Six ways to easy Christmas specials (or How to avoid dressing up as an elf)

fatherxmas

Halloween has just gone, Bonfire Night is almost upon us – and it’s only a matter of time before news editors start badgering reporters for ideas for “Christmas specials.”

It’s an annual ritual, and an annual veiled threat: If you want early finished between Christmas and New Year, then you need to fill the Christmas Specials bank.

Some papers offer prizes for the best batch of Christmas specials. I’ve come close to winning a bottle of wine and a holiday (although the latter was a press trip, not bought to motivate the reporters.)

If a paper gets it right, those who make the effort to read the paper over Christmas won’t notice the copy could have been written weeks in advance. Done badly and you’re guaranteed at least one reference to “jingle tills.”

But if the reporter gets it wrong – then it’s more than likely the dressing up cupboard will be beckoning (click here for my thoughts on this)

So how can the web help make the Christmas Specials a little easier this year? Here are six websites which should make the timeless stories easier to come by, therefore ensuring an earlier finish between Christmas and new year:

1. Ask Charity

Ask Charity is a brilliant website which first came to the attention of newsdesks about two years ago when large tubs of jellybeans were delivered to newsrooms across the country. And the service they offer is certainly sweet (I’ll get my coat). If you need a case study which you think a charity will be able to help with, then Ask Charity is the website for you. I used the website in 2007 and charities delivered leads for 9 strong human interest features in the Liverpool area – none of which, I suspect, would have surfaced without Ask Charity.

2. Theyworkforyou.com

Who wants to read about politics over Christmas? Probably very few people, but via theyworkforyou.com it is possible to dig up little gems which have perhaps been missed by lobby correspondents busy with the day-to-day business of covering Westminster. Searching by name of place can often yield news stories worth investigating further.

3. Holdthefrontpage

The website about regional newspapers does a lot more than tell us just what’s going on in the industry (and who is being made to dress up). Tucked away within the site is a section called “rainy day ideas” and there are thousands. Some might be a little dated, or not suitable for the time of year, but there’s plenty to go at in there.

4. Surveymonkey

Surveymonkey makes it easy to get meaningful surveys on local issues so much easier. It costs $19 a month, and enables you to set up surveys on any issue, with different ways of answering the question – eg multiple choice answers, questions which invite comments and so on. Once you’ve chosen your topic to ask opinions on – and Trinity Mirror titles have used to cover everything from MPs expenses to job losses to the latest developments at Liverpool FC – set up the survey and get promoting.

The major polling firms in the UK aim at between 1,000 and 2,000 responses per survey, but for local newsrooms it’s really a case of a determining a sample which you think is too big to have been easily manipulated. Surveymonkey beats traditional phone polls because entries can be restricted to one per IP address, and it delivers multiple answers. Answers can be broken down (eg 35% of people who said they thought Preston would win the league also thought pigs might fly) and it also delivers downloadable graphs of the results which can be used online or in print.

5. Whatdotheyknow.com

The Freedom of Information website of choice for 13% of all FOI requests to national government is a good place for digging out stories about local bodies which are bound by FOI. But with seven weeks until Christmas, now is also a good time to get FOIs in which can be classed as Christmas specials. You can find 30 FOI ideas here

6. Response Source

Response Source is one of a number of websites which offers to put you in contact with PR firms which subscribe to it. So rather than the PR firm decide what information it sends you, and the topics it writes about, you can set the agenda. So if you wanted to write a piece about what local firms expected 2010 to be like, or the impact a local development will have in your area, you place it on Response Source and any PR worth their salt will deliver comments from their locally-based clients. This isn’t PR taking over journalism because you still have the final say on what goes in. When covering Liverpool’s seemingly never-ending Big Dig roadworks project, I used Response Source to challenge the council’s view that most of the local businesses supported the work. The responses came from many firms who traditionally would never have spoken to us.

*In the interests of accuracy, the picture at the top of this post was taken in 2000, when I was asked to dress up to audition as Santa in August, not for a Christmas special. But in some ways, summer holiday specials are even worse!

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