These notes are taken from a discussion with Tony Meenahan, Director of Solent News and Photo Agency in Southampton. Interesting for anybody interested in working on a national newspaper in the long-run. Please forgive me if these are a bit sloppy - it’s just a transcription of my notes, I couldn’t be arsed to tidy them up properly…
What are news agencies?
News agencies all ‘business to business’ – no direct communication with public, all focused on selling stories to other papers etc. Slightly fewer news agencies in the country than there are local papers, and the agencies have slightly wider circulation areas.
Vast majority of what appears in the national press is actually provided by news agencies – nationals get their own reporters doing investigations, international assignments, interviews, exclusives etc.
Agencies often syndicate for local papers (The News, Southern Daily Echo etc) which means they sell stories from local papers on their behalf to the nationals in exchange for a cut of the fee. They will sometimes do follow-up interviews and research to expand the story a bit before they pass it on – local papers don’t always write or take photographs to the standard required by the nationals.
National Association of Press Agencies – small industry, most agencies know what everyone else in the industry is up to.
Agencies a good step on the road to working on a national paper – they train you to higher standards. More pressurised than local paper, but gives you chance to develop skills. Agencies generate all their own stories and aim for a national audience.
Most stories agencies write for nationals are round 1000 words, so the editors can crop them down themselves and choose their own angle etc (a full page lead on a local is more like 300/400 words)
Agencies can be a good ‘fast-track’ to national papers; you can go direct from the local press, but standards there are lower. Jobs on nationals are rarely advertised externally, most new vacancies are filled by local journalists and news agency reporters.
Most news agencies will be happy for you to leave after a few years – they’re regarded as a good ‘training ground’ for national-standard journalists.
Getting onto nationals requires starting out by ‘shifting’ (casual work) on the news desk for a couple of months before getting any kind of contract.
Daily Mail is the hardest paper in the UK to work for in terms of standards expected.
Journalists generally transferable between papers regardless of political persuasion – starting out on one paper doesn’t pigeonhole you too much.
What’s it like working for one?
Getting a job on a news agency? Don’t need much previous experience, don’t have to have worked for ages on a local paper before you can work at one. Most new recruits are people who have just qualified with their NCTJ pre-entry certificate and looking for their first job.
Can help to get work experience, and actually come in on the first day with a few ideas for stories to investigate and write up.
Variety of stories? News agencies only tend to do news, not features and reviews. Agencies do often cover sports stories though. Can sometimes get hold of a local story that can be tailored to a national angle.
Need to be able to see the potential for a story in small everyday things that might easily be overlooked.
South West News Agency = good news agency to apply to in the Bristol area.
Pay and demands? Similar on a news agency to a local paper – both v demanding. Hours in both are actually shrinking – fewer night shifts than in an earlier era. Generally 8.30 to 6. Agency work more demanding than a local paper.
NCE? The agencies don’t really focus on training you for it – they don’t consider an NCE necessary because working for an agency will train you to a very high standard. They don’t discourage you from preparing for and taking your NCE if you want to though.
[NOTE: The NCE, or National Certificate Examination, is the next qualification reporters take after the NCTJ pre-entry certificate. It’s optional, but obliges employers to pay you more and allows you to call yourself a ‘senior reporter’. You have to have been working full-time on a newspaper for a minimum of around 18 months before you’re ready to take it though.]
Court reporting – hardest role. Have to immediately translate all your shorthand into longhand, sometimes dictating over the phone to someone back at the office.
Most people working for an agency don’t get regular bylines unlike local reporters, but if you’ve worked for an agency it looks good on the CV and you can get a decent reference from your employer. But if you want to get your name at the top of articles regularly, probably best not to go to a news agency.
Hard to get in-depth details about tough stories unless you get a good name for yourself and people trust you not to sensationalise, exaggerate etc. There’s less investigative journalism – most papers want you to pass on a decent story every morning.
Most news agencies write stories in a fairly ‘straight-down-the-line’ style and allow the paper they’re selling the story to rewrite and angle the story. For an agency, structure and accuracy are more important than angle or writing style.
Age isn’t a factor, nor is having a university degree important – talent and enthusiasm most important. They aren’t particularly keen on media degrees – don’t see media graduates as having sufficient practical workplace skills.
Legal risks? One agency managed to libel a judge! A guy had been convicted for rape, and the judge said in summary the case would never have come up in court had the defendant bought his victim some flowers afterwards. He successfully argued that his remark had been taken so far out of context that it depicted him unfairly as insensitive and won the case – goes to show importance of not sensationalising or reporting events out of original context.