Skivers and Strivers and the “National interest”: Working with Journalists at the Guardian

Richard Nelsson, Guardian News and Media

There was a time when almost every news operation in the land had its own library. From the smallest of regional papers to the great national broadcasters, each would maintain its own information desk within walking – often shouting – distance of the newsroom. These libraries were primarily cuttings collections. Librarians would cut out stories from newspapers then file them away in subject folders according to their organisation’s unique classification system. While labour intensive, if well-managed this system was reasonably good at supplying many of the facts, figures and background information that go into producing news stories. However, with the advent of online newspaper text databases in the 1980s, and the web in the following decade, the need for such vast hard-copy collections diminished. By the late 1990s many news organisations had begun the process of getting rid of their libraries and but a handful remain today.

One of the few that survives is the information unit at Guardian News and Media (GNM), publisher of and the Guardian and Observer newspapers.Based at Kings Place in London, the library, known as Research & Information (R&I), provides a research service for editorial departments: writers, sub-editors, graphics, but increasingly for the commercial side of the business too. Five members of staff – a manager, three research librarians and a trainee – sit amidst editorial teams in a large open plan office. There is also a small library housing mainly books.

Queries come in by email, phone or journalists simply wandering over. The most basic of these is the fact-check which can be on anything from the correct spelling of a name, date of a particular quote (or even finding a quote) to the more exotic such as establishing what types of drug a famous singer used to deal in – important, if nothing else, for legal reasons. Beyond this, there is the digging up of nuggets of information that give colour to, or enhance, stories. Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics commentator for the Guardian, explains:“Our librarians have gone through the archives to find out if any prime minister in recent history has ever referred to another industry as being ‘in the national interest’, as David Cameron has done with the finance sector (they haven’t). They’ve totted up mentions of ‘skivers’ and ‘strivers’ in the British press and compiled an alternative R-index – an index of times that newspapers have used the word ‘recovery’. All this has been invaluable help to my work and has drawn on the team’s imagination and diligence

For interviews or in-depth investigations, writers require extensive background searches. Simon Hattenstone, a senior features writer at the Guardian, stresses the need to be fully prepared before going into an interview:“The first place I go whenever I start a piece is the library. It’s indispensible. Lots of people tell me I should be able to do my own research, which I can to an extent – but not to the level, and at the speed, top researchers can. The best researchers not only find stuff for you, they point you towards what’s important in it.”As well as researching material, R&I writes many of the fact-boxes and timelines that go into making up news packages – both online and in the paper. The team has always found statistics and data for graphics but the web versions provide an opportunity for more in-depth work. One such project was an interactive about how political shifts have altered the map of Europe over the past 40 years (it must also be updated every time there is a change of government).

Just like the days of cuttings, old news reports are still one of the main information sources. As well as using LexisNexis, Factiva and the papers’ own internal text archive, R&I has access to ClipShare, a news article PDF database. People-finding services such as, forward planning diaries and the Land Registry are regularly used and naturally there is in-depth online searching. This is all backed up with traditional reference sources such as Who’s Who, Britannica and political guides.On top of this, researchers sometimes use the nearby British Library and one recently made a trip to Birmingham central library to find material for an article pegged to the furore surrounding Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Having a good list of contacts is important and there is also the GNM archive, a separate department, but one with which R&I works very closely.

Of course while knowing which sources to use is an essential research skill, understanding exactly what the writer needs is almost as important. An ability to decode any request starting with ‘Could you get me everything on…’, plus being able to filter and edit results are prerequisites to becoming a good news librarian.  A point echoed by Simon Hattenstone: “When you have a relationship with a good researcher they know just what you’re looking for – often more than you do. I used to write a sports column, and often I felt it was co-written with Research because they would find anecdotes and facts that you didn’t have a clue about, and they would become the nut of the piece.”

While reactive research is a major part of R&I’s job, the department has several other roles. In 2007 the Guardian/Observer digital archive launched, giving access to almost every article published, in the case of the Observer, since 1791. The team was responsible for locating and removing legally sensitive material from the database as well as testing the product.

Obviously it’s a valuable research tool, but one of the main uses of the digital archive is as a source for From the archive, a daily series of what was happening on a particular day in history. There is also an archive blog, which gives staff an opportunity to go into more detail about a current subject. Recent posts have included republishing the paper’s original 1853 report of Solomon Northtop’s ‘12 yeas a slave’ and a comprehensive look at all of the Guardian’s April Fools’ day stories. Here, R&I does the research, writing and most of the production.

Another responsibility is the editing of the birthday column, a daily list of around 25 names of the great and good. This involves checking whether someone has died, changed role, plus the adding of new names. Other tasks include adding corrections/making deletions to the text archive and maintaining a section of the corporate intranet, the key part being a page of reliable reference sources.The trainee is responsible for archiving the day’s newspaper text before it is sent to the internal archive and third parties, as well as sending off hard-copy papers for binding and microfilming. There is also the important task of handling enquiries from the public.

While the media landscape is constantly changing, there is still a strong case to be made for news organisations supporting a dedicated library, complete with qualified staff. As Aditya Chakrabortty concludes: “The internet is no respecter of institutions, but I believe that great newspapers will thrive if they draw upon their strengths as institutions: the plurality of a newsdesk, the judgment of editors and the dexterity of lawyers. And the skills of research department.”

References and Links