Survive Your Newsroom
The greasy pole and how to climb it

0 28

You might be yoked to the newswheel being broken like a butterfly but occasionally you’ll get a glimpse of someone who thinks for a living: the Comment Editor.

Responsible for the intellectual heart of a newspaper – as opposed to the fist-pump of sports or the tub-thump of angry news – the Comment Editor can be a rarefied creature.

But do not be fooled.

While the primary task of the comment editor is to fill those middle bits of the paper that you skip through before the TV guide, they should be regarded as one of your most useful newsroom allies. Not only are they grt company for lunch – two bottles of wine is seen as standard – they have a contacts book as long as your arm.

Every one of the pointy heads that has written about global warming (ok, climate change, if you must), every ministerial column (or likely, their spin doctor) and every celebrity who has offered ‘their take’ on the issue du jour is in their contacts book. This makes cultivating them for help when you need to get that knee-jerk splash quote for the headline absolutely vital.

They are also the most skilled in office politics.

Middle bits: very important and skillfully marshalled but no contest when it comes to Page 3

Not only do they attend morning and evening news conferences, they also attend leader conference where editors spew out the official narrative on the day’s events – including skateboarding squirrels – usually to the bafflement of any reader who can bring themselves to read them.

Interpreting the editor’s thoughts, handling and roping in intellectual heavyweights to write for a deadline while finding time for tow hour wine filled lunches requires a deftness not often seen in the newsroom. Some may go as far as to have ‘the ear’ of your editor and scratching their back when needed will go a long way to building goodwill in an environment riddled with insecurity and paranoia.

But they are not all cuddly.

Beware of those with Assistant Editor or Associate Editor monikers acting as comment editors. Some fo these are passed over editors-in-waiting or sidelined editors skewered on the office politics pyramid. This is as far as they can go and now must serve their time until the golden watch and the cobbled together front page presented at the retirement party.

These can be tricky indeed and conference with these in tow can see the unprepared naif news editor skewered for kicks. Other than the chief sub, comment editors are known for their ability to casually add a killer question into the conference mix that can undo the news desk presentation as skilfully as a stillet between the ribs.

They never ask a question they don’t know the answer to and they only ever posit a point you cannot rebut.

There’s a reason they’re called comment editors but that comment couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper.

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There’s two types of lawyer. Those who want to keep your best stories out of the paper and those that keep your best stories out of the paper.

Lawyers view every piece of copy, every picture caption, every headline as a libel case waiting to happen.

And when you graduate from rewriting press releases to actually fashioning something new and bold based on a killer tip-off, you’ll become very familiar with your local in-house lawyer.

There are those who exist to put as much as is humanly possible before your reader but more often than not, your highly-paid friend is there to keep the libel insurance renewal payments o the minimum.

And there’s no better way than vetoing stories.

While it used to be the case that Editors had all-wielding power and could decide IF a story will run and where, the falling stock of newspapers and their diminishing incomes has given the lawyer in many newsrooms the ultimate power to say no.

It will be a long-time before we see the likes of the Daily Mail’s classic front ‘Murderers‘ splash headline.There isn’t a lawyer alive that would let that accusation of murder without proof stand on a UK front page.

Last of its kind?
Last of its kind?

Paul Dacre, the editor who ran it, gave a lengthy explantion here and calls it the ‘lonely hour’ when the editor closes their office door and decides the splash.

So how do you sneak your stories into your publication without them ending on a spike or stuck in the lawyer’s office?

BLuffing it? But the Mail was convinced of the guilt of men behind the death of Stephen Lawrence
BLuffing it? But the Mail was convinced of the guilt of men behind the death of Stephen Lawrence

Right To Reply

So you’ve been given a great tip-off and you’ve put some legwork into the yarn. You may even have a few documents which support the thrust of your claim. You write the story but you don’t want to kill it with a denial or a no comment from your subject when you pitch it to the desk.

Desk only want simple solutions and we’ve already outlined why conference is a daily Guernica for your long-siffering news editor.

But here’s the thing. If you’re due to publish at 10.30pm, don’t wait until 9pm to get a reaction. Give the subject a day. Plague them. Leave emails on office and personal addresses (but no salacious material in the office one in case they have a PA, you don’t want to repeat a libel to a thrid party), make sure voice mails are left on office and personal mobiles and a letter couriered and signed for to their home.

