Thursday, October 12, 2017

A paper that never lost its voice

Editor Sarah Cox's understandable outpourings on the closure of her newspaper struck a chord with me.

I used to edit a local rival to her Bedfordshire on Sunday which, sadly, closed by Trinity Mirror last month.

The BoS as it is, or rather was, known locally, was replaced by a midweek paper staffed by so-called “community content creators” as part of wider changes throughout the Trinity group.

Cox reacted to the announcement by Tweeting: “Goes without saying my team and I are devastated about closure of [BoS]. Unfathomable. We need a strong local press more than ever.” And who can blame her? This was, after all, one of the last newspapers of a dying generation that actually prided itself on holding those in public office to account. It was founded by Frank Branston, a former People reporter, in 1977, five years before I became editor of the (yes, also now long defunct) rival, the Befordshire Journal.

It changed hands a few times. He sold it to Iliffe News and Media when he became the town's mayor, Local World had it for a while after it absorbed Iliffe and it became part of Trinity Mirror when it took over Local World in 2015.

Back in the eighties when I was there, competing with my free paper against the bigger, paid-for Bedfordshire Times, one of the biggest challenges as a tabloid was matching the sheer tenacity of Frank's approach to local news – and his unerring ability to get under the skin of a town with a massively diverse population and equally large scope for all sorts of dodgyness worth exposing.

Occasionally, when we broke something big that got the nationals interested, our local critics (and we broke enough to gain a few of them) would accuse us of being “a bit too BoS”.

I only ever saw that as a compliment. I haven't seen it for a while but did note Cox's comment that “losing a newspaper which is not afraid to be hated, ruffle feathers and annoy advertisers comes at a high price” which suggests that those old habits had lived on until the end.

I was also struck by the fact that she had taken the editor's chair six years after doing her work experience there. I, too, was a teaboy-turned editor back in the day, albeit on different papers.

Interestingly, one of those for whom I did fetch tea and run errands as a teenager, I later went on to hire to run my sports pages when I did finally make the editor's chair.

Anyway, such a shame. RIP, BoS. Cox will do well, doubtless. She doesn't sound like someone to let the grass grow under her feet. And certainly not someone afraid to voice an opinion. Rather like her newspaper.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Headlines - and giving them a head start

Every year when I'm prepping for a module on news production, I end up seeking howlers to put in front of students to demonstrate the pitfalls they'll face.

In the old days when subs desks were places to aspire to they were hard to come by and, rather than resort to the timeless classics, I'd have to make them up. As I did on Friday when showing undergrads at Westminster how Jacuzzi would probably sue if a generic headline named a no-brand spa bath as one of theirs as being faulty or how car crash with no injuries cannot be carnage.

Then I trawled the news the following day to find the gruesome story that various body parts had been uncovered in Sweden by police hunting the missing journalist Kim Wall.

And there it was in far too many headlines: the decapitated head.

Note to students. Head in Latin is caput. To decapitate means to cut off the head. You can decapitate a body, not a head. Take a bow, the Telegraph, Independent and Time for noting the head had been severed.

Ironically, one of the things I always tell students at the start of these classes is this – read the papers. All of them. All the time. It's the only way the styles will become familiar and you'll get into good habits.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Not your Standard editor, Mr Osborne

George Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard, odd, daft even, as it may seem, is in one way, little more than the natural progression of modern journalism.

And it speaks volumes for where those with the power to hire and fire seem to see the role these days.

There's clear conflict with his job as cheerleader for investment fund but he won’t be the first senior hack to have held high office in politics. After all, most of us have done our fair share of moonlighting, even though we didn’t get paid £650 for a day a week.

But if the hon member for Tatton thinks editing an evening paper is something he can knock off before lunch and nipping across town to help run the country, he’s in for a rude awakening.

The days of the gentleman editor, poking his head into the newsroom once in a while to put a hand on the tiller between entertaining the great and the good and pontificating from platforms went out with the rest of the staff they had to make redundant.

Editing a paper at a time of wide-ranging constitutional chaos, when your plummeting circulation won’t even sustain a paying readership and when there’s a new app every week threatening to deliver the same message in a more relevant and appealing way, needs to be more overtime than full time.

