Monday, December 18, 2006

In Freedom’s Name – The Great Indian Penis Debate

Editors spend most of their time trying to get stuff into the paper. Lawyers, politicians, businessmen, even lazy reporters conspire to ensure that things that should appear don’t get into the paper.
So, it was with a heavy heart that I ‘pulled’ a column that had been written for the comment pages of the Trinidad Express. It followed a study from the Indian Council of Medical Research which found that condoms made to international standards are too large for a majority of Indian men, or put another way, their penises are too small.
Cue much merriment in the column, which did indeed have its funnier moments.

“Indian men probably hope to dismiss the survey as, ‘No big thing!’ but the truth, as indubitable as it is irrational, is that penis dimensions have an importance to men way out of proportion to their size. In a quite literal sense, it really is no big thing.”

Here in the Trinidad there are about equal number of people from African and Indian descent, nearly 600,000 of each (the rest of us go into the ubiquitous ‘others’). To light this particular touch paper was just not something I wanted to do. There are many causes I would go into battle for, but the size of Indian men’s penises is not one of them.
The indignant writer – and I admire his indignation – asked me to appeal to some of the younger female staff for their views, which I duly did.

One wrote… –

“Well, what can I say? Firstly, I am horrified by the offensive nature of the column(definitely not funny). Secondly this is not something I think any of our readers would appreciate.”

Another… –

“*gasp* putting our hands in the hornet’s nest are we? This story would reach media-frenzy status! The idea was a great concept, but definitely not for the faint-hearted... it would only serve to spark and fuel much controversy.”

And another… –

“The column makes for fun, humourous reading for some. But we work in a newsroom and are educated and open minded enough to see where [he] is coming from and I’m one of his fans. There are many in Trinidad and Tobago who are offended at the slightest quips. Some of them illiterate and they would not find the column relayed by two or three people down a chain, adding their own salt and sugar perhaps, the least bit funny. I know for management’s bottom-line, they could already be pointing to massive advertising and readership fall-out.”

So, in the court of newsroom opinion, the column didn't run either.
Final word with the columnist: “In future you might see why I do so much in freedom’s name – don’t think I’m always right but do know how important it is in TT sometimes to err on the side of liberty.”

Freedom and liberty, now they are some big topics.

Friday, December 01, 2006

So farewell then to the Press Gazette

Sneaking a look at the editor’s Press Gazette (then UKPG) was one of the first of many newsroom dark arts learned at the knee of old hands who should have known better.
Now it is no more – maybe not for long according to latest reports – but I’m proud to publish this ode from PT Stodd, not to be confused with EJ Thribb, on its passing.

So farewell then to the Press Gazette
The hacks' neglected organ.
You seemed to chug along quite well
in the years before Piers Morgan.

After 40 years of obits
for subs from Slough to Chester
they're writing your obituary
for the want of a good investor.

So where to look now that you've gone
for jobs on Ilkley Moor?
And those ads for freelance writers
that smack of model, second floor.

We'll miss you dear old Press Gazette
and wish you all the best.
You lost your UK long ago
and now you've lost the rest.

PT Stodd
aged 62 and a week

Friday, November 24, 2006

Why sorry is still the hardest word

The lovingly crafted front page blurb – Rescuers find plane wreckage – directed readers to page 3 to find out the latest on a mysterious crash into the Caribbean Sea off St Vincent.
Sadly, as many smart-arse readers pointed out, the story wasn’t on page 3, in fact it wasn’t anywhere in the paper at all. While newsroom battles were being lost and won and the hurly-burly done, it just got left out. Simple as that. No excuses. Lots of people should and could have seen it was missing (including me) and no-one did.
Our newsroom inquest didn’t last long and it was time to own up. Trouble is, we don’t have a regular spot where apologies, clarifications and corrections can live, so it ended up tacked on the end of the follow-up story.

