Friday, February 23, 2007

Local papers pump up the volume

I was asked to judge the Newsquest newspaper website awards a few weeks ago and this week,The Northern Echo received the accolade it deserved.

I worked my way through (literally) several dozen sites from the Abingdon Herald to the York Press during many idle hours before reluctantly deciding on the Darlington daily. I say reluctantly, because I know the bigger papers in these groups win eveything. Problem is, there's no getting away from the fact that, when a paper, to quote my rationale, "comes at the reader in so many ways, interacts with its local radio station and produces its breaking news in such a timely and relevant way" it's going to lead the pack.

Besides, any site that includes a blog from the ghost of a former editor, deserves a deeper look.

Nigel Vincent is doing a good job in leading the online development at Newsquest. Many of the smaller papers are telling stories with video and most are big on interactivity. That's important and Fleet Street can learn a lot from these people, particularly when it comes to developing online communities.

But I was particularly interested in the way they have now let costs run away with them and allowed editors to develop from a few pre-defined templates. This means most of the sites look the same but that's not an issue for the readers as there will be virtually no crossover. The backroom work done, the editors are free to concentrate on the journalism without looking over their shoulders for the next "zillion-pound" redesign.

I chose the South Wales Argus as runner-up for this reason and placed the much smaller News Shopper in third place, mainly for the sheer enthusiasm demonstrated by a handful of people in South London in getting to grips with a new medium.

But don't just take it from me . . .

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Speaking of magazines . . .

I was this month’s guest speaker at an editor’s forum at the Clerkenwell Restaurant in EC1. I was woken by an early call the day before and asked to put a title to the talk. I said Web 2.0 – be there or be square. Bit naff, but, seconds earlier I’d been fast asleep, in goal for Leicester and turning a point-blank drive from Henri round the post. The crowd went mad.

Anyway, back to reality: I gave them a run-through of what I thought were some of the best web offerings in the magazine world at the moment. There’s no definitive jury on this and my preferences change all the time but some are worth sharing with a wider audience.

IPC’s Horse and Hound is really getting to grips with community-building. I can’t stand the thought of fox-hunting but the strength of feeling among the country lobby stretched across 10 very lively forums.

Emap’s Guitar Player is making good use of audio, allowing wannabe rock stars to practice their riffs and play along with other axemen in their bedrooms and Conde Nast’s Vogue Catwalk TV is getting better all the time.

Haymarket are developing their What Car? site into a nice little resource with their road tests sitting alongside the reader reviews.

The common denominator here is the way they are playing to their strengths and using the technology that best suits their purposes, not every bell and whistle in the developer's toybox. I did put a damper on what was a highly interactive exchange by pointing out some of the less successful attempts to embrace the new world – and how easy it is to arrange the best party in town and find no-one comes.

Like I said, the examples were what I saw as the best of the crop on the day. They change all the time in line with innovation. As if to underline that, one of the audience approached me afterwards and reminded me I’d made that point before.

He’d interviewed me for PR Week ahead of a new media conference last summer and asked me for my favourite blog sites. The ones I gave were so dated by the time I joined the panel, I had to read the review to recall what they were.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Solve this and a byline awaits

Here’s a mystery for any budding investigative journalist.

I took my car to a bodyshop after a minor prang. A chap with a clipboard went over very inch of it, noting the tiniest dent or blemish lest I accuse them of not looking after it. He did the same with the courtesy car and then carefully noted the amount of petrol left in each tank. Mine was half full. I agreed and signed his form.

A week later, I picked it up all valeted and shiny and headed out of the industrial estate. But before the first 100 yards, the fuel light came on. I was running on vapour.

I checked the form I’d signed. Half-full when it came in. 19,001 miles on the clock. Now it was empty, but still 19,001 miles on the clock.

I reversed up, asked two people from the office to come and look and posed the questions:

Did someone use it and turn back the clock?

Did someone deliberately add on 100 or so miles to the figure before handing it to me to sign? I never checked the mileage.

Did someone siphon the petrol out?

I got red faces and a cheque for half a tank. But, as yet, no answer. May be worth a few pars in the local paper when I do.

