Tag Archives: history

How 10 years has changed my freelance work week

How has the past decade of technological and business change in print publishing changed freelance patterns of work?

A lot, as it turns out.

Here, for the sake of example, is a comparison between a representative week’s work for me as a freelance sub/writer in around 1999 and the work I have been doing this summer. In typical nutritional ingredients style, at the top of the list is the stuff I have been doing most of.


  • Sub-editing – often on a full subs’ desk with several people working on it. Reading copy, rewriting copy, proofing pages and arguing over spelling, grammar and punctuation. Oh those glory days…
  • Feature writing – it was the dotcom bubble, but the web hadn’t come to eat into print content yet. So there was a bonanza of paid freelance writing available, at reasonable rates. And commissioned pieces were longer then, too.
  • Print layout and production – monthly magazines, special reports, standalone advertising supplements – again, there was a lot of it about. And it involved scanning pictures, and putting things in envelopes for bike messengers. Weird…


  • Working with a CMS – Tagging online content and helping to create a web taxonomy with keywords. Uploading stories and formatting them. Making sure all the links work and creating the home page. Troubleshooting rogue HTML.
  • Web banner ads – design and animation.
  • Web building – creating sites in WordPress using HTML, CSS and some brutally hacked PHP.
  • Print magazine production – a bit of layout, a bit of styling up, a bit of proofing, a bit of subbing.
  • Blogging – writing online. Obvously.
  • Feature writing – for magazines and books. When anyone has any budget for it.
  • Teaching – blogging, web audio and video

The differences stand out a mile. Much more of my work is online, and much less of it is anything like the kind of journalism/publishing I used to do.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. New and different is interesting, even if many other journalists and print media folk seem terrified of it.

But although it uses some of the skills I had 10 years ago, it has demanded that I develop a whole lot more – and very quickly. Most of this change has only come about in the past year or so.

And, yes – some of this is, for want of a better term, career development. I wouldn’t have found myself teaching journalism students in 1999, that’s for sure.

But you’ll also notice that I’m not now teaching print sub-editing or feature writing to students. I did try to do that – but there’s actually no demand. What academia seems to want now is to beef up its online offering. Much like the rest of the media.

I certainly don’t expect this to end. In fact, I expect the pace of change to pick up. Which means probably yet another and quite different “typical” workweek in fairly short order…



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When news mattered

Back in 1940, people would stop outside the local newspaper office to read the headlines posted in the window. Well, there was no rolling TV news or internet…

1a33852uImage from the ever-browsable Shorpy (motto: “Always Something Interesting”).


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Living history

DSCN0935As I’m drowning in web taxonomy at the moment, let’s take time out to enjoy last weekend’s English Heritage Festival of History.

I joined 1,000 happy historic re-enacters in a field in Northamptonshire to watch a mini re-enactment of D-Day, be shown how a Sten gun worked and enjoy all the grisly details of Tudor-style judicial punishment – including hanging, drawing and, naturally, quartering. Oh, and some nice people enjoying some tea and cake.

Next year I’m planning to form a Journalism Re-Enactment Society, and set up an old-style print newsroom in the field, complete with copy editors, picture researchers and typesetters – and some grouchy bloke wearing a green eye-shade. 

Anyone interested, contact me through the blog. Seriously – I might even do this…


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Um – who survived the Yemeni air crash?

Yemen_crashHistory is rewritten by the internet, as yesterday’s five-year-old boy survivor of the Yemeni air crash off the Cormoros islands today morphs strangely into a 14-year-old girl. 

I’m sure it’s nice that the incorrect official statements have been corrected. But I’ve noticed that sometimes this has happened without much acknowledgement of the change. 

So Google “five year old survivor yemeni crash” and you’ll get loads of results like the one above. But click through to this story from the Canadian National Post, for example, and you get the updated story with no explanation as to why.

Yes, way down in the story it does say: “Several Comoran medical officials had earlier reported that a five-year-old boy had been found in the water following the Airbus crash.” But it doesn’t admit to being an updated story itself.

I’m all for process journalism, but I’m a bit suspicious when a story that is all over the web and TV one evening suddenly vanishes from a major news web site.

TelegraphThen again, it also works the other way around. The Google search results for “yemeni air crash survivor” includes this Telegraph story that looks at first glance like it’s about the teenage girl, but actually clicks through to the original report about a boy toddler being saved (I’m putting the web grab in here, just in case the web story is updated).


Is this important? Well, kind of. With this kind of breaking news, it’s difficult to keep track of rumour and inaccuracies. It all happens too fast to be captured in print. So that makes the web the document of record. 

And while we want to know what really happened, it may also be important to know how that knowledge came to be revealed. 

Which is why news web sites should probably keep their links fixed rather than fluid. I want a link from yesterday to point me to the same place today, thanks. Otherwise online journalism really does become a bit too Orwellian.

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Saving the web for posterity

I posted here about how knowledge on the web, and on digital media generally, disappears – risking the impoverishment of future historical research.

