Ringing the changes to get would-be journalists to pick up the phone

There were plenty of days when they never stopped.

And there were plenty of days when I wished they would.

Ringing phones were part of the beautiful background noise of a good newsroom.

One of the many Wiltshire’s Laws I developed over time was that the closer you were to a print deadline, the more the phones would ring.

“Can someone get that, please,” was one of my politer responses.

Today, newsrooms seem quieter places.

I’ve been in one this week, and the phone rings now and again.

And in many ways, that’s fine. People get in touch by email, on Facebook, via Twitter or on WhatsApp groups.

And occasionally, as someone with possibly unfounded fears about a dangerous tree in a posh supermarket car park did only yesterday, they drop into the reception areas that are still open.

But we do need to talk about phones.

I love a bit of phone banter. There’s a particular joy to be had in oiling the wheels of nailing a story, or persuading someone to open up, through charming and/or cajoling down the line.

Listening to some reporters negotiate their way to success can be like observing a master craftsman or woman at work. It can be sheer poetry.

And yet, the generation that I spend most of my time with can find it hard.

It can take a couple of years for the penny to really drop that using the phone can be the best way to the heart of a story – or to crack that work placement, or that final year project feature interview.

Until it does, there can be a mini-world of pain, paranoia and procrastination.

This is far from breaking news.  The concern among editors and other employers emerges on a regular basis, and I’ve been talking to managers in the industry about this for several years.

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I’m looking forward to a session organised by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council in May which will look at how we can encourage students to get out from behind a keyboard.

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I’ve been working with a theatre company made up of performing arts graduates from our university for the last three years, devising role play exercises and confidence tips.

In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be getting all our first years to take part in an extra session where they have to use the phone, and next year we’ll be launching a new first-year module hammering home such basic skills.

The hope is that we can crack phobias about phones within a few months of students walking through the door.

It’s crucial that we free the journalists and other media professionals of the future to use every possible means of communication with confidence and charm.

And, occasionally, with a little bit of cunning.

I was delighted to hear one of our students tell me about her tactic for getting through to a woman whose story she wanted to cover.

After emails, phone calls and a visit came to nothing, she sent her a letter by recorded delivery – meaning the woman had to sign for it, and the student got a receipt.

She’s now doing that story.

 

 

 

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When journalists have to show everyone else how to behave

It was a Friday morning when I decided to make my point.

At the time, my role as news editor also involved monitoring the comments left under all our online stories.

We’d covered an uplifting story about a sprightly pensioner who’d used his walking stick to tackle robbers who had just raided a bank in a suburban shopping street.

As the raiders fled from his have-a-go-hero attack, they were pursued by a taxi driver who kept them in sight while on the phone to the police via his hands-free.

Our coverage called both of them brave.

A positive story, you might think. Not much there for anyone to take issue with.

Except one reader did. He took exception to our ‘brave’ tag, and questioned whether following armed robbers at a discreet distance for several hundred yards required any degree of courage.

I pointed out that the robbers could have noticed the driver at any time, used their weapons against him, noted his registration number, and found all manner of ways of intimidating him.

It cut no ice with our keyboard warrior.

I wasn’t going to let it lie.

What was it that inspired him to spend his time effectively criticising someone who selflessly stepped in to perform an act of public service? Why was he so keen to have such a glass half-empty outlook on life?

It took a while, but eventually the penny dropped. I invited him to admit he had been mean-spirited. He accepted my invitation. I wished him a lovely weekend. And, silently, punched the air.

My little victory for generosity of spirit came to mind when one of my regional media heroes, Plymouth Herald crime reporter Carl Eve, called out one of his own readers.

The man had sent Carl pictures of a group of police officers having a breakfast break in the city, along with a rant about a looming rise in the share of the council tax being suggested by the area’s police and crime commissioner.

There was an element of history repeating itself, after The Sun carried a similar story about eight officers having bacon sandwiches and coffee in the same area two years ago.

This time, Carl was having none of it.

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In a wonderful piece, which has been shared 14,000 times and liked extensively in recent days, he defended the officers he covers, pointing out how rarely they have an opportunity to meet up to discuss their increasingly stressful working lives.

It wasn’t the story the man behind the tip-off was expecting.

But it was the right response from a journalist who has won respect for his thoughtfulness and compassion – as well as a refusal to put up with bullshit.

A few days earlier, Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow had also won praise for calling out rudeness, when he rebuked left-wing Labour MP Richard Burgon for being ‘awfully beastly’ to Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson.