All of this pleases your lawyer as nothing upsets a jury member than being told that Sex Whip CEO Frenzy Storm Bonkathon’s protagonist was only given 30 minutes to answer your string of questions.

The Conversation

If a story isn’t taped, did it really happen? Shorthand is great and jduges love reporters’ notebooks as they are virtually impossible to forge. But jury’s lvoe tape reorcdings. And so does your lawyer.

Get into the habit of taping everything, however innocuous and archive it. Nothing kills a denial than a looped recording playying out over on YouTube over and over and over….conversation

Off The Record

No such thing. Really. If it’s said to you and you can prove it, it exists. How you treat comments in this context is up to you and if you want to get more than one story in your lifetime you would be wise to respect the convention. but that’s all it is – a convention.

If you’re in an interview with a notepad, keep the tape reocrder in your jacket or bag reocrding away while making great play of putting your notebook and pen away while your subject waxes lyrical.

This is called insurance. Lawyers like it.

Don’t Tell Your Lawyer Anything

They cannot lie.

Tell your editor, they can.


0 27

When IT have replaced your phone for the third time in as many weeks, it’s time to admit you have finally met your nemesis.

The calls always start the same way, end the same way and leave you feeling the same way.

‘Hi, did you get that press release I sent…’

Welcome to your new best friend: the PR.

In some twisted addition to the Natural Laws of the Universe, and kept secret by Newton and his brainy mates, there is a variation of Murphy’s Law.

‘If a PR can call you at the most inconvenient point in your day, they will.’

Hello, IT? My phone appears to have broken.
Hello, IT? My phone appears to have broken.

Whether this, this behaviour is taught or a natural talent (and either is disturbing) is not clear but when you get that call you can bet your last dime that it is a) just when a plane has slammed into a mountain or b) when the only survivor of that crash trying to ring you on your personal line with their last credit on their pay-as-you go phone.

Around this time is when IT will be asked to replace your broken phone.

It’s a battle as old as time itself and it isn’t going to resolve itself soon. In fact, it is only going to get worse thanks to the grey area known as Content Marketing which hacks will smell out immediately: yes, PR people re-branding themselves.

In essence PR is very simple: to convince publications to carry good news about your client or your client’s product.Inbox. Mail box. Trash Can. Press Reselase Workflow.

In reality, this consists of people called Tamsin sending Press Releases irrelevant to your publication, print or otherwise, and then badgering you to see if you received it.

If by some misfortune, it IS interesting, you can guarantee that it will become interesting AFTER evening conference and when the cleaners have thrown out the recycled waste. If your inner Asperger’s has stored the PR’s number, expect it to be off – despite the press release marked urgent (nope)not to be missed (miss it) or exclusive (everyone has it)

If you require pictures expect them to be low-res if you work in print and massive 56MB pictures if you work for a mobile website.

If you require additional information for the subject and they ask: What’s the deadline on this? Just say unicorn.

Because it really doesn’t matter a SINGLE IOTA what YOUR deadline is because they have NO conception of what the word means – in any medium.

If you’ve exceeded your quote for phones from IT and your news editor is asking questions of their own about the pile of plastic handset shells around your desk, you may have to come to an accommodation with your foe.

And so know thy enemy. Here’s our handy guide to the species:

The Press Officer

Old school, helpful and good for briefing. THey know their onions and can act solo so long as they’ve been given a line by their boss. Usually civil service and government. OFten cvil servants and so not beholden to politics. Dying breed.

The Government Press Officer

Old school:: Sir Bernard Ingham, the friend and foe of the Press during the Thatcher government.

Similar to above and often dragged out of bed to knock down mad fliers. Sensible folk and worth cultivating. Your reputation relies on them (and they know it) A bit like elephants when it comes to memory – and a bit like elephants when angry.

Public Relations Officer

From plugging garden fetes to corporate reputation management in the face of a nuclear meltdown these characters range from the kindly village souls to people wearing suits more expensive than your car. Tolerate the former, make the latter earn their fees and show no mercy.

The Call Centre Robot

‘Hi, It’s Tamsin here. How are you today?’
Do not engage. You will actually hear brain cells in our cortex killing themselves. Pass the call over to your sourest reporter.

