Included is a full breakdown on the two key skills of how to interview and how to dig up exclusives. Plus tips on dealing with the mad-masters, the editors; writing a news story; and what the hell to do when a libel writ comes thudding onto your desk.
Bill Coles has been a journalist for 25 years and was The Sun’s New York Correspondent, Political Correspondent and Royal Reporter. He has written for a huge variety of papers from The Wall Street Journal to the Mail, the Scotsman and Prima Baby Magazine.
He has also covered some of the world’s biggest news stories – as well as some of the most bizarre–
- Bill Clinton’s year-long sex scandal with his intern Monica Lewinsky.
- The Boston murder trial of the British nanny Louise Woodward (with five Sun front pages in a row).
- Buying $10,000 of lottery tickets in Miami
- A blind-date with Ivana Trump – in a stretch limo.
- Becoming one of Company magazine’s Bachelors of the Year.
- Flying from New York to the Inca trail in Peru – to eat a giant guinea-pig.
- Posing naked for a Sun centrefold - with nothing but a copy of The Sun to hide his modesty.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Being a Reporter: Ethically, Legally and with Panache
By Bill Coles, Giles Pilbrow
Legend Times LtdCopyright © 2013 Bill Coles
All rights reserved.
HE was an unshaven sports jock, and he'd caught my eye almost as soon as I'd started lecturing the post-grad media students in Johannesburg. Some of the Wits University students were keen. They were scribbling avidly into their jotters as I talked about life on a Red Top newspaper. A couple of them were tired and spent most of the lecture yawning.
But the sports jock was different. He was about twenty-three, a redhead, and he obviously spent a lot of time down in the gym. He was also an accomplished draftsman.
From the first moment that I'd opened my mouth, the sports jock had embarked upon the most elaborate doodle.
Periodically, I'd have a little glance over to see how he was getting on. He was doing just great. Towards the end of the lecture, he'd even started colouring his picture in.
After two hours, plus coffee break, I was spent. I'd given the Wits students a complete taster of what it is to be a tabloid hack.
Up shoots a hand.
It was my friend, the doodler.
"Hi," he says, scratching away at his chin. "Do you ever feel ashamed at what you do?"
Interesting. I'm all for asking punchy questions in a press conference.
Though usually I wait for the other hacks to have asked a few warm-up questions.
I came out swinging.
Because this is what I believe: No, I have never been ashamed by my journalism. No, I am not ashamed to be a Red Top hack. In fact, the very opposite. I'm proud to be a tabloid hack. And, just by the by, I think most Red Top hacks could wipe the floor with their broadsheet colleagues.
I don't have a particular downer on the broadsheets - apart from The New York Times, of which more later.
But what the Wits University lecture made me realise is how much I object to the common belief that Red Top newspapers are just sensationalist, sexist crap that are read by morons. That's particularly so since the post-Leveson witch-hunt, where those worthies from Hacked Off are looking for any excuse to stick it to the tabloids.
This little book is an attempt to redress the balance. It's about life on the Red Tops: how to conduct a proper interview; how to find exclusives; how to deal with the mad-masters, the executives; and how, actually, to go about writing a goddamn tabloid news story.
But it's way, way more than a manual on how to flourish in a newsroom. It also explains the very principles of popular journalism.
And it also happens to be packed with stories. Sensational stories. A lot of them happened to me.
But then the world of the Red Top hack does just happen to be one of the most bizarre places on the planet.
So ... welcome to my world!
Bill Coles, Edinburgh. August, 2013CHAPTER 2
It's October in a cold courthouse in America. By some quirk, you happen to be the only reporter in the room. It's a big case, a murder trial, and it is of much interest to your mad-masters. More to the point, you've got the whole thing to yourself. It's an exclusive.
Of course your rival hacks might try and get the story out of the court clerks and the rest, but in reality, you've pretty much cleaned up.
