Why little things mean a lot

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

Those wise words put into the mouth of Sherlock Holmes have always struck me as a guide for life.

The allegedly minor decisions we make about everything from who we invite to the Christmas party through the way we treat waiters to our five-second thank-yous reveal huge insights into our mindsets and can also have a big impact on morale.

It is often something that to an dispassionate outsider will appear trivial which can push someone over the edge.

But it can also be a gesture that takes little time, expense and effort which can leave you feeling ten foot tall.

And, as sports presenter Dan Walker told the NCTJ annual awards last night, doing the little things well can be the difference between job success and failure.

He urged journalism students and young reporters at an uplifting dinner in Sheffield to find ways of standing out – even if that just meant making the best tea.

As I have said before, I asked the best reporter I’ve ever worked with to apply for a job after listening to her for less than a minute as she interviewed a primary school age boy on the phone while on work experience with us.

Just as you usually know within seconds of an interviewee walking through the door whether they’ve got that je ne sais quoi, you can extrapolate potential and talent from the simplest actions and attitudes of work experience students.

It was good to hear that message from Dan, and to witness him emphasising the crucial role of basic journalism training.

His final message was that all journalism on all platforms was in the end about the very best writing – making your words do justice to an event, issue or situation, and assembling them in a way that takes people on an engaging journey to the last sentence.

Someone who can do just that is Bristol Post reporter Louis Emanuel, who took the prize for best feature-writing by a trainee last night.

We’re very proud of Louis.

But in truth it was a night to be proud of journalism – as well as a reminder of something that, to paraphrase Mr Holmes, ought to be elementary, but is often forgotten.


Taboo or not taboo? What can’t we put on the front page?

It’s not the sort of word that you can say on national radio at around 7am.

So it’s understandable that this morning Chris Evans blurred the title of the movie he’d watched last night.

But, having bottled saying Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, my favourite radio presenter went on to play one of the most risque songs known to man – Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

He cheerfully admitted to not quite understanding the BBC’s compliance rules which allowed such apparent double standards.

So where would we draw the line in our papers and websites?

I’ve worked for editors who variously banned pictures of objects from guns to spiders from their front pages.

There was sense behind all of these policies at the time.

Meanwhile, the kind of words that are now allowed into news stories unasterisked has changed.

Bloody now makes regular appearances, especially if the word is in a quote, for instance.

But there are still clear boundaries.

Although The Guardian has a very open policy on all swear words, even that one, I can’t see our regional papers ever being that courageous, in the Sir Humphrey sense of the term.

I’ve always been more accepting of boundaries being crossed on inside pages, and online, where active choices have to be made to see material.

But front pages are always going to be sensitive territory, facing out into environments where children are a constant presence.

I was in one office recently as a reader berated a features designer for putting too scary a Halloween image on the front of a magazine.

It’s always good to consult your colleagues to get a feel for what they feel is acceptable, although I learned the answer to the question ‘Do you think I can get away with this?’ from one sub was always ‘no’.

But in the end, editors have to go on gut feelings and conscience.

There is, however, no pleasing or predicting some folk.

In my last few months as news editor of the Somerset Guardian, a vegan reader complained about our use of a picture of a pig roast at a popular country fair.

Despite the fact that it would have been seen by hundreds of passing children at the event, she said that promoting such “savagery” was utterly outrageous.

In the nicest possible way, I told her she was talking hogwash.

Why we shouldn’t allow men in their 70s to dominate our pages

Phones don’t ring as often as they used to in newsrooms.

But when they do, there’s a certain sort of person that’s likely to be on the other end.

(Sweeping generalisation alert)

There’s a fairly good chance it’ll be a bloke in his early 70s.

He might be a councillor, he might be a residents’ association chairman, or he might be from some other civic-minded group.

(Further sweeping generalisation alert)

He’s also the sort of person who might well be leading opposition to a new housing development.


A man in his 70s leads a housing protest

Newly-retired folk are always going to be at the heart of community activity.

They have time on their hands, a need to throw themselves into new challenges, and a reasonable amount of energy.

And so, as regional newspapers reflect such community activity, they will be involved in a lot of our stories.

They’re the kind of stories that are fairly easy to write.

“Residents in xxxx are preparing to do battle over plans for xxxx homes on their doorstep.”

That kind of thing. Accompanied by a picture of a grim-faced group wielding a placard or two.

Which is all very fine and dandy. These people are in many ways doing sterling work.

But they aren’t necessarily a barometer of true community feeling.

I seldom see the voice of the young couple struggling to find an affordable home heard in our coverage of housing battles.

At times, it seems as if all housing development is defined as A Very Bad Thing, that our default setting is to have a presumption against new homes.

At the same time, we ask ourselves why younger people aren’t buying our papers or viewing our websites.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be covering such planning battles – although I do wish we’d provide more background and analysis which explain the bigger picture at times.

But I do think we need to recalibrate that coverage to ensure it reflects the whole community – including those who don’t necessarily shout the loudest.

Talking of noise, I’ve got to go.

The phone’s ringing.

I’ve got a guy in his 70s to talk to.

Why do journalists get such a bad press?

I am loving the new BBC1 drama The Missing.

I got a bit lost at times last night – and I wasn’t the only one, if Twitter is anything to go by.

But the plotting, the pace, the characterisation and the acting carried me through.

Well most of the characterisation, that is.

One of the people who pops up every now and again is a very nasty piece of work journalist.

He is unashamedly using a family’s unimaginable heartache as a stepping stone to a job on the nationals, and the writers have so far given him no redeeming features.

Malik Suri

Picture: BBC

Like many characters before him, Malik Suri is portrayed as a ruthless operator who will trample on feelings and sidestep ethics to write the story he wants.

