Thursday, December 28, 2006

Day off? Yule be lucky

It was great not having to work on Christmas Day. Don’t know why, but there was a tikme when I always seemed to draw the short straw and end up watching the Queen’s Speech on one of the TVs that dangled over the news desk.

The production editor used to say: don’t worry, it’s only a few pages, the night editor used to say: it’ll be a breeze. Nothing ever happens, the facilities manager used to say: we’re laying on food in the room next door.

Most years they were right. Until Ronnie Scott, the jazz musician, died which meant changing the obits page and problems formatting the chess column on the social page weren’t helped when I rang the social sub to find him prematurely pissed.

Then Richard Branson’s balloon made a crash landing in the sea just as we were closing the first – and supposedly only – edition. Four hours, two new splashes and a complete rehash of an early spread later, I left an empty building and got into my car, having exceeded the cheap stay rate at the Canary Wharf by a mile and was stung for an £18 ticket.

A few days later the social sub meandered over and handed me a crested letterhead. It was from Buckingham Palace wondering why our coverage of events at Balmoral was not as comprehensive as usual.

Belated apologies ma’am.
Day off? Yule be lucky

It was great not having to work on Christmas Day. Don’t know why, but there was a tikme when I always seemed to draw the short straw and end up watching the Queen’s Speech on one of the TVs that dangled over the news desk.

The production editor used to say: don’t worry, it’s only a few pages, the night editor used to say: it’ll be a breeze. Nothing ever happens, the facilities manager used to say: we’re laying on food in the room next door.

Most years they were right. Until Ronnie Scott, the jazz musician, died which meant changing the obits page and problems formatting the chess column on the social page weren’t helped when I rang the social sub to find him prematurely pissed.

Then Richard Branson’s balloon made a crash landing in the sea just as we were closing the first – and supposedly only – edition. Four hours, two new splashes and a complete rehash of an early spread later, I left an empty building and got into my car, having exceeded the cheap stay rate at the Canary Wharf by a mile and was stung for an £18 ticket.

A few days later the social sub meandered over and handed me a crested letterhead. It was from Buckingham Palace wondering why our coverage of events at Balmoral was not as comprehensive as usual.

Belated apologies ma’am.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Give me a break from the c-word

I don’t want to sound mean-spirited but if I read another headline in my local paper with Christmas in it, I’ll cancel my subscription and buy Watchtower. The latest edition of festive fonts in seasonal serif reminded me why I handed out humbugs to my staff at an editorial conference many Decembers ago.

My objection has nothing to do with political correctness, just an assault on the senses.

Page lead after page lead managed to shoehorn in the c-word. Apart from the usual round-up of seasonal events for local prisoners and patients and an interview with a Christmas card maker, we had a court report which told us a thief will be behind bars for Christmas, stolen ponies recovered in time for Christmas and a teacher retiring as the children broke up for Christmas.

Ok, there was a Citizens Advice piece on seasonal credit card debt, a picture of the local MP judging a Christmas card competition, but - get this - the sports pages carried headlines about the rugby team looking for a “points-filled Christmas” and a leading football club being in good shape for “the festive period”.

Even the splash came gift-wrapped. Under a sprig of holly in the masthead, the usual “seasons greetings”, puffs for a Christmas TV guide and a festive quiz sat a good yarn about police using a new law to close a drugs den. The headline? Christmas joy as police close crack house.

Christmas joy? Do I now have to look forward to “Happy Easter as jobless totals fall again? May Day delight as porn baron jailed? Rate rise means Solstice hell for shoppers?”

Memo to chief subs: a story is a story whatever the time of year. Which is what I told my young guns on one local weekly all those years ago. They weren’t best pleased: We can’t use Christmas in any headlines? What if the Arndale reports record Christmas sales? “Record sales” is fine, I said. People know what day it is. What if Father Christmas is mugged in his grotto? Use Santa it’s shorter, and more vulnerable. And if a single mum phones to say burglars have stolen all her starving children’s Christmas presents on Christmas Eve? Do me a favour: after you’ve used gifts, trees and tears, you’ll run out of space anyway.

