I had a tweet out of the blue this week from Alex Johnson, a freelance journalist, to let me know that my first boss had just passed away. I had no idea they even knew each other, but as the former editor of a small UK local newspaper with many a trainee reporter passing through, Mike Greatholder touched many lives it seems.
Anyone who I’ve interviewed for a job over the years will know that I can ask some awkward questions. Blame Mike. His first question back in June 1992 was pleasant and innocent. Then came “I don’t know you. You’ve turned up here with no examples of any of your work, some swagger and some claims of what you’re capable of. You are asking me to simply trust you and what you say. Convince me in the next 60 seconds that you haven’t wasted your train fare”.
Two weeks later I’d bought a car, rented a house, bought a suit and was roving the streets armed with a notepad for the Telford Journal. I bagged the front page lead in week one, which was just as well as I was the only reporter. The story about death fears over streets being used as an illegal night-time racetrack carried my byline (I opted for ‘Steve’ and in one move dropped the ‘Stephen’) and a racy picture.
The next week it emerged that the story had been hugely embellished by one party in a long-running feud on a housing estate. When the other side invited me to hear its contradictory story, I arrived in someone’s living room to find myself surrounded by a couple of dozen very muscular and angry men who wanted to “have a word”. The door was locked behind me.
Back at the office, lucky to have been able to talk my way out of it, Mike told me that every single person giving a newspaper information has a motive. I’d been carried away by a local story and not looked for the broader picture around long-time civic tension. Lesson: do your homework and expect the unexpected before fanning any flames.
It was one of many lessons from a man who was by then well advanced in his editorial career, but despite the gruffness that years on newsdesk can cause others was forever gracious, understanding and calm. Above all he knew the purpose of the newspaper – and the audience it served – inside out. Some other lessons:
- If something at work is really cutting into your personal life, spit it out and we’ll deal with it
- You’ve got your day in, now go home and get your evening in
- Remember stories are narratives, and people can have long memories
- Anything can be made into a story for someone
- High horses are not really for small newspapers, but high morals are
- Remember to listen harder than others may be prepared to
- Never burn a contact unless there is another option
- We carry ourselves with proper responsibility, but shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously
- People are sensitive to words, that’s our business and we must roll with the punches
- Complaints about newspaper deliveries (particularly those involving urchins roaming across rooftops) or faults with the crossword are a great learning opportunity for the cub reporter, so be ready to take those calls..
I worked with Mike for less than six months before being promoted onto another newspaper. I learned more in that time that I could have imagined, including how to avoid being beaten up by readers. RIP Mike; husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and a gentleman journalist who guided the careers of many.