Making plans for newsrooms

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
― Benjamin Franklin

There are thousands of variations on this theme.
Most contain far more smugness, management jargon and sheer preachiness.
But they all convey a simple, and essentially fairly harsh, truth about the importance of advance planning.
It’s never going to be the most glamorous aspect of running a newsroom.
But it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t half bite you on the bum if you fail to do it.
The international media training organisation IFRA argues that the vast majority of the stories we cover are essentially predictable events, which end up being treated as breaking news because of lack of preparation.
So how can newsdesks, features desks, sports desks, content managers, digital publishers and Uncle Tom Cobley and all get better at it?
The first point to make is that planning ahead takes time.
And that might be time that you have to actively carve out of your busy schedule.
So, the initial step is to do your first bit of advance planning – picking a day or two when you can step away from your other responsibilities to give it your full attention.
The next step is to work out the sort of events, issues, and initiatives that you want to plan for.
There are advance lists on PA, as well as calendars on your local tourism agency website, and in whatever diary system you currently use.
These sites may also be useful – brace yourself for Agatha Christie Week in September, by the way:
http://www.national-awareness-days.com/
http://www.awarenessdays.co.uk/
You should also look back at your front few pages from this time last year, and maybe five years ago.
One paper I visited recently spent a couple of days drawing up a three-month list of events, court cases, meetings and so on in its neck of the woods, triggering a detailed discussion of how they should be treated and covered.
So what do we do with that information, and how do we keep the process going?
* Set up a communally-accessed electronic diary: Use the tasks function on the Outlook Express calendar to create a daily news diary, and to send yourself reminders a month, a week, or a day before key events.
* Set up advance planning email folders: When I was a news editor, I had folders for every month of the year, into which I put photocall notices, press releases and other bits and pieces of information. Every week, in drawing up my newslist, I trawled through the relevant folder, booking pictures and allocating stories to reporters.
* Encourage your staff to take planning seriously: make sure they are putting the dates of court cases, meetings, major store openings, the start of chaotic roadworks, and all the other happenings that we need to consider reacting to, into that electronic diary. I can understand you may prefer, for very good reasons, to delegate as much of this as possible to reporters, but just make sure they hand over the information before they go on holiday.
And remember one more thing.
Just because events and awareness weeks pop up in your planning system, it doesn’t mean to say you have to cover them.
That ‘would I read this?’ question still applies.
But at least you are making an active, informed choice, rather than letting news opportunities go by the board by default.
And here’s a final word of wisdom, this time from The Zombie Survival Guide, no less.

“If you believe you can accomplish everything by “cramming” at the eleventh hour, by all means, don’t lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining”
― Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead

Why the same old story means the same old story

“One of my frustrations is that we tell the same stories over and over again, when we should be looking for more stories because there are so many out there.”

This quote, from the organiser of an exhibition in Bath about 18th century life, struck a real chord with me when I saw it in the Chronicle’s Weekend magazine.

She was talking about history – but those words carry a telling message for the news industry right now.

When I look at local newspapers, both my own company’s and others, I am rarely surprised.
The material that is turned into page leads can be familiar fare: rows over new housing developments or planning blueprints, people riding from one end of the country to another for good causes, the minutiae of council or NHS funding battles, complaints about potholes or pavements, and people putting a brave face on rain-hit summer festivals.

We offer up running commentaries on stalemates that have been rumbling on for decades, getting stuck in a groove of reflecting infinitesimal twists and turns, and are happy to go along with new campaigns that simply reheat initiatives from a year ago.
And when there seems to be nothing going on, we fall back on the same people for follow-ups and content ideas, shoving our news poker into the dying embers of stories to revive them for one more week.
We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it.

When I was a news editor, I used to regularly set an objective for reporters of making ten new contacts who generated page lead-standard stories over the next six months.