The useful PR

Once in a while, nature throws up the right people in the wrong job. If you find a helpful PR, with their phone on, who includes all the information you need, is respectful of deadlines and delivers – lunch them, lunch them now.

The ex-hack

Don’t be fooled. Their use of industry language may seem soothing and familiar and on surface value they appear to be useful. Not so. They bailed out for the dollars and are corporate schills just like the rest of them. Most likely to go behind your back elsewhere in the newsroom.

The Content Marketeer

Spawned by the internet, this breed lives on listicles and virals. Nothing to see here – unless you need a funny video or a listicle, that is.

Remember, every product placed ‘story’ you buy into and run is a lost ad.

And we know where that leads.

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They’re like taxi drivers: once you get them started they’ll never stop.

Any topic, doesn’t matter. From macro-economic policy to which researcher is shagging their researcher.

Ask them to speculate and you can settle back and get on with the rest of your day while they fill air time.

Which is why they are beloved of news editors and editors alike.journalist-web

There isn’t a news editor alive who has not punched the air when the political editor has come on the phone five minutes before evening conference with a splash. Even if it isn’t a splash, your average news desk factotum can take it into conference and argue that it is.

U-turns, cabinet splits, liberal use of unnamed sources, all of these are deployed to grab the desk’s attention. And it will invariably work.

Considered the elite of the newsroom, more than any other reporter, apart from the cubs condemned to voxpops, they are physically Out Of The Office. This is, in itself, an achievement in an age of recycled press releases.

And not only are they out of the office – they are reporting on Important Things.

Over time, this, and their proximity to people who actually ARE important decision makers, can unfortunately actually lead to delusions of grandeur.

Fed by spin doctors and special advisers a diet of lines from Government or Opposition can lead them to lose sight of the propaganda conduits they can mutate into.polljng

It’s a fairly ugly sight to see a news editor explaining why his splash has been traduced to a nib because a bus full of kids has skidded off the motorway.

But seasoned pol corrs have seen this all before and should always be heeded and indulged by the neophyte.

When Election NIght kicks in, you will need these sages: from councils to general and presidential elections, the Political Editor worth their salt is likely the only person in your newsroom who will call it correctly – irregardless of what the broadcast commentators attempting to fill dead air are filching out of their rent-a-pundits.

And if you need. And we mean REALLY NEED 1,600 words of analysis, comment and a 900 word splash, two profiles and a factbox on Sunday after a cabinet resignation at 6pm, you really have one person who can deliver.

And like a taxi driver, you’ll pay through the nose for it.

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Just like dog-lovers looking like the dogs they own, specialists are easy to spot.

They’re the newsrooms finest. Walking libraries at the top of their field or, in the case of showbiz, at the bottom of the barrel, scraping with everything they’ve got.

There are two kinds of specialist: those that have been on newsdesk and those that won’t file on time.

Ex-newsdesk specialists exhibit a permanent glow of relief – or still twitch, like PTSD Afghan veterans, or at least until the Xanax kicks in.

Specialists are special for a reason

To the neophyte, specialists are the experts behind the illustrious bylines they have followed for years; some even make regular TV forays as ‘talking heads’, some even come captioned as ‘experts’. To the Editor, they are salaries too large to sack because the board won’t give up enough redundancy to replace them.

Any new reporter worth their salt would be wise to cultivate at least a couple of specialists for a) their contacts and b) their contacts. For even specialists go on holiday at least five or six weeks a year and if you want to make yourself invaluable, stepping into their well-worn shoes is one way of making yourself useful.

This requires tact as the smarter breed – Crime Corrs for one – are loathe to give up ‘contacts’. (Or The Press Office out-of-office mobile, as it’s called.)

Drink will go a long way, as will flattery. But be careful. The seasoned specialist will have these tools of the trade already mastered. The solution is simple – more drink and more flattery.

The last resort to ingratiate – and it IS a last resort – is to help them out by offering to do some work. Once this Rubicon is crossed you must dance a fine line between learning their dark arts and becoming a general dogsbody. If its social affairs, these are the same thing.

Specialists, a field guide

So just how do you recognise your specialist and who is worth cultivating?