And so it went on. My ears were burning at the office party later but I did concede to a touch of masthead mistletoe and one “highly relevant” 18pt s/col top:

Christmas chemists’ rota.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

No cause for alarm. It's simply deja vu

The Telegraph's new offices were briefly evacuated last night. For 15 minutes staff stood on the freezing pavements after a tannoy message announced an "emergency". It was a false alarm but it did left a few of them somewhat miffed.

For the longer serving faces who'd survived the countless cuts and can recall the early days of Canary Wharf, this may have been an unwelcome reminder of bygone days.

In those days, when the fabric of the newly-finished building creaked beneath your feet, the alarms went off all the time. Close to deadline, reporters would carry on working from mobiles in the lobby while subs nipped off for a pre-edition jar by the river. They were always false alarms. Often caused by the proximity of a sensor to a stir fry in the canteen kitchen.

Still, they broke the night up once in a while. Just like the printers tended to do in Fleet Street. Now can anyone remember those days?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Codes are for breaking

Should bloggers sign up to a voluntary code of conduct? Only if bears promise to clean up after themselves. You can no more regulate blog content than ask estate agents not to fib.

The hard core have been banging on by the Tetrabyte about everything from Star Trek to the price of modem upgrades for years without so much as a backslash. Okay, so the new wave of beardless ones have occasionally been sacked for posting stuff better suited to the pub after work and a few heads have rolled on Capitol Hill, but never before has speech enjoyed so much freedom.

Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine touched on this recently when he said most bloggers tend to publish first and edit later and leave the refinements to others. That’s true so long as we’re happy knowing that the truth probably lies somewhere at the end of a link.

But it also brought home to me while taking part in a defamation forum last week how our laws have not kept pace with media consumption. More on this later when I’m not about to jump on a train.

It is an important issue. Only a matter of time before someone tells us we’re drinking in the Last Chance Internet CafĂ©

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Blink and you'll miss it

I finished a 12-week stint at Kingston University yesterday. I was a last-minute replacement for a module called print media in the digital age and had to pick it up and run with it at short notice.

I worked from a learning template printed last year to guide students through subjects from convergence to the role of aggregators to the future of the written word.

It was a testament to the speed of change in the industry that I approved the reading matter ahead of the first lecture but much of it was out of date by the time the course ended. It was further testament to the way the industry has embraced new media that the best reading was not found in the library but the media pages. This could save time researching future modules if I can dismiss the reading list section with: "buy a paper every day."

I’m at City University from today, guiding international scholarship students through a project that requires them to produce a business newspaper. Old fashioned journalism. In print, and using Quark Express.

But I guess this will have changed by the time we're off the press. Before you can say InDesign, in fact.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Press Gazette VIP

Press Gazette had a lucky escape. To misquote Oscar Wilde, losing only one edition may be seen as unfortunate. Had it lost too many the industry may have deemed it careless and decided it could live without it. Glad it doesn't have to. Welcome back. It'll be interesting to see what format the awards take under new ownership.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Press Gazette RIP

Just feel I have to add my eulogy to those on the demise of UK Press Gazette which has been part of my life for 30 years. I got my first proper job from it, appeared in it several times, wrote the odd piece for it and even sat on its judging panels.

In fact, pride of place on my study wall is a framed UKPG award for reporting. It's the one I always put on my CV, more for the kudos of the Press Gazette name than the achievement it commemorates.

An attempt to get an industry consortium to save it didn't achieve the support it needed so, in the face of competition from a growing mainstream interest in media matters, such as Media Guardian which gutted its jobs pages, it folded.

In many ways this was inevitable but there lies the nonsense. Anyone who watches Have I got News for You will know there's a journal - often ridiculously quirky, always well-supported - for every industry.

I just find it odd that, if there's a magazine for the serious goat breeder and one for miners specifically interested in tunnelling and trenchless construction, how on earth can the very people who are the media be denied one of their own?

