American journalist Matt Elofson (pictured) has swopped the warm sunshine of Alabama for the delights of rural Warwickshire - and a staff job on the Stratford Herald newspaper. Here, he reflects on some of the differences he is experiencing
One of the many things I've learned during the journey to transfer my news reporter skills to the workforce in the UK is the role comes with the nickname journo. It makes it sound quite cool.
Fifteen months ago I quit my job of working as a newspaper reporter (after 15 years in the field) and moved from southeast Alabama to the West Midlands of the UK. The move not only meant starting life over in a new country, but finding a way to continue my journalism career too.
Now, England wasn't completely new to me as I'd visited over a dozen times on vacation trips with my wife, who's a native to the UK. We married at St. Peter's Church in Kineton, near Warwick, over 12 years ago with a view to one day making a life there (Kineton), or at least in the UK. During one of my first visits to the UK I can remember thinking it'd be cool to work for the Stratford Herald newspaper (www.stratford-herald.com).
Now I'm doing just that. It's amazing where life takes you. Now I have the privilege to find and share the stories of the people in and around Shakespeare country as a news reporter at the Stratford Herald. I enjoy exploring the local delights of Stratford-upon-Avon and its surrounding area, often a destination favourite for Americans and, as I’m finding, lots of other people from around the globe.
While the basics of journalism remain the same here, there are a few major differences, including how it appears most (newspapers at least) journalists have formal shorthand training. In the states, at least where I've worked, and when I went through journalism school at West Virginia University, you didn't need formal shorthand training to graduate and be ready to enter the workforce. Formal shorthand training sounds great, and I'm looking to get mine this year.
I've also learned many journalists have a National Qualification as Journalists, which I discovered is a professional qualification than helps a trainee journalist develop their skills into a senior journalist. There is no equivalent in the US, except maybe earning a master’s degree or years of on-the-job experience.
Here’s a little background on where I come from and my experience. I spent 15 years as a news reporter for two daily newspapers in the US before moving to the UK in late October 2016. I was grateful to join my wife and twin 4-year-old daughters, who had already been in the UK since June 2016. Obtaining a UK settlement visa allowed me to join my family, and work too. Getting one of those visas isn't just automatically given to you when you marry someone from the UK. But I won't go into all that here. I spent most of my journalism career working as a police and courts reporter split, six years at The Robesonian (www.robesonian.com) in southeast North Carolina followed by nine years at the Dothan Eagle (www.dothaneagle.com) in southeast Alabama. In the police beat I covered breaking news from motor vehicle fatalities, to drug busts by local police or sheriff’s deputies, to murders and a fatal mass shooting of 11 people. I then also followed the unusual ones such a local lawyer charged with child porn, to public officials or officers charged with crimes along with others as they went through the court system and to trial.
I also witnessed the execution of a Dothan area man for the fatal shooting of his daughter's boyfriend. I wrote a story describing what happened before, during and after the execution.
And to be honest watching someone die left me battling bouts of nausea throughout the whole experience. It started with waiting in the media room beforehand to an escorted walk into the execution chamber on death row where I joined a handful of others who watched through a little window with its curtains drawn for viewing.
He was executed for shooting the 16-year-old victim three times in front of his pregnant girlfriend before being thrown over a bridge. He'd been on death row for 23 years at the time of his execution.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center website, Alabama remains one of 31 states who use the death penalty, all of which use lethal injection.
The images of watching a man take his last breath after a lethal injection of drugs make it an assignment I vividly remember as though it were yesterday now nearly 10 years ago.
While I've only worked as a news reporter in the UK for nearly three months one of the other differences I've noticed specifically relate to police work. There's a noticeable difference in how much information is released to the media when arrests are made by the police. Where I worked in both Alabama and North Carolina when someone is arrested, they're charged with a crime and typically if requested police release the suspect's name, age, city of residence, and charge. And in contrast, here, the name of the person arrested isn't released until they're actually charged with a crime at later date.
In my experience you can't be arrested unless the police are charging you with a crime. You'd typically be released on bail (if you can afford to post it) and then later formally be indicted (charged) by the county prosecutors in court (if there was enough evidence). And similarly if police or sheriff's deputies made a large drug 'bust' or arrest the amount of drugs seized were often released, particularly if the person was charged with distribution or trafficking drugs. Police also released the name of the drug involved in a drug arrest. Here I'm finding the identity of the drug only comes at court or you're told it involves a certain classification of drug (which includes multiples types). For example, police in the UK could charge someone with possession of a class A drug, which could include cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin and mushrooms.
Also most of the law enforcement agencies I interacted with for news stories used an officer within the department as its spokesperson to get information for stories, and often referred me onto other specialised detectives or unit supervisors for direct quotes about arrests or new programs. One example is I wrote various features on the Dothan (Alabama) SWAT team, and spoke directly to the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) commander for the story. The longer I worked there the more I was allowed to speak to individual officers too, though, with a supervisor's permission.
So far here it appears the law enforcement agencies release information and quotes strictly through an outside entity via either communications groups or a marketing arm of the same local government as the law enforcement agency.
Now I've only been working here in the UK as a news reporter for just over three months and that's a very small sample to compare to 15 years of journalism work at two dailies in two states.
But more than that one of the basics of journalism remains the same, which is making contacts and getting to know people on your beat or patch, another journo term I've recently learned. Although, it's still slightly different than news beat, which generally refers to the specific area of news you cover like police or education. In contrast a patch I've learned typically refers to the coverage area for the newspaper.
I also got an interesting reminder of how I live in a country with a totally new culture during a visit last year to a coffee shop in Dudley to do some writing.
I couldn’t help but overhear a greeting I’d never before from the man next to me on his cell phone at the Gather coffee house in Dudley.
“Assalamu alaikum my brother,” the man said. “I’m on the high street in Dudley town.”
The man seemed quite friendly as he stopped to talk to the coffee shop manager on his way out a few minutes later.
As someone who just spent the best part of a decade in southeast Alabama I’d never heard that greeting before – except in the movies. I wanted to say hi to the man, but the moment didn’t present itself.
I left the coffee shop thinking I’ve heard that phrase, but had no idea what it meant. So I asked around, and did a quick search online. I found the phrase Assalamu alaikum is an Arabic greeting, which means “Peace be upon you.”
I'm looking forward to meeting more people in the Stratford area and beyond and learning more about the journalism culture here in the UK.