Wednesday, December 01, 2010

More questions than answers

I’m supposed to be addressing some of the brightest young minds in Britain on Friday when I make my annual trip to the Independent Schools Careers Office and make the case for journalism.

I usually begin with a state-of-the-industry address, rounding up where an industry which changes year-on-year happens to find itself. And the questions are often challenging.

So, I wonder, where do I stand on Wikileaks and what it says for the flow of free, open information (something I told the last bunch the media had to ‘adapt’ to or be left behind). And, a Sarah Palin hit-squad notwithstanding, how can a story so sensational it rocks governments continue unabated when a British judge will issue a super injunction to spare the blushes of a footballer caught with his pants down?

And then talking of self-interest (which we will) how do equate the vitriol dished out by today’s Sun – and its begging front page letter for Fifa - against the justification for BBC’s panorama programme on corruption?

As for phone tapping and who knew what? Don’t get me started. Not until Friday anyway.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Michael Sophocles' X ratings

Big Brother’s got its Little Brother, and I’m a Celebrity and X Factor both have their ITV2 watchdogs.

But for the most insightful lowdown on The Apprentice, viewers are turning increasingly to the Jewish Chronicle where one of the most memorable contenders ever is fronting a weekly video diary.

It’s a fitting venue for Michael Sophocles, who Lord Sugar memorably suggested “take his trousers down” to prove he was Jewish after he failed a task because he didn’t know how to kosher a chicken.

Sophocles, who told spilled the beans on his fling with X Factor Katie Waissel to the News of the World recently, goes to the JC offices off Fleet Street each week, pointedly avoids the Boardroom and gives viewers his advice from the place furthest from the seat of power – the basement.

Worth watching for the intro alone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kate Middleton: a life in pictures

Twenty-nine years ago I parked my boy racer outside the gates of Highgrove, the family seat of the then Lady Diana Spencer and watched her peer at me quizzically as she drove up in the red Mini Metro Prince Charles had bought her.

I was one of a series of stringers turning out for the tabloids to clock the movements of the girl, at that stage, tipped to the next royal wife.

Ashley Walton, the Daily Express’s royal man, slipped in beside me for an update. Even in these early days his face was known to the future princess, as were his photographer colleagues who’d already snapped her dozens of times. She would smile at them, address them by name and wish them well.

I was still new to this game and a little fazed by the interest. Walton told me: “They know what we want. When we get the announcement and a decent picture of them together, we’ll leave them alone.”

I thought of that when I saw the Sun’s veteran royal snapper Arthur Edwards on TV last night reflecting on such prophecies and insisting Kate Middleton wouldn’t suffer the sort of endless papping Diana did because there wouldn’t be the market for it.

Yeah right. If he’d said she may reap the benefits of the odd super-injunction, I’d agree. Thankfully, he addressd that in print in a rather cringeworthy article that spoke of the return of "Diana fever".

But I’d prefer to take Andrew Neil’s view: no lessons have been learned from the Diana days and she’s in for the full works.

Looking like an up-market Cheryl Cole won’t help her privacy case much and the grooming she can expect will add a sheen to an already well polished English Rose.

When Diana died, the most cynical question asked in one Fleet Street newsroom was: “What are we going to do now for a standalone?”

Problem solved. No need to watch this space. It’ll be in your face soon enough.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Desperate times don't need desperate measures

Another thing I repeat a lot to students: no personality is bigger than the brand they represent; be that a big name writer, an anchorman, presenter or editor.

There's one exception to prove the rule: The Dandy - to be congratulated on staying the course and trusting ahead with a relaunch - is shotting itself in the foot if it thinks it can afford to lose it's biggest character.

Readers are being asked to vote off their least favourite characters. And in the firing line is Desperate Dan. And they don't come bigger than that.

It's worth buying as copy to vote him in. Let's hope they're forced to east humble (make that cow) pie.
Do it, file it, move on

I must be as naive as Press gazette’s Dominic Ponsford who expressed surprise that journalists sent interview tapes to transcribers before writing them up after Guardian rock critic Alexis Petridis tweeted part of his interview with Take That.

