SubScribe: Value added Google+

Thursday 23 February 2012

Value added

Your starter for two:
6 queen scallops
good quality black pudding
a little oil for cooking

Slice black pudding into six rounds.
Heat oil in a shallow pan and fry black pudding for about five minutes on each side, put to one side on warmed plates
Reheat oil until it is smoking, flash fry scallops for a minute each side.
Put on top of black pudding rounds.

Serve with dill garnish and perhaps a carrot, pumpkin, pea or cauliflower puree (separate recipe) or scatter crispy bacon on top and drizzle with a mustard sauce
For a main course, double the quantities and serve with mashed potato and al dente vegetables

There are as many ways to prepare seared scallops with black pudding as there are cookery writers to invent them. So what a pity the Guardian didn't share one of them with us alongside the  jolly little piece about the rise of black pud by Helen Nugent which brightened the gloom yesterday. 
Factboxes bring life to a page, whether in print or digitally. They also bring in readers. We might kid ourselves that the witty heading or the important subject matter are what really count, but put a little coloured box on the page and that's where the eye goes first. With luck the brain will follow and read the story rather than just flick to the next page.
Factboxes are guaranteed to bring a groan to the newsroom. Reporters hate them because they see them trivial - why can't the space be used for more of my precious copy? News editors hate them because they take time to dream up and research, and  they know the reporter will whinge when asked to pitch in. Subs hate them because they're fiddly and the type commands will always throw up bugs. But readers love them - as we all do  when we haven't got to produce them.
They key to a good factbox or panel is that it must add a new dimension to the coverage; something people would talk about in the pub or over dinner. The Guardian story could just as easily have carried a panel of stats on how much black pudding is sold/eaten/exported etc a year and how that compares with 10, 20 or 50 years ago. Or it could have run some quotes from the unnamed celebrity chefs credited with inspiring this surge of interest. Most of all, with a light story, it needed to be fun, and ideally with a little icon or cutout picture.
For more serious issues, say a civil war in a far-off land of which we know little, a good bullet-point profile of the country - and a locator map - not only livens the page, but allows the writer to get on with the narrative instead of cluttering up the story with statistics. What should be included? Population certainly, GDP probably, but spare us the literacy rates for 16-year-olds unless the thrust of the story is that the inability to read is costing lives. Instead, give the reader a little snippet at the end. Go on, tell us the President is 5'2" and his wife 6'4" or that the Prime Minister plays the sax in an all-girls band.
It is often simple to hive off figures or background from a story, but that's cheating a bit. It's OK if the material naturally separates and makes it easier for the reader as well as the writer, but that is the on-deadline solution. Ideally, factboxes and panels should be relevant yet stand independently of the story.
But most of all, they should be useful - and that doesn't just mean informative; making the reader smile or say 'Gosh' is useful. Making the reader feel smart is also useful. In exam stories, a sample question is a must, but unless the point is that A levels are getting impossibly hard or GCSEs improbably easy, try to pitch the question so that it's challenging enough for the reader to have to think about it - and then feel pleased with herself for getting it right. 
Another approach is to try to make two numbers work together (as Private Eye does brilliantly) such as 

RBS losses in 2010
bonuses paid to RBS staff 2011 

(although beware of making a political point if you're supposed to be an independent newspaper)

The tabloids are  experts with the 20 things you never knew about...but be sure you don't run out of steam if you go down this route - and that the facts will genuinely come as a suprise.  She comes from Tottenham would not do if you were writing about that singer.

Perhaps the most important tip is to avoid copying out Wikipedia. Quite apart from accuracy concerns (it is spectacularly wrong on tax relief on mortgage interest), everyone can look there, so you're not bringing something fresh to the party. 
A starting point, certainly, but then it's all really a question of using your imagination. 
Good examples welcome.

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press

Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality

Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?

Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)

1 comment:

  1. The problem with pull-out facts comes when designers demand them, to liven up the look of the page, regardless of whether the particular story deserves one. One paper I know has what it calls "the Big Number", a fact box based on a number vaguely relevant to the story but not actually mentioned in the text (eg "247 - the number of RBS employees who bought a BMW with their bonus last year"), which, of course, is never supplied by the reporter, and which the poor sub has to find from somewhere. So the sub has to edit and cut the story, write all the furniture and then spend 10 extra minutes doing internet research to find something to put in the Big Number box.

    Why doesn't the reporter supply something that could be the Big Number text if required, you ask? Because it's only the PBI on the subs' desk who suffer from having to do this job, and no one anywhere else cares enough to give that job to the people who actually have the time to do it.