MASTERCLASSES

Monday, 10 December 2007

Why HMV is selling a book on English grammar

Now why would they be selling an English grammar book in HMV?

Their customers are into music, movies and computer games. On the face of it, they are the very antithesis of the audience for a book called I Before E (Except After C) and subtitled Old School Ways to Remember Stuff.

And yet, there it is, stacked up by the dozen close to the tills and offered at the impressively knocked-down of price of £3. Clearly, HMV sees this as a book with mass appeal.

I think they are right. I certainly meet plenty of young professionals who realise their spelling, punctuation and grammar are poor, and who want to do something about it.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working with a large PR agency, covering just the ground in I Before E plus that in Lynne Truss’s, Eats Shoots and Leaves, her hugely entertaining, 3-million-selling treatise on good punctuation.

I was apprehensive when given the assignment. I suspected that only a proportion of delegates would see the point of this, when they have spellcheck and grammar check on their computers.

Infact, without exception, the delegates loved it. Learning how to use commas, semi-colons and colons; the difference between affect and effect; when to use less and when to use fewer; the difference between that and which; and when it is practice with a c and practise with an s all went down a storm.

The popularity of I before E and Eats Shoots and Leaves, and the market for courses such as mine, should give educationalists pause for thought.

Why do we tolerate a system that has failed at least two generations of bright young people by leaving them ill-equipped for work? Why should employers have to pay for basic education that ought to have been provided before their staff reached their teens?

Monday, 12 November 2007

Shome mistake, off-shorely

Ugly word, off-shoreing. But I like the sound of it.

In what the NUJ believes to be a first, News International is exporting much of the work done by 30 TV listings journalists to India.

It’s been happening to call-centre staff and others for some time; now it seems it is the turn of some sectors of journalism.

The work has been sub-contracted to PA, Press Gazette reports, which has two production centres in India, as well as one in the north of England.

Presumably this is not going to be an isolated event. Many more such moves are likely to follow. When I was at the Sunday Express, many subbing jobs were transferred to Preston, so it’s only one small step further to shift them abroad.

But here’s the question: Is this a threat, or an opportunity?

Obviously, if your job could be whisked from under you, it’s a threat. But that can’t happen with many journalistic jobs. The pool of those who can do high value reporting and editing, for an English-speaking audience, is severely limited.

Many currently UK-based journalists will fall into this highly-valued category. But while they need you – or someone of your calibre - to do your job, you often don’t need to do it in the UK.

So the smart move might be to off-shore yourself.

After all, for many journalists these days, where you are based is not important. Unless you have to regularly make face-to-face contact with the people you write about, or attend some form of proceedings routinely, you can work from pretty much anywhere, as along as there is broadband.

Last week I was in the south of France, training journalists for a company that decided, a few years ago, that it could base its web publications anywhere. So the founders decided where they’d like to live, and moved.

It certainly seemed a step up from cold grey November London as we sat outside a restaurant for lunch. At under 10 euros for two courses and a glass of wine, the meal was a damn sight better than what you’d get in your average office lunch spot in England.

Could all publishers up-sticks like this? Maybe not all – but plenty.

For many of us, the world really ought to be our lobster. There is really no reason why we can’t live and work somewhere warm, where the food is fantastic and the wine cheap, where it’s 10 minutes from the airport to the office, crime is low and property a fraction of UK prices.

Off-shoreing? Don’t mind if I do.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Pay, local rags, and trade mags

David Montgomery may have been wrong about the value of subs, but he was quite right when he said journalists in the regional press are grossly underpaid.

Speaking at a German embassy reception for journalists on the George Weidenfeld Anglo German exchange programme, he said wages on the UK’s local papers were appalling.

The evidence is clear. As an example, compare trainee journalists on regional papers with their compatriots on trade magazines.

On newspapers, trainees routinely start at around £15,000, and toil for a minimum of 18 months before taking their NCTJ National Certificate Examinations. If they pass - and only 50 or 60 per cent do, first time around - they get about £18,000.

On magazines, new recruits simply take a pre-entry course that can be as short as nine weeks. In their first job they can expect to be paid between £18,000 and £21,000. It could be more. They don’t have to take any further exams, as newspaper journalists do, and they aren’t classed as juniors for 18 months, as they would be on a local rag

So, which is the more attractive route into journalism? As the Americans might say: You do the math.

It would be understandable if the trade press entry route were the preferred choice of the most talented and ambitious young journalists. Trade press reporters are becoming increasingly successfully in climbing the greasy pole to what used to be called Fleet Street.

True, few young journalists – in mags or local papers – are motivated primarily by money. Just as well.

Those I meet who are on newspapers aren’t interested in the trade press. But, increasingly, many bright young entrants recognise that it can be as fascinating to get to know the intimate workings of an industry as it is to discover all that is happening in a town.

And, while a local paper can begin to equip you very effectively as a generalist, trade magazines can give you a head start in developing a specialism. And it is a specialism that will make you employable.

What our audiences will value is an expert’s analysis of the meaning of events – not just an outline of what has happened.

The young journalist who has taken the trade mag route will develop these skills far faster than the local rag cub reporter who spends 18 months grinding along the golden wedding, court, council committee, flower show route.

And, a couple of years down the line, they’ll already be at least £6,000 richer.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

What have the subs ever done for us?

David Montgomery has opened a debate in the pages of Press Gazette by questioning the usefulness of subs.

Press Gazette quotes him saying: “Never before has a journalist been able to reach out to their audience without intervention.”

Funnily enough, I remember being told exactly the same thing when I joined the Independent prior to its launch in October 1986.

