Friday, November 28, 2008

The future - in a single breath

I spoke to students and academics at Kings College this week, wired for sound.

Apparently, the entire 60-minutes is to be transcribed word-for-word for a university paper, which is why I had to wear a lapel microphone as I delivered a lecture on the problems facing newspapers in the digital age.

I'm not sure anyone is going to relish the task of typing up my remarks. But for the more fortunate, here in 150 words are the highlights of my advice to publishers:

Make integration work on a technical level before you integrate people and workflows/Don't ditch your print edition until you can afford to ditch your brand/don't imagine you'll have the same pulling power online when faced with more organic and innovative competition/Be honest that the main point of integration is to cut jobs – and cut the right ones/Give blog space to new voices with something to say, not to corporates trying to appear on-message/Tailor your content to the actual medium and not to your perception of how it should be/Remember you are multi-media so don't treat any platform as a favourite son/Listen to those on the front line working with technology you don’t understand/Integrate best practice from both sides of the divide/Don't try to model yourself on something you’re not/Make SEO work for you, don't work for it/Re-structure staffing around key strengths and forget the romantic myth of the multi-media journalist - and never, ever, use the word content.

I'm not sure that'll spare a typist an afternoon's work, but it brought me down to earth, reducing my “keynote” address to a glorified nib.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Such gaffes are no laughing matter

I look forward to Simon Heffer’s missives to Telegraph staff more and more. The latest was doing the rounds on Wednesday, a classic, and one that, while entertaining, worried me for one reason: the more mistakes he catches, the wittier are the ripostes.
Among the latest gems, we had phrases that told us:

If you sleep with dogs you get flees
You can connect things to a computer with a UBS cable.
Russell Brand, was not "descent".
There were "peels of thunder".
Someone "seems let to loose" something.
A cook made a meal with suede and carrots
A Liberal Democrat MP was called Normal Baker

And on it goes… including the classic mention of the fact that Lucian Freud's unfinished portrait of Francis Bacon was completed in 1967.

All very amusing. But about 12 years ago, as a down-table sub there, I let through a nib on Randolph Churchill (spelt Randolf). The next morning the managing editor, Andrew Hutchinson, had his secretary call me for “an explanation”. I then endured a ritual bollocking in which involved a glass of wine, the words, “if you are to remain a Telegraph sub” and having to sit in a glass box while the rest of the 3pm shift filed in past us.

Needless to say, I didn’t do it again.

But, had my gaffe been reduced to the folly of a jolly round-robin email, I may well have done.

As we used to in those days, subs please note . . .

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ross and Brand fail the screen test

The complaints that forced the suspension of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand had less to do, I fear, with the rather juvenile, but otherwise (let’s be honest) harmless messages on Andrew Sachs’ answering machine – and more to do with the webcam images screened when the row first broke.

The transcript seemed to suggest they’d had a liquid lunch. But the images were far more disturbing. The sight of two of the biggest beneficiaries of licence-payers money acting like stag-night karaoke stars while supposedly at work for our public service broadcaster were what jammed the BBC switchboard.

But, let’s be honest, it was a disaster waiting to happen. That these highly talented and experienced broadcast professionals were caught out by a camera defies belief.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The dangers in parish pump

My village magazine has done it again. Hard on the heels of a contempt so blatant I now use it as a teaching aid, this week's issue sees it questioning a court’s decision to jail a teenage sex pest.

After about five pars of routine evidence - including a bit of questionable description that could well identify the unnamed youth - it suddenly began to editorialise, chipping in with lines such as how the defendant must be "in denial" and that the offence was "clearly not a one-off".

Hopefully, a circulation of a few thousand may help to mitigate in the unlikely event that the judge decided to refer it up the line, and I wasn’t in court so don’t know if there was any privileged basis on which to base such comments, but that’s not the point.

Publications like this are springing up all over the place. Rather like the Gestetner-produced leaflets and newsletters that emanated from the Amstrad boom of the 80s, everyone is a publisher these days.

Except that, when you have a 120-odd page glossy with a high advertising ratio and a clearly well-organised circulation network, it does become more than a more back-bedroom affair. I know these organisations can’t afford a £500-an-hour night lawyer to peruse their copy, but a copy of Essential Law for Journalists could be theirs for under £20.

One amusing point: in their attempt to hype up the fact that they actually had a story, they flagged it: The story others would not print!

They clearly didn’t understand it was a fairly trivial local court case, not something that would catch the eye of the agency lads I know well who cover St Albans Crown Court for the nationals.

But they may well have unwittingly hit on the fact that local papers simply don’t have the resources to send anyone to court any more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Back home and nothing changes

While I was sunning myself on the Amalfi Coast, Max Hastings was predicting darker days for newspapers with a James Cameron Memorial lecture attack on multi-skilling.

