Monday, October 30, 2006

Beware the serial-skiller

Multi-tasking is a vogue phrase and should be consigned to the corporate training manual.

OK, so this from someone who used to take shorthand notes, dash down the steps of St Albans Crown Court, grab the 35m Practica he'd left with the copper on the door (bottle of Jack Daniels at Christmas) and snap away at the defendant as he left for the night.

That was the murky and highly-competitive world of the seventies stringer but it does bear me out on one point: had the copy I filed to that night's Evening Standard been as dodgy as the snatch shot that emerged from the darkroom, I'd have starved to death years ago.

The point is that you can take multi-tasking too far. And in the scramble for change that is newspapers today, I fear that's just what may be happenning.

It's one thing to have your reporters appreciate they have more than one publishing platform (I forced it down their necks at the Telegraph for years) but quite another to imagine you can create a Universal-Soldier-style journalist of the future whose "skill sets" (one more for the manual) slot perfectly into any task. They can't and they shouldn't.

I once pulled a sub out of the pub in my Mirror days because his "touch" was perfect for a late feature; I hand-picked the writer I wanted to cover a complex fraud trial on my local paper and I once stood aside, as a reporter when an editor decided an older face was needed on a doorstep.

As a digital editor, I became the subject of pub gossip when, having promoted one guy into the highest production role on the site, I later refused to consider him for news editor. His organisational, technical and "people" (yup, one more for the manual)skills were superb. He just hadn't got the same track record in breaking news. Others, who I'd placed behind him at the time of his earlier promotion, had. Sadly, he quit.

Everyone who worked for me in the past five years multi-tasked - but in the technical sense. I had people who could do things with photographs a passport forger would be proud of. But I wouldn't want them writing tomorrow's splash. And I've heard some of the best writers around express real fears over the prospect of sitting in front of a microphone.

At the highest level, specialist skills developed over years, are what makes a newspaper or magazine great. Mix and match and you dilute.

OK, so there are those who take to absolutely everything like ducks to water. And don't we just love them. But the key is to get the fit right: playing to your strengths by playing to their strengths.

When we win the World Cup with Michael Owen in goal, Paul Robinson dancing past defenders on the left wing and the first-team physio stepping up for that deciding penalty, I'll eat my words.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Followed the link from my old site to the virtual cock-ups highlighted by Doh the humanity and, not for the first time, thought: there but for the grade of God.

The great thing about Web publishing is the way the errors can be lost forever with a single trouch of the refresh key. Not like the time I spent as an agency reporter filing over a noisy phone to a rookie copytaker that a defendant claimed that he was "in Spain at the time".

Greatful thanks to the sharp eye - and enormous bollocking - from the Evening Standard's copytasting legend Joe Dray who realised that the accused's Alicante alibi did not mean he was "insane at the time".

But my far and away favourite was the time one of the TV text services (honestly, can't recall which) managed to mash together the first two pars of the Lee Bowyer, Johnathan Woodgate affray hearing with the third and fourth pars of a totally unrelated - and far more serious - stabbing case.

No refresh button there. As we assembled round the screen in ever greater numbers - on several floors as word got around - the whole lot pixelated before our eyes. Never seen that before.

And I guess there's one text producer who sincerely hopes we never will.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Spent the evening talking to students at Epsom College last night. I was one of a dozen or so wheeled in from the outside world to help 15 and 16 year olds decide on a career path.

I just sat among them chatted for a few minutes about how the media is expanding; how new platforms are changing the skill requirements and so on - then left them to fire questions at me. The thinking being: if they want to be journalists, they need to get used to asking questions.

Bearing in mind parents pay £20,000+ for them to be there, I was expecting them to come thick and fast.

It may have been a sign of the confidence in that sort of education that none of them asked me about the qualifications required. Every time I've spoken at a state school, they're mad keen to know the minimum entry requirements.

Apart from the usual, 'how well does it pay?', I was quizzed on doorstepping adventures, being shot at, sued, receiving death threats and working seven days a week. I left the first group feeling rather guilty, having concluded by asking: "well, whaddya think?" And getting a unanimous shaking of heads. "Sounds far too stressful," said one.

After a short break and a glass of wine with the oither speakers I returned for the second session - and talked about meeting famous people.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I've been out of full-time work for two months now. Apart from a 14-day period at the outset (August - everyone on holiday) my feet haven't touched the ground. I've just completed 14 days on the trot - yes, weekends too - and am looking forward to a day off tomorrow when I will get up late, go for a jog, probably relax in the bath to The Magic Flute , try not to watch even the opening scenes of Mutant X on Freeview and, come 11.30ish, log on.

Not to write but to read: about the latest in news aggregation, multi-media convergence, mediamorphosis, digital demographics and delivery mechanisms and the emergence of moblogs.

Does anyone remember the days when journalism teaching meant showing people how to write?

One example I won't have to look far for is that of an idle blogger. But then again, I have an excuse.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

You can only teach so much journalism in class. For years, I’ve been taking the pick of my students on work experience placements and being told: “I learned more there in three weeks than I did in three years at college.”

Of course you did, I say. Three weeks of doing is worth three years of listening in anyone’s money, certainly when it comes to getting a practical feel for the job. And especially if you are pressed to actually work - and not just make the tea.

Which is why I always stuck to certain guidelines when sifting the request from third years: only take the ones who sit at the front, turn up on time, every time, read the stuff on the reading list, hand their work in on time, every time - and get (by and large) the best marks.

I used to berate those who strolled in mid-lecture and ask at the close of play for notes. And I used to refuse entry on project work to those who drifted in at around the third week having decided their first choice was boring.

So imagine how I felt on Saturday when a mature MA student who drove every day from his home in Kent to Harrow for 9.30 to ensure he was ready for a 10am start on a previous course was the only one waiting for me for the start of the next.

Of the nine booked to study online journalism, another turned up at 10.20, another at 10.45 and two more at around 11.30. I asked each when they “thought the course was due to start?” and had little by way of reply when the chap from Kent questioned whether he was getting value for money as he waited for the course to begin four and three-quarter hours after he left home.

Perhaps they should all be offered work experience and given set tasks from day one. The almighty bollocking they’d get for daring to enter journalism without any regard for deadlines would be the best lesson they could have.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I now have five courses running at two universities. The latest sees me travel to Surrey once a week to teach print media in the digital age to 60-odd students. The day begins with a lecture on the top floor of an eight-storey tower and then taking smaller seminar groups in a series of rooms in another building.

The module is in its second year and I'm delivering it from someone else's handbook which means downloading the reading list each week and bringing myself up to speed on the slow train from Waterloo. Provided the students follow suit, we're all on the same page. Problem is, not enough do. Students eh?

This week the topic was convergence. Easy call there. Told some of the keenest to go to the Media pages at and search for Telegraph and digital newsroom. Wish I hadn't. Lots of discussion. Not much about digital/print convergence though.

Missing the Blackberry more and more.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A week since the last blog. A week since I snubbed a princess. Two digital strategy documents, an internal review of a B2B company, a handful of PR 'chats' and 160 students at two universities later, I am knackered in a way I never knew when I was 'working' full time. Two regrets: my appalling time management (I have snubbed friends like you'd never believe) and my lack of Blackberry. Time to address both.