In the early days, The Independent had no subs – part from one or two that wily department heads slipped through the net.

The reason given for avoiding them was very similar to what Montgomery, who these days is chief executive of European newspaper giant Mecom, argues now. It was that technology had made them, and their craft, unnecessary.

Monty says: “I see a situation where experienced journalists that can be trusted have no barrier to communication with their audience.

“Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check…Senior people will always monitor the content, a core group will create the product.”

I was deputy features editor in The Independent’s early days, and when I suggested subs were really rather useful, I was told that they were no longer necessary because of full page make up on computers called GT68s.

The Independent, which pioneered this technology in the UK, hired a group of bods called GT68 operators – largely from the regional press– whose job it was to draw up the pages electronically. Then, each writer could file their copy directly into the file that had been set up for them, press a button and bingo, job done.

It was said there was absolutely no need to sub the copy of highly intelligent, educated, experienced Independent writers.

That held for a few months, with those of us who were employed to commission also having to do a huge amount of unacknowledged copy subbing.

I can pinpoint the moment when things changed in features, and we were allowed to hire our first sub. It was during party conference season. The leader writer, having toiled with the Tories at Brighton (or it may been Blackpool) then went off to cover Labour at Blackpool (or it may have been Brighton).

I can’t remember now, and he couldn’t remember then.

He got the town wrong, in his opening sentence. The chiefs were incandescent. How could such a competent journalist have made such a fundamental mistake?

Less judgemental was the senior executive who had read and approved the leader before publication.

So, slowly but surely, we were allowed to hire subs.

The thing is, when your brilliant writer or your thrusting executive cocks up, you need someone to carry the can – and subs are really good at doing that.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Did Churchill have a spin-doctor?

If I wasn’t such a slow reader I’d have got through Alastair Campbell’s diaries months ago. So, apologies for coming to this a little late, but I’ve just read what Nicholas Soames told him about Churchill and spin doctoring.

As The Times has put it “Alastair Campbell came under great pressure during the Andrew Gilligan, BBC, Dr David Kelly fiasco. Just as he was feeling the strain, he got a supportive call from an unexpected source. Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP, called him and bellowed that the media were “total shits”. He continued: “Do you think my grandfather [Sir Winston Churchill] had a spin doctor? Course he f**king did”

What? Could this mean that all those great sound-bites from the summer of 1940: "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"... "we shall fight on the beaches" ... "this was their finest hour" ... "never was so much owed by so many to so few" were penned by some tame Rottweiler?

Actually, no, I don’t think it could. Following extensive research (I Googled it) I can say with cautious confidence that Churchill was his own spin doctor, and a supremely competent one at that.

John Ramsden’s Man of the Century tells the story of how Winston Churchill, in the last years of his life, carefully crafted his reputation for posterity, and reveals him as “the twentieth century's pioneering, and perhaps most gifted, spin doctor”.

John Sergeant, the BBC’s former chief political correspondent, has said “Who was the greatest spin doctor of the twentieth century? Churchill, I suppose, in Britain. And his greatest achievement in this field? Turning the appalling defeat at Dunkirk, into something else, if not a victory, at least into a kind of deliverance, for the British army. Yes, statesman spin.”

Indeed, the Churchill Centre (Patron one Lady Soames DBE, Sir Winston Churchill's youngest daughter) runs on its website an article by Dr Stephen Bungay, who says: “Oratory was the main instrument he used to maintain his shaky position in parliament, to solidify support in the nation, and to get the war fought. It was a very personal instrument, for he employed no speech writers. Churchill was his own spin doctor.”

Words were Churchill’s metier. He didn’t have to deal with any precursor of Paxman or Humphreys. As Michael Cockerell has pointed out “When BBC TV News began half a century ago, Winston Churchill was prime minister. The Old Man called television a "tuppenny ha'penny Punch and Judy show," and never gave an interview, claiming it had no part to play in the coverage of politics.”

If Churchill was a master of spin, it was spin through language, not media manipulation. But is the orator’s art dead in the modern world of politics?

No. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Clinton had a words man - a great writer - on the team.

When I was writing The word…and how to find it, I learned that Clinton had three equal directors in his presidential election campaign – one responsible for strategy, one for communications, and one for language.

David Kusnet was the director for language. Kusnet was hired, he says, because Clinton had read a book of his called Speaking American. Kusnet meant by this title that it was important to speak directly to the American people in language that they could not merely understand intellectually, but which would connect with them emotionally. Clinton measured the words of his campaign against this goal. He was following Ronald Reagan, another great master of the spoken word.

Kusnet has written : “When Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he called for ‘a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom’.

“Twelve years later in his acceptance speech, Democrat Bill Clinton invoked a similar set of values – ‘opportunity, responsibility, and community’ - that had been watchwords of his successful presidential campaign.

“Reagan and Clinton spoke in everyday language that evoked moral values, not public policies. They were elected and re-elected against opponents who tended to speak the language of government and politics, not normal life. Not surprisingly, ‘speaking American’ beats speaking Bureaucratese.”

This is not a skill you find all that evident among politicians. How many memorable phrases can you think of from current or recent leaders? We had one or two in the early Blair years – “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” - but I can’t think of any since.

Kusnet had three pieces of advice for Clinton that would stand any writer in good stead. They were:

“First, speak the language of everyday experience. If you're advocating an increase in the minimum wage or opposing a trade agreement that could cost American jobs, explain what it all means for a single mom struggling to support her kids on her paychecks.