Except just at the very death, just as they're about to shut up shop for the day, you're joined by another reporter. You don't know this reporter that well. But what you do know is that he's working for a rival paper.
The rival reporter comes in, panting, red-faced. When you shake his hand, it's wet with sweat. He seems pleasant enough.
Stuck in traffic, he says. Been stuck in a jam for the last three hours.
And then, with a certain diffidence, he asks if you'll give him a fill-in.
So that's the question: will you share your exclusive with a reporter from a direct rival?
Well - will you?
AND HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM ...
I asked this question to two separate groups of veteran hacks in Johannesburg - first of all to a team of reporters and then, a week later, to a group of Red Top executives.
Almost to a man - and woman - they said that they'd tell the rival reporter to sling his hook. Go get himself another story.
They'd all be hanging onto their trusty exclusive. "Are you sure?" I asked. "Is that your final answer?"
It was indeed their final answer.
Here's my view. Exclusives come and go. If you've got a really good exclusive, it'll be all over the internet and the radio even before your paper has hit the streets.
But on the other hand ... the world of journalism is absolutely tiny. Even Fleet Street in the UK, with its 13-odd national papers, is pretty small. Within ten years, you will have come across most of the players. And those that you haven't come across, you'll have heard about.
So the question really revolves around this one point: do you want to be perceived as a team-player? As a general good guy?
Or do you want to be seen as a ball-breaker who couldn't give a toss for his rivals, who tramples them 'neath his feet and leaves them coughing and hacking in his dust?
That's not to say we're a pushover. Tabloid hacks are not in the business of handing out exclusives.
But we certainly are in the business of storing up favours for that inevitable day when it's us who's stuck in the traffic jam and who's chewing off their fingernails because we're missing the court case.
So my general principle is that we are courteous and generous to all rival reporters. And to our colleagues and to the fresh-faced interns, we go out of our way to be polite. Charming. Big-hearted.
The reasons are simple. Firstly, of course, we like it when rival reporters are in our debt.
More importantly: we never know who's going to be our next boss. And if that boss just happens to have a bit of a downer on us - say because we stiffed her ten years ago at a certain court case - then guess who will very soon be out of a job.
On the flipside. The only way to get a good solid pay rise is to get poached by a rival paper. Now suppose a rival editor is thinking of tapping you up. What's the first thing he's going to do? He'll ask around his minions, find out if you're worth having.
Still reckon it wasn't worth handing over that courtroom exclusive?
A true example. I love it. A certain political editor on a certain tabloid in a certain country. Details will have to be blurred to protect the guilty.
After years and years, Michael had finally got his dream-job. He was the political editor of a thundering Red Top; a lot of power flowing right through his fingertips.
But there had been a change of command at the top. A new editor had arrived on the scene.
Now this new editor had some history with Michael. Years back, they'd known each other on the road.
The new editor didn't want much when he took over. Didn't want very much at all. He was an easy-going chap. Just a very light hand on the tiller. Didn't want to rock the boat.
But there was one thing that he insisted on: he wanted Michael's head on a platter.
It was duly served.
Michael now languishes in the shallows and the miseries of PR. Another example. Even better. I have lost count of the number of times that fresh freelance reporters enter a big newsroom for the first time, only to be treated like shit by the hoary old staffers.
The wizened veterans barely grunt hello. They certainly don't include the freelancers in any of the tea runs. And they won't be helping out any time soon with any glitches on the new computer system.
Guess what happens when that fresh-faced freelancer becomes a staff reporter ... and then, say, an executive ... and then, say, the news editor.
They don't forget. Nobody ever forgets a single person who's done them down.
Good reporters can be promoted very, very quickly on a tabloid. Guess who they'll be looking after when they've hit the jackpot, and guess who, for days on end, they'll be sending off to Croydon magistrates court ...
One last example. My favourite as it happens. It pertains to me.
The original dilemma, at the start of the book, actually happened. I was that reporter in the courtroom, licking my lips over my exclusive, and Tunku was the rival who came in late, panting, desperate for a fill-in.
