telephoneAn important message has emerged from my recent discussions with Kent Messenger Group editors, news editors and reporters. Centre for Journalism students are wonderful and very talented. The KM Group is delighted to have you, but there is always room for improvement and in this case it involves use of the telephone.

Too many of you remain reluctant to make and receive 'phone calls. Some have even tried to contact interviewees by e-mail. Others have allowed telephones to ring in newsrooms without answering them. This is unprofessional. 

For contact with interviewees or sources of information the telephone is ALWAYS the right way to make the first approach (unless you are close enough to speak to them in person).  The 'phone is fast and efficient and it does not require you to give away too many details about your story in advance. There is no room for debate about this. Editors are entitled to expect reporters to make a dozen telephone calls before breakfast. Nor is there any debate to be had about the importance of answering telephones. The call you let ring might be the most important call of the day. It might be offering the exclusive that will make your career or win the title an award.  Answer it. Show a sense of urgency. It is simple professional etiquette. So, if you are remotely hesitant about picking up the 'phone,now is the time to overcome your reluctance and just do it. No ifs, no buts. Journalists use the telephone. They want to know what is going on too urgently to use slow, impersonal means of communication. Being shy about it is incompatible with success. E-mail and text messages might be good enough for ordinary civilians, they are NOT good enough for reporters. Those of you going on work experience next week please bear this in mind from the moment you arrive.  


At the Medway Messenger, Jaak and I have been physically unable to answer the phones as fast as the staff here, they're so quick.

It's like those old fashioned western shoot-outs... soon as it rings BANG! their arms shoot out faster than a rattle snake's pounce!

...leaving me and Jaak saying 'Newsdesk?' to a mocking dial tone.

At times, it's actually really frightening. Especially, when I had to work on a phone, which requires a button BEFORE picking up.

I had to use the phone constantly. If you wanted the story to go somewhere you had to. I even managed to get some amazing scoops and keep them for myself by doing so! One of the reporters at Maidstone put it perfectly saying, "you answer the phone you get first dibs."

Plus the ringing would drive you insane eventually. When they were all doing training and there were few people there, that was basically one way I could truly help.

The phone manner you develop also seems to become habitual, it's hard not to answer my own mobile now without saying..."good morning, Kent Messenger?"

On work experience at Maidstone I was very relucant to use the phone initially and admittedly around other senior reporters who I knew were adept at their job, I was admittedly embarrassed about making mistakes in front of them so that's why I often tended to either not use the phone in their presence initially or make a call in the room next to Bob Bounds' office. Haha eventually though I got over my ridiculous phobia and finally started using the phone in the main newsroom. For me it's never been a case of being shy when talking to someone on the phone, it's more stupidly been because of thinking other reporters will listen and judge you. That's why such a ridiculous attitude had to be changed and now I don't mind doing it in the newsroom at uni or on work experience, as for one; other reporters won't be listening to you, they will be doing their work (mostly on the phone) and two; don't be afraid to make mistakes while on the phone and later correct yourself by asking your interviewee to repeat a fact or figure etc or phoning them again. It's all part of the learning process. I've learnt and admittedly this year at uni occasionally seen that shyness creep back in, but mostly I've been able to avoid the dreaded email alternative I used to.

Anyway well done for everyone so far and it's great to see the CFJ being praised and also good luck to those next week :D.

P.S. the only problem I had with answering the phone generally if it rang last year on work experience (as eventually I picked it up quite a bit) was because of the fact you had to direct the caller to another extension in the newsroom to another reporter and this I could never get the hang of. So many numbers are there for you to press and I ended up panicking. However, if like me, you find the extension thing a nightmare when transferring the call to fellow reporters whose interviewee wants to speak to them, take down their name, phone number, nature of the call and give it to the reporter they want to speak to (this applies especially if someone isn't in the office at the time). It's a valuable lesson and I admit I will have to amend my silly phone ways next week...

Tim's spot on with this. Whole careers have been made by the simple act of picking up a ringing phone. My first journalism job was as a trainee on a weekly magazine called The Engineer (no sniggering back there - it was a very highly regarded title. And incidentally, one of the subs at the time was James May, who now presents Top Gear).

When I moved on, the trainee that followed me was Bill Goodwin, whose name students will no doubt learn in their second year law module when they study protection of sources. Goodwin picked up a ringing phone on that very desk, and received a tip off that would eventually lead him to the European Court of Human Rights as he famously battled the authorities demanding he revealed the identity of the caller.

This isn't the place to go into the details of that case. But if Goodwin had been beaten to  that call by another reporter, it'd be their name rather than his in all the legal textbooks.

Ian Reeves is head of the Centre for Journalism

Seriously: "Some have even tried to contact interviewees by e-mail"? As if that's a bad thing? Maybe in the world of local news - but if you're trying to write a business feature that requires input from people in, say, the US, email is the FIRST thing you try. Especially if they are from a tech company. Have you ever tried phoning a US company? Don't go there. This is a digital world now, and you need to use digital communications too. Many business folk will actually not respond to phone calls anyway...

It is true that in the US some people, particularly those who work in technology, do respond fast to email.

But is email the best way to winkle information out of people? My feeling is that email is a bit too hands-off if trust hasn't been established. I'd say if you can get their cell number and persuade them to talk, the reporter is more in charge.