“Second, ask yourself what values are at stake - and talk about those values. If you're supporting a living-wage ordinance, then the issue is the moral value the community places on hard work. If the issue is government contracts for companies that bust unions, then the discussion includes individual Americans' rights to free speech and freedom of association. And if it's exorbitant salaries or corrupt practices of corporate executives, then the issue is personal responsibility. Whatever the issue, an appeal to morality is more persuasive than one that's purely technical.

“Third, tell stories, parables really, that evoke people's sense of what is right and wrong.”

Can Brown and Cameron speak English, as Clinton and Reagan spoke American? Or do they need to get some writers onboard?

Monday, 29 October 2007

Who will cultivate the gardeners?

Say you are a keen amateur gardener. Where is your natural home on the web?

You read the newspaper gardening columns, you watch Gardeners’ World, you read a magazine or two. You may be a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. Most, if not all the off-line places you indulge your hobby will have a web arm. Some may be impressive in many ways. The RHS, for instance, gives you an extensive plant finder database online, not to mention posting you a glossy monthly magazine called The Garden.

Online, any gardening outlet worth its salt could be building a community that its readers or viewers will want to join, and which will provide a natural extension to the material offered in print or on screen.

They could do. Many don’t.

Of those that do, few have mastered the concept of community and belonging, and none have grasped the importance of hyper-local content.

As a keen gardener, I’ve been looking for a home on the web for some time. I’ve looked at all the brands I like and trust, and have been disappointed with them all.

Here’s what I found

RHS
It really knows its stuff; offers advice, guidance and training but not a lot of entertainment. No community, no interaction, nothing to share. And very impersonal. It has none of the warmth and enthusiasm of a gardening column or a programme presented by committed gardeners who you get to know and like.

Gardening Which?
A website largely for subscribers to the magazine, full of facts and advice, but no community.

Some sites, such as this one, are into e-commerce above all else. I do want to buy from the home I find, but I don’t want that to be the only reason they want me around.

Daily Telegraph
The Telegraph understands the need for community, but the contributions are thin, which suggests it hasn’t yet captured the imagination of this core area of its readership.

There is a fledgling community, and you can post a question for other readers to answer, but most have no replies, very few more than one. So it’s not coming alive yet, but is certainly one to watch

Amateur Gardening has only a couple of pages online, which offer you the chance to subscribe to the print publication, but little more. That’s a shame, because this is a very lively print product

The BBC should be the daddy.. It has all the advice and mutlimedia content you’d expect, plus vibrant message boards where the posts run into six figures. But you can’t blog here, and it has no hyper-local element, although the organisation has the resources to fix that.

So, looking to the brands I know and like, I don’t find a home.

I look further afield, and do find several very strong communiites. But at Dave’s Garden
the writing is amateurish and, while it has community in spades (sorry) with over 1,500 gardeners blogging, almost all are American. I’m not going to find a home here.

Likewise Organic Gardening which has good community, but offers no local UK content or community. You are pushed to subscribe to the allied magazine to access all the online content.

Community and hyper-local content seem to me to be the keys for making the internet work for print and broadcasters. Spotting communities that can be nurtured is essential, if established publishers and broadcasters are to avoid losing these readers, viewers and listeners. It might be classified advertisers, gardeners or any of the dozens of other interest groups that buy newspapers and magazines, watch TV and listen to the radio

In short, create communities or die

I haven’t found a home on the web that gives me all that I need, so I’m going to build my own. It’s just beginning to take shape here and here. I’ve no idea how it will work out, but I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Don’t mention the Daily Mail. (I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.)

I had one of those “Don’t mention the war!” moments last night. I was sitting next to a Catholic priest at a dinner party and found myself talking about the Channel Four sit-com Father Ted.

Too late, I realised that this could be compared with Basil Fawlty goose-stepping past a bunch of German guests with his finger under his nose. Not tactful, to say the least.

Mercifully, it wasn’t just any priest I was seated alongside, but Father Michael Seed, often referred to as “the priest to the stars”. His Guardian online profile plots his connections with the famous: “The former Liberal Democrats' leader, Charles Kennedy, and his wife, Sarah, the Barclay brothers (the Telegraph's owners), John Gummer, the classical musician Nicola Benedetti, the singer Suggs, of Madness, and Jeffrey Archer - all know him well.” (I know, too many commas, but you get the drift.)

It adds: “The celebrities he has cajoled into contributing to his books … make for an ecumenical rollcall: the Duchess of Kent, Hillary Clinton, John le CarrĂ©, Sean Connery, Prince Rainier, Jilly Cooper, Ned Sherrin, Richard Ingrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Terry Wogan, the Dalai Lama, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.”

As it turned out, I hadn’t put my foot in it – I’d struck a chord. I discovered Father Michael has just written about Father Ted for a forthcoming Channel Four book commemorating the station’s 25th anniversary. He chose to treat the show seriously.

Phew.

So we chatted on about one of the very best sit-coms of the past 20 years. Father Michael loves the programme, as I do, and sees it as a wonderfully warm and sympathetic portrayal of ordinary priests working against the odds, sandwiched between a church hierarchy that is not always in touch with its flock and a congregation that shows all the human foibles.

We talked about our favourite characters, scenes and lines: the disco dancing priest who dances himself to death; the pack of priests trapped in the underwear department of a Dublin store (“It’s the largest lingerie department in all Ireland …so I’m told.”); the contest to see who can kick Bishop Brennan up the arse; and Brennan’s response when Dougal insists on calling him Len: “Dougal, ya little bollocks!”

