Phil’s Forty, 28: Journalism

In such a fast-paced world and a media industry which bears hardly any resemblance to the one I entered I cringe inside whenever I’m asked for advice by aspiring journalists.

Phil Ascough.
Phil Ascough.

Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often and – whatever the latest trends, tool and technology – there are a couple of attributes that remain essential.

Trust is the biggest. Earn it, treasure it and expect it in return and there’s a good chance you’ll keep your key contacts forever.

As a reporter visiting Hull Prison for the Yorkshire Post in the early 1980s I was quietly chuffed when the new governor told me he knew my name because his predecessor had noted it in the back of the office diary. It was on a list of trusted journalists. There was a longer list for those who the previous governor considered would be more at home in the cells.

Also important is to give yourself options. Don’t try to specialise too early in your career, if ever. The greater the range of experience you accumulate, the easier it will be to change to something else if you think you’re heading down a cul-de-sac in your career. That flexibility is a great asset, particularly when it comes to the world of PR.

Variety is why I went into journalism in the first place and it’s why I turned down jobs as a music journalist in London and a sports reporter in Doncaster to come to Hull as a general news reporter. Both the roles I rejected would have been fantastic stepping stones to top level music and sports writing, but I got there anyway by demonstrating versatility in my work and my interests.

The key to that is never turning down an assignment. If it’s dull, like yet another morning covering a trial lasting several weeks of gas workers accused of thieving parts to support their guvvy jobs, just get on with it and relish the more interesting jobs. 

If it’s uncomfortable – and there’s nothing worse than knocking on the door of a bereaved family after tragedy has struck – your only option if you are serious about your job is to see it through. Most of the time whoever opens the door will politely decline an interview. For every person who growls, shouts or threatens there really is another who will welcome your interest and be keen to share their memories of the person they’ve lost.

You have to be patient, presentable, a good listener and lucky. It wouldn’t be appropriate in Hull’s tight-knit community to name names but, as crime reporter for the Yorkshire Post, I was first to knock on the family’s door after one of the most high-profile, headline-grabbing murders in the area in the last 50 years. The family had nothing to say but, as time passed, I came to know them well, largely because of the trust I had built up with the top detectives in the region.

In the modern age, many journalists can get everything they need for a story from a person’s social media accounts, so don’t share anything on Facebook that you’re not comfortable seeing in the paper or even on TV.

But there was a time when if you were trying to dig up some background on a case your only option was to speak to the people at the heart of it. The phone directory was your starting point, and for years I used to keep them year on year because it was remarkable how many people used to go ex-directory but not change their number.

But the phone book wasn’t faultless and there were countless times when all you could do was drive and walk round the locale of the people you were looking for, chatting to people in pubs and in the streets, knocking on doors, asking the right questions.

A Yorkshire Post news editor once told my photographer colleague that it was nonsense to suggest you picked up the best stories in pubs. That’s why we went out and about, and he stayed safely behind a desk in the office.

Investigating another murder, I set out with a photographer to try and find the family of the accused. We had their surname and we knew the area where they lived. There was nothing in the phone book. There was a milkman, even in the afternoon, but he’d never heard of them.

Phil Asough.
Phil Ascough.

We drew another blank with a postman doing late deliveries and then we spotted the pools collector. No, he said. He didn’t know anybody by that name but if we were after a story we should go to number 37, where the occupants were called Painter, and the people next door were called Decorator.

Totally ridiculous, but we didn’t want to be the journalists who laughed off the story only to find later that it was true. You have one chance to get a belting story. There was nobody at home at 37 or 35, so I tried across the road. Yes, said the lady at 46, the people at 37 are called Painter, but I’m sure the ones at 35 are called Robinson.

My colleague took a picture of me as I walked back to the gate. He stuck it on the office wall with the caption: “Juggler loses his balls!”

Phil Ascough.
Phil Ascough.

Phil Ascough

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.