Further down the pile of industry comment set as aside for post-holiday reading was the announcement that Newsquest had become even further ingrained in the multi tasking bandwagon by replacing subs with multimedia journalists and giving them a breathless 31-point job description that included everything bar doing the delivery round.

And under that were two widely leaked emails from top brass at the Express and the Telegraph bemoaning the sort of schoolboy errors that would hold parish magazines to ridicule.

But just when all seemed lost, I received in my inbox an invitation to a PPA training course on effective subbing with a promise to: “Develop you copy writing skills!” (their screamer, incidentally. The laughter was all mine).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Puff and be damned

Should Journalism students be taught how to write press releases? Teachers at Highbury College in Portsmouth think so. As well as commendably giving them patches to cover around town and encouraging them to find exclusives, they are now being given the chance to learn new skills in a project run in conjunction with the campus marketing department.

Apparently, the marketing people feel it will give them an advantage when it comes to finding jobs. I’m not sure what advantage that would be – or what jobs they’re thinking of - but I can’t help feeling the future of journalism would be best served if they maintained a healthy distance.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The dangers of self-publishing

I've had a chuckle in the past about the endearing nature of the community newspaper: those in which poems share column inches with carnival pictures, wartime reminiscences and appeals for missing cats.

A combination of bespoke publishing advanvces and diminishing local coverage by the regional press has fueled their rise in many towns and villages. In some cases, they are hobbyist; the product of too much time on the hands of someone with good intent. In others, they are genuinely filling an information gap, an argument proffered by the publishers of the controversial new wave of council-run newspapers.

Some, like my local one, look on the face of it, to be highly viable businesses, judging by the amount of advertising and the fact that it seems to have a proper distribution network (it comes through my door and I see it in the local Budgens).

But there's a major difference between the Town Hall Times and the Living room Leader that publishers of the latter need to be aware of. The council offerings are compiled to some extent by professionals: usually a PR department staffed by NCTJ-trained former local paper reporters. The parish mags are run by those with no such experience, and here lies the danger.

I'm reading mine now. It's 114 pages, A4, glossy cover, packed with advertising and listings and has just treated itself to a redesign, courtesy of a local ad agency. With this new look comes a newfound confidence that has seen it add the word News prominently to its masthead.

And news there is; stories of vandalism, a school fete being washed out and a host of feel-good people stories of awards for this and that.

But it’s when they stray into the realms of serious journalism that things come unstuck.

The lead story tells of a woman's "miracle escape" from injury in a car crash. It has the headline: "Lady hit head-on by drunk driver". It's explicit in its detail; telling how the “drunk” swerved out in front of her and questioning how he could be so stupid. It goes on to say he was “led away by police”, almost hit another car and that the driver of that car witnessed the whole thing.

The only problem is, the driver she blames for this near-death experience, the magazine reports, has just been charged with drinking and driving.

And if you're wondering why I've not included any geographical details relating to this story – it’s because I don't want to risk the same contempt charges one hapless editor must be facing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Don’t press me, I’m a journalist

Ian Reeves’ Media Guardian splash about the latest troubles at Press Gazette made uncomfortable reading: not just because it marks the demise of a magazine I've read for 35 years, but because the bickering and smarting behind the scenes painted a rather pathetic picture of an industry not at all at ease with itself.

I was particularly galled, but not a bit surprised, by his tales of editors bleating every time they were faced with the sort of direct questioning they demand every day from their own reporters.

We've long been guilty of dishing it out but not being able to take it. I could hold court for hours with tales of writers trying to suppress totally legitimate stories that involve them. From the NUJ branch meeting in the seventies where I was lobbied to “go easy” on a member up in court following a drunken rampage to the stringer involved in a serious car crash who recently rang just about everyone in my office to beg them not to cover his case.

But that's almost excusable set against Reeves' examples of editors who bleated when they didn't win awards.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Even more of what subbing is about


It's Budget day. You've been given the personal finance spread to lay out and sub. You’ve been told to expect an overlong wrap-up within half an hour of the Chancellor sitting down, a couple of case histories from families who can no longer pay their mortgages, a graphic littered with beer glasses, monopoly houses and palm trees and an analysis from the IFA who writes the Mr Pursestrings column.

The wrap, when it arrives 20 minutes late, is way, way too long; loads of reaction quotes that dropped off the splash now have to find a home with you and you're told you may have to accommodate a turn so leave space for a single-column to fill.

Any problems? Well, one or two stats in the graphic conflict with those in the text, the name of the single mum in the case history is spelt two ways and the intro ends with .... for the first time since records began in ???? (subs please check).

