When it comes to newsrooms, we really are all in it together

In July, it will be 30 years since I started my first job in journalism.

With no training other than a year spent editing my student newspaper behind me, I was thrown perhaps not quite into the deep end, but certainly that bit where you can only stand up on tiptoes.

Finding stories in the sleepy Devon town of Crediton proved a challenge, but it was one I enjoyed, as I collected bumps on my faithful ancient Hillman Avenger while negotiating west country lanes.

As I have recalled before, I benefited from the wisdom of old hands all around me, as well as from actual training on block release at a college in Cardiff.

And the pace of life was far from demanding.

The Western Times, bless its slightly off-colour cotton socks, was a one-edition paper, covering a vast rural part of the county. Going out meeting contacts (or at times “meeting contacts”) for a whole day was the norm, and I clearly remember fighting another reporter to answer a phone, so bored were we one afternoon.

Against that backdrop, perhaps it’s not surprising that my first paper wasn’t long for this world, and it folded two years after I joined.

But the point is that I was able to ease myself into my journalism career, with plenty of support, the luxury of time, and little in the way of pressure.

The internet wasn’t even a glint in someone’s eye, sales figures were someone else’s problem, twitter was something birds did, and reader interaction usually focused on whether we’d missed a clue in the crossword.

If I was starting today on the average weekly title, I’d have my own edition to fill, a website to keep fresh, social media accounts to operate and monitor, a running commentary of readers’ feedback, exams to revise for, and frequent reminders of sales and web target performance.

All that with far fewer experienced folk to fall back on.

So one of my most challenging – but also rewarding – tasks is to support the people now setting out on the journey I started 30 years ago.

While email and social media have revolutionised the speed and ease of journalism, there is no doubt in my mind that the reporter of today has far, far more on his or her plate than I ever did.

Helping them to avoid indigestion is a key priority for me.

As it should be for all editorial managers.

And I was touched to read this wishlist drawn up by a reporter, and aimed at her managers.

  • Be there when we ask for help
  • Talk us through how we can improve
  • Give us constructive criticism where appropriate and praise to know we’re on the right track
  • Help us not to burn out – we love our jobs, but we need to be supported
  • Listen – if we have a problem, we can’t be scared or worried to talk to you about it. If we are not understanding a story, or feel we are burning out, we need to know we can tell you.

Those simple and very heartfelt pleas struck a real chord with me.

As always, and I make absolutely no apologies for parroting this mantra, getting the best out of people is all about maintaining the right balance between stretching and support.

That’s as true for the rawest trainee as it for the most senior editor.

We have huge challenges ahead of us.

And they can only be tackled by sticking together, replacing us and them with a simple, forward-facing, heads-up, clear-thinking and energised we.

Facing up to the demands of Facebook

He died 33 years before the invention of Facebook.

So it’s unlikely that American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was talking about the world’s best-used social media site when he penned some of my favourite words.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

I used the Serenity Prayer a few days ago when discussing Facebook with one of my reporter friends.

She has become increasingly concerned at the outrageous, prejudiced, provocative and vitriolic nature of some of the comments made under stories on some of our titles’ Facebook pages.

And they’re not a pretty sight.

The 21st century journalist must be part of the social media conversation, reacting to fresh news lines and debate which emerge on Facebook and Twitter once his or her story has been posted.

I’ve always been a firm believer in engaging with readers online, and love the ‘talk not tell’ phrase coined by Derby Telegraph editor Neil White to encourage an equal dialogue with his community.

But some of the commentators on some of our stories are beyond talking. They need telling to get a life, it could be argued.

So should we worried? Are these comments tarnishing our brand? Are they crushing the potential for fresh, free and fair debate?

The answer to all those questions might well be yes.

But in newsrooms that get busier and more complicated by the day, something has to give.

The mantra that ‘we’re going to have to stop doing something’ has echoed in my ears for the last two or three years.

Thus far, we’ve not been brilliant at following it as we keep the giant plates of web, print, social media and commercial demands spinning.

But worrying about posts on a website run by another company is one piece of crockery that I’d be happy to see tumble to the ground.

To return to our friend Reinhold’s wise words, there are more pressing matters – over which we can exert some control – when it comes to Facebook.

