Simon Neville, retail correspondent at The Independent and the Evening Standard on tackling zero-hour contracts, being naturally cynical and standing up for the little guy.
What is your remit at the paper, and what will you and won’t you cover?
I am the retail correspondent for the Evening Standard, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, i and London Live, but primarily I’m with the Evening Standard and the Independent. I will write on anything retail, which is a very broad spectrum; from results to the stockmarket, which is the bread and butter of what I do, right through to political angles, and what’s happening in employment, planning, property and business rates. It can be incredibly wide-ranging.
How is your content shared across the titles?
Typically the Standard will be responding to the results published at 7am on the stockmarket. That will be an instant reaction, interviewing a chief exec that morning and writing the stories for the same day’s newspaper. The Independent is a chance to expand on those stories or on broader themes, as well as to work on my own exclusive stories.
Towards the end of the week I’ll be working on pitch stories for the Independent on Sunday. There will be one reporter in on Sunday who will be asking for stories for the Monday edition. It’s a given that if you help them out, they will help you out when it comes to your Sunday shift, which is once every six weeks or so.
Why did you follow the path into retail journalism?
I got onto the retail route because there was an opportunity to cover a maternity leave at the Guardian. I think it’s one of the most interesting sectors there is on the business desk. Everyone knows about it, everyone has an experience with retail – everyone eats, everyone buys clothes. Whenever you are writing for a newspaper, I think you need to write for people who don’t necessarily know about these areas, and you are trying to get them interested. Retail has that ability because everyone knows about shops and the high street.
How do you strike a balance in writing for consumers and for industry stakeholders?
I have to write in a manner that everyone will understand, whether that’s the industry or not. I write the same, whether it’s for a businessman or someone on the high street. What is the point of writing in a jargon-heavy manner?
What makes an ideal story for you?
The soap opera in the boardroom is always the most interesting. The recent Tesco stories were fascinating – the accountancy scandal, the boardroom bust-ups, people leaving. All the colour behind it.
What are your relationships like with PRs?
They are mixed. At the moment, my landline voicemail says not to leave me a message, and instead send me an email. Email is the best way to get me, although I am inundated with them. Sometimes I will miss stuff, and if I do, I only have myself to blame.
PRs just need to target their audience. They need to have an idea of what I’ve written. I still get phone calls for James Thompson, my predecessor who left over 19 months ago.
What do you and don’t you want from PRs?
I personally don’t like surveys, and they always state the obvious. Ask yourself, is it newsworthy? Some things like that might make it into a trade publication, but not into a newspaper. The Independent only has five business pages – if HSBC is imploding, are we going to find space to include a survey?
I get a lot of pitches around point of sale products, so the companies that run the card machines or process transactions online for retailers; that doesn’t interest people on the street. They just want to know their money is getting taken and they are not getting screwed. PRs have to think, if they tried to explain it to the man in the pub, would it hold their attention?
If you are giving me an opinion on something, it needs to have an extra stat or an extra figure. For example, business rates are a really big thing at the moment. I have lots of PRs with comments from their clients, but there is no extra detail. If a PR says that their client has done some of their own research and has found, for example, that because of business rates, retailers are set to lose x million pounds, that’s an extra line of information that would go into a story.
How can they get your attention?
It’s in the subject and first two lines of the email. I will scan every email I get, at least the first couple of lines, and if it catches me, then I’ll be interested. It’s quality over quantity. You need to come up with an idea for a story and know the difference between an advert and a story. Don’t put your subject in capital letters, which is quite a common thing now.
You can call me, but I will make a decision quickly whether it interests me or not. Expect me to ask you questions not in your press release. Have a firm grasp of what you are talking about, because far too often I will ask questions about the release that people don’t have answers. Know the sector you are pitching about. I write a story every couple of weeks about people using their mobile phones to shop – I am told by chiefs execs how big that is. Your company writing a report on something that is already out there is not new.
How do you like to use social media?
I am on twitter all day. I scour it for stories. It’s the modern-day newswire, and is really useful. It still breaks stories half-an-hour before other outlets, and that is a key thing for my job when showing to my bosses that I’m on top of everything. However, I am not massively keen on people pitching to me via twitter.
I also know now that PRs follow things I say on twitter and get email alerts for it. It is interesting to know that Tesco gets an email whenever I say something about it on twitter, because I usually get a telephone call telling me off!
How important is it to hold the government and retailers to account, as you did with your zero-hours campaign?
Hugely important. It’s my job to ask questions of CEOs that no-one may ask. I have the power to do so without any strings attached, without the danger of losing my job. It is interesting in watching the difference between chief execs, when some know I’m just doing my job, and others take it personally. Journalists are going to be naturally cynical, and we will always ask difficult questions, and that involves holding someone to account.
The zero-hours campaign came about because Sports Direct announced they were doing a bonus scheme and they were going to give their staff huge amounts of money. I read that, and decided Mike Ashley can’t be that generous – that’s not his style. It’s then that I started looking into it, and found out that the vast majority of their staff were on zero-hour contracts. It came about from there.
It seemed to capture the mood of the public, and then we had hundreds of people writing in saying that it had happened to them. It built incredible momentum.
Do you think people are now more aware of ill-practices amongst retailers?
I think the supply side has gathered a huge amount of coverage recently, alongside business rates, employment rights, zero hour contracts…it has become one of the biggest issues for retailers. I’m not sure whether the public are as interested though.
I think it works when you say a big company is screwing over a small supplier, but people are less bothered when an unknown company is affected. With all the newspapers I’ve worked for, you are there to stand up for the little guy. I have worked for the Daily Mail and The Guardian, which are polar opposites, but if you read their coverage it’s all about protecting that little guy. They want to protect them, because their readers think how that could happen to them.