The Editor: "We don't do DULL"

Morning news conference.
Winter 2008-09.

On a good day, news conference was exciting.
You sat there – in the best approximation a newspaper could fathom of a lounge room (which looked more like a proctologist’s waiting room, really …) – and you drank it all in.
Reporters and photographers slouched in armchairs scribbling notes and doodling in margins, swapping press releases and job sheets like playing cards – the older ones plucking first from the pile and the younger ones scrabbling over what was left, clutching whatever they could salvage close to their chest.
News conferences are a personality and visual rainbow.
The fashion conscious. The fashion un-consious. The suits. The bowties. The guy who wore a trenchcoat 10 months a year. And so on.
And then there were the smells. Nothing unpleasant, but when a dozen –often more – personalities are shoehorned into a small room, you nose knows it.
Still-setting hair gel, hairspray and Brylcreem; aftershave and perfume; coffee, tea, milo, Gatorade and Pandol (usually consumed by bleary-eyed sports writers during Sunday morning conference); the scent of ink wafting off everyone’s copies of that day’s newspapers; and sometimes the stale smell of burnt dust and melted globe as the chief photographer tried with screwdriver to coax a bit more life out of an aging flash while he kept one eye on the growing newslist and ear on the discussion.
The clash of this above the nervous tension of some and the exasperated boredom of others meant that morning news conference was a busy assault on your senses and a very easy place to become distracted.
One morning, instead of listening, I was watching the chief photographer prise open the back of a water-damaged camera and thinking that the camera (albeit soggy and past it’s prime), looked much more exciting than the current tools at my disposal, an A5 notebook and Bic pen.
So my heart nearly stopped when The Editor slammed his newspapers onto the coffee table and tore me away from my daydream.

“We DON’T do DULL,” he said. Each word came out of his mouth slowly, without malice – but he was serious.

Which struck me as weird. Of course, newspapers ‘do dull’. News wasn’t always exciting. But we still wrote about it and photographed it because it happened. We try to make it exciting and appealing for readers, but sometimes a cheque presentation story is exactly that, and no amount of pumping it up can change that.
Part of my brain thought about that in the space of about one second while another part of my brain realised (with unashamed joy) that The Editor wasn’t directing his dictum at me.
That honour went to The Reporter a few seats down the couch from me, who, he said was working on a “pretty standard profile story” on a community leadership role being filled by a new person to town. The Reporter was going to chat to the gentleman on the phone, then organise for him to pop outside of his office for about 20 minutes so a photographer could get a picture of him in the main street.

“Some suit standing in main street? That’s dull,” The Editor said.

“So we drop the story? It’s boring?” asked The Reporter.

“No. Let’s try to get him at home, outside with his family. Let’s do it on the weekend, too, when he’ll hopefully have time to talk.”

The Reporter made a few calls and re-organised. A week later that story ran, not as a small story with a headshot, but a large feature article with several pictures.

I learned a couple of things from this.

Editors sometimes kid themselves and their staff. They might say “we don’t do dull”, but, the truth is, occasionally they have to. Deadlines rush in, people won’t co-operate – sometimes dull is the best you can do.

But I learned this from The Editor: there’s always room to push a bit. Asking can’t hurt, and the chance of 'yes’ is always worth it.