Just before I could post this follow-up, Jessica anticipated me and commented that I should try Archive.org. Well, guess what – this is all about that.

A recent interview with British Library chief Lynne Brindley in The Guardian discussed some positive efforts to archive the web, notably the San Francisco-based  Internet Archive.

In San Francisco, the non-profit Internet Archive automatically scrapes parts of the web and its Wayback Machine allows people to surf back in time to see what their favourites sites looked like as far back as 1996. It already contains three petabytes of data, which equates to more than three million gigabytes.

All well and good. But what it doesn’t mention is that the Internet Archive itself is losing its digital information.

Way back, I used to know someone called Tim Worman, who became better known as Tim Polecat – lead singer of the UK rockabilly band The Polecats. We lost touch, obviously (I don’t really move in pop star circles), but about 10 years ago, I thought I’d see if he was on the web. 

He was! He had a fun site with all the usual stuff about his interests and current news – which also benefited from the fact that he was also a good artist and designer, so it looked pretty cool. 

I checked back every so often, but then a few years later was disappointed to find it no longer seemed to exist. Aha – but no: there it was. Archived by the Internet Archive and accessible through its Wayback Machine (though sadly without some of the graphics and MP3 downloads).

I visited occasionally and then – guess what? Yes – his site had vanished from the Internet Archive too. 

The obvious question, then, is what use is an internet archive that just archives for a few years? If Tim Polecat’s site was valuable at all, surely it should be kept in perpetuity. If it’s not actually valuable, then why keep it at all – for any length of time? 

Maybe the Internet Archive scrapes the web automatically and then real people wade through the content it stores to decide what’s valuable and what isn’t – a process that would obviously take a while. So perhaps his site was only archived until someone got a chance to have a look at it and then decide it was of no use. 

But that undermines the very principle of archiving ephemera that the British Library is so concerned about. After all, it is from some of the most trivial material that we gain some of our most important insights into the lives of ancient peoples. What they considered important at the time is not necessarily what concerns historians today – and we have no idea what future historians will want to know about us.


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The internet really does destroy history

I posted recently on how the internet destroys history – and gratifyingly it seems I am not alone in my fears.

Thanks to Unbound reader Lucian Hudson for alerting me to this story from Australia, in which the National Library of Australia warns of a “cultural black hole” for future historians if web material is not archived properly.

It’s a slightly different slant – the Library notes that web material simply isn’t archived, and the fact that so much of our cultural expression is put online instead of on paper now means that much of this gets lost.

Library manager of web archiving, Paul Koerbin, said that with everything from government documents to personal photos and video clips now being published exclusively online, the transient, dynamic nature of the web meant that much of this information would be lost over time.
“There is a serious issue regarding the loss of our digital cultural heritage,” he said.
“We are losing history … the fact is there will be ‘black holes’ that future researchers will have to deal with.”

The story is a follow-up to comments from Lynne Brindley, head of the British Library, who commented on this in January (OK, so I’m not as ahead of the curve as I thought – I just missed this at the time.)

If websites continue to disappear in the same way as those on President Bush and the Sydney Olympics – perhaps exacerbated by the current economic climate that is killing companies – the memory of the nation disappears too. Historians and citizens of the future will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century.

The web [and other digital collaborative media] is fabulous for  interaction and networking – building up networks and sharing  information [or trivia, often]. But it’s less good for maintaining  archives of data. Digital information is the most  fragile of all. We think it lasts forever – but actually it has a very  short shelf life. All you need is for someone to stop paying their web  host and a lovingly developed archive of useful niche information can  vanish into the ether as if it never existed.

Even if it is backed up onto some other digital medium, it is very  likely that over time that becomes obsolete – Zip drives? Optical disks? In just a few years if you don’t keep updating your hardware, software  drivers and operating system all together, you end up with legacy  material that is completely inaccessible.

This happened to me with a short film I made in Director 1.0. Now I can’t find the software to play it – later versions of Director are too advanced.

In comparison, as a storage medium, paper  is ideal – it lasts for centuries if handled right. And all you need do to access it is turn the pages. [I do vaguely remember reading that the British Library is  now having to maintain a range of computer systems to access digital information in its various forms – though I can’t remember where I read  that, if it’s true].  

Ironically, of course, digitisation makes fragile ancient artefacts available to researchers in a way that was impossible before. The British Library has just digitised its collection of 17th and 18th century newspapers, bringing them truly into the wider public domain for the first time. But the newspapers themselves lasted more than 200 years – not something I anticipate the digital records doing necessarily.

The main problem is that everyone [me included to come extent] has  confused the one with the other. The internet is seen as a repository of  information that supersedes paper – rather than complementing it. And of  course, that’s because it is cheaper, easier and takes up less space.

All very interesting. I think digital media are fabulous in terms of  democratising access to publishing. *Anyone* can be a publisher now. But  it’s not so great in terms of assigning value to information and  archiving it.


