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PR skills put to the test in local newsroom

August, 2014

As the media is constantly changing it is vital for PR agencies to keep up to date with how journalists work. Rachel Knight, account director at Maxim, spent the afternoon in a busy newsroom to soak up the atmosphere.

I arrived at the Tunbridge Wells offices of the Kent & Sussex Courier at 2.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon, knowing that six editions of the paper would be going to press just 22 hours later. I had been warned by various people, including colleagues who are former journalists, that it would be ‘hell’ with everyone under a lot of pressure.

Editor Roger Kasper introduced me to the team, many of whom I have chatted with for years via email, phone calls and Twitter but had never actually met. At this time of day everyone was busy but fairly calm. It certainly wasn’t the hell I had anticipated.

In fact, with conversations such as ‘what’s your favourite film?’, excerpts of Les Mis and a stress ball being thrown across the room, it was a much jollier environment than I was expecting.

Chief Reporter Craig Saunders explained that ‘It goes a bit mental at this time of day’. It was a fun kind of mental though and I felt at home.

Digital, decisions and data 

Roger gave me a tour of the CMS system that the majority of Local World’s publications have access to. As well as Tunbridge Wells, the group has papers across London and the South East including Dover, Folkestone, Thanet, Canterbury, Sevenoaks, Crawley, Dorking, Leatherhead, Croydon, Chelmsford, Braintree, Brentwood, Stevenage and Hertford. 

Although all the copy is produced locally, the pages are laid out and subbed in a central office in Chelmsford. I was amazed to see pages of the paper I would be reading in print on Friday appear on screen, almost in real time. Stories were dropped in, headlines added and adverts placed. There were also quite a few gaps still to be filled – not that surprising when I looked around the newsroom and saw everyone with their heads down.

A vast amount of data is available to the editor. Sales figures for the papers, which are not dissimilar to a league table, compare the Courier’s editions with others in the group. Roger explains that most journalists are competitive so they see this as a challenge, rather than a threat.

Online figures are available as real time stats that look similar to a Google Analytics dashboard. Website visitors can be monitored by the hour so if a story isn’t doing as well as expected, headlines and intros are changed to improve the SEO and the appeal to readers.    

Reader first

Obviously it is not just about the numbers. It’s very clear that everyone here cares about the readers and wants to do the best job possible. Facts are checked, second opinions are constantly sought internally and about 5pm, calls start to come through from the sub editors to confirm spellings, place names and the finer details of stories that will appear in Friday’s paper.

Seeing the changes that the page plan has gone through during the week, it’s easy to see why these final checks are necessary. By 6pm almost complete pages are coming through and chief reporter Mary Harris is one of the people trying to plug the small spaces left. The hunt is on for NIBs – news in briefs which tend to appear in columns – and the innuendos fly as weary reporters offer up their stories.

Furiously typing, Mary does an excellent job of turning a Word document containing a few lines and an embedded picture (never do this – it’s useless to journalists) into a NIB that fits the page perfectly.

In the last few hours of the day, staff trickle off as enough has been done to ensure that the midday deadline is met the following day. One of the final jobs is the bills – the posters you see outside newsagents advertising the top stories in the paper. Enticing potential readers in a few words is a skill in itself.

I made it home by 9pm and was interested to compare notes with my husband who was chief reporter and deputy editor on the Sevenoaks Chronicle some 15 years ago. Times have certainly changed.

My turn to be a journalist

During the afternoon parts of the paper were ready to be proofed. I was quite chuffed to be allowed a page to myself and even more pleased when I spotted a few corrections that needed to be made. It struck me that some of the skills I use daily were very relevant to the job in hand – it’s always a relief to spot an error before a document goes to print.

Next up I was given a press release on the Shed of the Year competition which I had to turn into a local story for the Courier website. Again, it was a fairly familiar task as I’m used to editing copy but there was a strange sense of freedom attached to it. I wouldn’t have to send this piece of work to a client and could slip in the ‘shed-to-shed’ pun without thinking it would be removed.

I must admit to feeling a pang of guilt when I cut the competition’s sponsor from the copy. As a PR, I know how important that is to them but it also made me think about how I might have done things differently. The photos were great – which is largely why the story was being used – but if the sponsor’s name had been included somewhere then it would have almost guaranteed that company press coverage.

Online byline

Just a few minutes later, ‘my’ story was online and I had my first official byline. Over the last 14 years I have gained plenty of press coverage for clients, have seen my words in print and on screen many a time but never with my name next to them. It was a different kind of excitement and I can see how journalists get a buzz from their work.

There are posters everywhere in the newsroom reminding people to ‘share, tweet, Facebook and pin’ stories so once it was online, the story was shared to all of the Courier’s social media channels. Looking at the source statistics for stories, you can see why this has become so important.

Overhead in the newsroom

One of my favourite hashtags on Twitter is #OHnewsroom so experiencing it first hand was a real treat. When a call was made to a press officer late in the day I heard the line that I’m normally on the receiving end of: ‘Unfortunately we’re on deadline’.

I watched as the reporter got frustrated (it was literally a head in hands moment) and thought about what was going on at the other end of the phone. A simple question often requires a comment to be drafted, which first has to be discussed with and then approved by several people – at least one of which is bound to be unavailable.

It was a fascinating afternoon and I’m very grateful to the Courier team for making me so welcome. Below are my top ten ‘overheard in the newsroom’ lines: some are interesting, some made me giggle and others are almost like a foreign language.

  • “Is it ok to use ‘dropped a clanger?'" – “I’m happy with clanger or gaff.”
  • “I’m struggling a bit here. Professionally, personally, spiritually…”
  • "I hate the ones where you just give up and it never comes back to you.” (referring to deciphering shorthand)
  • “You haven’t got any secret little nibs squirreled away anywhere, have you? 
  • “Just better check if it’s all legal and s***”
  • “I’m not a fish valuing expert.”
  • “I think you’re going to die young." – “I’m glad I didn’t die during that council meeting. I was there from 7.30pm until 10.10pm but I got two stories out of it.”
  • “Can I call an attack on an ATM a heist? Where’s my legal book?”
  • “Why would a pickle donate 50 donuts?”
  • “Can you help me with boxes? I’m tearing my hair out here.”

Tweet us @Maxim_PR with your own #OHnewsroom - we like to hear them all!  

Rachel Knight - Account Director

Rachel Knight

Maxim / Account Director

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