What are we going to splash on?

I met a reporter I used to work with today.

When she left a job on one of our weeklies several years ago, the local police chief paid her a rather lovely compliment.

“How are we going to find out what’s going on round here now?” he asked her, in all seriousness.

The idea of us telling people in our communities what’s going on around them is at the very heart of our mission.

But how well are we actually doing it?

In virtually every newsroom I have visited in recent days, the same question has been asked of me, albeit in slightly different ways.

“How can we get better splashes?” is more or less what it boils down to.

When the circumstances give us the raw materials of hard news, of death and destruction, of scandal and shocks, we rise to the occasion with style, sensitivity and skill.

But what about when the news gods aren’t so generous?

How can newsdesks and reporters keep finding the stories which will make buyers and browsers stop in their tracks?

How can we give our content more edge, providing the grit in the oyster to challenge and surprise?

There are no easy answers, particular in an era of web-first publishing that discourages newsdesk bottom drawers.

But here are some thoughts:

  • Getting out more. I wrote this blog about why editors need to enable reporters to get out of the office. It’s easier said than done, but we have better technology than ever to eliminate some of the risk.
  • Get better at planning. We do this superbly at Christmas, charting the stories that are going to get us through the fallowest of fallow periods, as I said here. There are more tips here as well. The best sort of planning means we should never be short of a splash, and is living evidence of us taking proactive control of the news agenda.
  • Nurture your contacts. Our reporters need to be immersed in the areas they cover, keeping in touch with key people and relentlessly looking for new sources. There’s some tips here.
  • Make the most of official documents. I’m planning to do a workshop to help reporters dig deeper into the reports, consultations, planning applications, notices, registers and other information lying buried on the websites of councils, NHS trusts and all manner of other public bodies.
  • Squeeze every drop out of the web analytics. We know more than we have ever known about what stories work online. And there’s a reasonable correlation between web and print success for a large slice of that content. We can learn from experience and draw some fairly reliable conclusions over what works and what doesn’t.

This is difficult stuff. There’s no magic wand or silver bullet to getting completely under the skin of your community.

“What are we going to lead on?” is a question that haunted me throughout the 20-plus years I spent running newsdesks.

It doesn’t get any easier.

But as another reporter used to regularly remind me, we’ve never yet put out a blank front page.

And there are steps we can all take now to make sure those splashes keep coming.

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100 days to bring the general election to life

I won’t know what to do with myself in 100 days’ time.

For the first time in 30 years, I won’t have been involved in covering a general election.

I’ve enjoyed virtually every minute of the seven I’ve either covered directly or organised the coverage of.

Even Tony Blair’s famous 1997 landslide, at which the chicken pox that I’d caught off one of my son’s friends began to emerge at around 5am.

There’s nothing quite like the sense of anticipation at an election count.

And nothing quite like the unique team spirit that emerges from all-nighters fuelled by pizza, coffee and the nervous wait for news from far-flung civic centres.

It’s great to see my politics reporter friends throwing themselves into preparation for what looks like the most unpredictable election in at least a generation.

And I’m trying to encourage younger reporters facing their first general election while also studying for public affairs exams to throw themselves into the whole thing.

Particularly as we now have more social media and web tools to bring our coverage to life than ever before.

Elections should be exciting, energising celebrations of a hard-fought democracy.

And we should do all we can to galvanise interest in them.

Why the IPSO code is cracking

When you’re trying to prove your industry has cleaned up its act, it helps to have the people who’ve done the most to expose wrongdoing on your side.

So it’s pleasing to see that The Guardian might be moving closer to joining the new press regulator IPSO.

Led by possibly the bravest editor in the country, the Guardian blazed a trail in exposing the worst excesses of its fellow nationals on harassment and hacking.

For IPSO to get it – and the Independent and the Financial Times – on board would be a very significant coup.

It would achieve a strength and depth in numbers that would demonstrate commitment to the highest possible ethical standards but also help cement press solidarity in the face of threats such as the police’s enthusiasm for spying on journalists’ phone records.

As I enter a new round of preparing younger journalists for NCTJ exams, the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice is very much on my mind.

I’ve gone through it again today before writing this to check that it meets the ethical challenges of the 21st century.

Are there issues it fails to tackle in the digital age?

I have to say there aren’t any that spring readily to mind.

It’s the best framework we’ve got for journalism that gets the balance right between nailing the truth and treating people properly.

I am beginning to know it inside out now.

If you’re a journalist, whether or not you’re about to take an exam, you should, too.

Coping with court coverage complaints

There’s no doubt about the sort of story that provokes the most complaints.

Court coverage is where human frailty meets reputational damage meets conflicting versions of events.

It makes phones ring and emails ping.

Most of the time, we’ll be on entirely safe ground and be able to deal with challenges and complaints with a clear conscience and complete confidence.

But as more and more coverage appears online, the complications have increased.

Last week, a newsroom I was in received an email from a landscape gardener struggling to find work after appearing in court charged with assault.

He was acquitted.

But the story of the case in which it was claimed he hit someone in the street is there online for all to see.

He says his reputation has been damaged – even though the story is clear that he was found not guilty.

There’s plainly no smoke without fire in the world of landscape gardening.

I can see the poor man’s point.

But our story is part of a record of life, holding up a mirror to society, warts and all.

And it was one story.

The situation would be less easy to defend if there had been several reports over the life of a lengthy trial, with only one nailing the man’s innocence in the eyes of the law.

And then there’s the tricky subject of spent convictions.

Last year, the Government reduced the length of time many convictions stay on offenders’ records in an attempt to make it easier for people to rebuild their lives.

It’s a noble aspiration that most of us would support.

