voxpop copy

Newspapers: How to make the voxpop worthwhile again

The Newcastle Evening Chronicle underwent a re-design last week to give it a more modern feel, new content platforms and a design which accommodates a higher story count. In my opinion, it looks much better.

But that endorsement doesn’t really mean very much as I’m not a designer by trade. So why am I going on about it here? Because I want to talk about voxpops, and how the Chronicle has helped (hopefully) reinvent them.

Here is an example of the daily voxpop which now sits as part of the Feedback (letters, tweets, emails etc) spread:

Newcastle Evening Chronicle Voxpop

Newcastle Evening Chronicle Voxpop

For as long as anyone can remember, the voxpop has been a staple part of a regional newspaper. Your heart sinks when the news editor picks on you to do it. This post isn’t intended to be purely a former frustrated reporter’s therapy about the part of the job he liked the least.

My worst vox pop experience was at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph when the editor requested a 30-person voxpop to support the launch of a campaign to get part of the local shopping centre knocked down. It took two days to get 30 people to pass comment on this part of the shopping centre and agree to be photographed. You’d think this would be a sign of a campaign which didn’t have much traction, but you’d be wrong. It was popular (apart from within the confines of Blackburn with Darwen Council, which part owned the shopping centre). It’s just that people didn’t really have much to say. The biting wind and driving ran which accompany Februarys in Blackburn didn’t help either.

My best vox pop involved going to a primary school at chucking out time and interviewing parents about a little boy who’d been banned from school because he’d had a David Beckham haircut (Yes, we’ve all done that story, and surely it can only be a matter of time before the problem reaches Oxdown). We got eight parents, on camera, in six minutes. A combination of going to a place where an issue was a talking point, and people having a few minutes to talk, made all the difference. By best, I clearly mean least painful.

The voxpop, so far as I can tell, is based on the following assumptions: It’s good to get ‘real’ faces in the paper, it’s good to get people’s opinions, and there’s a chance the people interviewed might then pick up a copy of the paper.

So far, so good. The problem comes when the voxpop becomes an easy part of the paper to fill early, and this is the case on many weekly newspapers. A reporter will be dispatched to the local high street the day after publication, tasked with getting six random people to answer a question on an issue which is unlikely to become dated by the time the paper comes out six days later. Those six random people are then supposed to remember they’re maybe going to be in the paper answering a question which, in all honesty, they probably didn’t care too much about. Looked at like that, it’s not the obvious recipe for success, is it?

A similar problem exists on daily newspapers. An issue might be of importance to an area overall – eg council tax going up, the weekly bin rounds going fortnightly – but trying to find people who care enough about it to want to appear in the paper can be a slog, and then will they remember to pick up the paper to see if they’ve appeared?

For the voxpop to have any value – especially in sales terms – it needs to be memorable to the people taking part. So why not turn it into an event? That’s what the Evening Chronicle have done, approaching groups of people who are already connected and asking them to take part in the voxpop. Ok, so the question in the example above – ‘What was your last act of kindness?’ is pretty timeless, but it also sits well in the context of the ‘Feedback’ spread.

If you take your voxpop down to the local hairdressers and get two hairdressers and two customers talking to you, you’ve instantly created an event, something which those four people will probably tell other people about. They fact they are part of some sort of network with each other increases the chances they’ll buy the paper to see themselves, and hopefully feel more connected with the product as a result. There’s also a ‘safety in numbers’ mindset which makes it much more likely people will pose for the camera when their friends are doing it as well, unlike Mr Random who is in a rush down Oxdown high street.

The voxpop may be hated by reporters everywhere, but it still has a part to play in connecting newspapers with their audiences – but it has to be reinvented to do so. That appears to be what the Evening Chronicle has done.

After all, when was the last time you felt a bond to a stranger who stopped you in the street?

6 comments

  1. My voxpop hell could be a long-running series…my worst was working on the Metronews (the short-lived BPM rival to the Metro) and we ran them every day. I landed the miniscule straw and had to do full days of them to get them in reserve. Each one saw a little bit of my soul disappearing.

  2. We have a “Have your say” page every week. I have worked here for roughly 80 weeks and probably done 70 vox pops. It is the bane of my life. I hate it with a passion. Though every now and again, one goes really well, I meet really nice people with interesting views and my faith is restored in the vox. Otherwise, I find myself hiding out in shops quietly sobbing.

    They all go online too – http://www.cambridgefirst.co.uk/news/have-your-say

  3. I had to do a three-person vox pop in every town in our patch on the state of xmas decorations. A total of 60 people over about four hours culminating, at about 10pm, in one bloke in Nelson threatening to stab himself if I put his picture in the paper. In the end they only used one person per town. Grim

  4. Having done a voxpop every other week for the last year-a-half my worst was probably stopping two guys to politely ask my question only for one to turn to the other as if I didn’t exist and say “Oh, just ignore her and she’ll go away.” Charming! Having said that we’ve had some great responses from voxpops. Everyone wanted to chat for the Royal Wedding voxpop and a 6-person voxpop in the snow with pics was done in about 5 mins because people took pity on me and my shivering shorthand! Also my best tip is to hit the post office queue when it’s going out the door…they’re bored so they’ll probably talk, and they can’t run away!

  5. My worst vox pop experience came when I was asked to do a vox on New Year’s Eve in 2009 (the year it was around -10 over the New Year period). I had to get 30 under-16s (10 in Blackburn, 10 in Accrington and 10 in Burnley) to give me their New Year resolutions. The streets were deserted because of the cold, I needed to find children who had their parents with them to give consent, and the majority of children didn’t even know what a New Year’s resolution was. I still wake up in cold sweats every now and again thinking about it.

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