Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vice – A Magazine That Is Not Dull

I am hooked on Vice. Not the sort of vice that Jacqui Smith’s getting all hot under the two-piece about – “Excuse me, Madam Prostitute, before we get down to business can I establish whether you have been illegally trafficked?” – but the international style magazine and its companion website.
I spend a lot of time both in the classroom and the newsroom trying to get people to think differently and produce compelling content that is going to challenge the supposed norms of journalism.
Echoing what Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre told the Society of Editors: “Dull doesn’t sell newspapers. Boring doesn’t pay the mortgage,” the first thing I get would-be journalists to write in the corner of every piece of copy is DBD – Don’t Be Dull – which sits there as a reminder.
Enter Vice, which seems to have cracked the dull code. It calls itself ‘the Coolest Magazine in the World’ and I don’t think I want to argue with that. It has:
* Serious stories that would embarrass any supposed investigative newspaper like ‘Inside the Violent Lives of Liverpool’s 11-Year-Olds’ and ‘Bloodthirsty Child Soldiers Tag Liberia’
* Difficult to get stories like ‘A Sperm Donor Who Has 46 Kids’ and its natural follow-up ‘A Guy Who Was a Test-Tube Baby’
* In-depth interviews with creative inspirations like Ian Hislop, Mike Leigh
*Stories you just have to look at like ‘A 74-Year-Old Japanese Porn Star’ and ‘People Who Just Had Sex With Each Other a Couple of Minutes Ago’
The headlines are straight-up what it says on the tin (albeit with that annoying US-style of Unnecessary Caps) and everything is written in a question and answer format, which I normally decry as lazy journalism, but here it just seems to sort of work.
And commercially it seems to work, too. There are swanky ads from household names like Ben Sherman, Levi’s, Dr Martens, Oakley, Red Bull, Sony and Nissan. Their media kit quotes £4,000 per page for ads just in the UK edition and a worldwide circulation of nearly a million.
The website not only captures the spirit of the print magazine but moves it on using the medium to best advantage. Check out DOs and DON’Ts, a section of reader-submitted pictures with a caption. The subsequent comments are not for the faint-hearted, but in an age where publishers are striving to engage better with their audience they must be doing something right.
And bang up to date, welcome to the November ‘No Photos’ issue. As they explain: “If you’ve gotten your hands on a print copy of the magazine, you know it’s a sumptuously printed tome containing the drawerly works of 35 of our favourite drawers with nary a photo to be found.” So how’s that for innovation? Vice rules!

Vice 'Table of Contents'

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Birmingham Post in the Last Chance Saloon

So, there I am, nursing my half a pint of Banks’s mild in the Last Chance Saloon and who should walk in but my old mate, Birmingham Post.
“Hello, Postie,” I said, “finally got some new clothes, then?”
“Yes, do you like them?” he replied. “They’re a bit smaller and rather smarter, but I have managed to made do and mend with some my old stuff and make it look like new.”
“Not sure you’re new look’s going to be to everyone’s taste,” I ventured. “That sober businessman look is all very well, but a lot of people like a little sunshine in their life. And you look, well, er dull.”
“Yes, I know, but I guess it won’t be long before I don’t go out at all and people can just look at pictures of me on their computer.”
With that, he collected his drink. But Ms Bailey behind the bar wouldn’t let him put it on a tab. “Not sure you’ll be drinking here much longer,” she said. “And I want to make sure I get all the money out of you before you disappear.”
  • See pictures of the Birmingham Post relaunch party.
  • Read Alan’s guide to redesigns and relaunches in the latest issue of InPublishing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The day the newspaper died