I don’t blame him for not knowing that. He probably knows as little about newspapers as I do about running the Treasury. But his staff will, his boss should and the readers, such as they are, may well too.

Conflicts abound even if here is merit in having the capital’s premier publication toughing up as a battering ram against Theresa May’s runaway Brexit rollercoaster. But it’s not a part-time job and should be far more than just something to fit in between Commons, constituency, and consultancy.

David Miliband responded to the news by Tweeting that he was about to be named the next editor of Heat magazine. Tim Farron joked he should apply to edit Viz.

Joking aside, at least they would be more do-able, given their lead times and publication cycles.

Osborne inherits a seriously strong editorial team. He will have to learn fast if he is to impress them. And to do that he'll have to put in the hours and treat it with the respect it deserves and not as a high-profile and comparatively low-paid indulgence.

Either way, the issue is less about where it leaves the Evening Standard, more a case of what it says about the way we see newspapers these days.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

You don’t need long knives to put down a Fox

When a fellow Leicester fan remarked as we lined the streets to watch our heroes pass with the Premiership trophy: “can you imagine anything better than this?” there was a universal shaking of heads.

But I had one further scenario in mind. If I could perhaps, don the mascot suit and run out with the team for the first home game of the following season, that would probably, I had to admit, put the topping on the pizza.

As a fan since schooldays, a former club member/shareholder and proud over of an actual brick from the rubble of the actual now-demolished City Stadium, a chance to be Filbert Fox for 90 minutes would have cemented a lifelong relationship with the club like little else.

But after last Thursday’s disgusting dismissal of our now-legendary manager Claudio Ranieri the only image I had in mind was this fittingly poignant one created by Telegraph cartoonist Matt Pritchet. The one where a club official brought a vet to the stadium and told him: “We’d like to have the team’s mascot put down.” And they might as well have done, as most of Fleet Street seemed to recognise with equally-fitting attacks on the club’s Thai owners for managing to turn football’s greatest fairytale into a sordid and sorry soap opera of back-stabbing and deceit.

Like most of Matt’s cartoons, it said in a picture what many columnists would take an inside-back dps to do: you might as well kill the mascot, they’ve already killed the spirit of the club.

How reassuring then to see fellow Italian Jose Mourino wear the initials CR on his chest at a press conference the following day.

He may have been echoing what the Milan-based daily Gazzetta dello Sport described with their splash: Inglesi Ingrati (ungrateful English).

Or he may just have been giving us a subtle lesson in the sort of humility, good grace and sense of fair play few involved in this sorry affair, if not the current game, would understand.

What do I mean? Semplice: A season earlier, the same thing had happened to him when he was sacked by Chelsea only a few months after having won them Premiership title. And he isisted that, while it was “a giant negative” in his career – “I realise it was peanuts to what happened with Claudio”.

And which was the game that cold December day that sealed his fate? Only an embarassing 2-1 defeat at the hands of Ranieri’s Leicester City.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Time to play the Trump card

Why was it only Associated Press and TIME Magazine that had the presence of mind to act appropriately when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hand-picked a select group of journalists for a private “gaggle” in his office.

The off-camera gathering with news outlets seen as less hostile to the Trump regime (and I chose that word deliberately) was a way of blocking the likes of CNN, BBC, The New York Times, LA Times, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, The Hill, and the Daily Mail from attending a regular press briefing.

The chosen few included the rightist Breitbart News, One America News Network, and The Washington Times, all of whom attended.

White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason immediately called on those allowed in to share the material with press corps colleagues locked out. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. But it’s surely the least they can do, given they didn’t have the mettle to take the AP/Time route – and boycott it.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Brexit and the edge of reason

I often tell – and, I admit, delight in the comic irony – of the time I subbed a piece one Saturday afternoon for the Sunday Telegraph praising the way John Major effectively saw off a back-bench revolt, only to skip across town to do the late-stop on the S. Mirror and get stuck into the same story - telling how party “rebels” had a now red-faced PM bang to rights.

But that’s politics. I cared only that the copy sang. To what tune was not an issue when it came to time and a half for the anti-social nature of the shift.

So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Boris Johnson, entirely coincidentally, a Telegraph staffer at around that time, was just as, shall we say, flexible with his political “angle” when it came to penning his thoughts on the EU.