He points to the legal risks of getting something wrong on the basis of a transcriber’s error. But I’m more bothered (as someone who spent his first 18 months in the job filing almost everything from a phone box) by what it does to the intuitive nature of reporting.

And it doesn’t help someone who regularly tells students they should not leave the hearing/scene/doorstep or comfy sofa without knowing exactly what the story is and roughly how they’re going to write it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

For crying out Aloud...just how much PR does a girl need?

Talking of Cheryl Cole (again, sorry), what is it about the girl that turns the normally straight-talking Piers Morgan into a glorified spin doctor? His long-awaited ssshh-it’s on Life Stories interview with the singer ticked a lot of boxes, reducing her to tears time and again when pressing her on her brush with death from Malaria, the hapless Gamu, and her break-up with footballer ex, Ashley.

But it took a hit with the constant cutaways (mum, manager, bandmates, best pal etc telling us how special she was) and the payoff was as embarrassing as any of the performances from wannabe singers she has to reject in the X Factor heats.

She may have had the crowd in her hand every time she dabbed her cheeks and sobbed without revealing an awful lot (a credit to whoever is schooling her in media). But to close the show in front of some eight million viewers by asking how she felt after this on-air therapy session and get the cheeky smile answer: “I'm back” (cue the applause and music) was just the worst example of editing.

Unless it was to drum up sympathy ahead of yet another anodyne X Factor performance the following day.

In that case, I retract the above. Job done.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Is this what we call a Cole-fest?

Is there anything we don’t know about Cheryl Cole? Never mind the X-Factor, anyone who avidly read the red tops last Sunday could adopt her as their Mastermind subject:

Cheryl: My malaria crusade (Mirror)
Its war. With Nadine (News of the World)
I feel guilty that Ash is hated (People)

All on page one. The Mirror even splashed on theirs. Piss-poor on a slow week but there you go.

At least the tab-mags got closer to a real story by turning their attention to her new man.

Its too soon. Why cheryl turned down Derek’s proposal (Reveal)
Cheryl smothered by insecure Derek (Closer)

At least the Star tried to put us out of our misery:

Cheryl and Derek; what's really going on (Star)

And some of us wondered what we'd do in the silly season when Diana died...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More reasons to hate footballers

Southampton have become the latest football club to shoot itself in the foot, banning photographers from games and trying to flog their own pictures to newspapers.

Southampton Echo editor Neal Butterworth rightly told them where to go and was backed by the Bournemouth Daily Echo when their teams met in a cup game on Tuesday.

Daily Echo Sports editor Neil Meldrum told the club’s chairman Nicola CorteseIf: “Newspapers hate one thing, it is the greed of people like you and we press people tend to stick together in defiance of arrogance.”

Well, he’s not wrong. I was hoping to nip off to Wembley to boo the rag-tag gathering we call England. The money may be better spent going to the Saints (sic) and snapping off the most embarrassing Pictures of Southampton players possible.

That wouldn't match the Sun's response, though. Their headline of the game: South Coast Team 2, Bournemouth 0. Keep them coming...

Thursday, August 05, 2010

One way to air your secrets

Here’s technology in action. I just heard my name mentioned on J-Net radio. The Livingston’s World presenter had asked causally if I wanted her to play a request. I said, sure, let’s have Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin. It reminded me of when I fell for a young dancer in Paris as a kid in the 70s.

An hour later, after humming along to pop royalty, Life on Mars came on and the studio discussion turned to David Bowie. No-one seemed to recall his son’s name. Zac? Zebedee? Dunno; sod’s law we’ll all remember after the show.

I sent a text to presenter Sharron Livingston (above) saying: you’ll kick yourself. It’s Zowie! How do I remember that. Pure coincidence, I confided. His dad shared a brief “moment” with the very girl I fell for in Paris. “He was a rising star,” I lamented. “I was just falling…”

Sorted, I thought. At least it’ll give her a chuckle on the way home.

. . . except that I heard her mobile beep on air moments after I sent it. "Ah, I've got a text," she said.

How many listeners do they have?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Errors to bring you down to earth

Flying back from Spain on Sunday I worked my way through a patchwork Mail on Sunday and thought “there for the grace of God” as a pagination slip-up had rendered parts of the airport bulk edition unreadable with pages either out of kilter or repeated.

