Thursday, November 02, 2023

BEACH WATCH: Palm oil, decimated dunes and a no-fun foam party

QUICK - GRAB THE LIFE BELT! Wading through the putrid sea foam on Warkworth beach

Like many people who live near the coast I am fiercely protective of ‘my’ bit of beach.

But excursions to Warkworth on the Northumberland coast in the past week have brought sadness, disappointment and even some anger.

As if the ravages of Storm Babet were not enough, leaving the dunes looking dangerously undermined, the piles of ‘sea foam’ that followed were, to use the technical word – yucky.

Wading through the waist high spume was a dispiriting experience. Dirty, smelly and difficult to remove from clothes and boots.

Just some of the 'vegetation' washed up on the beach

Ok, so far, so maybe unavoidable. But the arrival of chunks of palm oil on these wild and beautiful Northumberland beaches WAS preventable.

Further up the coast Newton and Embleton beaches were actually closed while Northumberland County Council removed the oil, but no such luck for Warkworth and Alnmouth further south.

The council reports that palm oil can get into the marine environment when it is legally released at sea by ships when vessels wash out their tanks. But goes on to say: “The resulting substances are often mixed with other chemicals such as diesel, making it extremely harmful if ingested.”  

Hmmm. Tell that to the dogs who became ill after tucking in to the stuff that looks like white wax, even though it has a horrid smell.

There are also piles of vegetable matter on the beach along with plastics and fishing debris that are caught up in it plus a more than usual number of dead sea birds.

I confess it’s not an easy place to get to with any kind of machinery for a clear-up so along with other like-minded beach friends we do our best to pile up the detritus in then hope that it won’t get spread all over the beach and sea again.

I am pleased to have contributed to a book called ‘TOXIC NEWS? Covering Climate Change’ which is officially launched on Monday (Dec 6). Perhaps they could squeeze in another late chapter….

Monday, July 11, 2022

Wimbledon, Nick Kyrgios and why everyone needs a coach

Let’s call this ‘Bereft Monday’. No more Wimbledon, no more Sue Barker…how will we ever survive? Like millions around the world I lapped up the two-week tennis spectacular without barely a stop for changing ends of the sofa. Also, like afficionados and final-watchers-only, I marvelled as Nick Kyrgios (below) gave nailed-on favourite Novak Djokovic a run for his money.
But after taking the first set, things started to unravel for the ‘Maverick’ Australian. Shouting and swearing at his bemused and rather embarrassed looking team box for not giving him enough support sort of summed up where both parties are at – nowhere. Kyrgios famously has no coach. In an era of nutrition and mental health advisors let alone people helping you hit the ball, he chooses to go it alone. "I don't want to put anyone in trouble, the truth is that I don't have a coach because I don't want to bother anyone who is in charge of him. I know my game well and I know what I can do," he has said. But when his bash down the serve and hit expansive winners game deserted him, there was no plan B. In fact, maybe there wasn’t even a plan A. A coach would have helped prepare for all eventualities and been there in that box giving the subtle signals of which way to go. When I was a newspaper editor someone very kindly said to me: “You make a very difficult job look very easy.” Ok, I’ll take the plaudit but what she had really hit upon was a victory for teamwork (you can’t do everything yourself), planning (have plans A, B, C all the way up the wazoo) and a little humility, that goes a long way. Perhaps Nick Kyrgios is reflecting on that as today as he counts his £1m winnings – half of what he could have won….

Monday, December 06, 2021

HOMELESSNESS: The story that won't go away


PROPPED UP: A homeless man plays the flute and begs with a child.
Photo by student journalist Ming Yu

ONE of my favourite assignments to carry out with student journalists is under the general theme of ‘homelessness’.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Takes students out of their comfort zones, gives ideal interviewees who aren’t going anywhere in a hurry and provides for pictures and videos that just happen in front of you.

Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about why NOT to do it:

  • It’s potentially dangerous as the homeless may be disease-ridden or have mental health issues that make them unpredictable. Ditto the animals they have with them.
  • They ‘reside’ in unsafe parts of town that could leave students vulnerable.
  • They could be under the influence of drugs or alcohol that make them violent.
  • Well-dressed, well-nourished young people will not be on their usual calling card list and may lead to unwanted attention.

Of course, these are exactly my arguments FOR doing this assignment. Over the years I’ve had the familiar student response – grumpiness, tears, even actual sickness – but these are far outweighed by those young people who learned that they could do something different and difficult, and even maybe turn in a piece of work that does some good for society as a whole.

student journalist Nora Mao
Latest on my roster of ‘Student Homeless Journalists’ are second-year international journalism group from university in Guangzhou (Canton in old money) in southern China. It is a city of 14 million people – twice the size of London – so you don’t even need to do the math to know there will be homeless people around.

One student found homeless elderly people who lived on the street because they “didn’t want to bother their family”, another was begging with a child who brought “higher benefits” and one ingenious beggar was beseeching alms via a QR code on his mobile phone!

It’s a big test for both aptitude and attitude. As I keep telling them, journalism is actually rather straightforward but great journalism takes effort, persistence, imagination and a real hunger to want to do it.

When asked why she had only other people’s pictures from the internet rather than her own photos, one student replied: “This is a photo I found on my microblog, because I haven't seen a tramp for a long time near my home at the weekend.”

Last word with one of the better students in the class: “The Homeless Project is a real challenge. A few years ago, there were homeless people everywhere, but now we can't even find them if we try. A classmate said he wanted to dress me up as a hobo for pictures!”

Some you win etc etc…

A portrait of homelessness by Ming Yu

Monday, August 16, 2021

Afghanistan: Then, Now and in the Future

Like many people who have spent time in Afghanistan I am watching events unfold with a mix of incredulity and frustration.

No, I didn’t put my life on the line clearing mines or pockets of insurgents as brave troops did in this bewildering, beguiling and bonkers country. But I did share my passion for journalism with around 50 local people who wanted to play a part in rebuilding their society in the aftermath of 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban.

As often happens on these ventures, I learned far more from them than I think they gleaned from me. Tolerance, hospitality, generosity and imagination were all in abundant supply. I lived in a guest house with other ex-pats but worked with local people and quickly came to appreciate where they had come from (Russian occupation, civil war) and where they hoped they were going (a stable, secure society…or America).

Reading Kimberly Dozier’s piece in Time magazine this week (right) made me reflect on what became of the drivers, translators, minders and fixers who looked after me – especially when an impromptu cricket match out in the wilds of Badakhshan turned menacing and I was bundled in the back of the car, covered in blankets and spirited away before the men on mopeds with guns could catch up with us.

We did some great reporting thanks to the efforts of the redoubtable Institute of War and Peace Reporting and I hope in some small way helped to instil a more robust version of journalism to this fractured country.

Bedding down in a former warlord’s outbuilding after feasting on freshly caught quail watching our merry band of reporters transcribing their notes I began to feel we were getting somewhere.

Fast forward 20 years and I fear it all appears to have been in vain.  

On a reporting trip in the interior of Afghanistan we stopped to interview this bunch of coal miners who were digging a shaft at the side of the road.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The shape of editorial leadership

Editorial leaders and…change

A major theme to emerge from current editorial developments is ‘change’, and different approaches to leadership and management through intense periods of transformation, and maybe even revolution, in both attitudes and working practices. I think it’s been for a fair while and will continue to be, might permanently be, about getting a lot of people to deal with a lot of change,” said Reach Midlands editor in chief Marc Reeves. “I think that’s what editorial leadership is and it’s going to continue to be so because the sands are shifting all the time.”

