Keeping the news customer satisfied

The consumer group Which? has just named the best and worst firms in the country for customer service.

The First Direct bank, and retailers Lush and John Lewis top the table, with energy giants NPower and Scottish Power joining Ryanair at the opposite end of the scale.

Newspapers don’t tend to make it into the pressure group’s annual 100-strong list.

Which in some ways is a shame, as it would be hugely instructive and interesting to see how our industry fares when it comes to dealing with complaints, valuing readers and advertisers, knowing about products and answering phones.

Of course, we get an insight into how parts of our public see us on our own websites.

My former colleagues at The Bath Chronicle have spent the last week or so (and far longer in some cases) sweating blood to pull off a highly impressive relaunch timed to coincide with a price rise.

The reward for their efforts online has been more than a dozen variations of abuse.

Luckily on Twitter, Facebook and via email, more reasoned and generous counsel has prevailed.

I’ve always believed in trying to answer criticism – whether it was on the bottom of an online story, on Twitter or on Facebook.

And I’m delighted when journalists get – diplomatically – stuck in.

We need to explain why we make the decisions we do, and to apologise gracefully when we get things wrong.

But engagement of this kind only works if you’re dealing with people with open minds.

And perhaps only when you’re dealing with people who are open about their own identities.

We all know how ‘brave’ our critics can be when they’re keyboard warriors hiding behind an anonymous tag and hitting out at a general media monolith target.

Which is why I believe that meeting our various publics face to face can be so valuable.

It was said of onetime Prime Minister John Major that, if he could have had five minutes with every voter, his warmth, charm and gift of the gab would have had us all voting Tory.

When I’ve been at our own awards, at meet-the-reporter sessions or at other public events, the temptation has been to try something similar.

Certainly, when you’re face to face with people, it’s far easier to persuade them that the vast majority of journalists are honest, hard-working people who simply want to tell the best stories about their communities.

You hope that they go away with a better, warmer feeling about your paper and website.

And, more importantly, you hope they tell a few of their friends about how much they enjoyed their encounter.

Sometimes what readers (and non-readers) tell you can be frustrating and contradictory. Sometimes they can be painfully incisive.

But most of the time, people offer nuggets of gold that can help us get under the skin of the audiences we serve.

So here’s a challenge.

Over the next week or so, try to talk to three or four friends, family members, neighbours, fellow bus travellers, football club parents or sports club members about your paper and website.

If all the editorial staff in the Local World region I cover spoke to half a dozen people, we’d have more views than the average national opinion poll.

But be warned.

Sometimes people can come up with some pretty left field stuff.

At one meet-the-reporter session in a suburb in Bath, a very arty lady apologised for no longer buying the Chronicle as regularly as she once did.

“Once the children got a bit older,” she said, “we didn’t need quite so much newspaper for papier mache for school art projects.”

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Why journalists should write more columns

As journalists, we’re not supposed to have views, are we?

We just report the news objectively and keep our opinions to ourselves.

Well, up to a point, of course.

But there is no doubt in my mind that some of the very best writing is done in the first person.

And specialist writers can have a unique store of knowledge, memories, insights and judgement when it comes to their sector, sport or patch.

So I’m always cheered when I see reporters writing columns, analysis and first-person pieces.

These are the things that bring added value to newspapers, transcending the here today, gone tomorrow nature of breaking news.

I always look forward to reading Gloucestershire Echo politics reporter Jack Maidment’s Quango Unchained column – which takes a wry and wise look at national and local government issues.

Elsewhere in the Echo, sports writer Will Wood movingly shares the emotional ups and downs of his recovery from brain injury in a weekly column.

In the Bristol Post, editor Mike Norton, deputy editor Rob Stokes, chief reporter Michael Ribbeck and sub-editor Mick Scanlan keep the marvellous 50something column going, alongside news feature writer Tom Morris and his take on married life.

While in the Wells Journal, news editor Oliver Hulme can tackle subjects as diverse as vacuum cleaners and football in his column Ramble On.

But my favourite reads in the papers I’m responsible for aren’t actually by people whose main job is writing.

I love the weekly column by Hugh Dixon in The Bath Chronicle on his family’s trials and tribulations.

But I have a particularly soft spot for photographer Len Copland’s Len’s Lens column in the Western Gazette.

As he shares his tips for getting the best out of your camera or phone, Len’s enthusiasm, knowledge, experience and wit shine out of every line.

Which is as close to a definition of good writing as you’re ever likely to get.

What motivates journalists?

A friend of ours has just told her boss that she’s applied for a new job.

After around two decades at the same hotel, she wants a change.

The boss’s response was tragically predictable.

“Is it just the money?” he asked her.

