Mob rule with Glastonbury coverage

What was your favourite part of Glastonbury?

Lionel? The Who? The Kanye abuse?

My best bit wasn’t anything to do with the music.

It was a Facebook post.

tweet re glasto

Leaving aside the description of my Wells-based colleagues as a rag tag mob, this warmed the cockles of my heart.

The entire reporting staff of the four titles in Mid-Somerset worked through the weekend, either on the site or from afar, coordinating coverage and writing non-festival stories.

Yes, they had a ball.

But as our Facebook fan says, they also worked their wellies off.

Along with writers from some of the other papers I work with, they kept up a running commentary of blogs, reviews and news stories from the world’s best-known music event.

And they did it with humour, insight and panache.

There were hundreds of journalists there, but I bet few worked as hard.

I’m out of touch with what goes on at the nationals these days, but I was always wound up by any suggestion that Fleet Street – or whatever it’s called these days – was where the hard work went on.

I would challenge any national reporter to cope with the demands placed on the average weekly newspaper trainee.

So thank you, Deborah Walker, whoever you are.

And well done to my rag tag Team Glasto friends.

Going for the juggler: what I now look for in a journalist

I’ve got a tough gig on Monday morning.

At 9am, I’m going to be trying to entertain 40 15-year-olds with a talk about journalism.

Among the questions I’ll be tackling in the dying embers of the school term will be ‘what qualities does a journalist need?’

I’ve always had a fairly straightforward response to this one: a potent combination of empathy and determination.

And that’s still the case.

But there’s another quality that’s fast becoming even more important.

It’s a cocktail of time management, prioritisation, stamina, resilience and multi-tasking.

Or, perhaps, juggling.

That’s certainly the ability that I am stressing above all else when I’m talking to colleges and universities which train the journalists of the future.

Many of the heart to hearts that I have with reporters are about the increasing challenges of keeping the balls of 21st century journalism in the air.

The demands of keeping a 24/7 website fuelled with content that works can be in conflict with digging deep for off-diary stories, and with getting out and talking to real people.

And the information overload can be relentless, with advice from all quarters on trending topics, a running commentary from readers, multiple Twitter feeds, and an avalanche of analytics.

The definition of stress to me has always been lack of control of your destiny.

That’s why a study found that civil service messengers were far more stressed than the mandarins responsible for thousands of staff.

I always use a journalistic metaphor: that each day is a blank sheet on a notepad.

If we allow them to, other people will scribble all over that piece of paper.

I try to get my colleagues to maximise their advance planning (is there any other sort?) to attempt to ring-fence slices of their time.

We now have better calendar planning tools than we have ever had.

As John Lennon so memorably and accurately sang, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

But he also co-wrote We Can Work It Out.

Resource constraints will always mean we can’t keep as many plates spinning as we’d like.

But if we plan ahead to grab each day by the scruff of its neck, we may spend less time feeling that there’s an entire kitchen cupboard crashing down on us.

Putting the tea into team-building

There was a time when they could be seen in offices, boardrooms, kitchens and foyers at workplaces across the land.

Encased in plastic frames, and featuring backgrounds of random scenery, the posters carried messages aimed at motivating and directing staff involved in everything from widget-making to waste management.

There’s no I in team. Assume makes an ass out of u and me. And one-worders such as Dedication, Attitude, and Leadership.

team poster

Picture: Peelandstickposters.com

In the end, they became unwitting parodies of themselves.

And they’ve bred a whole new set of much truer to life versions.

There are some great ones on despair.com including this piece of genius.

believeinyourselfdemotivator_largeNow, don’t get me wrong. I love a motivational quote, as people who’ve been on my training sessions will confirm.

And I’ve been helping to draw up some core values in our region, which are likely to be put on display.

But as I prepare for a morning on what makes a great team with some editorial managers later this week, a thought struck me.

One suitable for a poster, in fact.

Making tea makes a teamOne better than that, obviously.

As I look around the many groups of people with whom I work, a clear correlation emerges.

It’s wholly non-scientific, patchily researched, and highly folksy. Perhaps even trite. But I believe it to be true.

Teams that make tea together, stay together.

When I see colleagues heading to the kitchen clutching mugs in each hand, my heart sings a little. When every individual on a desk makes their own, it dies a little.

It’s a tiny act, but one weighted with meaning and symbolism.

The tea or coffee round recognises the existence of a group of co-workers, and is steaming, scalding proof that colleagues care about each other.