Reflecting on the wholesale change over the past 10 years, Reeves said: “Probably at the start of it we thought, ‘when this is all over, we can go back to some kind of steady state’. That steady state is never going to return and therefore I think leadership, as far as I can see in the future is going to be continually anticipating what you need to do to change and helping by involving your teams in it.”

Jeremy Clifford, editor in chief of JPI Media, contends that editorial leadership looks through a different number of lenses. “If you go to the very top, editorial leadership is how we manage change in a very fast changing, pressurised environment with lots of commercial pressures while trying to protect what’s at the heart of what we’re about, which is good journalism,” he said.

But Clifford acknowledges there is a real conflict and tension in being able to do that. “If you go down through the ranks of management you’ve got a different style, and type of leadership that’s about trying to get the best out of your journalists who are asked to do more and more different types of things and adapt to change very quickly. Of course, they’re the people who produce the content, so it’s a different type of motivation and leadership that they need compared with the editor at the top.”

Helen Dalby, digital editor for Reach in the North East, warns not to underestimate the importance of the core skills of managing people through change, developing and mentoring staff, and being a positive ambassador for our news brands. “Above all, I believe an outstanding newsroom leader should demonstrate decisiveness, conviction, good communication, consistency of message and clarity of purpose,” she said.


Editorial leaders and…their role in the newsroom

Ian Carter, Kent Messenger editor in chief, chose the word ‘inclusive’ to describe editorial leadership in his organisation, the KM group based in Maidstone, Kent. “It’s moved on a lot from the old days of an editor being there as the supreme being and scaring the bejaysus out of reporters. It doesn’t tend to work these days, partly I think it’s because of the makeup of some of the trainees that come through now. We find they tend not to respond to that kind of management style any more and also because there is lots of self-learning involved as well. I don’t think an editorial leader could or necessarily should be the person who knows how to do every cough and spit in the news room.  We should be learning from the kids that come in as much as they learn from us. So, inclusive.”

There were concerns from DC Thomson editor Richard Neville about the current trend to consolidate editors’ jobs, with some titles not having an editor on the patch. “I think you need someone who is a brand director and I’m not entirely convinced you can do that wholly remotely. I think you would have to sort of be a bit immersed in the product.”


Editorial leaders and…organisation

Joy Yates, editor of JPI Media in the North East, was keen to emphasise the organisation of the business she works for, Johnston Press (now JPI Media), rather than any individual, or indeed corporate, attributes of leadership. “Editorial leadership in our organisation comprises an editorial board which wasn’t something we’ve always had at Johnston Press. It was something that Ashley Highfield the recently departed CEO introduced which was a great thing for us because it very much gave editorial advice. Our editorial chief leads the editorial board and he sits on the executive management committee, the highest committee we have so editorial properly has a voice.

Yates takes part in a monthly meeting in Leeds when there could be a themed, strategy day. “It might be concentrating on digital and 2019 where we want to be, it might be very much content or strategy-based, or it might be people. We do a lot of work with our people and making sure we have business leaders coming through. We do a lot of career progression.”

For Neville the different models of leadership in an editorial organisation are driven by ownership structures. “The motivating factor is with those who ultimately own the group. So, I certainly don’t think our owners would ever contemplate not having an editor for individual titles.”


Editorial leaders and…digital publishing

Dalby’s background in digital content rather than a traditional journalism entry route (journalism at university, NCTJ qualifications, industry traineeship) shapes her response. “We’re digital publishers first and foremost, so editorial leadership must now involve a deep understanding of how audiences behave and consume content online. We have an excellent suite of data available to us to help develop that understanding, and a central part of the job of all content managers and editors now is to continually analyse, interpret and distil that information into practical direction to help our teams grow audiences and engagement.” 

Neville has a different take: “It depends on how you view what it is they [editorial leaders] do. If it’s just about getting out and getting stories online then you think of the job as a custodian. If you think anything there is more to the job than just nuts and bolts, such a legal responsibility, there is much more to it.”



Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Web Summit: How old school journalism was given new world treatment

Were you at Web Summit 2020? No, thought not. Luckily for you Alan Geere was among the 104,328 attendees at one of the world’s biggest online love-ins and sends this verdict


Sometimes it felt like you had wandered into a zeitgeist TV show – think ‘Industry’ the BBC2 drama currently airing about life in the bonking, sorry, banking world – with impossibly attractive and intelligent young people sharing the secrets of their life in a totally confident and competent way.

Of course, there were older people there too.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (65), casually billed as ‘inventor of World Wide Web’ was there touting his new business, but grumpy old man of the day award goes to Norman Pearlstine (79) the outgoing (as in shortly leaving, not party animal) executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, who pessimistically presaged the demise of journalism.

“There is an existential crisis of journalism,” he said. “Government handouts or altruistic benefactors seem the only way to go. Large numbers of the population do not have the money to pay for information.”

Probably from his perspective things do look a bit grim, especially as he revealed that 20 years ago the LA Times had 1,250 journalists – yes one thousand two hundred and fifty – and today just has a fraction of that.

But it wasn’t difficult to see that Norman might have missed the point. Here were more than a Wembley Stadium-full of people who had paid up to 999 euros to practise their own individual journalism – listening to information and weighing up the interest, importance and effect of that knowledge.

Wed Summit isn’t going to change attitudes and approaches to journalism and publishing overnight. But like its heavyweight political and financial counterpart – Davos – anything that treats the problems with both seriousness and positivity has to be applauded.

And, yes, I’m ready for Web Summit 2021 – hopefully at the Altice Arena in Lisbon which I hear is very nice in December!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

From hiring and firing to balancing the books: Editing 2020

Jeremy Tunstall, writing in his seminal 1971 work Journalists at Work, chose to feature the ‘personnel management decisions’ in his dissection of the constituent roles of the editor. Calling these decisions ‘considerable’ he highlights the ‘hiring and promoting of wide range of journalists’ and the financial responsibility of ‘controlling salaries and expenses of over £1 million a year’, which equates to around £13.8 million a year in 2019 when taking inflation into account, according to the Bank of England (Bank of England, 2019).

While Tunstall was basing his comments around national newspaper editors there is still a considerable financial burden for regional newspaper editorial leaders to bear. For instance, a mid-sized newspaper with 50 journalists earning an average of £30,000 per annum would leave the editor looking after a wages budget of £1,500,000. Jeremy Clifford, editor-in-chief of JPI Media, has overall control of 800 journalists, so using the same formula he is ‘controlling salaries’ totalling £24,000,000.

Recruitment is also taking up a good proportion of the working life of the editorial leader. At the time of interview Marc Reeves, West Midlands Editor-in-Chief for Reach, said he had invested in the past five weeks “a good 50 or 60 per cent of my time to recruitment”.


What employers are looking for

Like many of the facets of the editorial leader’s job, recruitment is a skill that has to be acquired, either through training or practice, but is an expertise that publishers expect to be in place, even if the individual in charge has relatively little experience. Everyone appears to have their own style and approach, especially as there is no necessity to follow a ‘fixed formula’ of questioning as required of public institutions like the police, health service or universities who could find themselves on the wrong end of a Freedom of Information request by a disgruntled unsuccessful candidate.

There are a range of qualities that editorial leaders are looking for in recruits, including:

·         Flexibility

·         Inquisitiveness

·         Energy

·         Intelligence

·         Spark

·         Passion

·         Hunger

·         Can-do attitude

·         Self-motivation

These conceptual qualities are difficult to assess at interview and a candidate may end being ruled out by nervousness, unfamiliarity of surroundings or a lack of understanding of the process.

On top of this recruiters are looking for more tangible skills that can be tested, either by looking at previous work or in a live interview scenario:

·         Communication skills

·         Skilled multi-tasker

·         Practical skills

·         Story-telling online basics

Also evident was the requirement for a ‘good news sense’, which is both a quality and a skill but continues to defy definition despite academic efforts.