The general view in the Catholic Church is probably that the programme is very bad publicity. Infact it’s very good. It presents priests as fallible, but very human, and Catholicism in a warm light. And it gets the Church on prime time television.

Father Michael has an instinctive understanding of how to communicate through the mass media.

This ability has sometimes got him into hot water. When he agreed to write about his childhood, and suffering at the hands of an abusive father, for his close friend John Blake, one-time editor of The Sun’s Bizarre column turned publisher of Jordan’s ghosted autobiography, he got some stick.

He got more when the book was serialised in the Daily Mail, house journal of the antichrist as far as many liberals are concerned.

The Mail blurbed it thus: “Michael Seed's childhood was one of the most shocking you'll ever read about. But in a testament to the human spirit, he became a priest and friend to Premiers and royalty. His story is at once haunting and deeply inspiring...”

In it he writes: “I have never, for one moment in my life, ever forgotten the most minute and horrific detail of [my abuse at my father’s hands] and yet, in the 45 years since it first occurred, I have never mentioned it to another soul.

“I only do so now, in all its horror, not to shock, but in the hope that others, facing similar torment, can identify with me and start to believe that there is some hope in the future.”

The book might be classed in the maudlin genre of ‘Mis Lit’ – yet much good has come of it. That good can be measured in the response of the readers. While Father Michael wrote it purely as an account of his suffering, he has had many letters, from some of the 40,000 who have bought the hardback, about how inspiring they find his story, and his triumph over his past.

One among the comments on the Mail’s website reads: “I read this book in a day, I couldn’t leave it. I wanted to know what was going to happen but at the same time afraid of what that might be. I am so happy that Father Michael was able to break free of his past and create a future filled with positive energy, but my heart breaks for all those little children who cannot break the chains they become tangled in and lead a life of pain and misery. We read about the children who have overcome but who speaks up for those who can't?”

Of course, Father Michael didn’t have to serialise the book in the Mail, but he was right to do so. His book, and the publishing and publicity strategy behind it, is a model of how the mass media can be used for good ends.

At this point I will begin to sound a bit like a sermonising vicar who performs a crunching gear change from what the Bible says to something that happened to him this week

So... on to something that happened to me this week.

I was teaching headline writing to a group of people from a charity. The charity was being rebranded and they were required to get on message, and learn to project this new image through the headlines, and other content, they wrote on its website and in print communications.

Rebranding. Sounds nasty. Especially if you are a fairly lefty sort working for a very serious and well-established charity.

I admit it didn’t sound great to me either. I imagined all sorts of abstract concepts and lots of money spent on logos and detailed instructions on where to place them on the page, but little thought given to how to talk to, and persuade, potential supporters.

I was quite wrong.

The rebranding material I was given to work with meshed perfectly with the headline-writing course I was delivering

Because the rebranding was all about good communication; about identifying, and communicating with, a given audience. It was about grabbing people’s attention: making them read, making them want to learn about the material to be presented beneath the headline.

Also, although I didn’t quite dare tell the delegates this, it was very tabloid. Because it talked about writing with commitment and passion. (We hacks call that bias, which the tabloids are great at.)

In talked about having an agenda, and writing with passion to that agenda. That’s the approach which has made the Sun – and more particularly the Mail – great.

So, my rather vicar-ly point is…the mass media can be used to get an important message across: one that connects with the average punter in a very profound way. That goes for TV and the press, but equally for charity websites and press releases.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Is the web making or breaking writers?

That’s a good question, but not one I came up with. It’s the cover line on a magazine for writers put out by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society.

This is a great organisation. ALCS does the business by finding out who owes us cash. There are obscure sources of income such as royalties from photocopying, which were new to me. The Germans seem particularly assiduous in recording when they photocopy someone’s book. Why, I made £37 in the last quarter that way.

The ALCS magazine covers some good stuff too, but I was frustrated when I tried to find the piece that accompanied that coverline. I had to play hunt the article.

You get this too often with B2B titles, and occasionally with consumer ones. They put something on the cover with one line, then hide it by having an entirely different description of the piece on the contents list, and use yet another tack with the actual headline. Sainsbury’s Magazine used to be great at this, but then they spoilt the fun by putting a little asterisk in the contents against things they’d plugged on the cover.

Anyway, eventually I found what I concluded, by a process of elimination, was probably the article. It was a column headlined Reading versus Cyberspace.

Unfortunately, the column didn’t answer the question posed on the cover. Or not in the way that I had hoped.

I’d hoped to find an article that would look at whether writers benefited or suffered because of the web. Did people read more or less, did writers now get paid more or less, were they more or less likely to get published…that sort of thing.

Instead, the piece was about how distracting the web can be and how, if you are a writer, you need to get away for the weekend to somewhere without broadband and mobile phone signals to get any work done

An OK column, but not the one I wanted.

So let’s think about writers, journalists – and creative people generally – and ask whether the web is benefiting them.

Is the web making or breaking musicians, for example? A great deal of their work gets stolen, that’s for sure. The band Radiohead has made radioheadlines, and other sorts, by telling people to pay what they think the music is worth

Other bands give their music away and are convinced that musicians’ income in future will be from live performances and merchandising.

Is there any parallel here for writers and journalists?

Well, it doesn’t seem you can sell your content online, if you are a newspaper or magazine. The few newspapers that have tried it are thinking again and removing the barriers. So you need other revenue streams: e-commerce, charging for what is really valuable, or wrapping web access up in subscription charges for the print edition. Some B2B magazines seem to be making the latter work.

The question is: How are we writers going to get paid? We know we are going to be read - the rising popularity of websites is testament to that.

