Wednesday, 15 July 2009

You can't reinvent the wheel - unless you are a clown

I try not to comment on other people's blogs, mainly because what they have to say is usually inane rubbish.
But I am a big fan of Fleet Street Blues and their recent blog about what journalism is actually all about - ie getting news stories and not creaming over the latest web 2.0 update - met with a predictable response from the 20-somethings who think they are the new pioneers of this ancient game.
What these techno fucks singularly fail to understand is that, without the actual news content needed to attract readers to a newspaper, website, twitter page, blog, or even a facebook page, what you have is nothing. An irrelevant self-aggrandising pile of cack.
What bloggers produce - mostly woeful, biased opinion and comment based on others' news stories - is not anything approaching news.
It's just shit. It's the equivalent of the pub bore crapping on over a pint of mild to anyone who will listen.
(And, yes, I certainly do include this vanity driven, executive wank of a project I am running within that description.)
Listen up fucktards, the web is just a method of delivery. Simple as that. Like paid fors, then frees, newsletters and fanzines. Fuck it, even graffiti.
You do realise that Google alerts are real stories which have to be written by an actual reporter before you get them?
Journalism is about getting news and telling others about it. Knowing your patch and going out with a notebook is how it is done.
The web is not the future of news gathering, it is just the paperboy.

A sad indictment

I looked at a job advertisement recently.
It was looking for a boss for two paid for titles and I was interested. My background is frees and nationals, so I have never really had much scope to see if what I preach - news sells - actually can work in this day and age.
So I did a little research. The titles both weeklies were selling fairly well in this climate with 17k and 13k subs. Circulation was down 7.1 and 3.1 per cent year on year, so tragic but not yet terminal - if it can be stopped.
My juices flowing, I looked at the accompanying website to see what alleged 'nationals-follow-us-up' kind of stories they were running.
After five minutes I realised their idea of stories was very, very different to mine.
My idea of a local paper is one that even a stranger to the town would find something interesting in it to read ie it would contain good stories.
Their website was mainly 'community' toss. No real court work, no investigative stuff, in fact barely a news story at all. Most of it smelled like it had started out as a bad press release from an overpaid PR wanker.
My spider sense really started tingling when I looked at the staffing levels.
Four reporters, a sports guy, a deputy editor and, overseeing the empire, a group editor.
For two paid fors.
Allegedly, the company's jewel-in-the-crown, market-leading paid fors, to boot.
How can that be allowed to happen? Surely at the most basic level, each of these paid fors should have four reporters alone just to give them a sporting chance.
Four reporters, not allowing for sickness and holidays, writing for TWO paid fors, covering two areas.
So two each. Presumably producing just enough 'stories' to fill the largish news page sizes you would expect from a paid for title.
The ad said the job was 'very hard work'. It should have read 'impossibly hard' and should have advertised for a captain to pilot a sinking ship rather than an editor expected to boost sales.
If this is the way this company, which apparently starts with a J and ends with ohnstone, treats two of its top titles, then it is no wonder our industry is in such a perilous state.
People will buy newspapers if there is something in them that they want to read. FACT.
By investing in editorial, with real wages and realistic staffing levels, you can create a product people WILL buy. FACT
The thirst for knowledge has not diminished. But unfortunately neither has the greed of the newspaper whores that rule our worlds. FACT.

The advent of the modern age

Email is one of the most useful tools in the modern world and, to journalists, it can be quite simply a lifesaver.
Pics and quotes in an instant, records of conversations saved. No more digging through notebooks to find a phone number or fact.
But it is also becoming massively overused.
One of my journalists barely picks up the phone. Instead of calling, he bangs out an email and pings it. Almost all of his stories are done using email back and forths.
This is clearly bullshit.
Firstly, how in fuck's name does he even know his email has been read? (OK, I realise you can ask for a response when it's picked up but you cannot guarantee the missive's recipient is actually the one who read it).
Secondly, what about the length of time all this takes? Most stories, especially the back of the bookers or downpage specials, can be cracked out after a couple of five minute phone calls. Emails are hit and miss. It is a presumption that every one of your contacts is sitting by a machine waiting for the ping ping sound of a new email.
Thirdly, what about building relationships, finding out who is useful and who is not. A two minute phone conversation can often be the start of a beautiful relationship. While you are on you can even - gasp - ask if anything else is going on.
But the worst thing about email is that PRs fucking love email. They demand a list of written questions 90 per cent of the time on tricky stories. It means replies can be sanitised, pored over, spun and signed off.
Responses to serious, important stories can be fully given the press office bullshit treatment rather than snatching the brilliant off the cuff comments journalists should be getting to expose these overpaid wankers.
Email is a useful tool, not a new way to do our job.
Talk to people. Get contacts. Write real stories. Not the ones they WANT you to write!
Pick up the fucking phone, you lazy cunts.