It isn’t.

She wants her own defined job, with set timings rather than the zero-hours, gap-filling unpredictability of her current role.

But, until that moment, no one had ever asked her what she wanted from the place where she has spent virtually half her life.

Her boss’s kneejerk reaction speaks volumes about the woeful poverty of imagination of some managers.

So what does motivate people – and are journalists any different?

I think most people in our profession like to make a difference, to help achieve some sort of positive change, whether it be galvanising extra support for a hard-up charity, or seeing off a controversial council cutback.

Hand in hand with that comes the desire to be part of a community, to play a leading and influential role in our neck of the woods, telling untold stories in a way that unleashes our creativity and imagination.

But in actual fact, all of this is mere detail – the examples to illustrate larger truths which apply to the entire working world.

These then, are my top ten motivators:

  • being valued: we all need feedback, praise and validation. We thrive on day to day thank-yous and well dones, as well as more structured monthly or annual award schemes. Researchers have suggested that in the highest-performing businesses, managers dish out six times as much praise as they do criticism.
  • being part of a team: in the best workplaces – and even in some mediocre ones – your colleagues are your second family. We spend large chunks of our lives at work, and those hours are made more bearable – and if things are going well, hugely enjoyable – by team spirit, family feeling and a sense of belonging. That’s why watercooler conversations  and social events are so crucial, why getting days off to an energetic start really matters, and why little gestures from editors such as bringing in food or making tea for their teams make a difference.
  • proper communication: people need to be listened to, to be involved in decision-making, to have defined goals and roles set out clearly by organised and inspiring leaders, and to have regular 121s and appraisals. In difficult times, when jobs are under threat or teams stretched, that communication needs to be warm, face-to-face, frequent and as clear as day.
  • pride: everyone needs to feel pride in what they do, and to feel that their employer’s values and ethics mirror their own.
  • development and training: we need to feel we are growing in our jobs, that we’re making progress and adding to our skills and experience, particularly in a fast-changing digital age. Again, appraisals and 121s can be the key to this, and can uncover hidden ambitions and talents.
  • a role which plays to our strengths and character: some of us value autonomy, while others revel in constant collaboration and teamwork. Managers need to offer the right balance of delegation and direction, and of support and stretching, bearing in mind the different people in their teams.
  • good working conditions: bosses can underestimate the importance (or rather, the importance in negative terms if things aren’t right) of a pleasant environment, decent IT, humane rotas, and kitchens with fridges full of coffee and milk.
  • work-life balance: this means managers who genuinely care about their staff, who take an interest in them as individuals outside of their workplace roles, and respond to their hopes and fears, joys and woes. It means flexibility over sick children and elderly relatives – and knowing when to send people home because they’ve worked long enough. And it means ensuring your staff take their holidays.
  • being trusted: I think we react best to systems based on the premise that we are trusted to do the right thing, rather than suspected of doing the wrong thing. Micromanaging and blame cultures aren’t helpful.
  • fairness: this is perhaps the most important of all.  We need to see that everyone is pulling their weight, that there are no favourites, and that people are respected as individuals. We want pay, days off, extra demands and work patterns to be reasonable and predictable. And ‘do as I say, not as I do’ doesn’t cut it any more.

As I said above, my friend didn’t want more money.

And, while most journalists wouldn’t say no to an extra grand here and there, the majority of the ones I know aren’t purely motivated by cash.

Which is fine and dandy.

Because the most important, sustainable and successful ways of motivating people cost nothing at all.

How to avoid mixing up words that sound the same

They’re the words and phrases that are always there, ready to trip up reporters when writing their stories.

They won’t be sorted out by a spellcheck.

But those homophones – words which sound the same but have different meanings and/or spellings – can make us look silly if we’re not careful.

So here’s a guide through the minefield of some of the most common ones – ones which I see with slightly alarming regularity.

Accept and except: I accept the views of most people, except the ones I disagree with

Aloud and allowed: Singing aloud should not be allowed on buses

Break and brake: My brakes failed, causing me to crash and break my leg

Breech and breach: Midwives breached normal safety procedures to deliver a breech baby at the roadside

Canvas and canvass: The pollsters spent the night camping under canvas after canvassing opinions all day

Chord and cord: The tragedy of the man with the damaged spinal cord struck a chord with readers

Curb and kerb: The council is bringing in new rules to curb parking on kerbs

Desert and dessert: Before he set off for the desert, the explorer tucked into a massive meal, including dessert

Die and dye: I would rather die than dye my hair green

Discreet and discrete: The diplomat was discreet about the fact that private and public lives had to be kept discrete

Flair and flare: He wore his flared trousers with flair as he set off the distress flares

