Don’t let our news coverage turn into a fusty old gents’ club

Somewhere this morning, someone is making a dramatic bid to crack down on something, possibly after a long-running wrangle or a bitter battle.

They won’t necessarily know they are.

But in newsland, they will be.

Now I yield to no one in my love of a good brandish, or a decent bust-up.

But I think we have to acknowledge that the disconnect between some journalistic language and our audience’s everyday vocabulary – and between our convenient descriptive pigeonholes and the complexity of life on the ground – can be a problem.

One serious aspect of this is that the media can foster an atmosphere of conflict and polarisation because we don’t cope well with shades of grey.

Hence, perhaps the growth of interest in constructive journalism.

What I’m more worried about here, though, is a mismatch between life as it is portrayed in the media and life as it plays out in reality.

Two years ago, journalese was celebrated in a book called Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News.

I’d say it was all hilarious stuff, were that not another word whose meaning has been completely mangled by overuse on news websites.

Now that few of our readers see our print products every day or every week, and that most of them will light upon our web stories via Google or Facebook, we need to make our words work harder.

Because reporters follow every detailed twist and turn of stories, we can assume knowledge and choose angles based on our own hang-ups and baggage.

We need to be better at seeing the world through other people’s eyes, and then filling in the gaps which are a barrier to understanding and engagement.

I’ve said before that we should offer more analysis to make sense of the world  and stop letting middle class men in their 70s determine our news agenda.

The real danger posed by our lazy language and incomplete insight is that our coverage is like the kind of stuffy London gentleman’s club beloved of

Rowley Birkin - You Tube

The Fast Show’s Rowley Birkin character (Picture: YouTube)

The Fast Show’s Rowley Birkin QC.

Membership is declining, the clientele is both unrepresentative and dying, and the atmosphere intimidating, off-putting and fusty.

It’s time for an ambitious bid to crack down on journalese.

There could be some wrangles – not to mention the odd bust-up.

But if we don’t freshen up our language and our approach, we run the risk of smothering our readers to death.

Advertisements

Want to be a better journalist? Get a life

If there’s one skill that the modern journalist needs in spades, it’s the ability to multitask.

But many moons ago, when God was not so much a boy as a toddler, I came across a man who could have written the book on that subject.

If memory serves, his name was Tony Brown.

And he was both the clerk to Wellington Town Council in Somerset as well as chief reporter of the tiny Wellington Weekly News.

Which meant that he both took the minutes of the council meetings and wrote objective reports holding his employer’s actions up to public scrutiny.

That, as I understand it, was the tip of the iceberg: he was involved in every aspect of community life.

Whether he actually managed to be both efficient public sector scribe and wholly independent investigator all at the same time, I cannot recall.

Certainly, it’s not a situation that would be acceptable to any editor today.

And yet there is no greater need for reporters to be immersed in their communities.

I always used to say that the best news editor I have worked for – the great Jim Parker, now editor of the Herald Express in Torquay – knew when someone had so much as sneezed a few miles down the road in Paignton.

Actually, it wasn’t sneezed. It was another bodily function, but that’s not important right now.

He was a one-man story machine, with matchless contacts and the ability to charm and cajole information out of the most truculent police officers and council jobsworths.

Most of those great stories had nothing to do with sport.

But it was Jim’s total devotion to his beloved Barton Cricket Club and the interconnected worlds of local cricket and football that made his contacts book the envy of the office.

When his wife saw him, I’ll never know.

What I do know, however, is that the full life that Jim had – and still has – outside of work utterly and completely enriched his journalism.

One of my colleagues drew my attention to this rather sad piece about work-life balance in journalism a few weeks ago.

The fears expressed in the piece reflect feelings that a number of people working in our industry – and not all of them in editorial by a long shot – have shared with me in recent times.

Disengaging yourself from work is increasingly difficult when websites need to be updated 24/7, weekend rotas are more demanding, and content ideas come at us from all angles on our Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I’ve not been at the newsdesk coalface for more than a year, but I’ve done more than my fair share of 55-hour weeks and spent large parts of my last Christmas Eve as a news editor posting updates on floods as my parents arrived for a festive stay.

At the end of the day, however, there needs to be an end of the day.

We will not get the most engaging stories chained to a screen – whatever size it is.

Living a full life outside journalism won’t mean our work suffers.

The result will be life experiences, connections and conversations that make us far, far better journalists.

 

The readers aren’t always right: sometimes we journalists have to be their ethical guide

His Twitter profile says he’s a pursuer of a quiet life.

Like they all do, it says his views are his own.

But Craig Borland suggests that no one else would want those views.

Well I want them.

And I don’t think – to his eternal credit – he really does seek a quiet life, either.

For the editor of the Buteman newspaper is waging a brave battle for decency, humanity and sanity in his neck of the woods.

craig

His area of Scotland will soon be taking some of the first refugees to touch down in the UK.

But not all his readers have been impressed, with some taking to his own website to argue that charity should begin at home. As a certain type of people do – and more of that later.

