John Collings: Reflects on his journalism career



This week’s Indy is the final edition for our Editor, John Collings, who’s retiring after nearly 30 years’ devoted service to the title he joined in 1988. Here, he reflects on his career in journalism…

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Well, there we are. It’s over. After nigh-on 50 years in the same profession, the journey’s done.

Journey? That most beaten-up and abused word in the modern dialogue may just, only just, be rather appropriate this morning.

This story has its roots in old fashioned music hall, or in my case, pantomime.

One of my first assignments as a cub reporter (I still don’t know why journalism apprentices were ‘cubs’) was to attend the annual pre-Christmas pantomime of the Friendly Wives – can you imagine the connotations attached in the 21st century to such a then-august body?

Sat in the front row of the old Riverside Church Hall at West Looe in South East Cornwall, I heard Buttons expressing her astonishment at a period of time, written into the script of one of her co-performers.

“You get less for murder,” she observed in time-honoured music hall fashion.

Well, after 48 years and counting in this job, she was right. And “murder” was what it felt like on many occasions as the clock ticked down to deadline hour. But now’s the time to go; to put the dinosaur out of its misery.

Without meaning to belittle the NHS or the Armed Forces, journalism can be a calling, too. Especially if it’s done correctly.

Newspaper Career

I have served only two newspaper titles in all that time – If you’ll excuse a month or two’s love affair with another newspaper before the sports desk of the Sunday Indy, the only gig I ever really wanted, came knocking.

Both as editor of a Cornish weekly (The Cornish Times, 1978-1988) – feted then, at 26, as “one of the youngest newspaper editors in the UK” – and then, as the Sunday Indy’s assistant editor, sports editor, editor, nightwatchman and security guard et al, my mission was always clear. To serve the people who actually bought the paper.

Those various job titles never counted for much. The people who forked out their hard-earned money each week were the real bosses. I was merely a tenant in the chair; they were the landlords. And it should always be thus.

As journalists we all spend too much time designing and publishing papers to win the seal of approval of peers or colleagues. But Joe Public was the only one who ever mattered.

Like the family doctor and church of old, my door, home or office, was always open to a reader with something to say; my home phone, like that of the office, never set to the answer machine when I was available to address someone’s observation, no matter what day of the week.

Family doctors, sadly, are almost a thing of the past. Church doors are often locked. But up to yesterday, it was still ‘open house’ if you had something to say about the Indy.

The start of 50 years in the industry

I doubt that many people will ever again stay in one profession for close on 50 years – certainly not in newspapers. And I wonder how many people are still out there to leave behind a half-century of newspaper knowledge.

I didn’t benefit from a university education. My parents could never have afforded that and, in truth, my teen years hardly suggested an academic scholar in waiting. But ever since ‘commentating’ on a game of Subbuteo table soccer and watching Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon and then producing an A5 ‘sports paper’ for my gran, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

I have lost count of the numerous young people who have told me they want to go into journalism because they ‘like to write’. Yes, newspapers are about writing – but they are more about recording.

“Go into commerce,” said my form tutor – the nearest thing we had to careers advisors in those days. “Have you tried the Civil Service?” enquired my headmaster, upset by my report sent to the local paper of a school Christmas carol service in which I had dared to suggest that one singer was better than another pupil.

Alas, openings in journalism back in the late 1960s were as few as they are in the digital age, and I needed luck. The “right time, right place” sort of luck.

It came when Willoughby Smith, then deputy editor of the Eric Putnam, privately-owned Cornish Times, had lost his junior reporter and had been unimpressed with the number of college recruits knocking at his door. At least he remembered my carol service report.

I was hired, with the proviso that I had to arrange my own typing and shorthand lessons and enrol on the National Council for the Training of Journalists course.

Typing was not a problem. OK, I was no touch-typist but the Brother portable mother had had the good sense to buy in the early days of Trago Mills had done the job for gran on a Saturday afternoon and it passed the ‘Smithy’ test as well.

Shorthand was more of an issue, although all the girls in the evening class seemed delighted to have a young man in their midst.