It’s easy to talk to the same people about the same issues, week after week. They’ll be the ones forcing the pace anyway, by emailing us and ringing us up.The real – and vital – challenge is to talk to new people, with new stories and new outlooks on life.

It’s very rare, for instance, that I ever see the standpoint of a first-time buyer in our acres of coverage of core strategies and green belt housing battles.
We need to find better ways of telling – or presenting – charity stories.
People doing marvellous things for good causes – often after facing extraordinary adversity themselves – need their dedication acknowledged and celebrated.
But on every other page?
Why not have a page or two every week that marshals them all in one place?
And when we are looking for new contributors, columnists and bloggers, let’s make sure there are some surprising, unpredictable, even anarchic voices there, rather than the councillors and campaigners who already dominate our pages.

And we need to remind ourselves what always does well – asking that ‘would I read this?’ question again.
We get our local weekly paper religiously, but I only read around a third of the stories.
My interest – as a 50-year-old parent – is sparked by stuff about new retailers coming to the town, about developments affecting familiar landmarks, road schemes that affect the routes I use, schools (but policies and results, not whacky fundraising or book days), highly emotive human interest tales and particularly fatalities, and the odd (in all senses of the word) court case.
I’m not remotely bothered about charity fundraisers, events I haven’t been to (and some that I have), planning rows on the other side of town, and NHS spending squabbles.
And I like to be surprised.
The one page I read every word of recently was a simple, but beautifully-conceived feature in the Bristol Post which had some of the paper’s writers challenging a survey on the age at which you should give up activities from wearing high heels to going to festivals.

Post too old

It worked because I wasn’t expecting it, and because it contained engaging writing from passionate people.
So, here’s another challenge for you.
This week, get out there and get a story from someone you’ve never spoken to before, and one which isn’t a whinge about the council or a fundraising jaunt.
The key words there, by the way, were ‘get out.’
The TV journalist Andrew Marr once said: “The best agenda for a new journalism is: Get out more.”
Because if we keep telling the same old stories, it will be the same old story for all of us.

 

 

Why Marie had her head shaved off – and other journalistic howlers

Calling this my blog is a bit of a cheat today.

By way of some entertainment to cheer you on your way to the weekend, here is a collection of journalistic howlers amassed over the years by The Bath Chronicle’s recently-appointed creative editor, Sian David.

  • Chairman of the Rangers, Chris Parkin, said the driver had acted foolishly and it was lucky no-one was seriously hurt. “It is not the sort of thing you should see on a football pitch or in a pubic park,” he said.

 

  •  “Across Carmarthenshire a few other councils have made similar noses but anything is a bonus.”

 

  • Now the 63-year-old is considering selling up, he said: “I have lived here 65 years.”

 

  • CONSTRUCTION workers have not been beaten by one of Llanelli’s busiest roundabouts as they create the town’s £25 East Gate development.

 

  • “Growing up I had a short attendance in my Achilles and that was my excuse and I really played on it. My life wasn’t very active at all.”

(NB: he meant short tendons but the reporter misheard!)

 

  • Although he has been formally identified, his name has not yet been made public. Next of kin and the corner have been informed.

 

  • In tough economic times, having successful local companies that are also big employers can be invaluable to both politicians and those in need of work. Thankfully, this region boasts some reliable employers still taking no staff, says Rupert Hall.

 

  • A tribute to their family predecessor Frank Hubert Maybery, who died as a second class passanger 100 years ago in the Titanic’s sink.

 

  • The health board’s head of strategic partnerships, Peter Llewellyn, said there would be a complete overall of hospital transport.

 

  • “There are people from the future in our schools right now”

(NB: the quote should have been: ‘there are soldiers of the future in our schools right now’)

 

  • For their first fundraiser, a fun day held at the Aberafan Shopping Centre on September 8, a total of £5,000 was raised and Marie Partridge had her head shaved off.

 

All of which caused much amusement and a few red faces over the bridge in Wales, where most of these horrors were perpetrated.

