The first day by Howard Amos

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Walking into the hulking FT office, which sits like some behemoth beside the Thames, did not do wonders for my sense of self-importance. Once through the tinted glass I sat and waited by a stand dispensing the salmon-pink sheets. Watching people streaming purposefully past I quickly began to feel like a child who has strayed somewhere he shouldn't have.

A friendly greeting, however, alleviated the sense of trespass and a welcome pack provided something to read. Then it was time for a guided tour of the building through the huge white offices hung with TVs and desk signs (nobody seemed to know what the mysterious 'Chinese Intelligence' desk did). The tour also involved a deluge of names: some familiar, some not, some soon to be. I began stacking up people and the locations of desks in my mind like pile of coloured bricks, eager to remember. It wasn't long, however, before the edifice, dangerously tall, tottered and crashed into the abyss. I gave up trying to remember everything.

I was then taken to the very heart of FT editorial decision making - to one of the 'spectator chairs' in a small meeting room where people observe morning 'Conference' (I haven’t seen the word written but the absence of definite article, and the reverence with which it is generally pronounced, implies the capital). 'Conference' is where today’s paper is reviewed and desk editors present what they anticipate will make their pages tomorrow. In almost self-consciously hushed tones it sees the development of the editorial line, the highlighting of some stories and the downgrading of others. If you’re lucky, you might even witness a telling-off: usually wry, always polite and measured, but a telling-off all the same.

Monday was devoted to training on the FT computer systems but, come my second day, I was slotted into a space at world news. Untidy stacks of old papers, telephone calls and constant good natured activity seemed to characterise the desk. Only the black-framed photos of murdered journalists were a reminder of the business’s less light-hearted side.

Watching the wires and picking out stories for some of the briefs was interesting, but seeing the daily cycle of spiralling frenzy as deadlines loomed and tempers frayed was even more absorbing. With people drifting in around 10 or 11 mornings tend to be relatively relaxed. Spurred on, however, by ‘late-breakers’, tardy correspondents and unforeseen mishaps, the pace of the day quickens inevitably with the afternoon until the sight of desk editors running across the office becomes the norm.

Days of observation and small tasks have helped my un-trained eyes to discern the functioning machine beneath the, at first impenetrable, barrage of journalistic jargon, unknown names and apparent chaos. No doubt the mystery will continue to unravel.


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