Oh, and with all the finance subs deployed elsewhere, you've been given a couple of slash-and-burn boys from the sports desk who cut from the end whatever.

Ten minutes before deadline, the analysis comes through. It more or less fits but the Budget Byron’s poetic prose is so ambiguous you don’t know where to start on the headline. Is he being sarcastic when he says the vehicle excise hike will help the environment by taxing us off the road?

You jot down a couple of queries and ring the City desk. He’s not there, so you nip round the corner and find him, on deadline, all white teeth and Beaujolais cheeks in the glass box, vodcasting his stripey red braces off.


Point made. Point ends.

Friday, July 11, 2008

More of what subbing is about . . .

Scenario two

A nazi war criminal is being brought to trial in Eastern Europe. He is 85, confined to a wheelchair and is pushed into court by a nurse. It's a preliminary hearing but the charges are read in detail the nurse sheds a tear. He struggles to hear. There are demonstrations, the occasional outburst; lots of colour and the writer has captured all of it, a fact not lost on the editor who thinks its a great piece.

The chief sub gives it to you and tells you to be sensitive: the editor loves every word.

But there are 300 too many. You've got to cut it by a third but not lose a thing. The good news is you have 90 minutes to do it. The bad news: it includes the headline that has to sing, a strap, a standfirst, two pull quotes and five captions.

What the hell, you get to work the text.

This is bespoke tailoring. If you’re on form, the chief sub won't see the join. And neither will the editor.

And the writer will thank you.


More follows . .

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lest we forget . . . what subbing is really about


Memo to all second year BA students taking the print pathway newspaper production module next semester (and anyone else remotely interested in what it takes to get a newspaper out).

You've hopefully been following the debate about the future of subs and some of you may wonder whether it's worth turning up to learn anything about what's being cited as a dying trade.

It is. The scare stories are b*****ks (use of stars will be debated under the style briefing). What follows is not a defence of a craft but a series of real scenarios that will demonstrate the sort of pressures you may face in later life: whether you are called a sub, a producer, a page designer, a copy editor, part of a pod, hub, desk or remote indesign operation..

Three escaped prisoners are spotted on the Isle of Wight, 30 minutes before first edition deadline. A space is cleared on the front for six pars.

You have three PA snaps and some online cuts of the original breakout. There’s more on its way though, so off you go.

Fifteen minutes and a PA snapfull later the BBC are saying two of the three have been arrested so you hedge your bets with the intro. Five minutes on, the newsdesk confirm it but they’re not sure which two.

The page is sent but it's to be slipped immediately. Meantime, a local stringer nails it: there are no arrests but two of the three have been spotted. He thinks police have them cornered. The story is still moving. The whereabouts of the third is unknown. You have a story, of sorts. But it’s ready to go.

PA then say the pair were spotted by an off-duty warden. The same warden blamed for their escape. So, you’ve got an intro.

Meanwhile, a ferry has been told it can't dock until all three are caught and the wires are full of highly quotable but conflicting witness reports.

Three minutes to deadline. Sub it straight to the page, word perfect as you can and three decks of 20pt.

The page goes again and you're off for the third edition. It's now the splash. Sid next to you is subbing the current splash into the turn on page two, the basement moves up to a single column top, opening a deep oblong to make way for some pictures and give it welly.

You check your inbox. The copytaster has sent you seven takes from PA, five agency, three direct from the newsdesk and two crisp quotes he added himself direct from Sky News. Sid has finished shoehorning his economy in crisis yarn into P2 only to be told it's now the page four lead. The turn is all yours. Can you fill?

Of course you can. You've got 45 minutes and about 2,000 words to boil into 500-odd. You've opened up a new file and you're cutting and pasting chunks of them from every source you have into some sort of order.

In your head, you're subbing from the third par down. Sky have just flashed up one arrest. It'll be a different intro by the time the edition goes but the rest will be word perfect. The picture desk come over with four images and some scribbled info for the captions. The chief sub (in no mood to repeat himself as he's got four pages to reshuffle) dumps a layout on your desk and tells you where they all go. You take in most of it.

Sid goes to the canteen to get you something cold for later and you get to work. There's a grey cardigan in the prodnose chair; he thinks you’re a tosser and he's chief subbing all next week. One widow, one solecism, on style gaffe and your subbing nibs Sunday to Friday.

Meanwhile, the newsdesk say they're doing a write-through. There's a young casual reporter from the Evening Examiner "pulling it all together".

His missive arrives on deadline. You glance at it for anything new and then spike. This began a sub’s story and it’ll end a sub's story.


More follows . . .

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Another publishing error - and this time you can't blame subs

Wasn't it this week that consultaion began on job cuts at City AM - a move which would see all the subs kicked out and the writers left to sub their own copy.

