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Reporter opens up on ‘insane’ end to career after 42 years in journalism

Red WilliamsVeteran reporter Red Williams, pictured, has said farewell to the industry after 42 years in regional and national journalism.

His career began on the former Evening Despatch, in Darlington, and has now come to what he calls an “insane” end trying to “replicate what a fully-staffed up team had been doing” while freelancing for three days a week at the Harborough Mail, in Leicestershire.

In between, the 64-year-old has worked for national tabloids and news agencies, covering some of the biggest stories of the last four decades.

Here, in his own words, Red tells the story of his career and gives his thoughts on how journalism has changed during that time.

I have just hung up my trusty notebook after over 42 years at the sharp end of news all over the country.

I put my last Harborough Mail to bed on 21 July after starting out at the brilliant Evening Despatch in Darlington on 14 January 1980.

Working back at the grassroots again has given me a dramatic insight into the way that local and regional newspapers are run these days.

So I’ve decided to write a highly-personal piece showcasing my start in this incredible rock and roll job of ours alongside my finish after seeing our once mighty industry turned upside down and inside out.

Walking in to the noisy Despatch newsroom in Priestgate in Darlo over four decades ago as a cub reporter I was immediately struck by a whole battalion of typewriters being hammered.

I struggled to see my fellow hacks at times through the thick fog of swirling cigarette smoke.

But they were all there bashing away as blowtorch young editor Robin Thompson led a top team of up and at ‘em battle-hardened journalists.

Deadlines and editions came and went amid the cut and thrust of an action-packed newsroom just feet away from a heavyweight Northern Echo operation led by the legendary Mike Amos.

I’ll never forget the heart-beating thrill of dashing out to big breaking stories and racing to file your copy from a phonebox – only to find it had been vandalised.

And listening and learning over a lunchtime pint or three at our local the Red Lion as dyed-in-the-wool journos who’d been there and done it and got the front page waxed lyrical.

Huge clanking fans whirred overhead in the summer heat, blowing our sheets of purple prose across the cluttered desks.

As well as our inspirational leader Tommo, genuinely big characters such as news ed and celebrated poet Barry MacSweeney, star newsman Tony Watson and media titan to be Peter Sands lit up the Despatch as we punched well above our weight day in day out.

Some of the late Barry Mac’s earliest and most intense words to me as a rookie still ring in my ears: “Always go for the hardest line – and give it all you’ve got.”

And I still recall feeling 10 feet tall when he told me after I’d rang over a serious house fire in Newton Aycliffe for that afternoon’s splash: “Well done – now you’ve got the knack.”

Cutting my teeth in such a ‘live’ and dynamic, challenging tabloid theatre of news set me up for an all-action lifelong career in and out of the trenches.

I ran the Despatch’s office in my hometown Bishop Auckland alongside John Dean, now a best-selling crime author, before heading 250 miles south to revive Ipswich Press Agency for Derby-based Raymonds.

I covered massive stories such as the Hungerford Massacre and £62 million Knightsbridge Security Deposit robbery for the Evening Standard and Daily Mail in the summer of 1987 before leaving London to work at the Coventry Evening Telegraph.

I helped to launch UK News, fired up to take down PA, in January 1993 before setting up a national and international syndication mission for Archant in August 2002.

Working at home in Market Harborough, we raked in a lorryload of cash for the Norwich-based group over almost 16 years until I was thrown overboard in the spring of 2018.

Via the Stamford Mercury, I jumped in to become the Harborough Mail’s reporter in August 2019.

Owner Johnston Press – now National World – had shut the historic weekly’s much-loved town centre HQ in 2012.

And the paper, founded in 1854, had seen better days after being effectively run remotely for eight months.

Working at home as a freelance three days a week, I pulled out all the stops to reconnect with the thriving community here.

Tapping away on my laptop, the wheel had turned full circle since my halcyon heyday in the clatter and the drama at the old Despatch.

But I wasn’t reinventing the wheel, just getting it moving again – talking to people, covering council meetings, haring off to 999 dramas.

It’s insane that as a part-time reporter I was trying to replicate what a fully-staffed up team had been doing.

As stalwart newspaper freelances everywhere will know, I’ve forked out for my own notebooks and pens as well as paying for my mobile and broadband.

I was paid less per day than I was earning shifting on a Saturday at the News of the World in London in 1989 – some 33 years ago!

It also seems crazy to me that we give away for free so much cracking news, so many stories, on our website every day – so what’s the point of buying the paper?

The suits are obsessed with online hits targets and I used to get the latest up-to-date figures every morning to kickstart the day.

But what do they actually mean in terms of pounds, shillings and pence?

And surely a good story is not defined by how many people have read it?

On the positive side I’ve been backed up all the way by my excellent fully-committed staff colleague – who also has to look after several other local weeklies.

It’s madness that I had to put in even more hours to write the following week’s Mail as well if I took time off because there was no one else to do it.

And I even delayed my retirement by a week to allow my brother-in-arms to go away with his family for a damned well-deserved summer break.

Talk about a skeleton crew!

But I’m proud to say that we have also broken a string of eye-catching exclusives over the last three years.

They included Harborough District Council forking out £920,000 of taxpayers’ cash for a bungalow valued at £303,000, a charity fighting for 30 years to get a hydro pool installed, interviewing the stunned mum of a knife attack victim at the scene and a fascinating 1,000-word feature with a 100-year-old Lancaster bomber war hero.

It’s a devastating sign of the times that the Leicester Mercury is selling off its iconic old headquarters on St George Street, one of my many old stamping grounds, while so many good reporters are bailing out to go into pr or corporate press offices.

I just count myself so lucky that I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of working with so many fantastic journalists at so many outstanding newspapers since I was handed my first notebook and pen in what I’m sure was a different lifetime a long time ago.