This little bombshell here, for instance.

The changes in Facebook policy represent another tightening of the screw on which of our news posts are likely to be widely seen on its site.

There are titles in my region that feel they are already seeing a negative impact a couple of weeks into this new regime.

Facebook is a crucial – perhaps the most crucial – way of telling people about our content.

We will never be able to completely second-guess how Facebook’s algorithms are affecting us.

But we need to work harder than ever before at ensuring that the stories we post are the ones that we would be interested in and that we would share, and that we have packaged them in the most human and engaging way possible.

As I write this, one of my colleagues is fine-tuning a very comprehensive and highly useful flow chart to help reporters make the most of Facebook.

Two questions leap out, though.

Would YOU share it on Facebook? Would you tell your friend/partner?

Making sure the answer is yes to both those questions is where we should be investing our time – and the courage of our convictions.

Read on – and on: the long read is far from dead

There’s a reporter I see every few weeks of whom I am very fond.

Like me, he is fascinated by politics, and like me, he thinks seriously about journalism and its future.

But I am afraid to say that I depressed him the other day.

In a recent blog, I warned that readers’ attention spans were limited – with many stories getting around half a minute of their time – and that we all needed to cut out excess baggage from our writing.

He was worried – rightly – about what he called the infantilization of the English language in general and of journalism in particular.

I assured him that the very last thing I was saying was that we shouldn’t attempt long-form journalism – although I did argue that we need to think more about packaging such pieces.

The point is that such writing needs to be brilliant: engaging, surprising, refreshing and authoritative.

It needs to be storytelling at its best, weaving together insight and information, and painting a picture.

It might be that it touches at least one of the emotions.

It might be that it helps crystallise our own thoughts on a subject.

It will certainly tell us something we didn’t know before.

Such a piece caught my attention this morning.

Another writer recommended this very long piece on SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon in the Guardian on Twitter.

I didn’t need to be anywhere particularly early today – and it was just as well.

Because for nearly ten minutes, my breakfast stopped while I read Ian Jack’s words.

Okay, I skipped some parts.

But it’s the perfect example of long-form journalism that works.

It works because it ticks all the boxes above.

Beautifully-written, it blends bits of opinion and personal experience with surefooted analysis.

I’ve spoken to a lot of journalists who aspire to be feature-writers in recent months.

Ian Jack has showed them all the gold standard today.

Sharp rolling news blog punctures journalism survey gloom

In a week when newspaper journalism was put at the top of a ‘worst jobs’ list I was determined to find some light in the darkness.

And, on Saturday morning, I found it.

As I have said before in this blog, one of our biggest opportunities – and biggest tests – as journalists is how we respond to a major, breaking story.

On Friday and Saturday, the Oxford Mail showed how, with its coverage of a big hotel fire in the centre of the city.

I was mightily impressed by the way in which the news team at the Mail responded to the breaking news that one of the city’s landmarks – seen many times in Morse, no less – was ablaze.

randolph

What they did over the Randolph Hotel (pictured above by the Mail) wasn’t particularly ground-breaking or complicated.

But editor Simon O’Neill’s team had pulled out all the stops to give a people-focused, comprehensive, picture-heavy, running commentary.

They had used their content management system to run a continuous blog summarising the key developments, linking out to galleries and individual stories.

The Mail – with what Simon told me had been a “wonderful team effort” – has form here, having put together something similar, plus 13 pages of print coverage, on the Bullfinch child grooming scandal on its patch in March.

There are papers up and down the country – including our own Local World titles – offering this sort of news blog on a regular basis. The Liverpool Echo, for instance, runs a breaking news blog every day.

But I have rarely seen one done as well as Oxford’s, presided over by assistant editor Jason Collie.

It was sharp, human, attractive, up to date and useful.

With our own Local World system, a recent upgrade means we can now do this sort of thing better than ever, with further improvements due later in the year.

When there’s only one story in town, this is the way to go, answering the huge demand for information in bite-size chunks.

When I see smart coverage of big news stories, it makes me proud to be part of this profession.

Worst job in the world? Not for me.

Why knowing what makes their staff tick should be every manager’s cup of tea

I’ve been fine-tuning my tea-making skills today.