It's like General Motors not having a car park or Google not having broadband.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Little Britain spectacular at the Hammersmith Apollo was one of the funniest shows I’d seen in ages. Matt Lucas's Vicky Pollard live was far better than anything she (he) has done on TV, we saw rather more of Jeremy Edwards than even a post-watershed slot would allow and not quite enough of Kate Moss. But you couldn't have scripted the priceless ad-libbing. And that's what theatre is all about of course.

But the real fun was in the little Britishness that set the scene for the 4,000 of us there: the usual £4-a-time wine in plastic beakers, the overflowing gents loos at the back of the stalls that gave atmosphere to the more lavatorial humour, the drunken guffawing of the stag party to my right, the constant shuffling of seats from the five-pints-in-the-interval crowd and the way the people behind took one look at Thierry Henry a few rows in front started calling out to Ian Wright.

Well, black blokes with bald heads? Same difference in Little Britain, surely.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How to cover a funeral

After two seven-day weeks working across what seems like the entire publishing spectrum, I decided to take myself off for a long weekend in the country with one of my sons.

An early start, 300 miles of motorway and I was drying off from a stroll across Boscastle harbour in front of a roaring fire in the Cobweb Inn.

It’s one of those places you can imagine walking into on a dark evening where conversation stops, the boards creak underfoot and over the crackling of embers, someone mutters to the strangers: “If you’re heading back on t’ moor, mind you stick to the road.”

Instead, it was just real ale, real local banter and a real fire. No deadlines, no laptop - and no Beast of Bodmin.

And, of course, a chance to catch up with my favourite paper, the Cornish and Devon Post, a crumbly 150-year-old broadsheet with adverts all over the front page and more parish pump than you could serve up at a young farmers’ bring and buy.

Instead of blogs, there were logs: ads for them, piled high on the front page where the splash should be. ‘Cut and split to your requirements’ with bags of sawdust given away for 50p like scratchings at a chippie.

But inside, amongst the cheque presentations and spreads of Remembrance pictures was a page you’d never see on a Blackberry and one that'll probably be still standing long after the last podcast: the obituaries.

And these break all the rules of the obit writer's craft. Rather than recording the richness of country lives, the stories are all angled on the funeral services. No gripping intros recalling anti-bypass campaigners defeating County Hall Goliaths or penniless war veterans who returned to become tin mine millionaires.

Instead, we had: “There was a large representative attendance at Stoke Climsland Parish Church” or “The Funeral Sevice took place at Callington Methodist Church” and “A service of thanksgiving for the life of . . . took place at . . .”

After a paragraph or two about the deceased having “attended” school and being brave towards the end – came the real news - column-upon-column of mourners’ names.

And that means everyone. If you turned up, you made it into print. In this part of the world, village reporters stand at church doors as the bereaved file in and meticulously jot down their names, often who they came with, who they are representing - and they rarely get them wrong.

Upcountry emmets like me can laugh all we want but these people have been doing for years what the sharp suits in Soho are waking up to now: understanding what readers want and, maybe just occassionally, using the media as a marketing tool.

Put it this way: if the solicitor who prepared the dearly departed’s will couldn’t make it, he’d do well to send a junior exec with a business card. The auctioneer who cleared the cottage is likely to put in an appearance and so too is the local estate agent. Putting aside the genuine paying of respect, there's value in being seen and there's value in the dropping of a name in a column that's read more keenly than the leader page or the TV guide.

The editor knows too well that if postmistress Betty Sweetpickle didn’t show, tongues would wag as much as an appearance by councillor Potbelly and his rather peachy new secretary.

So everyone wins. Acres of must-read lineage and a PR machine that targets its audience closer than any blog.

Is that too cynical? Surely not. I never stood in a windy church doorway in my reporting days down there but I did get my gossip at the bar of the Cobweb and this is nothing that wan't hinted at more than once over a pint and a knowing smile.

But of course that was a long time ago.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

So, Dickie gets his Wiki

I now have a legitimate home on Wikipedia, thanks to colleagues who pointed out that they'd earlier profiled the other slightly more famous bloke by mistake.

