Super ways to keep stories moving

It was towards the end of a busy day that my editor started shouting at me.

“Paul, Paul, come and look at this,” he yelled.

“Yeah, yeah, hang on,” I stalled, as I concentrated on a vital piece of fill for page 22.

“No, now,” he insisted, in a rare burst of impatience.

I arose wearily from my desk to see what was going on.

Half of a new shopping centre for Bath on fire turned out to be what was going on.

Mini-explosions rang out across the city centre, and the sky above Bath was filled with smoke.

It had been worth my while to stir my stumps.

I was reminded of the need to react quickly by a story which had everyone in the newsroom of the Gloucester Citizen punching the air with glee yesterday.

Reporter Ellis Lane was minding his own business in the paper’s office when a man rushed in, urging him to get out into the streets.

“You’ve got to see this,” was more or less the gist of it.

That eyewitness was absolutely right and Ellis quite rightly jumped to it.

The result was this cracking story about a fundraiser dressed as Superman catching a mugger attacking a woman at a cash machine.


Ellis (not to be confused with Superman’s mate Lois, you understand) has been working for the Citizen for just shy of three months and already he may have written the tale of his life.

The story soon took off, and was picked up by the South West News agency, ITV and the BBC.

The story grew wings and flew, with interviews with the person who had just served hero Antonio Cortes with his hastily-abandoned full English breakfast adding to the joy of it all.

It won’t be long before the legal shutters begin to come down on this particular story.

But it – and a session on story development I did with a couple of reporters later that day – got me thinking.

I’m keen to get reporters into the habit of thinking strategically about how to keep the ball rolling on decent stories, so they become the gift that keeps on giving.

There’s a school of thought that says we’re doing too many stories at the moment, and that we should be going for quality over quantity. There’s also anecdotal – and analytical – evidence that follow-ups work.

So how can we ensure that we make stories work harder for us?

These perhaps are the questions reporters should be asking:

  • Who does this affect?
  • Who are the players in this story?
  • What questions would I have as a reader?
  • What questions are being asked on Facebook or in web comments?
  • Does Google Trends help?
  • Who else should we be talking to?
  • What explainer or background panels might there be?
  • Who have we never talked to about this issue?
  • What video is there?
  • How can we keep this moving?
  • What’s the next development going to be?
  • What are the milestones in this story?
  • How can I follow this up tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?

And when someone says ‘have a look at this’, don’t ignore them.


How to make the most of a journalism work placement

As I listened to her, I knew I wanted her.

No, this isn’t the intro to some Mills and Boon bodice-ripper.

It’s the start of a story I tell about work experience.

I told it again to some journalism students in Cardiff yesterday as I passed on some tips on how to make the most of a work placement.

Over the years, I’ve taken on quite a few journalists on the basis of a work experience stint.

And The One That I Wanted was one of them.

I’d had good reports from other parts of the newsroom earlier in the week, and I had lined up some stories for her to tackle on her day with the newsdesk.

I was doing something else when I suddenly tuned into the lovely way in which she was interviewing a child about some award he had won.

Getting quotes out of monosyllabic teenagers is notoriously difficult, but she got him talking naturally within seconds.

I knew then – even on the basis of that everyday, almost banal, story – that she was going to be good.

We had a vacancy, she got the job, and she turned out to be the best reporter I have ever worked with.

So what are my tips to would-be journalists about to become ‘workies’?

Most news editors would – like I did – divide them into two groups: the helps and the hindrances.

How, then, to ensure you fall into the first category?