We had a beer. I gave him the lot. I'd lost my exclusive. Who the hell cares about exclusives, apart from our mad-masters?
A year later, I've moved on from New York. The Sun has sent me to, of all the Godforsaken places on earth, Westminster. This was when Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were in their pomp. I loathed it.
Tunku, meanwhile, was flickering around New York. He moved onto The Wall Street Journal; The Daily Beast; Newsweek.
The years pass.
A full decade later, Tunku gets a call from a mate, an editor in South Africa. The editor, Ingo Capraro, is having problems with his Red Top. Does Tunku just happen to know of a "tabloid warrior" ...
Within two months, I was on the plane out to Cape Town. Four years later, I was a consultant for every tabloid across the entire Media 24 group ...
Store up the favours. Remember that in this tiny goldfish bowl that we hacks inhabit, nobody ever forgets who stiffed them.
One of the peculiar joys of our trade is that if you sit by the riverbank for long enough, you will see the rank, swollen bodies of your enemies float by.
WORLD EXCLUSIVES ...
A front page world exclusive used to be the industry gold standard. It was unbeatable. It showed the rest of the hacks that they had well and truly been scooped. Scooped. Lovely word.
All change now, though. If you had a genuine world exclusive, some fellow hack will probably have hawked it on before it's even been subbed. That's the way of our world.
That's not to say that world exclusives aren't important.
Just not important as they used to be twenty years ago.
Imagine you've got the world exclusive of your dreams. It's an absolute beauty. No pictures, mind. But it's a great, great story and, surprisingly, it's all been stood up.
Now all you have to do is sweat it out for the next six hours and hope that the story doesn't drop on the Press Association wires.
Then, at about 3.30pm, you get a call from a rival reporter. Actually, you've got a bit of a crush on this reporter. They're sexy, funny. Alive. Maybe they've got a bit of a crush on you too.
After a minute of pleasant chit-chat, this rival reporter reveals that a little bird has told them that you've got a great exclusive.
Would you mind, pretty please, handing it over?
Well, would you?
AND HOW TO HANDLE THEM ...
While it goes without saying that all Red Top hacks are charmers who should be cordial and pleasant in the extreme to our rivals. We love shoring up those favours! We horde 'em! But that does not in any way mean we're a pushover.
If we've got a hard-won world exclusive, then that doesn't mean we just hand it over to a sweet-talking rival.
Only a total patsy does that.
Handing over a court exclusive is one thing. But a world exclusive is quite different.
I guess it's just about respect.
However, that doesn't mean that we just politely tell the other reporter to sod off. That would be bad. It might hurt their feelings. You never know, they might soon be your boss. They might even be your lover.
No, the correct way to handle this particular phone call is to be warm and chatty, and then at the very last second say, "Oh! The boss wants me. Can I call you back?"
And of course you do make that call back, but only when the first edition has already dropped. This gives your rival reporter a small feather in her cap, as she'll know about the exclusive before the news desk.
Specialist correspondents do this all the time. If the Environment Editor has a big exclusive, he'll let his rivals know as soon as the first edition has dropped. They'll be able to cover their backs. And they owe him one.
Not that I want to get bogged down in the detail, but for the purposes of defining a Red Top, we've also got to define the other main types of paper.
First - the local papers: the provincials. They're covering all the little stories that go on within a community, from the sports fields to the magistrates courts where "spending a penny" still costs young lads more than they'd bargained for. All the agricultural show results go in, along with the car crashes, the inquests and not forgetting all the gibberish that is spouted in the parish councils. These are far and away the best training ground for a rookie reporter who aspires, one day, to start working on Fleet Street.
Fleet Street used to be where most of Britain's national papers were based. In the mornings, in the afternoons and in the evenings, the hacks would all repair to pubs like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and El Vino's. Not any more though. The newspapers moved out of Fleet Street long ago, to be replaced by worthy but lucrative legal firms. But the name "Fleet Street" is still a useful shorthand for describing Britain's national press. It is a broad church and it has many members.