My first attempt at meeting an editor’s request for “builder’s tea” was a disappointment, to her at least.

Second time round, I matched the shade of the brew to her caffeine colour chart, and all was well.

Visiting seven offices on a fairly regular basis over the last ten months has lodged the hot drink preferences of my news desk and editor colleagues reasonably firmly in my mind.

Undoubtedly, some other piece of knowledge has been jettisoned by my memory to accommodate all this new drinks data.

But that’s fine.

Because knowing the little things that mean so much about people is important.

Few things impress me more than someone in a position of authority and responsibility who manages to recall the names of people he or she has barely met.

And that admiration reaches fever pitch if they can also remember something about that person’s family, sporting loyalties, interests or musical taste.

In the outside world, establishing such links helps in business networking, contact management and commercial negotiations.

But inside our own offices and newsrooms, the priority a manager places on taking time to get to know more about their people’s lives can speak volumes about their commitment to team-building and personal development.

When I do training sessions for editorial managers, one of the first activities is a highly informal mini-quiz about their team-mates: what’s X’s girlfriend called, how many children does Y have etc.

I’m happy to report that yesterday’s quiz was comprehensively well-answered.

We spend an awful long time with our work colleagues.

And luckily, most of the time we enjoy their company. You could bet your house that the line “It’s the people I’m going to miss the most” will be included in most journalistic leaving speeches.

But translating that camaraderie into real, positive and tangible team spirit needs effort.

There is no doubt in my mind that the teams which stay together the longest are the ones where the practicalities of rubbing shoulders with each other have been transcended by real, family-style bonds.

That’s why time spent finding out what makes your staff tick is never time wasted.

Even if it is just working out what colour they like their tea.

News-writing: The long and short of it

I have, to quote that ear-worm hit from 1986 by Owen Paul, a new Favourite Waste of Time.

To be fair and accurate, Chartbeat isn’t a waste of time per se.

But you can easily spend your whole day on it, if you’re not careful.

It’s a fascinating, illuminating – and very sobering – tool for analysing what people are reading on our websites.

Big Brother-like, you can watch people in real time dancing from story to story, see which social media got them to our articles, and compare the different interests of our most loyal locals and our more fickle foreign followers.

And – this is the sobering bit – we can find out exactly how long people spend reading our stories.

Reporters have always been precious about their work, carefully and jealously guarding their cleverly-crafted wordsmithery, and badgering newsdesks and subs for more space.

What Chartbeat tells us is that the average reader’s attention span is gnat-like in its brevity.

I won’t give away too many trade secrets, but if a story gets more than a minute’s worth of the average reader’s attention, it is doing very well indeed.

The software presents editors, newsdesks and writers with heat maps for home pages and individual stories, underlining the low boredom threshold of most punters.

We’re now using Chartbeat to look tactically and intelligently at how to keep people on our sites for longer, adding more related content, pictures, video and links in the hope that we can convert casual browsers into regular returners.

But it’s those heat maps that have caused jaws to drop whenever I’ve shown Chartbeat to reporters.

It’s important to stress here that the lesson of the analytics isn’t that we should dumb down and slash all our stories to Ceefax length (ask your mum and dad about that, kids).

There are some interesting thoughts on story length in this academic piece on how to get greater web engagement – which, ironically I haven’t read every word of, because it’s 38 pages long.

It talks about ‘diversity of length’ – perhaps another way of explaining that old copytasting favourite, light and shade.

In other words, successful sites have a mixture of long and short reads, with that variety being the key.

The piece also points out that the most-read items on many sites can often be longer reads.

What is clear, though, is that our words need to fight for their place more than ever.

The temptation has always been to take advantage of the web’s limitless acres of space by pouring even more words into it than we pour onto a page.

But quantity rather than quality doesn’t cut it – quite literally.

A grey slab of text is a grey slab of text, wherever it appears.

We need to think more carefully about the way we package our news and other content – in print and online.

And we need to make sure that our words paint a compelling picture, bringing subjects to life rather than killing them under the weight of indulgent verbosity.

It strikes me that I’ve now written nearly 500 words of solid text.

So I’ll shut up now – and congratulate those of you who have stuck with me to the bitter end.

