“Woodward? Bradlee here. Remember that story you filed a few years back, about a break-in at the Watergate building? We’re going to run it next week. Update the facts, will you? By tonight if you can. Have you got any pictures?”
Such were my thoughts when a newspaper emailed me recently with the joyous news that my report of an event that took place nine years ago will be published next weekend. I can’t go into more detail than that, because scooping myself might provoke the newspaper to postpone for another nine years, or indefinitely. I am not convinced the email wasn’t an April fool, although it arrived long after midday.
Important things have happened in the intervening period. Storms and floods have reshaped the land. The newspaper has moved offices and changed many editors. Two of the actors in the story have died and another has gone from springy adolescence to stiff old age.
But the rest of us are still clinging to the wreckage, and there must be a chance that we will be around to feel the earth shake when my story dons the oxygen mask of publication. To my surprise and relief, I find that the key elements of the story are as they were: the places, the accommodation, the tour operator, even the PR, who stopped badgering me ages ago. Rashly, I have shared the news with her, and she thinks nine years may be a record.
One reason the factlets needed little updating is that they have been updated several times before, when previous false alarms have sounded. A request for pictures is a good sign that this time may actually be for real. Finding those that might illustrate this story if they were any good can’t have taken me more than 18 hours. How young we look.
I know: it’s not Watergate. The stories I am occasionally invited to write in exchange for small sums of money, and less frequently see in print, are not reporting, and qualify as journalism only in the sense that they appear in journals. Holidays can be written and read about, within reason, any time, as long as the facts, of which as a general rule and for good reason there are few, are in the right ball park.
Of course there is news in the holiday industry, but holidays themselves are an escape from news, or should be. The whole point of a holiday is its timelessness, and change in holiday places, when it happens, is usually for the worse.
Writing about holidays is more interesting if you chop and change but editors like to use experts, so writers have to develop or claim special areas of expertise. This means being asked to write only about the things you have written about before, which ought to be easy but strangely isn’t. For this of course you are grateful. The alternative is not being asked to write at all. It’s a bit like Lord Lawson who is on the radio a lot, but only when they need an expert on the non-existence of climate change. They always ask him the same questions and, reasonably enough, he always gives the same answers.
Top ten Greek Islands, ten best ski resorts for families, an insider’s guide to Timbuktu. You wrote this last year or was it the year before, and if you were asked to write it again, it would be surprising if you came up with a different list. Having scratched your head for an hour to think of the 20 words that best characterise your 6th favourite Greek island and distinguish it from islands number 5 and 7, an attempt to find 20 new ones would be challenging and, with respect, pointless.
“Don’t imagine anyone remembers anything you wrote last year,” they say crushingly. “Just stick a new nose on it. It won’t take you long. No one reads beyond the first paragraph anyway.” That may be true, but these repetitions now have an embarrassing habit of stacking up on the internet. Couldn’t they take the old ones down?
One autumn day I went to meet an editor to discuss things I might write for him in the months to come, in my capacity as a ski pundit.
“What’s new in skiing?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied, and had only myself to blame when I came away from lunch without a busy winter ahead.