  • Ask about the dress code ahead of your placement. There’s a practical imperative here, but it also shows you care
  • Plan ahead for it: Put in FoI requests in good time, read the website to find current issues and work out which stories have already been done,  and learn a bit about the area and its geography. Follow the publication, site or station on Twitter.
  • Find a way of standing out and being remembered – even if it starts with making great tea. Surprise people with your ideas and knowledge, especially for web content: show off your ability to embed Google maps, mine Instagram, use Periscope or home in on tweets from key locations. Even better, come in with a story, or stories.
  • Show you can manage your time and priorities well
  • Be prepared to do vox pops – and make sure you know the drill on names, ages etc
  • Keep your eyes peeled for stories: take pictures and video if you see a bizarre busker or a police incident
  • Don’t make silly mistakes – check and double check, and make sure you show you value accuracy. Don’t be afraid to check answers and quotes with interviewees
  • Use the phone – don’t just rely on email
  • Take care to make your writing shine and sing – bring stories to life
  • Keep abreast of that day’s national news agenda
  • Ask questions – but pick your moments so you avoid tense deadline times
  • If you have nothing to do, make suggestions; ask would you like me to do x? rather than the open-ended ‘what can I do’?
  • Try to be clear from the start what you want to get from the week – do you want writing experience or to shadow staff or bit of both? Do you want to be on the features desk?
  • And tell your host what you’re good at: if you’ve made the definitive digital short, masterminded the perfect Playbuzz quiz or created an incisive infographic, shout it from the rooftops
  • Look as if you’re enjoying being there and that you respect the product/s. Flattery goes a long way, so ask for advice, and be positive – don’t roll your eyes, even if the story idea you’ve been given sounds like the worst one you’ve ever heard. Keep smiling: the ability to be cheerful is a key skill
  • Talk to and learn from the people around you – listen and observe their phone manner and interview styles. And make friends with reporters to find out how they got where they are, to see if there are stories you can help with – and generally to find out what makes the newsroom tick
  • Keep cuttings/web grabs etc
  • Keep in touch afterwards, make sure they know about your blog and Twitter account, and try to find the right time to ask for feedback
  • Buy some chocolate on your last day…and say thank you

Above all, remember to display those key journalistic skills of empathy, determination and curiosity.

Making a success of a work placement is all about an obsession of mine – confident humility.

It’s using some emotional intelligence to be assertive without being pushy, curious without being obsessive, and resourceful without being reckless.

It’s not just being willing to learn: it’s gently demanding that you actually do.

Good luck.


Why it’s a 10 for photographer Len

In his early days as a newspaper photographer, someone rang Len Copland’s office to enquire about a picture.

‘Do you know who took it?’ a colleague asked the caller.

‘That bloke with the mad hair,’ came the reply.

Well, that bloke with the mad hair last night celebrated 25 years in his job.

That’s very much a quarter of a century not out for the lovely Len, now picture editor of the Western Gazette in Yeovil.

Because his zest for journalistic life is utterly undimmed.

It was a privilege to be at the launch of Smile, Please – an exhibition of Len’s work at the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil.


And the esteem and affection in which he is held was crystal clear from the 100-plus friends, community leaders, colleagues and ex-workmates who made it their business to be there.

Len may be one of a dying breed inasmuch as he is still employed by a newspaper, and in that he has been on the same title for so long.

But he demonstrates a lust for life that would put many younger people to shame.


He writes, he helps to design pages, and he contributes ideas in a way that I have rarely seen any other photographer do in my 30 years in journalism.

Oh sure, he can be as grumpy as the next man (he works on the next desk to the chief sub, after all) from time to time.

But his precious coffee cup is very much a half full one, and he is simply ridiculously grateful to be able to hold up a photographic mirror to the community he loves.

Listening to his passion for people and their stories last night was to be on the end of some wonderful scientific process, where energy was transferred and warmth generated.

I was proud to call him a colleague and friend, and proud to be in the same business.

If there are marks for commitment, care, character and creativity – not to mention crazy hair, it’s a ten for Len every time.

The curious tale of a lack of curiosity

My friend Sian is a modest, self-effacing soul.

But last week, she had her 15 minutes of fame thrust upon her.

Every day, she buys a Starbucks coffee on her way to work. Every day, the baristas ask her name. And – virtually every day – they find a new and entirely innocuous but slightly annoying way of misspelling or mishearing it.

When this happens, Sian shares their scrawled efforts in a picture on Facebook.

She’s been doing this for months. It’s very entertaining, and Sian’s lovely way of spreading a little happiness to her many Facebook friends.

Dozens of them are fellow journalists.

But it was only last week that it struck one of them, who works for Wales Online, that there was a lovely story here.

