I’m a fan of cooking shows. My long-suffering family has to put up with hours of Jamie, Gordon and Nigella as they turn out mouth-watering dishes that I promise to one day replicate.
On of my favourite TV chefs is Gordon Ramsay. I ‘ve watched most of the shows: the one where he saves bad restaurants from certain ruin, the one where he swears up a storm as he puts teams of contestants through their paces, and the lighthearted ones where he teaches celebrities to cook in front of an audience.
Gordon’s most recent show, however, is perhaps the best of the lot. Each week in Gordon’s Best Restaurant he selects two top restaurants in each food genre and puts them head-to-head. What makes the show particularly appealing is that these are not the unspeakably bad restaurants of previous shows but popular and successful ones that would probably be just as well off without Gordon’s input.
Typically Gordon doesn’t hold back. These may be successful restaurants with excellent chefs but that doesn’t mean they escape a Ramsay-style tongue lashing. Every slip up, every mistake is pounced on by Gordon who then lets them all know how close to rubbish they are.
Which got me to thinking about media, in particular newspapers which are enduring a torrid time right now. Gordon’s insistence on excellence is something that we all could learn from.
Gordon’s messages throughout the show are clear: quality, attention to detail and giving diners what they want leads to success. Second rate doesn’t.
Consider these three points.
Quality is important in most businesses. But it’s even doubly important for newspapers where what we do is open to daily scrutiny by readers. Focusing on quality editorial is at the heart of what we as journalists do and any slacking on the quality front is immediately noticeable to the people that buy our product. We ought to be asking questions of ourselves every day: are the newspapers we produce of the highest quality? Are they filled with stories that readers absolutely have to and want to read?
In many cases the answer is probably no. As newspapers struggle to make ends meet there is a growing reliance on wire copy and junior reporters which means that most papers end up regurgitating the same news as everyone else.
Obviously there are exceptions but we shouldn’t be complacent. As we put our newspapers to bed each evening we should be asking ourselves: is what we’ve just produced good enough to have readers to spend money on it? Would we buy our paper if we saw it in our corner shop?
If not then we’re doing something wrong.
Attention to detail
Closely allied to quality is attention to detail. That’s attention to every headline, every page layout, every caption, every photograph we use. It’s easy in the deadline madness to let something slip, to forget to crop a picture to make the most of it, to forget to check page cross references. But it’s these little things that mark the line between a passably good effort and an excellent one.
Obviously mistakes happen, and no-one is perfect, but it is important to put in 100 percent effort to produce the best possible product. After all, we expect readers to pay money for our product. So “good enough” is not nearly enough.
We also expect readers to trust us. We can’t afford to disappoint them with elementary mistakes. But more than that, if we make basic errors in editing, layout and production it naturally leads to questions about the quality of our journalism. And once that happens we risk losing the respect and trust of our readers.
Give readers what they want
A regular theme in Gordon’s shows, particularly the one where he tries to turn restaurants around, is that success is built on giving customers what they want. This is not something we in the newspaper industry are particularly good at.
Historically readers came to us for their news. We got to tell them what they needed to know and how much they needed to know. Now readers have options. They don’t have to buy a copy of our paper to find out what is happening in the world. They probably already know most of the day’s headlines before they buy a paper because they’ve heard it on TV or the radio or read it online. So what’s the point of telling them something they already know?
The readers of today are very different to those of a decade ago. They don’t want the same things they used to. They may want more local community news, or more analysis of major political events, more entertainment news, some may no longer want the paper in the morning but prefer a longer read in the evening. No two papers are alike but the need to understand what our readers want is common. If we don’t understand what they want then we’re doomed.
It’s tough in this climate to continue to produce quality papers that deliver what readers want but, to use a Ramsay-ism, fuck it people, we don’t have a choice.