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All passed for press

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Last Saturday morning, on the kitchen table round at my house, my mate Andy and I signed off the 13 front news-style pages of the October issue of Environmental Engineering magazine. I’d produced the copy for those pages; he’d done the layouts and some judicious cutting and shaping; together we then made the pages fit, scrawled some headlines into the spaces allotted to them, wrote picture captions, nodded a few times, grumbled a bit and laughed a lot. And then Andy put the pages into the format from which a printer 200 miles west will be able to produce the printed magazine.

And that was that. My last press day. Probably. Someone else – a different old friend – is taking on responsibility for the back half of the October issue and will take on Environmental Engineering in its entirety from the next issue with Andy. Including the press days.

I’ve had the title “editor” on various magazines for just short of 30 years: about a dozen of those years on weeklies, a dozen or so on fortnightlies and the rest on something more infrequent. I reckon as an editor I’ve done around 900 press days – the days when you and your journalists have to stop faffing around and finally sit down to produce a magazine and sign it off. If you add in a dozen years before that, all of them spent on weeklies in varying positions of responsibility (or irresponsibility), I’ve done somewhere towards 1,500 press days. Signing off maybe the equivalent of 60,000 A4 pages or 36 million words.

I may do odd jobs as an editor over the next 40-odd years, but I’m now, finally, more of a jobbing freelance writer than an editor, happy to contribute wherever and whenever. And I’m not now, after last Saturday, in charge of getting the thing out of the door and, via the printer, on to the doormat of the reader. No more press days.

I’ll miss press day for the adrenaline rush that it still produces, the thought that your eyes are the last to see things and to be able to change things before they are committed to type and unalterable. My editing has spanned the technology changes from hot metal, galley proofs and the “magic” (which I never understood) of “subbing on the stone” with a compositor at your elbow – right through to today’s kitchen table publishing and web-ready copy. I’ll miss the constant technical challenge.

And I’ll miss the challenge of trying to make it as good and as right as you can inside the time constraints and, of course, the cost constraints. Journalism would be an easy job if you had no press deadlines and no budgetary restrictions: easy but shallow, and a big part of the press day smoke and mirrors is to make the published magazine appear effortless and unhurried – up-to-date but also somehow timeless. The best you can do, whatever the panic-strewn reality.

Most of all I’ll miss good people I’ve shared press days with – from Andy, with whom I’ve worked and had a few beers for 20+ years, and John Moore, the best sub I’ve ever known, right the way back to the 3.00am press nights at Eden Fisher in Southend with Hodge of The Engineer: George Hodgkinson, the white ash worms of his constant cigarettes withering in the ashtray, his RAF slang and wartime stories, and his ability to “fanooker” copy and pictures and flatplans into the required shape and format.

It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been a privilege to work with such people and learn from them.  But now it’s someone else’s turn. I’ll go on writing but I’m also going to do and learn something else. All my pages are passed: let the presses roll.

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Written by johnpullin

October 9, 2014 at 8:44 am

The source of my stress

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I’m pretty stressed out currently, and it’s not because we found my father, who would have been 95 today, dead in his shed in Devon three weeks ago. It’s because of some little shit of a solicitor in an office in the East Midlands who is steadfastly failing to do his job. So at the point where I should be worrying about my father’s funeral (in a couple of days’ time) and the duties of being an executor and how to fit long and frequent visits to Devon (via Stonehenge, see earlier blogs) into my work schedule, my angst has an altogether different focus.

To explain requires some background. A few months ago, I signed up for an MA course at Leicester University, starting at the end of this month. I’m not giving up the journalism that’s kept me in employment for 40-plus years, but I am consciously going to do less of it; by taking the MA over two years instead of the usual one year, I can wind down some commitments and continue to do others. It seemed a nice way forward: a taster of a potential new direction without leaving the safety of what I know and what I do. Everyone I’ve spoken to – family, friends, colleagues – thinks it’s a good plan.

(Actually, there was one exception to the universal approval for the scheme. My father, never knowingly reticent in his opinions, pronounced that it would be a total waste of time “just like it was last time when you were at university”. He had never forgiven me for doing history for my first degree when other family members had done “a proper subject”: maths.)

Anyway, the logistical difficulty of the Leicester plan is that the MA is a taught course, which means I need to be in Leicester for maybe up to half the week during term times. So we’re trying to buy a flat where I can stay and also work. And therein lies the problem. A flat was found, an offer made and accepted, and a target exchange and completion date for the end of August was set.

