The wisdom of great editor Ben Bradlee

One of the best editors the world has ever seen died this week.

Onetime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was the man with the courage to push the button on Watergate.

He was big on bravery and the exposure of the truth – saying “As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences. The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free.”

There are some more marvellous quotes from him here.

I like the idea that he wandered around the newsroom, motivating his army of reporters with the message ‘hey, great story’ and that he wanted them to “have a good time”.

And I like his description of journalism as ‘the best damn job in the world.’

But the quote I love the most is perhaps the best encapsulation I have ever seen of the need for journalists to look harder at times for their sense of proportion.

“When the history of the world is written, this will not be in it,” he said.


How to really DO today

One of my favourite TV shows came to an end last night.

Educating the East End has been another uplifting, emotional and reassuring insight into this country’s secondary school system.

As with such documentary series, each episode starts with a package of quotes and scenes.

By the time you get to the eighth programme, this can get a tad tedious.

But there’s one clip I never grow tired of seeing.

Midway through the intro, headteacher Jenny Smith gets up from her desk, grabs her security pass, and says: “Let’s DO today.”

It’s the sort of energetic declaration of intent that I imagine is sorely needed when you’re leading an institution full of teenagers whose get up and go has got up and gone.

But, as I’ve suggested here before, there are lessons to be learned for our industry too.

There may come a point when my banging of this particular drum becomes as tedious as those opening clips.

But there is no doubt in my mind that managers and leaders need to do more to get their people’s days off to a focussed, enthusiastic and feelgood start, one which underlines team spirit and ensures heads are up rather than down.

So let’s not just do today.

Let’s DO today.

Making journalism work experience work

There was the one who did tai chi in the office, the one who cried at the end of her stint because she’d enjoyed it so much, and the boy and girl who tried to get off with each other.

And let’s not talk about the ones who turn up for a day and then never return, the one who fell asleep at her desk, or the ones who need daily business clothing etiquette advice.

Wherever you go in newspaperland, you’ll stumble across work experience students.

And the examples I’ve quoted are just the tip of an extensive – and potentially highly amusing – iceberg.

In five minutes in one office today, I heard enough work experience stories to suggest there is probably a book to be written should I ever find myself with time on my hands.

Workies (is ours the only industry which calls them that?) can be a source of immense joy and satisfaction – or a soul-destroying, energy-sapping, time-consuming pain.

So how can we get more of the first type, and fewer of the second?

It’s clear that we need to have a system that weeds out people whose heart ain’t going to be in it.

There’s some sense in accepting placements only from folk who are already on a journalism course.

But such a policy would have disenfranchised some promising reporters with whom I now have the pleasure of working.

They got their jobs after excelling while on work experience – even before they benefited from any formal training.

One answer is to set work experience applicants some kind of test: whether that be coming up with some story ideas (stressing these must be new and doable), posting a report online, or showing evidence of blog-writing.

I see little point in inviting anyone under 18 into the newsroom, either, as this immediately cuts down where you can send them and what they can do.

I think by trying to go for quality over quantity, we can set ourselves up for more successes than failures.

It grieves me when I see workies that clearly haven’t been spoken to for hours (although to my eternal shame I did once try to go a whole day without talking to one particularly useless and reticent one).

But maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

If you’re the sort of person who sits in a corner silently minding their own business while showing the initiative and imagination of a block of wood, then journalism’s probably not the job for you.

And planning is also the key.

Having a structured week for your workie rather than making it up on the hoof every day should also help turn it into a more worthwhile exercise all round.

But you do need to ensure they are challenged as well – to find stories, to make cold calls, and to use their research initiative.

We took on the best reporter I have ever worked with after she had spent a week with us on work experience.

I knew she was going to be brilliant after watching and hearing her in action for less than a day.

In my new job, I’m desperately keen to strike up good relations with the best journalism courses in the country.

Because, when the planets are in alignment, a work experience placement can provide a life-affirming breath of fresh air, leaving us with a warm glow and the student with a positive image and a huge sense of satisfaction.

And – without wanting to sound like one of those driving school car messages – remember when you started out in journalism, and what that felt like.

I remember an enthralling and busy week at the Herald in Plymouth, being made to feel welcome – and being bitten by a bug that still has me in its grip.

So you’ve got someone coming your way on work experience next week, I hope the experience works. For both sides.

Let’s talk: turning tongue-tied journalists into better public speakers

We journalists like nothing more than the sound of our own voices.

We’ve got opinions on most issues – whether people ask us for them or not.

But when it comes to public speaking, the best of us can turn to jaw-locked jelly.

Whether it’s giving a presentation, introducing a speaker at an awards ceremony, or talking at a public meeting, the ease with which we can string a sentence together can desert us when those words are on a different screen.

So how can journalists be better at public speaking?

Here are some tips:

* grab your audience from the start:  kick off with something that will both put people at their ease and get them thinking.

* be yourself: humour – particularly of the self-deprecating kind – can be a great ice-breaker, but don’t force yourself into stand-up if you’re not comfortable with it.

* memorise and practise: Ed Miliband didn’t provide the best advert for the merits of committing a speech to memory last month, but it’s still far better than reading woodenly from a script. And you can’t practise too often.

* know your room: check the acoustics, the technology – including any microphones, and the general lie of the land where you are speaking.

* it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it: try to think about the impression you want to leave people with. You want your audience to be left with a feeling that you represent a confident, cutting edge, creative organisation.

* leave ’em wanting more: Aim to make just two or three key points and then shut up.