Within a few hours, the caffeine container cock-ups had been picked up by Metro, the Mirror, Mashable, i100 and Buzzfeed – as well as the papers she has worked most recently for.

I kicked myself. My newsdesk successor kicked himself. I think Sian kicked herself.

Here was an entertaining piece right under our noses. And we hadn’t quite noticed it taking shape.

I was regaling a reporter with this vague tale of woe in a conversation where he mentioned the fact that he was now part of a squash ladder.

This is one of those odd set-ups where you get to play strangers every few weeks.

It suddenly occurred to me that there were the makings of a nice feature here, too.

These people who barely know each other, meeting up and sweating it out in a box room, and then disappearing again. Do they talk? Is it weird, compared to the fellowship of the five-a-side, or the banter of the badminton court? Do they ever meet for games off-piste? Do they ever become friends?

So there are two messages here, I think.

The first is an age-old one, but one which bears repetition.

There are stories and features everywhere, on every street, in every office, on every train, and in every pub. Everywhere we go, under our journalistic noses, as long as our antennae are switched on.

The second message is that we need to develop these stories, to squeeze the most out of them.

I didn’t notice any comment from Starbucks or any interviews with baristas, and not all the pieces invited readers to send their own examples of similar mix-ups.

A few months ago, there was a spate of stories about men who purport to create sand sculptures of dogs on urban pavements.

The suggestion was that the sculptures were never seen at either the start or finish stage, and that the whole thing was a bit of a con, spreading its tentacles across the country.

It was a good story, very shareable, very intriguing.

And yet, with a few notable exceptions – including I’m glad to say my friends at the Gloucester Citizen – there was little evidence that anyone had tried to speak to the sandpeople.

Here you go, make of this what you will, the stories seemed to say. We don’t know the truth, so we’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.

Both Sian’s cocked-up coffee cups and the phantom pavement performer were real stories – part of the warp and weft of modern life.

But neither have been developed to their full potential with the trusted techniques of journalistic insight and enquiry.

There is, perhaps, a curious lack of curiosity at times.

I had an interesting discussion with a news editor the other day about his worries that the demand for instant content is eroding his reporters’ ability to think laterally and to properly develop stories.

There’s something in that, and I’m now planning some training accordingly.

If our mission – as it should be – is to tell people something they don’t already know, we need to work our stories harder.

Those stories may be lighter snacks compared to the heavy, well-prepared meal of investigative journalism.

But there’s no reason they shouldn’t be hearty, nourishing, surprising – and satisfying.





Why I love the return to newsroom normality

It was pitch black as I left home this morning.

If the writer Alistair MacLean was still churning out the novels, one of his characters would undoubtedly have called the conditions “as dark as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat.”

As I drove through Somerset, the road threw up messy gunk, with heavy rain a prospect for later in the day.

And yet, there was a vague song in my heart.

Granted, I’ve just booked two holidays.

But I also love the return to normality that this week brings, even if summer seems a very long way off.

Last week there was an air of mild desperation in one of the newsrooms I visit regularly, as the well of stories began to run dry.

Fast forward a few days, and in that same newsroom yesterday there was a palpable sense of energy, purpose and good humour.

One of the titles based there had four potential splashes, all of which needed to be used, and all of which were doing well online.

After days of skeleton staffing, suddenly there seemed a real risk that we could run out of desks.

It’s great to see people beginning to engage with their communities again, as councils, Parliaments and schools spring into action for a new year.

But let’s think for a minute what got most newsrooms through Christmas and the New Year.

If I’m not much mistaken, it would have been careful planning, creativity, story development – and a willingness to experiment.

So, as official sources get back to work and on-a-plate stories tempt us once more, let’s not lose that festive spirit.

In fact, let’s remember the wise words of veteran editor Bill Bradshaw, whose death is reported today.

This is what one of his colleagues said about him:

He was a big people person, preferring to escape the comfort zone of his office to meet outside.

One of his maxims was ‘where there’s people there’s news’.

People and planning.

They’re not a bad recipe for better content in 2016.

Happy New Year.