A few more emailed me to take the p*** during the day after seeing Shane Richmond's hilarious picture caption which reminded me why I never hired anyone called Liz.

I am immune to all this of course. Anyone who has spent a lifetime in the media as a one-man joint byline and sensed the constant disbelief in the voices of switchboard operators and receptionists would be the same.

I did once work with the namesakes of James Last, Peter Green and Jimmy Edwards on the reporter's desk of the Herts Advertiser. Green had left Fleetwood Mac but was still massive at the time. That was a brief respite from a lifetime of torment. When Johnny Cash recorded Boy named Sue, I lamely registered my protest by buying my mum the single. But she didn't get it.

Once, in desperation, I tried referring to myself in the shortform and rang a contact with the opening line . . . "Hi, this is Dick Burton." Someone further down the desk started to hum . . . dum-diddly-dum, diddly-dum, diddly-dum . . . The penny dropped. Dick Barton Special Agent.

I thought about bylining myself Rick but my mates said I sounded like a salesman. Then they rubbished everything else. Rich? (sounds like a biscuit). Richie? (gay), Ricardo (waiter). And so on. I was scarred for life and eventually, after ten years on the reporting front-line, took the only proper way out.

I became a sub.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A little bitch (sorry, pitch) to PRs

Memo to PRs: stop snubbing student journalists.

I see about 300 of these people a year – about a tenth of the number of press releases you send me – and devote a lot of energy to prising them off Google and out into the real world.

I don’t expect them to doorstep criminals, pap celebrities or tap phones. But I do expect them to understand information channels and learn to appreciate the rights they have to legitimate inquiry through pertinent questions.

Learning to interact with people in the know such as yourselves is a vital part of their training in both gathering information and relationship building.

It’s just not good enough for you to tell them: “Sorry, we don’t talk to students.” And yet, course-in, course-out, that's what so many of you do.

I wouldn’t dream of not giving an opinion on a press release a PR student has emailed me. I might make them wait, call me back and not drop everything there and then. But I'd do what I could. We’re all part of the info-go-round after all.

Besides, it’s an investment in the future. Aren't these the very people you’ll be phoning, emailing, and dragging in front of your clients in a few years' time?

PS. I'm well hacked off. Someone stole my bike yesterday. Hacked right through the security chain and rode off leaving the pile of scrap they rode up in behind in its place. Very clever. The CCTV cameras show only someone cycling in to the car park and cycling out.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Super subs for a superhighway

Kim Fletcher hit the nail on the head with his Media Guardian story In praise of the sub editor about the importance of subs in new media.

He begins: The way those who understand the future explain it, the new media world is all about reporters; reporters who used to carry a pencil and notebook going round with digital recorders and cameras and filing words and pictures and voice reports and video clips and whatever they think of next, to any device that people might be using. Including, for a little while longer, newspapers.

He then turns his attentions to the "self-effacing gang that works behind the scenes" and, quite rightly, extols some of their virtues and the importance of their role in the digital age.

And so he should. He was in charge of the Telegraph web site at the time we (and others) were redefining what subbing was all about.

He'll remember well our (literally) minute-by-minute coverage of the devastation caused by the Gujarat earthquake, the downfall and political fallout that followed Peter Mandelson's resignation from government and the hundreds (again literally) of times we updated on 9/11. And all without a reporter in sight.

In the pre-podcast days when nerds blogged and reporters searched telephone directories and A-Zs, there simply wasn't time to indulge ourselves in the luxury of a newsdesk. News, when it broke, had to go by the minute - seconds in you were running a ticker - and go and go again as events changed.

Our sources were the wires, the statements that dropped on to official sites, the shorthand notes from the survivors on live TV and the mass of background info available in an instant to anyone familiar with the logic of George Boole.

Whether you're a multi-national broadcaster, a national daily newspaper or a local weekly, the web is a level playing field when it comes to breaking news and readers will follow the links to those that break it first.

