How I messed up my first job

November 4, 2016

This month marks 18 years since I started my first (proper) job, which means my career is the age of an entire human adult. It can now drink, vote and have sex. You could say it’s feeling pretty confident – it knows its way around the place, but it’s aware that there’s always more to learn.

The great thing is it never has to repeat the mistakes it made as a toddler…

“What might they have been?” I hear you ask. Well, writing is obviously not brain surgery, so no lives were lost. But lives were definitely… affected.

Let’s take a look at a little story from my very fist role as a ‘listings sub editor’…

From little acorns to mighty oaks

The year is 1998. The city, London. I’m finally in my first proper job after leaving university and finishing a journalism post-grad. My hopelessly naive dream of strolling into a job at Vogue has long vanished, and been replaced by the cold realisation that I’ll be lucky to scrape editorial assistant at Wind Tunnel International magazine.

But it’s ok. I’m in the press! At least I must be since this job is at the Press Association, a ‘UK-wide news agency’, which sounds much better than it is. This is because the news agency part is quite respectable as it sells news to media outlets who want the stories their reporters can’t cover. Good job. √

However, deep within this organisation is a ‘listings’ arm, which very much feels like the arse end. Judging by the salary they’re paying anyway. And the number of tramps at the doorway. It’s not clear whether they work here or not. I think a couple of them do.

I’d probably be earning more if I were still on the dole, but I’m fed up of the rejection letters and sitting on park benches crying with the pigeons. It’s time to build a career, so off I go.

I’m working three days a week in the listings department. But not the TV listings team, which sits opposite and seems glamorous by comparison (simply because it has ‘TV’ in the title I think). I’m in the ‘Arts and Ents’ team, which sounds like a piece of plastic cheese from the Trivial Pursuit board, but is in fact responsible for churning out times and dates for various newspapers and magazines so their readers know when to go to the cinema, theatre, night clubs etc.

My role is to input the weekly cinema times into a database, which looks like something Dr Who might have used. The process is to sit from Monday to Wednesday and wait for incoming faxes from cinemas across the country once they’ve decided what their film details are for that week. There’s a lot of sitting.

By Monday lunchtime we usually have a fax from ABC Streatham and Galashiels Pavilion, who kindly hand write theirs, which means it takes a bit longer to decipher and therefore feels a bit more skilled. Not quite what I trained for, but hey-ho.

After a lot more sitting by the fax and a bit of a rush towards the deadline (exciting!), all the data from around the country is in for that week and my job is done. It’s back to the pigeons for me, while my full-time colleagues run the data in the format their paper likes them in.

The gift of responsibility

If you were into these things – and I can’t think why you would be – you’d be aware that the way papers report their cinema times can differ ever so slightly. So The Mirror might say:

Babe: Pig in the City: 10:30, 14:15, 17:00 (not Mon-Thu)

Whereas The Metro on the other hand might put:

Babe: Pig in the City: 10.30am, 2.15pm, 5pm (Fri/Sat/Sun only)

You get the idea.

When you were inputting the data you had to put in all the possibilities via clunky short codes so that the person doing the editing at the other end could do a ‘search and select’ for the style they wanted and then drop the information into their paper’s template.

It wasn’t long before my talents were spotted and a few months later I was also a full timer, not just inputting the data, but also editing it for the Scotsman and the Guardian’s G2 section.

Check me!

I’m not sure whether the rapid career progression went to my head, but something led to a fatal lack of concentration one morning that would go on to affect the Scotsman’s cinema listings and one Scotsman in particular.

Andrew Neil, then Scotsman editor, already had it in for us due to some other similar mistake happening a few months earlier. Which means that if anyone else but Andrew Neil, Scotsman editor, had taken his young godchildren to see the Rugs Rats movie on the weekend when I’d said it was on (‘Sat/Sun only’) when it was in fact definitely not on (‘not Sat/Sun’) then I might have been none the wiser and might never have learned from my mistake.

But following the listing advice in his own paper (loyal) he’d set out that Saturday morning with these two nippers, quite rightly expecting to enjoy the cartoon film at the aforementioned time. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and Andrew made a very heated complaint first thing on Monday morning. It was the last straw for him.

I can’t remember the exact outcome – I didn’t get the sack or anything, in fact, no one seemed particularly bothered now I think about it – but it got me thinking – how many other peoples’ Saturdays had I momentarily ruined in this way? How many other kids’ screams had I single handedly caused? What power I had! What responsibility! I’d better take this job more seriously…

The moral of the story is of course that even if you’re working on something that seems very banal it can actually be pretty critical.

Everyone knows the ‘Let’s eat grandma’ grammar joke (there’s even a band named that now – how cool). There’s the ‘knowing your shit’ and ‘knowing you’re shit’ one too.

All these things seem very anally retentive when your dealing with the big picture. But honestly, they’re important.

Would you rather someone be confused about whether you offered x when in fact you offer y? How do you think it looks when your website talks about ‘You’re needs are important to us’? It suggests they’re not.

Don’t let your marketing copy fall into this trap. Check and double check again.

After all, no one ever complained that things were too clear!

November 4, 2016

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