Mark Allen was a graduate trainee on the Sheffield Star before working for the Daily Express in Manchester, first as a reporter and then as a news and features sub-editor. He transferred to magazines in the 1970s as the launch editor of Community Care, Reed's flagship weekly social work magazine, before becoming the editor of Nursing Mirror. He was awarded the Professional Publishers Association editor of the year in the same year as Nursing Mirror also won the business magazine of the year and campaign of the year accolades. He then moved into publishing management, first with Reed and then with Thomson.
In 1985 he organised a management buyout and started his own business with two medical magazines. His company now has 62 magazines, employs 235 staff and has a turnover approaching £30 million. Mark has just completed his first novel, which he is hoping to have published, much of the backdrop to which involves journalism and publishing. In his free time he practises the tenor saxophone and enjoys walking.
My career in journalism started inauspiciously. I arrived at the Sheffield Star, unprepared for the rigours of this demanding craft in this exacting gritty city.
There were three huge handicaps to overcome. Firstly, I represented a relatively new and rare breed: I was a graduate, a somewhat despised species at that time.
Secondly, although I had been born by chance in Yorkshire, apart from the three years I spent at Durham University, my roots were firmly in the south-west of England. I had never before lived in a large northern city.
And thirdly – and most tellingly – a liberal education at a supposedly progressive public school, followed by a wishy-washy attempt to study social sciences at university, had given me a feeling for poetry and literature and putting the world to rights, but I shamefully lacked one of the absolute essentials for journalism: no one had previously instilled in me the importance of spelling.
My first day as a graduate trainee on The Star was excruciating. Not only could I not spell, but also I could not type. It took me a day to write a few paragraphs. I can’t remember what the story was about, but I do recall one of the executives on the paper screaming at me after I presented my copy. “Just because you are a f***ing graduate, it does not mean you can’t f***ing spell. You have spelt ‘accommodation’ with one f***ing ‘m’.” I needed to learn to spell…and fast!
The fact that I stayed the course and with some success owes everything to the encouragement I received from some of my peers, as well as the excellent NCTJ training I received.
In many ways, I consider the three indenture years I spent at the Sheffield Star, almost half of which were at the paper’s Rotherham branch office, as the best education I have ever received. It was a tough school, but to survive, it was essential to learn rapidly.
The two months’ block release course at Sheffield Polytechnic (as it then was) was particularly helpful in developing my skills. There were an engaging bunch of fellow graduates, from different papers, on the course, including Michael White, who subsequently became The Gurardian’s political editor.
For someone who was always impossibly late in handing in school or university essays, the discipline of deadlines was the second most important lesson to learn. In the years that have followed, I do not think I have ever failed to meet a deadline and this discipline has helped me not only as a journalist but also as a businessman.
I learnt to write in a crisp and accurate style, stripping out superfluous words. I would endlessly practice different ‘intros’. The training I received in media law and public affairs has enabled me to navigate my way around legal minefields, as well as different local government committees. Although shorthand was always an uphill struggle, it proved more than adequate when reporting from court.
So thank you, NCTJ, for coming to my rescue.