Ever since I first heard about the concept I’ve been intrigued by ‘20 per cent time’. It’s an initiative spawned by Google, who urge all their employees to take out 20 per cent of their day and spend time on something completely unrelated to their assigned jobs.
So, for example, a graphic designer at Google might spend his 20 per cent trying a spot of coding, as he may have had an idea for a new feature on an existing Google product.
The BBC also tried it out, this time giving 10 per cent (stingy buggers) to some of their stuff to try other bits and bobs on the site. Not quite the flexibility of the Google-time, but handy nonetheless — it has so far produced iPhone podcast pages.
All well and good, but how does that relate to journalism? Well let me recall a discussion I had with Jon Grubb, the editor of the Lincolnshire Echo. He very kindly commended me on my efforts with The Linc, and went on to say how it was great that we were out there finding stories. In some cases, we were even making stories.
Now that’s not to say that we were making them up — although there is a University press office that might argue that point — but instead we were bashing our noggins together and saying: “Look, we don’t have a good lead story. What can we do to find something out? Who do we not speak to enough? Who needs a voice?”
It shows: Our last issue was our most successful. Our lead story came as a result of our own research into drugs use on campus. A full-page feature was down to Dan Clough wondering if it’s a ball-ache to get around Lincoln on a wheelchair. It was. So we spoke to a load of people — and Danny even made a short documentary. Another full-page feature came as a result of Sadie Geoghagen speaking to as many single-parent students in Lincoln as she could. None of these stories would have ever come from a newswire. They were all too humble — and nice — to toot their own horns and come to us. Indeed, often the people with the most important stories don’t believe they are important enough. It is up to us to find them.
When I discussed this with Jon Grubb he agreed. But then I stressed that newspapers, particularly regionals, are not encouraging journalists to go out. There is always another press release to get typed up. He agreed. I brought up the example of Andrew Gilligan who is literally given free-reign at the Evening Standard. If he wants to follow up a story for three weeks… he bloody well can. And boy does it pay dividends: the Standard had a triumph with the Lee Jasper debacle (and arguably won the election for Boris), and Andrew won Journalist of the Year.
Gilligan is an exceptional example. I see Andrew’s skill as being rare — you could practice his methods all you want, but you won’t be as good. Just as if you practiced heading a ball for 15 hours a day, you still wouldn’t be as good as Alan Shearer.
What I’m saying is we need to give journalists a chance. If every reporter at every paper had 20 per cent to spend following their own nose on a story, heaven knows what gold we might find. We always hear the phrase ‘more bobbies on the beat’. How about ‘more journos on the beat’? Sounds great to me. If I was a regional reporter I’d want every parent at every school to know my face, and I’d want every copper to know my name, so that if anything happened that the public should know about, they wouldn’t be afraid to call as they’d know me as being an good, honest bloke.
20 percent is roughly one day a week. Is that too much to ask? If newspapers stick strictly to it, I believe the initial stresses of being a person down each day would be over-turned when the lead stories come rolling in by the bucketload.
Let’s see it happen!