Must be judging by the unusual sloppiness in what is normally a tighly-subbed paper on Monday; (awful widow on splash), bizarre syntax (house prices fell for the ninth month in the row), awkward headlines (London Eye owner reports financial figures) to name a few.

Either they've gone already or they're still there and have something understandably more pressing on their minds.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Look and learn

Never one to miss a chance to say I told you so, I was delighted to see the East London Advertiser's Ted Jeory winning the weekly paper reporter of the year title in this year's Regional Press Awards.

I singled out the story that won it for praise in this blog months ago and suggested that all junior reporters read his account of how he did it and learn what real journalism is all about.

Still worth a read for those who missed it.

(I wasn't on the judging panel by the way).

Monday, June 16, 2008

If only I had an ark big enough . . .

A former Telegraph colleague emailed me this morning to point out that I’d been missed from a roll call of departees on the media guardian site. The piece concluded by asking if it had missed anyone?

I couldn’t elongate the list of more than 80 I’m afraid as I departed nearly two years ago and this lot had either jumped ship or been pushed overboard in the past 12 months.

But what a line-up. From editors to section heads to reporters to support staff of every discipline; it included some of the best names to grace their pages for a generation.

Headhunters take note. There’s the staff of entire a national newspaper there – and a bloody good one if only you could get them under one roof.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Shorthand - no short cuts

Sanity appeared to prevail in the lively debate sparked by Charlie Becket’s Polis blog on the future of shorthand teaching.

He reported on a London College of Communications validation meeting at which the relevance of shorthand teaching was questioned. The debate got a bigger airing when it appeared on Martin Stabe’s Wired blog. Thankfully, most of those who joined in were student journalists who took themselves seriously and were adamantly against the suggestion.

What worries me is that it was on the agenda at all? It is a core skill and one of the few that can’t easily be learned on the job. I’d question the credentials of anyone in education who thinks otherwise.

The only thing that interests me as an employer is not whether someone has shorthand, or even whether they use Pitman or Teeline - but how many words per minute they have.

Tape recorders are fine for sit-down interviews but are not relevant to day-to-day newsgathering. Reporters should use them like subs use spell-check.

And I’d never employ either if they couldn’t work without them.

Monday, May 26, 2008

No photographs? You're havin' a laugh

I witnessed comic history on Friday when I joined more than 15,000 at London’s O2 Arena to see Chris Rock beat Lee Evans’ record for the biggest audience for a live comedy gig.

A one and a half hour music-free, prop-free monologue of sex, race, politics, race and more race was probably worth paying £50 for, joining a queue for a drink that took the entire interval and a queue to leave that took 30 minutes to get outside, but that’s showbiz.

But I reserved the biggest laugh for the pre-concert announcement to comply with the artiste’s wishes for no photography during the show. Stewards then found themselves running up and down the aisle shooting chiding glances at those who did what they did at every other concert - and snapped away merrily with their phones.

Two nights later, a hand reached across to my £85 seat at the Coliseum and patted me on the back during the Liza Minnelli concert. The steward couldn’t reach the woman filming a few seats up and asked me to pass on her disapproval.

I did, only out of politeness, but have to say I felt that sanity returned later during the encore when a few dozen en masse began to flash away.

I’m the first to jump up and down when someone breaches my copyright and am no stranger to litigation when my interests need protecting. But these days every ticket-holder is a photographer and promoters would do well to wake up to that.

Besides, when you ask that number of people to pay those prices (plus, in the case of the Coliseum an extra £5.50 for a small glass of ordinary white wine) and expect them to keep their phones in their pockets when the performers do their best to ramp up the excitement, I think you’re taking the Michael with an M.

Friday, May 09, 2008

A question of trust (part two)

I’m sorry to have missed the launch of Adrian Monck’s book last week as it fell right on deadline. But I gather there were lively exchanges, as you’d expect for a work with such a controversial title as Can You Trust The Media?

Andrew Gilligan didn’t seem convinced by his assertion that the waning trust may not be quite such a crisis after all. But I’m on Monck’s side on this one.

When I began lecturing in the mid nineties I mischievously collected samples of some of the dodgiest newspaper practices. For example, all first editions the day after a serial killer was jailed, and pinned them up alongside each other to show headlines such as “Ten more victims”; “He killed dozens more say police”; “The Search begins for 100s more”.

Same story, different take. But how could this happen, I'd ask? Was it the reporting or the source? In this case it was a moment of madness that was a five-minute post-trial press conference, with the official response: "Well, there are ten people unaccounted for that we know about. It's not inconceivable that there are many we don't know about. How many would that be? Think of a number. It's pure speculation at this stage."

Headline writers, take your pick.

