From agony aunt columns in a weekly regional newspaper in Bury, to covering the brutality of the Bosnian War, Rob Cole has worked in news his whole life.
These days he’s a freelance news editor for various TV stations, having worked for the BBC, Sky, and Reuters TV. His most recent stint was head of media at Save the Children.
His time behind the cameras has coincided with huge changes in the way news is reported – from a time when everyone bought local newspapers, through the birth of 24-hour rolling news, and now the onset of the Internet. But what we want to know is: how did he get his job?
How he got into the industry
Well, today’s grads might be surprised to hear that it was perfectly possible to start a career in news without even going to university, let alone with a costly journalism Masters. Instead, you went straight into a traineeship on a local paper and took exams after three years at a partnered training college.
“I left school at 18, having finished my A-Levels, and decided I wanted to get into journalism,” says Rob. “The way that was advised at the time was not going to university and getting a degree as it is now – it was actually to do a year’s course on a pre-entry journalism course.”
From there, it was a meandering route through regional newspapers of increasing size and importance – changing jobs was still very easy in the early 80s. And after a stint in Dubai on the Khaleej Times, Rob got shifts on Yorkshire TV’s newsdesk, again at a time when regional TV had more power and profile.
“I was there only six months, before applying for a job at TV-AM – which is called Daybreak these days. Against the odds, I got a job. They took on four journalists, including a guy who’s been a friend of mine ever since, called Mazer Mahmood, who’s more commonly known as the Fake Sheikh…”
A change of scene again in the early 90s, when Rob joined a TV news agency that would become Reuters TV: “I went from doing Kylie and Jason in the studio to being asked after about three weeks whether I wanted to go to Sarajevo because a war was about to start. It was something I’d always wanted to do but never thought I’d get close to it.”
The life of a war reporter is completely different. The 90s were a violent time around the world, so it was, from a certain perspective, a good time to do it.
“I covered all the Bosnian War on a month-on month-off basis, and it became my little war. I also did all the Africa stuff, Rwanda, Burundi. It was really grim, but an amazing experience. But after eight years, it takes a bit of a toll on you, mentally and physically.”
So he quit that, and managed to find his way into the BBC. There were several happy years there, before Rob finally found himself freelancing, for the Beeb, for Sky and for various others.
What’s the work like?
So what’s the job like on a day-to-day basis? Rob’s always been a foreign news editor, so his focus is obviously on news from around the world. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of that.
As a foreign editor Rob would come in early, having checked his phone, Twitter, and listened to as many news programmes as he could, before deciding on the news priorities of the day. With so much news, running the foreign desk has the air of a never-ending contest – constantly searching to get his journalists’ news presented above other desks.
Once you have a story it's then a matter of making sure that wherever the correspondent is, the report comes into the building – through satellite phone, Internet or other routes – and is ready to run on air on time.
Then, of course, there’s the friendly rivalry with other networks: ‘getting one over the other networks’ being a serious highlight. There’s nothing like getting a note from editors at a rival broadcaster congratulating on a job well done.
The lowlights, on the other hand, are much grimmer: “I’ve had colleagues injured and killed.”
How you can get the job
Says Rob: “I get loads of applications. I always endeavour to reply to every single one, but from my own experience people don’t get back to you, so I would advise you to keep trying. Don’t be put off; people in the business admire people who are more tenacious for obvious reasons.”
Try a work placement. “We had quite a few people at Sky who worked for us and who got jobs from it. If someone comes in at 21 for two months and they’re good, you’ll look out for their name when they come back, as opposed to the 60 other people who are going to apply that year.”
Definitely be keen about everything. “We have had too many interns who thought they knew about it all. You have to be helpful, keep asking to do things for people, be really enthusiastic. Don’t just take it as a work placement – it might be your big chance. You have to give it a try.”
And, of course, take a real interest in current affairs. “You have to be constantly on it, a news junkie. Even if you’re a creative producer, doing graphics, you still have to care. You can’t want to go into media because it sounds quite glam, because it won’t really work. You have to really want it.”
Luck’s involved too, of course. ‘You might write to just the right person at the right time’.
What will the job look like in 10 years?
In some ways, Rob’s job should remain fairly constant for the next few years.
“They will always need someone to make decisions and take responsibility for newsgathering. However, what will change is the way in which news is delivered. When I started in TV, the usual crew would be a reporter, producer, a camera operator, a sound person, and sometimes even a separate lighting person. They would be loaded down with equipment and the camera and sound operators would be locked together by a cable.
“Within a few years, the crew had been whittled down to a camera operator and the reporter. Now there's just the reporter and an all-singing, all-dancing camera operator who also edits and feeds the material - if you're lucky!
“In 10 years, the reporter will be the entire crew, shooting all their own material on a smartphone, then editing and voicing that material, before sending it to head office, where it will end up going straight on air. The reporter will then turn the phone around, press the live app button, and do a live into the same programme.
“Actually, this is all fairly common now. The technology will just get quicker and quicker and smaller and smaller. At least it means that there won't be the incidence of back pain that troubled the news crews of the past!”
The other big change is that people will abandon conventional TVs like they’ve abandoned newspapers. Eventually, it’ll all be online. If you're thinking of news, perhaps that's where you should aim too.
Rob was speaking on behalf of HBO's The Newsroom. Season One is out today on DVD and Blu-ray from HBO Home Entertainment.