It’s now halfway through September, 11 days from my first Leicester assignation, and I’m still waiting. My own blameless solicitor is fine to go, the estate agent has been helpful, the vendor has responded fast to each and every request for information or a signature. But the vendor’s solicitor can’t be asked. It took four weeks for initial paperwork to reach my solicitor; it’s now three weeks since the last set of queries went back, and there’s been no movement. The vendor wants my money and I’m happy to give it to him; I want his flat and he’s happy to hand it over. But the process is stalled. This week, I’m told, the person dealing with the “case” (which is scarcely complex: I’m a cash buyer) has gone on holiday.

It’s long been known that the English process for buying property is daftly complex, and I’m sure my experience is commonplace. But what should have been an orderly process of setting myself up for a new student lifestyle, gently getting broadband sorted and transporting some of our spare furniture in, has become a source of immense stress: far more than anything that’s coincidentally happening in Devon. And for that, one apparently indolent and carefree solicitor is to blame.

Written by johnpullin

September 16, 2014 at 10:24 am

Posted in About me, Journalism

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The Swiss at the Commonwealth Games

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I’ll happily watch most sports on television, with the possible exceptions of darts and the circus tomfoolery that is wrestling. I’m a bit more discerning about what I’d pay good money for to go and see live, away from the comfort of my armchair, but I’m a pretty active watcher all told, with around 50 soccer matches a season and maybe half a dozen days at the cricket. Even the odd rugby match. And I got quite excited when the Olympics were in London a couple of years back.

The wall-to-wall blanket coverage on the main BBC channel of the current Commonwealth Games, however, is proving slightly too much of a good thing. I know it’s quite important, and if it was in London rather than Glasgow I might go along. But the Olympics it ain’t. And I wonder whether the BBC’s saturation coverage isn’t more to do with the fact that it’s lost most major sporting events to satellite channels than with the Games’ intrinsic merits. Also that it’s in Scotland, and the BBC doesn’t want to be blamed for losing England’s oldest colony in the September independence referendum.

Anyway, I’m not watching much of this coverage, but I do want to catch up on the highlights in the TV news. And therein lies a problem.

TV news coverage of sports events – soccer excepted – seems to me these days to be less and less about the sport and its news and more and more about the sports news presenters. Instead of showing us 60 seconds of cricket highlights, wickets falling, catches being held, exquisite cover drives and so forth, you get 30 seconds of that and then 30 seconds watching someone called Joe outside the ground give his opinion. Does Joe have devastating insight that justifies this? Or a commanding screen presence? No he does not.

Worse still is something I’m inclined to call “the Andy Swiss phenomenon”. Swiss is a sports presenter whose role seems to be, while great sporting events are happening in the background, to “pop up”, in the manner of a meerkat, to offer some anodyne fact-free guff about the event that he can’t see because he’s looking into the camera and you can’t see because the camera is focused on him.

It’s maybe unfair to blame it all on Andy Swiss: other presenters are now doing very similar. It looked, yesterday, in the background of the report on the Commonwealth Games marathon, that runners were falling over in the wet, but you couldn’t really tell because some presenter was standing in front of the action telling you it was raining and that she was getting wet.

This is rubbish: rubbish coverage of interesting sports events, and rubbish reporting in general. It’s the televisual equivalent of a selfie. It offers no information or insight, except to tell me that some TV news reporters have big ears and big egos, and some TV news editors have no clue about news values nor any regard for the intelligence of their viewers.

The job of a reporter, any reporter, is to hold a mirror up to the world; TV reporters can go one step further, and hold up a window for us to look through. This lot are too fond of holding up mirrors and showing us their own reflections in them.

Written by johnpullin

July 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Facebook and navel fluff

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I don’t really understand the fascination with Facebook. Its users, fine, I can handle. And I can see the utility of the concept: indeed, I have a barely-used Facebook account myself and a more-used presence in various other social media places. But the minutiae of the Facebook company and its founder and, particularly, its figures?

This morning we’ve got the reportage on yesterday’s news stories that Facebook had, for the first time, gone past 1 billion users in a month. And dire in some cases this reportage really is.

Consider this statement. “If Facebook was a country, it would be third biggest in the world after China and India…” Isn’t that just rubbish? Facebook isn’t a country; never has been, never will be. It has 1 billion users: don’t knock that, it’s obviously a bit of a milestone. But how many users does electricity have worldwide, how many people are in telephone directories, how many fridges are there? How many people benefit every month from healthcare and medicine?

Or look at it from another way. If breadline poverty was a country, it would be the biggest in the world, bigger than Facebook. If the number of people whose prospects have been screwed over by the banks was a country, it’d be the size of… you get the gist.