They joined a growing collection as I began to enthusiastically archive pages that were a. pulled after the first edition; b. only ever went abroad before being pulped; c. never actually made it into print; d. got a senior exec or two sacked.

The reaction? A good laugh. Interesting points made but a light touch to break up the heavy stuff. Did it deter them from reading - or writing for - newspapers? Don’t be daft. And did they matter a jot when I brought them out after a dinner party? Not a bit.

Why? There was no real trust there in the first place, merely an acceptance that we can generally read between the lines when we need to and our natural scepticism will spare us from being conned.

Since then, our attitudes to media consumption have changed. We know what to accept, what to dismiss and what to use merely as a point of reference.

I'm talking generally here. And I’m not talking major exclusives.

But look at it this way: a commuter on the 6.32 from Waterloo who picks up a discarded red top will no more believe Elvis is living on the moon than that the small ad on page 52 can make him attractive to women. But neither will destroy his confidence in the media or singles nights.

The importance of the message depends on the level of trust he places in the messenger. TV awards aside, strong images and reporters in flak jackets will generally get a good response, first person headlines about soap stars in the Sunday tabs will not.

A local paper will be trusted by and large (and that’s the point) because the issues it deals with matter to its readers and, given that many of their stories will be exclusive in the purest sense, there are fewer points of reference to test their scepticism.

Even if the Weekly Bugle says Fred Toadstool is 52 when you know for a fact he's 56, you’ll accept the mistake at face value because the paper’s perceived raison d’etre (planning applications, real people’s weddings, death notices) is to inform, not to grab attention at any cost.

A national paper will invariably be merely one of many reference points for a reader following a story on many platforms; the bigger the story, the greater the outlets. Angles will vary and some facts will differ but, in the main, the key ones won't.

It's a game of averages. What really matters is that a paper has to be seen to get it right most of the time but be trying to get it right all the time.

Levels of trust will vary according to experience. Readers like victims of crime, are a product of their experiences.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A question of trust (part one)

I was on the middle bench of the Sunday Mirror the day they bought up the boyfriend of Julie Ward, the year old safari girl killed in an African game reserve. It was to be the splash, the headline was already written and my job was to shoehorn it on to the page.

I gave it to one of my top subs, a woman in her early thirties, and set to work on the subdeck and then an extraordinary thing happened. She sent it back. Resolutely refused to have any input whatsoever.

Why? Did she know the girl? Was this too close to home in some other way? No, the reason, she insisted: “It was utter bollocks.”

Surely there was nothing dodgy about intimate, unsubstantiated, descriptions of passion in the Kenyan moonlight and the appalling headline; Safari girl Julie's last sex-crazed night.

Don’t answer that. Years later it joined a few dozen anecdotes on a list I trot out from time to time when debating ethics with students.

This week Prof Adrian Monck, whose charges at City University I occasionally speak to, gave me a few more with his book Can You trust the media?

He cites many examples of trust erosion from the shark photographs Kevin Keeble didn’t take in Cornwall to the bogus drug addict story that landed Janet Cooke a Pulitzer prize.

This isn’t supposed to be a book review but I will get to the point and highly recommend it as a pretty decent work on the state of journalism as he puts succinctly on paper what we all know but rarely publicly admit: our main priority is to gain as much of the public's time as we can, rather than inform. And their trust is eroded in the process.

He refers to it here and there as a crisis but explores it rather coolly and with little sense of panic. There's some good analysis too, especially for the sociologically-minded; not all of Fleet Street swallowed the dodgy dossier story, bad news did more to boost morale than good news in the WW2, for example. And he puts a realistic perspective on the so-called power of the citizen journalist.

But he sees light at the end of the tunnel and offers a few solutions, which - suppose, is what you'd expect from an educator.

Personally, I welcome any work that intelligently questions what we do and how we do it. Ever since Lies Damned Lies I've been comfortable with being uncomfortable, if that makes sense.

Monck’s book is not quite the gloom and doom of Nick Davies's Flat Earth News and his publishers are quick to point this out. But I don't see it as a head-to-head. Their debates launch from different premises. Where Davis exposes, Monck examines and discusses.

I'm drawn to these works, having seen at first hand many excesses over the years. None of them made me want to quit, join the PCC or leave my drink on the bar in the last chance saloon.

And I've bookmarked a few passages for use in a lecture theatre somewhere near you, sometime soon. I share his passion in nurturing the talent of the future, but it’s always good to let them know what they're coming into.

More on this later . . .

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Never write off the sub

Archant have lost the plot if they imagine for a moment that shedding 20 subs and replacing them with £18,OOO-a-year advertising designers at their Suffolk papers is anything but the most na├»ve false economy.

But of far greater worry is the way it once again opens the whole subs-are-a-thing-of-the-past debate.