The serious point behind them, of course, is that they show the importance of re-reading your copy.

A lot of my time is currently being spent on training reporters to develop greater powers of self-criticism – whether that be in spotting such literals, noticing questions that need answering, or eliminating repetition and excess verbiage.

All of these pale into insignificance, though, beside one of the loveliest howlers of recent times.

On a story about the BBC’s cackhanded coverage of an abuse scandal at a Welsh children’s home, dailypost.co.uk carried the headline:

Bryn Estyn: Newsnight failed to complete ‘baasic journalistic checks’ 

Have a smashing weekend.

 

What makes a good journalist?

It’s not often that the muse strikes in the middle of Tesco.

But I bumped into the mum of one of my son’s old school friends in our local branch last night.

She said he was doing well, studying English at university, and enjoyed writing.

“He’s wondering if he might want to be a journalist,” she said. “He really enjoyed that week he had at The Bath Chronicle, but he’s just not sure what he wants to do, and he’s not even writing for the student paper”

(Note: I don’t remember him ever spending a week at the Chronicle. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t remember a 12ft alien who gave out free money doing work experience, so fast-editing is my memory in that regard.)

I gave my number to the enquiring mum, but wasn’t hugely encouraging.

“If he isn’t 100 per cent committed to being a journalist, if it isn’t the only thing he’s ever wanted to do, and if he doesn’t want it more than anything else, it’s almost certainly not the right job for him,” was more or less my answer.

I have always said that the qualities you need to get into journalism – determination, graft, luck, charm, people skills and a degree of hunger – are also those required to make you a success in our profession.

The writing part of the job is – clearly – a huge one.

An editor that I greatly respect told me recently that he thought the only real answer to the question Why do you want to be a journalist? was: Because I love writing.

But it’s not, if you forgive the weak pun, the whole story.

To flesh out my sentence above, it strikes me that these are also key, vital qualities for a would-be journalist:

* curiosity – you need to be interested in the way life and society work, and engaged with the world around you

* empathy – you will be dealing with people all day long, and often people at extremes of human emotion. You must get on with them, have a reserve of instant charm and small talk, be a good listener, and have acute emotional intelligence. And you must be able to be a team player

* resourcefulness – you should be able to think on your feet, turn adversity around and make the most of technology and the myriad of new storygathering and storytelling mechanisms

* an open mind – one which balances healthy cynicism with belief in the human spirit, and has a positive attitude to life, leaving dogma and blind preconception at the door

* organisation – you need to manage your time well, prioritise efficiently, and be dedicated to accuracy and truth

* imagination – you have to be able to find new ways of telling familiar stories, and ask questions and make suggestions that risk both failure and ridicule

* eccentricity – some of the best journalists I have ever worked with have contributed to my follicly-challenged appearance. The wayward, the stroppy, the unpredictable…they’ve all turned in the best writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of sending to a page. But I’ve also had faith in their commitment to accuracy and to their colleagues

* bravery – not just to deal with intimidating people, but to take a complicated situation by the scruff of its neck and decide on what could be a controversial line or intro

* determination – the most important by a country mile. Robustness, resilience, a thick skin, and the ability to reject nonsense and bounce back from adversity will all stand you in good stead.

My friend the editor is also right, however.

You must want to write, and to tell stories.

You must have a desire to find out things that people don’t know – and that other people don’t want them to know. And you must want to spread the word about them.

Incidentally, that might not be just by writing that story.

It might be by crafting the very best headline, or taking the very best picture.

Being able to provide information in a way that moves people, that changes lives, is what the best journalism is all about.

As a trainer, I can improve people’s writing skills and help them develop a whole weaponry of other techniques needed for their daily working lives.

But ultimately, so much of journalism is about things that can’t be taught or trained.

It’s the thrill of the chase, certainly.

But it’s also the glint in the eye, the fire in the belly, the occasional metaphorical foot in the door and the strong but sensitive heart.