In his new book on the Brexit campaign, All Out War, Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman describes how Johnson, in an article written but never published for The Daily Telegraph, wrote of Britain as “a global force for good”, adding: “It is surely a boon for the world and for Europe that she should be ¬intimately engaged in the EU."

Boris, apparently, warned that Brexit could lead to an economic shock, Scottish independence and even Russian aggression, the latter showing impressive foresight, given Moscow’s plans to send an aircraft carrier through the English Channel as a sign of open defiance over Syria.

According to Shipman, the article was written two days before Bozza’s surprise announcement that he would campaign to leave the EU.

So the story goes; he had already written one Telegraph column arguing a case for leaving, then wrote the Remain piece as a way of clarifying his thoughts, before doing a final pro-Brexit one for publication.

Sky News’ Jon Craig goes behind the scenes on the intrigue in what appears more reminiscent of Brian Rix than the likes of Jim Hacker or Malcolm Tucker. But for the rest of us, it does make it ever more difficult to appear positive when faced with the usual down-the-pub attacks about how you can’t believe half of what you read in the papers.

Problem is, if much of the cringe-worthy rhetoric spouted either side of the mistimed-misjudged and miscalculated Brexit vote is examined closely enough, you probably can’t.Certainly, one campaign not afraid of advancing that notion, and gaining traction in the process, has been Reasons2Remain which goes as far as listing no less than 300 of them so far. That's one of their graphics above.

In tandem with others, it’s the work of the former BBC investigative reporter Jon Danzig, not one I've ever known to pull his punches – and, from first reading, appears to do a far better job of challenging the sort of outrageous spin, half-truths and downright untruths behind the Leave campaign than David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Corbyn could muster between them.

Otherwise, they wouldn’t be either out of a job, or struggling to keep them - and the country wouldn’t be in the desperate state it is now.

It’s gloomy reading in places but worth bookmarking as there's, sadly, lots more to come.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

'Even hardened newsmen' . . . and other myths

I remember as a teenage copy boy back in the day making a point of reading the text beneath the red pen lines of the subbed copy I had to dash off to the composing room. I did it because a likely lass who'd been in the job a few months longer warned me not to.

Too gruesome, she said. The bits they take out. But I was young. So these were the juicy bits the guys in green eye shades had all the fun of censoring.

It was an early insight into the complexities of news judgment and prompted me to ask a foreign corr, on the rare occasion one would speak spoke to an oik like me, why such detail would make even the first draft.

He gave me two replies. The first, in the formality of the office, was simply that "I just report. I leave all that to the subs." The second, after a few pints down the pub, was more revealing. He loved to convey whatever sense of drama or danger he could because it gave the job more of an edge.

The fact is, I was left for a long time with the impression that I was less likely to end up in therapy working on a subs desk than if I was in a war zone. Reading about atrocities second-hand and cropping the gore out of AP photos couldn't be as traumatic as seeing it first hand.

Odd then that, as I was to later discover, the few times I got close to anything uncomfortable as a reporter, the effect was minimalised, neutralised even, by the involvement of third parties such as police, rescuers, forensic teams and the like.

And the very few times I've gone home with a feeling that sleep may be hard to come by has been as a result of things I'd read, sometimes repeatedly over the course of a shift, updating and expanding as details emerged and having to absorb and understand in enough graphic detail to be able to effectively sanitise.

It feels almost gratuitous to elaborate so I won't, save to say that it was the mere realisation that what I was dealing with were actual events involving real people - sometimes as young as my own children were at the time, if that gives a clue, rather than scenes from something screened after the 9pm watershed.

It was no surprise then to learn that the likes of Storyful and Reported.ly and other eyewitness organisations are having to adopt policies to protect their, I imagine quite youngish, staff from the worst effects of days spent trawling social feeds and coming across what Storyful’s news projects chief Derek Bowlder describes as “unmediated and graphic evidence of brutality”.

One of the reasons the organisation has teamed up with a Dublin-based counselling service to introduce an Employee Assistance Program which lets them seek help in confidence if they feel unduly affected.

And all power to them. It's not that long ago an expression of disgust at an unsavoury scenario or other would have been met with an empathetic nod but a request for "a few minutes' fresh air" would have prompted raised eyebrows and a dismissed with a simple: “wuss”.