Shock, horror! Newspaper in trouble; editions close, staff go!
Hardly seems like news any more with the global recession and the march of the internet wreaking havoc in our industry daily. But when it happens to one of your own it all seems a bit too close to home.
I’m sad, angry and not a little perplexed at the latest turn of events at the East Valley Tribune in suburban Phoenix, Arizona – a title I edited 10 years ago. It was a feisty little upstart, biting at the bum of the giant metro Arizona Republic and prospered under both the benign management of Cox and the modernistic professionalism of Thomson.
It sold well in upscale Scottsdale, blue collar Mesa and in the new towns springing up in the desert like Gilbert and Chandler. It even had the university town of Tempe, home of Arizona State, bang in the middle of the patch.
Wind on 10 years and it’s suddenly downhill to giving up on Scottsdale and Tempe and going for a four day a week free distribution in what’s left. My successor in the editor’s chair is one of 46 casualties in the editorial department as the company sheds a total of 142 jobs in order to stay afloat.
The Trib’s own story spells out the details in a company announcement sort of way, but it’s left to the ‘alternative’ press to put some flesh on the bones. A blog from Ray Stern, a former Tribune staff reporter now at New Times (a sort of Private Eye meets Time Out), lists the staff going like a mournful memorial after an atrocity.
Some of the most interesting comments, though, come from readers (remember them, eh?) both on the Trib’s own site and at the Republic’s. They lament the passing of competition, recall ground-breaking investigations but also reflect on how slow newspapers seem to be at reacting to the threat – and therefore opportunities – of the internet.
Lessons here in the UK for our media businesses and the journalists who work for them. Be innovative, be bold and reinvent yourselves before you join my old pals Jim Ripley, Bob Satnan, Brad Armstrong, Paul Giblin et al on the sidelines looking in.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Helen Mirren’s boob job

I am worried about Helen Mirren’s tits. Or should that be t*ts, t***, boobs or even bust?
Dame Helen’s revelations about everything from date-rape to snorting cocaine in an illuminating GQ interview (ain’t journalism fun, Piers?) also included the shocker that her “big tits and blonde hair” had been a “disadvantage”.
Cue hasty rewrites from the nationals who all splurged on a story that they had done absolutely nothing to generate. And while the quote was the quite innocuous “tits”, which the Guardian and Times were happy to use, the well-thumbed style-books turned up some interesting variations.
The Metro had “t***”, the Daily Star “t*ts”, the Sun “boobs” and the Daily Telegraph “bust”, a great little word that my mum used to use a lot.
But D-cups off to Express online who not only used the quote in full, but dressed it up as a little display item on the webpage. I was going to post my congratulations/outrage but sadly got the ‘no comments’ logo (below). Oh well, when you’re still the ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper’ who needs readers’ comments?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Long live Women in Journalism

I’ve always been a bit wary of Women in Journalism – both the species and the organisation.
Started, presumably, as a backlash to Men in Journalism they’re still very much on the go after 12 years. I’d like to tell you a bit more about WiJ, but I’m not a member and so couldn’t get in to most of their website – yes, Access Denied!
I thought of them when I happened upon this ‘flannel panel’ of The People in south-east Ireland where all but one (poor Paddy!) of the staff are women.
Editors, reporters, the sales team and a photographer are all women – no need for the Women in Journalism recruiting sergeant here!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Our new friend in the newsroom

The session we do in the uni journalism class called ‘internet research’ is a lot more fun and illuminating than its rather pedestrian title suggests.
The students rummage around on the web and find out all sorts of stuff about their classmates. Some of it they’re not keen on their pals knowing about, let alone mum, dad, gran or the lady next door. And much of this is ‘hidden away’ on social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace.
The students are horrified to realise that something they thought was just for messing about with among friends is actually out there for everyone to see.
In every newsroom I visit I encourage reporters to open accounts with the social networkers so they can easily access these sites when they need to find some info on someone.
Unfortunately it tends to lend itself to tragedy, like the gap year students in the Ecuador bus disaster or the car-load of teenagers killed in a Gloucestershire car crash.
And so it was to Bebo that we turned when news came in that a 14-year-old girl had collapsed and died after an asthma attack on the street in Ferrybank, just five minutes from the Waterford News & Star offices.
We found pictures with family and friends, an instant condolence book and links to other personal sites with more background information.
This isn’t to say that ‘internet research’ replaces old-fashioned reporting. We still knocked on doors, called up the headmaster and the undertaker and took a ‘copy picture’ of the unfortunate girl that was clutched by a friend at school.
True to form there are those readers who felt our coverage was a form of intrusion. “The girl’s not even buried yet,” said one, but our coverage was balanced, fair, accurate and a testimony to local journalists who worked their patch and contacts well.
Long live leg-work and the internet.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Humdrum? Come to Waterford, Monty

