Friday, 10 July 2009

A brief history of (my) news

I didn't always want to be a journalist.
In fact to tell the truth it never even crossed my mind.
It was only when I saw an ad in my local paper looking for someone who 'wouldn't mind stitching up their friends' I became remotely interested. I started as a three day a week trainee and, over a period of years, progressed from junior to senior to news ed to boss under a series of absolutely brilliant teachers and colleagues (and an even larger number of absolute shitbags!).
We weren't offered NCTJ training at that time mostly due to the fact that virtually no-one in the office had actually taken any official qualifications.
The newspaper company I worked for 'oop North' was relatively small and was one of quite a few independent set ups. Big companies had not yet started hoovering up everything in their sight.
Our grande fromage was a newsman through and through and he reflected that in his attitude to our newspapers.
Readers first, news, leisure, sport second, advertisers third.
An often disgruntled advertiser would pull a paid advertisement following a bad report about his company only to return a few months later because his ads weren't being read anywhere else.
Our papers were hard, investigative, confrontational and often shocking.
But they were a cracking read and every one of us loved them.
We all lived on the patch, we all went out on the patch. Night jobs weren't a chore, they were an excuse for us to arrive en masse and bleed the place dry of stories before hitting the pub.
We spent an inordinately long time in pubs.
I learned how to properly drink AND be a reporter - often writing snatched story tips down using the pub pen and a few sheets of receipt roll or a ripped beermat (I even, on occasions, was forced to use toilet paper).
Our network of contacts in the town we worked stretched across all walks of life.
Cops and solicitors, teachers and council workers, criminals and junkies, we met and befriended them all.
We worked as journalists and we lived as journalists and it was a brilliant time.
Our papers were great because of it - our personal lives and relationships maybe not so much!
We did undercover work, secret filming (before tiny video cameras), blags and stunts.
We forced executives to resign and put crooks in jail and held authority to account at every turn.
The readers loved it. When we mentioned who we worked for, some would make that 'oooooh' breathing-in sound. I kid you not.
(This may sound terribly rose tinted specs and all that and, I admit it mostly is. We also moaned like motherfuckers, put up with terrible management decisions, worked like slaves and were paid like shit. But we really did do some excellent work.)
I miss those days and I try to recreate them as much as I can. I try and have fun with this job as much as I can and let my troops do the same.
I refuse to stop swearing or use the word 'line manager' in the newsroom. I regularly let staff bunk off if they can make up a decent enough excuse. We flog our best stuff and keep the cash a secret.
I don't mind my best workers coming in when they like. And I reward good stories with half days. I hate HR and form filling, so tell them the best part of fuck all about what I do.
I only demand a few things. Bring me the best stories, work hard when you have to, destroy the opposition and don't whine.
But most of all enjoy it.

House of cards

MPs must be loving the Guardian stories about NOTW phone hackers.
This shit will run and run and I am certain many news organisations will use future stories about some of the more dubious journalistic practices as an exercise in promoting their own bullshit moralities.
But once the full scale of lying, cheating, hacking and blagging starts to unravel, Fleet Street will truly earn its mantle of the Street of Shame again.
When I was working on the nationals, everyone was at it. (Disclaimer for any copppers - NOT ME OFFICER!). Using professional blaggers to get information out of official bodies was practically a weekly occurrence. Hotel bills, Friends and Family numbers, Car regs, addresses, phone numbers, even MPs expenses! Everything could be got - at a price.
The phone hacking lark was simplicity itself. Basically most idiots back in the day never reset their remote access passwords on their mobile phones so you just keyed in factory setting numbers like 0000 or 1234 when the ansaphone message kicked in and lo and behold...Every message on the phone revealed.
It will be fun to watch this unfold and every major national paper is likely to get dragged into it but what actual purpose does it serve?
Journalists often lie, cheat, beg, borrow, and steal for a cracking story.
But is using subterfuge really that bad to expose the porkie pies of others, especially celebrities. Those vacuous arseholes who only want publicity when it serves their own purposes but, in the words of Dad's Army, 'don't like it up 'em'.
I agree that it may got out of hand over at News Int's factory farming of mobiles (ALLEGEDLY) but, Christ, good intel is still good intel wherever it comes from.
Many people say what gives us the right to appoint ourselves the moral bastions of this country. But I would argue that because most good journalists are essentially amoral - it goes beyond what we think is right or wrong.
It just comes down to providing readers the best possible range of stories using whatever methods are necessary. If the readers then get hot under the collar about the issue or subject then so be it - but at least they know.
It will be a sad day for the general public - our beloved readers - if journalists have to start telling only the truth to get hold of stories.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Treading water