First, there are the broadsheets: heavyweight papers bought by heavyweight people. They may have some fun bits, but they generally consider themselves to be "papers of record". They have a scatter-gun technique to news values, covering anything and everything. Readers rarely manage to get through even ten per cent of the stories.
Mid-market papers: These are a much more difficult niche to fill, and they only work successfully if the editors have a complete handle on the dreams and bugbears of their readers. The readers are primarily on the way up. They've got aspirations. They love to read stories about celebs-gone-bad. And they don't like the soap operas.
Except they do like the soap operas.
The fundamental problem with the mid-market reader is that there are many, many things that they like, but which they can't admit to liking. It might be a certain type of book or TV programme; it might be that specially illicit thrill of seeing a star getting a good mauling. They find it all rather tawdry, but boy do they love to read it. Tricky market, as I say.
And lastly, my favourite type of newspaper on earth, the tabloid: The Red Top. So named because of its red masthead at the top of the front page. It's the paper that makes no bones about it: we're writing for the masses, the blue-collar workers, and although we might be providing them with all of the news that might tickle their fancies, we are generally in the business of providing mass-market entertainment. We don't give a damn for prissy middle-class values. If our blue-collar readers are interested in something, then we're going to give it to them; and if they're still liking it, and still want more, then we'll give them a whole lot more. In fact, we're going to carry on giving them more until we've realised that they're tiring of it.
How do we know when they're tiring of a story? Well ideally the editor will have such a close monitor on the reader's pulse that she will know in an instant when a story, or a theme, is getting stale.
But there are other big clues. When the number of ring-ins or emails or letters starts to tail off ...
Or when the circulation starts dipping. Our perfect Red Top editor is like a cruiserweight boxer in the ring. (Not a heavyweight, those are the broadsheet bosses, slow and cumbersome. Tabloid editors are much, much more agile.) Before she goes into the ring, our cruiserweight boxer will have a plan of action, and if the plan is working, if the other boxer is getting pulped, she'll continue with the plan. But if the plan is not working - if our hero cruiserweight is herself getting pummelled - then it's time to change the plan.
And one of the best indications yet of whether you're getting pulped in the ring is the circulation figures. They tell you how accurately you're punching. For every front page, you can see whether it was on target or whether it was a miss. You can see what stories are chiming with the readers and what aren't.
There is no better test of the readership's pulse than the circulation. Readership surveys are okay, but readers are more than capable of lying. They often say what's going to make them look smart. Fundamentally, a lot of readers don't really know what they want; all they know is what they don't want.
Stick the front pages in a file. Append the circulation figures. And within a few months, you'll know exactly the sort of front pages that your readers - and that great army of floating readers - want to buy.
PRESS CONFERENCES ...
I was having a chat with a dozen senior Red Top executives in Johannesburg. Most of them had been journalists for over twenty years. They came from four papers and the amazing thing about these papers was that their readerships were all blue-collar, yet all quite different. Sondag was an Afrikaans Sunday for the whites; Die Son, also in Afrikaans, was aimed at readers of colour in the Cape; The Daily Sun was an English-language paper aimed right at the underbelly of the black blue-collar workers; and meanwhile the Sunday Sun was also aimed at the vast black readership, but with an emphasis on girls and showbiz.
There were some very senior players. We'd have our seminars on the sofas. An exchange of ideas. So much more friendly, more creative, than going into the boardroom.
Excerpted from Red Top by Bill Coles, Giles Pilbrow. Copyright © 2013 Bill Coles. Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
AND DREAMING UP EXCLUSIVES FROM THIN AIR,
IDEAS-AND HOW TO GET THEM,
AND FINDING MORE EXCLUSIVES,
AND HOW TO LEARN IT,
AND WHEN COCK-UP TURNS TO DISASTER,
THE BIG STICK,