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.”