Business Irish

Tuesday 28 March 2017

A masterclass in journalism by one of the greats

Laura Noonan remembers lessons learned from Alan Ruddock

SOME media graduates go to DCU for their masters, some go to Dublin Business School, some go to exotic hubs like London and New York. Straight out of college, I chose deepest Carlow as the place to nurture my journalistic aspirations.

Hopelessly naive and barely 21 years old, I agreed to research a book on Michael O'Leary. It was being written by Alan Ruddock, a widely-acclaimed journalist and editor who died last weekend at the too-young age of 49.

The commission agreed, I duly decamped to Ruddock's Tullow home, expecting the kind of menial and mind-numbing work they warn you about in college. Instead I got my very own tailor-made masters. Over the three and a half years we spent avoiding writing a book -- my masters was a lot of things but it wasn't fast -- I learned far more about making my way as a journalist than I could have at any college.

On the endless journeys between Carlow's train station and Ruddock's house, I'd listen while my new boss dissected Radio 1's broadcasts, taking mental notes as he suggested angles to advance the story of the day.

He'd tell stories about his time as editor of 'The Scotsman' and about his time as a full-time journalist in Ireland many moons ago, working for the 'Sunday Tribune' and the 'Sunday Times'.

He'd show me cuttings books from an age gone by, and tell me stories about how to get stories.

"In the 'Sunday Times' in London, if you got to the end of the week and you didn't have a big stack of receipts, they'd want to know what you'd been doing, why you hadn't been taking enough people out for lunch," he told me early on.

Contacts were everything. Never lose a person's phone number. Never lose track of where people end up. Never screw anyone over, because you might need them in the future, and because you shouldn't anyway.

Principles were big as well. Never buy into PR spin. Always remember the function you're there to perform -- to discover, to inform and to do it in a readable way. Never fall into the trap of thinking the important must be written in a dull way, or the complicated must be written in a turgid way.

Then there was attitude. "Be calm and unflappable" was always his advice in times of crisis. Value what you bring to the table but don't join the ranks of journalists whose egos outstrip their talents.

Always be aware of your surroundings, always have a plan of where you're headed, and never make it in the heat of the moment.

Variety was another biggie. Broadsheets might be the holy grail in established journalism colleges, but Ruddock plumped for time at a tabloid. "Apart from the obvious benefits of brevity, it also focuses far greater clarity on story selection and presentation," he wrote in an email dispatch.

Having spent time in Johannesburg in his early days and later worked in London and Scotland, Ruddock was also a big advocate of global experience, encouraging his young researcher to explore how the journalism game is played beyond the home territory.

As my career began to progress, the advice kept on coming. My first published interview was assessed with a critical eye. Parts of quotes were struck out, paragraphs were swapped around and reformed. "Otherwise, it's quite good," came the final comment.

When I began to pick up more work, I was often glued to my computer screen at all hours. One night, Ruddock popped his head into the office, told me to leave it until the morning, and silenced my protestations with a simple and obvious piece of advice that's stuck with me ever since: "I've never seen a paper with blank pages."

My masters wasn't perfect. There were times when the process of writing a book was infuriating beyond belief. There were times when the advice seemed too hard to follow, when the bar seemed too high to clear. And there were times when I thought it would be much easier to fulfil his lofty aspirations if I were free of the book.

But the drawbacks were tiny compared to what I gained. I got to learn the ins and outs of journalism from someone who knew the world inside out; from one of our best. And I got a grounding that will stand to me for the rest of my career, reinforced by a hard-drive full of advice from times past.

My favourite, the piece that reverberates around in my head the most, is the simplest line of all. Years ago, floundering under the pressure of office politics that was probably nowhere near as bad as I thought, I sent Ruddock an SOS.

He replied with lengthy eloquent prose, going through each issue point by point and detailing how I should respond, before distilling a whole page down to one sentence -- "In other words, just get stories".

In the credits to our long-overdue book, Ruddock detailed my contribution and finished with the words "I am in her debt". Truly though, I will always be in his.

Irish Independent

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