Facebook is a utility, like water, electricity, sanitation. It isn’t a coherent, defining grouping. And unlike those other utilities, if it disappeared overnight, people’s lives would go on. They’d get over it and so should we. Take away the others and we’d have big problems.

And by the way, if the number of people who woke up with navel fluff every morning was a country, it’d be the biggest one in the world. Bar none. Probably.

Written by johnpullin

October 5, 2012 at 8:53 am

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The internet-only option

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The Engineer, one of the longest continually-published technical magazines and newspapers in the world, has announced that its next printed issue will be its last. From then on, after 156 years, most of them as a weekly, it will be an on-line publication only.

I have to declare a vested interest here, in that The Engineer under the great editorship of John Mortimer gave me my first job in journalism nearly 40 years ago, and I was the magazine’s editor for a period of more than six years from the mid-1980s.

What we tried to do with The Engineer, and it’s a policy that has I think been successfully maintained by subsequent and current editors, was to put an intelligent construction on the business and technology news that comes out of engineering and industry. Sometimes we broke big and important news stories; more often we drew threads together, highlighted trends and pointed to ideas that might otherwise be missed by readers who were mostly busy people with limited access to news sources.

The internet changes all of this, of course. News sources are available to all and though there’s still a strong role for journalists and editors to investigate, interpret and inform, you don’t need to do it on expensive paper and then post it out to readers. Web versions of newspapers and magazines can do the same job more continuously and without the in-built cost burden of paper, printing, publishing and postage. Going web-only is an economic decision, and in difficult economic times it’s no surprise that many are taking it. Readers may complain that they lose the tactile portability of paper – rather too many of them, when pressed, have admitted in the past that they read my magazines on the loo. But the web version is not constrained by space or by time: you can have more of it and more frequently.

That’s what The Engineer is currently promising, and I have no reason to doubt its good faith. Indeed, the present website is very good indeed and shows what can be done

And yet… two important aspects of journalism that don’t get mentioned enough in my view in this context are deadlines and indelibility.

The daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly deadline forced us as journalists to get our thoughts in order, in a presentable format, in time. It’s in the nature of most news stories that you can make further phone calls, spend longer honing your prose, bring your story closer to perfection and to incontrovertibility. Deadlines teach you a discipline that you’re only as good as the stories you publish, not the stories that are in your head or your notebook. The web’s lack of deadlines is part of its appeal, but also part of its potential indiscipline.

Indelibility is a second factor. If you know that your name is going to be attached to an article and that what you write you won’t be able to amend or update, I think you take more care over it. If it’s rubbish, then it’s your rubbish and it will always be there, in print, as your rubbish. Ditto if it’s genius.

These two factors, deadlines and indelibility, are I think important components in the craft of journalism. They make good journalism slightly difficult and encourage personal responsibility, whereas the benefits of the web mostly seem to make journalism, or something that can be passed off as journalism, rather too easy. And that’s without going into the potential there is for PR to masquerade as journalism.

I see the trends that have made The Engineer and other respected magazines and newspapers take the route they have, and I wish them luck with it. Somewhere along the line, I’d have hoped that there would be a balance struck between paper and web journalism that might enable the benefits of both to be maintained. But maybe no such balance exists. And if that is so, then I’m pleased my working life has been mostly on paper.

Written by johnpullin

July 11, 2012 at 11:11 am

The unreliable email

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My very first email account was a Compuserve one and it went under the catchy name of 101324.2011, because in those days you got allocated an email address (and very grateful we all were, too, though I don’t remember ever receiving or sending many emails from it). My second email address was johnpullin@yahoo.com and I got that because (in those days) I was pretty quick off the mark when these things were made available and although there are quite a few folk around the globe with my name I was the one that got the simple format one. And so I’ve stuck with that one. It’s the email address I use for work and for domestic things and mostly it’s been fine.

Until recently. Now it’s not so good and seems to be getting worse.

Yahoo the company, if you’ve been at all following the financial press, has appeared to be on a downward spiral for a while, squeezed between the giants of search engines, operating systems and content providers. The decline is evident in different ways, and not universally. The Yahoo search engine still seems to work fine and you don’t get the feeling with it that someone is watching you, which I often think when I use other ones. The Yahoo news service has always been a bit strange and is now often gratingly right-wing and obsessed with video and celebrity and the Republicans: I wouldn’t ever have relied on it anyway. Often advertising seems to obscure whatever it is you’re looking for. And the email service?