Leave me alone HR

I hate form filling so, naturally, I fucking hate HR people.
I hate the whole concept of a department in a company which just deals with the employees. Isn't that the boss's job?
Why do we need another layer of bureaucracy to tell me that one of my reporters has used up all their holiday time. I know, HR bitch, I have a fucking wall planner and I can count.
I hate PC behaviour more than I hate HR, but HR breeds PC behaviour.
A journalist's job is not a normal one.
I will send my reporters on a regular basis on death knocks to, for example, ask the grieving mother of a dead tot how she is feeling on the same day her scumbag boyfriend's Rotty used little Terry, 1, as a dog chew. Oh, and don't forget the picture.
But if I call a colleague a 'cunt' for being a cunt by getting a name wrong in copy then I could, under HR's fucked up rules, face action.
I once had a job interview where a woman, and they are always women, from HR sat in and conducted the questioning with the editor sitting like a spare prick in the corner.
What the fuck! I had to explain to her what a splash was, she had no idea what the PCC stood for and when I talked about how I would develop the paper she all but glazed over.
But luckily she had a questionnaire for me. It had questions like 'Can you describe a time when you have resolved a problem between departments'.
My favourite - and the moment I knew I wasn't getting the job was 'Can you describe a time when there was a conflict with a peer and how it was resolved'
I told a graphic story of how a reporter in an old newsroom had hurled a chair at his editor after a very frank discussion of his - pathetic - news list that week.
HR bird looked appalled. 'How was it resolved,' she gasped. I told her there was an awful lot of shouting and threats and then we all went for a beer.
I got my coat.
But it illustrates my point. Our jobs are very stressful and in the course of one day I will have a row, often quite verbal, with one of my reporters. It can be because they have made a simple mistake that takes me precious minutes to resolve on deadline day. But mostly it's because their copy looks like a cat vomited a chewed-up dictionary on it.
Discussions in the office are often robust and rightly so. In a week I will hear lengthy conversations about murder, baby rape, normal rape, bestiality, mugging, paedophilia, assaults, bank robberies, racism, sexism, ageism, heightism, and cherubism .
The story about the autistic kids on a bus becomes the 'mental bus' story; the tale about the dead guy found chopped up in a freezer is now 'ice pop' or 'freezer geezer'; the nib about the fucking bullshit MD's mate's business puff as the 'cunt's mate's bullshit puff nib'.
HR would have a field day with my comments to reporters about their work or the language we all use to describe each other.
But without this release, without the ability to say what we like without fear of reprimand, we would become neutered.
There is nothing a journalist likes better than a discussion about 'what if' and the more gruesome or un -PC the better in my book.
HR also does not solve problems it creates them.
For instance I have dozens of work experience people begging for me to treat them like slaves for no money (some of them have actually given up real, proper paid jobs to try out at this game).
My usual MO was to email the lucky ones, ask when they want to come in and book them for a week or two. Then, when their day came, I would be pleasantly/unpleasantly surprised with a call from reception to announce the arrival of the work ex I had completely forgotten about.
On good weeks I would have triple booked so I would be forced to pimp them out to other desks.
NOW, however, the nosey cunts in HR have realised that we get unpaid labour in without telling them.
So in comes a new regime -or protocol as they call it - which means me having to inquire about silly things like their name, age, address, next of kin, medical conditions and suchlike.
This form must also go to the spods in IT so they can set them up with a temporary password for use on the 19th century steam powered computer reserved for the work ex to write nibs on.
(I used to let them use my sign-on because, as it's an INTRANET system, there is fuck all chance of them every doing anything remotely saboteurial with it as they would have to break into the building in the dead of night to do something crazy. Like steal my facepainting pic cap and sell it to the nationals or something!)
So, because I hate form filling, I would rather not bother with the work ex any more. So thanks HR for wrecking about 52 dreams a year you sticky-beaked mother fuckers.
HR stay the fuck out of the newsroom you cunts.
Without you life would not be any better or any worse.
Basically you have a non job.

