Monday, October 13, 2014

10 things I have just learned about journalism

I HAVE now finished a seven-week romp around Ireland, both north and south, helping nearly 70 journalists come to terms with the latest way of working.
I reminded them that I started work in the days of hot metal - "Hot, smelly, dangerous - and that was just the newsroom!" - which now looks like a museum exhibit, and that far from being wary and suspicious they should embrace the latest technology and concentrate on what they do best.
And what they do is journalism at its best: find stories, talk to people, write quickly and clearly. It's the message rather than the medium, as Marshall McLuhan famously didn’t say, so don't worry about pressing the right keys on the computer but concentrate on asking the right questions.
Here are my Top 10 takeaways:
  1. Journalism is still fun: From chasing stories with headline-grabbing national significance to crafting a brief from submitted mumbo-jumbo most people loved most of it most of the time.
  2. Journalists are still fun: They laughed, they cried, they took the mickey, they lunched, they drank, they worked hard…and they had fun.
  3. Editors still inspire, lead, defend and challenge: I met some wonderful people performing courageously as the increasingly thin filling in a sandwich between the journalists and management/advertising. Didn’t always get the recognition or support they deserved but never flinched from doing things the right way.
  4. There's life in the old dogs: A good proportion of the ‘trainees’ were of more mature years. Yes, folks, from my generation. But after chuckling at my hot metal memories they threw themselves at the digital era task in hand and often turned in better work than the so-called computer generation.
  5. Journalism education and training is valued: While I can sign up to a certain amount of “Journalists are born, not made” it was interesting to see that those with some exposure to teaching and training generally fared better.
  6. Integrity is alive and well: get a bunch of journalists in a room in 2014 and it’s not long before the conversation strays into ethical considerations or more likely: Would you do that? And mostly, the answer was: No
  7. We have headline acts: I love teaching headlines; it brings out the best in people and gives instant gratification to those who listen to the simple instructions.
  8. Upstairs…: The ‘Management’, however you care to define that, were largely caring, committed people doing a difficult job in trying circumstances with compassion and consideration.
  9. Downstairs…: The support staff we have all grown to know and love, from Ernie the cleaner to Sid on security, are disappearing faster than the journalists. Now we’re all our own secretary/cleaner/security.
  10. And on the Tenth Day God begat digital… 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

In the days of click-throughs and downloads, why we still love shorthand

INVIGILATING at the NCTJ shorthand exams today I am instantly transported back to a windowless, airless room at Harlow Technical College in that long, hot summer of 1975.
It is nearly the end of our eight-week block release course. Much beer has been drunk at the Painted Lady – come on, it was very hot – and careers plotted via the charming encouragement of tutor extraordinaire Ken Andrews.
Now we are sitting the shorthand exam, the culmination of two hours a day sweating through hangovers and lack of sleep to reach the holy grail of 100 words per minute.
Most of us made it, either that year or the next, as failure was not an option for us teenage school-leavers looking to make it in the competitive world of journalism.
Shorthand is not just an academic exercise to get you the NCTJ diploma and a passport to fame and fortune as the reporters at the trials of R. Brooks and R. Harris will testify.
Yes, some courts are allowing devices to be used on the Press benches, but m’learned friends do not obligingly speak slowly enough for your fingers to keep up. And the days of checking your rusty shorthand notes with a helpful rival are long gone as news organisations rush to beat each other with stories via social media and online.
Others have written more eloquently than me on the pleasures and rewards of shorthand, notably the Guardian’s Chris Elliott and Graham Dudman from the Sun.
For employers the ability to do shorthand makes an applicant stand out and keen, hard-working and capable. And anyone who has mastered this particular and sometimes peculiar skill knows its enduring delight.
I saw one of my 1975 classmates, Neil Harman now tennis correspondent of The Times, talking eloquently on the telly from Wimbledon yesterday. I would like to have seen his notebook…I’m sure it includes some immaculate Pitman’s shorthand.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Hello Acacia mall...but don't mention the slums

WELL, yippededoo! Aren't we all thrilled that Kampala's newest shopping centre, Acacia mall, was officially opened today by that nice Mr Museveni, no less?

