Monthly Archives: May 2009

Why we still need sub-editors #1

The first in a no doubt ongoing series, (which also happens to combine my hobby and my day job).

A bout of insomnia had me watching Channel 4 at an ungodly hour this morning. I managed to catch the second half of Psyche and Eros – an animated retelling of the ancient Greek myth (god falls in love with mortal, other gods interfere, visit to the Underworld, everything turns out all right, basically).

I’d never seen it before and was curious about the director, the late – as it turns out – Alison De Vere. So I looked her up.

Alison De Vere started at Halas and Batchelor in the ’50s, apparently, and then worked, with every other animator in London, on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (she animated the Blue Meanies, it seems). She went on to win the Grand Prix at Annecy in 1979 with Mr Pascal. Which makes her world famous in a low-key way.

Here’s where the subbing bit comes in.

In many of the references I found – Internet Movie Database, Answers.com –  her place of birth is listed as Pakistan. Which is odd, as she was born in 1927. Pakistan, as any sub (or indeed vaguely educated person) should know, didn’t exist then. 

Actually, as her obituary in the Guardian notes ( and I assume that is correct), she was born in Pashawar, which would then have been in the British Raj, to a British army officer. 

So whoever has taken this biographical detail and put it on the web in other reference sites has clearly thought: “Hmm – Peshawar. Where’s that? Oh, the Wikipedia says Pakistan.” and added it in for clarification. Without checking through the entry to look at its history and match the dates up. 

It’s a classic error that should be caught by a half decent sub-editor. And probably won’t be more and more often as subs are deemed a luxury we can’t afford in the media.  

More than that, as I’ve noted before, it’s as the process of subbing itself becomes devalued because subs end up doing everything on the production desk apart from actually sub-editing. 

More to come on this – especially stressing the importance of checking primary sources (which doesn’t include the BBC, for all neophyte journalists out there).

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Why the old media model is utterly broken

A very good piece by Bob Garfield in Advertising Age explains why not only print is dead, but the rest of the media as well

The key is this quote from Randall Rothenberg: 

“Today the average 14-year-old can create a global television network with applications that are built into her laptop. So from a very strict Econ 101 basis, you have the ability to create virtually unlimited supply against what has been historically relatively stable demand.”

Yes, I know I bang on about it. But this is at the core of the whole debate.

A lot of journalists and media folk get very upset about the decline of newspapers, magazines or TV news. They tend to blame it on quality issues, or the stupidity of media owners not charging for content, or the lack of investment in content, or whatever.

But, really, it’s a supply and demand thing. The barriers of entry to publishing have collapsed almost utterly over the past few years. In many ways it’s as easy to be a content producer as it is to be a content consumer. And more interesting. So it’s little wonder that the media is facing a perfect storm.

It’s well worth reading. And, seriously, this is a structural problem that won’t go away when the recession is over, and won’t be solved by tweaking the present model. The media landscape is changing irrevocably. Be ready…

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Nice work at UCA Journalism’s graduate show

Adam_LeveridgeRegular readers of this blog will know that I can get a bit cranky and irritable about the generally poor literacy of undergraduates. 

Happily, however, there is still some very good work being produced by journalism graduates, as I discovered yesterday evening at the private view of UCA Farnham’s graduate show

Adam Leveridge – who I persuaded to pose, probably against his better judgement, next to his final year project here – produced a nice piece on the competitive psychology of Formula 1 racing. 

As well as phoning New Zealand to interview Formula 1 neuroscientist Kerry Spackman, Adam also snagged some quotes from UK racing legend Stirling Moss and made the most of his work experience at Autosport to blag some live action shots from an official F1 photographer.

It’s a sound basis for a feature, it’s well-written and has a nice solid layout. I was also pleased to see that, like several of the other strong pieces here, the copy was pretty clean. (Yes – a good sub would have had something to work on to clean up the style, but I’ve seen worse – even on the published page). 