 

Who are we writing for – and would I read this?

They called her Jane, and she worked at the local hospital.

I think her husband might have been called Dave, and they had two children.

The Bath radio station that invented that Jane as its target listener no longer exists.

But the idea of a target audience character remains relevant, even if the waters have been muddied in a multimedia age when people are increasingly choosing their own news from multiple sources.

When I started at my last paper, The Bath Chronicle, a mythical figure called Mrs Oldfield Park held sway in conference, with this 60something acting as an unseen copytaster.

In more recent years, I had a picture of the family from the hit TV show Outnumbered by my computer, where they were also the screen wallpaper.

And the striving but struggling middle class family remain something of a guiding light, with their concerns and interests at the forefront of news decision-making.

But we can get these things wrong, or at least be misled by our own preconceptions about what interests our target reader.

When I recently gently challenged a reporter aged in her early 20s over the merits of a story about the planning process, she argued that her 60/70something readers would be interested.

Crucially, however, she acknowledged that she wouldn’t have been bothered.

Bath Chronicle editor Lynne Fernquest has just been through a root and branch review of the paper’s content, asking her staff which stories they find attractive and intriguing.

The answers were, like my conversation with the reporter, enlightening.

Pages would have been turned rapidly past a fair bit of content, it emerged.

Over the last few weeks, I have been trying to persuade reporters to trust their own instincts more regularly on this subject.

The questions ‘would I read this?’ or ‘would I be interested in this?’ are fair ones to ask, whether the writer is 21 or 61.

Occasionally, the phrases ‘…if I had kids’, or ‘…if I owned a house’ could usefully be added to those questions.

But they’re a good start.

Too often we cover stuff because it’s there, because it arrives in a reasonable usable form in our inboxes, rather than because it’s the right, relevant, interesting and challenging content.

And we also tend to follow the angles which are suggested by press releases.

I’m not saying we don’t spot decent lines buried by cynical spin doctors, just that organisations tend to play up administrative arrangements, partnerships and the like rather than the beef of what will affect and interest real people.

So it’s important to remember who we are actually writing for.

And it’s not politicians, council officials or NHS managers.

Our own website analytics and Google Trends can give us useful pointers on what people are really interested in, rather than what they say they are.

Having said all that, it’s worth stressing that there is a difference between abandoning political coverage and ensuring that it is relevant and compelling.

Just as there is a difference between overwritten stories and a decent, intriguing, well-written, long read, with plenty of human interest angles and a healthy dose of analysis.

So let me be clear.

I’m not saying don’t write about green belt policy, health overspends, or council chamber bust-ups.

Au contraire.

But prioritising the dull but worthy runs the risk of us committing the third worst sin in journalism after inaccuracy and unfairness – that of being boring.

At times, we do need to take the news agenda by the scruff of its neck, and force ourselves to face some challenging questions.

‘Does this matter?’ is one.

But ‘would I read this?’ is probably the best one of all.

Don’t let the craik paper over the cracks – or how to win at 121s

It’s just two people meeting up for half an hour.

They even work a few yards away from each other in the same office.

What could be simpler?

And yet ensuring that 121s are carried out in editorial departments can be like nailing jelly to a wall.

I’ve done more than 30 in the last three weeks and have been reminded of their importance time and time again.

Admittedly, I haven’t been trying to keep websites updated or get papers out at the same time.

But when I tried to bring one to an end because I knew a manager had to do both of those things, he insisted: “No don’t stop, I’m really enjoying the conversation.”

The two things I hear the most are “I’m struggling to fit in the time” and its little brother “we work so closely, we’re talking all the time.”

On the first, the question is: Have you got time NOT to do them?

Time to deal with firefighting, unnecessary recruitment, disciplinary issues, poor performance, confusion and demarcation, that is.

I understand the second objection. I’ve used it myself on many occasions, and my 121 record was patchy at times.

