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.