Friday, February 09, 2007

It pays to talk amongst ourselves

These pages got a mention in Press Gazette this week as part of a round-up of the "leading voices in journo-blogging". I have to say, that was a little flattering, given the amount of time I spend doing it.

In fact, putting it into newspaper terms, I must be the quarterly periodical to, say, someone like Roy Greenslade's multi-edition daily.

I'm impressed by the disclipline of many of these "journalism compulsive-obsessives" (Adrian Monck's self-description) and envious of the way they find, or make, the time to keep abreast of everything.

I've been critical of some forms of blogging in the past, dismissing those from all walks of life who risk RSI just to fill a space every day. But, collectively, these journo-blogs - with the aid of Google Reader - have provided the most comprehensive and thought-provoking overview of media thinking I can recall.

Especially to someone who grew up getting their insights once a week from, you guessed it . . . Press Gazette.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Of wigs and pens

Lawyers and journalists have always been good bedfellows. Andrew Grant-Adamson and Martin Stabe were quick to spot the words of wisdom in the recent Slate posting, Bartiromo Innuendo, which highlights the value of lawyers who help get difficult issues into print, rather than keeping them out.

Slate's Jack Shafer's starts his piece by pointing out that “a well-lawyered newspaper distinguishes itself by the way it writes around something".

There's nothing worse for a reporter than knowing something but not being able to say it. I spent many days and weeks in the late seventies and early eighties attending legal seminars by the likes of the NCTJ listening to zillion-pounds-an-hour barristers telling us how papers have been taken to the cleaners for asking why some junior minister was spotted in Shepherd Market late at night, alone.

One of the best proponents of the "write around" skill was not a lawyer, however, it was the late Roy East, the former People investigator who helped shape my early career in the westcountry where we worked on a tabloid hell-bent on exposing misdeeds on the moors.

Many a time I'd take my piece to his study and say, "I know Henry Wotnot gay, everyone knows he's gay but he's not admitting it." Roy would roll in a new sheet of A4 and begin: BACHELOR Henry Wotnot . . . new par . . . Mr Wotnot, who shares a two-bed flat with his schoolfriend Mr . . .

Years later, I recalled his advice when writing about black magic orgies in a block of flats owned by a former mayor who was refusing to be drawn on the subject. I began the third par. Alderman Wotsit may be surpised to learn . . .

Not sure that in our thirst for quick and easy news, we do enough of that these days.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Never mind God, geeks will inherit the earth

I can't be the only one who hoardes papers; whole papers, not cuttings that are easy to identify but entire editions put aside because there was an article worth reading when I got a moment.

I threw away a few dozen yesterday. In most cases I was baffled as to why I kept them at all. There were a few finds though, such as The Independent's Dec 4 two-page Q and A with the campaigning atheist Richard Dawkins and the Guardian's Jan 22 appraisal of Britain's motorways.

The Dawkins questions ranged from "Is it child abuse to force your kids to adopt your religion" to "What will you say if you ever reach the pearly gates".

The fun was in the wit and style of his answers but I was struck by the number of times he took the opportunity to back up his arguments with web references.

The best bit was when he was asked "how did such a geek like you get such an attractive wife" (he's married to the actress Lalla Ward), He laughed off the question but objected to the use of geek, likening it to the sort of racial epithets I won't repeat.

I've been reprimanded a few times for using the term but I'm nopt sure why. It's an endearing collective for everyone from the systems admin lot that boot our PCs to the hard-coders who give us the platforms we covet so much. They don't have to dream in binary.

A few post-grads had the giggles when I said it recently and it drew the odd muted gasp at a after-dinner speech. I mentioned it over drinks afterwards and opinion was split. In my corner was a teacher who married one. In the other was the chap who gave the vote of thanks who said it was a "mite offensive".

Offensive? Do me a favour . . . Geeks are the new avante garde and should celebrate the fact. The term has Orwellian simplicty and a resonance that rivals hack (which I don't mind being called as you drop the prefix drunken old). I draw the line at nerd to keep the few teccie friends i have.

Incidentally, it was never Jack Bauer that saved the world every 24 hours, it was Edgar Stiles. My system crashed when the terrorists got him. Point made.