I feel like I am sitting at work learning nothing and doing nothing.
When I started here I got a real thrill about my position. New people, new patch, new experiences.
I have met a group of reporters who I really, really like. Who I consider my family. A real team now.
Since being here I believe I have made a real difference. Made a mark by bringing the news side of things up to a high standard. Settled old disputes by ensuring a fair, accurate and balanced approach, yet still being able to bring the hammer down on those who deserve it.
The paper's news content is certainly unsurpassed among the editions brought out in my little 'news hub' and we kick the paid for competition's arse on a weekly basis despite their overwhelming number of hacks.
I stripped out my papers of the past editor's furniture and ideas within a few weeks of settling in. It's ony natural to exorcise your editions.
Only those features that have commercial value or are my ober fuhrer's favourites remain.
In New Year my team of eight met to discuss future plans over the three papers. Full of hope and ideas, we came up with some pretty decent new sections.
(Yes, of course arrogance plays a factor in my assessment but have you ever met a good, humble boss?)
Any cunt can fill a newspapers with shit and quite a few in this industry do.
Creating a good balanced, interesting newspaper is a mixture of art, skill and bloody good luck. The few weeks a year I get it absolutely right, I leave with a massive natural high.
But recently I feel as if I am just passing time here.
With the recession, redundancies, and recruitment freezes we have been left slimmed down and with little hope over the last six months
Now my team slogs it out on a weekly basis. We fill our pages, but a lot of my early passion is gone. News stories I would normally get excited about and develop are just page leads.
Investigations or long term tales/campaigns are scrapped in favour of easy to write leads.
The sections we came up with are on hold. Our staffing levels, down to six, are dire. It's mainly pride, stupidity and masochism keeping me going. I didn't get into this job to be average. I want to be among the best.
In journalism the hours are lousy and the pay is shit. Accepted.
The only thing that keeps me going in this industry is the challenge.
Maybe it's time for another one.

Fuck facepainting.....

I am having a real hard time with my understanding of 'community news'. Just what the fuck does it mean to be a community newspaper.
My idea of a community newspaper is one that tells people in the area stuff they don't know.
It should inform, educate, entertain and, at times, purposefully shock. Wake the fuckers up and provoke debate.
So what is the true value of traditional 'community' stories.
I am talking about kids at fetes with their faces painted; heads shaved; mountain climbers; marathon runners; walks for life, cancer, amnesia or AIDS; photo ops with the mayor, MPs or council leaders; self promoting crap from businesses 'who care'; school plays; fashion shows; fetes; galas; flowers shows and the hateful cheque presentation.
THIS IS NOT NEWS!!!!!! It is shit. Every day I get phone calls, emails, requests from people with these 'stories'. I sorely want to tell them to fuck off (sometimes I do).
Now, I clearly understand the commercial side. Kids pics in papers sell copies, sell photos. But this is not the point I am making about the news value.
Do readers who weren't involved or don't know the individuals really give a shit? Or do they flick across this tedious upchuck like I do every time I look at a local paper?
Who really cares about it except for the people who were actually there to witness it? (and presumably took their own pics to boot).
It strikes me as rather than serving the community, it is an exercise in self promotion for those involved. (Schools now NEED to attract new pupils thus explaining the increased numbers of 'great positive community stories'.)
If you want to raise cash for charity, just do it. Why do you need recognition for it?
If you want to get in the local paper for doing it try getting some originality.....monkey wrestling, naked sudoku, recreate the egg eating scene from Cool Hand Luke....I would even take a genuine bath of beans.
The worst thing, I am forced to run this dribble and I fucking hate it. If I see the word 'fun' in a headline or intro again this week I am liable to kill.
I only run this tosh in order to fill holes that can't be filled with real, meaningful stories because I don't have enough staff to produce the copy required.
Now, don't misunderstand what I am saying. A little of these events can lift a paper. A nice bit of balance. A great picture from one of these events can make a page sing.
But due to management cuts I am finding myself having less quality control over the events I cover.
Instead of a great pic of kids playing among bubbles or a genuinely interesting original charity event I am running the most pathetic, self taken out of focus shots of the dullest order.
We control the leads we run, why not the down pages and fillers too?
The only cheque presentation shot I want to see is when the over sized piece of cards slips out of the Mayor's hand and decapitates one of the simpering children.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Release the press release

