Books and House & Home by Tamzin Baker

Tuesday 30 November 2010

As a teenager growing up in a small town in northern California, Jay McInerney's novel, Bright Lights, Big City, held special allure. I picked it up one summer and poured over its pages at the breakfast table, during lunch breaks from Driver’s Ed, and at night in bed. Strangely enough, it wasn’t the narrator’s misadventures in a foreign city that intrigued me most, but the details of a job that seemed paradoxically straightforward and complicated: fact-checking.

There is something quite satisfying about the process of fact checking, an unexpected discovery I made as an intern at the Books/House & Home desk. Perhaps it is in act of research, navigating through varied sources, or perhaps it is in the accumulation of small details, esoteric and banal. Though I’m sure to forget most of what I’ve looked up, it’s entertaining to think about the amalgam of details floating around in the back of my mind.

I was, for example, amused to discover that Helianthus annuus is Latin for sunflower, and that Ragged Robin isn’t the name of a garden bird, but of a fragile, pink flower. Even more satisfying are the historical facts, the discovery that Marcel Proust tucked a freshly cut flower into his lapel every morning, that he wore an otter-lined overcoat until its fur rubbed down to a waxy brown leather; I never knew that Tolstoy insisted on drinking Koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, while reading from his Greek tutor, Herodotus, or that he suffered a nervous breakdown shortly following the completion of his masterpiece, Anna Karenina. These details may strike some as mere trivia, but for me, they provide a richer context.

I have carried out a number of other duties, and I’ve even been able to write the odd piece here and there. I have most enjoyed the feeling of participating, albeit in the smallest way, to the production of this publication. And now when I read pieces of remarkable reporting, I will try to imagine the people who meticulously paused over every name, place, and number, every noun for verification. And like Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, who was once so floored by a piece of writing that he vowed to honour the fact-checker with a paid holiday to Iceland, I will think of all those behind the scenes who helped bring the article to fruition.

Storms batter Britain by Alexander Williams

Wednesday 24 November 2010

“Storms Batter Britain”, ran the headline on the METRO. It was not far wrong, as I was nearly blown into the Thames, crossing from Bank to the London office of the Financial Times. Sitting in the morning Conference half an hour later, I was significantly more comfortable.

A problem with the video-link to Hong Kong was forcing someone to call “Demetri?” with increasingly frustrated vehemence into the audio system. “They can’t hear us,” it was eventually concluded, although it might have been the other way round. It was the only meeting I suspect I’ll go to where whoever wasn’t talking looked to be reading the Financial Times.

From the outset at the FT, I was surprised by the open atmosphere. The morning Conference contained each of the leading Editors, including Lionel Barber. Outside of the Conference Boardroom, a host of familiar faces were either promptly introduced, or were to be seen sitting nearby. Andrew Hill and the entire UK Companies team were within listening distance and the banter between them was lively: is Rolls-Royce like BP, has the President of the World Bank gone bonkers, does Guy Hands think he belongs to the mafia? That at least was the tone in the morning; in the afternoon, a more subdued concentration set-in, as pieces were scrambled in on time.

The Lex team meanwhile could be seen pondering the day’s news, their brain’s bulging. “They’re Geniuses,” one reporter told me. Among them, John Authers could be seen agonising over bond price charts on Bloomberg that no-one else outside PIMCO could otherwise understand.

Short of shirts for my internship, I’d ordered one at the last minute from John Lewis, only to be horrified when it arrived to see that it bore a breast-pocket, nerdy enough to be brimming with leaking bic pens and perhaps a calculator. I had heard stories of City interns having such things torn off, by traders anxious to assert that their index finger was no longer than that which they swore would never carry a wedding ring. But at the FT I need not have worried. Frumpy jumpers and ill-fitting overcoats clearly distinguish the City journalist from the less thoughtful beast, whose movements it is his duty to examine and follow.

Artemis fund-managers have long run a memorable advertising campaign, portraying themselves as colonial-era khaki-sporting hunters and explorers, eyeing-up profits in exotic, jungle-bound corners of the globe. But my time at the FT has taught me that the financial services industry is more like a squat-faced baboon, grouped into violent tribes, swinging perilously from trees, whilst maintaining the strangest eating habits. The City journalist meanwhile looks on from a distance precisely removed, with bemused but scientific perplexity. The older journalists peer over their glasses at stock charts like David Attenborough examining a butterfly, whilst younger reporters bound around with the enthusiasm of Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands, aged 26.