ToonI also really liked this footie-based feature on Newcastle United manager Alan Shearer by Matt Burton. Now, I have absolutely zero interest in football as a sport, but Matt’s piece was well-written with a sense of authority – and he also made the layout work really well. It’s a solid, commercial piece of work, and he clearly has a strong eye for design and detail. 

When I first encountered UCA’s journalism course, I was a bit suspicious of its stress on students completing a project that required them to, in effect, act as everything from art director to sub editor. I thought there was a danger that undergraduate journalism students would spend too much time finicking with things like typography and not spend enough time worrying about things like, well, writing clear prose. 

I still think that’s worth being aware of. It’s far too easy for students to get bogged down in the minutiae of choosing background colours and forget about the big picture of their work. 

But in the context of today’s rapidly changing and consolidating media, journalism graduates will be forced to widen their skills base. Just being able to write, even well, isn’t enough these days. Layout, sub-editing, and now digital skills are all vital to ensure they are in with a chance to earn a reasonable living in the media’s increasingly cut-throat world. 

F1 fan Adam Leveridge has already got his business cards printed. On them he claims to be a journalist already. On this basis I’d say he wasn’t far wrong…

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The power of social bookmarking

With one bound, this blog has gone viral. (Well, kind of).

I’ve always been curious about social bookmarking, but never really explored it very much. Aside from signing up to StumbleUpon to see how it worked, I haven’t really used sites such as Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon and Del.icio.us to steer or filter my web use. Or indeed used them to try to boost traffic on Freelance Unbound.

This is probably a mistake, of course. One reader was amused enough by one of my posts on local newspaper headlines to send it to Reddit. And guess what? My traffic spiked dramatically (albeit from a lowish base). 

As this blog has limited plug-in capability, I don’t have an automatic “Share this”-type widget attached to every post.

There is a long-winded workaround that allows me to add social bookmarking links to the bottom of a post, but I have to do this individually for each post, and it’s a pain, frankly. 

So I’ve run “share this” links on only a few posts – the ones I thought might capture a reader’s attention and go, for want of a better term, viral. Needless to say, I’ve been completely wrong about the ones I chose, none of which has been shared. 

It’s fascinating to see how this works. I’ve mentioned before that this blog is partly a tool for learning about blogging – building an audience, understanding web metrics and seeing how it’s possible to make connections online that it would be difficult or impossible to achieve otherwise. This offers some valuable lessons about generating traffic – especially for student bloggers. 

  1. Be brief: Your posts don’t have to be long and/or worthy essays. Suddenly my 43-word post with illustration is the top viewed content here of the month. 
  2. Be amusing: People tend to spread light-hearted material around. There’s a lot of gloom in the world as it is. 
  3. Be open-minded: As mentioned above, I had no idea what would trigger the sharing response. Assume any post might do this. 
  4. Be wide-ranging: As a result, don’t restrict yourself to one style of post or topic. Sure – stick to a basic theme or two, but feel free to be creative within that. 

Having said all that, don’t restrict yourself to 50-word jokey posts. Those worthy and serious essays may well be what get your visitors to stick around to see what you have to say once they StumbleUpon your witty one-liner. 

As John Scalzi found on his venerable Whatever blog, his post about sticking bacon to his cat has generated an astonishing amount of traffic and become a meme. But it’s his long, impassioned and serious essay on Being Poor in the US that has been the single most important post on his site and ended up being syndicated in national news media…

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Why journalism students should read Raymond Chandler

Good writers read. They read a lot. And they read widely. 

If you’re a journalism student, the best advice I could give you would be exactly that – to read, and read widely. Most importantly, it would be to read not just journalism.

I imagine that’s probably difficult when you’re doing a journalism course – you’ll be spending most of your time reading examples of good (and bad) journalism, lots of critical theory stuff that you can’t see the point of (there is one, don’t worry), and learning other vital-yet-kind-of-dull things such as media law and, shudder, shorthand. 

So why spend your valuable partying time reading yet more books?

Simply because it’ll make you a better writer. 

Sure, it’s important to read the best journalism. But to make your writing richer – to give you a range of different ways to bring colour and style to your writing – look beyond the news media. 

