Monday, 1 October 2012

How to get ahead in journalism

I spent almost all of my adult working life feeling like a fraud. I wanted to be a journalist because of a television series in the 80s called Press Gang, to which I was completely addicted. I wanted badly to be the Julia Sawalha character: brilliant, tough, uncompromising. I was a terribly unfriendly child, very angry, resistant to organised fun, terrified of humiliation - in this cold and unbending fictional telly character I saw how some of my unfortunate personality traits could be handy.

But it became very obvious very early in the postgraduate thingummy I did in journalism after leaving university, that I was never going to be a good journalist.

Please, by the way, do not laugh at me for having done a "course"; people do these things nowadays because it's so hard to get a job in newspapers. In fact, unless you are incredibly brilliant or insanely hard-working (with a private income), getting a job in journalism these days comes down to luck. When pompous parents tell me that their blobby children are "thinking about" going into journalism I laugh nastily and say "as if it's that easy".

Anyway, the course director declared to us on the first day that journalism is "not about writing. It is about information. It is about being nosy. It is about being a gossip. It is about always wanting to be the person who knows things first."

My heart sank. I am none of those things. I am terrific at keeping secrets and I'm always the last to know everything, I don't pry, I feel sorry for people and do not want to put them through the media mill even if they've done rotten things. I think pretty much everyone is entitled to a private life.

I struggled on, experiencing full-body cringes whenever I had to make awkward phone calls, hating every second of interviews, fighting with sub-editors over ultra-mean headlines to interviews with people I had thought were perfectly nice. I edited quotes so that interviewees wouldn't get into trouble.

Years ago, before the media was in such a terrible state, I probably would have been able to swing some sort of "mummy" column when I chucked in my job and smugly retreat home with purpose. But those gigs are few and far between these days. My husband has a friend who in the early 90s earned £80,000 from writing two weekly columns. £80,000!!! Those were the days.

I resigned myself to never making any money again, and took to the internet and here we are. The internet being, as it happens, the reason that newspapers and magazines are in the toilet. But you certainly can't beat the internet, so I joined it.

So much so that I threw open the doors of my home the other day to some of the editorial staff of a website called What's In My Handbag.

They wanted to photograph the contents of my handbag, focusing particularly on my make-up, which they would then use to do something or other. I don't really understand how it works. But I've always wanted someone to come round to my house and talk to me about make-up, so I screamed "YES!" when they emailed to ask if I wanted to do it.

Browsing their website the night before, I saw with rising panic that other handbag interviewees had prepared exciting banquets for the website's photo shoot staff, or at least plied them with exotic breakfast liquers.

It was a full week since my last Ocado order. I had no eggs, no milk, very little butter not at freezing temperature. It was 10.30pm and I had just returned from a night out, the remains beside me of a hastily-scoffed kebab from E-Mono, London's finest kebab house (I am not joking).

I suppressed a luscious burp. My mind started to race. These bitches would be expecting treats!! My mind first turned, as it always does, to in what ways I could throw money at the sitution. Could I beg my husband 10 minutes' grace in the morning while I ran up the road to Sainsbury's, bought 25 assorted pastries and then try to pass them off as being from an artisan bakery?!

No, think - think!!! I don't know how it came to me, but it did. Divine inspiration, or something, I don't know.

The answer was: flapjacks.

No flour, eggs or milk required. Some might say they are a thing that requires no actual cooking. But in that moment, they presented themselves not as a delirious cop-out, but as a lifesaver.

What I did happen to have, which made all the difference, was a box of extremely expensive posh museli from a company called Dorset Cereals, which are filled with all sorts of exciting nuts, grains, raisins and sultanas. I had only to bind the whole lot together with an appropriately enormous amount of melted butter and golden syrup.

I am not going to give you exact quantities for this, because flapjacks are, thank god, a thing you can basically do by guessing.