I'd been a Fleet Street sub for 15 years and subbed many running splashes, updating between editions and late into the night during events ranging from the Zeebrugge ferry disaster to the death of Diana. Many a time I'd hacked a new intro out of a late PA snap or worked in key quotes from Reuters so we could slip a page between editions.

It was only when I arrived online in 2001 that I realised there was a place for the printed word with no editions. Only impatient readers and a competition far wider and more diverse than a mere newspaperman could ever have imagined.

The only part of Kim's piece that made me double-take was his intro in which he referred to the way new ways of reporting are the talk of "those who understand new media".

If I didn't know him better, I'd suggest that was a subbing error.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Dial C to comment

Got a call this morning from a old Fleet Street pal telling me (after stuff about his divorce and how crap Leicester were at QPR a few weeks back) that I was too hard on reporters-turned-bloggers in my last post, calling me a luddite and pointing out that even the most low-key writers should be congratulated for at least putting a toe in the brave new world.

I took the call on the hands-free in the car, told him that was like saying every bored housewife should write a children’s book and every inebriate on the 6.15 from Paddington has a novel in him because the company sent him to Zagreb and he thinks he’s James Bond. Anyway, he didn’t like the bit where I said anything that costs has to earn its keep.

What a prat. Of course it does. Anyone who thinks an editor will pay them to gabble on about what they watched on Freeview when they should be churning out pages from last night’s planning committee should be given gardening leave to blog at home like everyone else.

Conversely, anyone who can write effortlessly and openly about life as a single mum bringing up three kids in a tower block, deserves to be coining much more than the giro she gets mugged for.

Anyway, Luddite? Sorry pal, but who rang who because he couldn’t work out how to leave a comment on the blog – and who took the call via Bluetooth?

And Leicester weren’t crap. They were unlucky.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Good blogs, bad blogs

If I had any doubts about the power of the pen in a blogger’s hands, it disappeared when Andrew Grant Adamson questioned the purpose of blogs in national newspapers.

His Wordblog entry certainly touched a nerve at the Telegraph who lined up a defensive wall of their finest online columnists
with the online news editor Shane Richmond in goal behind them.

Why? It may have had something to do with the fact that Andrew had produced Technorati listings of Times bloggers which showed that the world and his wife were not exactly reading all of them. He then went on to carry out a similar exercise looking at the Telegraph blogs.

I’m caught in the crossfire here: as a colleague of Andrew’s in academia and Shane’s former boss. But one thing’s clear to me, and this is what I’m telling publishers I advise on such matters: everything that costs has to earn.

The Telegraph writers make a strong case for the value of their contributions and I hope they’re building the readership their efforts deserve. But Andrew’s blog demonstrates wonderfully the raison d’etre for the medium: to touch a nerve and spark debate.

Some writers, on papers and magazines that can ill-afford downtime, will happily spend 90 smiley minutes a day churning out self-indulgent blather and give you 50 page impressions. No return on investment there, but better than a smack in the gob if it puts you in the blogosphere?

Not really. Newspapers reinventing themselves as multi-media platforms are brand-building all over again, making up the rules as they go, and can’t afford to have their credibility questioned.

I’d rather these writers spent their time checking links on the cookery pages, or at least, sparing readers the ignominy of their voice mail.

Others, however, will give you stunning personal insights into worlds we’d give our right arms to get a glimpse of. That’s why I – and my then online news editor Avril Ormsby in days when few print journalists had even read a blog - was so keen to encourage foreign correspondents to lead the way.

I judged their worth with a dinner party analogy: who would you prefer to sit next to? Sidney no-mates from Soft Furnishings who brews elderflower in the airing cupboard, Boring Bernard from Bought Ledger – or the guy in the safari suit who taught himself Punjabi and dodged bullets crossing the Kashmir border on the roof of a bus.

So what if Safari Suit’s first few blogs didn’t harvest the same hit rates as a picture gallery on Kate Moss? It doesn’t matter. Every hit strikes where it should, a whisper in the right direction, taking your brand into new territory. Direct hits, as I call them: the ‘sticky’ ones that build the reputation you want in a territory you want to conquer.

