Journalese, A User's Guide

Journalese: Contacts

Favourited tweets aren’t contacts.

There, we’ve said it.

Time-management gurus are proud (and funnily enough, it’s actually true) that 20 per cent of the effort delivers 80 per cent of the work. Or something like that. We’re too lazy to google it.

The same is true of contacts.

When you first start out you will be tempted to record all the phone numbers and emails etc of every person you meet. Every press release, every best guinea pig in show winner, every ring-in that Newsdesk cruelly routes your way with a bark.

And, this in itself, is not a bad practice. If you organise your contacts the right way you should only be an heir or a spare away from a quote when push comes to shove and deadline starts to loom. And by deadline we mean that moment the news editor reminds you that if they do not see that copy in the next five minutes, you’re dead.


Local stories, for local people

If you still use a notebook, still use shorthand, and use your phone or dictaphone for backup you’re quids in. assiduously writing your numbers up at the end of each day sounds anal – and it is, in fairness – but when you realise Best In Show Guinea Pig Breeder, Halifax and All Calderdale Champion, lives next to the scene of a horror smash, you’ll be glad you did.

This is because the people you meet along the way are more than just the reason you’re lumped with them and a snapper for a photocall. They’re regular people, with regular lives, and, more importantly, they know more people than you in their area.

They are the original ‘social network’.

However, as time goes on, you may find yourself moving onto bigger and better things with your news and features departments in your publication or digital offering.

And as time marches on, you may see yourself as a little too grand for Guinea Pig winners. So how do you build contacts and which do you keep and which to you whittle away?

Parish Pump

Your parish and local councillors are viewed by some as busy bodies but given they have gone to the trouble of getting themselves INVOLVED in their area they are good for local knowledge. Useful for when hard news breaks in their area but only really any good if you have a pre-existing relationship as they will descend into Community Leader status and issue bland words of support for the Tragedy. You want intel to hit doors, and, more importantly, open them. Add in the local chambers of commerce. They are by their very definition connected.


For every bad bank, dodgy employer or hospital leaving patients on trolleys there is usually a union for the workers toiling away in same. Seek out your union rep and take them to lunch, or better still an evening drink. They come across documents and provably true stories  – and they have an axe to grind on behalf of their workers. See them right with a few stories and one day they WILL come good. Even if it is only so that you can run a mad rumour past them to check out.

They get over-excited at times but union reps are great for axe-grinding stories

They get over-excited at times but union reps are great for axe-grinding stories


The most compelling stories for many people are stories of personal tragedy. And this means victims, relatives of victims and friends of victims. Enough victims and you usually find a campaign group. Doesn’t always have to be hard news but can include people who have battled and lost or, better, battled and won against an illness. If you keep these sources on board and treat them with respect you will have a ready source of human interest stories to that you can rely on.

Not only that, but they can, in the right circumstances, be approached for comment on similar or tangential crises when the principal victim in a breaking news story cannot be contacted.  Their quotes will always be highly readable and any anniversary can be approached with a view to doing a feature. Broadsheet hacks will try to justify their approach by linking the death they are covering to ‘a relevant issue’ but the effect is still the same.

There’s often no need, you’d be surprised how much people will share deeply personal experiences. It helps healing.


We’ve covered this creature in detail and they have little to add to your work. However, there is a subspecies who is valuable and worth it: the Special Adviser (or Spad).

A good SPAD is worth their weight in truffles. Often acting s policy kite-flyers with judicious leaking to Sunday outlets, they really do have the inside track on issues. How much they tell you is down to you and all of it comes with a Spin Warning since their role can encompass spin doctoring and image massage for their host politician.

Nonetheless in the quid pro quo world of political reporting, they are handy allies able to confirm stories off the record, at short notice and at most times of day. Vital for the final edition newspapers and breaking news sites.

They are a mine of gossip and can dish it out in spades. Their careers will generally map their host minister so keep them sweet.


The days of ‘doing the calls’ has largely gone, replaced by a voicemail number and a fully functioning press office. But there was a time when humble reporters would toddle along to their local cop shop and go through the actual call log of overnight crimes with the duty sergeant.

Evening newspapers couldn’t survive without this diet of ready crime hence its staple appearance as splash fodder for many.

Dial 999: For stories

Dial 999: For stories

The bonus was that reporters would build proper relationships over tea and biscuits with real coppers and over time face to face contact would lead to trustworthy sources. Keep that trust sacred and your copper will be good for life. They will eventually be promoted, as will you, and if you’ve played fair you could have an ACC or Chief constable in your books. If you do, guard it closely and watch as the splashes come rolling in.

Emergency Services

As with cops the same applies and as their budgets are tighter, many fire and ambulance crews will still take calls rather than palm you off onto a press office. If this happens to you then go back to basics: Get the union rep on board. Once they vouch for you and you have a few mobiles, they can vouch for you and you can cut out the press office.

For the digitally inclined, think video: dramatic rescues can be told with works but why bother when pictures and video can do it for yo


Where do all those talking heads on SkyNews come from? They may look like their bred in labs  – and many actually work in them – but for every topic imaginable there is an expert, self-appointed or otherwise. Universities and Big Brands are quite happy to furnish you with them and the smarter ones actually issue annual lists of talking heads. Hence, the same people on your screen. These people really are experts and if you’re a specialist reporter you cannot really live without them. If you can understand the jargon you should be grand.

Experts are great for broadbrush quotes and Big Theme stories if you’ve ever short of a splash. Most of their work is theoretical so it will be a long time before Earth To Be Destroyed By Asteroid comes true, and if it does, well…..


The money shot of all contacts.

Even sniffy boadsheets go gooey at the news in the presence of celebrity. If you’re mass market you need celebs.

And, by a happy coincidence, celebs need you.contacts-2

Celebs are the most highly managed creatures on the planet. More handlers than a door knocker shop and layers upon layers of agents, publicists, managers and film or telly PRs to wade through. It is rare that you will get any real access to A-listers so grow your own. All actors and singers start at the bottom so if showbiz is the beat you want make it your job to get to know them early and often. Even if they never make the big time they will still know people who do. Again, discretion and trust building are key but once you have a conduit, mine it. Mine it like it’s rare platinum ore.


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