Young Fraser Allen, with a colleague in Southwark Street London 1989
June 23, 2020
More than 32 years ago, I landed my first media job. Based in central London, I
was to be a trainee reporter on Convenience Store, ‘the fortnightly for
neighbourhood retailers’. It was a genuinely thrilling and supportive
introduction to the industry – and one that recently led me to reflect on the
much tougher challenges faced by today's young media stars.
Email? The internet? Those were different times. During my 18 months on
Convenience Store, we didn't even have computers. My time was either spent on the
telephone interviewing the movers and shakers of the grocery world, or bashing
away on a manual typewriter. When each story was finished, I passed my typed
sheets to the production editor, and slammed a carbon copy down on the sharp
metal spike mounted on my desk. Health and safety? Well, it hadn't really caught on
As well as interviewing and typing, I learnt how to trim galley copy, size pics and
comprehend the exotic dialect of Basildon-based typesetters. But if that sounds
rather backwards, it didn’t feel like that at the time. The magazine publishing industry
was far more confident and wealthy then – and my employers, William Reed
Business Media, nurtured this fresh-faced tyro exceptionally well. As soon as I
started, they paid for me to attend a foundation course at the London College of
Printing. And after six months they gave me a company car and a Shell card, with
the understanding that I could use the car for personal expeditions. I took them up on
their offer, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. "Anyone fancy Scotland this
Pints of Brakspear
Then there was press day, which came around every second Friday. With the job
usually done by noon, the Editor Tony Hurren would take us to The George on
Borough High Street and buy us congratulatory drinks. A wonderful man, he would
then return to the office to ‘man the fort’ while the rest of us would spend the
afternoon scooping pints of Brakspear and having a thoroughly hilarious time,
usually at my (well-deserved) expense.
Nicknamed ‘Frazzle’, I was very much the junior member of the team, fondly
lampooned for my clumsy performances for the company football team (left) and my
doe-eyed infatuation with Karine, a punk-haired French barmaid with a haughty
manner and a magnificently shaped nose, who worked in the nearby Southwark
Tavern. I still quiver at her memory.
But besides all the frivolity, what really stuck in my head was the way the team
developed me as a journalist. Tony, Deputy Editor Jac Roper and Production
Manager Pat Morgan were incredibly patient and encouraging. Rapidly, they turned
me from a helpless fop spouting university essay-style features into a capable writer
who could be entrusted with interviewing some big names in the retail sector – Spar
annual conference in Majorca here I come, oh yeah!
Will Self & Karine's nose
It was a warm, supportive and laughter-filled environment. The author Will Self
worked in the room next door and allowed our bonhomie to crack his curmudgeonly
facade from time to time. He even bought a cassette of me singing and playing
songs on my guitar. The self-penned collection was entitled 'Oops, My Leg Has Just
Fallen Off' and the stand-out track was called 'Karine’s Nose'. It was pretty much as
bad as you would expect ('publicity shot' below).
My only regret from those days was that I didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to
be there. I naively assumed that all magazines were run the same way. It was a
delusion that would swiftly be crushed when, after a fantastic stint working as a
journalist in Istanbul, I returned to London to join the now defunct Morgan-Grampian
in Woolwich, which was a very different kettle of fish. I missed the environment at
William Reed, I missed the people and I felt bad about the way I had rushed off to
Turkey a little ungratefully.
Conversation and laughter
As a result, the memories of Tony, Jac and Pat stuck with me when, 13 years later, I
set up White Light with my business partner Alan Lennon. We both wanted to run
White Light in the same kind of spirit. We wanted to encourage our staff, and build a
positive environment that enabled talent to blossom and voices to be heard. We
wanted them to create great work, not work crazy hours. Unlike some agencies, I
also wanted conversation and laughter to punctuate the day, rather than a culture of
‘noses to the grindstone’. And most of all, I wanted to provide opportunities for young
stars to develop their talent in the way that I had been able to at William Reed.
As we grew, we began providing students and graduates with internships - not of the
‘make the coffee and do some filing’ variety but proper, live work guided by one of
the team. Having a steady stream of enthusiastic interns in the office was good for
the atmosphere and created a valuable pipeline for discovering talent – several
people who joined us as interns were then awarded full-time jobs, and have gone on
to do great things.
I moved on from White Light in December but I know that the new owner, Eric
Campbell, shares the same ethos. Having said that, we’re all operating in a very
different environment now. The inevitable economic downturn will stunt opportunities
for the media stars of tomorrow, and remote working will make it harder to nurture
young talent. And while marketing agencies will continue to be in demand, many
projects in the publishing sector have gone the way of my old typewriter and been
chucked in a skip.
Yet, if I ever start to feel jaded, I sometimes think back to 1988. Karine and her nose
might have got my head in my spin but it was nothing to the warm glow I
experienced when Tony Hurren would stride out of his office with my copy in his
hand shouting: "Brilliant, Frazzle, brilliant." Let’s hope that, as we embrace the so-
called 'new normal', there will be a concerted effort to create similar opportunities for
young people across the creative sectors.
After all, it’s not just a case of them needing us – we need them.