Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The newspaper without a deadline

I can still remember the thrill of my first day on a daily newspaper. I was a sub on the sports desk of the Cambridge Evening News, having broken my indentures at the Essex Chronicle and gone north in the search of fame and fortune and an escape from late nights at Great Baddow parish council.
No sooner had I topped and tailed a round-up from the Eastern Counties League (RIP) and had a bacon roll and cup of tea from the trolley (also RIP) than the paper – damp and smelly, fresh from the press – was in my hand.
It was never much more than half and hour from sending the last story to getting a paper in your hand. It seemed a miracle then and it still seems a miracle today.
What made me think of this was a visit from Kevin Ward, editor of the Worcester News, who came in to talk to some first year journalism students. A better editor you couldn’t wish to meet: knowledgeable, committed, passionate and forward-thinking. But Kevin wrestles daily with a strange beast: a newspaper without a deadline. The Worcester News, previously known as The Worcester Evening News, is one of the new breed of morning evenings. It prints at 10.30 in the evening (I can’t bring myself to say night) and is on the news-stand with the nationals the next day.
That means that the 10am and 3pm conferences identify and then confirm the news of the day. The reporters, subs, photographers and even Albert the cleaner can all work towards an orderly conclusion in mid-evening before the press whirrs into action and spews the hard-fought fruits of the communal loins into, well, just the waiting vans.
Deadlines are the life-blood of newspapers. Even in this instant-web-based-news-environment we now inhabit there are still deadlines for newspapers to hit. For the Evenings it’s the remorseless change-up from far-flung districts to city centre and for Mornings it’s whatever we can change while the press is still running.
I’ve had run-ins with press room managers (“It’ll have fish and chips in it in the morning”), recalcitrant subs (“Do we have to change – it’s my break”) and circulations bods (“You’ll miss the van to Truro”) pulling out all the stops to get the latest and best into the paper.
I get the feeling that even extra-time in the Carling Cup might be as far as the Worcester News needs to go. Not much happens in the provinces after dark so the paper I buy at 9am is a reflection of what was happening in my community the afternoon before – full of those overnight pages we put together and hoped would get ousted by newer, and by definition more exciting, developments.
Don’t get me wrong: Kevin does a great job on his limited staff and even more limited investment from the Newsquest moguls. But an early evening deadline and morning distribution is a recipe for disaster.
Now, nearly 30 years on from when I was subbing at Cambridge, I still look at the clock at 10.45 – the first edition deadline for the back page – and hope the picture has been sent and the headline written. If not there’s always that block in my pocket and a quiet word with Nigel on the Ludlow

Friday, October 19, 2007

Infographics: Why we love the 90s

Hold up on those eulogies for the news graphic. Fleet Street may have long given up taking the time, trouble and effort to put together an informative words and pictures package – think ‘infographics’ of the 90s – but little brother Metro today shows the way.
A fascinating ‘Impact Science’ special compares the physical strains of rugby and formula one. It is well written with some amazing facts:
  • During a scrum the spine can be subjected to 1.5 tonnes of pressure, equivalent to a medium sized rhinoceros
  • During braking an F1 car can hit 5Gs – five times the force of gravity – making the driver five times his body weight.

OK, so some of the illustrations are a bit naff and the whole thing doesn’t get across the gutter very happily, but bravo to Metro and long may you carry on giving it a go.
Back in those 90s I was lucky enough to work with graphics journalist Duncan Mil who is still producing highly creative, imaginative graphics from his Graphic News studio in London.
At Thomson Regional Newspapers (RIP), editorial director Terry Quinn and I were convinced that graphics were the way forward. Some titles – notably Terry’s old stamping ground The Edinburgh Evening News and my old train set, The Journal in Newcastle – embraced the new marriage of words and pictures. But most others turned the other cheek and settled for refereeing newsdesk vs picture desk vs subs.
Most of those same papers are still reporting damp flats and stolen bikes – with far fewer readers and not a graphic in sight.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Living up to George’s legacy