What I think we need is cyber fee collecting, a cyberspace ALCS that spiders the web, just like Google, matching content with its creator. Then, however the site makes money – through advertising, subscription or whatever - we the content creators don’t fill it for free.

The individual fees will be tiny, just like those for photocopying books. But they mount up – maybe to as much as £37.

I think it will work. If a site has an income, it can afford to pay the content provider a few pence. And, just like the newspaper column serialised around the world that picks up a relatively small sum from each paper that prints it, the sum total can be substantial.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Crash, Bang: want a picture, want a photograph?

The consultation on the future of press photography I’m conducting for the NCTJ is underway. The end goal is to modernise the syllabuses trainees study to ensure they deliver photographers with the skills editors need.

To kick things off, it seemed worth asking the industry a big question: Given that reporters often take routine pictures, that video journalists almost always come from a reporting background, and that readers now take dramatic pictures of fires, crashes and other newsworthy events, what should the role of the professional press photographer be?

If you’d like to take part in the consultation, you can do so here

Everyone is welcome.

Among the key questions we want answers to are:

Should press photographers be trained in video?
- If so, to what level of competence?
- Higher than the average video journalist?
- To the same level as they are trained in stills photography at present?
- Should their role be confined to filming video, or should they be skilled in editing it as well?
- Should photographers be able to create a professional video package for online?
- Should they be able to conduct the interviews, gather the information and voice up the report?
- Should we create a distinction between press photographers, who do the image gathering, and photojournalists, who are all-rounders capable of creating finished video packages?

Already the comments are coming in, and while views differ it's clear we are asking the right questions.

I’m not just relying on the blog to get debate going. I’ve also e-mailed a personal invitation to take part to over 100 editors, picture editors, photographers and academics.

In doing so I’ve done a fair bit of trawling around newspaper websites looking for e-mail addresses. And, guess what, it’s very hard to find a picture editor’s e-mail, let alone a photographer’s.

Virtually all newspaper websites have some e-mail addresses. If they offer more than just a generic one they usually include the editor, the news editor, and often the chief reporter, the features editor and the web editor. But very few include the picture editor. Even sites which list all the reporters’ e-mails often don’t list those of photographers.

Why is that?

I’d be interested to know.

Anyone got any ideas?

Saturday, 6 October 2007

What the web can do for you

I got chatting to Dave King, who began his new job as editor of Newsquest’s Swindon Advertiser this week, at an NCTJ markers’ meeting.

Dave’s unconvinced of the merits of video for regional dailies, and said he was more interested in podcasts. So I told him about Soundslides, which I think could be one important way forward for local papers on the web.

I’m developing a one-day course for regional newspapers entitled What the Web can do for You, and I’m featuring Soundslides there, among many other innovations.

Soundslides are sophisticated slide shows to which an audio track can be added. The Croydon Advertiser uses them very well. Here’s one I like for its relaxed professionalism.

You’ll see plenty of papers using slide shows minus sound to present a series of still image of, say, a football match featuring the local team.

Then again – at the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette’s award-winning Gazzettelive site, for example - you’ll find sports reporters talking to camera in video reports of a local match. Here’s a recent one.

Combine a Soundslide presentation with your football reporter giving his account of a game and you have a wining formula. Because, let’s face it, most football reporters aren’t so lovely you want to watch them talking for five minutes. However, run their expert analysis under high-quality pictures of the key moments of a game and you are on to something.

Soundslides are one interesting development. Here’s another…

To my mind, the key benefit of the web for local papers is that they allow them to be local again. When I was in the provinces I constantly got readers telling me the paper wasn’t local any more.

They were right.

Pressure on space meant that the extensive reports of local events, including clubs and societies, were no longer carried. The web means all that local material can find a place again. At Middlesbrough they are pioneering hyper local coverage, where content is divided by postcode.

This strikes me as a hugely significant development. Oh, and guess what, they all this area Communities. They aren’t arrogant enough to call them Gazette Communities – but that’s what they are.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Creating and owning communities


A great day with Caspian on Friday. Caspian is a B2B house that publishes Real Business and Real Deals among other bright, savvy titles that bring a great deal of flair to their sector.

The session was a day’s introduction to writing and editing for the web.

Caspian, like many others, is taking its first real steps into the web and multi-media, so the main aim of the day was to work on how to ensure material created for print is adapted to work as effectively online. They were a bright bunch and picked up on things fast.

Because they didn’t need a lot of drill, we had time to look at the bigger picture too. So we could look at what sort of identity the various publications could have online. This was helped because I had the company’s communications director, Matthew Rock, among the delegates.

A weekly news-driven B2B title can create a good solid news-led website and immediately add to what it offers its readers: deepening the relationship; making it possible for the title to be the news-source of choice on a daily – or several times daily – rather than a weekly basis.

But what about monthly titles where analysis and comment are the attractions? What do we do with them?

Creating community has to be the key, and Caspian is making solid moves in that direction.

Already, their forums are rich in comment, and discussion often flows out from a particular piece of analysis, with posters offering their own experiences and advice.

The forums could become master classes, with the sort of advice and shared experience that is worth a fortune if measured in consultancy fees or personal coaching.

By bringing their journalists’ and other contributors’ invaluable advice online, and enabling readers to interact with the writers and each other, Caspian is beginning to crack the key challenge: creating communities that are hosted and owned by that particular title.

Now, I’m aware that not everyone thinks media companies can own communities. They accept they can help create them but believe that true communities have a life of their own and can’t be controlled – to expect to do so is old-media thinking.