...By ignorance of reality. You go on doing things your own sweet way mate. I'm not responsible for your education. But please don't depict the case for timidity, shyness and failure as an example of modernity. If the telephone had been invented after the e-mail we would celebrate it as a tremendous innovation. Oh, and we blog by name at the Centre for Journalism, so please drop the cover of anonymity and argue your case in person.     

Sorry for the anonymity, by the way – but your instructions about registering with your real name are on a different page from the registration form. Perhaps you should alter that...
And seriously – I've spent many years bashing phones to get features written (not news much, admittedly), but email is now a vital tool. (And I've just discovered I can't now change my user name! Curses...)

I've now changed the instructions at log-in to stress that we discourage anonymous log-ins. Freelance Unbound, I've emailed you with info on how to change your account name. It'd be quicker by telephone, of course...

Ian Reeves is head of the Centre for Journalism

...and not everyone leaves their mobile on all the time.

Interestingly, this debate seems to rest on the assumption that everyone is accessible by phone all the time everywhere. This certainly wasn't the case just a couple of decades ago. I think pervasive digital communication really shifts the ground for journalism in the way that the phone did some decades ago. And like I say, some of the people you want to contact may not accept your calls, but may respond via BlackBerry...

Regards Simon Clarke

am in agreement with Jaak and John here.

It is less a fear or answering the phones and more not being able to get there first. These reporters have years of practise in the field of phone answering and their lightening fast reflexes are impossible to compete with.

I am happy to report that I successfully managed to answer the phone once...however I was the only one close enough to reach the phone bar James.

I plan to spend the evening working on my phone answering skills with imaginary phone calls. Please feel free to call me and be sure to time how long it takes me to answer!

Today at the East Kent Mercury the phone was picked up by fellow reporters with unbelievable rapidity. Then again it was like that at Maidstone last year also. Perhaps I need to work on my skills at answering it quicker, like Beckah says.

Again, I have no fear now of answering the phone or talking to people at all, I made numerous calls today to people for stories (check with my editor if you don't believe me :P haha). But like others of you, it is very difficult to get in there quick to answer and although I have answered the phone on work experience at KM quite a lot in the past I wasn't successful today...I need to get back in to the groove of answering the phone haha.

Besides (shoot me down in flames and call me naive for this one by all means, I will most probably agree with you, as I benefit from constructive criticism) being a junior work experience reporter, isn't it in some ways good to let other senior, experienced reporters who know their sources better and can answer a source's query much better than me? That's not a cop out as I know it's brilliant practise to answer the phone and become accustomed to it and I am not trying to discourage it. But not knowing the background to a story, not knowing a trusted source with a senior reporter, addresses, or departments in the company etc (unless you ask reporters in the newsroom when dealing with the call) then isn't the trainee answering it (apart from when no one else is there to take the call) slightly (not totally, obviously, as it's good experience) redundant? I'm not being an arrogant so and so, I'd just like the lecturers' opinions to give me some advice on that? Although I do understand it is courteous to answer the phone ahead of fellow reporters to share the workload and then if needs be take the story on or give it to the reporter wanted by the source, which I have done before. To be honest though I did pick up the phone and answer it with consistency at Maidstone in the latter part of my work experience last year once I overcame the silly shyness.

I'm sure you will all be thinking "naive ninkempoop whippersnapper" haha :D.

I am delighted and not surprised that KM reporters set such fine examples, but I'd like to remind everyone that I posted the original message because telephone phobia was identified as a concern. So, to summarise: use of the telephone is obligatory in reporting. Granted, there are other ways to contact people who do not answer the phone. I'll use e-mail, text messages, twitter, carrier pigeon, smoke signals or messages in bottles to reach a source if their telephone goes unanswered. But I always pick up the telephone first and so should you. Being too shy or timid to call sources you do not know has always been a problem for trainee reporters. The only way to overcome that reluctance is to do it continuously until you are used to it.. Some people will only respond to an invitation written in ink on vellum, but you lose nothing by calling them first to find out.    

That the telephone was the only method I used and with great success. The only reason I used e-mail today was to ask people, over the phone, to send press releases which they, themselves offered first.

I feel more confident writing a story after to talking to the source over the phone, you can alter your approach accordingly, change questions, come up with new ones and have a conversation. What would take hours via e-mail/text, took minutes over the phone. 

And is Gravesend the only one or do all the other newsrooms have a special lady to take the calls first and then dish them out? 

At the start of the year I wasn't a big fan of the phone, now I love the thing haha. 

Absolutely right. 

Yes, you do have to be quick on the draw at the KMG...this is not an entirely flippant remark but there's an even better way of communicating - face-to-face, in person. It works surprisingly well but before I get deluged with comments about how there's so little time etc, I do accept the reality of life in a busy newsroom and that as a specialist writer, I probably get more freedom on that front than some.

Interestingly, there are times when I deliberately choose not to get audio for our radio stations because politicians tend to be much more constrained and less discrete when they know they are expected to produce a coherent soundbite or two. If I think I am likely to get more out of an informal conversation, I'll suggest someone else does the radio side.

And if you have examples of the scoops you can post online please put them on the site. We want to celebrate every success by a CforJ student on work placement. That goes for everyone. Just post a link and make sure everyone can read, see or listen to your published work. I know there has been material published that we have not yet applauded so don't be shy folks... 

to the Centre for Journalism world for me going on the other day about using the phone. It is ESSENTIAL and there are no arguments and apologies for thinking otherwise. ENOUGH... :D.


Urgent telephone message