Things I learned from interning at the Press Association

15 May

Besides the boring journalism skills stuff

1) Communication is not UKIP’s forte

Technically I was an ‘Elections picture researcher’, which meant I spent my days phoning or emailing parliamentary candidates to ask if they wouldn’t mind sending us a headshot. To be fair, every party had its fair share of non-respondents, but sourcing the photos of ‘kipsters proved a particularly tricky task.

At first, it seemed that the standardised @ukiplocal.org addresses listed on the party’s websites and leaflets were uniformly not in use. Then, following attempts via phone and alternative emails, it just looked like pre-election preparations weren’t leaving much time for fulfilling our request. Then, a call to a regional manager revealed the truth: candidates had been instructed to ignore us, over fears that we’d be inviting lawsuits over images provided without permission from the copyright holder. We’d made the requirement for legal permission both clear and prominent in our numerous emails, but it mattered not; the wall of silence had been well and truly erected.

It took many more days of outreach to press offices and individual candidates before we made much progress, and what pictures we did receive were seldom sent from a publicly available email address. I can understand being cautious about copyright law, and it’s worth repeating that every party had folks that were difficult to get hold of, but guys – don’t hand out contact details on your leaflets if you’re never going to use them.

2) The charm offensive works on politicians, too

During the first week, I decided I’d go full-on fourth estate, maintaining a dry and distant manner when speaking to any candidates or their staff. I was acutely aware that, since we weren’t paying for the photos, we were essentially asking potential MPs for a favour. At least if I was deathly serious on the phone, nobody could accuse me (and by extension the PA) of getting too chummy with candidates.

Well, apologies to Glenn bloody Greenwald, but this didn’t work. My colleagues, who were chatty and cheerful from the start, were quickly swimming in JPEGs, while I’d only had a handful of responses to a standard form email I’d been sending. Once I’d given up and adopted a more gracious tone, contacts became a lot more amiable, and my daily photo intake shot up.

The lesson? I think the press and the state should maintain a healthy distance, but it’s neither feasible nor practical for both sides to communicate only in adversarial growls. Or maybe, just maybe, this is about asking people for pictures and I’m just reading too much into it.

The fruits of our labour. Credit, of course, to PA Images

The fruits of our labour. Credit, of course, to PA Images

3) The old ways are the best

When tasked with contacting a list of names that numbers in the thousands, it’s tempting to just copy and paste an email several hundred times and wait. You can certainly try, but here’s something I was never taught in journo school: telephone is king.

Yes, it’s more time-consuming. Yes, you might be given a wrong number and end up talking to a housewife in Essex instead of an incumbent MSP. Yes, you might be like me, i.e. you have a voice that is barely understandable from three feet away, let alone through a crackling mobile connection. But calls are so much harder to miss or ignore than an email, which for all you know could be left languishing forever in the long-abandoned inbox of a UKIP PPC. Calls are immediate. Calls are urgent. Calls are just better.

They are for media work, anyway. I’ll still order Domino’s online.

4) You probably underestimate the effort that goes into preparing news coverage of a General Election

I know I did. Though I was working for the Pictures Desk, I shared office space with the dedicated Elections Desk, and even with a fortnight to go they were up to the necks in prep; hiring freelancers to cover every single results count, ringing up councils to make sure their list of 3,900 candidates was still correct, training placement students to help with admin on the night… In fact, on more than one occasion, the other researchers and I would be evicted from our desks half an hour early, so the Election team could do dry runs of their results coverage game plan.

Dry runs!

Of course, elections have always been the time for the press to bring their A-game – how else would we get such incredible innovations as the BBC’s debate reaction-o-meter? – but I’m now convinced that the amount of planning and foresight required is as high as anything outside an SAS operation. Props to those guys.

5) The District Line really is rubbish

Why are the newer, high-capacity trains never used for the breathtakingly congested Upminster route, and are instead wasted on ferrying two or three people to Wimbledon? Sort it out, Boris.

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