Archive for March, 2007

Peaches come from a can, they were put there by a man

Earlier today I wasted approximately three minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. Nothing new in that, per se. I’m used to often walking into the kitchen, forgetting what I’m going in for and end up walking the house like a senile pensioner.

At least with that I often have a cup of tea to look forward to. This… this just left me feeling bleak. And slightly angry that these three minutes were never to return and I could have spent the time scratching my balls. At least that would have achieved a purpose.

The three minutes wasted were worse than catching part of the National Lottery’s People Quiz as I waited for Dr. Who. No, it was Peaches Geldof’s column in yesterday’s G2.

A combination of a busy work day, evening meal and massive hangover meant I didn’t get to flick through Friday’s paper until mid-afternoon, as I wore off the effects of last night. Normally I’m docile when hungover, so Peaches made a great effort to arose my ire.

It wasn’t that her article was especially controversial, or even inspiring. Quite the opposite. It was utterly and totally without merit, point, wit. There was nothing remotely interesting she was saying: Myspace is bad because it sucks up your time and people can post bad things about you, and Peaches now has a dog. Great. Next time she covers for Alexander Chancellor, or whoever, we can expect such pearls of wisdom along the lines of people who like guitar music sometimes also like dance and hip hop, and Pete Doherty doesn’t look well, and is a bit of a mess, because he takes drugs.

I don’t object to people writing about nothing. A good writer is one who can twitter on about nothing in particular but keep you reading to the end. I quite like Jon Ronson’s neurotic column in the Weekend supplement, which makes a virtue of this. Plus Lucy Mangan, in the same publication, occasionally does this. I may not be a regular reader, or massive fan, of her column, but compared to Peaches she’s Proust, Shakespeare and Homer rolled into one.

What depresses me is you could pluck any random 18-year-old from any street in any town, tell them to write about the same subjects and they’d make for a wittier and more engaging read. I know a couple of 18-year-olds who could do exactly this job.

Generally I’ve tried to avoid Peaches’ work. I’ve always suspected there’s very little point to her and that column confirmed it. It seems that editors, producers and whoever else commissions her stuff have decided Peaches, who is so achingly ‘with it’ and in touch with the teens of today, is the official spokesperson for everybody under the age of 20 for no good cause other than a) people have heard of her and b) she is vaguely non-conformist and c) has a famous dad. Hell, much as I’ve no time much for Bob either, I’m sure he’d be able to do a better job and, failing that, would just resort to swearing, which is fine by me. He could fill an entire page with profanity and it’d have more merit than that of his daughter.

Ok, so complaining somebody’s got a gig on the basis of their parents has about as much edge to it as moaning McDonalds doesn’t do enough to encourage veganism. But if Peaches is setting herself up as a writer then at least the editor could pull her aside and tell her she’d written a complete load of bollocks. So what, she’s Peaches Geldof and has an opinion on Myspace? I, too, waste time on Myspace. I never intend to own a dog, and have had a shit twice today. Can I get my own column?

If she’s going to take up space than at least can she have the good grace to stick to what’s she’s good at: namely wearing clothes that appeal precisely only to those whose dads are rich enough to fund a life of doing zero and spinning tunes to those same people. Frankly, I’d rather watch Dogs Dancing On Ice than watch another of her pseudo-documentaries, at least one of which could have been renamed ‘How to generally act like a stupid bint patronise both Muslims and non-Muslims alike while telling us precisely fuck-all in the process’.

Wikipedia says she’s off to study journalism at university in America. Good for her. If she doesn’t actually manage to get any form of writing skills drummed into her, then we can only hope the chooses the same route as other failed journalism graduates: a lifetime spent making sandwiches in Subway while desperately telling anyone who’ll listen they really ARE a writer and/or have read Chomsky.

Mobile phones: still stupid

Further to my communication problems of yesterday, I’ve just had this following internet exchange with a friend:

Friend: hullo.. did you get my txt yesterday/sunday?
Gary: erm, I’m not sure. I think so. Did you get my text [about that issue but not in direct reply to the issue in hand] today?
Friend: erm no

Really. I mean honestly! We invented the wheel so this could happen? I’m so nonplussed by the whole thing I might write a letter to a newspaper.

How to manage a news desk and still have time to drink tea

Two completely contrasting days.

Yesterday was one of those days where no matter how much work you put in, after a few hours you realise that everybody’s going to get back to you at 3pm and you’re going to have to work flat out to be out at a decent hour.