There are writers on several regional and national papers I’d hire tomorrow for their blogging potential alone. In fact, there’s one such ‘deal’ I’m trying to broker as I write.

And there are those I’d return to normal duties forthwith - and let them blog where they can do the least harm. In the bar of the Rat and handbag after work.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Move over Richard, Burton's in town

Made my annual pilgrimage to Cardiff yesterday and spoke to a few hundred students at probably the best media school in the land.

It was odd checking into the little hotel where the other Richard Burton was said to have once taken elocution lessons. Mind you, it’s always odd going anywhere in Wales with a name like mine.

I’ve stayed in most of the major chains there and usually announce myself with a whispered “Mr Burton”. That always makes me feel like a teenager going to Boots for a packet of condoms and walking out with a red face and bottle of Locozade.

A receptionist at the Hilton once struggled to find me on the register and, before you could say Under Milk Wood, announced, not to a lone Japanese tourist and a deaf bell-boy, but the entire All Backs rugby team massed behind me: “Aaah. Here you are. Mr Burton – oh, Richard Burton? How nice. No relation I suppose?”

Like a pillock, I replied: “Not unless I was christened Jenkins. The famous guy changed his name a year after I was born.” To make matters worse, I added: “Although I don’t imagine the two events were connected.”

Total silence. Blank looks: the one you give the bloke with the vindaloo on the Tube. It just goes to prove; no-one likes a clever Dick, not even a famous one.

Anyway, fittingly I did find myself on a stage in a lecture theatre and fielding questions ranging from does anyone really listen to podcasts? to will the newsroom of the future really work? The best question came later in a seminar with print students when I was asked: if you were interviewing me for a job, what would you look for?

To be honest, that was the only thing I’d care about at their age. They get all their media news from the broadsheets, their teachers can tell them everything I can about how to do the job, they have facilities to die for, top industry names (not just neo-famous ones) drop in all the time: for a wannabe hack, it was a value-for-money question.

I could have said you need a good voice for audio, a TV-presenter smile, a blog Google begs to advertise on and the ability to crop jpegs on your WAP phone.

But they knew that already. Besides, it would have been only half the story. I tried to say, in a rather long-winded way, it was all about credibility. The difference between a geek and a hack is that I probably won’t mind being approached one of them and asked to impart what I know.

All colleges teach the technical skills these days. And to a good standard. There hasn’t been a colleague’s-neighbour’s-pal’s-son on work experience who hasn’t been able to pick up basic photoshop or instinctively surf his way around a content management system by the end of his first day.

And what skills they don’t have, they can learn on the job faster than my dear old dad can work his DVD. OK. Bad analogy. He’ll never work it. But you know what I mean.

What will always stand good candidates apart are the basic journalistic qualities that have been the hallmark for generations: an inquiring mind, the ability (and desire) to get pertinent answers to pertinent questions; to write in clear, concise English - and to do it very, very quickly.

Get those skills in the bag and I will interview you.

Or my name isn’t Richard Burton.

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.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tough call on Monday: it's either drinks at the Hurlingham with the Princess Royal or standing in front of 60-odd undergrads at Kingston University. One sees me learning more about a highly worthwhile charity, the other teaching print media in the digital age. The coin is in the air. Heads it's her Royal Highness, tails it's the one where I get paid. Watch this space. . .

Friday, September 22, 2006

I was in Cambridge yesterday for a speculative PR chat. Love the city to death. I was twice offered reporting jobs there at the Cambridge Evening News - in the seventies and eighties and turned them down.

They got their own back a few years ago by refusing to shortlist me for the editoriship. I wasn't too surprised. Many regional publishers are wary of the ex-Fleet Steet Factor. Even so, as I sat in the sun in King's Parade discussing weblogs and their role in direct marketing, I couldn't help contemplating my Keep Cambridge Tidy/U's for the Premiership/keep cyclists safe campaigns.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Former Express editor Richard Addis did some interesting sums for the media Guardian in making a business case for all papers going free within 10 years.

