I went to a networking lunch in Darlington the other day, which is fine by me, as I spent a very happy year there studying journalism in the early nineties.
But instead of getting all misty-eyed about Darlington College of Technology – and the course that changed my life, run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) – I’m going to reminisce about Oxdown.
You’ve probably never heard of this town, unless you sat the same exams I did. That’s because it doesn’t exist.
And if it did, you wouldn’t want to live there, given the regular calamities that supposedly take place in its neighbourhoods. Oxdown, you see, is (or used to be, anyway) the generic conurbation of the NCTJ mock press release.
Let me explain. A regular part of being a journalism student is the badly written press release, on the surface about something rather boring, but containing an explosive – or failing that, mildly diverting – revelation about two-thirds of the way down.
That’s the game. To spot the real story and write a 300-word page lead accordingly, give or take 20 words.
So, you ask, what’s all this got to do with copywriting?
Merely this: don’t bury your press release’s message. In the real world of work, reporters aren’t playing games. I’ll make this as plain as I can, shall I? If you’re too oblique, don’t be surprised if they miss the story altogether.