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...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Press Awards: The secret to being a winner

GOOD TIMES AHEAD: Newspaper of the Year team from The Times
AMONG the many weird and wonderful jobs I had as general gofer for Thomson Regional Newspapers at the Watford bunker in the early 90s was ensuring that our papers won awards.
Sitting hundreds of miles from the action in Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff or Newcastle (plus Reading and Milton Keynes among others) I couldn’t affect the substance but I could add a little style.
Just making sure all the forms were correctly filled in and the ‘supporting statements’ were pithy yet, er, supportive was a job in itself.
And it worked.
Yes, of course the papers were very good but the attention to detail in making the judges’ task easy should not be underestimated.
The intensity of those inky-handed days came flooding back last night at the Society of Editors Press Awards, where I shared a table with the lovely people from Gorkana and tried not to divulge any insights from the confessional of the judges’ chambers where I had judged four categories and been panel chairman of two.
 It was an uplifting and invigorating night surrounded by talented, committed people fighting for the right to continue to practise journalism as we know it, Jim.
Congratulations, of course, to all the winners but two special mentions from me:
  • Nicola Jeal (right), another graduate of the Today school of journalism from the late 80s, now editor of The Times Magazine which won supplement of the year.
  • Jonathan Grun, now emeritus editor of the Press Association, given the Chairman’s Award. One of THE genuine good guys of journalism and shortly to appear in my next opus ‘60@sixty’ – more of which later…

Jonathan Grun (centre) with the grizzly old men of journalism, SoE executive director Bob Satchwell and  awards host Nick Ferrari

Monday, October 13, 2014

10 things I have just learned about journalism

I HAVE now finished a seven-week romp around Ireland, both north and south, helping nearly 70 journalists come to terms with the latest way of working.
I reminded them that I started work in the days of hot metal - "Hot, smelly, dangerous - and that was just the newsroom!" - which now looks like a museum exhibit, and that far from being wary and suspicious they should embrace the latest technology and concentrate on what they do best.
And what they do is journalism at its best: find stories, talk to people, write quickly and clearly. It's the message rather than the medium, as Marshall McLuhan famously didn’t say, so don't worry about pressing the right keys on the computer but concentrate on asking the right questions.
Here are my Top 10 takeaways:
  1. Journalism is still fun: From chasing stories with headline-grabbing national significance to crafting a brief from submitted mumbo-jumbo most people loved most of it most of the time.
  2. Journalists are still fun: They laughed, they cried, they took the mickey, they lunched, they drank, they worked hard…and they had fun.
  3. Editors still inspire, lead, defend and challenge: I met some wonderful people performing courageously as the increasingly thin filling in a sandwich between the journalists and management/advertising. Didn’t always get the recognition or support they deserved but never flinched from doing things the right way.
  4. There's life in the old dogs: A good proportion of the ‘trainees’ were of more mature years. Yes, folks, from my generation. But after chuckling at my hot metal memories they threw themselves at the digital era task in hand and often turned in better work than the so-called computer generation.
  5. Journalism education and training is valued: While I can sign up to a certain amount of “Journalists are born, not made” it was interesting to see that those with some exposure to teaching and training generally fared better.
  6. Integrity is alive and well: get a bunch of journalists in a room in 2014 and it’s not long before the conversation strays into ethical considerations or more likely: Would you do that? And mostly, the answer was: No
  7. We have headline acts: I love teaching headlines; it brings out the best in people and gives instant gratification to those who listen to the simple instructions.
  8. Upstairs…: The ‘Management’, however you care to define that, were largely caring, committed people doing a difficult job in trying circumstances with compassion and consideration.
  9. Downstairs…: The support staff we have all grown to know and love, from Ernie the cleaner to Sid on security, are disappearing faster than the journalists. Now we’re all our own secretary/cleaner/security.
  10. And on the Tenth Day God begat digital… 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

In the days of click-throughs and downloads, why we still love shorthand

INVIGILATING at the NCTJ shorthand exams today I am instantly transported back to a windowless, airless room at Harlow Technical College in that long, hot summer of 1975.
It is nearly the end of our eight-week block release course. Much beer has been drunk at the Painted Lady – come on, it was very hot – and careers plotted via the charming encouragement of tutor extraordinaire Ken Andrews.
Now we are sitting the shorthand exam, the culmination of two hours a day sweating through hangovers and lack of sleep to reach the holy grail of 100 words per minute.
Most of us made it, either that year or the next, as failure was not an option for us teenage school-leavers looking to make it in the competitive world of journalism.
Shorthand is not just an academic exercise to get you the NCTJ diploma and a passport to fame and fortune as the reporters at the trials of R. Brooks and R. Harris will testify.
Yes, some courts are allowing devices to be used on the Press benches, but m’learned friends do not obligingly speak slowly enough for your fingers to keep up. And the days of checking your rusty shorthand notes with a helpful rival are long gone as news organisations rush to beat each other with stories via social media and online.
Others have written more eloquently than me on the pleasures and rewards of shorthand, notably the Guardian’s Chris Elliott and Graham Dudman from the Sun.
For employers the ability to do shorthand makes an applicant stand out and keen, hard-working and capable. And anyone who has mastered this particular and sometimes peculiar skill knows its enduring delight.
I saw one of my 1975 classmates, Neil Harman now tennis correspondent of The Times, talking eloquently on the telly from Wimbledon yesterday. I would like to have seen his notebook…I’m sure it includes some immaculate Pitman’s shorthand.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Hello Acacia mall...but don't mention the slums