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How the internet destroys history

I’ve just finished reading Travels In Nihilon, a satirical 1971 novel by Alan (Angry Young Man) Sillitoe, who also wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Runner.

He’s not that popular now, and, of the three, probably no one will have heard of the first (though I’m sure Loneliness was a set book at school back in the 1970s). 

It’s a quirky read (five writers visit the anarchistic country of Nihilon to write a guidebook and end up precipitating a war and a coup), but given its age, it can be difficult to see exactly what the target of the satire is – even for an old crock like me who was around at the time. There is a quick reference to Nihilon being Britain, but is it a satire on the national character? The government of the time? The end of flower power? I have no idea.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just pop along to the internet and find a Sillitoe web site or a blog about it. After all – the internet has everything.

Not so, gentle reader! For the internet actually has a very limited range of everything on it. 

About the only comment specifically about the novel was an enthusiastic if undeveloped review on Amazon. And while there were some bio pages on Alan Sillitoe on the web, they clearly don’t reckon much to Travels In Nihilon, as it barely features.

Pick a novel, or film, or play from the past decade and things change completely of course. There’s sure to be material about them online because:

  • Their creator will probably be web-savvy and will have some kind of internet presence or, failing that, their publisher or producer will. 
  • Whatever media notice their work has garnered will also be on the web, as sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s is when the mainstream began to go online. [NB Update: I’ve since discovered that newspapers staked their claim on the web earlier than I had thought – but this timeframe is roughly accurate for mainstream UK media I think].

Go back 20 years or more and all that goes. There will be a wealth of reviews and commentary from the early 1970s about Travels In Nihilon, but they’ll be buried in Colindale Newspaper Library (which is well worth a visit by the way, for those who can get there). Or there will be academic criticism on Sillitoe, which will involve actually, you know, finding and reading a real book.

It’s not that there is no history on the web – but what is covered will depend on how significant it is (there’ll be lots on the Second World War and Shakespeare, for instance), or how recent it is (loads on everything that’s happened, no matter how trivial, from the past decade).

Look for more obscure or local history – or literature – from before 1995 and you’re scuppered.

As an example, a friend of mine asked me to research an air crash in London in the early 1950s, in which the pilot, who had been engaged to her mother, was killed. It turns out the crash happened in Mill Hill, where I grew up, and was, understandably, a big news story locally in October 1950.

The headline from the Hendon and Finchley Times was: 

28 die in Mill Hill garden

Local residents’ narrow escapes in borough’s biggest air disaster

Wow. Today, that would have made national broadcast and print media news – and been everywhere on the web. Back then – well, it had a splash in the local paper and I think the enquiry was reported in the Times.

Of course, they’d just been though the War, so they had probably had enough of disaster news. But the event has almost entirely disappeared from the national consciousness. If you want proof, look on the web and try to find it. I bet you can’t (except here, now, of course). 

One response is that the information has not disappeared – it’s just available in a different, paper, form. But actually, as far as today’s media is concerned, that’s as good as saying it has been destroyed. Because we in the media simply don’t do that kind of real, paper-based research anymore. 

Not all publishing companies bothered having a physical library of its output and of other publications, but those that did have been busily making them redundant over the past few years. Haymarket is one I know of. It’s understandable as a business decision – a library takes up space and costs salaries to maintain. It’s a no-brainer to move your content online and let people access the great sluice of the internet for that and the rest of the world’s knowledge. 

But it has its downside. Not least of which is how easy it is to lose your online content (as I have noted before). Not to mention the lack of old-but-not-quite-ancient content from the web. 

It means that suddenly journalists have developed a completely truncated view of history. No one has the time or inclination to research pieces beyond a quick Google search, which means that our collective knowledge has become drastically impoverished. 

I’m guilty too. Last week I was researching some content for a Dorling Kindersley business book (1,000 CEOs! Reserve your copy for Christmas!). I was writing a short profile on BBC director-general Mark Thompson and wanted to find the text of the speech he gave in 1997 that was regarded as his big break in TV management. 

There were references to it, sure. From the Independent online in 2002 comes:  

His crucial lucky moment came at the 1997 Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, when he stepped in at the last minute to make a speech. He spoke passionately about what the BBC meant to him, of how its programmes were crafted with pride “like home-made, carefully prepared food”. Greg Dyke, then chief executive of Pearson Television, was there and met Thompson for the first time that day. The two hit it off and once he became director-general of the BBC, Dyke promoted him to head of television.

But could I find an actual transcript from the event? No chance. And the reason is in that date: 1997. Just before media content started going online as a matter of course.

It’s not that I want to go back to the dark ages before the Wikipedia. God, no. My life has been made immeasurably easier by the web, and allowed me to do work from the comfort of my sofa that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. 

But I do find it disturbing that there is a whole chunk of history that is not only inaccessible to the modern media and has been forgotten, but that it is as if it has never existed. 

Big Brother? George Orwell would have been so proud…

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