The angry archaeologist

In a muddy pit for which I was inappropriately dressed, an archaeologist with shoulder-length curly hair was shouting at me.

I was taken aback by this. I'd expected him to be pleased with me. After all, my story about his discovery of crucial evidence about the shape of Roman Cambridge had made the front page the day before, and I'd been over the moon because it was my first ever front page story (known in the trade as a "splash").

Unfortunately, the bit of the story that made the guy angry enough to shout at me was the one bit that I hadn't actually written.

The day before I'd been idly tapping out the usual newsroom gubbins when the news editor poked his head above his computer and called me over.

"Just had a call from some archaeologists," he said gruffly (he said everything gruffly). "They've found something exciting next to Girton Road, can you go and see it please."

I went, and chatted to the team there for an hour or so. It was certainly interesting stuff, and on my return to the office I was able to bash out a half-decent story about it. I was taken aback when the news editor declared it the next day's splash, and asked me to start phoning around various people for extra comment. It must have been a quiet news day.

Nothing more interesting happened overnight, so the story appeared on the front page the following day. The bit that made the archaeologist angry was the first paragraph. It said: "Archaeologists have found spectacular Roman remains under the city streets - not that you'll ever get to see them."

This was not what I had written.

The copy I'd filed said something like: "Archaeologists have found spectacular Roman remains beneath the city streets, which they say will change forever our view of how Cambridge grew from tiny village to regional capital."

My introductory paragraph was a reflection of what the long-haired archaeologist had told me as we stood in the muddy pit. But my news editor's revised version was what he, the news editor, said was "the real story".

The paper had to reflect what real people felt, he told me as he re-arranged my words on screen. People would like to know about these remains, but would also like to see them. The reality was that when the dig was over, a new University building would be erected on the site and the archaeology buried forever. Standard archaeological practice, of course, but that was the angle he wanted to use to hook people into reading the rest of the piece.

At the time I meekly accepted everything my boss said. After all, I was the youngest of a team of very young junior reporters, learning the trade as I went along.

With hindsight, I should have stood my ground. I should have suggested to my editor that we grant the newspaper's readers a little more common sense. The aggressive tone of that re-written opening paragraph changed the tone of the whole article, even though very little of the rest of it was changed. Rather than celebrating the archaeological find, it snarked about it.

The first paragraph is the one that appears in a larger, bolder font than the rest of the story. The idea is that it summarises everything in just a few words. The archaeologist was naturally annoyed that his marvellous find had been degraded by the implicit accusation that by being exposed then re-buried, the archaeology was somehow being ill-treated, and the local citizens deprived of something

When I returned to the site a day or so later for a follow-up, the archaeologist and I stood for the second time in the muddy pit, and he swept his hand through his long hair, fixing me with a glare through his thick black-rimmed glasses.

"This is a real pisser, you know?" he said. "Your story was so negative from the very first line. You've annoyed a lot of people, especially me."

I stammered an apology. It felt daft to say, "It's not my fault, my editor changed it," so I didn't say it. I should have done.

Filed under: life
(5 May 2004)