A question of redress
Our paper is huge, often up to 200 pages a day, so the opportunity for errors goes up in proportion. We have all the usual mistakes – factual errors, misquoting, bits left out etc etc - but currently nowhere in the paper to redress any of this.
It has prompted me to think seriously about starting somewhere in the paper where readers can point out errors, and indeed staff own up.
So I asked the granddaddy of corrections, Ian Mayes, Readers Editor at The Guardian in London for his advice. Specifically, I asked: What is the answer to internal critics who say that a column like this is just pointing out our own deficiencies and giving the opposition fuel for mockery?
Mayes replied: “There has been very little mockery of the Guardian's column
(not to confuse mockery with merriment at some of the funnier corrections).
I suspect that the main reason is that every journalist knows that mistakes are endemic. We all make them. As someone might have said, to err is human, to correct is, well if not divine, a very good thing.

Enhanced reputations
“Its acceptance by journalists at the Guardian is indicated by the number who now email or call into my office to say there's a mistake in my piece today etc. The
Guardian's experience is that trust is enhanced by carrying corrections columns. So
overall therefore is the reputation of the journalists.”
Mayes writes Open Door, a weekly column The Guardian, and is also president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen. His daily columns are so celebrated they’ve been compiled into books.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the dizzy heights of ombudsman or book author, but I’m prepared to devise a column for saying sorry when we need to. Seems only fair.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The subs now leaving from...

As the proud owner of a number of mock-up leaving pages – including, ironically, one from the South China Morning Post – I read this story, Subs sacked over leaving page, in the MediaGuardian with both horror and fascination.
Maybe to have c**t not once, but twice, on the page wasn’t the brightest idea the two subs ever had but for the editor-in-chief to not only fire them but also send out a pompous email may also count as an, er, misjudgment.
As a fully paid-up member of the editor-in-chief club I always reckon its best to save your public bollockings, sorry b*********s, for something that really matters, aka something that affects readers.
To witter on about “there are basic standards of decency that need to be respected in any modern company, standards that are enshrined in our code of ethics” won’t do much for the good folk of Wan Chai or Chai Wan.
I for one hope the company sees fit to reinstate Messrs Ruffini and Willison; I’m sure their creativity can be put to good use in the pages of the SCMP.
PS: I had a miserable time there in the mid-80s; doesn’t seem like anything’s changed much.
PPS: Here is my latest leaving page (thanks again, Patrick), a lovingly produced one and only edition of The Geerdian. I love it and I’m sure the outgoing Sunday Post editor loves his too, c**ts and all.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When did you stop beating your wife?

No, it’s not a spoof, just one in a series of public information ads running in our paper.
Ironically, only last week at our training I introduced the famous ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ question in a session about how to handle difficult interviewees.
Perhaps I’m cleverer than I thought. Then again…

Friday, November 03, 2006

Front, left and centre

Every editor loves doing the front page. It’s got nothing to do with budgets, staffing issues or defending editorial’s corner in a management meeting (however, as you probably know, I don’t do meetings, so let’s scrub that one). It’s just journalism; what we all came into this game to do.
Some days Page One sort of does itself. There’s an outstanding picture that’s going to leap out of the newsstands and a story that will have everyone chattering in the morning.
Some days – and I confess to probably liking these more – it’s more problematic. The things we’ve been planning all day simply haven’t come off; that great picture I’d drawn on the back of the morning news list just wasn’t there and even those staples that you squint at on a dry day (political bickering, sporting excellence) just don’t cut it.
We had one of those days yesterday.
As I left the office for a couple of hours to do a session with some students at the University of the West Indies we had a tip that an 11-year-old boy had killed himself by drinking poison after being told off at school. Even in this lawless land, where life is cheap, that’s a story. The students asked me what would be on Page One tomorrow and when I related this tale there was a gasp in the room; ok, I thought, that’ll do me.
But come our afternoon news meeting nothing was clear. We had a pick-up picture of the boy and a picture of his grieving mum, but no story and no real idea of the strength of it. Other contenders were a talk with a mother pleading for her son not to be beaten up in prison (see yesterday’s post) and the West Indies getting to the final of the ICC Champions Trophy (that’s cricket, for you Americans out there). I’d been banking on a cricket pic, but they won so easily that it didn’t grab the nation like I’d hoped and picture editor Della pointed out that last time we went with cricket it didn’t go down very well. “I saw papers left on the stand,” she reported. For a paper that sells out every day that’s not good. We decided to hold off for an hour.
So, an hour closer to deadline we’re back having the same discussion, this time with the half a story that the reporter has so far written. Yes, he did drink poison and yes he is dead, as you are when you drink weedkiller lanate. However, he had a row with his brother over wearing a wristwatch and the school angle has faded away. But the reporter is anxious that we don’t go overboard on the suicide angle as it might give other youngsters the idea. News editor Curtis doesn’t think that’s much of an issue and design editor Barry is just itching to get going on the page, so we settle for