Information is everywhere. It's almost a total overload. With the advent of the internet I now get more than 200 emails a day and, after I junk the spam or the irrelevant shit, I still end up with dozens of potential 'stories'.

In reality very few emails are trouser tightening exclusives. Most are PR bull shit; others charity I've-climbed-a-mountain-shaved-my-head-presented-a-cheque-bathed-in-beans kind of nonsense you have seen a million times before; the rest crazies with baffling tales of council/police/hospital corruption.

Press releases should go in the bin without exception (let them pay for an ad if it's that important).
So where do we get our stories from?
We have to remember the basics. The more people you know, the more stories you know (or can stand up).

By relying on whatever comes through the door (or inbox) to fill your paper you are doing your readers a disservice.

You should be out in your communities finding out what real people are thinking, what is happening on the streets.

It is too easy to think you are writing a paper for the people by churning out endless police, council or heath authority releases which look like real stories.

If you really had your fingers on the pulse these releases should become a healthy string of nibs on page 8 rather than the page leads they often are.

And before you blame your workload or the fact you don't get out of your office, think about the reason why.

Could it be that you are too busy writing up the chod to go out and get the real stories?

Evolve or Die (But remember the basics)

Evolve or die has been my motto since I started in this business.

Journalism and journalists have to move on. I accept this and, with some exceptions, I relish this.

Some of you young 'uns may not believe this but I advocated the use of the internet in my office when it was in its infancy.

My boss dismissed it as useless. "It's just for porn," he declared. This was in the early to mid 90s.
By the late 90s I was working on a major national daily and I was telling experienced hacks how to search online for the subjects of stories. I explained search engines as like a major extension of the cuts library. They had not a clue.

I still push the internet as one of journalism's greatest tools. I am Generation X. I had a mobile phone before any of my friends. It was a brick and had an actual aerial. I was cool.

Now I continually ask my reporters (and these are supposedly Generation Next reporters) if they have googled the subjects in the story. Flesh on the bones and all that malarkey. I normally get a response in the negative. Do you do it?

I like new technology and I embrace internet journalism because I know at some point in the future I will be uploading this blog into a node in my head so that your cranial nodes can read it.

But new technology cannot replace old skills.

Even I laughed when old hacks told how they typed out copy on a typewriter (non-electric) to be handed to their editor on a sheet of fullscap. He would make the relevant changes (on paper) or put it on an actual spike where it would remain forever more.

Hot metal and hundreds of production staff. Things have changed.

But the job really hasn't. Journalism is the obtaining, simplifying and spreading of information. However it is distributed.

Don't forget free papers are quite recent inventions. They are just a different method of distributing the product. Same with t'internet.

Embrace it, move with it, but don't get lost in it.