I’m not so sure, and I believe there is plenty of evidence around to show that B2B titles do indeed own communities. During my day at Caspian we looked at some examples.

Take morningadvertiser.co.uk, the publicans’ title, for example. It has a fantastically close relationship with its online readers. They can comment directly on stories and, with major issues, the comments run into the hundreds – 360 is the highest I’ve seen there. Iain O’Neil, their online reporter, tells me he often gets great stories from his readers’ comments and feedback.

There are campaigns; a wealth of advice on coping with the smoking ban; on how to make money; on developing catering: a real master class in running a pub.

Clearly this is a vibrant community, and clearly it is a morningadvertiser community. That’s not to say someone else couldn’t start a community to serve the pub trade. Anyone could set up a group on Google or Yahoo or anywhere else and, if publicans liked it, it would grow. But it wouldn’t have the editorial expertise and wealth of high quality content that Iain brings to his site.

This should be our USP online: strong communities, valuable content.

Farmers Weekly is another example. It has a community editor, Isabel Davies, who told Press Gazette recently that the magazine’s online communities helped the title get vital information out to readers on the foot and mouth outbreak, and helped her hear back from those affected.

Isabel says: “The job of community editor is a new post…and a lot of it is about championing the voice of the reader. It really worked in this instance – they’ve asked questions and we’ve used our influence to get them answers.” (You can read her full PG dairy here)

It’s pretty clear that, particularly in extremis, farmers – or any community – will go to the home they trust. The challenge for B2B magazines is to create those homes, to nurture them and keep them their own. Do it well and you can own them, do it badly, and others will take on the job instead.

Creating and owning communities is perhaps more of a challenge for newspapers. I blogged recently on one potential community that newspapers have let get away to rival commercial providers.

Newspapers’ readership is obviously more disparate than that of B2Bs, but there are communities among readers, and the challenge for us is to find, serve and own them. If we don’t, someone else will.

I’m working with a number of regional newspapers at present on how to identify communities among their readers and serve them well enough to gain their loyalty – so that those newspapers' websites are the place that those communities chooses to come and chat.

The very local-ness of the regional press is a great strength here. Add to that the opportunities the web gives us for hyper-local and user-generated content, and we have one potential key to thriving online.

So, is it really old-media thinking to talk about creating and owning communities? Or is it, conversely, fanciful to suggest that communities are free-born spirits that no one can control?

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

How to pass the NCE

I’ve been busy running refresher courses for the NCTJ’s National Certificate Examinations over the past three weeks.

These are very satisfying for me and – I think – valuable for the delegates. Satisfying for me because there are quantifiable outcomes. I try to teach the young journalists how to pass the exams: to see what is required to give the examiners what they are looking for.

If they pass, I’ve done my job; if they don’t, I haven’t.

There is a lot of respect for – and some suspicion of - the NCEs. They are treated with respect because they are tough. Pass rates are routinely 50 to 60 per cent for first-timers. There is a degree of suspicion because some wonder if they are needlessly tough, and whether they seek to apply standards that are not reflected in everyday regional journalism.

In my view they are only as tough as they need to be to ensure that those who earn the title of senior journalist deserve it. And they come tolerably close to replicating the circumstances in which journalists work. Of course, they could be closer, and I have some thoughts on how they might better replicate real work conditions, but they do a pretty good job.

In my view, what is often lacking is an understanding - on the part of candidates – of what is required to gain a good mark in the exams. Competently delivered refreshers ought to address that concern.

The key is showing students how to approach the three papers.

I remind them of their driving test. Remember all that mirror, signal, manoeuvre malarkey? What was that all about?

It was about demonstrating to the examiner that you were a safe driver. To do that the learner needed to make it abundantly clear that they were doing the right things – hence all the exaggerated mirror, signal, manoeuvre stuff. No matter that once the L-plates were ripped in half the newly-qualified driver would burn off and drive just like the rest of us.

The NCE is all about demonstrating to the examiner that you are a competent, safe journalist. It’s mirror, signal, manoeuvre time all over again. The Newspaper Practice paper – one of three examinations – seeks to determine if the candidate is someone who can be sent to court and not land the paper with a legal problem; and someone who can take a tip-off and develop it into a fully rounded story for their paper.

The News Interview paper is there to demonstrate that candidates can conduct an interview in such a way that they extract all the important information from the interviewee, and that they can write a story that makes the most of what they are told.

The News Report paper requires candidates to take a bundle of briefing papers and then listen to a speech from which they must extract three or four key quotes.

The problem comes – for too many candidates – when they enter the exam room. Too many have never seen examples of the papers they are now sitting. That puts them at a huge disadvantage. I can’t imagine taking any exam without studying past papers to get a clear idea of what to expect.

It’s true that, for News Interview and News Report, you can’t revise. But you can know what is required. So, for News Interview, you will need three or four key quotes, and to gain from your questioning a clear outline of the story – best achieved by taking the interviewee through a full chronology of events. If candidates then get the main point in the intro, follow with one or two pars to introduce subsidiary themes, and follow this with a killer quote, they are off to a very good start. If they then feed in three pars of vivid description of events, go on to give a couple more quotes and a solid three or four pars of detail, they will probably be home and dry – as long as they don’t make any silly mistakes.

With the News Interview, a similar structure will again work well. What candidates need to blend into their answer is a good range of detail from the briefing papers, three or four quotes from the speech, plus some additional facts that can only be gained from the speaker.