Well, probably not if you are one of the 20,000 people who live in the Katanga slum, just a mile but a lifetime away in the centre of Uganda's capital city.
Here, children play in open sewers, people live in leaky shacks with no water or electricity and those near neighbours of poverty and squalor, abuse and disease, are rife.
By either accident of geography or clever architecture it is impossible to see the horrors of Katanga unless you are actually inside it. From the main road alongside Mulago hospital you look down on a sea of tin roofs, hiding the daily dramas from public view (see below).
I did go in while my wife was helping out the with the wonderful Kids Club Kampala  -  "Hope and Love for Vulnerable Children"  -  and left with rather a desolate feeling of not enough hope and love to go round.
I don't begrudge Kampala its glitzy mall with boutiques, restaurants, banks, cinema, fitness centre and Apple store. But if just a fraction of the private and public money that goes into these grandiose projects found its way to help some of the less fortunate then death, disease, hunger and horror would start to be consigned to the past.
There is little appetite from locals to help out their countrymen and many of the aid projects are run by foreigners with foreign money. In fact, I was horrified to find out that I knew more about the squalor and deprivation of Katanga than people who had lived nearby all their lives. They are simply not interested.
And as I summon the poolside waiter at the Kabira Country Club (ironically the same name as the super-slum in Nairobi) or sip on a latte while using the wi-fi at the La Patisserie I reflect that it is easy to slip into the comfortable cosmopolitan lifestyle that I can live and many Ugandans aspire to.
I'm not some do-gooder on a mission - Praise the Lord there's enough of them to go round - but am lucky enough to ply my trade as both a media and education professional in what is loosely called the developing world. And I firmly believe we all need to use whatever position or influence we have to persuade, cajole and do whatever we can for the better.
Film-maker Tony Steyger, my friend from Southampton Solent University, has made a powerful report called 'Kenya - The Last Taboo'. The blurb says: In Kenya 6 million people still defecate in the open. This report literally cuts through the crap to take a funny and refreshing look at the serious risks and the bold new tactics being used to tackle them.
For Kenya read Uganda, or indeed one of many locations around the world that still lack basic sanitation.
And all this on a day when the Monitor newspaper reports: US punishes Uganda for anti-gay law: Withdraws support to police, UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Force] and Health
No doubt President Museveni was reflecting on that too as he cut the ribbon this morning.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Computers, science, the newsroom and me

“Will the geeks inherit the newsroom?” was one of the many questions posed at the Association for Journalism Education annual conference in Liverpool.
The engaging Angela Long from Dublin Institute of Technology directed us to the Columbia Journalism School which has devised a Dual-Degree Program in Journalism & Computer Science.
Students will earn MA degrees in both Computer Science and Journalism taking in units on ‘Analysis of Algorithms’, ‘3D User Interfaces and Augmented Reality’ and ‘Web-Enhanced Information Management’ along the way.
It’s easy to be a bit sniffy about what road this is taking journalism down, but I’ve always been a bit of a New Romantic and ready to embrace whatever is round the corner – or in Columbia’s case already set up on the High Street.
But within all the app development, data journalism and statistical analysis I hope we don’t forget some of the fundamental lessons of journalism, like the ability to talk to people, get them to say something and deliver that info quickly and succinctly.
The anonymity of email questions and nicking quotes from twitter is all very well but as one of the students before taking a final year assignment asked me rather sheepishly: “Do you mean we’ve actually got to talk to people?”
Other conference highlights:
  • Student attendance was the talk of the bar. Everyone seems to be struggling to get a decent show in class, despite the £9,000 fees and our value for money drive. But I couldn’t help thinking we’re looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope. Perhaps the days of standing in front of a class like Mr Chips are gone and we should look at delivering our content in ways that the students feel happier to engage with.
  • A Pop-up Newsroom championed by Newcastle University, where students teamed up with partner institutions in India, Holland, Armenia, the United States, and Brazil to look first at global poverty and then celebrate International Women's Day. Great idea, and one that I will unashamedly copy.
  • A presentation about Blippar – “A bleeding-edge content platform” – through which you can “attract, retain and engage with consumers through an immersive experience”.  Strangely addictive and great fun.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Forest friends star in Animal Magic