Roy Greenslade immediately opened a can of worms on his blog by reaffirming a point he's made before - that they'll be the first victims of the digital revolution. Eddie Shah told me the same during the last publishing revolution - two months before back-to-back subbing shifts actually got Today on to the shelves.

Sorry, but I won’t budge on this: the reality is that subs are absolutely essential, both for print and for integrated newsrooms.

The contribution of print subs extends far beyond the fact-checking and grammar-policing in the job descriptions. Anyone who's tried to see off stone seven editions of a Sunday newspaper with three of their top table away, their splash sub sick and a group of casuals drafted in from some of the Mirror Group's more junior titles will know what I mean when I say they're the engine room. I have the scars to prove it.

The more interesting scenario is the digital one, particularly as technology marches us towards total integration.

This is one area growing more heavily dependent on subs, albeit working in a slightly different way and, I confess, probably in time under a different name. Nonetheless, the vision of a serious journalist writing serious copy straight to page is a fantasy.

You only have to look at some of the straight-to-web puffery that slips under the radar as online “content” to see what I mean.

Be that as it may; if anyone is thinking of doing away with the digital, integrated, sub, ask yourself the following:

Who will Photoshop those pictures, moderate those comments, embed those MP3 files, write two decks of 24pt across three cols - and a standfirst - and rejig the lot for SEO? Who will write a caption that knits together three pictures on page five, then 15 more for an online gallery, complete with links? Who will classify/categorise/tag each story and rewrite ten homepage headlines every hour to keep them fresh?

Sorry, I nearly forgot: turn 700 words of repetitive drivel (written at speed by someone under pressure to bash it out on the way to the podcast studio) into 300 that’ll grab a browsing reader a click away from a more succinct version – and keep him coming back and back as the story progresses in real time?

It won't be the writer. It won't be an "advertising designer", It may not even be the team effort that currently comprises the print sub and the ill-fated web producer; it'll be the sub of tomorrow using the technology of tomorrow.

That’s a long-winded way of saying what a good sub would summarise in two points:

1. We should be debating the changing role of the sub, not their demise.

2. The wheel shouldn't be reinvented by those who think its square.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Who's spinning who? The debate goes on

The BBC's economics editor Jeremy Hillman kept the Flat Earth News debate on the boil by telling a PR and the Media conference that up to 15 per cent of the corporation's news output is PR-oriented and accusing fellow reporters of becoming "copiers".

This was reported extensively in PR Week, the same magazine in which Brent Council's director of communications, Toni McConville, warned her peers to watch out for "pointless muck raking" by young reporters making FOI requests.

Both appear to add weight to Nick Davies' controversial findings. Not that it's anything other than blindingly obvious anyway.

Sadly, if conclusive proof were needed of spin-controlled media, surely Prince Harry's brief foray into Afghanistan takes the biscuit.

Peter Wilby hit the nail on the head in the The Guardian: you just can't put a price on that sort of spin.

Mind you, I did admire the tactical nous of the Palace spin machine. It’s the sort that wins wars.
For us Conrad, the party was over long ago

The jailing of Conrad Black has marked the end of an era for yet another larger-than-life media mogul.

But you may be surprised to learn that his passing was mourned a long time ago by many at Canary Wharf when he handed the keys of the Telegraph group.

Long before even the spectre of the first knife in the first back, there was a dire casualty - the drinks cabinet in the executive canteen.

Oh, those days. How we loved it when someone left (I mean voluntarily). Or the great and the good came to lunch. The wine, the speeches, the wine, the banter, the wine . . .

One handshake, a few signatures and a press release later and, well, put it this way, lunch hours became just that again.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Just how engaged is GMTV?

Didn't GMTV just plumb new depths this morning with yet another cringe-making stunt?

You could have scripted it: Feb 29, let's get a blushing wannabe bride-to-be to pop the question live on TV and set hearts a-flutter.

So they found Emma, a long-suffering DIY widow who has spent seven years booking romantic breaks for factory worker Mario without him once taking the hint and dropping to one knee.

Surely, a camera in his face and a few million dew-eyed viewers would clinch it. So, with the help of his mates on the shopfloor, they whipped the poor bloke upstairs for a bogus meeting while they sneaked in the cameras, a presenter and the hapless Emma eagerly waiting to become the happiest man in Hoddesden.

When they rounded the corner, hey presto! he was already kneeling, albeit at his machine and in his overalls, but, still, good sign. Enter on screen, Emma, cherubic, expectant, little box in hand flanked by not one, but two, cameras and what looked like a holiday camp MC with a microphone.

A short speech and Emma ask for his hand. Mario, bemused, eyes darting everywhere, looked bang to rights like a dodgy builder fronted up on Watchdog.