And, as I’ve blogged before, it’s a sign that colleagues know something about each other, too, as well as being a great leveller.

Before I end up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner, I should make one confession.

I like to think I led some strong and tight-knit teams in more than 20 years of running newsdesks.

But I think I could count number of cups of tea I actually made on the fingers of one hand.

In my defence, for years the chief sub and I used to take it turns throughout the day to buy each other ‘coffee’ from a dubious vending machine.

So now I’m making amends – by making tea.

Even if, as happens in one office that I visit, this involves carrying half a dozen mugs on a tray up two steep flights of stairs.

“We’re not used to a bloke making the tea round here,” was the response the first time I did this.

Confounding sexual stereotypes and building teams, that’s me.

The jargon of journalism

When you enter journalism, you enter a world with its own language.

Granted, the old hot metal favourites of flongs, galleys and fudge no longer ring out in newsrooms – although spike still has a place.

But nibs, splash, and two-deck will mean nothing to most ‘civvies’.

It doesn’t help that different newsrooms use different words: is it puff or boost, fill or wrap, shapes or boxes?

I remember having to swiftly change my terminology when about to tell a very small work experience student that we needed her to write some shorts.

And pictures have a whole lexicon of their own.

I was once asked what shape a picture was just minutes after the job had fallen through.

“Pear,” was my reply.

But in one newsroom which I visit regularly, there is a sliding scale for picture jobs which is used to brief photographers.

It starts with one-pic for simple events, then moves through two-pic to my all-time favourite term of do-up: a page of photos.

Bigger jobs get the status of spreads, while the ultimate request is for a gallery.

This digital term approximates to around 50 pictures.

I asked the picture editor whether a gallery was now becoming an official quantity, like the traditional ale measure of a firkin.

I was told there’s a word that sounds a lot like firkin that is sometimes used when a gallery is requested.

My aim now is to get him to do a page of pictures about the band Showaddywaddy.

Go on, work it out.

How to write better dropped intros

It can be one of the best ways to start a story.

But writing the perfect dropped intro is an art.

And it’s one that many reporters struggle with.

As I wrote nearly a year ago, using this more indirect, feature-y, approach can be a great device to vary the pace of papers and websites, breaking out of predictable, formulaic writing.

But it does take a bit of practice – and, often, a bit of fine-tuning.

Because when you’re taking readers on the scenic route to a story, you’d better make sure your words are beautiful.

While the odd extraneous word won’t necessarily ruin a hard news intro, one out of place in a dropped intro can kill it stone dead.

So here are my golden rules for a top dropped intro:

  • make it snappy: ensure your first few sentences are short and staccato.
  • keep polishing: read and re-read those introductory paragraphs to make sure they flow smoothly, taking the reader on a journey that is both enticing and satisfying. Simply taking out a word, or rejigging a sentence, can make all the difference. I’ve taken the word it’s out of my third paragraph, then put it back in again.
  • get to the point: there’s a fine balance between intriguing readers and frustrating them with your verbose long-windedness. When you’re taking a slightly circuitous route to the nub of the story, you need to keep up the pace.
  • paint a picture: dropped intros can help you set the scene evocatively, drawing people into the story.
  • people power: the dropped intro approach can force you to think of the human aspect and angle to stories. A mini-case study can be an attractive way in, making a point or illustrating a theme more powerfully than an off-the-shelf general intro.
  • don’t force it: there are some situations where a Ronseal, tell it like it is, intro is the only option.

Taking a different approach to storytelling forces you to think about, and improve, your writing.

And that should lead to greater satisfaction for writer and reader alike.

Let’s get personal: could we learn to live with – and even love – audience targets?

Teachers do it, factory workers do it, even educated GPs do it.

So let’s do it, let’s fall in love …. with personal targets for journalists.

Okay, so it’s not exactly Victoria Wood, let alone Cole Porter.

But there’s no doubt what the talking point in regional newsrooms has been over the last few days.

Trinity Mirror’s plans to introduce individual web audience targets for its journalists – and the statement that its publications are no longer ‘papers of record’ – have been roundly condemned in some quarters.

Among those who have weighed in have been heavyweight commentators Roy Greenslade and Peter Preston.

But is it such an unreasonable – and, more importantly, fundamental – change?

Can journalism forever be the only part of a media business that can’t be pinned down, assessed and measured?

The answer has to be no. And mostly because it’s already happening.