but the bottom line is too long (yes, I know, it’s easy to see now) so we end up with what you see.
Back home I’m still not very happy about leading with a suicide. People jump under trains (not here, though, because there aren’t any) and fumigate themselves in cars every day and we carefully swerve past their private grief until they turn up at an inquest, where their lives are forensically examined for all to judge.
Carol, sensible as ever, adds more dimensions. Did he really mean to kill himself, or just frighten his family? Did he actually kill himself or was someone else involved? Did he know enough about what lanate can do to you?
3pm next day
A restless night later and now at mid-afternoon I’m feeling a bit better about it. My slap-in-the-face public barometer, our Trinidad Express website, has 50 comments and none of them criticizing our decision to publish. I’ve had no calls from outraged readers. My other man-in-the-street representative, editor-at-large Keith Smith, simply says: “It was never a lead story, happens all the time.”
Ho, hum…today’s another day.
PS: As if to add insult to injury the page didn't print properly either and we ended up with a yucky, low resolution, wobbly page. Aaaggghhh

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Words & Pictures

Use everything you have to tell the story. Think about the words and experiment with the best crop on the pictures.
I am determined to keep this story at the front of public consciousness. This boy must not die in vain.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Slow movers and fast workers in Vietnam

And so to Vietnam where I learn that dairy farmers worried about foot and mouth disease are turning to tortoise production (yes, for food) and am relieved that they know at least one more Englishman apart from Prince Charles and David Beckham.
Whether Gary Glitter is someone we’d all like as a symbol of Britishness in this far-flung country is another debate.
I’m here in Hanoi to run a four-day media management course (see picture above) and am rewarded with a handsome turnout of newspaper editors, trade magazine reporters and a delegation of people from a series of publications for ‘the youth’ – a phrase that always makes me shudder that Look and Learn is about to rise from the grave.
I shouldn’t have worried, though. One of the publications was a natty little handbag sized magazine for teenage girls and in between the advertisement for ringtones and language schools were glossy pin-up pictures, a readers’ forum, fashion and those pesky teenage problems that seem to be same the world over.
It couldn’t have been more different from the traditional daily paper that was selling 400,000 a day – “More than The Guardian” as the cheerful editor was quick to point out – but everyone worked hard together to see if they could take on board some of the latest developments in journalism and publishing.
The technological developments held no horrors for these talented, ambitious young people. Mobile phones are a cultural phenomenon, laptops the must-have accessory and swish cameras the must-to-be-seen-with gadget. My patient explanation of one-man video journalism started to look silly when one delegate showed me just that on his website.
It was therefore easy to forget that this is a one-party communist state operating under the traditional Party lines. But as things drew to a close and delegates reflected on what they might be able to implement back at base many talked about how they would find it difficult, if not impossible, to convince their bosses of what needs to be done.
Not for the first time doing this sort of project I reflected that probably the wrong people were on the course. These bright, lively, funny and ambitious young people only need pointing in the right direction by someone with enthusiasm and experience.
I’d love to think those poor tortoises are going to live for another day rather than the pot. Perhaps that’s not the only futile hope I have…

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why Murdoch is getting sniffy