But the last few weeks have taught me there are issues that can’t be sorted out in the cut and thrust of across-the-table office debate, and that the camaraderie that we all come to work for can lull you into a false sense of security. The craik, then, can paper over an awful lot of cracks.

So here’s why 121s make sense:

  • Nipping things in the bud: 121s can deal with issues before they become problems, minimising the number of nasty surprises along the way. You’d be amazed at how long people fester over things, and how long they will plough on regardless in the face of frustration and minor irritation.
  • Developing people: They are the first step in helping managers to make the transition from firefighting to genuinely managing and developing performance. They force you to consider the development needs of your people.
  • Feelgood factor: You will feel better about your job as you see your staff feel better – and get better – at theirs.

 Tips for managers in making 121s work:

  • Plan ahead: Put 121s in the diary for days when you know you’ve got a fighting chance of doing them, when you’re as well staffed as you’re going to be. This is one part of your working life that you can control. Diarying them for several months means they’re there as a default setting.
  • Stick to the time and date: Show the person you’re seeing just how important the 121 is.
  • Have a mini-agenda: Make sure you’ve got something to discuss, and use questions such as ‘what went well in the last month?’ and ‘if you were me, what would you do?’. But also accept there will be the odd month when the meeting can just last a few minutes.
  • Avoid Groundhog Day: Don’t keep going over the same ground, worrying away at apparently insoluble nightmares. Begin by sorting out the things that can be changed, and ensure there are tangible results each time. Keep people informed.
  • Acknowledge difficult issues: Listen to your staff’s take on the biggest bugbears of their job. Squaring the web vs print circle remains very much work in progress almost everywhere I go. So, as I said, it doesn’t make sense to keep having the same conversation. But it does make sense to see if there are bite-size bits of the problem that can be tackled, and to continue to acknowledge that difficulties exist.
  • Listen: You should do more listening than talking in a 121. Make notes, and follow up with an email afterwards.

 Tips for making your own 121 work:

  • Ask for feedback
  • Come up with possible solutions
  • Don’t get personal
  • Be honest
  • Don’t store up issues that could have been easily solved there and then
  • Make sure you have successes to share 

To me, the most important question for a manager about their people is: Do they feel valued, are they listened to and are they able to develop in skills and confidence?

The answer might be ‘yes’ to all those without 121s. But it’ll be a lot more likely with them in place.

And one final and sobering thought.

If you can’t make ensuring that your staff feel valued, get listened to, and see the potential for their own development a major priority, I’ve got news for you.

I’m not sure you should be managing people.

Dating advice: dealing with dates in stories

Whenever I talk to students about journalism and writing, I set them a little exercise.
I give them all the facts and some decent quotes for a potential story about a little girl who saves her grandad’s life using first aid skills she learned in the Brownies.
I then give the would-be journos a few minutes to come up with the best intro they can.
In the first paragraph of the notes, I put in the full date when the drama happened.
And, lo and behold, nine times out of ten, it’s still there in the intro.
That’s despite the fact that the date something happened is usually utterly irrelevant, and almost never intro material.
Those student folk can be forgiven for their misplaced sense of priority.
But I also see it in too many reporters’ copy.
In the long date goes, slowing down the pace of a story from the very start with wordy, irrelevant detail.
By all means try to answer the who, what, where, why and when.
But be in no doubt that the when is exactly where it should be in my list – right at the end.
On a similar theme, I also too often see the times of a festival, sponsored walk or fun day finding their way into post-event reports, by which time they are as much use as a chocolate barbecue-lighter.
Two more things on dates.
One is that it is increasingly necessary to stick confirmation of dates in brackets when writing for the web about events yesterday, today or tomorrow.
The second is that, once you’ve written your web story, make sure you change the date (if it’s relevant enough to be included) for the print version.
If you’re not a sub, you’ll be amazed at how many people don’t.
If you are a sub, nothing much will amaze you any more.