WE'RE used to the donkeys and ponies auditioning as traffic police here in Brockenhurst but this performance from a herd of wild cattle brought our New Forest village to a standstill.
Surefooted, confident and completely unfazed by both traffic and humans they trotted (do cows trot?) at some lick through the village and disappeared off towards Sway.
I'm reliably informed they are red highland cattle, with a couple of black and white also-rans thrown in the for the ride. Whatever they are they were a welcome bright spot on a rainy day. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Calm (shorts, ice cream, picnic) after the storm (30ft waves, 60mph winds, flying shingle)

INSIDE STORY: The mirror and decorations in this ruined beach hut open to the elements
SUNDAY afternoon in Milford on Sea and the day-trippers sitting on the sea wall soaking up the sunshine could be forgiven for not believing what they see on the front page of the Mail on Sunday.
Forsaking the flim-flam of politics or the tittle-tattle of celebrity the MoS leads with - Shock! Horror! - a news story and Milford is the main image on the page.
Friday night's storm ravaged its way into the Marine restaurant, scattering diners as water and wind-blown shingle smashed windows and sent them scurrying for safety.
Fast-forward 36 hours and life could not be more benign on the south coast. It's always busy down here at weekends but the headline-grabbing events and sunny day brought the sightseers down in their hundreds if not thousands.
They saw that the intrepid hi-viz men of New Forest District Council and the hastily drafted in muscle of the Signals Regiment from Fulford near York (are there no soldiers nearer?) have pulled off an amazing clean-up effort.
There's still much to do, but the beach-side paths are clear and the car parks ready to receive the paying public (every day, all year, incidentally).
  • BY THE BOARD: the devastated Marine Restaurant now boarded up and weather-tight
MISSING LINK: Some beach huts survived the pounding...some did not

  • ANYONE FOR BONFIRE NIGHT? Debris piles up on the beach 

  • STAND (SIT?) EASY: Soldiers from the Royal Signals grab a lunch break

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Norwegian Getaway in Hampshire

LATEST addition to the Southampton waterfront is the cruise ship Norwegian Getaway which docked this morning for the first time in the UK.
It’s not huge by cruise ship standards, coming in at number 9 in the big ship league table, but it did cut a dash in the watery wintery sunshine.
Some facts and figures below – 27 ‘dining options’! – courtesy of Maritime Matters

145,655 GT
Length overall
325.70 m
Moulded breadth
39.7 m
Number of decks
8.30 m
Engine output
62,400 kW 
Propulsion power
35,000 kW
21.5 kn
Number of passengers
Number of passenger cabins
Number of outside cabins
(including suites)
Number of inside cabins
Number of theatre seats
Number of dining options
Total weight of applied paint
300 t
Total length of laid cables
2,154 km
Total length of laid pipes
400 km