That guy in the rumpled jacket, cords and hush puppies that looks like a fifth grade teacher? Yep, Education Corr. Taken hostage by the multiple unions he has to deal with years ago. Useful if you want to waste your Easter holidays at one or all of the competing teacher union conferences – they won’t waste their summer break, god forbid. Choosing this path marks you as dependable because nothing sucks up space in a newspaper more readily than education – or its elder sibling, Health.

Education Corrs – like your teacher, only worse.

Health Corrs resemble country GPs, usually women. Expect weird hair – and lots of Post-It notes, pens, bags, mugs and diaries scattered around their desks bearing weird drug brand names you’ve never heard of but invariably are for treatment of excess acid. If being Health Minister is seen as a poisoned political chalice, so, too, is this brief – avoid, unless you like long days, nights and weekends. Guaranteed an award at some point in your career though covering Something Important.

Social Affairs. Avoid. A career kiss of death unless you love planning, housing and other newspaper-destroying words such as Social Policy or Residential Care Home. Recognisable in the newsroom by their smell. Like a care home, slightly medicinal. May smoke roll-ups.

Once a breed dominated by the saltiest of salty men, many with facial hair, the Crime Reporter is now almost exclusively a female veteran.

Male relics of the genre often look like a provincial detective sergeant struggling to burst out of a double breasted -yes, double breasted, suit. This is intentional and many a crime scene tape has been lifted to a hack on account of their world weary garb, and stains.

Other than the political team, this is the brief most likely to get you the splash. When all else fails, an Editor will reach for a crime splash, even a broadsheet although they’ll include some stats on crime to justify the salacious reasons behind Man Chops Off Wife’s Head And Mails It To Dumped Lover.

Women dominate the field because they can multi-task better than men – ie they can drink AND file copy.

Only the beautiful need apply – Showbiz and Media Corrs, oven ready for telly

They also excel at doorsteps for victims and despite the butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth visage, are more ruthless when it comes to supplying the goods. As death knocks are stock in trade, this is quick route to the top. No one relishes them and the neophyte who can knock a street will go far.

Managing Editors, whose job is to balance the books, reserve a special place in their dark hearts for Showbiz Reporters – their expenses claims can top the annual expenditure of a developing country if they are left to their own devices.

Denied the crucial expense fakery of mileage claims since they travel exclusively by taxi, they instead supplement their salary through Meals With Contacts and Drinks With Star’s Agent/Handler/Bouncer. Unlike their counterparts who lunch at lunch, expenses receipts  show a different story – lunch can be at 2am!

Showbiz requires the stamina of an ox – an ox that lives on Pinot Grigot and boxes of M&S salad. Bombarded with PR guff from the entertainment industry, their day AND night often stretches into eternity  as they battle handlers, agents and sometimes the talent itself to bring a reader the best cut-and-pasted blurb from a press release lunch can buy.

Because your showbiz reporter hangs around with the stars – or at least has been to a photocall for one – they exude a whiff of glamour that shames your average newsroom. Volunteering to help on a ‘celebrity ringaround’  will endear you to them as this allows them to return to cut-and-pasting tweets and instgram quotes into their stories.

shutterstock_123429226 - Copy
Dead wood – the guilty secret of the Environment Corr

Since Showbiz receive more party invites than they can possibly attend, picking up the B-list parties and book launches and red carpet interviews will quickly get you OUT of the office and decent celebrity contacts INTO your notebook. Worth cultivating but no uglies need apply. Showbiz is a cruel mistress, after all.

Showbiz’s sensible sibling is Media Affairs – or watching telly. Tabloids will call it for what it is Entertainment Editor but broadsheets prefer to pretend that writing about ‘the industry’ is interesting to non-media types.  Most likely to be gay or metrosexual if a man and most likely to have ‘serious’ glasses if a woman, they are the most networked people in the building. They know where the bodies are buried and are only one phone call away from a new job thanks to their impressive range of editors on tap. Given they have ‘profiled’ many of their future bosses in glowing terms, they can help you enormously.

Media involves writing one of two stories on a strict rotation basis: Why Has Telly Gone To Pot, Why THIS Telly Series Is The Best Thing Ever. Occasionally tasked with writing a knocking story on a rival for your business section.