When Rupert Murdoch starts to sniff, either with emotion or because he thinks he’s going down with something, there’s a good chance everyone else is catching a cold.
Twice in the last year the world’s most powerful media owner has shown a softer side by admitting that he’s got it wrong and urged communications companies to wake up to the threats and challenges of the new media age.
Calling the current testing times “the dawn of a golden age of information – an empire of new knowledge” Murdoch told a London audience this month (March 2006) that power is moving away from those who own and manage the media to a new and demanding generation of consumers.
Giving a vote of confidence to robust journalism he said that “never has the flow on information and ideas, of hard news and reasoned comment, been more important.”
The chief executive of News Corporation told the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers: “The challenge for us in the traditional media is how to engage with this new audience. There is only one way. That is by using our skills to create and distribute dynamic, exciting content.”
The new audience is, of course, that elusive internet generation. People who do not buy traditional media, like newspapers, but rely on information on demand from the web, mobile phones or other forms of electronic delivery.
Just last April Murdoch shocked the industry by revealing that “many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably complacent” about the challenge from internet delivered media. “Certainly, I didn’t do as much as I should have after all the excitement of the late 1990s,” he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
He called for a complete transformation of the way we think about the product. “Unfortunately, however, I believe too many editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers. Too often, the question we ask is ‘Do we have the story? rather than “Does anyone want the story?’”
Murdoch put his money where his mouth is last year by splashing out $400m on, a virtual ‘networking’ site where 35 million regular users talk about music, film travel etc and share pictures, videos and their innermost blog thoughts.
But what about the unholy alliance of these newly-enfranchised one-person media outlets with the traditional players? Will there be room for words and pictures generated outside the strictures of the old newsroom culture.
The Daily Telegraph, Britain’s best-selling ‘serious’ daily trumpeted, “a brilliant new way to be part of the paper”.
The gushing copy said: “Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a major news story and wanted to share it with others? Now that so many people have mobile phones with cameras, the possibility exists for us all to contribute to the news agenda.”
Easy as that. Take a snap, send it in, see it on the website or in the paper and everybody’s happy. Well, not quite…
Cue wailing and gnashing from the both the National Union of Journalists and the Chartered Institute of Journalists citing legal and copyright issues plus the perennial protection of “the jobs of professionals in the industry”.
If this predictable po-faced attitude is supposed to put the frighteners on people who want be part of the paper rather than be lectured at then there’s bad news from markets around the world.
The South Korean site Ohmynews – – has nearly 40,000 citizen reporters on its books who submit content on just about everything with little or no interference from the so-called professional journalists back in the office. Along with this huge workforce of eyes and ears come lots of potential customers too. Last year it turned in a profit of $400,000, two thirds of it from advertising.
Then there is Scoopt, which gives the ‘photographer’ half of the proceeds of pictures they sell and Spy Media, the ‘News Photo Marketplace for Everyone’.
There are plenty of yucky names out there for this. ‘Citizen journalism’ seems flavour of the month along with ‘personal’, ‘individual’, ‘participatory’, or ‘grassroots’ media and even ‘user-generated content’ (UGC), which would no doubt impress the accountants.
The issue has exercised the venerable Poynter Institute based in Miami who worry that the “citizen journalism” label seems to imply that professional journalists are not citizens, rather than what's really meant: “citizens practising amateur journalism”.
But what does all this mean for sales and readership?
Online guru Jeff Jarvis is plain in his assertion that no one owns journalism. “It is not an official act, a certified act, an expert act, a proprietary act. Anyone can do journalism. Everyone does. Some do it better than others of course. But everyone does it” he says.
And like the threat of the internet on classified advertising the whole issue of citizen journalism could soon start to exercise the major media players. The parallels are clear. Just as Trinity Mirror and the Daily Mail have spent millions buying up internet advertising sites soon they may look towards consolidating content that appears on the web.Then the future does start to look very different for our beleaguered national newspapers.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Famous faces, empty heads

The Observer’s Eddie Butler – who is also, of course, the BBC’s Eddie Butler – reveals how nearly an entire XV of former greats lined up to contribute to Wales’s public relations downfall. Gwyn Jones, Rupert ‘don’t ask me why I’m here’ Moon and the ‘lying’ chairman David Pickering might know more about what happens on the pitch than us mere mortals but they haven’t got a clue when it comes to either communicating what they know or getting other people to open up.
It is one short hop from ex-international to PR hanger-on or TV talking-head. Television has always been generous in providing a gracious get-out for fading sports stars, but most of them are woeful.
The BBC’s rugby coverage now resembles Jeff Stelling’s home for retired soccerfolk on Sky Soccer Saturday. Yes, you’re right, Brian, we don’t know what happens in the front row – we’re hoping you’re going to tell us. Thanks, Austin, we can see also see a man with a bandage on his head – but is it serious?
There’s a grand tradition of Welsh sportsmen – think Cliff Morgan, Wilf Wooller and Tony Lewis – playing a greater part in a wider world. This current lot either need to go back to school and learn some new tricks for their new trade or go back to reliving their past glories in private.
Alan Geere
Sport and The Media Research Unit
University of Westminster