Craig has had no truck with their views, however.

In a marvellous editorial, which yesterday was quoted at length by Kevin McKenna in The Observer, and which today is celebrated by Guardian media expert Roy Greenslade, Craig puts his readers firmly in their place.

“There have, predictably but depressingly, been grumbles about how we should look after our own first, how we should be spending our taxes and so on. But mostly these are just not-very-thinly-veiled ways of people saying ‘I don’t want them in my back yard’.

Well, I do. I want Bute to be a place where people who come here with little more than the clothes they are standing in can feel safe and at home.

I want Bute to be a place known not for narrow-minded bigotry, but for its warmth, and humanity, and willingness to help people with nothing in whatever way it can.

The families coming to Bute have been through things we can’t begin to imagine. Surely as human beings we have a duty to help. But more than that, we have an opportunity to show them, and the world, that Bute is a wonderful place to call your home.”

Like Roy, I very much like the cut of his jib.

Because this is an editor showing real civic and community leadership despite the fact that his standpoint might be unpalatable to some of his own readers.

It’s a huge irony that the journalists who find themselves propping up league tables of Britain’s most trusted professionals often have to act as moral guides for their communities.

There are many times when our ethical standards are Himalayan compared to those of the people we write for.

The best journalism moves debates along, breaking down taboos and challenging everyday discrimination and stereotypes.

“I’m not sure the readers are ready for this” is an alarm bell phrase that has rung in the ears of every editor in the land at one time or another.

Sometimes that alarm bell should point us in a different direction, though, signalling a step we should be taking to drag our community kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

One of my favourite front pages of last year was the Bristol Post’s take on the city’s first gay wedding.

kiss groom

It showed two men kissing and provoked a significant number of complaints from Bristol’s finest.

It arguably lost the Post some sales.

But it made my heart leap with joy – and it still does.

A few years ago when I was responsible for moderating comments on the Bath Chronicle’s website, I played the equivalent of a game of chess with a reader who – from the comfortable anonymity of his keyboard – had suggested that we had been wrong to describe a driver who chased after some armed robbers as ‘brave’.

I pursued him, arguing with him, until I had checkmated him into agreeing that he had been small-minded, cynical and unkind.

At which point I wished him a happy weekend.

My successor Alex Brown, has no time for the cruelty of keyboard warriors either.

Like Craig Borland, he had the perfect answer to heartless comments about Syrian refugees recently, and challenged charity-begins-at-home devotees to prove their commitment by becoming Poppy sellers.

By and large, the hundreds of journalists I’ve worked with over the years have been among the kindest, most decent and community-spirited people I’ve ever known.

When our communities and our readers lack those qualities, it’s time for our own decency to come to the fore.

Bringing politics to life

Every Friday for the last few months, I’ve been sending a little gift to some of my colleagues.

It’s not one that in an ideal world they really want.

And my weekly email listing suggested questions for the NCTJ’s public affairs diploma exam is never going to trouble the Amazon charts.

But I hope my efforts will help them pass the exam next week, and help focus their minds as they wade through a textbook which is more than 650 pages long.

Equally importantly, I hope the process also reinforces the vital importance of our coverage of local and national government.

One harsh reality is that much of that coverage doesn’t necessarily fly online at a time when digital targets can determine copytasting and resource allocation.

And another is that it is sometimes only at a late stage in the development of a story, when a national paper steps in, that the sleepwalking public begin to wake up to what’s being done in their name on their doorstep.

There’s a hint of that today, as Guardian columnist George Monbiot highlights the irony of Prime Minister David Cameron moaning to Tory-run Oxfordshire County Council about the cuts it’s making in his Witney constituency.

And it was only after national coverage of Bath and North East Somerset Council’s plans to put a new park and ride site on a much-loved area of fields to the east of the city that the ruling Conservatives have had a rethink – despite wall to wall stories from my friends at The Bath Chronicle.

When that same council was battling to keep control of a massive overspend and delay affecting the Bath Spa Project, I was the Chronicle’s news editor.

I would regularly be infuriated by people who asked us why we weren’t covering the scandal that they read about in the national press.

We were. It’s just that we had covered the twists and turns in so much detail that we’d never really stepped back to do a bit more analysis. And we never had the luxury of a national paper’s ability to look down from above as an outsider.

It’s never been more important, as I’ve said previously, to explain the world to our readers, to bring things together and make sense of it all.

I haven’t got the time or the inclination to read every story about new housing developments in my area, and they end up all blurring into a haze of nimbyism and acronyms.

But I’d definitely invest some precious minutes in devouring a well-written spread, or digital package, which brought all these schemes together in one place, with plenty of views, maps and analysis.

It’s why that public affairs training is so important.

We can dismiss politics as an impenetrable black hole that no one cares about. In some ways, that’s exactly what many politicians would love us to do.

Or we can make it our business to bring it to life, to shine some lights in dark areas, and help provide the information and insight that we all need for our communities to mean something.

