I’m always fascinated when people tell me about the work they do, especially if it’s in a field that I don’t know much about. It’s likely, that even if I think I know a bit about a particular field, I actually don’t. Some jobs or professions don’t have a public image at all, that is, they operate in a place that doesn’t cross over with the general public at all. Some of these might be mining engineers that work in remote areas of Australia, or specialist waste disposal personnel who deal with chemical labs etc. Most jobs and professions, however, do have a public image because they intersect with ordinary people at some point. It’s unlikely, though, that that view is a comprehensive one, the truth about how some professions operate can only come from within. When people start talking about this stuff most simply switch off because they can’t relate to it, but I do the opposite: I tend to bombard people with questions to try and discover the ins and outs of their jobs, work environment and quirks.
When I went to The Daily Telegraph in the mid-1990s to discuss writing The Stickler, I found out a whole lot about how newspapers deal with features such as crosswords. Many questions were answered about why my years of sending samples to newspapers and magazines had been a waste of time – from the outside it just looked like the publishers were being rude, but in actual fact it was publishers doing what they do, and handling external queries and submissions the way they always do. Newspapers don’t tend to deal directly with contributors of the run-of-the-mill stuff (crosswords and other puzzles, quizzes, horoscopes, comics etc) unless they have to – they prefer to work through agencies who do the vetting, provide finished copy (in most cases), and protect them from changing personnel and sources – newspapers don’t care who writes the crossword as long as they have something to publish. (When I was being interviewed for The Stickler role, I asked what would happen if they ran out of fresh copy before a new setter could be found, the answer was simple: they would just print an old crossword – they certainly aren’t going to leave the space blank!) The old DT puzzle page, for example, had about 10 different contributors on it, but they were all (except me – the cryptic had always been handled directly, for some reason) handled through one agency. Management of the whole page was done externally, saving much time and organisation by the newspaper. I was unique in that I dealt with the DT directly and through an agency at the same time, but this did cause some issues. A solver would have no idea about what goes on in the background, they just see the finished product. How much crosswords cost, the commission taken by the agencies, the relationship between agencies and the newspaper group are all insider stuff as are the rules set down by various parties involved regarding deadlines, restrictions on crossword content, crossword delivery formats, copyright and contracts etc. Add to that the constant battle between Fairfax and News and you have an interesting environment to work in. While The Stickler was being published by News, for example, I wasn’t considered for a daily slot by Fairfax, as their respective newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald, are considered to be in direct competition. None of this is apparent to the average solver and why should they care anyway, just as long as their cryptic crossword appears every day in their newspaper of choice.