Thursday, 21 June 2012

Why I love journalism (despite the lack of recognition and money)

In 2005, I was offered an “internship” at Jornal O Dia, in Rio. It was a paid internship, for two years, at the end of which I would be offered a promotion if I proved myself to be good enough.

I call it “internship”, between quotation marks, because even though I was paid half the wages of a “reporter I” (the first title at “professional” level), I was expected to do the same amount of work. I would go to uni in the mornings, from 7.30am until 11.30am, and go straight to the newsroom in the afternoons.

It was called internship because of a pathetic law in Brazil that doesn’t allow newspapers to hire reporters unless they have a journalism degree. So that opened up an opportunity for newspapers to hire people in their early 20s, still at uni, for half the amount they would pay a reporter with a degree, and make them work full time and just as hard. All they had to do was call them interns.

It was a triple whammy for them: I was cheap, couldn’t join the union, and didn’t have life insurance – so if anything happened to me at work, my family wouldn’t get a penny from anyone. It was almost as if there was no sign of my existence, except for the outstanding amount of column inches I filled every day.

I worked at the showbiz desk. I hated the showbiz desk. But if I wanted to work at a newspaper, I had to suck up and do it. My set chores were to write the children’s theatre and dance sections of the weekend guide, and type up (you read it right) the whole cinema listings for the week on Tuesdays – an eight-hour task.

Every week, I tried my best to get features and stories in the daily showbiz supplement, Caderno D, and, more often than not, I succeeded. Still, not my favourite thing.

I usually worked as much overtime as I could fit in, so I would get paid more. Eventually, I saw myself working closely with the Saturday editor (fashion editor), Marcia Disitzer, the most amazing person ever. She invested in me – so much so she even left me in charge of editing her fashion column whenever she was away.

The best thing, however, were the mandatory weekend shifts. God, I loved those.

As I wrote here before, those were our crime shifts. We worked on a rota, and had to do one weekend every four weeks. I’d sometimes take on other people’s shifts if I needed the money or had nothing planned for the weekend (yeah, I know…).

Even though the everyday work at the showbiz desk taught me the basics of journalism – news writing, accuracy, law (we wrote a lot about celebrities), the ins-and-outs of a daily publication – it was at the news desk that I felt truly at home as a cub reporter.

I would normally do the 7am shifts on both Saturday and Sunday. I remember the 7am shifts weren’t really meant for beginners – you had to take over from the night shift, and make sure nothing went unnoticed, so you could pass it on to the news editor, who usually arrived at 7.30am, sometimes 8am.

If you were on the 7am shift, there was also the possibility you would get a call in the middle of the night, telling you a newspaper driver would pick you up at 5.30am because a high-profile drugs’ lord had been killed, and the news desk needed support. That happened to me once.

And you would be on your own, running the news-gathering in the newsroom while the teams (reporters and snappers) were away, and the news editor too busy getting reports from the scene.

O Dia’s newsroom had something called the “bug room” (not for phone-hacking or individual surveillance, just to be clear). It was a tiny corner room with big glass windows all round, from where I could see my news editor, who sat in a strategic position, sort of at the top of the news desk, right in the middle.

In that room, I had a phone, a computer, and two radio scanners used to scan the police frequency. Technically, it was illegal to do that – but everyone knew all newspapers had a similar room, police included. Any time they even hinted at trying to shut it down, the press would cry out censorship, and ask why they needed secrecy attending incidents around the city.

There was, and still is (though I hear police managed to get themselves unlistenable radio frequencies these days), a clear and absolute public interest in monitoring the activities of a knowingly corrupt and murderous police force, and I’ll forever defend the activities of Jornal O Dia and others in Rio.

So my job, for sometimes 14 hours per shift, was to make sure we knew everything that was going on in Rio and surrounding districts. I would have to phone a hundred and something police stations (civil police), to ask whether they had any crimes reported in their area, the other hundred and something military police battalions to ask if they had been called to any crime scenes or incidents, plus the other hundred and something fire brigades, to check if any incidents had happened overnight, in case the night shift hadn’t picked them up, or they’d happened after they called.

I would keep in touch with my colleagues from other newspapers – we all had the same sources for incidents that had just happened (unless someone had called in), so we shared what we had and consulted each other to decide whether it was safe to send a team to an incident.

Newspapers aren’t very popular with drug dealers in Rio, for obvious reasons, so we would always have to be careful about ambushes and traps, and not exposing our reporters to any unnecessary danger.

My main jobs were to know everything, send my news editor hourly updates, make sure our reporters didn’t get killed (sometimes we had to trust our instincts before sending teams out to incidents and that was terrifying), write all the straightforward news stories, and talk to oddballs on the phone. There were plenty of calls from good old Rio oddballs.

The news editor, Hilka Telles, was a scary middle-aged woman. Award-winning crime reporter with decades of experience, and tough as a rock. Everyone was frightened of her. I loved her. She would sit there with her big hair, chain smoking (the newspaper had enforced a smoking ban, but she was the only person allowed to smoke in the newsroom because of her 40-a-day habit), telling people with her fag hag voice what journalism was all about.

Hilka Telles on the phone as a young reporter at an 80s "bug room" in Rio.
This one was at Jornal do Brasil
Sometimes Hilka would relieve me from being in the “bug room” and send me out to incidents (never the hairy ones because I didn’t have life insurance, though I’ve been in the cross-fire a couple of times).

She used to call the showbiz desk “celeb whores” and our colorful hipster desks “whore dressers” – I could hardly contain a giggle whenever she said that. She was so right.

And I loved all that. For reasons I cannot explain, because I don’t want to identify them, I had many sources in the police force, even a couple in the elite squad, so I would often sneak into the other side of the newsroom, where the news desk was, and give her stories. Sometimes she would let me work on them, sometimes the showbiz editor would tell us both off, so I had to surrender the story to one of the crime reporters.

By the end of it all, nearly in 2007, I was offered a “reporter I” position. I hadn't finished my degree yet, but whenever they came across "outstanding" cub reporters, they used a loophole to hire them as reporters (legally they would be hired as "autonomous workers", in practice, they were reporters), so they promised me a position.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I had already decided to move to the UK, for personal reasons. I loved every crime shift I did at that newspaper, every story I wrote, every scary situation I was thrown in, but the nearly two years of exploitation had taken their toll. I wanted a bit of change, and some employment rights too. But I still miss it dearly.

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