Paul Simon is the culture production editor at The Guardian and The Observer, leading a team of subs who edit arts coverage for both print and web. He joined The Observer in 2000, and moved up from news sub to chief sub of its travel section, then chief sub of the New Review section when the newspaper switched to the berliner print format in 2005. He took responsibility for subbing The Guardian’s arts coverage in 2013.
Before joining The Observer, Paul worked for six years as a news sub at The Sunday Times, and before that he freelanced as a sub of the medical news weekly Pulse and other business titles, and as a reporter, mostly at the now-defunct Today.
He trained as a reporter from 1987-89 at the Express & Star, the Wolverhampton-based evening daily that ran an NCTJ-accredited in-house training scheme.
He says: “I went travelling after university, with very little idea of what career to pursue when I returned. The mid-80s were a dispiriting time for many graduates like me, out of sync with prevailing government attitudes and feeling excluded from an outwardly laddish, house-price-boom culture – not unlike the situation for many young people today, I suspect.
“But I met a BBC journalist in Australia, and he painted a picture of journalism as a profession with room for all kinds of people with diverse interests and opinions. He assured me it wasn’t just for English graduates (I’d done science). So, back home in Kent, I applied for a million BBC trainee jobs and journalism college courses, and found a starter editorial assistant position on a health trade magazine in London. I got offered places to do a print journalism course in Portsmouth, and radio journalism in Falmouth, but – being a crucial couple of years older than most applicants, and needing to earn as I learned – I opted for a two-year indentureship at the Express & Star.
“There were a dozen of us on the course, split between the E&S and its sister paper the Shropshire Star. For the first three months, we spent our days at the company’s dedicated training centre in Wolverhampton, under the guidance of a senior former journalist called Brian Mason. We learned practical journalism, local and central government organisation, and law, and took preliminary exams in January 1988. I found it all fascinating, and wished I’d had the opportunity at school to find out how courts and public services work. It’s made me a keen advocate of citizenship lessons.
“We also toiled long hours learning Teeline shorthand and I passed my 100wpm first time, much to my surprise. My zoology degree may have helped – the extract read by our teacher was about a nature scheme to protect badgers and squirrels! We didn’t know it at the time, but the first four trainees to pass 100wpm got placements in district offices of the daily papers, and the rest were placed on weeklies.
“I started off as a reporter in the Dudley office, covering the daily round of courts, police briefings and council meetings, and chasing up tip-offs from the public. I spent my second year in the Stafford office. Hours were long, every other weekend and a couple of nights on duty per week, but it was always stimulating. I learned a huge amount from my senior reporters, and the standards imposed by the central news desk in Wolverhampton were exacting.
“We took final exams – called the proficiency test – at the end of our two years’ apprenticeship, which meant our salaries jumped to the company’s standard reporter’s wage. I could have stayed on the paper after that, but a relationship took me away, and I pitched up in London.
“My NCTJ training, and the reputation of the Express & Star for accuracy, stood me in good stead. Previous E&S trainees had paved the way to the nationals before me, too, which helped open doors. I got a day job on Pulse, spending my days subbing stories about GPs’ finances, and would dash into town to do reporting shifts in the evenings and at weekends, mostly at Today but occasionally at the Daily Mail. I never managed to get any shifts on the broadsheets, to my distress.
“My most memorable reporting shift was spent in Downing Street, the night before Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister. After the TV crews packed up, I stood guard opposite No 10’s front door as a steady stream of Tory MPs – young men in grey suits – came to pay their respects. But many shifts were frustrating: I’d be sent out on a story, spend the day chasing leads, then return to the office with my quotes to find the world and the story had moved on.
“The first Gulf War kicked off after that, and my shifts were generally spent collating wire copy and phoning contacts for additional information. I realised my skills probably lay more in editing than being a newshound on the street. So I switched to subbing, which paid better, and allowed me finally to get on to broadsheets. I’ve kept my writer’s hand in with a few travel pieces.
“In my job now, I spend more time subbing copy for the internet than for print. Because it potentially has a bigger, global audience, each web item still requires attention to detail and alertness to legal danger. That NCTJ training is my constant foundation."