Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Regional Press: Reasons to be cheerful Part 4*

LIKE a lot of the ex-editor brigade – and there are now enough of us for a whole regiment – I’ve followed events in the regional Press with a mix of sadness, bemusement and more than a little irritation.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: The Northern Scot pool car in Elgin
Of course I was saddened to see my old stomping ground of weekly papers in the south-east dismantled and excellent editors (no coincidence that they are all lovely people too) dispensed with.
And seeing once proud papers reduced to following the crowd online – “Watch this dog lick an ice lolly!!” – makes me fear for the future of journalism as we know it.
But all is not lost. As I wrote on this blog in October 2014 after an expedition to a bunch of papers in Ireland, Journalism is still fun. I’ve just completed two humbling weeks in the Scottish Highlands and there is still a lot to be cheerful about.
Here are some headlines:

It isn’t all about young people 

There were some lovely trainees and people making their way up the greasy ladder but there were more journalists near, and even beyond, what we used to call ‘retirement age’. The years have done nothing to dim their enthusiasm and the experience and maturity they bring doesn’t often get listed in a job ad.

No need to go back to basics 

Some are already there. When I asked one dapper gentleman what he did at the paper he proudly replied: “I’m the court reporter.” No lists of mad, sad and bad people provided by some court official here, just stories by the bucketload. So, be warned, if you get caught waving your willy around anywhere from Macduff to Tomintoul you’ll probably end up in the paper.

The one-person office is alive and well 

The places where people worked read like the lower reaches of the Highland League table – Buckie, Keith, Huntly etc – and it was charming to find they rejoiced under the title ‘Chief Reporter’. Most of the time they were ‘Only Reporter’ filling the paper single-handedly from front to back and all points in between. And they approached that task with deftness, expertise and a sense of responsibility.

Remember staff photographers? 

In all the rush to dispense with the staff photographers and replace them with freelancers who bear an uncanny resemblance to the displaced staffers we seem to have lost sight of what having an in-house team can bring. The gala season is in full swing in Scotland so the papers are full of people doing whatever it is you do at a gala – but they all seem to be having fun. They love seeing themselves in the paper and also like to have a pictures to keep. Yes, photosales is alive and well too.

It's not all about the money 

Ok, so we all want what we want and need what we need but there is more to it than that. These folk in the Highlands were actually quite a disparate bunch, some from all parts of Scotland and others further afield in the UK. They were drawn by the opportunity to live in a lovely part of the world and contribute to making the wheels go round in their communities. Not sure money can buy that. 

I have been asked to contribute a chapter to a book due be published early next year called ‘Is Print Dying?’ The suggested title I’ve been given ‘Is the local press destined for the knacker’s yard?'.
Uhm, maybe not quite time to reach for the gluepot just yet…

* Headline in homage to Ian Dury, the original Billericay Dickie, or was that me...?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

FLYING PAST: Anyone seen my caption?

FEEL THE POWER: Captions can say so much
SUPER picture of the Flying Scotsman in full steam passing by Holy Island in Northumberland in the i newspaper.
But why no caption for the 99 per cent of readers who have no clue where this is and no picture credit to recognise the work of increasingly put upon photographers?
In fact, the missing caption is endemic in i. Perhaps it's time to recognise what an important function it performs and insist on one wherever possible?
As those poor souls who have attended one of my ‘caption workshops’ will testify, the caption is the hard-working undersung hero of the design toolbox able to draw readers in and say so much more than just identify what is in the picture.
It’s been a fun few days up here chasing the Flying Scotsman up and down the coast with some tremendous pictures posted by amateurs and professionals (is there still a distinction?) alike, including this one below from Raoul Dixon of North News in the Sunday Express.
I’ve asked the i for an explanation of their missing captions. Watch this space…

PROFESSIONAL: Raoul Dixon’s spread in the Sunday Express

AMATEUR: My picture taken from the other side of the tracks as the un-captioned one

Monday, April 25, 2016

“Authoritative, provocative, opinionated, sarcastic, entertaining, frank, well-informed” – let’s hear it for the columnists

JUST when you think life can’t get any better I was offered the chance to help judge the ‘Columnist’ category in the Regional Press Awards.
The finalists were announced today but if you’re not sure what a local paper columnist is up to these days below is a summary of their activities provided from their own citations on the entries, which are in italics.