From Ambridge to Lymington - where obituaries are alive and well

AS WE all know, Jack Woolley – aka Mr Peggy Archer that was – has died.
Talk of Ambridge on Thursday was his obit on page 36 of the Borchester Echo (60p from all good newsagents). It was presented complete with a nice picture of Peggy – and presumably Jack – although the write up did make him “sound like Simon Cowell” according to Emma Grundy (@EmeraldMTuesday)
Good to hear the Echo still tackling obits with gusto, but page 36 did sound a bit far back in the book. Far better follow the lead of my local paper, the Lymington Times, which this week fills an oversized broadsheet page with obits - on page 6.
It’s no design award winner, but all the recently deceased have a lengthy write-up, picture and headline including their name and description of their life. ‘Bob Gardam (81) was leading television sports broadcaster’ reads the top story about a man who was well known to generations of TV sports journalists.
I feel lucky to have written obits from Halstead (Essex) to Port of Spain (Trinidad & Tobago) and contributed to a lasting memory of someone’s life. When one tearful widow came into the Halstead Advertiser (RIP itself) office to point out that we (I) had got some of the facts wrong it taught me more about ‘check, check and check again’ than anything before or since.
I’m pretty sure obit writing is not actively taught anywhere and many local papers no longer bother at all. But what a superb skill to learn and what a service to readers.
When my turn comes, if I can’t be in Borsetshire (too expensive, I fear) I hope I’ll still be here in the New Forest and can be squeezed on the corner of page 6 of the Lymington Times. A fitting send-off indeed.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

A job in journalism? Definitely...but it will take time, effort and money

THE most common question asked any newspaper editor is: "Can you help me/my son/daughter/friend get a job in journalism?"
Quick answer: "Yes, providing you are prepared to invest time, effort and money."
And the number one question asked me now I'm looking at things from an academic perspective is:  "Will I/my son/daughter get a job in journalism?"
And the answer? Just the same.
TIME means using your spare weeks  on work experience, volunteering, freelancing  and putting yourself about.
EFFORT is working hard on your course and doing the required added extras like blogging, social media and taking a leading role in course publications.
MONEY is spent on joining a reputable course, supporting yourself and ensuring you have enough time and space to give it the best shot without having to worry about working.
Currently there are nine 'Trainee and Junior Reporter' vacancies listed on HoldtheFrontPage, including two for papers on the patch I used to look after. A happy New Year to some lucky, or more probably hard-working, young people. But also evidence that the jobs - albeit in the beleaguered field of regional newspapers - are there.
Some insist on a National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) qualification.
"You must be NCTJ-qualified or equivalent."
"So if you are NCTJ-pre-entry qualified, with shorthand, some newspaper experience and a driving licence and car..."
"The successful candidate should have a qualification in journalism from an NCTJ-accredited course as well as 100wpm shorthand."
"A basic requirement is 100wpm shorthand and passes in all the preliminary examinations."
Some don't ask for NCTJ but stipulate: "You will be competent in shooting video and taking photos and you will demonstrate a clear understanding of the stories and information which will stimulate reaction on the internet."
But, as my Trini friends would say, it's a hard row to hoe. The latest league tables for 2012-13 just released by the NCTJ make salutary reading. Across all the courses they accredit 1244 students were enrolled, 914 (73.5 per cent) took all the core exams and 367 (29.5 %) passed with an A-C grade in the core exams and mastered 100 words per minute shorthand.
In the undergraduate university sector out of 452 students completing their courses  just 67 (14.8%) secured this 'gold standard' qualification. The best success rate by a huge margin is for the  independent full time courses (64.9%) like Press Association and News Associates who recruit postgrad students committed to not just a career in journalism, but also passing with full honours.
There are rumblings in the industry that the rigour - and expense - of the NCTJ may have had its day.  Rival qualifications could spring up and with the nationals, notably the Mail and Telegraph, running their own courses this is not that unlikely.
But for many editors an NCTJ  qualification is as much a statement of intent as it is of attainment. Are you prepared to get up every morning and face two hours of shorthand regardless of  sleep, hangover or worse? Can you learn all the law that you need to know and find it in the book come exam time?
If you can buy your way into a career by taking a short course that doesn't worry about the demands of shorthand or the trouble of a publication standard portfolio then we're all in trouble.
As I've explained before I am worried about the quality and motivation of people coming into journalism, now I'm concerned about both the impetus of  young people studying journalism the potential  value of qualifications moving forward.
*I am indebted to @jamster83 for tweeting the picture used above with the post "Saw a pigeon having a job interview earlier. I hope he got it." Couldn't resist the opportunity to run it again.