Why we all need to shine more lights in dark corners

When I was a health reporter several hundred years ago, I enjoyed getting one over on our local radio station.

I particularly enjoyed having a conversation relayed back to me from my news editor, after a drink he had had with his opposite number at that station.

“He wants to know how you keep getting all these exclusive health stories,” my boss reported. “And why his reporters aren’t getting them.”

Admittedly, our newspaper did have a few more boots on the ground than the BBC at that time.

But the answer was fairly simple.

It was contacts. And it was digging deep into the dark and often dull corners of NHS bureaucracy.

Agendas, minutes and financial reports aren’t the sexiest reading in the world.

But picking out the diamonds in the mire is one of the more satisfying journalistic endeavours.

Particularly, as happened at another paper I worked on, when your request for a comment about an especially shiny diamond is met by a silence and a swear word from the senior hospital manager on the other end of the phone.

My memories of sifting through piles of health organisation paperwork were reignited as I prepared to explain the workings of the NHS to journalism students last week.

I took as a case study the role of then Express and Star reporter Shaun Lintern, who played a significant role in exposing the Stafford Hospital scandal.

He stayed awake into the wee small hours reading NHS board papers – and he regards it as time well spent.

“[The papers] won’t have a story – but they might have a clue to the story. Then you can talk to someone.”

He has spoken with passion and insight both about the role of the local media generally  and about his huge satisfaction in getting justice for the victims of that scandal.

“I came into this industry to make a difference and one of the ways to do that is to stand up for people who have no voice, and some of these families felt that they were getting nowhere with the hospital and I was able to help them. That really was my motivation.”

The chance to really shine a light in dark places and hold power to account may only come a few times in many journalists’ careers.

But it’s that idea of giving a voice to the voiceless that is at the heart of genuine journalistic job satisfaction.

It is with Andrew Norfolk at The Times as he continues to expose the horrors of the Rotherham grooming scandal, and it is with the journalism film of the moment, the now-Oscar-winning Spotlight.

While, as with so much in life, luck and being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference, there is still no substitute for determination and dedication.

That needs the most precious gift an editor can give his or her staff: time.

But it also needs individual journalists to raise their sights and – as Shaun Lintern says – to take responsibility.

“Whatever the problems journalists face, whether it be bullying editors, short-staffed newsrooms or scandalous low pay, it is no excuse for us to abandon our own integrity. Journalists have to take responsibility for what they produce; machine-gunning FOI requests to all your local councils and labelling it an exclusive investigation is not the stuff of Watergate. Neither is ringing a press office and asking only “for a comment” rather than asking an actual question. Preferring to cut, copy and paste a press release rather than taking the time to read the report it is actually based on isn’t journalism either.”




Einstein’s theory of brilliant writing

Trying to find the best quote from Albert Einstein is like wading through a very lovely sea of treacle.

The choice is extraordinary.

You could have this one: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Or, for journalists there’s this gem: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

But my favourite Einsteinism has to be this beauty:

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

I used it with some journalism students this morning.

And then I used it again with a reporter this afternoon.

It was that great Radio 2 philosopher Chris Evans who alerted me to it the other day, along with a few million other people.

Whatever writing or other communication you’re doing, this great quote should be perched metaphorically on your shoulder.

There’s a very good reason why one of the best training grounds for TV reporters is the Newsround programme.

Trying to explain and distil the key points of a complicated situation into concepts, images and analysis that make sense to children is a testing discipline.

Most importantly of all, it finds out the journalists who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

If you don’t understand what you’re writing about, if you’re forced to fudge and faff, the reader, listener or viewer hasn’t got a hope.

Good writing isn’t about having the intellect of an Einstein.  But it is about learning from his wisdom.



Why we can’t let reviews exit stage left

There haven’t been too many times in my life when I’ve wanted the floor to swallow me up.

Perhaps the odd conference when my newslist has bombed or been ambushed, but that’s about it.

But an experience a few years ago on a theatre stage is up there with those moments.

The editor, the entertainment writer and I found ourselves sitting on some chairs staring out at an audience of people more used to being on that stage themselves.

We’d been called there to discuss the thorny subject of theatre reviews.

