The nude cleaner story and the naked truth about the future of journalism

Wanted: Nude woman to clean Kingswood pensioner’s home and fulfil his fantasies.

That was the headline on the Bristol Post’s second best-performing web story yesterday.

It was an intriguing – and well-written – tale about a man aged 69 (yes, he’d have to be, wouldn’t he?) with a bizarre secret: he employs women to clean his home in the nude.

My friends at the Post pulled no punches with their story, which made it clear exactly what ‘John’ does and doesn’t do while the women attack his home with their dusters.

It wasn’t exactly run of the mill fare for a regional news title which thinks about its coverage more carefully than most.

And, not surprisingly, the armchair warrior editors were out in relative force in the comments section.

And the journalistic standards bar get set ever lower. Hang your heads in shame.

That was one of the milder ones.

With perfect timing, the Post piece appeared on the same day as an interview with the digital director of my employer Local World, Matt Kelly, on the InPublishing website.

Matt’s central point is that regional media titles have to change their thinking on content and be more comfortable about breaking out of conventional hang-ups and habits to reflect the fun, fascinations and frenzy in people’s lives.

Now I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, and firmly believe that the regional media has a proud part to play in changing communities for the better, spreading vital information, and challenging prejudice and official bungling alike.

But Matt’s right.

And the Post was right to carry that story on its site.

It’s a tale that I could quite imagine seeing somewhere in a Guardian supplement, or in all manner of quality magazines.

Its presence there would be no more a reason for heads to be hung in shame than its appearance on Bristolpost.co.uk.

Because it’s part of the warp and weft of life, and part of a rich tapestry of coverage that reflects every other aspect of existence.

On that same Post site yesterday were stories about a missing mum, the likely next Labour mayoral candidate, an anti-austerity protest and the death of the city’s oldest woman.

All human life was there.

If people didn’t want to read about ‘John’ and his secret on a site where journalism is provided for free, no one was forcing them to.

But more than 10,000 did.

And here’s the thing.

Just as the pollsters found out to their embarrassment earlier this month, what people say they like and are going to do, and what they actually do are two very different things.

People say they like the idea of newspapers writing worthy stuff about council sub-committees and charity fundraising days.

And then they go off to sneak a peek at the sidebar of shame on Mail Online, or to follow a Facebook post link to Buzzfeed or Distractify.

There are closed-down churches, pubs and post offices across the land with crocodile tears lapping around their doorsteps.

But there are also booming congregations, thriving pubs and post offices which have found new homes in busy businesses.

They’ve all found an audience by moving with the times, thinking laterally, throwing off any vestiges of stuffiness – and welcoming people in.

And they’ve done that without losing integrity or quality.

I would gently suggest there’s a message there for all of us in the regional media.

 

 

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Why covering tragedy should never be a matter of routine

When I run training days for reporters and news editors, I put up a list of the sort of stories that consistently do well online and in print.

Top of the content charts – and hogging that number one slot since God was a boy – is tragedy.

There is absolutely no doubt that death and destruction sell papers and boost web audiences.

But there’s also no doubt that the way we cover tragic events is under greater scrutiny than ever before.

And that’s as it should be.

We have a huge and serious responsibility to strike the right tone at a time when real people’s lives are being turned completely upside-down.

In recent weeks, the titles that I work with have had to navigate their way through some difficult moral challenges: finessing the real reasons why Britain’s oldest Poppy Appeal collector ended her life in the Avon Gorge, handling the suicide of a 15-year-old schoolboy found hanging from a tree in a Gloucestershire park, working out the right treatment of some complex inquests, as well as of more routine crash deaths.

I say routine because there is always the danger that that’s how we’ll treat tragedy. To us, these are stories that should be told, reflecting fatalities which happen in very public settings and are then analysed on equally public Facebook pages.

To the people at the heart of these horrors, we can appear to be meddling in private tragedy and grief, coming up with hastily-written pen pictures of folk we have never met, assessing reputations and assembling versions of events while emotions are at their rawest. What they are going through is the polar opposite of routine.

When those competing points of view can be made to overlap, journalism can be an immensely rewarding and heart-warming experience.

When, as so often is the case, they are poles apart, our profession can be an uncomfortable and disquieting place to be.

One of the keys to getting it right is communication.

As I said in a blog last year, keeping families informed is crucial.

But what if you don’t know where they are or how to get hold of them?

There is undoubtedly more that the police could do to prepare bereaved families. This week, one of my news editor colleagues took a call from a friend of a man killed in a road accident. She said the family had been told that the media would not even report the incident if those relatives did not want to comment. Here, more candid and precise information from police liaison staff would have been helpful.

Inquests can throw up major fault lines, with private tensions and problems often laid bare as a death is analysed. I still believe there is little justification for the media to report on a large number of inquests. But I always tried to warn families that we were in touch with that we might be covering their loved one’s hearing.

A lot of inquests, though, involve people with whom we have had no previous contact. As we have a perfect right to attend and report on such hearings, perhaps it would be kind for coroners’ officers to tell families this in advance.

