The Independent's Ian Burrell talks friends in PR and scary moments

How do you feel as you come into work?

I get the first text or call asking for story ideas at about 8am. I used to come to work by scooter until my special edition Vespa PX was lifted off the street recently. So now I walk in, which is great thinking time.

Why do you do this job?

It’s a vocation. I also have the best specialist subject.

As a child I wanted to be…

In the engine room on the Isle of Wight ferry.

What is the worst time to pitch to you?

Any time after 4pm, especially on Fridays.

What is the best time to pitch to you?

9-10am before morning news conference. I prefer email contact in the first instance.

What makes a great story?

Digging something out and getting it into the news cycle when it wouldn’t otherwise have been there. If it’s not too painful for readers I’d say great investigative stories are unlikely to involve helpful input from PRs. But great content can come from collaboration between journalists and PRs.

What is your view of PR professionals?

I am fascinated by the industry. The growth of content creation beyond traditional media is an area of particular interest.

The one thing that gets in the way of doing my job is…

Time pressure. 

Are there any subjects you find so boring or offensive you just won’t give them oxygen?

Your client is launching an app or has refreshed its website.

What gives you the biggest satisfaction in your job?

Page 1 is always the aim. But a great magazine spread is tremendously exciting and despite the adage that a story must always hurt someone somewhere I actually believe it’s possible to get that win/win, where a journalist, PR and client are all pleased with the end product. In fact it happens a lot.

What is the greatest pressure on you?

Stories, stories, stories.

What is your management style – shouter, weeper or supportive friend? 

I’d hope I am supportive.

Do you have a favourite PR person? Why?

I have PR professionals in many disciplines whom I consider friends. Mark Borkowski is among my favourites because of his interest in the origins of the business, his hunger to reinvent it, his willingness to acknowledge the bad as well as the good and his ability to retain a sense of fun.

Which outlet do you most admire for its news coverage and why? 

The Economist for the way it has remained essential reading, maintaining readership and profits in defiance of digital disruption without recourse to subsidisation.

What is in your lunch box?

Sushi, if you’re booking.

What is your greatest career fear?

The downward pressure on serious written journalism. Scary career moments: shaken down by a Nigerian army patrol, chased by Boston crack dealers, left a message by a contract killer, threatened with prosecution for a custodial offence by the then notorious West Midlands CID, interviewing UDA men in a club off the Shankill. These days it’s nothing more dangerous than being shouted at by the odd insecure director of communications for a negative story.

In five years’ time I will be…

Trying to decipher the impact of still-evolving technology on news and our lives in general. 

What is the best piece of journalistic advice?

Allow them to talk.

If I weren’t an editor, I would be…

Writing history books.

What is the most memorable headline?

"A Bunch of Shits" – a Sunday Express splash from the John Major era, when the prime minister was being undermined by his own party. I was working on the paper and when I saw the first edition I thought it was a spoof for somebody’s leaving party. We lost the editor soon afterwards.

From whom have you learned the most?

Various people at the Birmingham Mail where I trained. As a role model, Harold Evans, whom I have had the pleasure of interviewing.

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