Stand up for shorter meetings

I have a confession.

It’s not something of which I’m proud.

When I was a reporter in Torquay, I had dealings with one of the most tedious men I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across.

He was at the helm of a one-man campaign to get more recognition for an equally tedious historical figure, and so regularly beat a path to the Herald Express’s offices.

He also had a very bad leg.

And so, to shorten our encounters, I never used to offer him a seat.

I forced him to stand – awkwardly and painfully – to recite the latest twist in his yawn-inducing crusade.

As I said, I now feel a sense of deep shame.

And yet. And yet.

There’s an awful lot to be said for standing meetings.

Last week, a new initiative was launched to encourage the country’s office workers to spend more time on their feet, and less on their behinds.

On top of the health benefits, it is said that kicking out the chairs in meetings can cut their length by around 25 per cent as well.

I’ve set a group of colleagues who show the potential to be the editors of the future the challenge of looking at how we can improve the efficiency of all editorial meetings – particularly the various conferences which punctuate our working days.

One of the earliest ideas was to experiment with the kind of cool, snappy (sometimes in both senses), news meetings seen on the wonderful Scandinavian series Borgen.

In case the whole Nordic Noir thing has passed you by, the key reporters, presenters, producers and editors at TV1 News plan their coverage gathered around a high desk – with not a chair in sight.

A colleague in one of the newsrooms I visit has taken all this a step further, buying a stand on which to put his screen so that he spends all day on his feet. Now that the initial jokes about fast food orders and pulpits have worn off, it seems to be going well.

The On Your Feet Britain initiative aims to get all of us standing on its big campaign day, April 24. The suggestion is that we stand during phone calls, stand to take a break from our computer every 30 minutes, have standing or even walking meetings, and stand at the back of the room during presentations.

As it happens, that’s the next date of our Editor of the Future programme, so we might be able to give it a go.

But I’m afraid I’m invigilating an NCTJ exam in the afternoon.

And they’re not that keen on people standing up and walking around once those papers have been handed out.

How to turn press officers from blockers to enablers

There was an air of controlled anger in the newsroom in whose nest I was cuckooing yesterday.

Within the space of ten minutes, two mini-rows had developed.

And they both centred on press offices – in this case, police and council.

The issues testing the patience of reporters and newsdesks were fairly simple, and followed a fairly well-trodden path.

The police press office was relaying a message that an officer didn’t want to talk about an issue of great community concern and interest.

The council press office appeared to take all day to discover that it wouldn’t be able to answer a query because a key official wasn’t in.

Amid the gnashing of teeth (and redrafting of newslists) over all this, another complaint emerged: the tendency of some press officers to adopt a default position of ‘this isn’t a story.’

I hold no brief for press officers, although some of them have made it into my Facebook friends circle.

Whenever I need cheering up, I dive into a special file of beautifully-worded, devastating critiques that I have emailed to various press officers over the years. My favourite was sent after it emerged that a police press officer had told us someone who had died was still alive.

But here’s the thing. Press officers are people, just like you and I. Just like journalists, in fact.

My wonderful colleague Tristan Cork from the Western Daily Press divides them in two: the blockers and enablers.

My view is that it may not always be that simple.

Whether someone is a blocker or an enabler can depend on who they’re talking to. And it’s sometimes possible to convert a blocker into an enabler.

As with most journalism, it’s all about relationships.

I haven’t just expressed my anger at press offices by the medium of email. I’ve had some humdingers of rows down the phone, too.

But although the paper may have gone to bed on an argument, I’ve always tried to resolve whatever problems there were once the dust has settled.

There’s no rocket science in the fact that specialist politics and local government reporters get the most out of council press offices, or that crime correspondents can wheedle information that no one else can out of police spokesmen and women.

They have the advantage of greater background knowledge, but they will also be the people who ring and email that communications office the most.

If they’re doing their jobs properly, they will also come armed with the right questions and the right evidence from contacts outside the official channels – from rogue politicians, rank and file coppers and Town Hall whistleblowers.