Then again, when the alternative is the High Life you read on the way out, it’s excusable.

I can’t say the same for the latest series of unforgivable cock-ups that have made their way into the Telegraph of late, as highlighted by Simon Heffer’s latest missive to staff.

His 1021-word round-robin email begins by pointing out the usual (but massively important to their readers) errors in addressing military ranks, went on to point out that someone had confused endocrinology (the study of the body’s endocrine system. I knew that) with dendrochronology, (the study of dating trees. OK, I lied) before exposing the classic howler of calling Sir David Attenborough a naturist instead of a naturalist.

“We are quality media,” he wrote. “And quality media do not make mistakes such as these: ‘the luck of the drawer’, ‘through the kitchen sink’, ‘through up’, ‘dragging their heals’ and ‘slammed on the breaks’, all of which are clichés that might not be worthy of a piece of elegant writing even if spelt correctly.”

He put most of them down to “carelessness and not properly reading back what one has written”, before adding the classic: “We managed to perpetrate one of the worst literals of all recently – pubic for public - which may seem a laughing matter, but is not.”

He’s right. It’s not. But I’m not sure I’d put it totally down to carelessness. Ask any sub and they’ll tell you: most writers are careless, which is why many of the old middle benches used to have a file into which they would cut and paste the worst offenders (an thereby spare their collective sanity).

Combine that with the dodgy way copy is input – directly into the escenic web-facing system and not via the print-facing DTI database, by-passing the subs at an early stage – and it’s a recipe for disaster.

More worryingly, silly word cock-ups aside, readers are beginning to notice errors of sense that would be spotted by anyone giving a second read, be it a sub, prodnose, news editor or a passing intern looking for something to do.

Thus: “We wrote about someone’s youngest child being her first, which was obviously not the case. And readers also asked us how there could, as we reported, be an 18-month long investigation into a crime that was committed only 14 months ago. We need to ensure that our facts, like our arithmetic, add up.”

They do. They really do.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Phew! What a stinker

What constitutes a winning headline these days is becoming decidedly dodgy. The finalists announced by Press Gazette today range from the half-decent to the, frankly, pedestrian.

The Sun’s treatment of US general Stanley McChrystal sacking was okayish (Mac the knifed) but the Guardian’s Rene Descartes note found on the internet (Descartes letter exists, therefore it is found by web surfer) was the sort of thing my second year students would come up with.

Only the NoW and Sunday Mirror's “Hand of clod” reaction to goalie Rob Green’s World Cup blunder got anywhere close to what I’d call a decent head.

At least we didn’t have to put up with the likes of The Mirror’s Saturday offering on Simon Cowell visiting Cheryly Cole in hospital (Bed Si manner) or the Sun’s absurdity on cuts in the Civil List (Her Much-less-ty).

Anyway, the good news was that the judges got it right when choosing the Star's story on Declan Donnelly growing back his thinning head of hair. The headline: It's all strands on deck.

Take a bow night editor Nick Bailey. I knew him when he was a cub sub in the provinces - and he was dreaming them up like this 25 years ago.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Eric Pickles - some headway?

The government wants to tighten the rules on council-run freesheets.

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has wasted no time in doing what his predecessor dithered about: insisting the government will tighten the rules on the growing number, and often quite daft, propaganda sheets masquerading as proper newspapers.

He hit out at what he called "town hall Pravdas" passing themselves off as independent journalism.

It comes as an endorsement to the Newspaper Society’s campaign to tighten the council publicity code, and leave local news, and advertising, where it belongs – in the hands of local papers. The LGA claims most council papers are distributed a few times a year and are not significant competitors for ad revenue, which is debatable to say the least.

But what is plainly barking is their claim that "only council publications can keep residents fully informed about the services on offer where they live".

If they can’t even get that right, what hope have they got of telling us anything we need to know.

Monday, June 28, 2010

England lost, but it's the Sun wot won it

There are few better days to night edit a tabloid than the week of an England match against West Germany. The trick is to be in the chair all week to make sure you get the full range of headline opportunities.

