Warning sign

24 Jul

I’ve always liked the little warning the New Yorker puts at the top of its “Night Life” listings:

“Musicians and night-club proprietors live complicated lives; it’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.”

I think what’s most appealing – apart from the commendably diplomatic use of the word “complicated” – is the combination of sympathy for the artistic personality mixed with concern for the magazine’s well-to-do sixtysomething readers, who it apparently fears may never have been exposed to the edgier side of after-dark entertainment.

You imagine an older couple on the Upper West Side reading it together at the breakfast table, fur coats and hats hanging by the door ready for their weekly night out on the town. “What about a rock concert, dear?” “How exciting! Shall we give it a try? It’ll be a lot racier than the Holbein retrospective.” “Yes – we’ll go, but we’ll be ready for anything. I’ll bring a blanket.” It’s certainly a better approach than the queueing-at-Tesco testiness of the complaints whenever Justin Bieber or Rihanna are late delivering product to their impatient consumers, who always seem to have somewhere else they need to be that night.

Dealing with wild, free-living, unpredictable Bohemians can be tricky – and production journalists would know, because we have to work with reporters. They’re not that much like musicians, of course, even though, on a scale of temperament that runs from scientist to pop star, they’re clearly nearer the latter than the former. But they’re not exactly actuaries either.

Home correspondents have to travel the length and breadth of the country, charm strangers, drink with criminals, hustle police officers, barrack politicians and cajole the bereaved, with one eye on the clock and the other on their laptop battery. Foreign correspondents and photographers have to drop their lives at a  moment’s notice, fly into war zones, source their own body armour, grease palms, adopt fixers, stand in front of bomb sites, and negotiate their own release from bandits. I say “have to” as though it were a chore: in fact, they enjoy it.

Sometimes they file so late they miss an entire edition. Sometimes two or three of you have to go and cheer them up in the pub where they’ve spent the whole afternoon with writer’s block. Sometimes you bump into them in the toilets refreshing themselves with the kind of stimulant you can’t easily find at a supermarket. And sometimes they make very strange mistakes: in one hard-hitting and passionate investigation I subbed recently by a highly respected veteran foreign correspondent, the sex of the protagonist changed from “he” to “she” halfway through.

Of course they’re not absolutely all like that. Specialist and technical correspondents such as economics writers are as sharp and as sober as you might expect, and consumer affairs journalists are a splendid middle-class combination of resourcefulness and indignation. And even though it takes place in noisy venues and late into the night, journalism’s not really rock’n’roll. But we could probably do with our own After Dark-style warning at the top of the newslist: reporters and photographers lead complicated lives; it’s advisable to have people check what they do in advance of publication.


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