'Work in PR? I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a needle' - Grilled with The Times' Dominic Walsh

PRWeek talks to Dominic Walsh, business reporter (leisure/drinks) and City People editor at The Times, about what makes a great PR, why he's pessimistic about journalism's future, and how he almost ended up in the French tank corps.

'Work in PR? I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a needle' - Grilled with The Times' Dominic Walsh

How did you get where you are now?

My route into journalism was rather circuitous. My first taste of reporting came when I was asked by my local cricket club to write up some match reports for the Surrey Mirror when I was 14 or 15. When I went to university, in St Andrews, I continued to write up cricket or football matches in which I had played, both for the student paper and the local rag, the St Andrews Citizen.

My ambition to become a sports journalist after graduating was thwarted by my dual Anglo-French citizenship. After school, I took a year out and worked in a hotel in Paris, and to smooth my path through the bureaucracy I applied for a French passport.

What I didn’t realise was that in doing so I was making myself liable to doing a year’s military service. So after St Andrews I duly reported for duty to the French tank corps just outside Paris! Except that a bad back sustained in a car crash was enough to make me fail the medical and a week later I was back in Blighty.

I signed up for a pre-entry journalism course run by Reed Business Publishing. Reed owned Caterer & Hotelkeeper, where I got a job as a reporter. My move on to papers came via the launch of Sunday Business, where I became leisure industries correspondent. I was tipped off about a job on The Guardian’s financial news desk, then, nine months later, I got a call from an ex-Sunday Business pal asking if I was interested in covering the leisure and booze beat on The Times. That was 22 years ago.

Describe your typical day

My working day starts as soon as I board the train as I quickly scan emails and Twitter for anything that’s happening in my sector. Quite often I have phone interviews as soon as I get to the office at 8.45am, so I prepare questions on the train. We have a business department meeting at 10am to discuss the day ahead, which will often involve writing up a results story for the noon online edition. Lunch is a rarity these days. Afternoons are spent churning out the copy, then at about 6.30pm it’s back on the train to Surrey. I keep half an eye on emails during the evening just in case anything big breaks, but generally get left alone.

What makes a great PR?

Simple: somebody who is easy to get hold of, knows the answers to my questions (or quickly finds out the answers), is not afraid to give background guidance and doesn’t bullshit.

Which individual or organisation is best at handling PR, in your view?

I don’t want to single out any individual or organisation. There are probably a dozen individual PRs, a mixture of agency and in-house people, who make my life easier.

What are the biggest mistakes some PRs make?

Basic mistakes like phoning up to check I’ve received a press release are incredibly annoying; even worse are the PRs who phone to tell me all about the release they’re about to send me. Just send it! Agencies that insist on putting a contact name on a release, when that person is away, make me very annoyed. One of my biggest bugbears is PRs who can’t be bothered to find out what I write about and send me completely irrelevant information.

Are you optimistic about the future of journalism?

I’m very pessimistic, I’m afraid. The younger generation of consumers wants something for nothing and paying for good journalism is not a priority.

Standards on the nationals remain high and there are still many good magazines, both consumer and business, but there are too many online organs that seem to think that cutting and pasting from a press release (or worse, plagiarising someone else’s story) counts as journalism.

Which social-media channel or channels are the most important in your job?

I limit myself to Twitter, mostly to post links to my best stories, and LinkedIn, which is good for researching individuals’ backgrounds.

Would you like to work in PR?

The money would be nice, but I’d rather poke myself in the eye with a needle. Sorry!

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