He’s right on the percentages (most of the revenue comes from ads, not circulation), bang on when he talks about the consequences (you spend more on printing, less on marketing) and makes a valid point about the lifting of restraints to web publishing.

But I did a double-take when he said a £1m cut in the freelance bill could be justified by “making better use of citizen journalism”.

Last year I launched a publishing economics module for MA students at the University of Westminster. It ran over two days and was project-based. On day one, we produce a business plan and saw a make-believe magazine through to the newsstands. On day two, we deal with the consequences of over-spending, under promoting and wishful thinking.

There’s a lot to be said for widening the information net . . . but replacing bona fide freelancers?

I’ll see if I can work that into the next course. I’d love to see what a few bright minds could make of that.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

So, an A-level in media studies will not do much for your chances of getting into Cambridge, according to its director of admissions, Dr Geoff Parks.

A degree in the same subject will not help you get a job on the Evening Standard, because editor Veronica Wadley who reckons she’s never even interviewed a media grad.

I know what they mean, but as someone who spends much of his time teaching this stuff at various universities, it may be worth pointing out that I took half a dozen media grads out of school and into the Telegraph’s digital newsroom in the five years I was running it and I’d have taken any of them with me if I’d anywhere to go.

There were a couple from the university of Westminster, a trio from Cardiff media school, a few from City University and I recall one from Bournemouth who would have made the grade had she not been tempted elsewhere.

To be honest, media as an academic subject, provides just that: an academic exercise. It produces candidates of degree standard. It’s the approach that matters.

One of the Cardiff trainees made his best pitch when he approached me after I’d addressed 300 of them in one of their lecture theatres. He listened, fired testing questions and fronted me up at the end with the words: ‘I want a bit of that. What do I do?’

The question for me at moments like that is not so much, can he speak three languages, quote Browning or name every King since Cromwell, it’s how would I feel if I were a punter and he was a reporter? Better still, how would I feel about the organisation he represents - and I run?

Okay, I'd prefer ay media grad to have an advanced understanding of how the industry works than the influence of EastEnders plotlines on racial equality but the clincher is the look in the eyes that says 'I would slay dragons for this job.'

There's only one caveat. They have to be able to write.

And surprisingly few can do that these days – whatever they’ve studied.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Just back from a few days off, having been caught by a speed camera for the second time in six years and the second time in my life.

The first time it happened I was doing 60 in a 30 mph limit – fast enough to face a ban.

I got off with a £400 fine because the magistrates were parents and understood what it must’ve been like to see my 11-year-old’s face crumple as he waited to catch an early morning train for his first lone school trip and realised his overnight bag was still in the living room.

I showed them a letter from the deputy head confirming I’d had 20 minutes to dash back or follow the 6.15 to Fort William, produced a Met report showing how safe the conditions were, photos of the empty road at 6am and even a couple of articles I’d written condemning dangerous driving.

They yawned, signed, winced a little when I addressed them ‘may it please your worships’, told me to ‘please sit down’, and bunged six points on my licence.

The latest flash came as I the M1 in Bedfordshire in a flash new Saab Sport doing a tad over 30 as I slowed into a village. Everyone told me no-one gets done for doing less than 38. The penalty notice arrived two weeks later: I was doing exactly 38. Not 39; not 37. Jesus.

I admitted the offence and didn’t try to blame it one worries about my 11-year-old’s travels.

He’d turned 17 and was in Istanbul with his brother on the week the bombs went off. I did phone the Foreign Office helpline from the car as news came though on the radio.

Please note: it was on a hands-free set.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

It's been more than a week since I left full-time employment and I'm having withdrawal symptoms. With no wire service, no 24-hour TV, no news schedules to stare at every waking moment, I'm reading everything that comes through my door.

I live in a village and, once a month, The Voice of the Village is delivered. Last month's had a carnival picture on it and I threw it in the bin with the Indian menu and neighbourhood watch stuff. This month's had a picture of cricketers on the green opposite and I read it cover-to-cover.