How to be a new reporter in a new area

When I applied for my current job, I produced a mini-report, pretentiously entitled No More Sink or Swim.

I’d asked some editors for their thoughts about their staff’s training needs, and then pretty much shamelessly passed them off as my own.

One said: “We tend to just sit people down in front of a computer, and say ‘get on with it’. It’s sink or swim.”

When new advertising staff start in our businesses, several weeks of training and induction lie between them and their first ever conversation with a customer.

Traditionally, the best new reporters could expect was a whistle-stop tour of the office, a five-minute session on editorial systems – and a newslist which already had their name on it.

I’m glad to say things are changing.

Next week, I will embark on my third induction day, as a new journalist starts work in one of our offices.

Increasingly, each new starter now has a ticklist which ensures that every aspect of his or her working life from claiming expenses to uploading video is methodically covered.

And we spend some time preparing people for what lies ahead.

So, to get to the point of all this, what is the best advice for a reporter starting a new job in a new patch?

  • Realise what you don’t know. Without going all Donald Rumsfeld on you, you’ll have conscious gaps in your knowledge, but there will also be things you don’t know you don’t know. Still with me? One of the great ironies of local newspaper life is that people who initially know nothing about an area find themselves writing for readers who know everything about their home town or city. Master geographical locations, strange company names, and eccentric streets – if you work in Bath, you should know it’s Beau Street not Bow Street.
  • Get confident with the technology and systems. Make content management systems your friend, and make the fullest possible use of email calendars, reminders, contacts and task lists.
  • Start carving out a profile. Stick your head above the parapet on Twitter, make sure you get some business cards, and get out there to talk to real people. The key to contact-making is all about striking up genuine human conversations with real human beings. Talk to people about things other than stories, and the stories will come.
  • You’re going to make mistakes. When you do, own up and be angry with yourself for a while. But don’t beat yourself up too much. They will come like number 9 buses at times. What matters is that you learn from mistakes and don’t make the same ones twice.
  • Keep on top of your workload by making lists, planning your days, weeks and months, and having honest conversations with your colleagues and managers.
  • Journalists need a healthy balance between cynicism and optimism. Try to develop a sixth sense for people you can trust and story scenarios that ring true.
  • Never forget that what you write matters: your words can affect people’s lives and livelihoods.
  • Make the most of the expertise and experience all around you, whether it be on different approaches to writing, technological short cuts or cracking contacts.

Above all, enjoy telling stories.

And good luck.

My Freedom of Information Act request: What’s the point of Chris Grayling?

I’m going to submit an FoI request to the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons.

Just what is the point of Chris Grayling? What purpose does he possibly serve?

If you could get back to me in the next 28 days, I’d be ever so grateful.

In a Parliament where hypocrisy, contempt for the voting public and a willingness to rewrite history seem to be vital prerequisites, the Lord President of the Council and MP for Epsom and Ewell excels.

Not content with trashing legal aid, putting his foot in his mouth over B&Bs and gay people and banning the sending of books to prisoners in the last Parliament, Grayling is now seeking to repeal the Freedom of Information Act.

He has said that it is “not acceptable” for journalists to use the FoI Act to “generate stories.”

Grayling’s comments have been condemned by Labour, the Society of Editors, and the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

It’s difficult to know where to start here.

So let’s begin with Grayling’s own use of the Act.

Full marks to The Sun for pointing out that, in opposition, Grayling and his office were no strangers to the send button on the FoI page of many a government department.

It’s tricky to justify every Sun headline, but “staggering hypocrisy” does seem to cover it.

So what about the allegedly soaring cost of the Act?

As UK Press Gazette, which is campaigning against the plans, has found, the Government spends 50 times more on external communications than it does on complying with FoI requests.

And finally, what about the rising abuse of the Act?

As the New Statesman reports, the number of requests has levelled off. And most of them aren’t from journalists.

It’s always been clear to me that the very best organisations – in whatever sector – positively welcome scrutiny of their operations, with the disinfectant of publicity and the holding to account which that brings.

And there’s no doubt that the Act has shone a very useful spotlight in some very dark corners.

The record of the last few years shows there’s plenty of questionable business being done in our names by public bodies.

Here’s more than 100 in just six months, courtesy of the Guardian.

Grayling seems to want use of the FoI Act to be restricted to white-haired political scientists, neutering it like material subject to the 30-year rule, so that we get interesting insights into the machinery of government without ever being able to challenge its excesses in the here and now.

His attempt to clip the wings of the Act is a squalid, small-minded and cynical manoeuvre.

Grayling’s role has just seen him plunged into the awkward business of organising a review of the tax credits shambles.

He ought to concentrate on clearing up that mess, rather than on creating another one of his own.

No competent government which has the best interests of the people at its heart and which wants to keep the flame of democracy burning strong has anything to fear from freedom of information.

Perhaps that’s why Mr Grayling is so worried.