How to interview politicians

Over the years, I’ve been exposed to the arrogance of Archer, the benevolence of Benn and the charm of both Clarke and Clegg.

I never got to experience the blarney of Blair or the thunder of Thatcher.

But I always enjoyed dealing with politicians.

It’s a pleasure denied to me now – but one available to hundreds of local media journalists up and down the country for the next couple of weeks.

At least in theory.

It is clear that some of the country’s most experienced politicians do not want to meet real, challenging members of the public, with this piece by Marina Hyde in the Guardian a brilliant analysis of a situation that threatens to damage faith in democracy.

Not only that, our potential national leaders don’t seem that keen on meeting us journalists either.

Papers in Huddersfield, Nottingham and Milton Keynes have attacked the secrecy, high-handedness and sheer contempt that has characterised the organisation and execution of visits by David Cameron’s election battlebus.

I’m not a big fan of the ‘We can’t tell you the story they don’t want you to read’ style of hand-wringing, self-pitying journalism.

But I can understand my colleagues’ frustration.

As Trinity Mirror regional digital publishing director David Higgerson says in his blog :

For a man whose background is in PR, this Prime Minister seems to be very good at generating the wrong local headlines.

But let’s assume for the moment that Mr C – or one of his senior friends, or anyone else with half an eye on Number Ten – decides to grant you five minutes.

How do you make the most of it?

The country’s best-known inquisitor, Jeremy Paxman, didn’t actually say his starting point was always “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Those are the words of onetime Times deputy editor Louis Heron.

Paxman has in fact said that “only a moron” would assume all politicians lie all the time.

But he has cornered the market in regarding those who seek high office with a degree of deep suspicion.

And he’s just shared his top tips for interviewing politicians – all of which are worth bearing in mind as you set out for your slot with the man who would be Prime Minister.

One I particularly like – although it is perhaps more relevant for longer form TV and radio set pieces – is ‘do your homework’.

James O’Brien of LBC did just that ahead of an interview with Nigel Farage last year, to devastating effect.

But what other advice is there out there? Here are some thoughts from colleagues in my neck of the woods.

“My rule of thumb is to think of questions to which you wouldn’t be able to predict the answer.

“I’ve just interviewed Cameron for the third time in a week earlier today. He’s a slippery customer, very slick – but also very predictable. I could ask him 15 questions on policy but I know almost to the word what he’d say in reply. So that kind of means there is little point. Politicians don’t answer questions directly: if I ask about, say, foxhunting, he won’t answer the question I’ve actually asked, but will instead say what he wants to say about hunting.

“So the challenge is to ask him a question that will give you a story either way, whatever he says.  I got a front page the other day out of ‘what would your message to the French be over Hinkley Point?’ He had nowhere to run – whatever he said would then be his message to the French and be a story. Or you have to find a question that you couldn’t predict the answer to.

“With ordinary civilians, the rule is to ask open questions to get them to say more than they would otherwise. With politicians, the general rule is to ask as closed a question as possible, to get them to commit to actually saying something. They hate ‘yes/no’ questions.”

“Don’t be intimidated by senior politicians. Remember you’re just talking to a boring, middle-aged white man.

“Your aim is to get the politician to go off-script. Don’t be afraid of talking over them if you need to. This is your five minutes out of a whole election campaign.

“But give them a fair crack of the whip.”

 “Be persistent but polite.

 “Don’t feel intimidated whoever you are interviewing – your questions are just as valid and important as anyone else’s. It’s OK to ask obvious questions like your Mum or Dad would ask – the name of the game is not to prove that you read the Guardian every day and you know everything that is going on in Westminster.

 “You can have a go and asking the same question 17 times (like Jeremy Paxman) if you want to but I usually – not always – take the view that it’s best to take their answer, let your readers evaluate how much they have hedged, and move on.

 “Print are usually last in the queue when interviewing politicians – the pecking order is national TV first, local TV second, then radio and then us, the Tail End Charlies who write stories for newspapers.  Don’t bother asking the same questions and making the politicians go over the same ground again. Try and come up with something different, something local if you can or something left field, like what would you do for the day if you weren’t famous?”

So there you have it.

Good luck out there on the campaign trail.

Are you enjoying it so far?

I said, are you enjoying it so far? Answer the question, damn it.