Authoritative and provocative she takes a light-hearted look at unusual events and writes with warmth and wit.
Provocative and opinionated he entertains and provokes in equal measure tackling observational slice-of-life issues with a dry, often sarcastic but always entertaining take.
A mix of hard-hitting material and a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour pulls no punches and asks no favours in a frank, well-informed and satirical soundbites of commentary on life.
Expressly intended to make the reader smile he has the uncanny ability to hit readers directly on the funny bone, taking a wry look at the what’s been making the news.
Someone who has his finger on the pulse of the city, a columnist who is light, amusing and yet makes you think. His modus operandi is to entertain through humour yet there is usually a serious purpose behind that humour.

As columnists from Addington to Zanesville will attest I am a tough crowd to please. “No more columns on your wonderful mother/father/grandparents/children/cat/dog/war veteran neighbour/helpful shopkeeper/etc etc please,” I would advise from the comfort of the editor’s chair. “In fact, no more columns at all would be best.”

Monday, February 29, 2016

Would YOU help a child actor being bullied in a newspaper set-up?

AT THE risk of coming over all Glenda Slagg - Undercover investigations using actors: Dontcha just love ‘em?  Undercover investigations using actors: That’s surely not right.
Enter stage left Britain’s newest daily newspaper The New Day which has a spread in its launch issue headlined ‘Would YOU help a child being bullied?’
The premise is quite straightforward. Four children acted out a bullying scene to see if ‘Good Samaritans might be a dying breed’ while a reporter and photographer lay in wait to see who intervened and who walked on by.
Among the women who did wade in one was left ‘very shaken by the confrontation’ and another admitted she was ‘scared’.
It makes for a good read with decent ‘real’ pictures too. But is it really something that journalism should be practising in these troubled times when the eyes of the world are on our activities?
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good set-up. Would the shiny unlocked bike get stolen? Would the ‘lost’ wallet be handed in? Been there, done that with both student journalists and reporters who didn’t want to go out on rainy days.
But putting people in a threatening situation with potentially explosive consequences might get a few post-Leveson tongues wagging.
Next week, we’re told in a trailer, we seem on safer ground. How did strangers react when an old lady struggled up the stairs with a heavy suitcase? (my question mark, by the way). We shall see…

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Late Night Final: Wake me up when we get there...

I HEARD about my new job as editor-in-chief of Late Night Final when I was on top of Halidon Hill overlooking Berwick-upon-Tweed.
A fitting venue indeed, as it saw one of the bloodiest battles in history between The English (winners) and Scots (losers) in 1333.
BATTLEGROUND: Now peaceful view from Halidon Hill
Now all I have to do is keep warring factions from Britain's Big Four regional publishers happy - plus their embattled newsrooms troops - as we head towards the launch of this brave new world, as outlined so well by Steve Dyson in his HTFP column.
Of course, I've history here. More than 20 years ago I ran the prescient Thomson Online Features Service (TOFS),  sending material to the far-flung parts of the then great Thomson Regional Newspapers empire. With a doughty team of journalists - some experienced, some less so, but everyone unfailingly enthusiastic - we sourced top quality content for showbiz, food & drink, fashion and even gardening pages. 
Biggest problem wasn't getting the stuff - everyone from Kylie to the Queen was happy to be featured - it was convincing the editors that this was a help, not some threat to their independence.
We had some great take-up from the Press & Journal and Scotsman right through to the Belfast Telegraph and Western Mail, with a readership in the millions. A great testament to everyone involved at all ends of the operation.
Now we're getting ready to do it all again, with common features supplied to all part of the UK that will give the nationals a run for their money.
It's gonna be a helluva ride; wake me up when we get there...

Thursday, November 05, 2015

'Soft Skills of Journalism' or 'Being Nice Gets You a Long Way'

THERE always seem to be some strange looks when I turn up in the newsroom or classroom to do a session on the 'Soft Skills of Journalism'.
That all sounds rather pompous so I'd rather call it 'Being Nice Gets You a Long Way'. I talk about how to cover death knocks by teaming up with a neighbour or relative before bowling up with your 'We'd like to write a tribute' speech and the importance of making friends with the really important people like security staff, drivers, receptionists and even the tea lady, if there is still such a thing.
The assistant at the care home who will help you gain the confidence of a 100-year-old; the teacher's aide who will let you into the classroom; the Minister's flunkey who will let you get close enough for a walkabout question and the policeman who will tip you the nod past the cordon.
I am reminded of this by a story now running on HTFP that has got the mutterati at it again. 'Weekly reporter files complaint against police over house fire cordon' runs the headline about  Reading Chronicle reporter Courtney Friday, who has done just that.
He set the ball rolling with a couple of tweets:

Followed up by the HTFP story, which spawned a rich variety of comments. Some talk about police heavy-handedness, others about the reporter's naivety or  the part the editor is (or isn't) playing.
I may humbly suggest that filing complaints never gets you very far and it certainly doesn't get you the story. Readers have no interest in the inner working of police-media relations; our job is to get the story out there on their behalf.
Back when I was a boy reporter the common wisdom was that Ernie the Cleaner knew everything that was going on. He was indeed a mine of information from  the comings and goings in the Managing Director's office to when the funeral director was calling with his latest warm death notices.
Sadly Ernie went the way of a lot of 'support staff', replaced by agency workers who swept in and swept out. But the modern days Ernies are still out there; you just got to work hard at finding them. They may even by manning a police cordon near you...

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wake up at the back! Yes, you, the journalist...

I HAD A fun time in Afghanistan working with people who called themselves journalists but were from artistic backgrounds like painting, sculpture and poetry and don't even get me started on American journalists and their 'liberal arts' background.
Like many of today's journalists here in the UK they had no understanding of the financing of publishing or the economics of journalism. Write story/publish/sit back/congratulate self/move on. The readership was a black hole of customers who should think themselves lucky that they are able to read my words.
ON THE JOB: Journalists (poets, sculptors etc) on
assignment in Afghanistan with editor (relaxing)
Beyond the editor (if not at lunch/Rotary/important meeting etc), news editor and a few vociferous local worthies nobody really had a view on whether what you did was good, bad or indifferent.
Now that pesky internet thing has moved the goalposts. A weekly newspaper reporter has gone from:
a) Write a story, wait up to six days for it to be published,  see if phone rings or letter comes in.
b) Write a story, wait 30 seconds to see who is reading it, in 10 minutes rewrite/change headline/spike as necessary.
So what's so wrong with journalists being accountable and being measured on what they achieve?

Unprecedented in the industry

Trinity Mirror has done everyone a favour and come out and said it: “Your performance will be assessed regularly, taking into account audience traffic to your stories and therefore encompassing page views, unique users, local audience and other metrics. You will be expected to grow your page views and uniques in line with the growth we require as a business,” says a widely leaked internal memo.
Back comes the NUJ’s Birmingham chapel as reported in Press Gazette with: “On the face of it these targets would be unworkable, counter-productive and unprecedented in the industry."
Yippedeedoo, at long last something "unprecedented in the industry", just what we need to revitalise the dying patient.

Counting key strokes

Twenty years ago I laboured with some very senior figures at Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN) to come up with workable productivity targets for journalists and just a few years ago one the great newspaper executives of our time (you may know him: short, Scottish, spectacles) engineered a scheme which actually counted key strokes.
The legions lined up against the TRN scheme ("You can't put a figure on originality", "Genius doesn't count come cheap" or "Doing important background research",) and like a lot of original thinking it foundered for want of buy-in from those - mainly editors - who would need to make it work.
The key stroke scheme was of course bonkers, but I did issue some lazy reporters with the threat that "the system is counting what you do" (it wasn't) with remarkable effect.
Now the sophisticated metrics is doing all that counting, and in real-time too.
As Trinity Mirror Midlands managing director Simon Edgley explains: "The proposals we have shared with colleagues today are quite significant in the change in structure we need to equip ourselves as a flexible, multi-skilled newsroom of the future. 
"The decision taken to implement these proposals has not been taken lightly, it is necessary for us to adapt to commercial challenges and provide a structure that gives longer term sustainability of the business."

Immune from reality

For too long journalists have thought they are immune from reality. Doing important stuff and getting rewarded from a pot of money that magically appears from somewhere. Not that I blame them. Not enough is done on university courses or within industry accredited qualifications to get new entrants to understand the business of publishing and with it the business of journalism.
And inside the office (if indeed there still is one) the demarcation lines between editorial/advertising/circulation are as obvious as ever so there is little encouragement to find out what those noisy, bell-ringing, over-dressed people are doing.
Mr Media Commentator, Roy Greenslade, put it this way: "The cuts reveal a truth that Trinity Mirror (and other publishers) have previously denied: they are all about private profit and not about public interest."
T'was ever thus, Roy...