It was a great reversal of roles, as the TV interviewer accused his interviewee of rudeness, and of failing to let someone answer a question.

We took our first years to BBC Birmingham last week, and met Midlands Today editor Rachel Bowering, who is always a great source of wisdom and advice.

She spoke a lot about the importance of constructive journalism – storytelling that helps provide answers to problems, rather than just report on them, or in some cases accentuate them.

The perception of reality in the public becomes overly negative

That’s a movement given new life at the weekend by a man who helped define the hierarchy of news values, Johan Galtung.

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In an interview with the Guardian, he expressed concern at the priority given to stories about conflict.

“The perception of reality in the public becomes overly negative,” he said.

“It shapes what people are doing. And it shapes politicians, it makes them negative, instead of putting emphasis on the good in society they want to construct.”

Perhaps interventions such as mine, Carl’s and Jon’s are too rare.

We may have a reputation for cynicism and negativity.

But at times, we can’t hold a snuffed-out candle to our public.

At times, it is journalists who have to show people how to behave.

We should perhaps do it more often.

Getting up close and personal with the audience in 2019

Some of the traditional media sites have taken a break in these in between festive days.

But not a new site that offers some of the most inspiring insights into life at the sharp end of the journalism that really matters – the regional and local media.

The Behind Local News reviews of the year have filled a bit of a vacuum in celebrating some of the journalism successes of 2018 – and looking forward to the challenges of the next 12 months.

There’s a clear theme to some of those successes – and one which reflects the spirit behind BLN itself.

Some of the hardest-hitting reporting came from co-operation between newsrooms that would have traditionally seen themselves as rivals.

The coverage of the dire state of rail services in the north of England brought together titles from the three biggest news groups in a wall-to-wall show of community defiance over the scandalous neglect of public transport outside London.

The year has also seen co-operation between the BBC and the regional media over data journalism, and the Local Democracy Reporter scheme, continued support from Google for digital storytelling, and the beginnings of a commitment from Facebook to supporting efforts to fill the UK’s news coverage deserts.

That sense of partnership will be sorely needed in the months and years to come, as media rights are threatened on fronts from freedom of information to secrecy legislation and from local government access to open justice.

A number of the BLN reviewers have expressed their frustration at what they perceive as sniping and negativity about some of the output of today’s regional newsrooms.

I have to bite my tongue – or cross my Twitter fingers – on occasions. And I find the cruel rounds of staffing cuts disguised as modernisation deeply depressing.

But I find reasons to be cheerful about the talent and commitment of individual regional journalists at every turn – from the soon-to-be-much-missed Michael Yong’s charting of the human tragedy behind the homelessness statistics in Bristol to the beautiful storytelling of Paul Rowland’s Wales Online team and from the Leicester Mercury’s sensitive coverage of the King Power Stadium helicopter tragedy to literally everything written by Jen Williams for the Manchester Evening News.

In among the frustration and the worry that show themselves in some of those BLN reviews is something very welcome.

Almost to a man and a woman, the editors pledge themselves to listening to their communities more.

We cannot take the bonds with our readers for granted. They have to be rebuilt and reinforced, day in, day out.

Getting as close to our audience as possible – looking them in the eye, talking to them face to face, and listening to them with humility – has to be a New Year’s resolution for all journalists in 2019.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Sad farewell to the office that was my second home

It was a place in which I spent up to 13 hours a day.

Around me were what I came to call my second family: people who laughed, moaned, ranted, plotted and occasionally cried together.

That office next to a pub was my other home for six years, the last of three headquarters of The Bath Chronicle that I worked in over a 19-year period.

And now it will be the last-ever conventional office in the paper’s 258-year history.

It’s a sad day, made all the sadder for its painful predictability.

Reporters working for the Chron and its website Bath Live will be able to work from an area at the nearby college, and offices in Bristol or Yeovil.

But it won’t quite be the same as having a branded, accessible base which is the symbolic heart of a news organisation in what has always been a city that punches above its weight.

Journalism is a team game, and it needs camaraderie, craik, co-operation and creative conversation.

When we moved into that office in 2008, we worried about how we’d fit everyone in. Ten years on, staff rattle around in half the floorspace.

So I understand the business case for moving out – and I don’t blame any of Reach’s local and regional management. They are excellent people doing the very best they can.

And I understand that a news organisation shouldn’t be confined by bricks and mortar in a digital age.

