The vox pop which keeps it real

Most reporters I know have a problem with vox pops: They hate doing them. A lot of news editors and editors I know like them because, done properly, they can add valuable public opinion to a particular issue or story.

However, we’ve all seen bad vox pops in newspapers. The problem comes when you leave the office and start approaching random people to comment on an issue they may have little knowledge of or, worse still, little real interest in. It can become a battle of wills between reporter/photographer and passing member of the public – a little bit like being stopped by Scottish Power or a charity chugger in the street.

When that happens, the purpose of the vox pop is dead. It’s unlikely the vox pop will add much to the newspaper, and the idea that people seeing faces they recognise/ordinary faces in the paper dies a death too. It’s just as likely someone will think ‘why on earth are they commenting on that’ as they are to think ‘isn’t it great the paper’s asking Fred, who knows nothing about this, to talk about it.’

I blogged last year on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s new approach to vox pops last year. Instead of sending reporters to prowl the streets, a reporter goes to a particular venue to ask a question about an issue which it is likely the people in that location will care about. It helps create an event in that place because having several people from the same place answering a question will get them talking to other people about it, and that in turn hopefully leads to more papers being sold.

On a purely practical level, if you’ve got agreement to go to a venue – eg a hairdressers – you’re much more likely to get people ready to have their pictures taken, and give interesting answers than you are if you’re stood in a gale on a town centre high street. The comments on the last post suggest such experiences on wet shopping streets are common.

Here’s another brilliant example of the vox pop reinvented:

giftofthecabIt’s from the Liverpool ECHO, which every week turns to four cabbies to ask for their opinion on the thing which has got people talking in their cabs. The paper doesn’t choose the subject, the cabbies do.

Last week, for example, one cabbie chose to talk about the cuts made in the budget, one chose to talk about the decision not to punish Wigan’s Callum McManaman for his reckless challenge on Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara, and two opted to talk about the problems in Cyprus.

Each comment takes maybe 100 words, and is infinitely more readable than a forced vox pop on an issue a paper has chosen to be the subject for discussion.

And, I’d guess, there’s far more chance of the cabbies talking to more people about being in the paper than a harrassed mum of two who is too polite to say no to a wind-swept reporter on the high street!

But perhaps the most important thing – to me, anyway – is that the subjects for discussion are chosen by the participant, not the paper. It’s a form of crowdsourcing. Many groan at that word, but there can be no denying that the greater the influence of normal readers on editorial decisions, the greater the chance of a paper remaining connected to its audience.

And that’s why I think ‘Gift of the Cab’ is a vox pop which keeps it real.


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