It had been decided to drop reviews of non-professional productions because of the need to save money on our freelance costs but also because of a lack of available reviewers. We also wanted to be convinced that such reviews had a value in a weekly paper when the productions were largely over by the time the verdicts appeared.

Now, I should say that some amateur thespians are among the nicest people I know. But others – and consultation with colleagues reveals this to be a national phenomenon – are not. They can be rude, arrogant and bullying.

There were glimpses of both ends of the spectrum at this meeting as our planned new policy was attacked by an audience of several dozen people.

It made for painful listening at times – and it would have been a relief to have done that being-swallowed-by-the-floor act.

But one thing was clear: our reviews were valued.

So, with some nifty footwork, we brokered a deal.

You find us some more reviewers prepared to write for free, and we’ll find space in print and online for their work.

We escaped intact, and I even managed to get the am dram audience to give our entertainment writer a hearty round of applause for his work over more than two decades.

My moment of stage fright came back to me the other day as I led a discussion on the 21st century digital newsroom as part of a management development programme.

We were talking about the idea that we should be prioritising quality over quantity in our content, and that we should concentrate our limited firepower away from writing that attracts only a few hundred pairs of eyeballs.

So where does that leave theatre reviews, a features journalist asked.

I’ve never seen one make the dizzy heights of an analytics leaderboard.

And yet, reviews offer a direct route to a highly dedicated, local media audience. The people involved tend to be indigenous locals, who by their very nature have sunk roots into their communities.

Those reviews offer the potential to tick the traditional goldmine box of plenty of names, as well as the potential for engaging, entertaining and incisive writing.

And they help us capitalise on the real demand for what’s on information.

Not only that, but these performances – even those in draughty village halls – can be attended by more people than turn up for plenty of the sports fixtures we cover.

We face some very difficult choices in our ongoing battle to find a new digital audience.

And it is right that we take a long, hard look at some of what my friend Peter Sands has called the ‘dull, filler material’ that is the mortar between too many of our story bricks.

But it would be a sad day indeed if we were to bring the curtain down on an aspect of our entertainment coverage that can provoke so much passion.

In the Spotlight

It’s always slightly frustrating to look across the Atlantic at the resources that journalism has traditionally commanded there.

There are investigative teams in the USA which work to a calendar rather than the clock or even stopwatch of most regional newsrooms.

But, as the superb film Spotlight shows, it is their investigations that can change the world for the better, and help us all raise our sights.

As usual, there were one or two accuracy distractions – principally a reporter who started a new interview halfway down a notebook page already full of shorthand.

But these were 128 minutes that passed very quickly indeed.




Putting the list into journalist

He’s never on my list of things to do each day, but I drive to wherever I’m going of a morning to the accompaniment of the Chris Evans show.

This morning he was talking about lists – and how he never uses them.

Perhaps he doesn’t need them because he’s got other people – such as the show’s producer, who he says has lists of lists – to do the list-making for him.

I’m a firm believer in the power of the list as a weapon in the battle against stress.

I’ve said before that planning is the journalist’s friend, that looking ahead and shaping your day, your week and your month can buy you the time to do the things you want to do.

Not everyone believes in them, as one of my favourite writers, the Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has reported. He remains a great list-maker, though, as well as a devotee of the mantra that anything that is going to take less than two minutes should be done immediately.

I frequently inspect reporters’ notebooks and diaries. Not in a weird way, I hasten to add, although I can sometimes get overly distracted by the beauty of decent shorthand notes.

I like to see how they frame their working days, the way they line up, marshal and corral the tasks, stories and calls they need to tackle.

Sometimes I am greeted by an ancient scroll, full of crossings-out and hieroglyphics which are the polar opposite of those beautiful shorthand outlines.

I point out the need to start each day with a fresh piece of paper, that the process of writing down the day’s agenda is itself a symbolic act of exerting control over the next 24 hours.

Confronting yourself with what needs to be done can be intimidating.

Chris Evans this morning complained that lists subverted his instinctive sense of priorities, forcing him to do whatever task he put at the top first.

Actually, the whole point of lists is to put you in – appropriately enough for Mr Evans – the driving seat.

I compose my lists in chronological order, aiming to organise the stuff I have to do in tentatively scheduled slots.

It works for me.

Anyway, I need to get on.

I’ve got a to-do list for tomorrow to start.