So, will he or won't he? "Yeah, awright" he said, adding when pressed: "She's a little bugger, she is."

And as Emma wept real tears of joy, the MC pressed him further,asking why he hadn't in all those years, made an honest woman of her. There was even the sound of violins.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, presenters Penny Smith and Andrew Castle were openly wetting thenselves as they spoke of how "thrilled" poor old Mario looked.

Then, cut to the factory. There was the couple, flowers in hand, getting into a car "for a bit of a chat", said Castle. I bet. "Have a nice weekend," he added as Smith fairly burst her sides.

If the engagement survives this, let's just hope the wedding video fares a little better.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Style, and doing it by the book

Interesting to see the Telegraph have updated their stylebook for the modern age. It's full of the traditional stylebook pomp, suited and booted by Simon Heffer, and includes for the first time references on how to write for multiple platforms.

For the uninitiated, stylebooks are a newspaper's workshop manual; they're there to ensure all the pages speak in one voice.

In practice, they can usually be summarised by a well-honed introduction setting out the basic aims and three to four pages of banned words, adopted spellings and a few quirks.

In reality, they are often an excuse for the Style Guru of the day to vent matters dear to his or her heart with a pithiness that underlines their ambition to be seen the next Leslie Sellers.

Often, the editor changes his mind (or the management change the editor) before the ink is dry and the keenest pedants eagerly await "the revised version" that never materialises. Meanwhile, everyone uses their common sense and defers to the wisdom they brought with them from their first job - or uses the search engine to find consensus.

They do provide important clarification on issues such as adopted spellings - do we write gipsy or gypsy? Is it fulfil or fulfill? And more: Can we say wed when we mean marry and is Xmas OK for headlines? (and is OK okay?)

Heffer’s offering answers these but also regurgitates loads of age old stuff that fatten up all style sheets and turn them into style books:

Birds Eye doesn’t have an apostrophe, McDonald's does; Cate Blanchett spells her name with a C; farther relates to distance, further means additional – all basic stuff that anyone on a national broadsheet should be able to recite in their sleep. And any intern reporter would be expected to Google before placing in the news editor's basket on a freesheet.

Often style is confirmed or amended on the spin. In 2001, Charles Moore had to think on his feet to confirm the spelling of Taliban (not the BBC’s Taleban). A few years earlier, Max Hastings, aware that young bucks like me were stealthily dumbing down the news pages, banned the words Youth and Celebrity. Moore later told me he had a problem with the way we were using Timeline on the web.

Bill Deedes had bequeathed Hastings the edict: never insult your worldly-wise readers by reminding them of Ministers' christian names. Thus: Mr Howe walked out of Mrs Thatcher's government and Mr Biffen expressed his regret.

The best style guru the Telegraph ever had was Andrew Hutchinson, the managing editor and reader ombudsman whose legendary and revered tome cautioned us against being flippant with the language, with the reminder: “Only Malays run amok.”

His gentlemanly bollockings of subs who failed to spot even the most minor error were legendary. “To err is human,” he told me years ago over a glass of wine in his glass box where my misery was on show to all. “To do it on the pages of the Daily Telegraph is quite another matter.”

He went on: “Never mind this missive had been written in haste by a foreign correspondent . . . passed by a harassed news desk . . . approved by the night editor . . . placed on a page by his lieutenant, the responsibility for this most heinous of spelling errors falls entirely on the shoulders of you, the sub editor.”

I’m not sure how he would have responded to Heffer’s latest assertion:

No journalist should expect his or her line editors to spot mistakes or solecisms or to be there to correct them. While executives handling copy and production journalists should be alert to any errors and should correct them when spotted, the responsibility for any that get into the paper will lie solely with the writer..

How times change. Wish I’d had that with me when I went for my spanking. Would have been more effective than a copy of Debretts down my trousers.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Don't ignore the Flat Earth warnings

Nick Davies's Flat Earth News revelations have become a real talking point but they shouldn't surprise anyone.

His main finding,backed by academic research, was that all but 12 per cent of stories published by Fleet Street's quality papers is original, the remainder consisting of reworked agency copy or PR material, thereby relegating what we do as "churnalism".

The papers at the heart of this expose, the Mail, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent either failed to comment or dismissed it with a few platitudes.

It was a feeble response. Anyone who's ever copytasted in Fleet Street will know just how embarrassingly accurate these findings are. The only revelation was in the sheer amount of recycling involved.

I do recall on the eve of a threatened strike at the Telegraph a few years back, telling anyone who'd listen that a few subs could produce the first 15 pages for weeks from PA, Reuters, and the massive wave of copy that flows by the minute into the corr-wire basket, probably without anyone noticing.