That same news editor was telling me yesterday of a family who clearly thought that declining to comment at the end of an inquest meant that the evidence heard would not be reported.

The regulator IPSO too needs to consider its role.

I wouldn’t want to see any part of the editors’ code dealing with intrusion into grief watered down.

But it is more challenging than ever for the conventional media to toe the line on naming victims.

The code was drawn up in pre-Facebook days, when the jungle telegraph operated at a much slower and less public pace.

And here’s the double whammy rub.

Those same people who rush to post RIP Tom, Dick or Harry may be equally quick to shout intrusion when their comments are held up to the media mirror.

But if we want our reporting to be the trusted, authoritative, objective version of events,  we have to accept the higher level of scrutiny and expectation that comes with this.

The way we cover tragedies gives a clear message to our communities about our values, our brands and our priorities.

It is simply the most important journalism we do.

Want to know the right thing to do? Ask a journalist

Over the last year, I’ve become familiar with a particular journalism exam question.

From an NCTJ reporting past paper, it tests reporters’ ethical instincts and Editors’ Code knowledge using a travel industry scenario.

Essentially, exam candidates are asked to decide what they’d do if the boss of an airport which paid for a press trip to a Med resort tried to call in the alleged favour when an embarrassing story emerges about trouble from stag weekends facilitated by his flights.

The airport MD not only points to his largesse but also raises the spectre of job losses and a commercial backlash if the story goes ahead.

My model answer revolves around another question: What would UK Press Gazette or Hold the Front Page make of the way your paper handled this issue?

It’s a litmus test that I’ve used a few times over the years when wrestling with ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest, teamed with a simpler one: What feels right here?

And it is these sort of questions that must be at the heart of any decent – in every sense of the word – PR strategy.

To reword that main one: What would the Daily Mail (or The Guardian, or The Sun) make of this if it became public?

Well, it was the Mail on Sunday which provided the hard-hitting scrutiny in another, more tragic, travel industry scenario at the weekend.

Finally yesterday, Thomas Cook chief executive Peter Fankhauser offered the genuine, human apology that the parents of Christi and Bobby Shepherd had sought for the last nine years after their deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.

There seems to be a genuine consensus that the disastrous strategy pursued by Thomas Cook until the weekend must have been driven by legal advice, rather than emotional intelligence or even common sense.

It was media exposure that forced a shortsighted company to belatedly see the bigger picture.

Two points occur to me.

One is that the lesson Thomas Cook has learned – that the morally right thing and the legally right thing aren’t always the same – is one which we in the media also need to remember at times.

But the main thought is that often journalists who have analysed a situation for just a few minutes – significantly, the same period as the average customer – will have a better feel for the right thing to do than all the highly-paid executives in the land.

In praise of edgy eccentrics in the newsroom

She once walked out of a staff meeting hosted by a new editor because she was bored.

She was picked up by an ambulance crew worried that she was walking home alone from work in the early hours of the morning.

And she once terrified a photographer by taking her to doorstep a house full of drug users where there had been an armed siege in the middle of the night.

She couldn’t cover complicated council budget meetings to save her life.

And yet she wrote stories of human tragedy and colour pieces on homelessness that could make a statue cry.

If she cared about an issue or a story, she poured her heart, soul and every other part of her psyche into it, with some of the most beautiful writing I have ever had the pleasure of news-editing.

But if she didn’t…………..

I was reminded of that reporter by the Kevin Pietersen affair.

I should add that there were never any ‘trust issues’ – whatever that strange phrase turns out to mean.

But there was a heady mixture of talent, danger and attitude at times.

I have always relished the challenge of managing potential members of the awkward squad. People who made me worry a bit.

As long as they have talent, I don’t mind a bit of attitude.

The worst possible combination, of course, is attitude and lack of talent.

That not so heady mix has crossed my path at times – but let’s not go there.

But the eccentrics, the mavericks, the surprises? As long as there’s not a whole office full of them, bring it on.

I remember a reporter who was constantly late – but who wrote great stories really well.

Another one who I once angrily told to ‘get the xxxx on with your work’ (different times, people, different times), who brought in amazing human interest exclusives.

Our profession is in constant danger of becoming a white, middle-class ghetto.

The last thing we need is newsrooms full of identikit stereotypes.

I’m glad to report that the ones which I visit are populated by the full gamut of human idiosyncracy.

I’m not sure I’d necessarily want to throw KP into the mix.

But there’s no doubt that the recipe for the perfect newsroom has to include a liberal dash of edgy eccentricity from time to time.

Why I’m a bit like your grandad

You only have to spend a few seconds in the company of my curtain rails to know that I’m not much of a DIY expert.

I’ve precious little wisdom and skill to pass on to my children in that department.

And yet my son can be a dab hand with the toolkit.

Where once he was the apprentice to my shambling attempts at being the master, now I hold the nails/screws/nuts/bolts while he gets on with the job in hand.

That he possesses such knowledge and confidence is in no small degree down to his late and very much-missed maternal grandad.

By a process of osmosis, my son picked up all kinds of skills from concreting to plumbing at the elbow of my father-in-law.

And he’s not unusual.

