What DO readers really want?

There are some things I really miss about running a newsdesk.

Rising to the challenge of a big, breaking story; the shared satisfaction of a job well done or a campaign well won; and motivating and mentoring my own little team of miracle-workers are the ones that spring to mind.

But there are a few more that I don’t miss in the slightest.

Regular weekend working, finding nibs for p29 of the Somerset Guardian on a Tuesday night – and second-guessing the audience.

It’s that last one which keeps editors, news editors, what’s on writers, and sports journalists – not to mention managing directors – up at night.

They’ll be checking Chartbeat – or whatever other site they use – last thing at night and first thing in the morning, risking the ire of partners in the search for reassurance that targets have been met.

Sometimes – a lot of the time – it can feel like mission impossible.

It was one of those times that led to this question being posed on Facebook by someone in a newsroom not a million miles from me:

 

What do people actually want to read about in the press?

I felt her pain.

There were some cracking contributions – some serious, some not so.

Perhaps the best combined both approaches:

The unbiased truth. And puppies.

Journalists have been searching for the holy grail of what readers really want for centuries.

After putting together a particularly splendid paper, I used to quote a then-not-yet-disgraced radio DJ, one of whose catchphrases was: “If this don’t turn them on, they ain’t got no switches.”

Those switches can be incredibly hard to find at times.

My best guess at a recipe for story success in the regional media has always involved a well-known community figure caught up in some kind of intrigue: an arrest, an emergency, an investigation.

Failing that, there’s this little list I used to hawk around training sessions and the occasional lecture.

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I like to think I wasn’t far off the great Harold Evans’s definition of what makes great news.

“News is people. It is people talking and people doing. Committees, cabinets and courts are people; so are fires, accidents and planning decisions. They are only news because they involve and affect people.”

But those very people can be fickle. What they go for one day can flop spectacularly when served up on another.

Plus there’s always this little beauty to bear in mind.

candy

Those bloody readers. Telling us they want more local news, telling us they want more good news, then posting smart-arse ‘slow news day?’ comments on Facebook when we try to respond.

But – as often happens – reassurance came in the form of Trinity Mirror digital publishing director David Higgerson’s latest blog on social media.

It was packed with examples of positive, heart-warming, good news stories that had really taken off on Facebook – from charity fundraising stunts through retiring police officers to one which simply reported that no horses had died at the Grand National.

I was cheered also by the response on Facebook and from online commenters to the Plymouth Herald’s coverage of a literal storm in a coffee cup.

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Not for the first time in the last week, there was no love lost for The Sun, which thought that a group of police officers having a coffee break was a story.

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And finally came proof of something that I’m going to lazily call an old adage: that teachers learn at least as much from their students as students learn from them.

I stumbled across a blog from one of our third year students, which actually said what I had been trying to say. Only better.

Here’s our Sophie Jones:

“We consume the news that we want to consume and whether that’s good news, bad news or neutral is up to you to decide.”

In the end, perhaps, the Facebook algorithms and our own synapses combine to give us the news we deserve.

As Sophie so rightly suggests, it’s a state of mind. If we go looking for bad news, we’ll find it.

We’ll never entirely know what our readers want.

But, as journalists, we’re readers too.

And the more we go looking for good news, the more we might persuade others to do the same.

 

 

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Was Broadchurch Echo editor Maggie right to spike suicide attempt story?

The symbolism couldn’t have been clearer.

Looking over her breathtakingly beautiful patch, indefatigable editor Maggie Radcliffe stood several feet higher up the slope than her new cold-hearted cliche boss.

She had both high grounds – real and moral – as she told newspaper company manager Caroline Hughes: “Screw you, petal.”

Apparently this is what they say in America at such times.

The final straw for Maggie – who’d already lost her office, her reporter and her power to decide the splash – was Caroline’s insistence that the Broadchurch Echo cover bereaved dad Mark Latimer’s suicide attempt.

