Lessons from working in a local newspaper (and how they can work for you)

A long time ago in a newspaper far, far away (well, Ballymena) I was kindly taught local newspaper writing by a fellow reporter and by our bosses.

The lessons from those days have stayed with me so, for something a little more light-hearted at Christmas, it made me wonder how knowing the basics and banter of a local newsroom could help us to use the pages of a local paper today to promote our cause/ business/ party/ angry mob.

Almost anything I know worth knowing was shown to me by the legendary Nevin Farrell (who is distinct from ‘The Legend’ of Ballymena court reporting aka Billy Spence, who in turn worked for a local news giant – who was generous in his advice and help for this writer as a schoolboy – called Dessie Blackadder).

The editor I worked under for the longest period of time was Maurice O’Neill, supported by deputy and sports writer Shaun O’Neill. Maurice was feared by the local council and local councillors alike when, armed with no more than a green-screened Amstrad, he would launch one his many missions against the likes of council spending from a smoke-filled editor’s office.

On a personal note, special mention also to Larne local journalism stalwart Stephen Kernohan.

The scene now set, I believe that despite being many years ago there were a few essential truths of the local newsroom which, if you want to win some page-space today, should still hold firm:

Do it today: My editor, who had a unique style which was the making of many a young reporter he toughened-up for work in Belfast, would often gently roar from his office “get it on the screen!”. What he meant was that stories are for writing, not for talking about, and quickly too before the idea is burnt by someone elsewhere. When this (a story being covered first elsewhere) happens to a local reporter you have “slept in”, which is the equivalent of John Wayne falling off his horse.

How this can help in 2016: If you have a story idea for a local reporter, call them today. It only has to appear somewhere else out there once for the paper to lose interest and for you to have lost your input.

Every word should earn itself: “Who the *%#* are the general public? Is there a specific public? And why does this say ‘local’, where else would we be talking about?”. We would have a less than subtle approach when proofing work for each other (when there was time to do so). In short, every word needs a reason to be there.

How this can help in 2016: Keep your press releases short (they say that no one reads a long article except for the writer and their mum) and take out the padding. This way you’ll be saving time for the reporter who’d have to trim it for you otherwise. Teachers, with their Capital Letters on Almost Every Word, can be the worst offenders. And in the name of all that is good and true make sure to include every name in full. Oh, and a lazy, mail-merge localised version of your press release might be printed, but no one will read it.

Politicians can write their own ‘stories’: Almost every political story I saw in local papers was just a press release from a local MLA or councillor which, strangely, often had nothing to do with the local area.

How this can help in 2016: Don’t assume a local paper has a particular editorial line based on the political stories included as often it comes down to whichever party/ person sends in the most printable rants aka press releases. If you are the political rep and want more space in the paper, improve your press releases and/ or ask the paper how to you can help work with them better. Poor coverage from a paper doesn’t necessary mean bias, it might just mean you need a better press officer.

“Talk to people!”: Often told to local reporters but so little time is given to do so.

How his can help in 2016: A local reporter will be underpaid (they know they are second-fiddle to ad-sales, but it is a labour of love), under-appreciated and over-worked. A breakfast fry, a little appreciation (a then-local Orangeman Paul Frew was master of this) and a chat about about the local issues of the day can earn you coverage worth a fortune.

“Move it on!”: Was often said as an instruction to take a story from last week or elsewhere and add a new angle.

How this can help in 2016: Give a local reporter a hand to do this and the message to want included is as good as told.

You can’t teach news-sense: In my experience, people calling a newsroom would spend too long trying to continue to sell the idea of a story in their interest when the reporter had the instinct to know it was a no-go in the first minute of the conversation.

How this can help in 2016: If you don’t know if the above is happening to you, it probably is. Instead, ask the reporter if and how you can help bring the story to life

Get it right the first time: My editor once bellowed “Don’t check it, just get it right the first time!” Meaning: don’t use a dictionary, use a different word. If the sentence doesn’t work, don’t stop to make repairs. Instead, cut it in half or reverse it (a Dessie Blackadder hint from the 1990s, from memory). For fact-checking, I remember keeping – in case of emergency – a phone number for local historian Dr Eull Dunlop.

How this can help in 2016: Simply a handy tip for writing quickly.

Clark Kent is dead: Our local paper didn’t have a cupboard full of writers ready to dash out to an event. When we did attend an event, we preferred not to to spend an hour working off our notebook back in the office when a copy of speech could have been handed to us. Speeches from The Field every Twelfth spring to mind (you try balancing a notebook and an umbrella in the rain while being shouted from a curtain-sider for being part of a conspiring “pan-Nationalist media”).

How this can help you in 2016: Write a press release, send in a photo and always help the reporter to help you.

The weekend is sacred: I remember tip-toeing past the editor’s office at 5pm on a Friday to avoid being caught out by a shout telling me to go to some local event or other that weekend. An occupational hazard, perhaps, but it was always a case of the more notice the better.

How this can help in 2016: If you think you might need a local reporter at the weekend, don’t be tempted to let the newspaper know at 4.30pm on a Friday. As the Americans would say “don’t be that guy”. And know your deadlines.

Talk across, not down: I remember, being young and new, being spoken to like a school-kid by some callers to the office looking for column inches. Bearing in mind a local paper is a business and not a public service, this does did not endear me to the person or the story.

How this can help in 2016: The reporter you are speaking to, be they fresh out of the wrapper or otherwise, is in control of how you or your organisation will in print. Don’t talk down and do not ask to go above their head to talk to ‘your old mate’ the editor. Who do you think will end up writing the story?

I may well be out of touch but I suspect these basics of a local newsroom still hold firm.

A photo in the Belfast Tele might impress your boss but, bearing in mind how few readers a Belfast daily paper alone will attract (except if you catch the attention of their social media versions too) also cultivating a few friendly local reporters – and, in turn, their combined circulations – could bring big benefits.

Happy Christmas.

Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net