In fact, not merely once did I take a PA story for a first edition slot, only to get staff copy later and find some big-name byline has simply rewritten the same stuff I'd had subbed earlier. Often, the rewrite was not as good as the copy the sub had produced, so I just stuck a byline on it and slipped the page.

I look forward to studying Davies’ findings more closely but don't assume it'll it be a wake up call. In fact, it's going to get worse as digital becomes more dominant.

The push to web-first will mean that one of two things will happen:

1. Reporters asked to produce more versions of one story in more formats will, ipso facto, produce even less of anything original.

2. They will actually focus their attention on the exclusives we’re missing - and leave the breaking news to the agencies such as PA who are far better geared up to do it anyway.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Oh Lord, who's really in charge?

What a wonderful sitcom the Lords' communications committee has become as editor after editor is brought before them to justify who really wears the trousers on their papers.

Editorships are priveleged and powerful positions often steeped in legend, even if often of our own making, and it spoils the image to find they're often just people like the rest of us who do as they're told.

Whatever Rebekkah Wade says about Murdoch or Andrew Neil says about the Barclay Brothers, I'd personally save a bit of taxpayers dosh and retire them to the country with a handful of biogs.

I'd recommend Piers Morgan's The Insider (Murdoch), Max Hastings' Editor (Black) for starters. Brian MacArthur's Today and the Newspaper Revolution (Shah) was pretty insightful too. There's a few on Maxwell but, trust me when I say at least one is only useful for resting your cocoa mugs as you read into the night.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ron Hunt: telling it straight

I was sad to hear of the death of Ron Hunt, the editor who defied the NUJ for six months by bringing out Kettering's Evening Telegraph on his own in the bad old days of the late seventies.

I spent a little under a year there as a district reporter, a short while after the braziers had cooled - and after the mutton-chopped one had kindly let me choose my patch.

It was a toss up between Corby, a town reborn on the back of a thriving steelworks, a union hotbed and rampaging Scots who'd followed the work south, or Rushden, a dead-on-its-feet old boot-and-shoe town where "bugger all happens outside the Lions Club AGM".

I chose the Cobblers over the Gorbals because I reckoned its sleepiness was a front for the sort of salacious exclusives I'd been flogging to the red tops on my last paper. I came away with my six-quid-a-week better contract thinking Ron must be dead chuffed to have snared such a high-flyer and wondering how long he could hang on to him before Larry Lamb or Derek Jameson finally snapped him up.

A few weeks later, my old boss rang to see how I was getting on. I left out the bits about the pensioners' bring-and-buy and the guest speaker at the Probus Club and gushed on about the mole I was cultivating deep inside Thrapston Councl.

He said Ron would be delighted. He'd rung him for a reference, said he thought I was a cocky little t**t but would have to do because the strike had put a lot of good people off and he was desperate.

I did get a few exclusives, even though my other mole at Irthlingborogh Women Against Nuclear Proliferation never delivered and did get snapped up after eight months ... by the rival freesheet.

Hey-ho, onwards and downwards ...

Friday, January 18, 2008

It must be true. It's in the papers

Wires are always getting crossed between departments. It's embarrassing when you splash on Takeover deal imminent and the City desk runs a diary piece scotching rumours. But in the terrace talk and training ground whispers that is modern-day sports reporing, it's easy for the same desk to score an own goal.

Today's Metro (Page 67) has Alan Shearer experincing Shear Heartache "with [ex-Fulham nanager Chris] Coleman set to be King Kev's No.2

Turn two pages and Coleman looks to have ruled himself out of the running and Shearer, clearly a master of his own destiny, appears far from heartbroken when he make it clear: I don't know whether I want to be a number two.

Hardly singing from the same team sheet.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The truth is out there somewhere

Regular readers will know I'm always urging rookie reporters to dump from Big Brother and watch DVDs of Lou Grant. Well, I've more essential viewing for those with the stomach for it: Jeremy Kyle.

Not because it'll harden them up to vox pops on dodgy estates but for the sheer plausibility exhibited almost daily by the most accomplished liars.

The pick of them came on Thursday when a somewhat tasty geezer whose fibs had been rumbled by a lie detector the previous week, flatly and animatedly refused to admit he'd spent the night with his mistress or tried repeatedly to phone her before the next show so they could get their stories straight to avoid further embarrassment.

He stuck to his guns, even when his pal in the audience, albeit thick as a brickie's buttie, inadvertently shopped him. And when the mistress produced her phone to reveal nine missed calls from him, he still protested his innocence and insisted everyone was "'avin a larf".

Now that’s a reality show. And one that every rookie would do well to watch once in a while, if only to reaffirm what every old hand on the news desk will tell them: people lie their pants off, sometimes ever so convincingly, whenever it suits them to do so.