“Shining like little stars”: a Christmas wish

They say you should never read below the line when it comes to news websites.

That you should avert your eyes from the outpourings of the commentariat, the trolls and the back-in-my-days.

It’s a rule that I normally follow.

But I’m always drawn to the comments under stories on the media news site Hold the Front Page.

Some of them are entirely predictable, depressing and accurate in equal measure within that.

Many are from former journalists who have now left the profession but who either can’t let go, or who still genuinely care about decent journalism.

A common theme among them is that there is life beyond the newsroom, that work-life balances can be reset and workloads reduced.

The suggestion is that other industries might look after their troops better than the media business.

But do they?

I was heartened by a lovely blog on Hold the Front Page this morning from award-winning Wolverhampton College lecturer Sue Green, who writes in glowing terms about the satisfaction she feels at the success of her BBC apprentices.

That feeling is heightened because some of the youngsters she took on had effectively been thrown on the scrapheap by other industries, or at earlier stages in their education.

Sue’s message to them was that they should “shine like little stars in the sky”.

And it seems to have worked.

Among the trainee journalists I’ve mentored was one who had been shouted at in every other job they’d done, and who arrived with self-esteem shattered.

Others have come to journalism fed up with the bureaucracy of teaching or the tedium of retail.

Of course, they find new challenges and frustrations in our industry.

But when I talk to friends and family who work in the other sectors of ‘civilian’ life, I shudder at some of the cack-handed management out there.

And, like Sue, I am determined to prove that media businesses can be serious about people development.

Wouldn’t it be great if our newsrooms also shone like little stars when it came to training and development, to treating people with sensitivity and dignity, and to fostering the heady mix of autonomy and team spirit that is the key to success?

Talking of stars, Happy Christmas.

 

Confident humility: my new favourite phrase

When we interview for reporters, we love the ones who appear to know what they’re doing, and who can talk reassuringly about their skills and experiences.

When we’re picking news editors, we like the ones who put our minds at rest, who exude an unruffled, can-do attitude as they chase stories and pitch newslists.

When it comes to leadership, we want people who have the courage of their convictions, with a clear vision and the energy to see it through.

At all levels of journalism, then, confidence is key.

It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous circle that breeds success at every turn.

And yet, it can also be a danger in the wrong hands.

If that self-assured calmness is all there is, if it’s based on the cocky sand of arrogance and lack of talent, we’ve got problems.

So I loved a new description of a key quality needed for journalism, outlined in a tweet from BBC training guru Andrew Wilson.

 

On the face of it, it’s a bit of an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

But some of my favourite phrases about journalism are, too.

I believe in determined empathy, and in supported autonomy.

Humility is such a key ingredient for good journalism.

The humility that puts other people first – whether they be story subjects or readers; the humility that admits mistakes and training needs; and the humility of someone who is always wanting to learn new things.

Overdone, humility can be just as wearing and damaging as confidence.

But in the right doses, it can move mountains.

Fair comment? Should we let columnists say anything they like?

They’re the good, the bad and the ugly of regional newspapers.

Some of the best writing in any paper or website should be that done by its columnists.

I’ve written before in praise of colleagues who every week find something new and engaging to write about.

They surprise, they challenge, they shed light and they make sense of life.

There are papers that I would buy simply because of the brilliance and insight of a single columnist.

But there’s also another world: one of free plugs, diaries, anodyne blandness and third-rate rabble-rousing.

We have to face up to the fact that some of the material we dress up as comment, columns and opinion is simply not very good.

We perhaps give too little thought to this area of content which offers a chink of light for our print products.

For one thing, we tend not to pay for many of these pieces, relying instead on pro bono arrangements which suit the writers’ businesses, political priorities or charity choices.

Then we can miss opportunities to direct the subject matter, to weave it into packages of informed analysis and entertainment.

And we prioritise the reliable over the interesting, as we let the words touch busy newsdesks as lightly and little as possible, like some kind of pass the parcel game.

So I’m not in the least bit surprised at the mess Portsmouth News editor Mark Waldron has found himself in, having to apologise for a columnist who questioned whether people with a mental illness weren’t making a bit of a meal of it all.

I’d be fascinated to know whether Mark had the faintest idea what Clive Smith had written before he faced up to the social media storm.

I return to this great irony: the words which have the greatest potential to engage and inspire our audiences, as well as the greatest potential to damage us, probably get the least love and attention of any in our products.

At a time when universities and their student unions are redefining the concept of freedom of speech, our pages should contain ideas that have the capacity to stir things up.

But this is an argument that needs to be deployed in advance of trouble, in the secure knowledge that our ability to shout ‘fire’ in that crowded theatre has been used constructively and creatively.

Too often we end up having to defend the indefensible because we’ve taken our eye off the ball that could be our very best content.

 

 

Shorthand: What is it good for?

Whenever I’ve given talks at schools about journalism, there’s one thing that always fascinates my young audience.

It’s not the dazzling array of digital storytelling techniques available to the modern reporter, funnily enough.

It’s those strange squiggles that are part and parcel of a reporter’s life – and which have their roots in the mid-19th century.

shorthand

Children find this weird anachronistic secret language endlessly alluring.

Which is more that can be said for some young journalists.

Persuading them that shorthand is worth it can be a bit of a challenge at times, to put it mildly.

I usually tell trainee reporters that learning shorthand will be the hardest thing they ever do.

After their initial resistance and frustration, the penny normally drops – and it’s always satisfying when people finally ‘get’ shorthand, in every sense of the word.

In the last few days, a debate has begun about the role of shorthand in journalism, with the National Council for the Training of Journalists suggesting that it should no longer be a compulsory part of its first-tier qualification, the diploma.

The NCTJ has come up with interesting ideas to reshape the diploma, and I like the idea of tidying production and video journalism into the mainstream.

It’s a shame that there’s still no formal way of assessing a skill that is fast becoming the most important in the modern journalist’s armoury – time management.

But I think the NCTJ has more or less got it right with shorthand.

If reporters want to take the senior level National Qualification in Journalism, they will still have to have 100 words a minute shorthand.

But the new regime – which could come in as early as next autumn – allows a more flexible approach for journalists who might never see the inside of a courtroom or council chamber.

What I do think is needed is an awareness campaign from the NCTJ to ensure that students go into their courses with their eyes firmly open.

At the moment, too few of them take any notice of which body accredits those courses, and too few of them make informed decisions about shorthand.

There’s a good reason why the bosses at Sky insist that new newsroom recruits have shorthand, and why some of the best feature writers I know still rely on it.

When the clock is ticking, there’s no better way of getting quotes into a story.

I would hope that anyone wanting to be a writer in the regional media would think long and hard before deciding shorthand’s not for them.

But the industry needs people with new ideas and instincts – and the diploma consultation is a good starting point in recognising that.