Sunday 26 May 2019

Working in a newsroom becomes part of your DNA - I already miss it terribly

Author Deirdre Purcell reflects on leaving RTÉ 'It Says in the Papers' slot

Balance: Deirdre Purcell spent six years on 'Morning Ireland' on RTÉ doing the 'It Says in the Papers' slot of the show. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Balance: Deirdre Purcell spent six years on 'Morning Ireland' on RTÉ doing the 'It Says in the Papers' slot of the show. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Last Sunday morning, I drove through RTÉ's security barrier for the very last time to review the morning newspapers. It was a dry, still morning, no traffic noise audible from beyond the boundary walls and before swiping my way into the TV building, I stood for a few moments to listen to the fluting of a blackbird while trying to catch a last glimpse of the pitifully skinny fox I had often spotted foraging around the supports of the station's mast.

Throughout my six years broadcasting in the 'It Says in the Papers' slot, RTÉ went through many changes. Most physically evident, of course, was the reduction in size of that once-glorious campus when land was sold to alleviate, at least in part, the organisation's perilous finances.

I did try, mentally and emotionally, to adjust to that one, but couldn't help but mourn the loss of what had been, since my first arrival into RTÉ in 1974, an extraordinary amenity, restful for staff, home to choirs of birds and busy squirrels, sporting large daffodil patches and up to relatively recently, a little company of ducks and ducklings occupying a grassy hollow behind a bust of Gay Byrne.

During this latter stint, I've read on the newsroom noticeboard, increasingly frequent thank-you letters addressed to colleagues from retiring staff and some relatively young who have availed of "retirement packages".

And from the perspective of my quiet 'It Says in the Papers' desk, seated in a shallow sea of opened and half-opened newspapers on the floor and on every available surface, including nearby chairs, I have watched staff further up the newsroom work ever faster and harder, multi-tasking, filling, as locums, staff gaps or absences.

Yet even on the quietest of quiet news days, the communal assumption remains: something terrible (or unexpectedly wonderful like the discovery that there is an Irish winner of a substantial Euromillions jackpot) can happen at any moment and could be imminent: the announcement of a snap election, the unexpected death of someone notable or dear to the national heart such as Big Tom. All involved live subject to the timeless demand of the scouts: Bigi Ullamh!

Of course I heard complaints - about bloody contracts, bloody management, bloody computers but that happens, I'd guess, even in Apple.

At the heart though, most journalists believe that news gathering, being first with the news, is a brilliant job. Even when they leave it, it doesn't leave them because it has infiltrated their blood to become part of their DNA.

For me, this past six years has confirmed this affliction and although I did have good reasons (three books to deliver within the next two-and-a-half years) I was loath to leave RTÉ's newsroom. I already miss it terribly.

So how is the script produced for 'It Says in the Papers'?

"With delightful difficulty" is how I would categorise the task; although speed is necessary, so is accuracy, fairness and good judgment.

The papers arrive in succession from around 3.30am most days, and for me the creative challenge was to fashion a coherent narrative arc from what editors had deemed their most newsworthy stories of that morning. When choices became consensus, I searched for some new detail or differing quote within each main story.

I do have sympathy for editors, knowing that these first editions now operate in catch-up mode, not just against broadcasting and their own IT feeds, but against social media, competing, in particular, with the citizen journalism of Twitter.

To leaven the main scripts, for my "So, what else?" additions to the slightly longer, second broadcasts after the nine o'clock radio bulletin, I tried to winkle out those "water cooler stories", so-called because I think they are what workers chat about during breaks - or while waiting in queues at post offices; 'Did you hear about that elephant born with two left feet - in CARLOW?'

And I did try to be fair, to mention all titles at least once; if I couldn't manage this, to balance out my coverage over the course of that week - or weekend.

For six years, I travelled to RTÉ through the city's dark nights and pre-dawn days and can confirm sight of the Tiger's extending claws - but that's another story.

As I climbed that marble staircase towards the newsroom for the last time, I was remembering not Tigers but how upset I was after my final 'Morning Ireland' broadcasts on the Friday with Gavin Jennings acknowledging, on air, my contribution to the programme with such warmth I could barely hold it together.

But it was now Sunday.

"So that's it," I said, handing back to the newsreader (and fellow 'It Says in the Papers' presenter) Clodagh Walsh, at 9.08am.

She pulled back the fader, the red light went off and that actually was it.

Irish Independent

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