Monday, 29 March 2010


A huge portrait of Rupert Murdoch greets staff as they travel up the escalator and go past the water feature into News International's headquarters. You know who's boss in Wapping. Then, as they walk further inside, there's an old printing press and various famous front-pages of The Times, The Sun and News of the World - reminiscent of Fleet Street's glorious past. But no time for sentiment here. There's a newspaper to produce.

I picked a pretty good week to be working at The Sunday Times. It had just published an investigation that led to the suspension of three MPs for lobbying claims, a paywall pricing structure was announced to save online journalism and it was the only Sunday quality paper to avoid a year-on-year double digit circulation decline in the latest ABC figures. Of course, it could be seen as a very bad week, with circulation falling 7.58% to 1.12m and pre-tax losses on both Times titles rising to £87.7m.

But the paywall announcement meant all the television cameras were in the office on Friday, which was rather exciting, as someone from ITN was filming right next to my desk! You can see here how I made one report on Channel 4 News on Friday. I'm just left of the Editor, John Witherow, working hard on 00:50-01:03 & 02:29-02:43 at: I was also on ITV News, two left of Mr Witherow at 00:48-00:58, here: Only there for five days and two appearances on national television. Well, I never.

It felt exciting to be at Wapping [pictured] - a place I've read so much about in journalism books - and I knew I was going to learn a lot from some of the best investigative journalists in the country. I met reporters who I've had lectures about at university, which was rather surreal.

I found myself surrounded by constant discussions between editorial staff and journalists, debating the news agenda and whether a story was good enough. Being in such a talented newsroom meant I picked up lots of skills and ideas just by listening to how other reporters communicated with people on the phone and weighed up ideas with each other.

I'm currently doing a final-year module in investigative reporting at university before I finish this June, so being at The Sunday Times was pretty useful to my studies from a theoretical as well as practical level. I ran basic errands for reporters, as you always do on work experience, such as traveling across London to pick up a book, burning discs of material and sending emails on behalf of others.

But I was also given other tasks such as producing backgrounder briefs on people using online databases, working with various press offices to establish facts, transcribing interviews then analysing them for interesting angles, collating statistics, sorting correspondence and trying to back up certain stories by phoning sources. All the sorts of jobs that a researcher would normally do, and something that's part and parcel of being a journalist too. As I've learnt over the last five years or so - it's not all Redford and Hoffman in 'All the President's Men' - but it can still be just as enjoyable.

There was one specific element of my placement that I maybe wasn't expecing, but actually quite enjoyed. My first day (Tuesday) was quite a slow day - as you might expect for a Sunday newspaper - so I was basically asked by the newsdesk to look for stories. Just look for stories. I must say I was a little daunted starting from scratch at Britain's biggest-selling quality newspaper, but got to work and quite enjoyed the challenge. I eventually picked up a few leads from often-untapped sources such as university newspapers, Freedom of Information request websites and the hyperlocal press.

This meant I was able to suggest a number of ideas to specialist journalists who were able to pick them up and investigate. You often read in job descriptions that media organisations need people who can bring in 'off-diary' stories, and that's something I've been learning about throughout university and on placements. It's knowing the right people and knowing where to look. Churning out press releases and rewriting local newspaper stories is certainly not a common attribute of The Sunday Times. They want better than that.

The amount of time reporters have to generate stories means they can go into more detail and produce better journalism. It made me think that if you work on a local paper and must produce five stories every day, what time is left for investigative journalism? Even being sent out to a court case means you'll only get one story in print - and that might fall through - but what is better: gambling one reporter on a potentially excellent court case or getting them to rewrite half a dozen press releases? I'd go for the former. Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.

Placements at The Sunday Times are hard to come by. I've been told that by many people, so organised mine 14 months in advance last January and was looking forward to it for a while. Beforehand, I often found it strange how such a large team could be responsible for just one paper every week - especially if you compare it to staffing on a local publication.

But by observing the depth of research required on every story and seeing the lengths reporters go to, I realised how much effort goes into the final product. It was great to spend a week with some of the best investigative journalists in the country and see the final product of their work on Sunday. A good team effort.