“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.
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.