My instinct has always been that once a conviction has run out, we should take a story down.

But there’s a debate to be had there, too.

Last year, newspaper group Newsquest won a battle over its refusal to remove a report of a fraud conviction from one of its sites.

The Government’s changes and Newsquest’s Information Commissioner’s Office victory came in the same year that the phrase right to be forgotten entered the English language.

As an industry, we will need to establish a party line on dealing with the growing assertiveness of those who pass through the court system.

One that balances our responsibility to be fair and sensitive with our role as the provider of the unvarnished truth, free from the shifting sands of self-censorship.

We need to get out more

We’ve had two very lovely family holidays in the last six months.

One in Kefalonia in the summer, one in deepest Dorset at Christmas.

During both, wifi was pretty much non-existent.

And it was lovely. We got our children – aged nearly 21 and 16 – back, and were able to share great conversation and (in the case of Dorset) great Christmas films.

Things are very much back to electronic normal now.

Don’t get me wrong. My children are well-adjusted people with normal social lives. I am stupidly proud of them, not least for their effortless comfort with technology.

But as columnist Tim Lott says here, the evidence of technology’s impact on our ability to really communicate is clear to see.

The piece prompted this tweet from radio journalism trainer Richard Horsman.

He’s absolutely right to be fearful.

In the last week I’ve had the same conversation in two different newsrooms.

We’re getting better every day at sourcing news and views through social media.

(We’re also getting better at selling our stories through Facebook, which is fantastic and in my view one of the beacons of hope as my colleagues battle to drive up web audiences.)

But we can’t pretend that the comments, tributes, and viewpoints that we harvest from Twitter and Facebook present a full, lively, nourishing, representative and comprehensive picture of life in our communities.

It’s a half-life at best.

One that we cannot live without, and one which gives us amazingly useful information and insights.

But there can – even in this transformed technological age – be no substitute for being out there talking face to face to real people.

Sometimes these conversations may have been sparked by the social media zeitgeist. Many more, I hope, will involve picking up new stories yet to be told.

There is a clear law of diminishing returns from an over-reliance on recycling and reheating information and comments from social media.

We cannot create engaging newspapers and websites purely from the mix of official press releases, residents’ whinges and social media spats which falls into our laps.

It’s like producing news with the windows shut, the central heating on full blast, and the curtains drawn.

There’s a real world out there, with real fresh air and real people.

And we need to get our journalists out in it more often.

Broadchurch paper Echoes real life spirited women editors

There’s no doubt what this week’s TV watercooler chat was all about.

In all the offices I’ve been in this week, the new series of Broadchurch has been under close scrutiny.

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The cast of the new series of Broadchurch, with Carolyn Pickles and Jonathan Bailey, who play the journalists, far right. Picture ITV.

The consensus – echoed on Twitter – seems to be that it was a great start, with a gripping new storyline.

I would agree.

But I can’t help being bothered by some of the more ludicrous plotlines.

A murder victim’s family choosing the CPS barrister was one. That family not being told that their son’s body was being exhumed was another.

And then there’s the show’s depiction of the media.

I’ve written before about the bad press journalists get on TV dramas.

Broadchurch’s portrayal of the local media is – mostly – kinder than average.

But the idea that an editor and a reporter would go mobhanded to a murder scene on the eve of a court case to interview the case detective for something which wasn’t a pre-trial briefing needed a serious suspension of disbelief.

As did reporter Olly Stevens’s use of a Blackberry to get a story online.

Clearly I need to take a chill pill about all of this.

Because what is refreshing about Broadchurch’s depiction of our profession is the way Broadchurch Echo editor Maggie Radcliffe is shown as both a nurturer of talent and a community leader.

I can’t find much of a clue on Google as to who writer Chris Chibnall based the character on.

But whenever I see Maggie – played by Carolyn Pickles – in action, a couple of people spring to mind.

Sadly, as Hold the Front Page reported recently, they have both just been made redundant.

Sue Smith, editor of the Stroud News and Journal and Gloucestershire Independent, and Skip Walker of the Wilts and Glos Standard and Gloucestershire Gazette, have given a first break to countless reporters over three decades.

They typified a wonderful cocktail of tough love, determination, care, occasional eccentricity and utter devotion to both the truth and their patches.

I wish them the very best in their new futures.

I hope Maggie can hang on to Olly for a few more months before he moves on to a bigger paper.

But I know that – like Sue and Skip – she would never stand in the way of what was right for the reporters she has trained and nurtured so well.

What’s your word for 2015?

It’s a little bit late in the day for New Year’s resolutions.

But, as the non-journalistic world gets back to normal today, it’s still worth reflecting on how to make the most of the year ahead.

I came across this piece in the Observer, one key message of which is that we should all cut each other some slack.

But I also liked this article, which champions the idea of choosing one word to sum up your unique selling point.

It’s a job-hunting notion that’s immediately transferable to the task of encapsulating your hopes and ambitions for 2015.

There’s a fine line between airy-fairy claptrap and inspirational wisdom, of course.

If you’ve slogged your way through the fallow Christmas period, coming up with fresh web content and filling wide-open pages when there’s little going on, you could be forgiven for opting for ‘knackered’ as your default setting at the dawn of a shiny new year.

But I do think there’s some merit in summarising your intentions and aspirations in a single word.

I hope I’ll be motivational, helpful, flexible, determined, honest and trusted in the next 12 months.

But if I needed to reach for just one word (albeit one that’s hyphenated), I’d go for people-focussed.

I’d go in fact for a quote that I stumbled across yesterday, from Richard Branson.

“Train people well enough for them to get a new job. But treat them well enough that they don’t want to.”