November 29, 2021

Instinctif Conversations with Dominic O’Connell – Moving With The Times

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Few have had a better seat from which to view the last 30 years of British business than Dominic O’Connell, whose career in journalism has taken him from New Zealand to News UK. The former – and longest serving – Sunday Times Business Editor spoke to Instinctif’s Chief Media Strategist Jeremy Durrant, about his career, professional life under lockdown, and why he left the Today Programme to take up a new role at Times Radio.

There is no hesitation by Dominic O’Connell when asked about the secret of his success.

“Literally everything I have ever learned; I have copied from other people. I can even pinpoint which parts of my job over the years I have copied from certain people. For me journalism, is not a profession where you can take exams and develop, it’s a trade and you can either do it or you can’t, but you learn everything by copying. Even when I was at the BBC in recent years so much of what I learned was from copying other people. You can’t write it down and you need people around you to copy.”

We are talking about the impact of pandemic-induced working from home and what it means for younger people who have started careers isolated in back bedrooms away from newsroom or office environments.

“I have spent the majority of the past two years broadcasting from my house and it has been a little weird at times to say the least. You get up in the middle of the night, go to a room at the top of your house speak to a microphone by yourself and from there you are talking to the Today programme and its nationwide audience.

“There are advantages to it of course but it’s not a newsroom and half the fun of journalism, if not more, is the people and interactions.  Having colleagues around you allows the exchange of ideas, the serendipity of thought and conversations. I always say this is not a real job, it’s a lot of fun and, takeaway the people, you take away some of the fun.”

A native of Christchurch, New Zealand, O’Connell admits there was no great strategy behind his arrival in the UK which following a stint as a legal temp started with reporting roles on a diverse range of trade publications including the Meat Trades Journal, Construction Weekly and the Travel Trade Gazette. “I was having a look around and have never been home since really. The Travel Trade Gazette role was as aviation correspondent and is the best job I ever had, just constantly flying around the world. Overall, I have worked as a journalist here for 32 years and while I don’t feel like I am an outsider, I am also not part of a British tribe as such. I am almost a little disconnected in that sense but find that is an advantage in what I do. For example, I don’t really care or have a predisposed agenda to any UK company. There is a baseline that I hope a company does well, makes money, creates jobs, and doesn’t kill people in the process of that but beyond that I don’t have strong feelings about them.

“In my experience people can get very sensitive about the coverage of business stories and take a binary attitude as to whether they are being covered either positively or negatively. However, from my perspective there is no preconceived agenda. I look at the numbers or the financial performance and the story emerges from there. I am not out to get anyone from the outset and companies sometimes fail to realise that and therefore engage with the wrong approach or paranoid mindset. It boils down to being badly advised or lacking any real understanding of how the media works.”

After a stint on the Barclay Brothers’ Sunday Business, O’Connell joined the Sunday Times in 2001 rising through the ranks to become business editor in 2010, a role he held for six years before joining the BBC in 2016 as a business presenter and correspondent on Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme. Coming full circle, he has just returned to News UK to become the first business correspondent for Times Radio. He admits part of the motivation was a desire not to move Salford as part of the latest BBC reorganisation.

He has joined Times Radio at a good time. The station, which launched at the end of June last year, recently received its first RAJAR listening figures. The official body for reporting radio audiences, revealed Times Radio reached a weekly audience of 637,000 in the third quarter of 2021 which the station admitted had exceeded its own expectations and demonstrated there was a national audience hungry for intelligent, informed, thought-provoking and open-minded speech radio based on conversation rather than confrontation.

To put that into context the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 recorded 6.5 million weekly listeners for the same period. However, O’Connell won’t be drawing any comparisons between the two programmes.

“It’s an exciting prospect to take up this new role but at the same time it is also very familiar for me in terms of returning to News UK. I don’t care about comparisons or competition with the Today programme. They will do fine and are great at what they do. The programme is a great institution. However, I am also confident we will also do fine and ultimately people will follow what they like.”

A few weeks into the role, which also provides him the opportunity to return to writing, O’Connell is clear what he brings as the station’s first business head.

“The Times and the Sunday Times has always had very strong business content and Times Radio was aware of this gap in their coverage and they were very keen to fill it. What I bring is not only an ability to report business news but also the background and knowledge to interpret it for listeners and hopefully add value and depth to a story.

“For example, we have fixed slots for business coverage but can also be very flexible. So, when it was announced that Jes Staley was stepping down from Barclays at 7am in the morning, I was able to come on air immediately and add background to the breaking story. We want to be first with a story of course and it is all about speed but with that, we want to be able to add instant analysis and that’s what I can bring from a business perspective.”

Times Radio has always been very good at using its print and online journalists as additional voices to bring colour to its spoken output. O’Connell adds that this will continue. “While I will be the main business voice, we will also use sector specialists. Someone like Emily Gosden on energy markets is really good.”

As he embarks on this new chapter of his career, O’Connell’s enthusiasm for the role appears as strong as ever, even allowing for inevitable change.

“In the 20 years plus I have been involved, the role has changed a lot in some respects. The fundamentals are still the same – you want to go out and meet people, get to know them, for them to like you, trust you and stories come from that. However, to be a business reporter you don’t need to be a particular specialist. It helps to know the background. like how markets work and to read a balance sheet but that just gets you over the first five yards quicker. It’s mainly a job about getting on with people which remains important and meeting chief executives and business leaders is what I really like doing and want to continue.

“There is also much more information available now which means there is more disclosure. Things like court documents and Companies House are online as is an abundance of regulatory information which is much better from a practical point of view.

“However, during my career, the PR side has also professionalised and multiplied. There are some good people and firms out there but there are also some that are terrible. Some see themselves solely as gatekeepers whose only role is about denying access rather than improving it. In my view that’s wrong and they could do themselves a huge favour – and their clients – if they realised that by engaging, they get a much better outcome.”

O’Connell is a department of one at Times Radio so will have to prioritise his focus but one element which won’t feature as part of regular output is a set-piece interview slot: “Doing these regularly profile slots end up interviewing people for the sake of it and a lot of people just aren’t worth the airtime.”

The emergence of Times Radio comes amid a blossoming for news, including business coverage. GB News launched earlier this year and Rupert Murdoch’s own planned rival TalkTV – featuring Piers Morgan – is due to air early in 2022.

O’Connell, adds: “Competition is a good thing and there is room for everything. We have had established newspapers and monolithic broadcasters for a long-time and competition drives up standards. A function of markets is there is consolidation then splintering and then reconsolidation and we are definitely in the splintering stage.”

Time will tell who are the winners and losers in any phase of reconsolidation to come. But when it does, who better to interpret what it means than a man who seen more than most when it comes to UK business media.

 

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