Exploring the ‘qualities’ expected in recruits

Clifford offers this clear outline of what he is looking for, citing communication is a core skill, especially verbal communication:

“The first think I still look for is something I’ve always looked for and that’s passion, because you can teach a lot of the other things but you can’t teach a hunger and a passion.” 

Along with that enigmatic ‘news sense’ Ian Carter, Editorial director of the KM Media Group wants potential recruits to demonstrate ‘flexibility’:

“Probably flexibility is the thing that slightly differs nowadays, because I need to know that if they stumble across a story on the walk home from the pub, that it will be on the website by the time they’ve got through the front door.”

The recruitment process will typically start with an application, and things can go wrong even before they have started. Helen Dalby, Senior Editor and Head of Digital for Reach North East, says the basics are as important as ever:

“I will reject a CV with a spelling mistake out of hand, as if a would-be reporter can’t manage to proofread a document as important as that, I can have little faith that their copy will be clean.”

Even at interview it may not be what the candidate says that matters, but how they present themselves. Clifford is looking for “really good signs of communication”. 

“I remember when I was interviewing someone for a job, I told him there and then he wasn’t going to get it because at no point did he make any eye contact with me. I said if you are not going to look me in the face, or not make any eye contact you’re never going to get a story off anybody.”

Dalby feels it is important for interview candidates to be well-prepared: to know the websites and newspapers, to have followed the outlet on social media and to be ready to express a view on a recent story or Facebook post. “Considered criticism is far preferable to the dispiriting response of, ‘I’m not sure’ or, worst of all, ‘I haven’t looked’,” she says.

Carter turns the tables on applicants and researches them a lot more thoroughly:

“They quite often again look shocked when you repeat something they put on Twitter or Facebook a week ago and they sometimes feel quite awkward and embarrassed by it. You might say ‘I see you went to see Ed Sheeran last week’ – nothing wrong with that at all, but they seem to be quite surprised that you’re reading it. It’s a useful skill to learn that what you put on social media people are looking at and taking notice of and its yes, we are more fully armed with stuff about them that we can that we can throw them sometimes.”


Journalism education and “young dinosaurs”.

As if cementing stereotypes, there seems little love lost between employers and the further education colleges and higher education universities sending out people with journalism qualifications.

While acknowledging that young people are getting better equipped as the educators belatedly recognise the role as it is now, Reeves has this forthright view:

“Sometimes the colleges were giving us young dinosaurs because they were training them for an industry that stopped existing 10 years previously.  Colleges have now largely caught up or are catching up so those online story-telling digital basics are now being much better baked in.”

Carter is a little more forgiving of the candidates, saying that sometimes people are not prepared for life in a newsroom through no fault of their own.

“One of the things you get at university is usually state of the art equipment and you’re used to operating on Macs. Sometimes people come to us and they finish up working in our Gravesend office, which has still got an outside toilet and old equipment and they think ‘wow!’ and you can see the shock in their faces.”

Carter complains that the recently qualified students are not fully prepared for the commercial realities or the expected workload because they demand a lot from people.

“We get students from the university of Kent come in and spend two weeks with us and I think even after that period they don’t quite get what the expectations are from a journalist in this day and age.”



Can they do the job?

Reeves says the trainees his company takes on have already completed “pre-entry stuff” at various establishments around the country. They’ve had an immersion in law, public admin and other elements, such as shorthand. He says they make sure that the candidates have experience in different story-telling, have a view about how things can be told and have an ability and an interest in exploring different ways to get their content to people via Instagram, Facebook and other channels. But his message is:

“At the heart of it: Do they know what a story is? Do they have a view of what people will be interested in?  It’s what it’s always been, it really, really is.”