It’s all very well for Thomas de Maiziere to call for restraint, but he needs to know that, behind the scenes in the aftermath of the only story anyone is talking about, it’s open season - and pure Spitting Image.

Why else would we go like lambs to the slaughter of credibility with such barking predictions as Germans terrified of 3 lions (Sun, Friday, complete with picture of ‘scaredy cat’ players in a fortified safari truck and an inset Wayne Rooney in boxing pose), We’ll make Roo sorry (Sunday Mirror) and All-out roar (NoW with an embarrassing picture of Rooney, Gerrard and Terry showing their fangs alongside a token lion, there presumably so we don’t mistake them for vampires). Even the Sunday Express waded in with Rooney holding a giant flag with the headline: Your country needs Roo.

That was before the match. Edition put to bed, its time to roll up your sleeves and you’re 90 minutes away from the likes of Fritz your lot (Daily Star) and Rout of Africa (Mirror); the sort written days ago, when the draw was made and stored for the inevitable.

The Mail gave the top of page one to the Littlejohn quote, If The few had defended as badly as England, we’d all be speaking German now. That just about said it.

But for once, only one tabloid back benche woke up the old adage that there’s no better way to tell a story than straight.

Thus the best front page of the day: The Sun, with it’s full-page shot of the backs of the players lined up for the national anthem as if facing a firing squad of fans with the headline: You let your country down.

Some things are best served raw.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Don't make hard work out of seeking work

It feels good to be advertising for staff, even casual staff, these days. And it's encouraging to get a strong and instant response from Gorkana.

But common sense dictates that it the need for more hands on deck usually means you're up to your eyes in it and need someone to share the workload. So, a few pleas:

1. If I ask for a news reporter, get in touch if you fit the bill - don't tell me you specialise in arts, book reviews or, God help us, travel – and could turn your hand to it. I wouldn’t hire a vet who fancied having a go at my ulcers.

2. If ask for a sub, don't even think of not reading your letter before sending it, lest you try to convince me your work is “fast and acurate”. And that’s an accurate quote.

3. And whatever I ask for, don't tell me you're conversant, (or worse, compliant) with systems if you're going to demonstrate the opposite by ramming my Outlook account with 10mb of PDF attachments.

Like I said, I'm busy. I want to know at a glance that you're The One, and if you cant relate that fact at a glance, you're probably not.

See you at the interview.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Own goals? I know the feeling

Footballers eh? They’re like children. You watch ‘em grown then they let you down.

Take Nigeria’s athletic keeper Vincent Enyeama. A stunning display against Argentina had the talent scouts watching his every move. Good news for his club side, Hapoel Tel Aviv who, my man in Israel tells me, are hoping to cash in by flogging him at a premium.

Nice to hear some good news following the wall-to-wall coverage of the hand-of-clod howler made by England’s Robert Green.

Media students: please feel free to count every inch given to five seconds of action. We’ll dissect soon and discover the true art of milking a yarn for all it’s worth.

Anyway, not to be outdone, Enyeama gave the Chronicle its own angle on goalies and swerving balls for a readership interested in all things Israeli – so we joined in the fun and milked it just that little bit further.

Here’s the angle: Enyeama’s old manager Avram Grant has just got a new job and may be looking to headhunt his former No.1. And where is Grant destined for when the new season begins? West Ham. And which club does the hapless Robert green play for? Yep: West Ham. Conclusion: Poor old Rob may be fighting for his place with a star who doesn’t spill easy shots.

Thus, a back-page picture of Enyeama saving spectacularly in front of the best player in the world (Messi, if you’re not into this) with the irresistible headline: Sorry Rob, your problems just got worse.

Fine and Dandy. Until you put the paper to bed and turn on the TV to see Enyeama’s Nigeria line up against Greece for their second group match.

Hardly had the presses stopped rolling before Enyeama faced a low shot, not a great deal different from the one Green had spilled on Sunday. And what did he do?

He spilled it. Nigeria lost and a our inspiring story of the hero soon to take a coveted premiership jersey hit the shelves alongside all the red tops, seemingly dying to have a pop at suspect goalies.