This aside, the FT is the most absorbing organisation I have ever been allowed inside. The balance between the high-brow content and the succinct reportage on the one hand and the good humour of the journalists on the other, is no less intriguing than the way in which a story is first commissioned, then filed, before being edited and sub-edited, finally being turned-out with an immaculate FT veneer.

One ought to expect nothing less from what Jim Rogers calls, “the world’s best newspaper.” The shirt pocket remained intact.

The Friendly Face Behind the Finance by Amie Tsang

Monday 15 November 2010

Michael Moore reappeared earlier this year with a new film and a new reason to be angry. This time it was capitalism. A number of filmmakers have since followed in his footsteps, looking at how the banking system unraveled and left the economy struggling. Two years after the financial crisis, the time has come for filmmakers to present to the world their version of events.

They are not the only ones grappling with the economic climate and trying to give it a storyline. The FT Weekend Magazine had a makeover just before I started my internship and they too have been putting a human face to the statistics and numbers reported on in the newspaper.

The continuation between the daily newspaper and the weekend supplements means that from day to day I’ll be immersed in anything from scientific studies to divorce and torture law. If you didn’t read last week’s issue, torture and divorce are in separate articles - nobody was making that sort of judgment. That issue came out just days before Bush published his memoirs and defended waterboarding, so you are never in a void here.

Nonetheless, as much as the news varies, the overall mixture of features still brings surprising variety to my day. I didn’t expect to find myself ringing up music publishers in the US to find out about rights to Mos Def’s lyrics and I’ve spent an unprecedented amount of time discussing sports equipment and the ‘vajazzle’. (Admittedly, the latter was overspill from Life & Arts, where the Essex mockumentary has become an unlikely hot topic.)

You’ll have gathered from the other blog entries that FT internships aren’t based on your ability to make tea, but the magazine really has been very inclusive and not simply by using me as work overflow. Everyone who works on the magazine has made an effort to involve me in the process, from including me in a meeting so I know what I’m researching to giving me advice about pitching articles and fretting over where I am sitting.

So yes, there are numbers and a lot of them, from the box outs in the magazine to the derivatives in the FT Trading Room that I had the chance to learn about. But there are also narratives that run through the entire newspaper and interning at the FT Magazine is a chance to see the more human side of the publication, through the work of the people at the FT as well as the people themselves.

A Day in the Life of an FT Life&Arts Intern by Alexandra Coghlan

Thursday 4 November 2010

“We live in Financial Times”, the FT’s slogan tells us. It’s a tagline that speaks with ever more urgent truth in a world of budget deficits and national debt. Writing on the eve of the announcements that will decide the fate of the UK’s publicly-funded arts institutions, it’s impossible to ignore the dependent relationship between national finance and its poorest of relations – the arts.

As a time to undertake an internship on the FT’s Life & Arts desk it’s a curious one, offering the chance to stand in the wings and observe simultaneously the backstage financial workings and the onstage artistic activity that they enable.

Mirroring broader trends, the Life & Arts team is a very small unit within the international FT machine. A veteran of faceless and nameless internships – you learn very quickly to respond to shouts of “Intern” or “You, in the corner” – it has been a relief to find myself part of such a close team.

Sitting in amongst the action and hearing the conversations and issues that pass across the desk (topics this month included a lively and implausibly protracted discussion of “vajazzling”, prompted by new TV series The Only way is Essex, which spawned not one but two separate conversational follow-ups) is an oddly educational aspect of the placement. You can follow stories as they turn from suggestions into commissions, and watch trends emerge from the disparate preoccupations of the travel, fashion, arts and books sections.

As to the work itself, it’s the usual artsy, none-too-arduous mix of tasks. Fact-checking becomes rather less mundane when the facts in question are the hottest restaurants and clubs in a hip Brooklyn district, or the precise locations of obscure Cambodian temples. Proofreading articles also allows you to see the progress of a piece from its earliest stages to final product, a development that exposes and explains the editorial priorities and preferences of the section more effectively than any conversation.

Pitching, writing or researching sidebars brings a welcome opportunity for you to craft your own topic and undertake your own research. With subjects this month including Stephen Sondheim and W.H. Auden, there’s a wonderful uncertainty as to what will come next.

We may live in financial times, but we also live in times that have produced the first internet choir, let all of us take our turn on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth – an age willing to fill Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with millions of hand-painted sunflower seeds (even if we’re not allowed to walk on them). What better time to spend in the FT office, where Life & Arts come as an inseparable pair.