I’m struggling to remember a sympathetic British TV portrayal of a journalist, one that shows a representative of our profession as a caring, fully-rounded and emotionally intelligent human being.

If we’re not being made out to be aggressive doorsteppers, we’re being painted as whisky-sodden losers.

I once had a Twitter debate with a crime writer whose books I love about the way he portrayed the media.

He all but admitted that I was right, but said relying on stereotypes meant livelier characters.

So it was heartwarming to see a post on Facebook from a magazine editor who’s been through some tough health times recently.

“I love journalists. Not all of them, obviously, but the ones who also happen to be friends. A special breed. Brilliant, generous, creative, open and brave to a woman/man. There, I’ve said it.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Now I’ve just got to persuade her to write a TV drama and get it commissioned for a prime time slot on BBC1.

Why journalists should learn something new every day

Between the two of them, they reckon to have spent around 70 years in journalism.

When it comes to digging out stories, they have few equals.

But making the most of our web content system and maximising the potential of social media has been slightly more of a challenge.

Now, though, after what they dub one of my ‘golden oldies’ sessions today, they’re attacking these with greater confidence.

On Friday, I helped one of the most experienced reporters on a daily paper to brush up on her web skills, while earlier in the week, I spent a morning helping more reporters and subs with decades of service to get better at social media, scheduling and law.

So, while today my thoughts have been very much with three of our youngest reporters as they took an NCTJ diploma exam – hopefully helped by a training day organised last week – some of my most satisfying and successful sessions have been with people with many more years under their belts.

Which is nice to report after comments made by NCTJ chairman Kim Fletcher last week about the lack of ongoing training for journalists.

He said, according to a report on Hold the Front Page: “We are still really bad as an industry at doing anything after the trainee point.”

By and large, he’s right, of course. Even though I’ve been inadvertently and unwittingly making it my business to prove him wrong over the five months that I’ve been doing this job.

In that time, I’ve tackled subjects – with the help of some of my colleagues – from underperformance to video, Facebook to feature-writing, design to data, story selection to SEO and copyright to council coverage.

Yes, some of the 20 trainees I’m responsible for have been at some of these sessions and 121s. But the vast majority of participants have been fully qualified journalists of some years’ standing.

At the heart of my job is the belief that we will only attract and retain the very best talent if we ensure people develop in their roles.

Next year, we’ll be setting up a programme for the editors of the future, bringing in expert speakers to open talented people’s eyes to motivation and management techniques, entrepreneurship, problem-solving and cutting edge digital thinking.

That course I ran for our trainees featured contributions from some of our most experienced writers.

One of them – one of the best reporters we have in our region – was unafraid to say that he was still learning all the time.

I want that to be true of everyone.

Want to swap jobs with the editor? You sure about that?

My wife and I generally have vastly different TV tastes.

I read a book or turn to my tablet as she works her way through sci-fi series and American crime dramas, and she leaves the room when The Apprentice comes on.

But we have always been hooked on the Channel 4 programme Undercover Boss, and loved its great-uncle, the BBC series Back to the Floor.

Both get the most senior managers of big organisations back on to the shopfloor to learn lessons about how their businesses or charities are doing.

It is well over 20 years since I was a reporter, pure and simple.

But in January, I plan to spend a few days back at the coalface, making I sure I still know what I’m talking about when I train others in this fast-changing profession of ours.

Over the last two decades, I have continued to write stories and to embrace web techniques and social media.

But my active experience is disappearing into the past with every day I spend on my new job as a trainer.

So it’s important for my credibility to keep my knowledge and skills up to date.

Today, one of the editors I work with was talking about how she was forced to de-rust her reporting skills after a talks-about-talks meeting with the mother of a convicted killer unexpectedly turned into a compelling interview about her son.

And I was in another office last week where a reporter was desperately trying to persuade either her news editor or editor to do a job swap.

There is no doubt that being a reporter now is far harder than it was a couple of decades ago.

Technology now makes getting in touch with people, receiving information, and finding out about breaking news very much easier.

But the weight of public expectations, the digital workload, and the tendency of many public sector leaders to hide behind press offices and speak-your-weight-machine blandness have conspired with a long-term reduction in staffing to counteract those advantages.

It’s not just reporters whose jobs have changed, though.

The role of the modern editor has been transformed so that he or she is now likely to have their own income generation targets, to be out many nights of the week, to be responsible for more titles and to deal with all manner of work that in previous years would have been done by departments long since abolished.

He or she will undoubtedly have greater responsibility than ever before – but also far less room for manoeuvre.

I’m all for job swaps, and for encouraging bosses to experience life at the sharp end.

But reporters may just find themselves rather keener than they thought to return to their own desks.

Will Moses lead the press out of the darkness?

Say IPSO to most people, and the best you can probably hope for is that they think you’re talking Latin.

Most editors haven’t yet had a letter from the new press regulator and some reporters will probably not even have heard of it at all.

We got an idea of the cut of its jib when its chair, retired judge Sir Alan Moses, addressed the Society of Editors at the weekend.

The sort of leadership he shows and the confidence he inspires will be crucial.

The main reason that IPSO had to be created is that its predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission, was pretty much craven in its unwillingness and inability to tackle one of the worst excesses of the profession it monitored.

Its record on phone hacking was shameful, even when you allow it the excuse that it’s not a law enforcement agency.

But what we need to cling to is that the editor’s code passed from the PCC to IPSO could not be clearer on the sort of subterfuge that phone hacking represents.

There is nothing wrong with the code.

As I guide reporters through NCTJ exams which rightly place increasing emphasis on ethics, it’s important to acknowledge this.

The code is the best set of rules possible for an ethical, sensitive, accurate, responsible – but also lively and effective – press.

We just need someone to make those rules stick to keep those who would muzzle a free press at bay.

Let’s hope Moses can lead us out of the darkness.