And so it proved. Until 11am I mostly drank tea and coffee.

Until 1pm I mostly needed to wee because of the events between 9am and 11am. I also got a bit of work done. Then everything flew in thick and fast.

Today was different. Everything was prepared and set up early so when a big story broke we were able to handle everything. So much so I was able to pop out on something else for half an hour and fit in a few cups of coffee.

Of course, we were prepared, which helped. But the story also broke between 10.30 and 11, which is precisely the most helpful time any news can break between. I’ve generally got a good idea of where I’m going and what I’m chasing (and timescales) by this time, and I’m not rushing towards hitting deadlines/getting home.

Thereby, in my position as overload of all news, I may add the following disclaimer to my email signature…

Breaking news rules:

1. Preferably, if your news is going to break, let me know. That way I have time to have a cup of tea in preparation.

2. If news breaking is unexpected, please would it be so kind to break mid-morning.

3. On no account should news break while I’m asleep, as this means I will have to stop being asleep to break with the breaking news. If the news could break after I’ve had my first cup of tea at work that would be great, thanks.

4. If news does break as I’m on the verge of leaving the office, it’d be great if the location of breaking news is on my route home from work.

5. Weekends are also inconvenient for news to break, especially Sunday lunch at between the hours of 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon during the football season.

6. If you must break late in the day, please be so kind to do so on slow news days. Preferably while I’m still grubbing around for a lead.

7. Unless work experience people are present, I’d prefer it if your story wasn’t best served by the treatment of vox pops.

8. If a press conference needs to be convened, please make sure there is tea, coffee and biscuits. Especially biscuits. Biscuits really really aid concentration.

9. Please make sure news breaks in an area where tea and coffee are readily available before the hours of 9am and past the hours of 5pm.

10. If above rules are contravened the journalist reserves the right to be somewhat grumpy and, if it interrupts the tea-making cycle, especially sulky. Please provide tea and chocolate fingers at location to rectify this problem. If the story is good enough the tea may be forgotten about, but only if its really really good. I’m mean mega-turbo good. Enough to make Huw Edwards put on a triple-serious face, for John Simpson to be dispatched to cover it and for John Pilger to write and article about it that gets published in a daily paper.

Thanks in advance for your consideration.

What have the Swiss ever done for us?

Curious Hamster asks an interesting question: can there ever be objectivity in political debate?

My brief answer would be possibly yes, but currently no. But that’s probably not very helpful so I’ll try and expand.

At the last general election Channel 4 had this wonderful little fact checker tool on their website where they’d evaluate the truth behind any claims made by a political party. What came out of that was fact and probably as objective as you’re going to get.

But fact isn’t the same as truth, I’d say [1]. Take a story I covered recently. At a recent set of school league tables, School X was at the very bottom of the pile. But School X had also shown the biggest improvement of any school in its area. Thus from 2 different tables it could be categorised as both failing and improving, which is one for the linguists to argue over [2].

The next part is purely fictional. Supposing the two main political parties in the area wanted to make capital out of this statistics. The school, I believe, had been lingering around the bottom of league tables for some time and I think part of its catchment area was a particularly bad area of the city.

Political Party Y, the opposition, used the figures to argue that Political Party Z’s policies on education weren’t working. Z counters by saying that, on the contrary, the figures show that the education policy IS working.

At this point, just to complicate matter,s the third party, N, pops up to say the figures aren’t reflective of Z’s education policies but show their general policies towards deprived members of society aren’t working.

They can’t all be right, can they? Yet each argument could probably be reasonably built up using the same or similar data. It’s almost like a more detailed argument around the tree falling in the woods, which the Hamster mentions. We can prove a tree has fallen in the woods, but the data surrounding the fall could be interpreted as the tree making a noise, the tree not making a noise, or the tree exhibiting Schrodinger’s Cat-like tendencies [3].

All this makes life very hard for a journalist when they come to write their stories. If we take the starting point that each journalist considers it their duty to, and at all times attempts to be, objective [4] then, given the facts can be massaged to suit most political viewpoints, political reportage is very difficult.

Because there comes this thing called balance. Balance IS important in journalism, there’s no doubt about it. Without it, broadcasting especially would probably turn into a myriad of Independents and Daily Expresses. But is it objective?