Grandparents play a hugely important role the world over in filling in the gaps of parenting, nurturing and teaching.

Although my age might exactly reflect that of the average MP in the 2015 election intake, I’m not yet old enough to have grandchildren of my own.

And yet, I like to think of my job as a bit like that of a grandparent. In fact, I used that line – presumably to good effect – at my interview a year ago.

Here’s why I – and I imagine trainers everywhere – are a bit like your grandad and grandma:

  • We can give the quality time and occasional TLC that people’s line managers can struggle to find
  • On that theme, I can deal with some of the boring stuff – from exam administration to tea-making
  • After 30 years of experience in the industry, I hope I can usually put most day-to-day crises into perspective. Often my favourite putting-journalism-into-perspective quote, from onetime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, will come in handy: “When the history of the world is written, this will not be in it.”
  • We can get some unpalatable messages across for managers, in the spirit of the tough love grandad or grandma chats that have sorted out many a family tension down the years
  • But we can also be the shop floor’s spokesman from time to time – carefully dropping the right ideas in the right ears at the right time.
  • We (mostly) get the good bits: the rewarding training sessions, the one-to-one coaching, and the unexpected sounding board provision. Difficult disciplinary stuff is largely someone else’s responsibility.
  • I am very proud of the people I work with – and hopefully I tell them that on a fairly regular basis. But I want them to be better every day.
  • And finally, I bring sweets………

The other thing is that, like a grandad, I can go on a bit.

So I’ll shut up now, and you can stop having to indulge me.

You’re only as good as your last story – and other newsroom sayings

You’ve probably heard them so many times, they’ve lost their meaning.

At any one time, somebody in a newsroom somewhere is trotting out one of these little sayings about journalism.

But is there any truth in them?

“You’re only as good as your last story.”

Really? Perhaps if you’re doing shifts on the Mail.

I like to think we play a slightly longer game in the regional media, aiming for a greater degree of stability as we look at the bigger picture, rather than a daily snapshot verdict on performance.

But the development of analytics sites such as Parse.ly means that there is little doubt that the output, web success and social media reach of journalists will be under more intense scrutiny in the future.

And specialist reporters will increasingly be expected to act as mini-news editors – although we really need to find a less awkward word than curating to describe the skill of sifting the wheat from the chaff of user-generated content.

Add to that the pressure on many reporters with their own editions to find a decent splash every week – as well as engaging web content every day – and I’m forced to conclude that this pearl of wisdom still has some merit.

“There’s a story on every street.”

This is one of my favourites.

I like to think that a reporter should be able to go to any street in the country and come away with something worth writing about.

In my own street, I could point to someone who’s just helped Nick Clegg understand how underperforming primary school pupils can get better at maths, another neighbour who’s mastered the art of combining walking with running to enjoy marathons, and a dad whose life is on hold as he waits for a liver transplant.

So it’s a definite yes to this one.

We’ve just got to get better at getting out on those streets to find them.

“If you wanted a 9 to 5 job, you should have been an accountant.”

Harsh, but true.

Journalism is now more 24/7 than ever.

If David Cameron’s people give you less than an hour’s notice of a midnight visit to your patch, as happened in Bristol last night, then out you go.

But what if there’s a new series of Britain’s Got Talent to review on Saturday night? What if we need travel and weather news online at 6am? And what about all those parish council meetings?

Journalism has always involved working unsociable hours.

The challenge now is to ensure journalists don’t end up wishing they’d gone into accountancy instead.

“Those stories write themselves.”

Undoubtedly, the best stories end up being the easiest to write.

They’re probably simple, lending themselves to headlines and intros that instantly draw you in.

And they are likely to involve the sort of human emotion that produces cracking quotes.

So, yes, the best sort of human interest stories shouldn’t be hard to tell.

But that’s not to say that there isn’t a skill in finding new words to avoid off-the-shelf cliches, in allowing those quotes to breathe, and in taking real care to treat the people you’re writing about with decency and respect.

“We’re a vital part of the democratic process.”

Sometimes this can feel a more difficult claim to justify.

And there is no doubt that the drive for instant web gratification and limited resources can present challenges when someone needs to step off the diary for more complicated stories or investigative work.

But the best of our titles manage it on a regular basis.

And I’ve been really impressed by the way our papers and websites have risen to the challenge of covering a general election in a multimedia, politically apathetic age.

I recall a national headline from a couple of weeks ago claiming that David Cameron had done something to “electrify” the election.

All three main party leaders have at times sported hair styles that could have been the result of electrocution. But I don’t think anyone’s been electrified.

We won’t get massive web hits – let alone a boost in sales – from our pre-election coverage.

But it’s something that we should be doing – and we’ve been doing it well.

My favourite piece – in amongst all the serious seat-by-seat analysis, the questioning of party leaders and the sheer useful background information – was this one by the Wells Journal yesterday.

Asking Nick Clegg whether he’s rather have legs for arms than arms for legs was never going to be on Jeremy Paxman’s clipboard list.

But it’s very much in the spirit of another one of those golden newsroom rules.

“Don’t bore the reader.”