Some of the journalists with whom I spend the most quality time are pretty much the sole reporters on their papers and websites.

Each week, they get a set of figures showing how well their edition has performed against its sales target, how their website is doing against five different criteria, and how effective their social media efforts have been.

As I have said before, they are accountable and exposed in ways that I never was when starting out as a reporter.

And there are now more ways of measuring engagement and story interest than ever before, thanks to sites such as Parse.ly.

My fellow blogger, Trinity Mirror digital publishing director David Higgerson, has already mounted a spirited and fairly persuasive defence of his firm’s journalistic measurement plans.

It’s well worth a read.

And he acknowledges that there are real concerns to overcome.

The most obvious is clearly that long-form journalism, investigations, complicated stuff, and anything that takes time, will fall by the wayside, as reporters go for quick wins such as listicles and lottery results. And galleries of cats. Cats have become the new shorthand for dumbed-down clickbait.

I’d make three points here.

The first is that – despite lottery results giving some titles their biggest web successes at the weekend – man and woman cannot live by lotto and lists alone.

Our best websites rely on a bedrock of strong local news content that sets agendas, tells people something they don’t already know, and emerges from contacts and curiosity.

We don’t want drive-by, one-hit wonder, readers. We want an audience which returns on a regular basis because it likes what it sees.

Which brings me on to my second point. We can no more force people to read what we write than King Canute could control the tide. They are our customers, not our pupils.

One of my colleagues coined the phrase ‘dull but worthy’ for a certain sort of coverage, and he was right.

Thirdly, though, if newsrooms organise themselves well through proper advance planning, they could build in off-diary time for everyone, ensuring there is a level playing field and that slow-burning stories can still be told.

None of this is easy.

Will individual targets damage team spirit? What about part-time reporters? What about people who also sub? What about the stories you get simply by beating someone else to the right phone call?

And how do we organise a performance measurement system that doesn’t mean we spend more time counting stories than writing them?

However we do it, it must be done constructively, with consultation and debate, perhaps targetting subject areas, specialisms and patches as much as individuals.

And, in the same way that the target regime for commercial staff is softened by a bonus system, there ought to be consideration of carrot as well as stick.

There are lines in journalism that I worry about my profession crossing, or being forced to cross.

But I’m not convinced this is one of them.

For newsrooms already operating under detailed daily targets, dividing those up within teams should actually help achieve the right result.

It’s worth finally dealing with that paper of record business.

As long as news editors have had a finite number of staff, a functioning brain in their heads and decent judgement, they have been picking and choosing what to cover.

It’s a point well made today by Holdthefrontpage editor Paul Linford.

Attempting to be a paper of record risks trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one.

It gives a green light to that worthy but dull stuff that web analytics can now show us goes completely unread.

And actually it makes it harder to do the kind of challenging – in both senses of the word – journalism that lifts us above so-called churnalism.

What we need are papers of information, of interpretation, of imagination, and most of all, of inspiration.

Mike’s mad media management misfires

It’s not often that rows over the way football clubs try to control their media coverage make prime time radio.

But this morning the sort of spat that normally only gets an airing on Hold the Front Page or UK Press Gazette was highlighted by Chris Evans’s sporting sidekick Vassos Alexander.

Rightly, he accused United of wanting Pravda-style adulatory coverage.

For Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has made himself look even more ridiculous this week by apparently banning anyone but media partners Sky and the Mirror from talking to new club boss Steve McClaren.

A shamefaced McClaren had to tell other journalists he couldn’t talk to them, while the Mirror came up with an upbeat back page splash about his new employer’s future prospects.

The Toons aren’t the first club to try to call the tune (sorry…).

Every couple of weeks, a new club tries it on – with the latest example being one even further in the mire, Blackpool.

Covering sports teams is tricky: you need strong relationships and trust to get those inside stories, but you also need to hold the side to account, and tell it like it is. And that’s without the machinations of agents and players’ own PR people.

I’ve never been a sports reporter, but I did take some satisfaction from telling the great Ken Loach that he was out of order in criticising the Bath Chronicle’s treatment of his beloved Bath City last year.

Investing money in football clubs is irrational, illogical and emotional. So it’s not surprising that common sense goes out the window.

And it must be frustrating to give free press box seating to journalists who then write about how rubbish you are.

But what the wisest PR operators and image consultants know is this.

Often the best way of preserving – or even improving – your organisation’s reputation is to open it up to greater scrutiny.