In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Why journalists need to get out more

NEW tricks – such as surfing the internet – are not the answer to the problems facing Scotland’s weekly newspaper journalists when it comes to finding interesting stories that will encourage newspaper readers to stop deserting them in droves…

This was the conclusion reached by a programme called Old Hack, New Tricks, produced by David Stenhouse and presented by Isobel Fraser, on BBC Radio Scotland on Monday. The programme is going out again on the same radio station this Sunday morning at 1030 and is available on the i-player for the next week or so.

The programme took the beat-pounding skills of an ‘old hack’ in the person of Jim Rougvie, formerly of The Scotsman and with 40 years’ printing ink in his veins, and pitted them against the university-acquired IT abilities of journalism graduate, 22 year-old Nick Eardley.

The test was for each of them to come up with stories for an imagined local newspaper covering the fishing port and holiday resort of Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife. The town’s main claims to fame are that the Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman was brought up there, it has an award-winning fish and chip shop, and that it was once at the centre of a bird flu scare. Rougvie was allowed out on the street, Eardley was chained to his desk.

I was given the task, with former Sunday Times Ecosse editor, Joan McAlpine – now a Scotsman columnist – of working out how the two journalists had come by their stories, and doing the copy-tasting.

We had to decide whether they had been picked up on the internet or in the street; whether we thought the stories were good enough for publication, and then choose the one that would make the splash in our imaginary newspaper.

The answer is that the stories gathered in the traditional manner by Rougvie, who took to Anstruther’s streets and knocked on doors, coming up with a housing development row story in Cellardyke and a boat-building tale in St Monans, won hands down.

The Cellardyke housing story, McAlpine and I decided independently, would have been the splash we were looking for and the boat-building tale would make a good news feature dressed up with a picture. Eardley’s education story would have made the paper, but just as a single column piece on a left-hand inside page.

This exercise demonstrated that it is not necessarily a plus for editorial production purposes to keep journalists at their desks in the office since Rougvie got more and better stories over the time allocated, which was the same for both reporters.

Telephone and computer-equipped Eardley was struggling from the outset when he turned up very little about Anstruther on Twitter, and then couldn’t get hold of the people he wanted, spending hours hanging on at the end of a telephone.

His story about the Curriculum for Excellence being a subject of controversy and a matter for public meetings in schools across the Kingdom was obviously culled from local council and Scottish Government news releases posted on the internet.

But he could not obtain any fresh quotes because the head teacher of the local school, for example, wasn’t in his office but out in the sports field for the school’s annual sports day.

It goes without saying that had Eardley been out of the office, away from his desk and down at the school, he would have got the interview he was seeking. And, dare I say it, he might also have come back with the schools sports results. In the end, he got nothing more than the material from the council website which, in fairness to him, was not his fault since he was restricted to operating from the office.

So, what did we take out of this in the end? Joan’s view was that the internet was a boon for feature writers doing specialist stories and writing columns or blogs, which is what she does with award-winning competence and style. The internet was a fount of information for them, but it wasn’t of much assistance to local newspapers looking for news stories.

And my own view on this? New tricks are no substitute for the traditional ways of gathering news. The internet can be helpful to a reporter hopping around the notice board sites of local organisations, but it is no substitute for having a person out on the ground.

Journalists spend too much time talking to other journalists. They need to get out more into the communities they cover and to speak to ordinary folk. They need to attend council meetings and go into the courts and to mix with the people who operate there.

They need to get on their bikes and pedal around churches and presbyteries – after all, four times the number of people who go to football matches go to church – and into community centres. Reporters should be mingling wherever people gather, and that includes in the pub, which seems to be out of bounds to journalists these days.

At the very least, journalists need to get out of the office and down into the High Street at lunchtime. By keeping their ear to the ground or having a casual conversation in the queue for a sausage roll or a sandwich they could find themselves coming back to the office with a scoop.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning weekly newspaper editor, reporter and columnist. He was a special adviser to the First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, and media adviser to David Martin, vice-president of the European Parliament. He was, for four years, media adviser to John McFall, the MP for West Dunbartonshire and chair of the Treasury Select Committee. He is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a life member of the National Union of Journalists.