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Pursue your passion: be a specialist

23 February 2016

Sophie Doughty has devoted her life to crime because she likes to get the splash.

Delivering the front-page story still gives her a buzz 12 years after becoming the crime correspondent of the Newcastle Chronicle.

She has joined the police on 5am drug raids, interviewed killers, won the confidence of victims of violence and shared numerous pots of tea with people whose loved ones have been murdered. Sophie won the role after proving herself a stalwart of the doorstep; always prepared to knock on just one more door to get the story.

Hanging on to her every word, as she described her job, were about 50 young journalists, students and others at an NUJ event, hosted and chaired by David Baines, senior lecturer in journalism and the sociology of journalism at the School of Arts and Cultures, Newcastle University.

It was part of the NUJ’s Union Learning Fund project. The subject was the specialist journalist and Sophie was part of a distinguished panel sharing tips and discussing their roles.

Sophie who broke the story of Alan Barnes, the 4ft 6ins Gateshead pensioner who won the hearts of the public after being mugged.

But she really showed her mettle when the national and international press corps turned up en masse on her patch during the hunt for Raoul Moat, who shot his former girlfriend and lover and blinded a police officer. Her competitors were able to wave wads of notes under the noses of witnesses and Moat’s friends, but what Sophie had couldn’t be bought. She had solid-gold contacts with the local police and local people.

For many years she had built up trust with the police and they knew she was accurate, fair and would use the information they provided in a sensitive way. For trust is the most valuable currency of a specialist journalist, as the panel agreed.

Before becoming BBC political editor for the north east and Cumbria, Richard Moss, worked on newspapers in Cumbria, writing about flower shows and parish councils, but politics had always been his passion. His hero is Brian Walden, the former Labour MP who became the most forensic and highly-respected political interviewer of his day.

It can be glamorous he admits; he has interviewed three Prime Ministers and was sent to cover a Barak Obama convention. “But,” he said, “my job is to cut through the bullshit and the spin and analyse what a particular policy or announcement will mean to the lives of people in the north east.”

His authority comes from the trust he has won from his audience. “As a political journalist there is a temptation to try to best a politician with a killer question, but actually my role should be to use an interview to illuminate and interpret what they are saying. To do this I need to have built up a bedrock of knowledge to ask the questions the viewer wants answering."

ULF event newcastle
David Whetstone

David Whetstone is also passionate about his job. He is the Newcastle Journal’s award-winning arts correspondent. He started as a general reporter; to be a specialist it is vital to have the basic grounding in the reporter’s craft of ensuring names and places are spelled properly and facts checked.

His advice to the young journalists was: “If you have a passion, make yourself the best person at expressing that passion.”

His love of the arts paid off when the building of  the Sage and Baltic Exchange in Newcastle and Gateshead made his patch an exciting cultural hub, but today he finds himself writing about cuts in the arts, with many local libraries and museums under threat.

Meeting celebrities can make it a glamorous job at times, he says, but he knows his real role is to make theatre and exhibitions accessible to his readers. He is writing for the person least likely to go to a play; he has to cut through the jargon and cant for them. Despite his many awards, it was his tweeting of a puddle #Drummondpuddle that won him international fame when pictures of the watery obstacle on his way to work went viral. “It was a bit demoralising, really,” he said.

Chris Tighe has made the north east her specialist subject. She is the region’s correspondent for the Financial Times and her job is to describe and analyse the economic, industrial, employment, political, social, educational and environmental aspects of the area. She believes being a specialist or finding a niche is useful for a journalist during these uncertain times.

The north east is at the sharp end of many economic, social and cultural issues and Chris’s working life has been mostly in this region, now with the FT and, before that, The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. She also spent a year in London with The Guardian after training with The Journal in the north east.

“The industry is in the middle of a revolution because newspapers believe the future is digital, but haven’t worked out how to make it pay,” she said. “Even Mail Online, one of the most successful news websites in the world, is making a loss. It is publications such as the FT which are providing specialist, financial information on a global level which people and companies are prepared to pay for. There are other specialisms, such as sport and technology, which provide in-depth knowledge people may also pay for.”

Sophie agreed that the crime reporter’s job had become more challenging. “We are now in a situation where the newsrooms are getting smaller as the police press offices are getting bigger. The police will want to control the message and I have to maintain a good relationship with them, but not necessarily follow their line.”

ULF event newcastle

Chris Tighe, Sophie Doughty and Richard Moss 

The young audience members were full of questions. Had crime correspondent Sophie ever felt she had been in danger when doing her job? If a victim of crime gives an interview and then changes her mind, what do you do?

How does a political journalist feel about toeing the newspaper’s political line (not a problem for Richard who strives for impartiality at the BBC)? What is the best way to cultivate contacts?

After the formal session, the panel found themselves giving advice and answering questions from a queue of eager students and journalists finding their feet in the industry.

One said: “This has been very interesting getting to meet such experienced journalists. My course never covered how to become a specialist journalist. I learned a lot.”

Pictures © Mike Pinder

Tags: , specialist writers, newcastle, newcastle chronicle, newcastle journal, financial times, bbc, sophie doughty, richard moss, chris tighe, david whetstone, crime, arts, politics, david baines, ulf