Thankfully, it hardly got a mention. At least the blushes were saved.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Work experience - what about life experience?

Ed Caesar has put a stark light on what we already suspected, and knew if we did the sums, that we’re witnessing something of a volcanic eruption in journalism training against a backdrop of a steep fall in journalism jobs.

By his reckoning 1,870 students were on post-graduate journalism courses in last year compared with 763 ten years earlier. There’s an even steeper rise in those on undergraduate courses; from 1,972 to 8,095 in the same period.

It’s an interesting read as he cites eager youngsters trying to make a break and concludes with a breakdown of the essential qualities needed to do so; including the inclination and means to work for nothing doing work experience in London. All true in my experience but I’m not sure I find it so worrying.

Let’s put another shine on it.

I know from the lecture theatre that a number (let’s not get carried away, but I do mean a fair few) of those on these courses are not interested per se in jobs in journalism. They want a degree and the courses, combining as they do cool sociological aspects - and even cooler stuff their generation is interested in - offer a tempting pathway. That shouldn’t come as a shock.. Not all history students want to join Time Team and not all ecology students want to save rainforests.

A fair few of these will be from other countries – and be returning there with degrees from a British university which carry more kudos than any they could have got at home -and a fair few more will go on to further study, so the same names will be moving between the undergrad/postgrad categories.

I know that still leaves a fair few. It’s also worth noting that there are more students these days because there are more courses and course places as colleges have flexed to meet the demand in an increasingly media-aware society.

But I couldn’t help thinking that Caesar, like many who have covered this subject, seems to throw all his eggs at jobs in London and national newspapers. They very fact that so many he quotes actually got in there, I such a short time, straight from college is, in itself, bizarre.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing or a good thing, only that it’s stretching reality. The media is a bigger marketplace than national broadsheets for middle-class kids who think life on a smaller publication is an annoying hurdle.

One of languages student he quotes tells of breathlessly pitching ideas to the Guardian, being offered a job and having to think about whether she wanted to accept or go off and “build her own magazine empire” before actually saying yes.

Another, now in PR, told of leaving Hull, doing an NCTJ course, followed by work experience on local papers before coming to London - yes, straight to London – landing a few weeks of the same on the Observer, then the Inde, before getting a low-paid job and a short-term editing gig before being let go!

The odd unnamed exec is quoted as having ethical doubts about such exploitation. Well, here’s a named one, and one that's run a few grad schemes here in the smoke. I have no such qualms.

Anyone who imagines they can leave the classroom for a well-paid job on a national newspaper with virtually nothing in between cannot possibly possess the sort of down-to-earth awareness of what life is about to be able to say anything a reader would want to hear.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A word from Jack

It was good of Jack Straw to side with Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle in their battle with the local council over its town-hall produced local newspaper. He is reported as telling the The Newspaper Society: “I am on the side of the papers and not the councils.”

The Trinity-owned paper launched a campaign on its front page and is embarking on a two-week outdoor advertising push on key sites around the borough including eight 48 sheet posters. An ad van even drove around Parliament before moving on to the Hammersmith and Fulham area where it pulled up outside David Cameron’s house.

No paper wants to fall out with its local council any more than it has to when reminding it how it should be doing its job properly and this wasn’t an expense they entered into lightly.

So, it shows very little understanding on the part of the Justice Secretary when he refers to one of the many battles being fought all over the provinces as a “spat”.

Then again, maybe he’ll prove that cynicism misplaced by having a word in the right ear and actually do something about it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The print crisis explained

The debate on the future of print media has never been quite so succinctly put. I saw this about an hour ago and thought it worth a wider audience. One tip: do watch to the end.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A farewell to Peter Rose

Another of Fleet Street's finest left us last week, thankfully a lot later than first feared but, sadly, many years before he should have done.

Peter Rose, a mere 53 and the Mail's one-time chief crime reporter, died after what he would have called (were he writing about someone else) “a brave fight” against a liver disorder following years of conviviality in the pursuit of copy.

It's a tragic loss. Journalism has lost one of the old school, three kids have lost a father and I have lost a mate.