Most importantly, I’d rather it was buildings being lost than people.

But it’s very much the end of an era.

In that place we brought down bullying headteachers, charted the tragic twists and turns of missing people, challenged councils and celebrated life in all its rich tapestry.

We won awards and we were privileged to mark the paper’s 250th anniversary.

I and dozens of people I still call friends had some of the most memorable days of our working lives within those walls.

I’m sorry – really sorry – that a new generation of journalists won’t have quite the same shared experience.

What can journalism do to turn up the heat on global warming?

It’s perhaps the most important question to ask when deciding what priority to give to a news story.

How many people does this affect?

For many years, I’ve used the comparison between a strike by dustmen and women, and industrial action by museum workers.

We’d notice one a lot more – and a lot sooner. And it would affect us all, no matter where we lived, how old we were or how much we earned.

There’s a story out there that affects us all, too. And not just everyone on this planet now. But billions more in generations as yet undreamed of.

And yet, it rarely troubles the front pages, the top half of news websites or the first few minutes of TV news bulletins.

Or it never used to. To be fair to the BBC, it devoted a fantastic chunk of the 10 O’Clock News to climate change on Monday night.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes for grim reading, with the world heading for a disastrous 3C rise in temperatures because of man’s inability to turn what will be a literal tide on global warming.

I’m in no position to crow. I’ve just bought a diesel car which I drive nearly 90 miles a day to and from work. What follows is the height of hypocrisy.

But coverage that cuts through to the mainstream, which opens hearts and minds to the need for individual change and political pressure, is as rare as the sight of a Nissan Leaf on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway.

There couldn’t be a more potentially dramatic story, affecting more people over a longer period of time.

And yet that report was crowded out by other, more short-lived, and arguably more trivial crises.

The Guardian led on the IPCC warnings, but its former editor Alan Rusbridger was scathing about how few other titles gave up front page space.

 

Now I’m as big a fan of Strictly as the next slightly embarrassed man, and I’m fascinated to know whether it’s Last Tango in Elstree for Seann and Katya.

But journalism has to raise its game here.

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As this well-argued piece in the Washington Post says, every other issue covered is a bump in the road to environmental change.

We’ve seen titles such as the Mail begin to effect change over plastic bags and microbes.

But this risks being the equivalent of spitting in the sand to ease a drought unless it gathers dramatic pace.

The priority which the BBC went out of its way to give to climate change earlier this week shows what can be done.

There is scope for grassroots campaigning, pledging and lobbying in every community in this land.

When our children and their children ask what we did to preserve their planetary home, I’d like to think journalists had an answer – and a clear conscience.

 

What a clash with Mrs Angry reminded me about journalism

I spoke to Mrs Angry last week.

She was the owner of a business inadvertently caught up in a minor chemical alert which brought a bit of excitement to the newsroom where I was working.

I’d never spoken to her before, and probably – perhaps hopefully – never will again.

But she had a clear view of me.

“I don’t want you to write anything. You’ll just twist the truth.”

Leaving aside the fact that she was asking me NOT to tell the truth by leaving out key information, I was slightly taken aback, even after more than 30 years of this kind of exchange.

Elsewhere in the week, I met some very, very nice people – and told their inspiring stories.

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That word met is important, I think.

Getting more and more eyeballs on our journalism is clearly crucial.

But doing more eyeball-to-eyeball journalism is also key to restoring trust and to ensuring that the bonds between us and our audience are two-way, supportive and strong.

We have more information about our readers than ever before. We can track their eccentric, sometimes frustrating journeys across our websites, their reactions to our social media, their locations, and their daily habits. And, theoretically, they have more ways to contact us than ever before.

I say theoretically because, for a member of the public with a story – or heaven preserve us, a death notice – actually making your way into an actual news outlet office can feel akin to navigating the Crystal Maze.

We have virtual relationships with the people we serve and, as a Twitter addict, I firmly believe we can do great things on social media.

As I have said before, I am also a big fan of initiatives such as Behind Local News, which as well as explaining the way the regional media works, also celebrates the vibrancy of the long read, the sheer joy of working in a newsroom, and battles with ignorant politicians.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that we probably look our audience in the whites of their eyes less than we have ever done.

The really meaningful social interaction, the development of truly rich relationships, takes place face to face.

That’s why I’m left a bit cold by the revival – principally by Guardian writer Owen Jones – of the debate over diversity and media bias in our newsrooms.