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

State of The American Newspaper

By William Prochnau, a former national reporter for the Washington Post, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Pulitzer Prize winner

….Alan Geere is also British. Garner's paladin, he is a self-described hired gun brought in to get the Mesa operation up and moving aggressively in its suburban war against the Arizona Republic. An immensely joyous man, he runs on a mix of adrenaline and ideas, good and bad, both of which will become yesterday's news without cheers or tears, a new set having by then erupted. He is here until December 31, 1999, when his work visa expires. His only regret after a year in the U.S. is that people find him intimidating. (“Everywhere I go I am surrounded by a sea of mildly antagonistic faces,” he tells me.)
Now he exults about his Mesa experience: “We have fun day and night! We're not wrapped up in winning awards! We used to be a fancy-pants newspaper that tried to be like the Washington Post.” But no more, he says. “I don't want to be a guiding light for society.” Recently, he sent a young reporter out to interview moviegoers emerging from the political satire “Wag the Dog.” All went well until an elderly man, three times the interviewer's age, began chasing the reporter down the street, scolding, “You're the problem! You're the problem!”
Full story:

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The future’s not black and white

Richard Burton, editor of, looks at the perils and advantages of reporting online and how new technology is changing the media.

Alan Geere, head of the London-based Journalism Training Centre, was quoted in the hack's magazine, Press Gazette, criticising regional newspapers for their “old fashioned, one dimensional, institutional reporting” and slams their “cavalier disregard for readers who don't seem to matter. No wonder they're not buying papers any more”.
Never one to mince his words, he goes on to cite such new media success stories as Ohmynews as placing tanks on the lawn of the press and even suggests newspapers scrap their offices altogether.
He’s told me since he expects fewer Christmas cards this year but that may be mildly prophetic, given the number of job cuts the same magazine reports every week….

Full story:

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Time to reward energetic editors

Searching for a cure for regional newspaper ills
Published: Press Gazette, Thursday, January 26, 2006
Are cutbacks and job losses the only way to save the regional newspaper industry? Sarah Lagan asks some players in this sector if there are some alternative remedies

Page lead headline in my local evening paper last week:
‘Operations delay to pay back debt’
The story reveals that 2,000 patients won’t be getting the hospital operation they’ve been waiting for.
Number of people quoted in the story:
Two – the Primary Care Trust chairman and the director of planning
Pictures with story:
Action picture of chief executive plus picture of Trust members around table
Number of patients and hospital staff (aka readers) quoted in story:
Number of pictures patients and hospital staff (aka readers) with story:
Opportunities on page for readers to contribute:

Here, in all its living glory, is the problem with regional newspapers. Old fashioned, one dimensional, institutional reporting with a cavalier disregard for readers who don’t seem to matter. No wonder they’re not buying papers any more.
The regional press needs to wake up quickly and reinvent itself before the only readers left are those officials, PR people and pressure groups who make up the news conspiracy along with bored reporters and unimaginative editors.
It’s time to reward editors who work hard to enthuse their staff to engage with readers. Back them when they want to introduce innovative programmes of community journalism that get the journalists out of the office and into the field. In fact, just get rid of the office.
I have spoken to most of the major regional groups about this over the past few years and precious few editors and especially managements have the stomach for the fight.
Witness the communal wailing and gnashing over ‘citizen journalism’ citing legal and copyright issues plus the perennial protection of “the jobs of professionals in the industry”.
If this predictable po-faced attitude is supposed to put the frighteners on people who want be part of the paper rather than be lectured at then there’s bad news from markets around the world.
The South Korean site Ohmynews – – has nearly 40,000 citizen reporters on its books who submit content on just about everything with little or no interference from the so-called professional journalists back in the office. Along with this huge workforce of eyes and ears come potential customers too. Last year it turned in a profit of $400,000, two thirds of it from advertising.
And like the threat of the internet on classified advertising the whole issue of citizen journalism could soon start to exercise the major media players. The parallels are clear. Just as Trinity Mirror and DMGT have spent millions buying up internet advertising sites soon they may look towards consolidating content that appears on the web.
So, to quote David Brent, let’s get ‘customer focused’ and put the reader first. That needs a change in attitude at the top which leads to a revolution in what regional journalists do and how they do it.