Reunion:(from left)Pete, Ross, me and Jim

I'd known him for 36 years and the Pete that died last week was unashamedly the same one I first met outside a courthouse in St Albans back in the mid-seventies: a softly-spoken, dry-witted true gent tailor-made for getting the very best out of a good old-fashioned crime beat.

A series of scoops on just about every major murderer from Myra Hindley to Fred West saw him elevated to the presidency of the Crime Reporters' Association.

We hadn't seen each other for a few years when Ross Francis of Fairley and Simmons rang to break the news that Pete “probably wouldn't last the summer”.

Pete had asked him get in touch with myself and Jim Last, formerly of Home Counties Newspapers, for one last get-together. Hard as that was to hear, we did so with relish and so, on a winter's evening in the Harrow in Whitefriars Street, four former cub reporters met to relive the days when they cut their teeth on a typically gutsy, punch-above-your-weight news agency run off the slave labour of those who'd work for peanuts just to run with the pack.

It wasn’t exactly the playing fields of Eton, but the bonds from those days were strong and enduring. Over the years our paths crossed frequently; one would either put in a word for, team up with, take on or just find themselves sitting alongside, one or the other in some newspaper in some part of the country.

One memorable occasion was in 1979, a few years after the agency had folded. I'd joined the Herts Advertiser in St Albans (a job brokered by a call from Pete who was on the sister Hemel Mail), I'd got Jim on board after one of the seniors had a strop with the newsdesk and quit and Ross was freelancing from his own office a few streets away. I'd been out and snagged what was to be my first HA splash, we all met in a pub round the corner, conspired on an intro to what was a convoluted yarn involving asylum seekers, I went back and claimed the byline and Ross waited until the early hours to flog it around the dailies.

Ross coined it in, slipped me a tenner, Jim chased a follow-up for the following week and Pete sat back and sniggered something about me being “stitched”. I was too young to know better.

The reunions, few as they were in the event, were pub crawls, of course. Pete felt at home, we swapped anecdotes and frightened tourists with noisy, huggy, goodbyes outside the old PA building.

A boozy night out may sound odd, given his condition. But his philosophy was simple: “This is me, this is the life I've lived. No regrets.” He wasn't going to change.

Peter Rose was the reporter's reporter who never wanted to grow up. He lived Life on Mars; he never left the seventies. He had a notebook, a mobile that just made calls, no email address I was aware of, and more snouts than a bacon factory.

To do his tie up fully, to appease an advertiser, to say anything nice about subs, would have been to sell-out. When the agency launched a features arm, I seem to recall he was the only one who didn't want to waste his time “knocking out fluff for Woman's Own”.

He was all about integrity, about patience, and about getting it right. He was never about sensationalism for its own sake – and never about giving up.

They were old-school ethics. But, there again, as Press gazette pointed out in its obit, he was just that.

Once, during one of those reunions, he asked me what I'd been up to that day. I said I'd been in a meeting about mobile apps with partners who'd been helping us formulate a social networking strategy.

He pursed his lips as I spoke, as if he'd recalled a joke, nodded a few times, then looked over my shoulder at the others and said: “What the fuck is he talking about?”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

John Terry? Privacy?

When the John Terry story broke, one of our juniors insisted the coverage was OTT and complained that even footballers deserve a private life.

Bit of a red rag to a bull, to be honest. Footballers? Private lives?

Listen, I said. Anyone who earns in a week four times what the average fan who follows them all over the country pockets in a year, who creams off as much again in marketing and sponsorship deals and reaps every reward imaginable just for (clichéd, but true) turning out for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, doesn’t deserve so much as an ex-directory listing.

Footballers are millionaires for one reason: media money. They are media property for the use and abuse of the aforesaid. His role is twofold: to win the World Cup and to keep us entertained.

Helping us sell papers is their way of giving something back.

One PS though: What were the Mirror and Sun doing on Saturday, with the Terry and wife Dubai snog? Page One headlines: Healed with a kiss? and JT’s got wahey with it?

It took the Mail to get it right: Terry and his wife kiss for the cameras. Back of the net.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Laying down the law

Things haven’t been getting any better at the Telegraph subs’ desk of late, judging by Simon Heffer’s latest round-robin bollocking to staff.