There have been plenty of tremendous ripostes – not least from the wonderful Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News.

And I also liked the response from two of my friends in that newsroom in which I was working last week.

There is something in what Owen says in that we do need more people with disabilities, more older people, and more people from ethnic minorities in our newsrooms.

But I’ve never seen greater dedication to giving a voice to the voiceless in those newsrooms. This, by my friend Michael Yong for Bristol Live, charting the deaths of the hidden homeless, is hugely encouraging.

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No, to me, the real divide is between journalism that looks out and gets out and journalism that looks in and stays in.

It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It matters who you’re talking to, and how many eyeballs you’re notching up. And I don’t just mean on Chartbeat.

Has media freedom just been driven off a Cliff?

It was a clash between two great British institutions, both with decades of entertainment history behind them, both with massive fan bases, and both with their fair share of detractors.

But it was Sir Cliff Richard who ended up with his best-known song ringing in his ears yesterday after a landmark victory over the BBC which appears to have created a new red line for media coverage of police investigations.

It’s not often that the first half of the 10 O’Clock News turns into a live media law lecture.

And it’s a shame that one of the most interesting and significant developments in media law for several years ended up happening while our lecture theatres are empty.

But there is plenty of material to keep people like me busy – plus plenty to talk about in the autumn.

And this isn’t some arcane, academic, ivory-tower discussion point.

The judgement of Mr Justice Mann raises ethical and practical issues that could affect the way every single journalist in this country operates.

His ruling that people being investigated by the police have a reasonable expectation of privacy is in some ways no surprise after other cases in recent years – such as Hannon – have moved the law in this direction.

But it has understandably unleashed a serious backlash of concern – from the BBC itself, from highly experienced journalists, from media organisations and from specialist lawyers.

The judge’s conclusion that the BBC’s public interest argument could only be supported as far as coverage of an anonymised investigation – and not as far as identifying the celebrity target – is said to be a chilling restriction on media freedom and a green light for police obstructiveness or even abuse.

As usual, the Sun summed up its objections beautifully – even if the shotgunning of any more into one word offends my eye.

But is it correct?

The example of serial predator TV presenter Stuart Hall is rightly used in arguments against the sort of legal ban on naming suspects who have not yet been charged which Mr Justice Mann now seems to have created. Women came forward to strengthen the police case after he had been named at the arrest stage by the media.

Mr Justice Mann disregarded the notion that there was any ‘shaking of the tree’ merit in naming Sir Cliff.

And for every Stuart Hall there is a Christopher Jefferies – someone whose life was ruined by outrageous media coverage of an arrest that the courts agreed could have prevented justice being done.

Some red herrings have also been thrown into the debate: I saw a very experienced media lawyer suggesting the latest ruling would stop legitimate coverage of investigations into abuse by teachers – as if that unique pre-charge identification ban in Section 13 of the 2011 Education Act was all a dream. And there was concern on yesterday’s excellent Media Show that police appeals to find named and dangerous suspects could expose titles to legal risks – despite the long-standing reassurance burnt onto the eyeballs of all NCTJ exam-takers from the 1982 Attorney-General, and the key principle of qualified privilege.

One impact of the Leveson Inquiry has been the gradual closing of doors to the media by police forces, a process which has been all the more frustrating in an era of social media.

I can see this isn’t going to help, and my former colleague Tom Rawstorne makes a good point.

 

I still have mixed feelings about the BBC’s actions.

I welcome its championing of the cause of media freedom, and to see an organisation often accused of being over-cautious and bound up in regulation and compliance paranoia with its head above the parapet in this way is perhaps refreshing.

But I can’t rid myself of the suspicion that had the Beeb not been quite so bull-at-a-gate, we may not find ourselves in this situation.

To be fair to the BBC, the judge was clear that any coverage which identified Sir Cliff would have been a breach of privacy.

But there’s no doubt that helicopter, that live and intrusive footage, that short timeframe for a comment, and particularly that appallingly tactless Scoop of the Year submission added dangerously unnecessary fuel to the fire.

There are those such as former BBC executive Roger Mosey and former BBC chairman Lord Patten who argue the BBC should resist any temptation to appeal.

I disagree.

As I said before, part of me thinks the BBC has got us into this mess. And so it should do all it can to get us out.

These are incredibly difficult issues to wrestle with, and I’m very conscious of that saying that ‘hard cases make bad law.’

I’d very much like a second judicial opinion on this.