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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