It includes the usual spelling howlers (TV program, neighbor and not knowing whether practice is a noun or a verb), but also a classic he calls a “24 carrot gold” cock-up: “hospital patience”, which anyone who has been one will confirm is wrong on many counts.

He also moans about confusing “insight” and “incite”, the misuse of apostrophes - “how soldier’s found Hitler’s body” – and the fact that there is no such word as adaption

But these stood out:

The terms “rifle” and “shotgun” are not interchangeable. A rifle is a precision weapon that fires bullets. A shotgun fires cartridges loaded with shot that scatters in a pattern and kills or wounds anything in its path. Gourmand and gourmet are not interchangeable either. The latter is a connoisseur of food and the former simply greedy. Buckinghamshire is not in the Cotswolds.


Lay is a transitive verb (I lay down a case of claret every month; she laid the table).

When I joined the subs’ desk there in 1991, I would cringe at the disdain with which the middle aged gents alongside me treated anything they saw as “pop” culture (the chief parly sub had never heard of Sigourney Weaver and the chief revise sub didn’t know why anyone would be interested in a nib on Guns ‘n Roses).

But to a cardigan, they would all have known how to lay down a case of claret.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Ranter? Moi?

I’ve just made my debut on Gentlemen Ranters, a hilarious forum for old Fleet Street farts and others to reminisce and remind ourselves things aren’t what they used to be. Behind those anecdotes though lies a wealth of history that tells you all you need to know about the Fourth Estate.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What barrier a paywall?

US blogs have been jumping all over the story that the Long Island weekly Newsday has gained a mere 35 online subscriptions in the three months since they put their site behind a paywall.

It’s a worrying figure, given extra resonance coming as it does on the back of the neighbouring New York Times announcement of a paywall from 2011.

But without knowing the full extent of their subscription model, I’m not clear what it tells us. The sums are clear: online-only subscribers pay $5 a week (or $260 a year) giving an annual return of $9,000 against a capital cost of $4 million, which is what new owners, Cablevision spent rebuilding the site with the wall in place.

But given the massive subscriber base the company already has via its print home deliveries and Cablevision customers – all of whom get online access as part of the deal - these may be irrelevant in terms if the business model, especially if such access was part of the upsell.

In other words, they have near-saturation already, the 35 are incidental. Rather like the guaranteed circulation publications (freesheets to the plain-speaking) delivered to every house in town but available for a quid “where sold”.

More interesting is the massive fall in traffic since October: uniques are down from 2.2 to 1.5 million. Again, that could be a direct result of the barrier or something to do with the popularity of the redesign. I can’t recall the old one, but there are some on the newsroom floor that have been less than complimentary.

Behind all this though is another business question: how important are page impressions?
The Guardian has just set a new record for a UK national newspaper, recording an incredible 36.98 million global uniques for December - a 62 per cent rise from last year. Digital Director Emily Bell, who must take a wallop of the credit, puts it down to their coverage of the Copenhagen climate change conference, which is in itself interesting.

I say that because, despite high-minded claims to the contrary, hits are normally driven by the quirky, the bizarre or the risque; Elvis reincarnated as Man in the Moon, cancer man grows tree our of his head or Cheryl Cole takes a skinny dip; the sort of stories that would lead Sunday Sport in the eighties. And a lot of it’s down to cleverly cynical use of SEO, even Googling phrases and penning stories to catch the wave.

Hit inflation has been responsible for digital newsroom high-fiving since Fleet Street properly caught on in the mid-nineties. And the Guardian is not alone. The Mail, second in the online premiership table, saw a 67 per cent rise, for example.

So, the question is: just how many more eyes do we need on our sites – and how important are these masses as against, say, a more minimal, closed, core readership?

Few of these conversations can take place in such broad terms. If anything, publishers will have to seek alliances outside the industry if they are to seek traffic of proper relevance.

I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the Newsday debacle. It has to be down to individual business models to determine what these figures mean. In the meantime, there was a quirky one worthy of note, if a comment on one posting is to be believed: 35 is the exact number of senior executives at the paper.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More scandal at the town hall

So, the Audit Commission doesn’t think local councils are misusing public funds by producing their own papers. No surprises there.