Carter says news recruits can learn new technology in a matter of weeks, but for him they have got to come in with and demonstrate good news sense and flexibility, which he rates as most important:

 “So often now people come into an interview … but when you say give me a story, they look at you like you’ve asked them to grow a second head. It’s just, you know, that’s what I want, everything else you can teach them.”

The contemporary reporter is a skilled multi-tasker, maintains Dalby. Writing, taking photographs, shooting and editing video, broadcasting via Facebook Live and managing their outreach on social media are all part of the day job. The technical elements of that can all be taught, she says, “so above all we’re always looking for can-do attitude and self-motivation”. 


Funded reporters, apprentices and diversity

Financial input from the BBC, via the Local Democracy Reporting Scheme, and Facebook, which has given £4.5 million to fund the Community News Project has changed the nature of editorial recruitment in the UK regional press. Now there are other avenues into a job, rather than the traditional FE/HE/NCTJ qualification route, with apprenticeships also gaining traction.

With the £4.5m ‘charitable donation’ from Facebook, 82 newsrooms across Britain were able to recruit new reporters under the umbrella of the Community News Project, managed by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).

The 82 new appointments are dominated by the big three publishers with Reach having 28, Newsquest 23 and JPIMedia 19. The others go to Archant (4), MNA Media (3) and a little belatedly KM Group (2) and one each for Baylis Media, Barnsley Chronicle and Newbury Weekly News. The publishers have received more than 4,200 applications, averaging out at more than 50 for each job (NCTJ, 2019).  The positions were open to people with no journalism experience, or some training, and those who have passed their preliminary NCTJ exams.

Clifford, as one influential editorial leader, is a supporter of the apprenticeship route and when interviewed reported that his organisation had taken on 10 apprentices in the previous 12-15 months. He said:

“These are young people, kids if you like, who are at college or finished school and have not gone to university. They are desperate to come into a newsroom and these are people who’ve almost been brought up with the brands. As kids their parents have got it into the homes. I remember someone who was interviewing them said she felt quite emotional listening to them. I see absolutely hunger in these people and I see it as an absolute privilege to walk in a newsroom and work with them. We don’t know what will happen during their training programme but if you can just bottle that and keep it and point them in the right direction then I think they’ll succeed.”

Clifford concedes that apprenticeships have been ‘faddish’, but attributes the success of the movement to onerous university fees and the pressures on students through education. He feels apprenticeships have become re-established, much like the traditional indentureship programme.

Carter takes a dynamic approach to the recruitment process with apprentices:

“When we’re recruiting apprentices, we kick them out into middle of Medway at some point and do what we’ve done before, and tell them to   come back with a story.  If they do brilliant – even if they don’t as long as they’ve gone out and spoken to somebody and demonstrated that they can talk to them – that counts in their favour.”

In a more philosophical reflection Clifford feels all these schemes enables newsrooms to tackle some of the diversity issues of newsrooms dominated by “white, middle class, university graduates”. He continues: “We get people who may never have gone to university, never had the opportunity, but actually are part of, brought up in their community, so I think it will help diversity as well.”


Wider HR and financial responsibility

Returning to Tunstall’s assertion that ‘the personnel management decisions are considerable’, Reeves reflects that things may not have changed that much: “You know your staff costs budget and your freelance budget, there’s nothing new there. Both have been under more pressure and you know constant pressure, in the past 15 years, so there’s nothing new there.” 

Joy Yates, Editorial Director of Johnston Press North East, has learned to understand circles of influence and control as part of her editorial leadership role. “What is out of control just don’t worry yourself about, just concentrate on the things that you can make a difference with and influence. You do you want to be involved in everything, you do want to change the world and do this and do that, but you just have to be sensible,” she says.

She acknowledges that she is open to challenge and thinks it is really important for people to know that. “Just because I have the title of divisional director doesn’t mean I’m not infallible,” she says. “We’ve got people who can recognise people’s strengths, so whereas I can direct and advise and guide do the HR element of sport, I don’t know what those guys know. A combination of our talents and what we do gets us there.”