Getting the most out of those official gatekeepers is no different to working a patch.

We can climb on our ‘right to know’, ‘you’re spending our money’ accountability high horses all we like.

And that’s a drum we have to keep banging.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Make the right connections, do your homework, give them enough time, treat them like the fully-rounded human beings that they are, and you might find the wheels of bureaucracy running that little bit more smoothly.

Power, responsibility and covering court cases

Dilemma 1: Your paper is covering a court case involving a brothel, and a customer due to give evidence as part of the prosecution case asks – through the CPS – if you can avoid naming him, because he hasn’t told his wife about his day in the witness stand.

Dilemma 2: A defendant who was cleared of a sex assault on a girl asks for all stories about the case to be removed from your website.

Dilemma 3: Should the law be changed to ban the identification of anyone arrested for a sex offence until they are charged?

Ok, so the last one doesn’t require a immediate editorial decision, although it’s as much a fascinating debating point as the others.

For obvious legal reasons, I won’t say too much more about the first dilemma. But it was a new and interesting twist on the age-old issue of how much information we should give about victims and witnesses.

I have long been uncomfortable about our naming of victims of domestic violence, and over the years have had many a difficult conversation with someone who has felt that they have been as much on trial as the defendant after becoming caught up in court case coverage.

The second dilemma is one that provoked a fair bit of debate among those responsible for websites run by our company earlier this week.

In the end, there was a solid consensus in favour of removing the stories.

I was glad there was.

It is easy sometimes to become embattled about what we could argue are lofty principles of press freedom and censorship, to talk about being papers of historic record, and to want to avoid taking moral positions on such cases.

But the truth is that none of our publications cover every single court case in our areas, and so – if only by default – we are making judgments based on taste, logistics and a degree of morality all the time.

We have to take responsibility for the impact of our coverage.

In most cases, that will mean assertively defending and nurturing our right to show justice being done, without fear or favour.

And that means resisting ridiculous restrictions such as the Section 39 order imposed on a child killed in a road accident in Devon recently.

But there are times when it’s not good enough for us to hide behind the mask of innocent bystander.

Times when we need to disprove Stanley Baldwin’s depiction of press bosses as exercising “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

All of which takes us back to where we started, I think.

The war on error

I disgraced myself at the pub quiz last night.

We had a tie break riding on a bizarre question about exactly how many errors were found in one record-breakingly bad five-and-a-half column story in the Times in 1978.

Clearly, all eyes in my team of neighbours were on me.

I opted for the rather modest answer of 21, perhaps unconsciously trying not to blacken the reputation of our profession.

The answer was something like 90, with the other team in our head-to-head coming far closer, with a guess of 107.

For the life of me, I have no idea how so many errors can possibly creep in to one piece of writing.

Part of me’s quite impressed.

A greater part of me is delighted to have one more argument against the notion that there was some kind of golden era of journalism, when accuracy, ethics, investigative ability and writing were at Olympian levels of excellence.

We have always made mistakes.

And I’m sure we’ve always beaten ourselves up about them. Reporters should have a slightly sick feeling when they get a name or date wrong.

But I would also say we have never been more up-front about our errors.

We are held to account by an army of armchair subs, and many of our papers have organised corrections and clarifications columns.

We no longer resist corrections with every bone in our body, and IPSO’s procedures now force us to try to build bridges with complainants.

At the end of the day, experience helps build a sixth sense for spotting cock-ups – the street that doesn’t sound right, the name that looks wrong and the missing detail in a court case.

One of my challenges is to speed up the development of that internal alarm bell system, and to help all writers get better at reading their work through new and critical eyes.

In the mean time, I’ve been trying to find out more about that error-strewn piece from 37 years ago.

I can find no mention of it anywhere online.

So maybe the whole thing was a ghastly mistake.

How to put a bit of stick about in your election coverage

As I write this, there are 61 days to go to the general election.