Science Corrs – avoid.  Only there to explain ‘stuff’ to readers such as Why Nanobots Will Destroy The Earth. Most likely to have Open University hair. They DO know experts though, so if you’re stuck for a talking head, they’ll be happy to help.shutterstock_137469248

Most Likely To Own Corduroy Clothing is, of course, Environment Correspondent.

On local papers this means planning applications – boring. On national newspapers this means climate change – also boring.

Earnest to the extreme, their lecturing on carbon footprints seems oddly out of kilter with a product made from dead forests and delivered by fleets of fossil-fuel consuming delivery fans. No place in tabloids for this reporter but boradsheets love ’em.  If you need to add weight to a CV give this a go but 18 months max or your wardrobe will suffer.

Tech Corrs hard at work

In a time before smartphones, Technology Correspondent meant geek.

Now tech corrs have the latest phones, cameras and more freebies to flog on eBay than anyone else.  Serious coin can be made in this job. And since they are masters of the Internets, most likely to survive when your newspaper closes.

Contain your conversations with them to  excited interest in their tech and get  onto the PR list that sends them the goodies. Given that Tech Corrs often masquerade as Motoring Corrs, the wiley will never have to purchase a car and a parade of top motors will ferry them from work to home.

In time you will master how to use the above to your own advantage and, once you have, you will be ready for the greater challenge – dealing with the Political Editor.



0 29

Quaint, ain’t it?

Cub Reporter. Sounds fluffy. A doe-eyed little ball of cute fur waiting to roll over and have its tummy tickled.

But don’t be fooled.

This ancient old newspaper term for a trainee reporter actually masks a lethal combination of simmering ambition and soon-to-be boiling point resentment.

Time was it was the inky-fingered copy boy – and it was invariably a boy, in a time before women ran newsrooms – who stepped up to the plate armed with a double-pointed pencil (works in the rain, quick switch if lead breaks) and spiral notebook who would attempt the newsroom’s greasy pole.

Now, however, universities addicted to fee income are spewing out hordes of glassy-eyed digitally-native, multimedia bloggers who have convinced them – despite all evidence to the contrary given pay and working conditions – that journalism is the profession for them.

And, worse still, convinced them that they are destined for greatness.


This is the best press release I've ever rewritten.
This is the best press release I’ve ever rewritten.

So it’s more than a shock when the four-year-trained, top percentile knowledge-economy product actually lands their first job at a news outlet.

Bank Holiday getaways, weather stories (sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it rains), press releases, Twitter rewrites, advertorial or native content, more press releases, the nutter on the phone, the nutter in reception and the shittest shifts known to humankind are not really the Lobby job nor the dashing foreign corr posting they were led to believe was theirs simply by spelling their own name correctly.

If they’re lucky, they get to do a celebrity ringaround which at least allows them to tell mum and dad they ‘know’ someone famous. Telling them you know the local planning officer doesn’t really have the same cachet, despite being considerably more useful if they ever get on the housing ladder.

There are two kinds of Cub Reporter: those who survive and those who go into PR.

Surviving is easy. And by easy, we mean hard. Think of it like grief, accepting the loss of your dream. Kind of like losing your first pet. It stings – and then you realise you can get a brand new one.

Fret not, if you want to avoid the highly-paid world of PR, then read on.

Stage One: Denial You’ve arrived! The Weekly Soon To Be Online Washed Up Advertiser & Bugle has made an important hire – you! You’ve finally got a good reason to have a smartphone and even bought a digital voice recorder – and earpiece! Because soon you will be undercover breaking shattering stories.

Stage Two: Anger Rage Quit! Almost. Your 142nd press release rewrite in and still your genius has not been accepted. You have a degree, fer christsake. And why does the Chief Sub keep shouting at you. Every1 U No writes like Dis?!

Stage Three: Bargaining For some reason (your love of current affairs, your desire to change the world, your landlord’s rent collector and his nailed stick) you want to go on. You want more. And why not? You start to have…er..ideas! Worse, you think they’re good. Even worse, and encouraged by subs who should know better and enjoy prodding you while you’re drunk, you’ve decided to tell the Editor. You argue your own brilliance with a person who is wondering why the new temp has come into their office making noises from their mouth hole.

