What’s the value of a first person piece in an online world?

About a fortnight ago,  Jo Wadsworth blogged about some of the age-old traditions in newsrooms, one of which was the old ritual of making the trainee reporter dress up or do something stupid “for the sake of a good read.”

Anyone who has progressed through the ranks of a newspaper will know what I’m talking about, and have their own horror stories to share, and that’s excatly what Alison Gow and I did today while stuck in a traffic jam on the A38 going into Birmingham.

For me, it’s back to 2000 and the original Harry Potter hype: On the grounds that I allegedly looked vaguely like Harry Potter, I was sent to a primary school near Accrington to discuss the book with local children.

By discuss the book, what I actually mean is be made to dress up to look like Harry Potter, have lipstick applied to my head in the abscence of a scar above my eyes, and then vox pop pupils at this school about the book. For good measure, the paper even sent a piece to HoldtheFrontPage with quotes from me to boot.

It made page three of the paper, and my parents loved it. They even bought pictures of me dressed like Harry Potter. But who else did it appeal to? I was new to the patch, so no-one knew me. Was it a good read? Heck, I was a trainee reporter so I suspect it wasn’t. Did it make readers sit back and think the paper in question was essential to their daily routine? Again, probably not.

This was nine years ago – a time when convincing yourself you were delivering a newspaper the audience wanted was based on little more than the news editor’s hunch, and the ability for senior managers to gather in conference and reflect on what a good job they’d done.

But surely if instant access to page impressions per stories, time spent per page and return visitors to articles has taught us one thing it’s this: the readers really don’t care about us at all. So therefore, surely the first person piece should be a thing of the past.

Travelling around the country over the past few weeks, as I do, I’ve seen several features which involved journalists going out and spending a day working with criminals who are on the “payback scheme” – also known as community service.

Such a piece would be interesting, in my opinion, if it had pictures of the men and women involved, raking leave or painting walls, and talking about how they ended up there and why the experience means they won’t do it again.

But in each of these pieces – and I can only assume the Ministry of Justice has had a bit of a push on this lately – there wasn’t a single picture of an offender. I can imagine why – data protection. But it’s supposed to be about justice being seen to be done.

Ego to one side, who really wants to read about a reporter pretending to be a criminal and spending the day doing good in the community? If s/he had actually been convicted of a crime and was reporting on the consequences, fair enough – but that wasn’t the case.  It’s a false scenario with a false conclusion.

Any PR who rings up offering the chance to develop such a first-person piece to support a new product/event/way of life should be treated with caution: It’s the last hiding place for a PR who knows their client wouldn’t make press otherwise.

I’m no more Harry Potter now than I was in 2000 – just as dressing the new boy up as Father Christmas to audition for the role of Santa in the local Debenhams made me any more likely to go and work in a grotto in December.

Why would a reader really care how a reporter found auditioning for Big Brother, or how a trainee feature writer found learning to milk a cow?

First-person features can work, in the right circumstances. If I had a reporter who’d been witness to a massive incident or crime, of course I’d call on them to tell us what they saw and what they felt.

Likewise,  the Birmingham Post’s recent piece by Jo Ind in which she explore her family tree and discovers she is related to Elizabeth Fry is fascinating to read because it’s real, and very well written.

But those examples are the exceptions to the rule. Journalists, generally, shouldn’t be the story. The page impressions per story clearly show that. Next time you’re in a strange town, try reading the local paper. If there’s a first-person piece masquerading as news, unless you know the reporter, or it grabs you by the third par, you’ll turn over.

Online, readers have a thousand sources for the news – but regional newspapers are in a very strong position to tell the reader more than they can find in a lot of other places. Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook make it so much easier to find real-life stories that the last thing journalists should be doing is inventing their own tales.

Serving up first-person humiliation isn’t something that will have people coming back for more – not least because Jackass does it so much better than we ever could.

5 comments

  1. I always liked writing first person pieces, as long as I was sharing an experience which may appeal to the reader. For instance, I tried out several different local sports a few years ago, with contact details for the clubs and details of how to get involved.

    I think first person pieces are valid when they are useful, but I agree the journalist generally shouldn’t be the story.

  2. What is interesting as well – imho – is that blogging is for the most part all first person pieces about someone’s opinion or experiences, and making a personal connection with readers is one of the best things any blogger can do to ensure readers come back again and again. The more things change eh?

    1. Maybe that’s what has changed more than anything – blogging has now provided that place to talk about experiences etc, without it needing to be dressed up as news or a feature which will have mass appeal? The example in your first comment is a good one – it tells and informs, and then shows the reader how to get involved?

  3. This blog requires the visual stimulus of the Harry Potter impersonation to validate the point.
    Would you publish a lead story in a newspaper without a photograph, Higgy?

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