Monday, 13 July 2009

The nationals part 1

Almost any reporter can work on the nationals - for a week's work experience.
But to stay on the nationals for any length of time takes something more. Something special.
It's hard to define exactly what that 'more' is but most of it comes down to sacrifice, plain and simple.
Let's say, for arguments sake, reporting for the nationals is the very pinnacle of this profession.
(Now I know that isn't true. If us local boys had a quid for every one of our stories that had been ripped off word for word and appeared in the nationals a week later we would probably have a big pile of quids. But bear with me.)
I reckon about ten per cent of all people who start working as reporters end up working shifts on the nationals. (It may be higher but I am considering the drop out rate just from our own area.)
I further estimate that only ten percent of THOSE actually end up working for the nationals in either a long term contract position or as a staffer.
(I am limiting this to news - all other areas are merely professing to be reporters).
There has to be a reason for this enormous drop out rate and I think it comes down to the reporter realising they either do not have what it takes to do the job or they don't want what it comprises.
The first thing you learn when you become a news reporter for the nationals is that you now have NO life outside of news.
When I was a casual on a national, if I got out of work after 8.30pm it was considered a day off. A 12 hour day was the norm but 16 hours was more regular than it should be.
What you could almost always rely on was the call from the news desk with your tasks for the next day.
Now, this call could come at any time. Whether you were in the pub, cinema, theatre, shagging. Whatever, whenever. They did not care. The night desk attitude was 'if we are working so are you' regardless of the hours already spent in the office/on the road.
That dreaded call could send you anywhere and you always had to be there 'first thing' (before 8am). If you got the call you had a mixture of dread and excitement. If you didn't you often stayed up late wondering why not?
The last thing the desk shouted at you as you left the office was 'make sure your mobile is on'. It is very rarely off since. (Some hacks would even email the boss to let them know if they were going to be in a bar which had no mobile signal and reporters were actively encouraged to let the desk know where in the world they would be on holiday in case it kicked off nearby.)
I remember one job I was sent on (at 11pm) where I had to be up at 4.30am and, after it turned out to be bollocks at 5.30pm, the desk still asked me to 'pop in the office on your way home'. I was three hours from the office!
I often talk about being aware of what is going on around you and the importance of making and keeping contacts.
There is no greater reason to have these skills than going out on your own against the other national reporters.
Imagine story. Dog chews up nipper at granny's house. You have all seen it before or maybe even been sent out on the story.
Can you imagine the pressure of being called at 2pm to get to the house 50 miles away to a job you know every national paper either already knows about or - in the worst case - is already there.
Excuses don't matter here. If you don't have a family member, chat and a pic of said mauled kiddy by 5.30pm you are fucked.
Adrenaline courses through your veins and stress starts to suffocate your being. Until I got to the address and surveyed the scene I mainly just felt sick.
If you are aware and clued up you have already started making calls as you head to the patch. Local paper, freelance snapper, copper you met at that federation meeting, RSPCA, local plod, ambulance service, other national hacks who you know are the district men.
You become an information whore. Willing to sell your first born for a salient fact or snippet of gossip. Most of the time you only make these calls to find out how far behind you are. If you are lucky most hacks are the same as you - shitting themselves and wishing for the ability to teleport to the address. If you are unlucky, they are so smug you know they have the collect and the chat in the bag and are searching for more.
Regardless, you need to produce a lead and pic and the next few hours just pass in a blur of phone calls, door knocks and more phone calls.
If you know who has what, you can get it. If you know nothing you are the chump getting a strip torn off them the next day by the news ed.
By the way, this is the same every single day if you are on the road.
Still fancy it?
My missus (ex) used to ask why I put up with the incredibly rude phone calls from work at 11pm. It's just the way it is, I would say.
It was the same thing I said when weekends away were scuppered by Friday night murders or holidays in Greece were interrupted by sinking ferries. Dinners became suppers while hunting for case studies of cancer victims for a late breaking splash; drinks out with friends were ruined by a trilling mobile with subs questions; arguments were always about why I was never home.
And all the while I was hooked to it like a smack-crazed masochist with ink in my veins and a typewriter for a heart. The worse the request, the more I moaned. But once I had overcome any feeling of self sacrifice or loss I was back in the game. I loved it. Every story became 'The World's Biggest Story' and after I made it as a staffer it got more and more addictive.
It's fucked up my life in so many ways, but I wouldn't change it for the world.
Now ask yourself are you still game?