What I would say, however, is that anyone thrown into the deep end of court and council reporting, while still studying shorthand, hasn’t got a hope. My shorthand gets me by. Always has. But it is not classic.

Happily, it was never put to a court of law test but it has served me well. And I still prefer my scribbles to the modern reliance on mobile phone recording apps and dictaphones.

The ability to report information

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Similar principles apply to ‘learning’ journalism. There is no substitute for on-the-job teaching and listening to your mentors. Textbooks can keep you up to date with law changes but nothing beats standing outside a church doorway on funeral day to galvanise the accuracy of your note-taking and name spelling.

Inevitably times have changed. There are no longer trainee reporters in the land who, tasked with the job of noting the competition winners at the church fete, have to track down the only person in the paddock grappling with the prize for rolling the pig – and no-one, bar me it seems, is concerned about apostrophes any more. I can’t remember the last time I saw a university graduate’s CV without at least one errant punctuation mark.

During my time as a real editor, not latter-day editors paying lip-service to bean-counters, I have lost count of the numerous young people who have told me they want to go into journalism because they ‘like to write’. Yes, newspapers are about writing – but they are more about recording.

Ambulances do not ‘rush’ victims to hospital (wouldn’t we expect that, after all?) and old folks don’t pass away, slip their anchor or any other such well-meaning euphemism. They die. Simple as that.

And while those deaths may be ‘sad’ (for a myriad of reasons), that adjective rarely has a place in true journalism. Similarly, don’t tell me that Mrs Brown supplied a ‘lovely’ buffet or Miss White’s flowers were ‘beautiful’ – tell me when everyone goes down with food poisoning or the flowers come straight from the garage forecourt!

This career was always about people and places. To report on anything and everything you had to curb your own views and sketch out the thoughts of those who were in the limelight at whatever the engage ment. Some were easier than others. Lord Caradon took me under his wing to promote United Nations Day after he discovered that October 24 was also my birthday; a surprised Prince Charles granted me an audience when I waited for him on Liskeard railway station at ten-to-six in the morning; and I only met Maggie Thatcher twice but on the second occasion, three or four years after the the first, she still remembered our earlier conversation.

Footballers with their five minutes of fame were never so accommodating. At least not until later in life when they wanted to open a soccer school…

On the subject of politics, Phil Hewlett, then headmaster of the Trenode Church of England School at Widegates, near Looe, introduced (Sir) Robert Hicks MP to his class of nine-year-olds and asked if any of the pupils knew their guest. “Yes, sir,” replied my baby, now 42. “He’s the man who visits my dad; drinks his whiskey and smokes the front room out with his pipe!”

I said earlier that I do not mean to belittle the work and dedication of our brave military men and women but, over the years, journalism has become a battlefield of its own.

a new future

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Changes in technology have culled too many talented journalists. Somehow I survived.

The war against drink, drugs and dolly birds has ended many a talented career and, in some cases, even accounted for lives. Fortunately, I’m largely unscathed and, unless you count the odd Paracetamol or eight, I can categorically say that at least one of those demons never tempted me away from the barmaid’s apron.

But hours and hours in front of a computer screen and the stresses attached to producing The Weekly Miracle have taken their toll: A torn retina, two cataract operations and, the worst of the lot, a retinal vein occlusion that has permanently damaged the sight in one eye. In my case they are all battle wounds.

For that reason alone, it’s probably time to call it a day. A retinal vein occlusion in the other, good eye would be catastrophic on so many levels.

The future for print newspapers doesn’t look particularly good in the digital age. But if anyone is interested in 50 years’ experience of dealing with people who actually buy the product we work hard to produce, then I would say that there is a way through the minefield threatening to destroy our very existence.

But it starts by not being so wide-eyed and in awe of the Emperor’s New Clothes that adorn the internet. It’s all about listening. Not to other journalists or other newspaper moguls. But to the people who still buy newspapers.

I’ve decided to bow out before being substituted. My loan period is over and I’m returning to my parent club – the family who have backed me through everything, including missing loads of important occasions, all because I put work and the Sunday Indy before everything else.

The home needs repairing, and family fences need mending, too. It’s their time now. But thanks for putting up with me.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.