Maggie had already told Mark’s wife Beth that she wouldn’t be covering what she felt was a very private near-tragedy.

And she stuck to her guns in her clifftop confrontation with management – telling her boss that she was firing her from her life.

None of this really happened, of course.

It’s a TV drama, albeit one which has half the nation on the edge of their seats.

And one which seems to have felt the pulse of the regional newspaper industry, complete with its daily moral dilemmas.

So was Maggie right?

It’s a good question, as you’d expect from one of our country’s top political writers. Tom Peck is real, by the way.

But he seemed to be in a minority, at least on Twitter.

I’ve never made a secret of my admiration for Maggie, or of my certainty that local editors such as her are vitally needed.

So it won’t be a surprise to hear that I’m on her side this time, too.

For an ethical journalist, covering suicides – and attempted suicides – is about as difficult as it gets.

How do you navigate your way through the moral maze of a private tragedy that might – in the case of a motorway incident – be seen by thousands of people, or – in the case of someone who hangs himself because he’s being hounded by debt-collectors – raise issues of proper public interest? Which of these deaths – or near-deaths – justifies the unforgiving spotlight of publicity?

We are lucky enough to have one of Britain’s finest voluntary organisations, The Samaritans, to help us here, with its media guidelines.

But in the end, the real decision-making comes down to the moral compass of editors. Editors like Maggie.

When there is an actual death, perversely, things are a little easier. There has to be an inquest, which puts matters in the public domain, even if editors rightly choose not to cover most suicide hearings.

But, no matter how well-known Mark Latimer is in his community, no matter how high profile the crime that brought him to the top of that cliff, his was a private horror.

You might be able to justify an anonymised emergency services report.

But in the absence of his and his family’s co-operation, I wouldn’t have named him.

There’s a question I used to ask myself on such occasions: What good will come of this?

The answer, to me, is as clear as the water off West Bay.

None.

 

 

Nice work: Why the secret of landing a job could be just getting on with people

It’s a piece of advice that’s been handed down by mums through the generations.

“It’s nice to be important. But it’s more important to be nice.”

‘Yes, mum,’ you may have said, humouring her.

But she was right.

She was right all those years ago, and she’s right now, in a 2017 bristling with technology and digital know-how.

Last week was a great one for linking our students up with potential employers and industry role models.

On Monday, I took a group of our second years to a building that already feels like a bit of a second home.

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We took over the kitchen at ITV Westcountry in Bristol, making tea and helping ourselves to cake, in between seeing two regional teatime news shows go out and watching presenters Kylie Pentelow and Mark Longhurst in action.

The following day I’d invited in three people from very different areas of the world of public relations to talk about relationship-building with journalists – and the skills needed for a career in PR.

Exactly 24 hours later, our students were hanging on the every word of sports presenter Caroline Barker, who invited us into the world of the freelance journalistic globetrotter.

Then, on Thursday, the editor of Newsquest’s websites and weekly papers in Gloucestershire, Michael Purton, was guest editor at our second year news day.

Those visitors brought plenty of different insights and viewpoints with them.

Two of the PR speakers had virtually polar opposite views on the ability of journalists to become successful public relations professionals.

But they – and our friends at ITV – were all agreed on one thing: the importance of being a team player.

And a couple of them summed that up in the same, simple phrase: Be Nice.

It sounds trite. It sounds nothing like the sort of thrusting go-getter you might imagine standing out at interview, let alone like the in-your-face, up-and-at-em stereotype that TV drama-makers sometimes reach for when writing a journalist into their shows.

But, when resources are tight, the importance of that holy grail of team spirit becomes greater than ever.

Will this person fit in? Can I work with her or him? Do I like them? Do they have a smile on their face? Will they get on with our most important contacts – and will they make new ones? Will they just get on with stuff?

Being nice isn’t about rolling over, or refusing to stand up for yourself and your rights.

It’s an acknowledgement that journalism – and PR – is all about relationships.

It always was and, I like to think, always will be.