Why the Basil Fawlty view of readers might not be doing us any favours

Basil Fawlty never actually said it would be easier to run a hotel without the guests.

But a wonderful passage from the wonderful Waldorf Salad episode shows that this is clearly the way he sees the difficult world of hospitality.

This.. is.. typical. Absolutely typical.. The kind of… [shouting loudly] ARSE, I have to put up with from you people. You ponce in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot, while I’m trying to run a hotel here. Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not, you’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well let me tell you something: this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble. Well I’ve had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough. I’ve had it. Come on, pack your bags and get out.

Anyone who has ever run a newsdesk would sympathise with the beleaguered Basil.

It would, one could be forgiven for thinking, be far easier without the readers. Not the ones that simply and passively read our papers and websites. The other ones.

The ones that stride into our reception areas without so much as a by your leave or an appointment, usually right on deadline, to share their non-stories about faulty housing association property boilers, or to deliver their spidery-writing bowls results.

The ones that email us their conspiracy theories about supermarket schemes, or ring up to correct supposed errors in a letter they sent by snail mail six days ago.

The ones who come to us with their complaints about officialdom and then do an immediate reverse-ferret when we send a photographer round and start chasing corporate reaction.

I’ve often said that wasting press time should be an offence. A jailable one.

And I’ve not even mentioned the ones who offer us useful advice (‘why don’t you do some investigative journalism?’) or pose incisive questions (‘is this really a story? Slow news day?’) online. One paper in Canada has now disabled comments on all its stories because readers have become so vicious in their trolling.

And yet, and yet…………

I was doing some writing coaching with a reporter the other day and came to a story he had written where his contempt for the main complainant oozed out of every line.

I sympathised. I’ve been that news editor who lets off expletive-ridden steam after ending a conversation with a member of the Great British Public hundreds of times.

But here’s the thing.

Some of the best journalists I have ever worked with don’t do that smash-the-phone-down-and-swear thing.

They have positively relished the sheer bonkers eccentricity and waywardness of their audience.

Maybe they’re a bit mad themselves.

But actually, like that stupid corporate fun sign, it does help. Because their writing is the better for it.

They see potential news stories in everyone, meaning everyone is worth a listen.

To put it another way, I’m not sure you can be a good journalist if you don’t like people.

It’s a point which I think US media commentator and media academic Steve Buttry makes well in this piece questioning whether journalists are still able to recognise the stories under their noses.

It’s a highly inconvenient truth.

But sometimes the people described by one of my favourite colleagues as the oddballs, myths and legends just may have a point.

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Why Mick’s the most important person in your team

Who’s the most important person in your team?

There’s no doubt in my mind what the answer is.

I can even name him.

It’s Mick.

And if he’s not being taken on a regular basis, you’ve got some work to do on the team-building front.

I realise it’s not exactly scientific – as scientific, in fact, as my theory that tea-making rituals can be a key litmus test of team strength – but I believe it to be true.

Nothing gladdens my heart – or, indeed, my ears – so much as seeing colleagues poking fun at each other.

Because nothing says we’re comfortable around each other, that we know about each other and care about each other, like the willingness to rib and be ribbed.

Like the shared tea-making, the shared mickey-taking creates and reflects a sense of belonging, of emotional security, and of acceptance.

So what are the other ingredients of good team spirit?

Here are a few more random thoughts, all involving – in a bizarre Sesame Street-style scenario – the letter S:

  • size and setting: ideally, small enough to fit around one bank of desks so that everyone can see each other
  • support: people who look out for each other in both their professional and personal lives, taking on colleagues’ work to help them through a crisis, and taking an interest in their families and hobbies
  • sharing: a willingness to pass on expertise and handy short-cuts, tips and tricks
  • solidarity: the forging of a common cause – to produce the best website, beat rivals to stories, or simply outsmart the spin doctors
  • smiling: and preferably, laughing. We live in a mad world, and a day when we haven’t laughed as a team is a day utterly and completely wasted
  • space: I came across the fantastic phrase supported autonomy the other day.  It encapsulates the way that I would always want to run my working life. And I don’t think I’m unusual in that. Good teams – and their leaders – allow members to think for themselves and to have control of their working days, within boundaries of trust and accountability.

Anyway, that’s enough words beginning with S.

Someone’s just walked in that I need to take the mick out of.

I’ve been thinking about……how to find time to think

I’ve done it in dusty office lofts, posh hotels and pub back gardens.

I’ve done it on Sunday nights over takeaway pizza, weekday afternoons over beer and at all-day sessions with coffee, pastries and lunch.

I’m talking brainstorming, strategy days and planning. Thinking time, in other words.

It’s a paradox that is as fascinating as it is depressing that modern editors and their senior colleagues will spend large chunks of their lives in meetings – and yet may feel they have less time to think, discuss and throw ideas around than ever before.

I’m spending some of this morning with a group of experienced journalists looking at how we can break that model.