Many of us old lags have been surprised by David Montgomery’s continued sounding of the death knell of the sub-editor.
“There are many humdrum newspaper jobs,” said Montgomery, now executive chairman of European newspaper group Mecom. “The age of the sub-editor is going to disappear – we are coming to the end of the road.”
He went on to tell the House of Lords select committee on communications: “I was a subeditor… but many of those skills have been made redundant. The humdrum tasks are not necessary. We will make every journalist a creative, a publishing star in their own right.”
I was – and still, am – a sub-editor and for a few years under the tutelage of one Montgomery, D., who I can say with a completely straight face was a journalistic genius.
I’ve been putting those skills into practice in the unlikely surroundings of the Waterford News & Star, a delightful weekly paper up against three competitors in the deep south-east of Ireland.
I don’t suppose Mecom would look twice at this outpost of journalism, but Montgomery could do worse than see some of his ideas in action.
There are no sub-editors, as such, at the News & Star. As editor for a couple of weeks my job was to decide what went where, choose the pictures and write the headlines – pretty much the old back bench job on a national newspaper.
Before the copy reached me, the originators – staff reporters, freelancers, PR people, sundry self-publicists who know how to use email – had a stab at a headline and most pictures arrived with a caption of sorts.
Okay, so the grammar might not be great and the niceties of the style book haven’t quite made it into the collective psyche, but the system, as Monty might call it, works.
I don’t know my Lisduggan from my Dungarvan so people who do looked over the pages to make sure the thousands of names and places were spot on, headlines were rewritten and captions tidied up on screen and on proof.
When I made a naïve mistake because I didn’t know what had been going on the resident experts kindly pointed it out. We helped and cajoled each other, and the paper – as papers always do – came out with words and pictures in all then right places.
Bit like it did when Monty was doing it. Plus ça change… as we say in County Waterford.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Echo laps it up in Cheltenham special

Hats off to the Gloucestershire Echo for rushing out the ‘Runners and riders’ special for the next day, a glossy wraparound with the usual paper inside on sale for just 50p as the punters leave the Cheltenham Festival.
But, hold on, what’s all this inside? Oriental massage…Awesome new girls…lap it up at The Blueroom…Chic & Glossy, I take my Time!
On the inside spread there are seven quarter page ads for what we’ll call adult services plus a house-ad for On the front is a strip (ho, ho) ad for the posh King’s School and on the back a fabric shop.
Now I know we all have to cash in while the sun shines, but this naked attempt at opportunism just seems a bit tacky for an otherwise wholesome and enterprising daily regional newspaper.
We’ve all learned to live with the small ads – the Echo has a column and half on page 44 – but these big, bold, brassy colour ads seem out of place.
Perhaps Gloucestershire Media – aka Northcliffe – has a new anything goes policy. Watch this space…

Friday, January 25, 2008

Why we love investigative journalism…

In today's 'On the Spot' column in the Metro, Mickey Thomas is asked 'What have you been up to since you ended your playing career?' He exclusively reveals to Chris Stocks that he's been doing “a lot of media work” and “keeping myself fit” but no mention of doing 18 months in chokey for a counterfeit currency scam. Or even that episode when he was stabbed in the bum after playing the away leg with his sister-in-law up a country lane. Still there is a plug for MUTV, so that’s all right then.

Lazy journalism, part 173

Page one write-off in The Times today: “Britain and Afghanistan fell out in spectacular fashion after President Karzai said that Afghanistan had suffered after the arrival of British Forces…” World news, page 41
Fast forward to page 41: “Britain and Afghanistan fell out in spectacular fashion [yesterday] after President Karzai …” You get the idea. Whatever happened to the skill of the rewrite man?