Take this situation: you get a story in which you’ve got a claim from Side A against Side B. You’ve held it up to scrutiny, gone through their claim with a fine tooth comb and are as sure as you can be that what they’re saying is correct. You contact Side B for their response. It is, without doubt, utter bobbins. But, importantly, they don’t lie and their response is so simple and well crafted that it would be easily for a large number of people to accept.

You could write that Side B are talking rubbish in an opinion or editorial piece, but you know the story will be read by more people than the opinion article. You could run the story without any quote or response from Side B, but that would hardly make your news operation look fair and accurate, may lose you respect from your audience and leave you open to accusations of bias. So you could run the story, complete with response from Side B. It would be a fair and balanced report and, in terms of ‘he said, she said’ entirely accurate. But would it be objective?

In more practical terms, if I can avoid political squabbling, I do. My general rule of thumb is to ask how any such story will impact on my audience, the listeners. If my conclusion is the most likely impact it will have on Joanne Listener is to create a burning desire to grab these two diametrically-opposed politicians and bang their two heads together then I won’t cover it, or give it as much coverage as I could.

Of course, it is only a rule of thumb and can be changed, if I feel its important enough for the listener to know about.  So we’re pretty much back where we started.

See also: Brooker, Charlie, today’s column.

[1] And I’m not even going to attempt to answer the question what is truth. At least not yet, at any rate. 

[2] For the record, I reported first that the school had the most improved results, but league tables placed it at the bottom. I think that’s about as objective as I could have got, and hopefully the audience drew their own conclusions from that, whatever they might be. 

[3] Which, for me, is a good an argument as any for classifying politics as a science. Through enough rocks at most political theories and you’ll get some form of paradigm shift. 

[4] Which is a daft idea in itself. Every journalist is a person and they’ll bring their own idiosyncrasies, beliefs, prejudices, all manner of whatever hodge-podge is inside their head at that given time to the table, no matter how hard they strive to leave it behind. 

Modern life is rubbish

I’ve texted a friend to check it’s ok to ring at a certain time, then for their land line number as I forgot to save it into my phone and they don’t have good signal coverage.

In some respects life was a lot simpler pre-mobiles.

Tonight, Matthew, I will be a TV reporter

We’ve only had TV in Britain for, ooh, 75 odd years but give anybody a mobile or a video camera and suddenly they’re the next Cartier-Bresson or John Simpson.

Now newspapers have woken up to the idea that news + pictures = more people visiting their website. Possibly. I wouldn’t like to make any assumptions as to how many extra hits these things add [1].

A quick scan around local paper websites on the net will show you the majority of them are now including some form of video news, be it clips sent in by viewers, video or interviews shot by their journalists on site or, with some papers, actual news bulletins read by one of their reporters.

The editors, executives, or whoever has taken the decision, clearly thinks this is a great way to draw more users to their webspace and enhance the paper’s brand.

But the Croydon Advertiser’s Ian Carter has a few reservations about the current levels of service [2]:

A lot of newspapers already have quite a lot of video online, but to be honest much of it is shockingly amateurish.

The worst examples tend to involve reporters sitting at a desk in the newsroom reading stories from the latest edition of the paper – I’ve yet to see one of these that isn’t unintentionally hilarious.

I honestly think you run the risk of damaging your brand by putting out sub-standard material like this – the same quality control should apply online as in print.

I’m hardly a Luddite when it comes to new technology – I spent four years working in an entirely online environment – but I’m not convinced sticking a video camera in somebody’s face and then putting it on your website represents a great leap forward. You might as well stick to youtube for that – we need to be more creative.

Every editor of a local paper in the land should read Carter’s words and take note. He has hit the proverbial nail on the head.

It’s not enough to just get reporters shooting content and sticking it on the web. Even user generated content only has a limited application if the same is done with it. As Carter notes, its not a hell of a lot of difference between that and Youtube. To be honest, why bother with the middleman?

But there is the potential for an untapped resource there. In some respects these tinkerings with the broadcast medium aren’t a million miles away from the BBC’s Local Television Project [3] in the West Midlands, which has now ended. You can see why local newspapers were up in arms about this. Here was a market they were trying to move into, and suddenly a much larger competitor comes along.

But what the BBC had that local papers don’t appear to, is experience, technological know-how and professionalism. The content I’ve seen on newspapers sites is often a mish-mash of ideas, some good, some terrible with a lot of them apparently making it up as they go along.

Now the question is how much do local papers want to throw at these operations. Carter is right when he calls some of the efforts embarrassing, especially getting a reporter to read the news headlines, an example of which can be found here, at my local paper’s website.