In the last few months, the newsrooms that I visit appear to have made great strides in cutting out some of the tedious what’s-the-page-31-picture-story mechanics which can plague conference meetings.

Some are experimenting with weekly specialist reporters’ gatherings, morning web mini-conferences and week ahead digital planning sessions.

The secret to success is to ring-fence time when we can step briefly away from the typeface to allow  real creativity to flow.

Another paradox that fascinates and depresses me in equal measure that web journalism has incredible potential to free reporters from traditional shackles and straightjackets, and to have some real fun. And yet finding content which meets daily UB, page view and return visit targets can easily become a joyless, demotivating grind.

Whenever I run training days for reporters, I always build in an exercise which gets them to brainstorm ideas to develop new storylines and fresh coverage tactics for well-worn issues such as the NHS crisis or the green belt.

In just five or ten minutes, they always come up with genuinely interesting and innovative angles.

I’d like to see journalists getting their heads together as a team more often – daring to suggest what might seem silly ideas, and following their own instincts about what makes interesting content.

It’s a bit of a trite analogy, but it’s Bake-Off time, so I’ll go for it. Putting a day’s news coverage together is like making a cake.

It’s not easy to get the right balance of ingredients, the right level of serious and authoritative news coverage but also the right dash of the trivial and the time-wasting.

The key to getting it right is credibility and authenticity.

I’m a wet liberal, so my paper and news website of choice is The Guardian, perhaps followed closely by the Independent.

Those sites somehow manage to blend unrivalled political insight with tongue-in-cheek nonsense in a way that maintains an essential dignity and authority.

And they seem to be put together by people who are serious about having a bit of fun.

And, more importantly, by people with time to think.

Will robots ever replace journalists?

In a matter of days, my son has moved from one end of the scale to another.

He was a waiter – a job where workers face a 90 per cent chance of being replaced by a robot in the next two decades.

Now he works in IT, where the risk rate has fallen to 22 per cent, according to new research.

But what about journalism?

According to the BBC’s interpretation of the Oxford University/Deloitte research, there is an eight per cent chance of an editor’s job being taken by a robot in the next 20 years. Writers and authors look even safer, although – irritatingly and tellingly – not as safe as PR managers.

Computer-generated copy is already being used in the USA for some business and sports reporting.

Interestingly, the limited research there has so far been suggests that some people actually trust the stuff written by computers more than the words carefully crafted by real life human beings.

I spend a fair bit of my time encouraging reporters to make their writing livelier, smoother and less predictable – with robotic pretty much a term of abuse.

The US experiment has shown that there might well be a place for very factual writing to be handed to a computer program.

But my football-loving son was aghast at the possibility of the expert match analysis, transfer speculation and tactical insight that he loves to devour being provided by anyone other than a real sentient reporter.

And so am I.

The very best writing comes from the heart – an organ that clearly neither robot nor computer possesses.

And it is also built on intangibles such as instinct and curiosity, as well as very personal qualities of empathy, determination and charm.

In the newspaper office where I was yesterday, I witnessed a news editor sensitively but effectively dealing with the moral minefield of funeral coverage, while two experienced reporters brandished battered contacts books which had been the passports to countless splashes.

It might be that robot writing has a veneer of impartiality and straightforwardness.

But real trust, real authority, and the real journalism that changes hearts and minds will always stem from real people.

People: They’re your first, your last, your everything

‘You’re the weird one who actually likes his job, aren’t you?”

Whenever we get together with our neighbours – which is quite often, they’re a lovely bunch, the conversation will sometimes turn to the world of work.

Some of my neighbours don’t exactly set off for their workplaces with a spring in their step and joy in their hearts.

And they think it’s strange that, for the most part, I do.

But for all that they resent their jobs, they carry on doing them.

It might be a generational thing, and it’s probably got a fair bit to do with those jobs being reasonably well-rewarded.

But that willingness to put up with a job which no longer ticks all your boxes is far from universal.

Fifteen months in my current role have taught me an awful lot about how people view their jobs as well as confirming some of my own long-standing instincts about leadership and management.

I’ve been doing a fair number of exit interviews in recent months, and two things have struck me time and time again.

The first is that there are identifiable triggers or points of no return in people’s relationships with their jobs.

It’s extraordinary how trivial some of these can appear at first sight.

But to the person concerned, they are symbolic of a lack of care, respect or value.

And they’re almost always right, underlining the eternal truth of one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes quotes.

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

My second key conclusion is how quickly people move from career contentment to the employment departure lounge.

In a week when a UK Press Gazette survey found that nine out of ten journalists still enjoy their jobs it’s time for all of us who manage editorial staff to think about how we calibrate our priorities.

In an industry which is increasingly target-driven and process-heavy, where deadlines bear down on us and the phrase ‘can you just do one more thing?’ rings in all our ears, we can lose focus on what is really important.

