Monday, 5 November 2012

Journalism Tips 50. Working your first patch. Contact building.

Today young reporters are taught all about data journalism - effectively glorified number crunching.

There's nothing wrong in this, in fact it can produce some brilliant investigative stories. It's also not that much fun.

Getting out onto a patch is really one of the best parts of the job. Actually talking to people you would never normally come into contact with makes it interesting.

Building up a relationship with someone so that they take you into their confidence is where - and I'm rather loathe to use the word - scoops happen (or at any rate half decent stories).

Now there is no point simply running around your patch trying to catch everyone and expecting them to tell you easily packaged, off the shelf, exclusives.

Like everything that takes time a fair amount of effort. But it's worth investing the time, especially if you are planning to be on the patch for a few years.

Quite simply having a number of a person does not make them a contact - otherwise we could all walk around with the Yellow Pages and call it our contacts book.

Real contacts need to be cultivated (which sounds slightly cynical but isn't). The contacts that will give you the best stories are those you make an effort with, the ones you speak to regularly.

You have to give them a reason to trust you - and you do that over time. If they see what you are writing and it is well researched, well written and fair - sometimes even if it is not in their best interests - they will begin to trust you.

It really does not take long. But really don't try and score cheap points, or sensationalise or needless stitch a person up over a minor joke (believe me public life is dull enough without trying to make everyone so paranoid they never try humour again).

If you fairly reflect what the person is trying to tell you, they will tell you more. And with trust comes information, better information, more guidance, advice on where to look for that better story... that exclusive which is going to get you a decent page lead in a national.

And it all starts with a simple introduction (and probably, but not always with a pint).

So let's go through this. You should have contacts among:

Local councillors

The police

Tenant and resident associations

A smattering of some of the larger religious groups

Licensed Victuallers Association

Federation of Small Business

Local theatres

Larger businesses

The shopping precinct

Local newspaper

Pressure groups - including friends groups

Sports clubs/leagues

This is only a very basic list but it's a solid start. If you followed the previous tips and started a Twitter feed for your patch you have a basic in.

Anything they tweet about that maybe of interest you have an immediate point of contact. Tweet them and ask for a chat. See if you can develop that moan about funding cuts or local road works killing business into something more. First check it's not been done before... or see how you can take the story on.

Local councils are often the first place. It may not seem it but these are incredibly important sources for your local area, more so than national Government.

This is the organisation that is the frontline when it comes to dealing with national policies. The local councillors are the ones that deal with real people in their surgeries, so they will see how those policies work in the real world. 

Running alongside this is the council's own policies - these too will affect local people. Then there is planning, not necessarily a full council policy, but a policy made from the planning committee.

Too often local papers aren't very good when it comes to dealing with councils. It may be in part that local newspaper reporters are often young and councillors are often middle-aged and old. It is a generalisation but it works as a rule of thumb.

Usually the most helpful councillors are the ones in opposition (funny that). So first off if you are going to contact people on your personal Twitter account I suggest removing any political stance you may have on your profile.

'Lefty' or 'Europhile' or whatever you may have may make people wary of talking to you. Bias will be seen in your copy anyway without you explicitly stating the fact.

Personally over the years I've been told I'm a Tory and a Socialist - even from people reading the same story.

Secondly local government often transcends party politics for the vast majority of its work. Thirdly you should be on the side of your readers (I will deal with this in a later post).

And finally most councillors are doing the job to help their communities and do the job not for money but a sense of duty. 

Now all of this is not to say you can't get on with some particular councillors more than you do others. 

Remember too that more often than not these people live in their areas they serve. By nature of their position they know a great many people, they hear about things both relevant to their work and not.

They are reading through reports, they will know the background to them. A long serving councillor will know what has been tried before... and why it didn't work. In short they can bring alive an otherwise boring planning application, or new road scheme, or parking costs and so on.

In other words lots of stuff you won't necessarily know.

And if they are very good - and media savvy - they will highlight potential areas and advise to stick around or turn up at a particular council meeting.

So yes it is worth attending a few meetings, even as a student. And if the local paper isn't there it may be worth filing a lead and seeing what happens.

But again wherever possible take the story out of the council chamber and into streets. Few things are more boring than a dialogue between half a dozen councillors at a meeting.

What is useful about attending is that you see first hand the councillors with the strongest opinions or those with particular interests. Make a note of them in your contact book - say a councillor interested in the local market it is worth going back to them again next time it comes up in a story.

A good contact book does take time to build up 

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