Why acting as a critical friend to our products is so critical

Late morning in the offices of The Bath Chronicle in the mid-90s, and tumbleweed would set in.

Contacts would urgently need to be seen, early lunch breaks would suddenly be taken.

It was time for The Inquest.

Not perhaps the best name, and now sounding more like the beginnings of a pitch to TV executives for a new reality show in which celebrities act as coroner for the day.

But there was a great idea behind it: that once a day, we should all stop for 15 minutes to review the latest paper, to look at what went well and not so well, and learn lessons and chart follow-ups for the future.

So, yes, not everybody enjoyed it, and some would find an excuse not to be there.

But by and large it was a very useful process, and not least because it did underline the point that we were one team.

The process was led not by the editor, but by anyone on the editorial floor who could be persuaded to do some post-production analysis.

When the right person was ‘volunteered’ to lead the post-mortem, challenging questions could be asked, Emperor’s New Clothes pointed out – and great work could be celebrated.

On other occasions, people pulled their punches, conscious of the blood, sweat and tears that would have gone in to producing a paper we affectionately called our Daily Miracle.

It’s something we should do more of and a model that has been used successfully recently by one of the weekly papers in my region, with reporters asked to review each others’ editions.

As always, there was understandable concern about how critical the critical friend should be.

But if we think about this for a minute, any beating about the bush misses the point.

We are being judged all day every day by our communities.

And there’s a couple of crucial differences.

The first is that many of those readers who take a view on our work will never share that view with us. They simply vote with their feet – or fingers, and we will never know where, how or why we haven’t met their expectations.

The other is that many of the judgements that do find their way to us – on our own websites or on social media – will be based on a one-eyed view of the world.

I hope we can be confident that our colleagues will offer the criticism, challenges and comments that they do with one positive agenda in mind: a desire to improve our websites and newspapers.

And if we continue to pussyfoot around difficult issues, nothing will ever change.

A friend of mine who works for one of Britain’s biggest firms loves to share the latest managementspeak emerging from its bosses with me.

He does it to mock, but the longer I do this job, the more some of the phraseology seems to make total sense. Which is a slight worry.

One such concept is organisational health, which put simply compares a company with the human body.

There’s a whole separate blog in this, but the bit that matters here is the need for corporate blood and oxygen to circulate unimpeded by blockages in the system.

In other words, there must be transparent processes, clear and responsive decision-making – and a culture of openness.

So here’s the thing about reviewing our own products.

We’re all journalists.

Pressing for honesty and uncovering the truth should be at the centre of everything we do.

If we can’t be honest and truthful with each other, what hope have we got?


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