And that’s the people.

In management courses, I paraphrase the words of the late, great Barry White: that your staff are Your First, Your Last, Your Everything.

And here’s the thing.

Process problems won’t necessarily get worse if you leave them for a few days.

People problems always will.

I seethe when I hear managers say they haven’t got round to talking to one of their staff about a problem that that employee has identified, or when I hear about cackhanded communication over rotas.

Making people feel valued, generating energetic team spirit, listening to concerns, communicating quickly and honestly, developing talent, and policing the fault lines between work and family life aren’t the icing on the cake of leadership.

They are the basic ingredients.

As I drifted off to sleep last night, my 16-year-old daughter returned home from her shift as a hotel waitress to report that – despite her pleas that she only wants to work at weekends as she begins her A-levels – she had been rostered to cover shifts on each of the next four days.

She hasn’t got the experience or confidence to assertively point out that a) she’s on a zero hours contract and so has no obligation to do any of the shifts and b) her studies are more important than their short-term staffing crises.

Later on today, I think I’m going to have to offer her employers some human resources leadership advice.

I don’t want her to give up a job that is giving her life skills, confidence – and cash. And I’m certain the hotel doesn’t either.

But by failing to see the importance of playing the long game, of treating staff as people rather than numbers, and of rising above short-term crisis management, they risk losing her altogether.

Our people are the most precious asset we possess. We forget that at our peril.

What rowdy ad reps need to know about humourless hacks

To us, they’re the noisy lot who celebrate Christmas in August and ring bells or burst into whooping at the drop of a party hat.

To them, we’re the humourless sods who poo-poo their ideas at meetings and write stories which wind up their customers.

But we can’t get by without each other.

And, in fact, my caricature of the way advertising and editorial perceive each other is increasingly outdated.

Later today, I’m going to be taking part in an induction session for new commercial staff, discussing how editorial teams operate and how we can work more closely together.

So here’s a confession: This isn’t so much a blog, more homework for this afternoon.

What will I tell these new recruits to our business?

First of all, they need to know what shapes our news values and priorities – about the web analytics and targets which determine the direction of some of our coverage, but also about long-standing and non-negotiable matters of integrity and objectivity.

There are some practical points – the best times to talk to busy news editors, who’s responsible for what, and what exactly do the myriad of titles we give our designers and production staff actually mean.

Plus there’s the eternal plea to be our eyes and ears for breaking news stories, the reassurance that we’d rather be told ten times about that High Street fire than not at all.

I need to talk about proper forward planning and organisation and about managing customers’ expectations.

But most of all, I need to talk about respect, support and co-operation.

Editors and other senior journalists are now pitching for business in ways undreamed of a decade ago.

We bring skills from basic proof-reading to sophisticated trouble-spotting to the table, and have contacts and kudos that can open all manner of commercial doors.

But we don’t always have that killer instinct when it comes to sealing a deal, and perhaps don’t always think big enough about the value of our commercial platforms.

In that, we doff our own hats – trilbies with that Press label on them, naturally – to our advertising colleagues.

As always, it is relationships which make the world go round, and which are the key to doing great business.

And that starts in our own offices, between our own teams.

Should we take the BBC’s 100-reporter olive branch seriously?

As Abraham Lincoln used to say, you can’t believe everything you read on the web.

sun spoof

So it was that this cutting has been doing the rounds on Twitter.

It was originally tweeted as a genuine Sun story, until it became clear that it was one of a series of spoofs produced by that paper in a history education project.

But that satirical headline isn’t a bad summary of the British newspaper industry’s initial reaction to the web.

With a few notable exceptions – the Guardian, perhaps – most newspapers were complacently dismissive of the promise offered by what we might now call the digital world.

Papers were making plenty of money, and this internet thing looked like a here today, gone tomorrow flash in the pan.

One organisation that did see the potential of the web was the BBC.

And so, while our industry was busy looking the other way, it began pioneering computer projects and experimenting with online news.

The BBC news website is now 18 years old and, for national and international news, it remains a force to be reckoned with, a gold standard of journalistic integrity and rigour.

But its regional news pages aren’t always so impressive, with little sense of a regularly-updated, fast-moving product.

So I’m always surprised when figures in the regional newspaper industry complain about the threat posed by the BBC’s licence fee-funded local websites.

Leaving aside the fact that two decades ago we sat on our hands as others creamed off much of our advertising, I just think our sites are now much better than the Beeb’s.

But there is much that we can still learn from each other – and I always tried to strike partnerships with BBC colleagues where I could.

So I think the plans unveiled by director-general Lord Hall today for a 100-strong army of reporters writing stories for both the BBC and local papers are worth exploring.

There’s a suggestion that media groups may be able to bid to provide the service.

There are clearly some logistical issues to overcome.

But this is ring-fenced money for the sort of journalism that many reporters say they have too little time to do.

It’s an olive branch that we should take seriously.