So I had this idea for a column
So I had this idea for a column

Stage Four: Depression The earpiece you bought is still in its plastic wrapping and you now know every local councillor by their first name. You’ve started wearing comfortable shoes instead of smart ones and your week is divided into ready meals to look forward to. Press release 987 awaits your tender care.

Stage Five: Acceptance That stale smell? It’s you. That novel you were writing? Er… not ask. But what’s this? It’s August, it’s 6.14am, you have a missed call from the News Editor. Twitter pics posted in the last few minutes show smoking metal where a minibus of kids used to be on their way to the zoo. Your smartphone rings again….and this time you DO take the call….

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There is one person who can ruin your career in a newspaper newsroom – and it’s not the Editor.

Chief Sub.

Chief Sub may sound like the latest lunchtime special from your sandwich deli but do not be fooled. In the slippery world of newspaper internal politics it is chief sub who wields the knife both figuratively and literally.

And we do mean literally. This ferret still bears the scar of a page make up scalpel left lying too close to the chief sub during an argument over what Chief Sub decided was worthy of only a nib.

And therein lies the reality of power in a newsroom. Editors will vary in shape and size – and levels of sociopathy – but  it’s usually broad brush demands, met as far as is practicable by a harried news desk and their soon-to-be-yet-more-harried reporters.

chief sub takes on the editor
Chief Sub verses the Editor. The outcome is foreknown.

It is chief sub who can hold up your ‘brilliant exclusive ‘with queries, fact-checking demands, until all tempo is lost, page space dwindling until just the bottom of page 2 beckons, next to the weather – and is the weather that will get read.

News Editors rightly fear them in evening conference – and so should you. The nightly ritual of show and tell bluff perpetrated by news desk before the resident Caligula in the Editor’s chair can quickly descend in a bloody spectacle akin to a bull fight in Cordoba. Even the most even-tempered Chief Sub feels compelled to lob fact-seeking questions like toreador javelins into the hide of the news editor, drawing editorial blood with each query. As the soft underbelly of the flabby story finally gives up its guts, Chief Sub, now sated, will usually withdraw. The Editor will mercifully deliver the coup de grace, the killing blow, throwing the ears of the hapless news fool into the baying crowd of executives. But forget not that the hard work, the take-down was orchestrated by Chief Sub.

Fret not. Help IS at hand. Chief Sub has two fatal weaknesses which you can exploit. Pride and drink. Drink mainly, but we’ll start with pride.

Chief Subs have spent years tearing copy apart, destroying untruths, whispers and worse – a reporter’s assumption (‘If you assume it makes an ASS out of U and Me!’). They pride themselves on spotting flaws and are the kind of dinner guest who will refer to Frankenstein’s Monster – and correct you if you fail to do the same.

SO beguile, dear cub. Beguile. Throw some minor mistakes into copy to placate them. A few snippets, nothing too obvious.

‘Over 40m people will die from obesity by 2020….

Expect to be corrected with a curt ‘MORE THAN not over!’ Job done. You risk a reputation of being a blithering idiot but you’re feeding the beast with their favourite food.

Safer, but more expensive is drink.

You may have crawled out of the newsroom after a 12 hour slog but head to the pub and wait. Chief subs will emerge after putting the paper to bed around 1am. Booze is their kryptonite. They will cease – temporaliy, at least – to view you as a walking bag of bollocks and instead as human.

And that’s a start.

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You remember that lecturer that told you how newsrooms work?

Yep. They were wrong

Newsroom Day One ain’t pretty for the uninitiated but don’t worry, help is at hand. Over the next few days, we’ll walk you through the socialites, sociopaths and just plain normal – yep, that’s Frank, former fleet manager now in Circulation, but that’s yer lot – that inhabit the psychiatric ward masquerading as an office.

Know thine enemy: backbench
Know thine enemy: backbench

Some of the other tenants in your building – because newspapers are too skint to command their own empires anymore – even say hello in the lift, but once you step out onto your own floor carrying your boss’s coffee (you didn’t forget, did you?) you’ll have to be on your guard.

Luckily, this guide to the worst the Street has to offer will set you on your way to climbing the greasy pole.  After all, land a few daggers in enough backs and soon you’ll have a ldder – all the way to the top.