If you want a more precise countdown, by the way, it’s here

Having looked, I should warn you that there are little over five million seconds before the country goes to the polls.

So I’m hoping your coverage plans are taking shape.

I have always loved election time – and it’s a double whammy this year because we get local ones thrown in as well.

But I have to acknowledge that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the political process.

And so it’s important that we don’t get distracted by Westminster village/council house bubble priorities in the next couple of months.

We need, as I believe the young people of today have it, to keep it real.

So here are some ideas:

  • Colour pieces on the campaign trail: Shadow the candidates to find out how they react to real people, and to find out what makes them tick
  • Public meetings/hustings: If no one else is organising one, perhaps our papers should
  • First time voters: Ask people voting for the first time which way they’ll vote, and how they’ve decided.
  • Students: According to the National Union of Students, 191 constituencies have student populations large enough to overthrow the sitting MP The student vote could be crucial in your area, particularly after the Liberal Democrats’ tuition fee u-turn last time round.
  • Experts 1: What do the pollsters, pundits and bookmakers think will happen in your constituency? Check out Lord AshcroftNew StatesmanIain Dale (this one is for Gloucestershire) and Paddy Power
  • Experts 2: Get some analysis from local university politics lecturers – such as Dr Lisa Harrison at the University of the West of England
  • Ukip and the Greens: What will be their impact, albeit at opposite ends of the political and age spectrum?
  • Who are the youngest candidates?: Labour’s hopeful in Bath was just 18 when he was selected in 2013 – have you got someone even younger standing?
  • Retiring politicians: The election will see the retirement of some big figures – Don Foster in Bath, for instance.
  • What sort of communication works?: Does anyone really read those mock newspapers? What role is social media playing? Do politicians ever change minds on the doorsteps?
  • Visiting ministers: Don’t let them get away with a) vague speak-your-weight-machine quotes (Blandalism, as one of my favourite colleagues calls it) or b) whistle-stop photocalls. Ask them something tricky about their local party – and make sure your story is crystal clear about exactly how few real people they met on their so-called visit.

Above all else, make the most of the opportunities for putting a bit of stick about – as the original House of Cards Francis used to say.

Why newsrooms should be noisy

It’s the middle of summer.

But the Christmas decorations are up, the chunky patterned knitwear is being worn, and the party food has been cracked open.

It’s a sales day. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.

There’ll be whistles, mince pie on string-eating challenges, cheering – and if we’re really lucky, the ringing of the “we’ve sold an ad” bell.

Traditionally, we serious-minded and ostentatiously hard-working journalists hate it.

We tut our way through the day, humourless sods that we are.

And yet there are lessons we can learn from some of the antics of our commercial colleagues.

It’s a bleak old picture out there in many of the markets in which we operate, and loneliness and rejection are never far away.

So the kind of group hug provided by sales days is vital in creating the positivity, energy and commitment to get things done.

And that’s no different in editorial.

Great news stories don’t just happen.

Most of the ones that fall into our laps are the ones which we should think twice about doing anyway – the easy ones, the tedious charity fundraising ones, the ‘council does its job’ ones, the ‘shouldn’t this really be advertising?’ ones.

The stories that are worth telling are those which need driving along, where editors and newsdesks have to lead a hustling and hassling process passed along the chain through reporters to contacts and official bodies.

Running a newsdesk requires relentness drive and energy; a curiosity that never dims; and the refusal to leave any stone unturned in the search for a compelling angle.

But it also needs lashings of good humour, charm and cunning.

Some of this will be directed at those contacts and official sources.

But most will be poured into keeping your own staff energised, focused and resourceful.

And now and again, that needs a bit of noise.

One of the newsrooms I was in this week was greeting the arrival of good stories with the shouted word ‘boom’ – which was a good start.

I can’t help thinking that a klaxon would be even better, though.

I look forward to the day when the Splash Klaxon hits back against that Ad Bell.