Friday, 9 November 2012

Journalism Tips 53. Lessons from the movies: Keeping a diary

To begin with I am not taking about a Piers Morgan style diary as I suspect that it is highly unlikely that your expose of the mayor fiddling his expenses and the cold stares he gives you will be of much interest to a wider audience.

Today's post is about newsdesk diaries.

One of the things you soon find in any newsroom - be it newspaper, television, radio or website - is that news does not come in nice easy to handle packages.

And that goes for nationals, regionals to even the most hype-local of weeklies because news is funny like that.

One week you are scrabbling around trying to find nine page leads and something that will vaguely look slightly less embarrassing to stick on the front and the next the editor is agonising over what they should splash with that day.

(Admittedly the former is rather more common than the latter.... and when I say rather more common I mean usual.)

Now this lumpy and, quite frankly inconvenient news scheduling is a bit of a pain in the butt for news editors and will soon prove to be a rather bigger one for you since it will be you (the reporter) who has to find the stories to fill the pages.

The result is a constant scramble of chasing after so-so news stories to turn into page leads and shorts or nibs (news in brief).

And what that means is time is constantly running out for the edition, minor stories are propelled into page lead status and longer investigations are forgotten about.

So it is worth considering the introduction of the newsdesk diary. A full diary - which admittedly does take time - will pay long term dividends.

Many newspapers already have them. But they are all too often restricted to upcoming court cases and dates of forthcoming meetings (councils and the like).

A really good diary will go much further. It is worth taking half an hour each week after edition (or better once the paper is printed) to see which stories are worth a follow up.

A few examples: A new major supermarket announces it is coming into town. Everyone says that it will be the end of the small independent shopkeeper.

Inevitably protest groups are set up. There is much anger and many meetings. People are up in arms (literally, because all you can afford is to live in a rough part of town).

The council gives the go-ahead and in the store rolls. And for some reason everyone thinks the story has ended there.

Of course you may run odd follow ups about boycotts, protests and so on (which always happen on a Saturday morning when no one is working). You may also, if people can be bothered to tell you, run stories about small shops closing down as a result of lost business. But this is waiting for events to happen.

Now think again. A diary entry making note that the store opened three, six, nine and 12 months before will help you gauge how the town is coping with new supermarket.

Instead of writing that the local shops have closed down you can chart their progress. Is it as bad as everyone feared? If the answer is yes, a campaign: Shop local! Save Our Shops! Over the next few weeks and months you will have a series of engaging, relevant local community stories that will engender good will from locals and - more importantly - fill that space on page nine. (I will deal with running a campaign in a later post).

Or what about an inquest? A small child dies after drowning in a pool. The parents are naturally devastated and, understandably, at the time really do not want to talk. But the issue is an important one. Making a note of the anniversary of the death and asking again if they wish to talk a year on from the tragedy is not unreasonable. No one is suggesting their pain is any less. However they may feel they now want to talk so as to warn others. Well told, the story will have lost little of its relevancy or importance.

Example three: A local nursery has shut down and the parents have had to find somewhere else for their beloved brats to go. One month, two months, three months on... have they found new places? What does it mean for the parents? Have they had to give up work because they can no longer afford child care? And so on...

A few quick calls - to the organisers of the campaign to save the nursery - will soon establish if there is a problem. If there is a page lead... if not a nib.

There is a spin off from all of this as well. In two of the above you have taken stories about buildings and committees and turned them into stories about people (again this will be covered later).

Now here is a clip from ITV's mid-1980s fantastic sitcom Hot Metal that perfectly demonstrates everything I am talking about in terms of news desk diaries.

Loosely modelled on The Sun's own history and the Kelvin MacKenzie era it was not as Hugh Grant may have you believe a documentary but a sitcom.

The Crucible's ace reporter Greg Kettle (played superbly by Richard Kane) is busy at work in the hotel room of a royal's girlfriend...

(One thing: The entry should have been at two and a half months before any official announcement at nine months the whole world would have known and there would have been no exclusive.)

For part one of journalism tips from the movies click this link.

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