And equally without shock value is the news that that the Newspaper Society is now calling for the OFT to examine the “damaging impact” on local media businesses.

Two questions: Are these the correct bodies to be dealing with this issue in the first place? And what happened to Lord Mandelson’s pledge of support?

Chief executive Steve Bundred didn’t seem to think that these freesheets were published often enough “to be viable media for most local advertising”. Someone needs to tell him just how little there is to go around.

And he didn’t seem to think that councils were using public money to further their political agendas, saying there were “adequate safeguards”. Someone needs to show him one.

If all else fails, may I suggest a few editors offer their services to empty dustbins? Bad example. It was going through a councillor leader’s dustbin a few years back that got me the sort of splash that you’d never see in Town Hall Today.

Actually, not such a bad example, come to think of it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dear hacker, we know where you live

We found the hacker. We know how he got in, what he did and even spotted him coming back to check on his handiwork. We also now know a fair bit about him – and so do the police who are talking in very joined up terms about liaison between the Public Protection Unit, Special Branch and Interpol. I envisage cuffs being snapped on a wrist in a Turkish internet café sometime soon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rounding on the hackers

A hacker managed to make a minor incursion into the Jewish Chronicle’s news site yesterday, placing a pro-Palestinian message across the home page.

It was a clever intrusion and we had to take the site down and reboot to wipe what we could and probe around the back-end to see how it happened. That’s ongoing but we went live again this morning with a two-fingered message to the perpetrators.

But I was impressed by the massive reach of the readership. Within minutes, I was getting calls and text messages from readers, alerted by the sort of people I’d never assume read the site, let alone on a weekend.

The editor, the MD and the IT head had them as well: and on they went into the night and the following morning. There was obviously intrigue in that it involved the Mujaheed and a site that takes such a deep interest in Israel. And the fact that the suspect IP address was Turkish, given the diplomatic spat between the countries at the moment.

But I got a cosy sense of a circling of wagons from our wider community as word – and real concern – spread so quickly by less technical means.

The geeks are on it now. And they love this sort of thing. They go into Silent Witness mode in their dark corners, examining every router, server, source, port and a few things I can’t pronounce.

Not sure what they’ll find, but I’ll let you know.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I wouldn’t be too eager to change the Beaver

Damn these email spam filters. How dare they force one of Canada’s oldest magazines to change its name?

Winnipeg’s finest, The Beaver, has been doing very well for the past 90 years, thank you very much. Until, that is, readers found their online queries bouncing back.

Whatever next?

I just hope this doesn’t discourage others from taking their erstwhile local publications online. Residents of the County Donegal village of Muff may experience a few problems, not to mention those in the Savoie village of Pussy.

It wasn’t like that in the good old days of innocence when all we had to worry about was the good old black and white TV. I remember well my mum’s favourite programme; a light-hearted singalong show with Noel Gordon on her pre-Crossroads days. Its name: Lunchbox.

Sorry about that. But I've just done wonders for my SEO.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Got a job? On yer bike

The story of journalism student Lindsey Cole's plan to cycle through Africa in time for the World Cup Finals was a little sad, given that the only reason she's doing it is because she hasn't found a job since graduating with a Masters last year.

But her appeal for someone to go with her will probably not go unheeded as she’s hardly alone in her plight.

Whether through a sense of pastoral care or to fuel my own suspicions, I recently enquired after some of my students when one got in touch for a reference, having failed to secure anything approaching a proper reporting job for the best part of a year.

At a rough count, and after a bit of Facebooking on his part, we estimated that of about 12, three had found work on papers, two had gone back into education and the rest had variously, completed endless intern placements while living at home or working part-time in offices and two had quit to travel or given up and changed career.

Sadly, none of them were privileged enough to be able to live for free in London while looking, or the family connections that enabled them to coast their way through a graduate scheme on a national.

Worse still, all my advice about packing a bag and being prepared to travel “to any local paper in the country” seemed to rebound when he told me of the applications he'd made.

My only dread is that he ends up taking a job on one of those awful council-run freesheets that are at the heart of the demise of these newspapers.

Got a job anyone? He comes with a reference.