It’s and its: It’s time for the council to take its duties seriously

Marshal and martial: The volunteer dad acted as a marshal at the martial arts event

Navel and naval: The naval officer had a very strange navel, which he blamed on his mum

Pedal and peddle: The enterprising cyclist used pedal power to peddle his wares

Pore and pour: Sweat poured out of every pore

Principal and principle: The principal of the college resigned on principle after being told to cut courses

Reign and rein: Republicans want to rein in the monarchy, saying the Queen has reigned for too long

Stationary and stationery: The lorry carrying the office stationery was stationary in a traffic jam

Story and storey: I am writing this story on the third storey of this building

Team and teem: The team all had umbrellas, ready for it to teem with rain

Through and threw: I threw a stone through the window

Throne and thrown: The throne was in the Buckingham Palace skip, thrown there by an angry Prince Philip

Who’s and whose: The man who’s writing this is the same man whose blog is littered with homophones

Hope that helps.

Strangely enough, I won’t be providing a sentence that helps you distinguish between seamen and semen. You’re on your own there.

Proving you’re a real character on Twitter

My first port of call after checking my emails each morning is Twitter.

And I’d be reasonably confident that’s the case for most journalists.

But it’s also the default option for many of the movers and shakers in our communities – from the politicians and business leaders to the campaigners and commentariat.

So it was good to see editors of the papers that I work with in my part of the Local World world doing well in a new league table, highlighted in a Hold the Front Page report today.

As I said in an earlier blog I strongly believe that we need to be working harder to engage with our communities, to explain our decisions and news judgement, and to seek feedback over our coverage.

Although Facebook may prove more effective in driving people to our best stories, Twitter remains a great way of proving there’s a human face behind them.

Things I’ve learned from editors

Next year, I will have been a journalist for 30 years.

Over those three decades, I’ve absorbed all sorts of advice, knowledge, techniques and skills.

As I wrote in this blog earlier this week the process started with the reporters I first worked with on a funny old paper in Devon in 1985.

But what other lessons have I learned from my bosses and colleagues in the intervening years?

It’s a question I entertain myself with from time to time, usually when I’m preparing for a job interview, or have time to kill on a run.

Much of my learning was at the hands of the news editor who taught me virtually all I know about news-editing, Torquay Herald Express editor Jim Parker.

He showed me the crucial importance of developing, nurturing and working your contacts, of that mixture of charm, chumminess and cheek that can be the key to getting the very best stories.

Another reporter, Swindon Advertiser district man Clive Bennett, was also a guiding light on that score.

His patter when trying to get reluctant informants to open up was utter poetry, a wonder to behold.

Jim also taught me the vital need for a news editor – or any editorial leader – to be a performer.

He put on a daily act of encouragement, mickey-taking, mock anger, self-deprecation and constant motion to keep his newsroom energised.

After a couple of years by the sea, I moved to Swindon, where news editor David Gledhill opened my eyes to the importance of standing up for your rights, of remembering the role journalism can play in a healthy democracy, and of sheer bloodyminded courage.

That came to the fore when I followed him to Bath, where as editor he presided over a story which pointed an accusing finger at a councillor with the simple front page description LIAR.

I learned softer – but equally vital – skills from his successor, my very good friend Sam Holliday.

The measure of Sam is that he remains friends with people he has made redundant, and he showed me how to create a communicative family atmosphere and resilient team spirit when times were tough.

In my more idealistic moments, I like to think I am helping to mould the next generation of editors.

If they can combine the best elements of the ones that I’ve worked for, they won’t go far wrong.

Why old blokes with beards still have something to teach young reporters

He was an odd-looking bloke, with a shambling gait and a very strange beard.

But what Glyn didn’t know about being a reporter wasn’t worth knowing.

He was probably in his 40s as I started out on a now-defunct weekly paper in 1985.

And his advice, tips and contacts helped me grow in confidence and ability as I began covering my rural slice of mid-Devon.

I thought of Glyn as I read a report out today from the NCTJ about the state of journalism training.

Much of the report, which is also covered by Hold the Front Page today looks at the changing nature of journalism and journalists.

Parts of it stray into Sybil Fawlty’s alleged Mastermind specialist subject.

But it raises interesting questions about how the journalists of the future are going to acquire the skills they need.

One concern it expresses is that what it calls ‘the hollowing-out’ of newsrooms has left them bereft of the elder statesmen and women of the past, the experienced reporters who act as informal advisers and mentors to the next generation.

In my job, I see some newsrooms which lack the father and mother figures that helped me on my way three decades ago.

But in most of the places that I visit, I can still see the influence of reporters who have chosen to keep doing the job they love on their younger colleagues.

Long may that continue.