And finally, realise that people want you to succeed. They will mirror your behaviour and approach. If you’re relaxed, so will your audience be relaxed.

I’ll try to remember all this when I give a presentation this afternoon.

Wish me luck.

How to get better at writing features

If I had a pound for every time I’d told a reporter to base an intro on the way they’d tell a story to their mates down the pub, I’d be able to buy my own hostelry.

Identifying the one thing you’d blurt out as you hit the bar is often the best way of working out the best line for a straightforward news story.

But how do you start a news feature?

There may be all kinds of fascinating information, angles and insights.

But a decent, intriguing, enlightening and incisive feature is not just a very long news story.

So it’s more a case of finding the right theme, the narrative spine running through the piece that will hold the reader’s attention.

There’s a dilemma for people writing profiles which involve extended interviews.

Use a notebook and shorthand, and you can edit as you go, marking up the best quotes and putting your pen down when your interviewee is less than compelling.

Use a dictaphone or phone, and you can have a more natural conversation, maintaining eye contact when talking face to face – but end up having to wade through loads of material.

Whichever way you do it, I do think that starting out by transcribing all your quotes can be a mistake.

As with a conventional news story, spending some time nailing the right intro before you write anything else can pay dividends in terms of setting up a piece with the potential to flow beautifully.

With features, it can make sense to also nail a decent pay-off line, a way of rounding off the piece which completes a circle started with the first few words.

In my more anal (and time-rich) moments, I have also done mini-feature plans, ordering quotes and topics using annotations in my notebook to chart the best way of leading the reader from A to Z.

Other guiding principles when writing a feature include:

* Paint an enticing, intriguing picture

* Grab the reader with an element of surprise

* Make it personal – draw out general themes through people

* Focus in on details which allow you to make points about larger truths

* Use short sentences in dropped intros, building up a picture smoothly and relatively quickly

* Be authentic and avoid self-indulgence – readers aren’t too bothered about your battles with PR folk

Putting together a decent feature is all about being directly indirect – or possibly indirectly direct.

There’s a delicate balance between gently intriguing the reader, reeling them in with an enticing hook – and testing their patience.

Getting that right is the key.

One of the best ways of improving your feature writing – or any kind of writing – is to read other people’s.

Learn at the feet – or pen – of writers such as Janice Turner in The Times, and Zoe Williams and Simon Hattenstone in the Guardian.

And while you do, I’m off down the pub.

What Civvy Street can teach Fleet Street

There is, thankfully, no such thing as the average journalist.

We come in all shapes and sizes, with all manner of eccentricities,obsessions and baggage.

But there’s no denying that the majority of journalists arrived in the profession in a similar way.

A-levels followed by a university degree followed by some kind of journalism course remains the most common path into the industry.

Which can mean that we struggle to reflect the society which we aspire to serve.

Later this morning, I’ve got a meeting at a college to discuss the development of an apprenticeship scheme which might be a way of injecting more diversity into our workplaces.

It’s an exciting project.

But I’m equally intrigued by the prospect of getting older people into our offices.

As I get to know the journalists I work with across my patch, it’s a genuine joy to find people who have spent time in what we might call Civvy Street.

In my region, we have journalists who were in the Navy, a foreign army, the civil service, teaching and the logistics business.

Without exception, they are among the best people we have.

They approach their jobs – and particularly their interviewees – with what politician Denis Healey called ‘hinterland’.

What they bring – life experience, shared points of reference and a sense of proportion – tends to come with a fairly developed gift of the gab as well.

It’s a thrill to see and hear them in action.

For someone who spends his days trying to teach others how to ‘do’ journalism, it’s a sobering lesson.

Sometimes a life outside journalism is the best education of all.

Could I pass the test to be a senior journalist today?

Coventry City won the FA Cup, Margaret Thatcher won a third successive general election victory, and Rick Astley’s Never Going To Give You Up was the biggest-selling single.

The year was 1987 – the last time I sat an exam.

I’ve been catapulted back 27 years to the days of the old NCTJ Proficiency Test as I go through some past papers to help reporters about to take that organisation’s latest exams.

The exam for the ‘gold standard’ qualification of the NQJ looms large in just under a month’s time, followed by a battery of diploma papers in subjects from sports journalism to court reporting.

Looking through past papers is a sobering process.

The diploma questions are reasonably straightforward, but the NQJ ones are – as you’d expect – rather more testing.

I was talking to a very experienced advertising manager the other day as she mooted the idea of asking her team leaders to go back to basics to ensure they can do everything they ask of their reps on the ground.

That got us on to the subject of resitting our driving tests, and she revealed that from time to time she drove as if there was a clipboard-wielding examiner in the passenger seat.

So could I – with nearly 30 years of experience in journalism – pass the NQJ today?

I’d like to think so, in the same way as I imagine driving instructors hope they would pass a retest themselves, although I’d have to have a very intensive – and painful – shorthand refresher.

More importantly, perhaps, is the question of whether that exam – and the diploma regime leading to it – is still relevant in a fast-changing world of multimedia journalism and an industry still recovering from economic crisis.

The NCTJ has its detractors, but I think it has generally kept pace with the demands of the sector it serves.

The exams take digital journalism seriously and rightly pay far more attention than ever before to the ethics and moral dilemmas of 21st century coverage.

What I would like to see is more testing of reporters’ ability to manage their time and prioritise tasks, and of their adaptability to the need for new thinking on web-only content, showing they can constantly find new ways of telling stories.

But ultimately journalism remains all about finding compelling stories and telling them well.

And all in all, I think the NCTJ’s top exam is as much of a gold standard now as it was in the days when I had hair.