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Thursday, April 08, 2010

The single most valuable skill in journalism

The human race is divided into two groups: those who are always late and those who are always early. The first group are no busier than the latter group. They have simply decided that being on-time is somehow beneath them.

The same divide exists among journalists. Here it causes more problems because it usually relates to copy and the lateness thereof. I've dealt with hundreds of hacks and can count on the fingers of both hands the ones who are always on time. I can count on the fingers of just the one hand the writers who are so infallibly reliable that I would happily put my house on their delivering their copy not just on time but early. In fact I've just counted again and I still have a spare finger.

There's a slightly larger group who generally deliver on the day. Then there's the majority who, sad to say, only deliver after nagging. You would have thought that a combination of professional pride and the recession would have brought about a change in these people's behaviour. It hasn't.

The sign of a proper magazine professional is that they deliver early, partly because they know that they need to build in some screw-up time, but also because they wouldn't dream of starting something so near to the deadline that it was likely to be botched as a result of haste. Anybody who tells you "it'll be ready later today" has not done what the professional would have done, which is stay up late the night before to complete it and then got up early the following morning to give it another read before sending it off.

They also never ever tell you what else they've got to do, whether it's personal or professional. They know that's not your concern. They realise that they are being hired not merely for their artistry or professionalism; they are being hired because they take an editor's load and lighten it. They are providing that most invaluable service: once something is handed to them, the editor doesn't have to think about that bit of the flat plan for a few days. Finally, the really odd thing is that the same people who are on time always deliver copy that is to-length and spelled correctly. Now explain that to me.