Endpiece. Commonwealth Press Quarterly, Aug 2007

I loved my job as editor of the Kelowna Daily Courier in the glorious Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada. Skiing in the winter; boating, golfing and the 19th hole in summer; an almost crime free environment and that genteel ‘no, after you’ society Canadians do so well –what wasn’t to like?
Trouble was, nothing much ever happened. The news editor would scramble together a daily news list that barely satisfied the appetite. We’d work hard to make not a lot out of nothing and hope the readers accepted it was them, not us, who wasn’t doing much. Twelve years later and I’m in Trinidad & Tobago having the opposite problem. There’s too much going on.
Murders, kidnaps, road deaths, government corruption and acts beastly and heroic – everything you’d have in a newspaper of your dreams, and more.
Our afternoon news list often bears little resemblance to its morning counterpart as so much breaking news has broken. My skills at making the most of what we’ve go honed back in Kelowna, are almost redundant. Stories guaranteed leads in thousands of newspapers around the world struggle to make it into our first 10 pages.
As I write, this week we’ve had a businessman abducted and found dead in a cane field with a plastic bag on his head, a woman killed in a car crash after swerving to avoid a jay-walking pedestrian and four men murdered in one evening. None of these stories were on the front page.
The Readership Institute’s research on why people don’t buy newspapers listed “The paper makes me fearful” as one of the big turn-offs, and while we’re never going to sanitise the news or desensitise the reader we are mindful crime isn’t all there is to report. While I try to leave my so-called civilised world sensibilities behind it’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons about the downright unfairness of life here.
A sad tale of an 11-year-old girl who drank poison at school because she was upset by bullying turned into a sordid story of incest, neglect and abuse. She lived in a cocoa-drying house with no water and electricity and was subjected to a torrid life almost beyond comprehension, unloved not just by her family but also by any kind of health or social service provision.
Meanwhile in the capital, Port of Spain, the finishing touches are being put to the newly-renovated Prime Minister’s residence. At TT$148 million it boasts a ‘diplomatic centre’ and enough bedrooms for all the cabinet to stay the night. Thirty minutes from the cocoa-drying house construction continues on the TT$275 million Brian Lara stadium and cricket academy at Tarouba. This was supposed to be ready for the Cricket World Cup in April and still isn’t much more than a big hole in the ground.
Patients sit for days in a hospital corridor because there are no beds. Children as young as five work openly in the markets because no one cares, or dares, to do anything about it.
All this makes me think about George John, a friend to journalism here in Trinidad & Tobago, the Caribbean and the Commonwealth. For 70 years he used the columns of many newspapers – including my own – to promote the joys of freedom and responsibility, cricket and calypso and almost everything else in between.
He died in March and a book of his writings has just come out, reminding me of the part I have to play in continuing his legacy. He reminds me of the 1997 Green Paper on Media Law Reform and its Draft Code of Ethics which the government of the day intended to impose on media reporting.
It read: “Journalists and newspapers should endeavour to highlight and promote activities of the State and the public which aim at national unity and solidarity, [and] integrity of Trinidad and Tobago, and economic and social progress.”
“Humbug to that,” said the thinkers of the day and the proposal died along with the aspirations of the UNC Government that lost the next election. Like much of the Commonwealth we continue to operate without any legislative framework save for one “Freedom of the Press” line enshrined in the constitution.
So we continue to govern ourselves, act responsibly when we feel like it and take pot-shots at politicians, businessmen and other inept and corrupt individuals who don’t fall into either category.
Coupled with this legislative free-for-all and buoyant news market is an almost complete lack of journalism education and training. People come and go through the gaping holes in the fences of the fourth estate, bringing bad habits and leaving a nasty smell.
But we’re doing our best to highlight the plight of the disadvantaged, call to account those who should be protecting them while also looking to our own industry by developing a proper internship scheme producing the well-rounded, robust journalists of tomorrow. George John, I hope, would approve.

Friday, June 29, 2007

First, second...and third with the news!

Who'd have thunk it?
Three daily newspapers, hundreds of journalists, one big story - one headline!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

We love you, turtles! Power of the positive

Funny how a creature that’s been around for 90 million years should stir up such a modern day controversy.
A simple story about how the amazing leatherback turtle is thriving off the coast of Trinidad blew up into a debate about the forces of good and evil and the part the media has to play is presenting ALL that happens in the community, not just the knee-jerk nasty.
“It is so good seeing the story on the turtles instead of crime. Please keep it up, we need more of these stories.”
“Ahh! That is such an uplifting story. Makes my heart sing. Thanks for making it the lead story.”
“At last, a positive and beautiful story coming out of our lovely island. Well done, Express, for placing it first. We’ve had enough with the crime.”