With the News Practice paper, candidates often show a reasonable knowledge of law, but demonstrate an inability to apply it to the scenario outlined in the question. It only takes two or three hours during a refresher to convert their raw legal knowledge into a sound ability to put this knowledge into practice. In the second part of the practice exam, they have to take a couple of story tips and develop them for their own paper. Once again, once they have mastered the necessity of a thorough mirror, signal, manoeuvre approach, they quickly get the hang of passing this section.

In the latest retakes, the pass rate was up to an impressive 67 per cent. Now, if more of those second-time-around success stories had been given the benefit of refreshers before their first efforts, I’ll bet a significantly greater proportion would have passed first time.

The (uncertain) shape of things to come

I spent the day in Bournemouth and Poole, talking to two centres about trialling the new Online Journalism qualification that we are building in as a part of the Preliminary Certificates for the NCTJ.

Tom Hill at uptospeedjournalism in Poole is reassuringly onboard. He has a cohort of mainly career-changers – the first of three intakes this academic year - who looked to me as if they will make great journalists.

At Bournemouth University’s Media school I met up again with Liisa Rohumaa who has a background in Fleet Street websites, like me. We reminisced about the struggles of grafting an online identify onto (in her case) the Financial Times and (in mine) The Times.

There have been some key staff changes at Bournemouth but I’m hoping they will join the eight centres already committed to Trailblazing the Online Journalism syllabus this academic year, prior to its integration as a compulsory element in the Preliminary Certificates in 2008-9.

I had fascinating conversations with both Tom and Liisa about the shape of things to come. Let’s face it; none of us know for sure what multi-media journalism is going to look like in a year or two. Regional and national newspapers, consumer and B2B magazines are all feeling their way and seeing what works for them in the multi-media world.

One thing I do feel is going to come to the forefront, eclipsing video, which is the current focus of many people’s attention, is community.

I sense that creating and owning appropriate communities will prove to be the real key to success online, for all media outlets – whatever pocket of trad media they come from.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Do press photographers have a future?

It's a question that has been uppermost in my mind this week, as the NCTJ has asked me to look at their press photography and photojournalism syllabuses.

On the one hand, many editors send reporters out with cameras to snap straightforward pictures to accompany their stories. On the other, many newspapers are hiring video journalists - or training existing reporting staff to do the job.

And that's not to mention the rise of the citizen-snapper, who sends in pictures of dramatic events captured on their mobile phones - everything from terrorist attacks to car crashes, fights and fires.

Clearly, the press photographer needs to evolve if a cash-strapped editor is to choose to hire him or her as opposed to a video journalist or reporter.

I've only just started what will be an industry-wide consultation, but already the responses have been fascinating. I don't want to preempt things, but already it is clear that the answer to the question posed in my heading is a resounding yes - as long as we get the training right, and produce photographers who can offer the editor exactly what they need in an age of video and citizen journalism.

Training: a matter of degrees


The British Journalism Review asked me to sound off about media studies degrees, which I was happy to do because I think they disappoint many aspiring journalists who only find out too late that they are not being prepared for a job in the trade.

Here's an extract:

I have an analogy I like to use when working with a group of raw recruits to a journalism course. It’s that they should think of learning how to write a news story rather as they would approach following a recipe in a cookbook.

Just as with a recipe from Jamie or Gordon or Nigella, I tell them, the recipe for writing a news story is pretty straightforward. It’s called the inverted triangle. But I point out that, while the news-writing recipe is simple - a useful template for any story - what is hard is deciding how, in each new situation, the various ingredients that are to hand should be mixed, blended and added to the dish.

What I’m essentially telling them is that journalism is a craft: the theory is minimal; it’s practice that enables you to become good at the job.

Finding they are studying a craft rather than an academic pursuit puzzles some students. It’s often the first they have heard of such a distinction. This is particularly true of those who have spent three years gaining a media studies degree and have found, to their consternation, that it is not helping them get a job as a journalist.

Often, such graduates have discovered too late that editors – whether in newspapers, magazines, broadcasting or online - want above all to know that a raw recruit has been trained to do the job to a basic level of competence. They discover that editors are much less interested in the class of degree they have received or, often, the institution that awarded it, than in whether the course was accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, the Periodical Training Council or the Broadcast Journalism Training Council.

The current BJR is here

Monday, 3 September 2007

Three down...

Eight weeks in and three of the 12 post-grads on PMA's Magazine Journalism course have landed jobs. One week of the course to go, and several others have had promising interviews...and there's always graduation day on Friday, when editors with vacancies come to fill them.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

How I made £750 by going shopping

Classified ads are at the centre of one of the various tussles newspapers are having with the web.

Here’s a personal experience of what is happening.

Years ago, when we wanted to go on holiday, we’d look in the small ads in The Observer. There you got owners offering their second homes for rent. The chances were that you got a well-loved family home-from-home, in a pleasant place, at a reasonable price.

For years that was how we found and booked our holidays. When we came to have a holiday home of our own, and wanted to rent it out to cover costs when we weren’t using it, we looked to the classified ads. From ten to five years ago, we could place an ad in The Sunday Times for thee weeks in January, and get around 20 weeks of lettings out of it.

But, in more recent times, the ads dwindled. We tried other papers – The Telegraph (Saturday and Sunday) and the Saturday Times, but to no effect. The lettings were down to ten, then eight, then three weeks. And the ads were costing around £250.

When the reps rang I’d point out that we were now barely covering our costs, and that my very basic home-made website was getting me more bookings than their expensive ads. They suggested using their websites. So we did, in both The Times and The Telegraph. We got not one enquiry.