So, why should journalism students read Raymond Chandler particularly?

For one, it happens to be the 50th anniversary of his death this year, so it’s kind of appropriate. But mainly because he had a way of making language work for him that was both very inventive, but also accessible and accurate. (Although, ironically, he was a failure when he got a job as a reporter.)

For those who don’t know him, Chandler created private detective Philip Marlowe – played most notably by Humphrey Bogart in the movie adaptation of The Big Sleep. Though he didn’t invent modern wise-cracking detective fiction (that was probably Dashiell Hammett), he certainly turned it into an art form. 

I’m not such a big fan of his plots – they tend t0 be a bit convoluted and sometimes contrived. But the dialogue, description and atmosphere are superb. 

Here’s Marlowe sitting waiting to meet a potential client in the rarified atmosphere of the Gillerlain perfume company in The Lady in the Lake:

“I lit a cigarette and dragged a smoking stand beside the chair. The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips.”

Chandler is also very good at conveying the ugliness of moneyed Los Angeles:

“This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead.” (The Big Sleep)

Not to mention the ugliness of his characters:

“Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same colour.” (Trouble is my Business)

Yes – some of his work has become cliched. Probably his best-known line is the classic “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window”. And it’s true he had a tendency to overdo it in some of his novels. 

But if Chandler used unexpected imagery to create simile and metaphor in really new and imaginative ways, can you do the same in journalism? 

I’d say yes – as long as you remember that you’re not actually writing hard-boiled detective fiction. 

Think laterally about language. Expand your vocabulary – and also the way you use words. 

Crucially, though, don’t just fling words together. A lot of mediocre magazine-style journalism (think local papers, London freebies and giveaway magazines) involves using colourful adjectives and idioms without really thinking about them or knowing what they mean. (I posted about this here – it infects even the Financial Times.)

Instead, think carefully about what words mean and how you can play with them for effect. 

The best response I got to a feature on data accuracy in direct marketing was for a line about how databases of personal information become less accurate over time:

“Like flesh, data decays…”

It was just different enough to snag the attention and the imagination of the editor – but still relevant and accurate enough not to be cut or rewritten. And zombie movie fans liked it a lot.

Also, it’s short. You don’t need to go on for paragraphs to prove what an imaginative writer you are. In fact, do that and you tend to reveal quite the opposite.

In brief:

  • Read a lot
  • Read widely
  • Enjoy words
  • Use them imaginatively
  • But be precise

Coming up: It’s important to read beyond journalism – but are there any journalists who are really worth reading for their prose style? Why, yes. A forthcoming post will take a look at some business writing and other journalists who really know what they’re doing…

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Why journalism lecturers seem so drained at this time of year

Because marking student worked is tiring, my goodness yes.

Yesterday’s all-day marking bonanza was certainly interesting (it was my first time, but they were gentle with me). 

There were some shockers. Some of the spelling and grammar was pretty weak, and there was at least one example of a student writing submitted assessment work using SMS-speak (“u” for “you”, for example). Well, it was in the first-year. But still.

This is by no means confined to one university – it’s a reflection of general undergraduate ability when it comes to English grammar.

It does seem as if higher education – and also some work-based training –  is having to take on the responsibility for what should be basic literacy. This is a problem I’ve found with journalism students in general, as well as recent graduates, and it’s one that is echoed by publishing companies I work with.

What’s the answer? Stop spending millions trying to push more young people through university when you haven’t sorted out your primary education. And make young children believe literacy is a rule they have to obey.

No, it’s not the modern way. But I’ve seen the consequences. U no it makes sen5e…

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I stand in judgement of journalism students…

…fear my judgement – yeay, fear it!

Yes – today I enjoy actually marking the work of online journalism students in Farnham. After blathering to them about blogging and web video, among other things, I get to look at the end of year assessment work. 

But fear? Really? No. Actually I will stand as impartial as the Statue of Justice on the Old Bailey. Only without the toga thing she wears. 

I’ll have the sword, though, just in case – you have no idea of the passions stirred by Dreamweaver…

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