Well yes, it’s still there, and, in terms of the layout and the ease of doing things inside the mailbox, it’s to my eyes better than the gmail and hotmail addresses I’ve also acquired (but barely used). But it’s getting irritating habits. Chat, which is a service I don’t want (does anyone?), pops up constantly although it shouldn’t as I’ve told it never ever to contact me. A lot of the tools you use in composing emails, such as fonts and typesizes, don’t seem to work any more, so the emails you send often look like a dog’s breakfast.

But the worst sin of all is unreliability. When you send an email, you expect it to arrive, but increasingly I’m told that emails from yahoo addresses automatically go to junkmail boxes, not in-boxes. Several mails I’ve sent recently simply haven’t been picked up because of this, and I know that “I never saw that email” is one of the commonest excuses, but that’s not the case with this. It’s very difficult to work with a system that does that to you: reliability of sending and receipt is the sine qua non of an email service. Yahoo used to have it. Now I’m not so sure.

So reluctantly, because it’s served me well and because it’s a nicely neat email address, I’m looking to move myself to somewhere more reliable over the summer. It’ll still be my address and for a while it’ll continue to be my main one. It’s a wrench, because over the years it’s been used for usernames and identifiers all across my web crawlings. Disentangling won’t happen overnight. But it’s time to move on.

Written by johnpullin

June 26, 2012 at 10:43 am

Posted in About me, Journalism

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Sorting the wheat from the chaff

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News gathering in an age of managed information isn’t easy, which is why the Leveson inquiry and the MPs’ investigation of News International have a tricky line to tread. In my slightly arcane end of the journalism business, it’s got harder and harder over the years to get straight information out of people, organisations and companies. So without condoning illegality, and with considerable misgivings about fuelling the apparent public appetite for sensation, I can see why corners get cut and technology is exploited by those for whom the job is to get stories.

In my area, which isn’t often controversial, obfuscation and obstruction are now often default modes in business and industry even to the simplest enquiry. I’ve always rather liked the line that the job of the editor is to sort the wheat from the chaff – and then to print the chaff. But there’s now so much artificial chaff-generation going on that finding any wheat is often more luck than judgement.

Let me give you three instances from the past 24 hours of how it works.

The latest of the three is that, in rather less than an hour around midday today, I received 21 press releases by email from BIS, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. A busy day at BIS? No, not particularly, as there was substantial duplication in the 21 and many of them were also notices that had been sent out at various times over the past week or so. Open them up, and, if you’re of journalistic bent, the first thing you’ll look for is the date: no one wants old news. But that’s precisely what these all were. There had been a batch of eight or nine yesterday morning at about dawn: all of these came again today. What this does, of course, is to make me suspicious: is there a press notice that BIS doesn’t really want us to see cunningly concealed within this smokescreen of activity?

Instance No 2 is an increasingly common response to me phoning someone to ask for information of an uncontroversial kind. No thanks, they say, you’ll want money from us and in any case we don’t let anyone write about us unless we approve what’s being written. I can protest my (fairly) impeccable journalistic credentials, stress the church-and-state separation of journalism from advertising that I’ve always practised, and tell them that I’m pretty much the proverbial gift-horse whose dentistry they’re inspecting. But often these days it’s to no avail. Control is the thing: more important to many people than opportunity. Two separate and different organisations turned down my offer of free publicity for themselves yesterday. Too dangerous, they said. (Unlikely ever to take the world by storm with that kind of attitude, I thought, though I didn’t say so.)

The third phenomenon here is an oddity in the information that gets released: it’s often not information at all. Go on to corporate or university or institutional websites looking for press info these days, and as often as not, you’ll find links to already-published stuff. Instead of putting out news information, these sites report on where they’ve been reported. So any “news” is secondhand; you can hear a clip of what their expert said on the radio, or read a cutting from someone else’s publication. But you can’t talk to them yourself or ask your own questions. Or get anything new. This, I suspect, is often a function of the fact that PR people measure success these days in terms of a spurious and pernicious measure of editorial coverage, in which editorial column inches are “priced” as if they were paid advertising. So “placing” stuff is more lucrative than just releasing stuff – even though any monetary value adduced from this is purely notional.

None of this makes waves in the same way that Leveson and the News International stuff does, and nor should it. But it is, to my mind, symptomatic of wider malaise in relations between press, public and puffery that these headline events are also but an aspect of. If, as I believe, good journalism of all kinds has a value, then the factors that are making it more and more difficult to do are not only of the journalists’ making. When everyone wants to control everything, nothing happens.

Written by johnpullin

May 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm

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