Last week, convinced that there must be a market for a very nice, reasonably priced flat on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy, I did a Google trawl for dedicated websites on which to advertise. The one that looked most reliable was called Owners Direct. So I paid my £65, drafted my description, uploaded my pictures and waited.

I didn’t have to wait long. The day the ad appeared I got three enquiries. Out of that came one booking, at £250, which easily covered the cost of the Owners Direct listing.

I hadn’t expected to get any bookings for this year, it being rather late in the season, but this morning as I strolled around the farmers’ market I got two SMS messages on my mobile, forwarded from visitors to the website. When I rang the enquirers I got two bookings for next month. Later, at the garden centre, I got another call, and sold a week next August.

So, while I went about my other business, I took £750 in bookings. That’s more than my last Times and Telegraph ads achieved, at several times the price.

There is a lesson here. It is that the cosy and reliable community of owners and renters of private holiday homes has migrated to a place that serves them far better than any print publication could.

The print publications, being slow off the mark, have allowed dedicated websites to syphon off this business.

As we all know, newspapers are working hard and fast to make the web work for them as they fight to retain their classified lifeblood.

Will they do it? I have to say that, in my very limited experience, they don’t have a hope.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

We tell the postgrads on the PMA magazine course that their blog is read by the industry, but they never quite believe us. How handy, then, that Press Gazette's Axegrinder should pick up on Tori Hunt's blog account of a talk given to the students by an NUJ rep:

Axegrinder drugs special: The National Union of Junkies?
Posted by Axegrinder on 15 August 2007 at 12:02pm

NUJ freelance branch representative Humphrey Evans gave PMA students taking a postgraduate course in magazine journalism a pep talk on the importance of joining the union.
According to Humph, any NUJ member could even expect the union to defend them should they be alcoholics or drug-takers.
"It would be reasonable to expect the employer to agree for you to go into rehab, rather than be fired," Evans assured his audience. "Obviously, no one wants drug-takers snorting cocaine in the office loos, but let's face it, if you're having to wait around in the cold for your witness to come home, of course you're going to start drinking. It's warm and welcoming."
One of the wily students, Tori Hunt, then wrote this up as a story on the PMA blog. No doubt the NUJ would support her pursuit of a scoop.

See Axegrinder here http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/axegrinder/

There is a link to the PGs blog on the right

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Print journalists can’t tell a story in pictures. They’re too wordy. That’s the view of many broadcast journalists.

I’ve never believed it, but haven’t until now had the direct evidence to refute it.

This week at PMA, where the 12 postgrads are in week four of their fast-track diploma course in magazine journalism, we’ve just introduced video reporting.

It’s a new element of the syllabus, brought in partly because the magazine industry – like newspapers – has embraced the web and is experimenting with video reporting and podcasting on its websites. Also because PMA is aiming for NCTJ accreditation and is trialling the new Magazine Journalism syllabus that I’ve written for the NCTJ.

So, as if they didn’t have enough to contend with – having been bombarded with news writing, features, subbing, headline writing and flat planning over the past three and a half weeks, I announce this afternoon we are going to make some movies.

The students are a great bunch – smart, savvy, confident and up for any new challenge you care to throw at them. So they were enthusiastic. I was nervous. This was an experiment, and I had little idea how it would go.

I’ve also been trialling an online journalism qualification for newspaper journalists and there has been some fierce debate among some in the industry about how much training is needed to master this new skill.

There is also a debate about the quality of video reporting that we should aim for. Some feel it should be up to TV quality. My view is that, because magazines and newspapers are creating a new hybrid of print and video – sometimes using video as an adjunct to a print report – and publishing it on a screen just a couple of inches square, different standards should apply. Some might say these standards are too low – I say they are appropriate for the online medium

So, it’s early days, but here’s how these 12 students got on.

We gave them one short afternoon. I told them we’d like them to go out in pairs with a camera, and film a vox pop. I gave them a rough brief to make it something to fit in with the magazine that they are creating as part of their course – a B2B title aimed at those who work in the tourism industry within the M25 area, which they have titled Attract London.

We had six groups to share two cameras – straightforward Handycams . They took it in turns to go out and find half a dozen interviewees around the training centre - in Camden - and come back to edit their footage into a coherent package.

They also had a half hour talk on the basics of filming a report – including getting a range of interviewees in terms of age, sex and race; avoiding filming them all from the same side; how to frame their picture; and the importance of getting footage for an establishing shot and other material to be used when you want to edit and need to cut away from the interviewee.

As each pair returned they were shown how to upload their footage – using i-movies in this case. The film uploaded in handy chunks corresponded to each clip they had shot– turn the camera off and you end a clip. Once uploaded they had a grid containing each clip, and could look at each, chop out the bit they wanted from each interview, and drag and drop them to create a storyline.

They quickly identified the good talkers and isolated the sound bites they wanted.

Most had good establishing footage and cut-away shots. As they ran through their material they quickly saw how to organise things: how to tell their story in pictures and sound.

They found out how to marry the speech track of their report with the pictures they wanted; some choosing to start with a piece to camera, others taking their introduction and laying it under their establishing shot. For most it was clear which interviewee should come first, and several had a great ending.

In one afternoon, they had created their first video reports. They were by no means perfect, but the mistakes they made were obvious to them and could easily be rectified.

So what did I learn this afternoon? It was that these bright young people had an instinct for telling stories in pictures – acquired no doubt through a lifetime of watching television. They barely had to think about it.

It bodes will for the Online Journalism qualifications we are trialling. Here is concrete evidence that print journalists can take very quickly to video reporting.