Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking at some of the key skills a reporter needs to develop. The posts so far have been about people skills, because part of the formula for success is, “who you know”. After this post, which is about putting all those contacts together in one safe place, I will move on to some more specific, practical skills, because “what you know” is the other half of the winning formula.
- Tip #23 Keep A Contacts Book
One of the great things about being a journalist is that you don’t have to take a briefcase home with you every night, full of paperwork to read for the next morning.
However, it does help to have big pockets with room enough for a reporter’s notebook, a pen and your contacts book.
An extensive, well-maintained and up to date contacts book is a vital part of your equipment when you are covering daily news stories.
On the morning of May 12th 1994, the Labour Party Leader John Smith died suddenly, aged just 55.
On the Lunchtime News at ITN, the team had to react quickly to secure key political figures to give their reaction to the tragedy. The speed of ITN’s response was partly down to one producer and his contacts book. His job was to book guests to appear on the programme, and over the months and years before this date, he had made a point of collecting their numbers. Not just work numbers, but mobile numbers, home numbers and pager numbers.
As soon as the news broke, he hit the phones and ITN had every one of those guests live on air before the BBC. ITN won a Royal Television Society Award for its coverage of this major political event.
Incidentally, outside the world of news, it may seem strange for journalists to win awards for their reaction to a family tragedy. However, as I mentioned in my last post, those journalists have in the past had to report the death and disappearance of their own colleagues with the same speed and professionalism.
One of John Smith’s daughters, Sarah, was working as a producer at the BBC at the time. She has since joined ITN, where she is Washington Correspondent for Channel 4 News.
- Sarah Smith, Channel 4 News. (c) Esthr
On a lighter note, a couple of years later my own contacts book came to the rescue of another producer on the Lunchtime News, who was chasing a story about the football star Paul Gascoigne.
Gazza’s childhood friend Jimmy Gardner had always kept an eye on the star footballer, even moving to Rome so that the two Geordies could go fishing together when Paul had finished training sessions for Lazio.
The tabloids had picked up on the friendship and revelled in Jimmy’s nickname – Five Bellies.
Don’t ask me how, but back in 1996 I had Jimmy’s home number in my contacts book and so I passed it over to my friend Chris, who had what Jamie Oliver would call a “pukka” Home Counties accent. Chris called the number and the conversation went something like this:
London: Is that Mr Gardner?
Newcastle: It is, man.
London: Mr Jimmy Gardner?
Newcastle: Aye. How can I help you?
London: Well, I’m from ITN and I’m writing a story on Paul Gascoigne and I just wanted to check the facts out with you.
Newcastle: Oh, no, no, no, man. It’s me son you want, Five Bellies. And I’m afraid he’s out. Can you call back later?
On this occasion, the contacts book may not have helped to win an award, but it did allow us to follow the story up more quickly and to gain an intriguing insight into life in the Gardner household.
If you are a specialist writer, for instance working as a Showbiz Reporter, your contacts book can literally be what secures you a better job ahead of other journalists.
So, from your first day as a reporter start gathering those numbers and keeping them in a contacts book. You never know when they may come in handy. Today’s backbencher may become Prime Minister in a few years and unknown recording artists have a habit of becoming world-famous overnight sensations.