At the moment, it’s difficult to see what it actually brings to the table. If you want to find out more about the stories, you’d be better off buying the paper. If you prefer to get your news from the TV, then you’d be better off watching the local BBC and ITV bulletins. Sticking something like this on your website is not new and exciting, it’s just pointless.

But it needn’t be. I’ve had basic training in TV news, so I don’t claim to be an expert, but there are several simple things any newspaper could do to markedly improve the quality of their ‘news in video’ services.

I’m not entirely sure what sort of resources they have at any given local paper, but I’d hazard a guess that a lot of the editing is left down to the reporter, or certainly there’s no person specialising in the office.

If they’re serious, each paper should have one dedicated person to editing all the video that comes in from their reporters, writing the cues and producing their ‘TV’ headlines they put up on the site.

For example, take a look at the footage on the Westmorland Gazette, which is often pretty but a bit dull. You’ll notice both they and the Echo have interviews related to stories in videos as well.

Now how easy would it be to combine all this? All you need to do is instruct the journo to spend a few minutes getting a few cut-away shots if they’re taking a video camera out, combine this with any footage sent in by viewers, dump it all at the video editing desk, go away, write story. In the meantime your video editor could have chopped the material into a nice OOV and clip or, if they’re feeling really brave, a short package.

But that’s not to say they should chase after stories just on the basis they may get good video. That would turn them into an online version of their local TV news. Whatever is produced video-wise should supplement the strengths, reporting and values of the paper.

Even just OOVs would look so much more professional than just getting the reporter to read while photos or shots of that day’s paper flash before your eyes. AVID isn’t difficult to master and if you’re prepared to get in somebody who knows what they’re doing with it and can teach the other journos then you’re well on your way to getting something approaching decent and not at all embarrassing on your site.

Hell, you don’t even need production values or a smart logo in the background. Get them standing up somewhere in the news room holding the scripts, even if they’re reading from an autocue. Again, that’ll add to the buzz around the place.

[As an aside, I’d also think it worth investing a small bit in voice coaching a few of the readers. When you’re on screen its a performance, not a straight read, but that’s just a pet hate of mine]

Using video news on their websites is a real chance for local newspapers to seize the BBC’s Local TV baton. A small amount of investment and bringing in the right person could reap dividends.

I’ve no idea if these papers have orders on high from their owners, or the editor develops the idea on an ad-hoc basis. But if somebody, somewhere finally gets around to joining up the various strands and making a serious push on this then local TV, and possibly radio stations, should be worried, especially because local papers are such strong brands and have reporters who know their patches and can generate ultra-local content.

And we’ve not even touched on the possibilities of podcasting [4].

That day, I’m sure, can’t be too far off. When it does, broadcast journalists should start getting worried. Until then my job is safe, for the time being.

[1] And its possible people could have really taken to them.

[2] Via the ever excellent Martin Stabe. If you don’t have him in your RSS feeds and you have a passing interest in the media rectify this now.

[3] And this report into the project is well worth a read.

[4] Which I think might even be a better avenue to go down. You need time and effort to watch the news. Stick it on a podcast and you can get the day’s news while you travel to work, at work, wherever, without being burdened by the physical nature of a newspaper.

If you were at Dorchester South train station, I hope you didn’t get shot

Had a few texts earlier from Matthew, which are worth repeating:

“Er, armed guard just turned up at our train station, waiting for a connection. Like fully armed. Something big is going on, helicopters, tactical units, the lot, the full works. And it’s a TINY station. Argh!”

Then:

“Dorchester South. Tiny place in Dorset. Madness. Something bad’s happened on a train waiting to come in. Machine guns, everything. I’ve got a camera.”

The only thing I previously knew about Dorchester was some toilets in the town won an award, and their Christmas lights aren’t meant to be very good. Finally:

“This is AWESOME. Why do these things happen near me? I’m gonna video it, if the train comes in.”

To be fair, Matt is one of the few people I know who is more likely than not to get inadvertently caught up in an international terrorist incident.

He then rang. He told me he heard an armed officer say: “We’ve got a visual.” I informed him I’d also just been told there’s was a chance Moira Stewart was dressed as a ninja on TV. He said he’d keep me informed, I went to have a quick look on the net.

About five minutes later, another phone call. The police had got bored and left.

Expect video and picture aplenty from the good doctor, if he manages to get back from Dorset in one piece.


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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com