Last Updated on July 21, 2023, 6:59 am
By Tom Hill, Course Director, Up To Speed Journalism.
In the latest of our series of posts on careers advice for journalists and people interested in improving their reporting skills, I’m examining the importance of spending time with your contacts away from the newsroom.
There’s an ugly phrase used at the BBC and because it’s the BBC it has a TLA (that’s a three-letter acronym). UGC stands for user-generated content, which means stories, audio clips, pictures, or videos sent in by viewers, readers, or listeners.
When I first worked as an evening newspaper reporter, not long after the era depicted in Life On Mars, the best stories were often BGC – or Boozer Generated Content. Except that we didn’t have an acronym for it.
The reporters on the Nottingham Evening Post had their own room in the Blue Bell pub with a sign saying, Press Bar, which you could see across the road as you made the morning calls to the police, fire, and ambulance control rooms at 7 am.
Very often, the younger reporters would finish bashing out the nibs and fillers about car fires, chip-pan fires, minor accidents, and petty crimes gleaned from the emergency services’ official sources, only to see a splash headline all across the front page, as the first edition rolled off the presses at 10 am.
The byline, at the top of the stories the press officers had failed to mention, was usually, “Tony Donnelly, Chief Reporter”. So how did Tony, who sadly passed away last year, do it?
The answer was that he spent hours of his own time, outside the usual 9-5 office routine, with his contacts in CID. Some of that time was spent in the pub or in the police social club with its obligatory Nine Pints Of The Law poster. The city’s detectives knew Tony as a person, not as a faceless voice on the end of a telephone, and at times they probably trusted him more than their own press officers.
This is not a lament for the lost days of journalism, or for the decline of the great British pub, but a reminder that stories come from people and that you have to spend time with those people if you want to find real, original news.
The sauce may have trickled out of newsrooms over the last few years, but to be a good reporter you have to devote time to getting to know your sources.
The BBC’s award-winning Business Editor Robert Peston was starting out as a reporter in the City at about the time I was in Nottingham and he probably breathed a huge sigh of relief when Perrier became the tipple of choice at business meetings.
But you can be sure that he has worked his way through hundreds of lunches, breakfast briefings and finger buffets, all the while gleaning snippets of information, useful insights, and trusted contacts between the canapés, croissants, and cappuccinos.
These contacts, coupled with the work ethic and drive of a driven workaholic, mean that throughout the financial meltdown of the last two years, Robert Peston has broken exclusive after exclusive for the BBC.
Working lunches have made him a legend in his own Crunch time. I’m not sure if the acronym-ists at White City have thought of it yet, but they could learn a great deal from SGC – Schmoozer Generated Content.
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