WELL, yippededoo! Aren't we all thrilled that Kampala's newest shopping centre, Acacia mall, was officially opened today by that nice Mr Museveni, no less?

Well, probably not if you are one of the 20,000 people who live in the Katanga slum, just a mile but a lifetime away in the centre of Uganda's capital city.
Here, children play in open sewers, people live in leaky shacks with no water or electricity and those near neighbours of poverty and squalor, abuse and disease, are rife.
By either accident of geography or clever architecture it is impossible to see the horrors of Katanga unless you are actually inside it. From the main road alongside Mulago hospital you look down on a sea of tin roofs, hiding the daily dramas from public view (see below).
I did go in while my wife was helping out the with the wonderful Kids Club Kampala  -  "Hope and Love for Vulnerable Children"  -  and left with rather a desolate feeling of not enough hope and love to go round.
I don't begrudge Kampala its glitzy mall with boutiques, restaurants, banks, cinema, fitness centre and Apple store. But if just a fraction of the private and public money that goes into these grandiose projects found its way to help some of the less fortunate then death, disease, hunger and horror would start to be consigned to the past.
There is little appetite from locals to help out their countrymen and many of the aid projects are run by foreigners with foreign money. In fact, I was horrified to find out that I knew more about the squalor and deprivation of Katanga than people who had lived nearby all their lives. They are simply not interested.
And as I summon the poolside waiter at the Kabira Country Club (ironically the same name as the super-slum in Nairobi) or sip on a latte while using the wi-fi at the La Patisserie I reflect that it is easy to slip into the comfortable cosmopolitan lifestyle that I can live and many Ugandans aspire to.
I'm not some do-gooder on a mission - Praise the Lord there's enough of them to go round - but am lucky enough to ply my trade as both a media and education professional in what is loosely called the developing world. And I firmly believe we all need to use whatever position or influence we have to persuade, cajole and do whatever we can for the better.
Film-maker Tony Steyger, my friend from Southampton Solent University, has made a powerful report called 'Kenya - The Last Taboo'. The blurb says: In Kenya 6 million people still defecate in the open. This report literally cuts through the crap to take a funny and refreshing look at the serious risks and the bold new tactics being used to tackle them.
For Kenya read Uganda, or indeed one of many locations around the world that still lack basic sanitation.
And all this on a day when the Monitor newspaper reports: US punishes Uganda for anti-gay law: Withdraws support to police, UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Force] and Health
No doubt President Museveni was reflecting on that too as he cut the ribbon this morning.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Computers, science, the newsroom and me

“Will the geeks inherit the newsroom?” was one of the many questions posed at the Association for Journalism Education annual conference in Liverpool.
The engaging Angela Long from Dublin Institute of Technology directed us to the Columbia Journalism School which has devised a Dual-Degree Program in Journalism & Computer Science.
Students will earn MA degrees in both Computer Science and Journalism taking in units on ‘Analysis of Algorithms’, ‘3D User Interfaces and Augmented Reality’ and ‘Web-Enhanced Information Management’ along the way.
It’s easy to be a bit sniffy about what road this is taking journalism down, but I’ve always been a bit of a New Romantic and ready to embrace whatever is round the corner – or in Columbia’s case already set up on the High Street.
But within all the app development, data journalism and statistical analysis I hope we don’t forget some of the fundamental lessons of journalism, like the ability to talk to people, get them to say something and deliver that info quickly and succinctly.
The anonymity of email questions and nicking quotes from twitter is all very well but as one of the students before taking a final year assignment asked me rather sheepishly: “Do you mean we’ve actually got to talk to people?”
Other conference highlights:
  • Student attendance was the talk of the bar. Everyone seems to be struggling to get a decent show in class, despite the £9,000 fees and our value for money drive. But I couldn’t help thinking we’re looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope. Perhaps the days of standing in front of a class like Mr Chips are gone and we should look at delivering our content in ways that the students feel happier to engage with.
  • A Pop-up Newsroom championed by Newcastle University, where students teamed up with partner institutions in India, Holland, Armenia, the United States, and Brazil to look first at global poverty and then celebrate International Women's Day. Great idea, and one that I will unashamedly copy.
  • A presentation about Blippar – “A bleeding-edge content platform” – through which you can “attract, retain and engage with consumers through an immersive experience”.  Strangely addictive and great fun.