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Dyson at Large: Get out of the office and meet people!

At a time when we’re increasingly battered by fluffy PR masquerading as news, social media scrapings and stretched data-journalism, it was heartening to find this succinct advice for would-be journalists.

  1. Don’t be a ‘copy and paste monkey’ or rely on PR people to tell you what a story is. You’re a journalist – trust your instincts.
  2. Talk to people and nurture contacts. Contacts are everything. Don’t rely on emails, press releases or social media – meet people and gain their trust. And rather than press offices, speak to actual people in organisations.
  3. Don’t be inflexible. In the ever-changing, evolving media world, it’s important to diversify and adapt. Make sure you’re multi-skilled, while staying true to journalism’s traditional values.

This was just a snippet from my interview with Aasma Day, the Lancashire Post reporter who also leads Johnston Press’ investigations unit, published in the May-June edition of InPublishing.

Aasma’s full background, the detailed history of her award-winning journalism – which included a shortlisting in the Paul Foot Awards – and how the investigations unit works can all be read on the above link.

Aasma Day at Paul Foot awards

But it was her no-nonsense guidance on how to go about the job that most impressed me, and that I think is worth highlighting on my blog for HoldtheFrontPage readers.

First comes her warning not to be a ‘copy and paste monkey’. Too many modern reporters – themselves hit by increasing workloads caused by shrinking newsrooms – are too often tempted to simply regurgitate press releases, often without a check call, let alone challenging the story line.

Disclosure: I regularly create and send clients’ copy to journalists myself these days, and while I’d argue these stories are at least constructed with an eye for what makes news, the most satisfying results for me are when journalists make a call or send an email questioning the content.

Or even better, when they don’t even get in touch with me direct but decide on their own line having contacted another source, finding more and sometimes better detail to nose the story on.

Aasma’s second point – in summary – is to get out of the office and meet people. Talk to them, make them contacts, nurture them and gain their trust.

And rather than a long list of contacts who are actually public relations officers for companies and organisations, get to know the people who work on the inside instead.

Aasma’s so right. When was the last time a major exposure of ill deed was made via an official spokesperson? And how hard do all companies try to prevent their staff from ever speaking to the press without their say-so?

That element of control should never be enabled by journalists’ reliance on press offices, and yet that is now the state that some in the media have got themselves into.

Yes, of course it’s fair enough to call the council’s PR for a comment on controversial expenditures, to speak to a local football club’s press office for the official response to a player’s misdemeanour, and to ask a company what it wants to say over claimed negligence leading to, say, an injury.

But without inside contacts, none of the above types of story would ever be uncovered in the first place, and to get those inside contacts you need to meet eye-to-eye, sometimes after work and on neutral ground (yes, maybe in a bar, or certainly a cafe).

The same point from Aasma advises against over reliance on emails and social media. How can you judge the intent of the person behind what can so easily be anonymous emails?

And how close can you really feel to a tragedy by simply churning out what’s already been expressed on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

The real story, or the extra kernel of interest for readers, is often only found by asking additional questions face-to-face, or by spotting something no-one else can see by meeting the person who’s posting their emotions.

People only become real contacts when you’ve looked them in the eyes and pressed their flesh … as opposed to a ‘friend’ on Facebook who, in many cases, might be furious their comments have been lifted without asking.

Finally, you’ve just got to love Aasma’s third dose of guidance: don’t be inflexible.

She knows that journalism is constantly changing, and she’s up for being multi-skilled – with all the digital story-telling abilities that means acquiring as reporters in 2018.

But while encouraging modern techniques, Aasma wants to impress the importance of using these with traditional methods – which brings us in a full circle to her initial advice on remaining independent and meeting real people.

Aasma’s direction is not necessarily new: any good journalism lecturer will be making the same points to their students up and down the UK, (and hopefully the editors and news editors that remain are doing so too).

But to find such sound advice on the frontline, from an emerging editorial leader of the future, and from someone who’s unafraid to speak in plain English, well … it was the most refreshing chat I’ve had with anyone still in journalism all year.

Steve Dyson’s full interview with Aasma Day can be read at InPublishing.


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  • May 23, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Whilst in total agreement with all the points made and the three key pieces of advice given, how many journalists in the main uk regional press groups are given the freedom to do so?
    The pressure of time and the ‘get the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible’ directive doesn’t allow for real journalism to happen any longer,apart from within the small teams using basic reportage going under the fancy title of ‘investigations units’

    Good advice and something we all believe in but which should be directed at content chiefs and those for whom profit is more important than genuine community reporting.

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  • May 23, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    Basic advice but preaching to the converted many frustrated that the advice given is what we want but is just not practical in today’s reduced and pressurised newsrooms, the exceptions being the new independent local publishers who operate in just this way, a clue as to why they’re doing so well and have captured the hyper local audiences.

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  • May 24, 2018 at 9:37 am

    Good points from the above commenters. My challenge back to anyone feeling they are on a copy-and-paste production line – and to their bosses – is the same that I made to my editor and reporters as a young news editor. Give everyone a half day out of the office every week on the rota, guaranteed, where the only pressure is to use it to meet someone. And see what happens. It always works.

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  • May 24, 2018 at 10:23 am

    Steve, some ‘journalists’ don’t want to go out of the office. They are quite happy shovelling the brown stuff, with their title and egos sated.
    Others desperately want to make a real difference, to find the stories that matter and real exclusives.
    And news editors are running around with the preverbial broom stuck in that preverbial place, often less experienced than in ‘yesteryear’ and fearful of allowing reporters time to ‘waste’ outside of their immediate control.
    This comes down to having the ‘yes men and women’ in charge, or nominal charge, of titles and editions.
    The industry needs to change at the top and maybe the rank and file will feel more involved, more able to make that positive difference and more like journalists.

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  • May 24, 2018 at 10:51 am

    I think you’re probably right there, Saddened Journo. But still, as a challenge, half a day a week. They’ll be pleased at the off-diary results

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  • May 24, 2018 at 11:41 am

    A great idea, back to basics and the way things should be done. However, there is a big BUT, which is staffing (or lack of) levels. Time was when reporters – juniors in particular – were designated time to go out on their own “patch” and seek out off-diary stories. On my first,paper, I was given one afternoon a week, usually after the paper had gone to bed, to get out and meet the local populace. I had a very fair chief reporter, but God help me if I didn’t return with an early page lead and a couple of other chunky stories. Nibs were optional, but appreciated.
    Today, staffing levels are so low that branch offices (the few that still exist) would be empty if people actually went out to find stories. This would be the cue for some suit from head office to demand to know why the answer machine had been left on during the working day.

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