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Take Five: Brian Aitken

Each week HTFP asks a leading regional press figure five set questions about their career – including how it started, their best story or headline, and which other journalists and publications they most admire.

This week: Brian Aitken, editor of The Journal, Newcastle.


What was your first job in journalism?

Trainee reporter with the Evening Express in Aberdeen, which was then owned by Thomson Regional Newspapers. I was sent to their training centre in Newcastle for five months before starting on-the-job training.

It was a brilliant environment in which to learn the ropes. Journalism was a well-paid profession in those days and I was surrounded by an incredible variety of talented people who you could not fail to learn from.

I was also fortunate that trainees at that time were mentored by a fantastic journalist called Dave King who was sadly suffering from MS but who remained a massive help to us all.

Who or what inspired you to go into journalism?

I came from a family of avid newspaper readers but I can’t claim to have answered any kind of calling.

I was 17 and doing summer jobs before beginning a Business Studies degree course when I decided I didn’t want to go to university – not something you could do nowadays.

I started scouring the jobs sections of The Courier and the Press and Journal and applied for numerous positions. One was for a trainee journalist with Aberdeen Journals. The recruitment process for that took so long that by the time I was offered the job I had already started working as a trainee banker. Hindsight may show that I made a mistake financially but I had already decided that banking was not for me.

What would you rate as your best story, headline or picture?

What a tough question to answer when you’ve worked in newspapers for over 30 years.

I am proud of what we have done at The Journal and the judges at this year’s Regional Press Awards described us as “a confident newspaper that knows where it is going and how it is going to get there.” I was so pleased to read that – but the accolade was not down to one thing in particular.

I guess the most far-reaching story of mine was revealing the deep-fried Mars bar to the world. I didn’t actually write the story because I wasn’t a reporter at the time but I told the Evening Express newsdesk about this craze that had started amongst pupils at Mackie Acedemy in Stonehaven in the fish and chip shop across the road from where I was living.

Our story was picked up by the Daily Record the following day – and then it went global. The Journal’s latest campaign is the Great North Fitness Revolution which is aimed at reducing the obesity levels of the people living in the North East.

You could say that is penance for me.

Who would you rate as the best journalist you have worked either with or for?

I have worked with so many talented people that I feel guilty about naming anyone. As far as reporters go then I have to single out the late Phil Mulvey who was a colleague of mine at the Evening Express and Daily Record.

Two subs who stand out are Sandy Chisholm, who was my chief sub on the Evening Express, and Alan Rowan, who I also worked with on the Express and Record. He is a brilliant headline writer – I can remember him reading an article on Jocky Wilson being confident of retaining his world darts crown and it took him seconds to come up with ‘Oche cocky Jocky’.

Of all the editors I have worked with Martin Clarke stands out in more ways than one – but what a fantastic newsman.

However there can only be one winner – or in this case two. They are both chief sports writers and both sadly departed. One is Jimmy Forbes from the Evening Express and the other is Alex Cameron of the Daily Record. Both were brilliant operators, had a fantastic contacts book, were fiercely protective of their area and status – and both were true gentlemen.

Apart from your own title, which regional or national newspaper do you most admire and why?

I have always liked the Daily Record, even before I worked for it – and for the past 15 years or so it has been one of the best designed newspapers in Britain. You have to salute The Sun and Daily Mail for being so good at targeting an audience and reaching it so well.

I also want to pay tribute to the work that Noel Doran has done on the Irish News. As soon as the shortlist for the Newspaper of the Year was published I told anyone who would listen that the Irish News would win.

But the newspaper I admire the most is Metro.

It’s the one newspaper innovation of recent years that we can all look on and say ‘what a great idea, I should have thought of that’.