How can we make running a newsdesk the best job in the world?

I was talking to a reporter the other day about where her future might lie.

She had no clear idea – but she knew what she didn’t want to do.

“I don’t want to do newsdesk. Why would I?”

And she had a point.

Why would a young reporter want to get involved in running the newsdesk of a demanding multi-edition newspaper with a relentless 24/7 digital culture?

I’d like to think the answer was: Because it can be the best job in the world.

Taken as a whole, there were far more good days than bad ones in the 20-odd years that I spent running newsdesks in Swindon and Bath.

Admittedly, much of that work was done before the web developed from a glint in Tim Berners-Lees’ eye to the all-encompassing news and information provider that it is today.

But leading a team of reporters to orchestrate the most compelling coverage possible of a community was intensely rewarding.

Making a difference, shaping the agenda, helping the voiceless, and putting a bit of stick about – what’s not to like?

A very experienced editor once told me that the purpose of a newsdesk was to develop stories (actually he said tales because he was from up north) and to develop people.

That was around 15 years ago. But I can’t beat it as a slogan for what should be the beating heart of a newsroom.

The danger as the never-ending demand for content intensifies is that development of people and stories can be compromised – or even decimated.

I stressed the importance of stamina (as well as confidence) in a news editor in an earlier blog.

Rightly, many of the newsdesk people of today are more protective of their work-life balance than I was at their age.

And there’s a theory that the useful life of a news editor might be in single year figures, before burn-out sets in.

There’s also, while we’re at it, a theory that we may not need newsdesks in future – that journalists will be fully-rounded publishers, self-motivated and self-sustaining as they keep pushing out the stories.

While there is no doubt that autonomy can be incredibly powerful for journalists, the best journalism – like all the best work – is done in teams.

And those teams need a leader.

One of my priorities is to emphasise the key skills of a good news editor, to lift the aspirations of the role from shovelling to genuinely digging and from logistics to leadership.

To add to that confidence and stamina, a great news editor needs organisational ability, contacts of their own, the bravery and imagination to try new ideas which might fail, and a resilient sense of humour that cuts through lethargy, negativity and pomposity.

Above all else, they must be the conductor of the newsroom orchestra – energising flagging spirits, symbolising supportive teamwork, and coaxing the best out of every performer.

They won’t have Last Night of the Proms experiences every day, or perhaps even every week.

But it should be possible to get the flags out enough for the newsdesk to be a more enticing and rewarding option for our most talented journalists.


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