such projections may have worsened?
In an industry as much bedevilled by uncertainty as any, where Reach have led, others will surely follow.
Yet with all upheavals come winners and losers. While bean-counters high-five, journalism must protect its future – or die.
Like any industry it is nothing without a conveyor belt providing people able to do a wide cross-section of jobs, and do them brilliantly.
At University of South Wales, journalists of the future benefit from the expertise of practitioners and academics who can give them a grounding in core fundamentals through a variety of tailored courses and modules.
But if would-be employers demand students be ‘industry-ready’ by the time they graduate – and USW bases its approach on that very assumption – then there must be a recognition that industry itself has to continue to play its part.
Work placement modules are critical to our students, not just in honing skills and opening eyes to real world challenges but also to building confidence, developing contacts, instilling the highest standards and nurturing collegiate etiquette that can only come with being in people’s physical presence.
Remove the opportunity to spend time in an office, engaging face-to-face with journalists and members of the public, interacting with those in whose footsteps you wish to follow by sitting next to them and seeing at first hand how the job is done, and you strike a hammer blow for the personal and professional instruction youngsters absolutely must be given.
Striving for the best degree possible remains a fundamental staging post on the road to becoming a journalist, but in a fiercely competitive world meaningful work experience on a cv is as much a game-changer in an interview as ever it was. It’s a message, too, that is relentlessly conveyed to each and every USW cohort.
Already, in the last extraordinary year, finding high quality placements in the world of work for our students has become a significantly tougher task, with potential providers, treading water in a world of Zoom meetings, either reluctant or unable to offer anything they – or we – regard as suitably meaningful.
Are we therefore looking at a future that sees students shadowing journalists virtually, or even spending a day sitting alongside them in their converted lofts as they scour social media and dip into Google Hangouts? Is such a scenario even feasible or worthwhile? Do we even need to prepare the journalists of the future for environments that will cease to exist?
As things stand, such questions are almost imponderable.
Work experience, by definition, is something that is supposed to prepare you for the world of work. The South Wales Echo did just that for me 26 years ago.
If the confidence, the social skills, the industry insight, the contacts and the best practice I could only have picked up at Thomson House are one day no longer available, no longer even deemed necessary, then we’ll be entitled to ask: what has the world of journalism become?