Northern Ireland

Mark Simpson: How technology has transformed the job

Mark Simpson with kit
Image caption Mark Simpson with his carload of kit

Media technology has been revolutionised since Mark Simpson started out out as a cub reporter two decades ago, but the basics remain exactly the same. Here, he gives an insight into some of the demands placed on a modern-day BBC correspondent.

It was my 23rd birthday and the day I covered my first big story.

When my shift finished, my head could barely fit through the newsroom door, such was my sense of self-satisfaction. I had finally made it in journalism.

My name was on the top story. No-one could burst my bubble of personal pride. No-one except the news editor.

The hard-nosed, grey-haired hack called me back as I was leaving and growled: "If you want to make it in journalism you are going to have to learn to type faster - you missed your deadline."

There was no problem fitting my head through the newsroom door after that lecture from Mr Grumpy.

However, he was right. I had indeed missed my deadline by 10 minutes.

I was working for the Belfast News Letter at the time, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the English-speaking world. It was first printed in 1737.

That night, more history was made as the printing presses were held up until I finally finished typing the front page story. I was not popular.


It taught me a lesson about sticking to deadlines; one that has helped me at the BBC.

Image caption Interviewing a young Rory McIlroy

There is little point gathering the best interviews, the most powerful pictures, and then writing the perfect script, if the story does not arrive on time.

The BBC's Ten O'Clock News cannot suddenly become the "Ten Past Ten O'Clock News" just because I'm slow.

So much has changed during my two decades in journalism, but the importance of deadlines has not. The only difference is that there are so many more of them.

The advent of the internet and round-the-clock television and radio news channels means the BBC correspondent has no escape.

Hence the need for a journalistic survival kit; three items to be carried at all times.

These are a makeshift wardrobe, a mobile phone safe-box and a bottle of water.

Bottle of water

When a story breaks so can your voice. With the demands of BBC Radio 5 Live, radio summaries, the BBC news website, social media, the TV bulletins and the 24-hour BBC News Channel, the day can quickly become a broadcasting triathlon.

I remember when I was North of England correspondent, working for BBC network news.

It was the afternoon that the missing Yorkshire schoolgirl, Shannon Matthews, was found alive under a bed in Dewsbury.

I spoke for 25 minutes non-stop on the News Channel. I got the full story from a police source.

Unfortunately, I was in Ikea in Leeds at the time.

I went straight on air via telephone and breathlessly reported what I knew. Fortunately, I was in the kitchen department so there was a steady supply of cups of water.

Makeshift wardrobe

Then there is the issue of what to wear.

Tie or open neck shirt, smart or casual, bright or dark? It depends on the story.

There are more ties in the back of my car than in my house.

One minute you are doing an "and finally" about an elephant roaming around the Irish countryside after saying goodbye to the circus, next minute there is a major political crisis at Stormont.

Suddenly the laid back David Attenborough look is no longer appropriate.

Everywhere I go I carry wet weather gear even in the summer.

Mobile phone safe-box

Mobile phones are making and breaking journalism.

Image caption Mark's job involves reporting on a variety of stories

It is liberating to be able to broadcast and write and film and tweet instantly from almost every corner of the globe, but there are times when the phone needs to be put away.

At the risk of sounding like grey-haired Mr Grumpy from the News Letter, there is a worrying trend of reporters or producers arriving at the scene of breaking news and spending most of their time on the phone, rather than finding eyewitnesses.

As we all know, first-hand accounts are journalistic gold dust. One sound bite can often perfectly sum up an entire story.

I remember when the village of Toll Bar near Sheffield went under water during the 2007 floods.

The postman told me: "We used to talk about the north end of the village and the south end. Now we talk about the deep end and the shallow end."

No mobile phone app could have come up with that clip.

Juggling demands

Taking all of the above into account, I'm often asked how I juggle all of the competing demands on my time while covering a story?

The boring answer is that there are BBC guidelines in place to prioritise particular outlets, and there is usually someone else to share the load.

Where possible, after the initial dust has settled on a big story, I try to write a quick 400 to 500-word piece for the BBC news website.

It could be an analysis piece or a "colour" story, depending on the subject matter.

This process often helps to crystallise my thinking, pinpoint the key facts, and subsequently makes writing TV and radio scripts easier.

There is not always time to do this, but thankfully my typing speed has improved so that the writing doesn't take as long as it did back in my News Letter days.

Incidentally, the original Mr Grumpy is still in journalism. He still has grey hair and is still preaching about deadlines.

However, he is no longer in the newspaper business. He now works for the BBC.

You can follow Mark on Twitter @BBCMarkSimpson