It's citizen's journalism in print. Seventy-two pages of A4 folded in half, full of snippets, profiles of local people, listings, what feels like a 200gsm glossy cover - and all printed by a bloke down the road.

It covers what local papers call parish pump: Ofsted praising a local school, plans for a phone mast, the usual yellow-lines controversy and even an appeal for neighb ours to be considerate when lighting barbeques.

But what makes it worth reading is when it tries its hand at traditional reporting. A two-page spread on PC's (sic) winning bravery awards carried a hiilarious account of a potentially serious incident in which local bobbies "attended the scene", tried to "locate the offender" while "maintaining a position at the front of the premises". On another page, they report that a local "male" is being held in custody on driving charges.

It's full of companies vacating premises, people working in commercial units and living at residential addesses and littered with minor mistakes. But it's absolutely packed to the rafters with ads from estate agents, glazing firms, pubs, restaurants, garages, builders and hairdressers.

I can see the bloke down the road vacating the village soon for the sun.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

One of the benefits of being suddenly freelance is that people you may have entertained from time to time now insist on paying for lunch. A downside is that it cuts your day in half and, without a schedule to fit it into, leaves little time for anything else.

It does mean you're still plugged in to what's happening in the world though. It also means you get to see lots of new restaurants and, like a driver suddenly in the passenger seat, begin to take note of your surroundings.

I've written before about being a Blackberry addict. I've lost count of the times I've gone from office to pub to Tube to taxi rank and rarely raised my head from the screen in my hand.

My eyes are slowly opening. I now know the name of a church I have passed 1,000 times and stopped to study a roadside tourist map instead of Googling on my mobile. I even gave directions.

If the weather holds, I'll maybe set up as a tour guide . . . or a restaurant critic.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Friday saw me step aside as editor of after five years in which the media landscape changed beyond recognition.

And for the first time in years, I took a Monday off. I went for a jog in the sun, read a book in the bath, sat down in front of the TV - and watched England win the World Cup.

How's that for a delayed-drop intro?

Anyway, there was no more surfing the Net for news, reading the weekend roundup from Lovelace, listening to Five Live in the traffic on Holloway Road. I just sprawled out to re-live the full 120 minutes I saw live in 1966, in colour at the cinema a few years later and on video 10 years ago when son Andrew was old enough to appreciate sporting nostalgia.

And did the memories come flooding back? Sadly not. From the moment Kenneth Wolstenholme - as BBC posh as Sir Alf was plummy - began talking us through England's greatest sporting moment, all I could think about was how far we'd come in broadcasting.

Here was this legend among commentators sounding like a kindly uncle talking you through a changing of the guard while adding little in the way of critical understanding of the game. The match drew millions of new fans, particularly from the middle classes who'd never stood on rain-lashed terraces. You couldn't wish for a better moment to bring them into the fold.

But what did they get? Apart from a few name checks, not a great deal. I wondered what my old colleague, Alan Hansen, would have made of George Cohen haplessly trying to dribble out of his own box, or Ray Wilson 'gifting' the Germans their opener and what Gary Lineker would have said about the space Geoff Hurst had to grab an equaliser. Never mind 'gole! It's a gole!' Where was the bloody defence?

That competition was my induction to the beautiful game I grew up thinking it was OK to toe-poke passes to the other side, fall flat on your arse and repeatedly whack left-footed bloomers into the photographers from 25 yards.

Okay, so the players were on a tenner or two a week, their wives went to Tupperware parties and the balls weighed a ton in the wet. It wouldn't have been fair to critise every flick and turn. But it would have been nice to have known what was what.

I've got the full Leicester City box set to get through. Even the Foxes greatest moments video: no silverware, but plenty of action. And the 1998 season highlights that sums up almost every season: So near, yet so far.

I'll still swear at the dodgy decisions - but I'll never knock Mottie again. We rhink it's all over? Well it is for me. For now.

Let's see what tomorrow brings.