I got a square, loose-bottomed tin and filled it with museli to a depth I considered respectable for a flapjack (about 2in). Then I melted about 3/4 of a block of butter in a saucepan, added to that 3 generous tablespoon dollops of golden syrup and a big pinch of salt, poured in the museli and mixed it round.

Then at this point I, fatally, panicked and poured over a tin of condensed milk. I mean, the flapjacks were really delicious but the condensed milk made them fall apart in an annoying way and in actual fact, they were a bit too sweet. So leave the condensed milk out, if I were you. I also chopped up some chocolate and sprinkled it on the top, which probably wasn't neccessary.

After turning out the buttery rubble, (sorry that's all a bit Nigella isn't it), into the square tin, I patted it down with a spatula and shoved it in the oven for 20 minutes.

They worked incredibly well, even allowing for the condensed milk over-kill and the girls pretended to like them well enough, while marvelling at how quickly and efficiently I had filed the product descriptions for my chosen make-up.

What can I say? I should have been a journalist.



  1. Press Gang always reminds me of being around friends' houses because that was the only time I got to watch it because it was on ITV and we only watched CBBC at home.

    1. Same here! I missed a lot of TV programmes due to them being on the forbidden channel.

  2. Fascinating. And I love flapjacks. Possibly the first thing I ever cooked... at Scouts (I was a rubbish Scout). Nothing like as luxurious as yours, though.

  3. "resistant to organised fun". I married that man. He was forced to come to my 5th birthday party and sat at the other end of the village hall pretending to read a book. Upside down.

  4. All your reasons are why I never pursued journalism after I did my "course". I just want to write about food, I don't want to be a part of the Forth Estate.

  5. but you see, at least you have a handbag with contents worth photographing. I wondered what they would say to one that contained no makeup (apart from a lip gloss the dog chewed) a handful of bags for clearing up after said dog, 7p, the leftover plastic wrappings from 3 packs (small, bribing children for the purpose of)of Haribo, 2 screwdrivers and a can of appelstroop (google it).

  6. I loved that show but always wondered about Dexter Fletchers accent????

  7. Funnily enough, Nigella herself does have a recipe called Breakfast Bars which is very similar to what you made, but with an oat base; she als adds coconut. Have tasted them at a friend's house and they were v. moreish.

  8. What were you doing pouring condensed milk into these flapjacks. They sounded absolutely fine up until then. You do seem to like it a lot :)

  9. Have not commented in a while but have been stalking your blog all the same. Looking forward to you book! Just want to say now that I know what you mean when you say you've always wanted someone to come round to your house to talk to you about makeup. ME TOO. I would've screamed yes as well. I'm not even that good at makeup/ wear that much of it.

    Also, gorgeous lily you've got there!!!!!!

    Veronica x

  10. Elizabeth Medovnik4 October 2012 at 15:33

    I don't even use a handbag anymore; everything's stuffed in a nappy bag!

  11. So when do we get to see What's In Your Handbag?!

  12. Come on Esther, write something, no recipe required, just give us a good rant! Pleaaaase :)

  13. The answer to your title "how to get ahead in journalism" may just be WRITE SOMETHING

  14. People don't do journalism courses nowadays - they spend three years doing a degree in journalism with no prospect of getting paid work! They can of course work for free for web magazine start ups with the promise they might get paid if it becomes successful.

    The 90s - a time when there were proper jobs and you could learn journalism in a few months - seem like halcyon days.

  15. And there was I thinking that I was the only person to have experienced the crushing disappointment of not getting into journalism. God bless the Internet for giving us a chance!

  16. This is my first time on your blog and I thoroughly enjoy it. I'm an employed digital journalist and I'm currently looking for a new job and I can't begin to tell you how depressed the nationals and consumer mags' snobbery is making me feel. And just like you, though I'm a sociable person, I don't have the gang mentality, the always joining in with the team, the agreeing with others just to get ahead. I enjoy (need?) the occasional rant, honesty and a good 'fuck off' when it's needed. All good and well, but it certainly doesn't help one get ahead. But you've made me feel like I'm not alone, and for that I thank you. You and your honesty.