New voices, new narratives and circular mentoring

The BBC’s Matthew Price mentored Amy Sutton, ITV’s new digital producer at Tyne Tees and the digital lead for ITV in the North East and North Yorkshire, over the last year. They both learnt a lot through a new approach to mentoring that could help all newsrooms reflect their audiences better.

It was like coming home. The wheels squealed as the train slowed high up over the water. The sun had just burnt off the last morning cloud above the Tyne Bridge, the sight that tells your heart you’ve arrived.

Looking down, I wondered whether young, ambitious journalists still stagger laughing out of ‘Bob Trollops’ pub on that quayside? We did. Back in the ‘90s when vodka lime-sodas were £1.50 a glass. Times have changed.

There was a moment early on when I doubted the value of talking to Amy. The value for her. When I started out, you could clearly learn something from someone with 25 years’ experience in news. Their media environment was essentially the media environment I was trying to get into. The delivery mechanism had been the same forever – you waited for news to come to you when it was ready.

That is not Amy’s world. She grew up on Insta. Her news is instant.

“I’ve shocked a lot of people when I’ve said my main source of political news and watching the US debates is on Insta,” she told me. “It’s not just #goals or your holiday photos. My timeline is Washington news accounts and the Kardashians. It’s the one platform you can find everything you’re interested in.”

I’m no luddite, but how do you deal with that?! I’ve live-tweeted reportage from Europe’s migrant trails. I’ve launched and now host the BBC’s daily news podcast, Beyond Today. But my grasp of the digital world is a learnt experience, not a lived one. That’s the difference between me and Amy. That’s why when we first met I wondered what on earth I could offer.

Of course, the fundamental principles of good journalism haven’t changed. Fact checking, following leads, condensing information to create a clear narrative. Those are obvious things to hand-on. And perhaps since everybody has the tools in their hands to be a journalist, giving them the skills to use these tools in a properly journalistic way has become more important than ever.

So – largely thanks to WhatsApp more than our face-to-face meetings – I’d regularly help Amy to navigate reporting and working in a newsroom.

“I had all these ideas of what I wanted to do,” Amy said, “but I didn’t have the voice in planning decisions” to make them happen.

I spoke to her about the mechanics of a newsroom. Who she needed to speak to in order to get stories to air. How she needed to sell it. It’s not “just a great story” – what’s the journalism behind it? How do you sell it to your editor?

Now she says she’s more “realistic about it” – she focuses on “what’s the fundamental journalism in this? Who are the people I need to speak to?”

She’s had great success, pioneering digital video for the region. “Male suicide in farming communities – those videos that have hit three quarters of a million views because I’ve sold them, I’ve tagged the right charities in them, I’ve pushed them at the right time. I make sure first thing in the morning I re-push them for the morning traffic.”

Recently, Amy pointed out that we had moulded the mentoring to her. It wasn’t a case of “this is what I’ve done and this is how you should do it because this is how I’ve done it”. I spent time getting to know her and what she wanted to achieve.

This is another massive way in which things have changed. When I came into the BBC the unwritten rule was you would learn from the old guard, wait your turn, and move up the ranks slowly. Experience was passed down, rarely up.

That’s not how people of Amy’s generation expect things to work anymore. They’re growing up in a world where all our – and ‘their’ – voices count. They want to work for organisations that listen to them, and give them feedback on what they’re saying – ideally on a daily basis.

In the best, most modern and future-proofed organisations that’s how it’s working. It’s why Amy and I naturally adopted a flatter, less hierarchical exchange of ideas, knowledge and thinking. It benefits her, me and the companies we work for.

It’s the new and the old meeting. By learning how a newsroom works, and focussing on the fundamentals of good reporting, young talent like Amy gets its story on air – and Tyne Tees gets new content designed for a new generation they’d never have had in the past.

I think of it as ‘circular mentoring’. It is much more than simply learning from one another. Done right it’s a process that can actively change the stories newsrooms cover, and therefore the audiences they engage with.

It’s an approach we’ve been pioneering on Beyond Today, where new journalists Amy’s age feed their interests into the editorial process, and offer their takes on the big stories around. They are genuinely listened to and are encouraged to influence the news agenda. At the same time, they learn skills from the older members of the team.

It’s a much more horizontal way of deciding what we will cover – the team learning from one another and supporting one another, building skills, offering criticism and encouragement in a generous spirit of getting better as a team and therefore as a news provider.

I am convinced this is how we as newsrooms continue to reflect the complexity and diversity of our audiences better. We need to listen to the Amys in our newsrooms, and allow them to feed into our decision-making processes and story choices. But we also need to support them and guide them. Their presence alone is not somehow the answer to all our aging audience problems.

Tyne Tees and ITN have done a good job in doing this in Amy’s case. And they’ve got a great digital producer who is producing different and stand-out content that is drawing in new and younger audiences.

Listen to Amy and Matthew discussing their mentoring experience here.