Just three of the comments posted on our website following the Sunday Express story on the turtles, which I had literally stumbled across the previous weekend on a trip to the remote northern coast.
The story and pictures not only struck a chord with readers at home and abroad but also reignited the debate about whether a national newspaper like the Express should be devoting its precious space to airing these stories when there is so much ‘important’ news around.
As if to illustrate my point, the following day the Trinidad Guardian, one of two daily rivals in the market here, ran as their front page ‘Weekend of Pain’. They lumped together two accidents, a shooting, a fire and a burial into one big celebration of negativity. Why not a ‘Weekend of Joy’? It would be just as easy.
The issues of news values and what to put in the paper are obviously something that exercise us every day. From early in the morning we ask: “What are readers talking about?” and “What can we get readers talking about?” as we strive for the right mix of timely information and enlightened entertainment.
Conspiring against running what detractors disparagingly call ‘feel-good stories’ is the sheer volume of breaking news and the manipulation of a relatively immature media market.
When you have a group of squatters calling a press conference – yes, that’s right, squatters had a press conference – timed to make it onto the lunchtime news; when you have a wanted man, who police say is armed and dangerous, surrendering live on the evening television news and when you have villagers protesting about the poor state of their roads waiting for the cameras to show up before they set fire to the barricades you know that the tail is well and truly wagging the dog.

News on prescription
Everyone has become a media manager and some sectors of the media have become complacently complicit in perpetuating this ‘news conspiracy’. Politicians, pressure groups, businesses and now even squatters will call up the media houses, who dutifully trot along to write down and film whatever they are told.
Whether the media people are over-worked, under-staffed, poorly-trained or just plain lazy the answer is just the same – the ‘prescription news’ is published and broadcast to the satisfaction of its creator and the media houses have copy to fill their newspapers and footage to pack their broadcasts.
And on the rare occasions when it doesn’t all go their way they take recourse to the letters column and even the lawyer’s office to seek redress. Only today I answered the phone to an indignant caller who berated me: “You didn’t publish my press release.” Well, that’s right, we didn’t and we’re not going to because it was bland, self-serving and of no value to our readers.
So, I like to reflect the positive things that are happening in our community and I suspect a lot of readers do too. I’ll also admit that I do have a bit of previous history in this area. When editor of the Tribune in Phoenix, Arizona I became so fed up with readers whinging about the downbeat news and staff failing to escape the news conspiracy that I designated the second Tuesday in July ‘Good News Day’.
The entire paper – news, sport, features, business – was given over to uplifting stories about the community and the people who lived in it. The issue created a furore with media watchers accusing me of censoring the news, staff grumbling because it was much more difficult to talk to real people rather than roll up to a news conference and the readers generally loving it.
Yes, of course we will still provide a daily snapshot of life in Trinidad & Tobago. And if that includes rape, kidnap, murder and other atrocities we will report them. It is not our job to sanitize the news.
Yes, of course we will still work hard to call to account our politicians and public officials. We invest a lot of resources into investigative journalism and will continue to do so.
But no, we won’t continue to slavishly follow a news agenda of crime, prescription news and things other people want you to read about.
The turtles have been doing their stuff for 90 million years. Long may they carry on doing it and long may we report it.
Let me know what you think.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The front page that never was

This is the front page you never saw in this morning's Trinidad Express.
For about 30 minutes last night this was the front page, complete with powerful picture, compelling headline and details of how this bandit was shot dead by the shop owner he tried to rob.
I'll admit that I was seduced by Jermaine Cruickshank's dramatic picture.
The way the gun has just fallen from his hand and how the dog is calmly going about his business.
But the unfortunate reality here is that bandits are shot regularly and our reporting of crime comes under public scrutiny on a daily basis. I just couldn't come up with a good enough answer as to why we should run it - save my base journalistic instincts just to use a good picture.
So: wise decision based on sound principles or a poor decision based on a lack of conviction? You decide.