Dominic Walsh is The Times’ Business Correspondent.
The seeds of my career in journalism were sewn during my time writing match reports for the St Andrews Citizen and the University newspaper. Seeing my prose on United Colleges football encounters (normally heavy losses) and first team cricket reports (mostly victories!) in print sparked in me a desire to become the next Hugh McIlvanney.
Sadly, it never happened. While my close friend and Divinity student Graham Spiers went on to follow in the great sporting scribe’s footsteps to become one of Scotland’s premier sports hacks, I found myself pursuing a career in the hotel industry, as night auditor at the plush Four Seasons on Park Lane.
How did it go so badly wrong? The problem was that, although I’d identified journalism as something I’d like to do, I’d never stopped to work out how to achieve it. When I graduated in 1985 with a degree in Greek and Ancient History, I simply reverted to what I’d done during a gap year in Paris and got a job as a youthful Basil Fawlty.
Don’t get me wrong, hotels are fun – after all, I still write about them. But the poor pay and long hours (and a sackful of warning letters over my rather cavalier behaviour) soon put paid to any thoughts I had of a long-term career in hospitality.
After another year off, this time travelling around America, I discovered several of my St Andrews chums had somewhow ended up in the media, including my former house mate Brian Viner, who has worked at the Mail on Sunday and Independent. Brian had just completed a course in magazine journalism at Reed Business Publishing in Surrey and a couple of weeks later I had signed myself up for the next intake.
I can remember only one thing from the 17-week course – intros should be no more than 30 words. But more importantly, Reed provided me with work experience on a trade magazine called Caterer and Hotelkeeper. By the time the course ended, I had been offered a job there and I ended up spending six years on the magazine.
So how did I get into newspapers? The answer is: luck. Just when I was starting to get bored with trade magazines, a lunatic called Tom Rubython launched a newspaper called Sunday Business and trawled the trade mags for ‘experts’ in their field. I was given the grand job title of leisure industries correspondent, which was a proud day. The only problem was that Mr Rubython didn’t have quite the financial resources he claimed and when the salary cheques started to become non-existent, I left.
Despite being owed £6,000, I will be eternally grateful to Tom. He dragged me out of magazines into newspapers and thanks to a couple of my Sunday Business colleagues who had fled before me, I managed to get a temporary job on the Guardian’s financial news desk before being given a staff job at The Times, covering the leisure and drinks industries for the business pages. I’ve been there ever since.
So what advice do I have to offer? Despite coming away with so little from the journalism course I did at Reed, I’m afraid that these days some sort of journalistic qualification is a must for most newspapers and magazines. Work experience is also a sine qua non.
Although the talented and super-confident few do go straight from uni to a national newspaper, my advice would be to learn your trade on a local paper or trade mag. And don’t give up hope. The newspaper industry may be in a state of flux in this fast-changing digital age, but being a reporter is still hugely varied and rewarding.