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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 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

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

The universal sub-editor

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A former colleague of mine had a sign above his desk that read: “The strongest emotion known to mankind is not love or hate: it is the need for one person to alter another person’s copy”. I’ve never doubted it, and I also recognise it in myself. Show me a bit of someone else’s journalism, and my mental blue pencil comes out. Even if it’s only to tut-tut about whether a full stop is inside or outside some quote marks.

Anyway the corollary to this truism about the latent sub-editor in all of us is the desire/need/imperative for people you write about to change whatever it is that you’ve written about them. If you give them the chance. And there’s the thing: throughout my working life as a journalist, I’ve taken the view that you don’t show copy to people before it’s published, because they’ll change it, and your journalism will subtly become their PR. The easiest way to do this is to have a hard and fast rule. “No, we don’t do that. Terribly sorry,” you reply when they ask you for a sight of the copy. And when they then say, as they will, that really all they’re doing is to ensure that nothing factually incorrect is published, you reply, with an insouciant toss of the head if you can manage it, that of course you don’t want inaccuracies either, so they’d better ensure they tell you only the truth.

Anyway, that’s been the policy, and while I was employed by people who paid my expenses, it was fine. There’s always a risk that someone will turn around and say: “Then we won’t talk to you” – but if they do, you walk away. It may waste your time and your employer’s expenses, but it’s the right thing to do. And because there’s a grey area as to whether they own the words that come out of their mouths or not (how the 1988 Copyright Act muddied the waters in this area!) it’s really not worth fighting. Because you’ll end up losing: if you compromise on a principle, then you’ve lost the principle.

As a freelance, though, it’s more problematic. If I trot halfway across the country to interview someone and they then turn around and say they want to see copy, I have to weigh up whether to waste my own time and money (and earning potential) or comply. Often, it can be fudged: you can see the quotes I’m using, and because I’m taping the interview there won’t be any words in them that you didn’t actually say,  but you can’t see the article as a whole. All right, it’s a bit of a cop-out, but if pressed I can live with it.

Except, of course, that that isn’t enough. Verbatim quotes that used to read, when you sent them, like something someone once said come back polished and “upgraded”, often now reading like something out of a sales brochure. The context – to show them where their quotes fit into the article as a whole, without showing them the whole article – gets completely rewritten. Nice people become nasty when given their quotes to check; confident people become mealie-mouthed; definite statements take on uncertainty; and, with engineers in particular, Large Numbers of Words suddenly acquire Capital Letters. (That last one’s easy to deal with: they don’t often own an English grammar book, I do.)

The answer, of course, is not to do it: publish and be damned. But my suspicion is that that is not now the norm, and particularly not the norm among those of us who don’t have the warm embrace of someone to sign our expenses for us, and I think it’s a shame.

Written by johnpullin

October 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Back to the blame culture

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I see that Lord Digby Jones, the Brummie chap who used to be head of the Confederation of British Industry and then got caught up being one of Gordon Brown’s “non-political ministers”, has been up on his hind-legs again talking about the poor image that manufacturing has in the UK. And one of the reasons he gives is that the press in the UK doesn’t report the good news, only the bad.

This really is a very lazy argument and I’m a bit depressed to find it still being peddled. It proceeds from several contentions which are all, I reckon, pretty dubious in their own right. I suspect it gets Jones a cheer whenever he gets up and says it. But that doesn’t make it accurate. Or, for someone with a degree of influence, the right kind of thing to be saying.

Let’s look at some of the “reasoning” inside this argument. Only reporting the bad news? Well, in the past week or so we’ve had, as perhaps an example, Tata Steel saying around 1500 jobs will go at Scunthorpe and on Teesside. Should that not be reported? What I noticed in the reports that I read on this story was that virtually every reporter made mention too of the recent “good news” of the Teesside steel complex coming back into production – and there were sensible comments too about the apparent fragility of the UK recovery and the difficulties countries such as the UK face in global markets for bulk commodities such as steel. Elsewhere, the Tata group has had some really good press for its Jaguar Land Rover business in the past week or so. Maybe Jones only read the bad news because that was what he wanted to see, but there was plenty of other stuff, and there was informed commentary too.

But there’s something else here too. In my mind, the job of the press is to report: accurately, fairly, comprehensively, and informedly… as far as possible. The job of the press is not to be a propaganda arm for UK plc, or for UK manufacturing plc versus some other branch of the economy. The press’s role is to provide information. I suspect Jones confuses journalism with public relations. And why should he know the difference? Well, if he’s going to attack one for not being the other, then I think he should learn before he opens his mouth. I’ve been highly critical of some reporting in the past year or so, mostly on account of factual accuracy and sloppy unquestioning acceptance of PR spin. But at least I think I know what I’m talking about.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I would really like to know whether Jones’s view, that manufacturing has a poor image in the UK, remains true. I’d be fairly convinced that it used to be so, but I’m much less sure now, particularly among younger people who know what’s what. For my generation (which is also Digby Jones’ generation)? Perhaps, but certainly not in the same way that we might have thought 20 years ago. I suspect a bigger problem is that manufacturing often isn’t thought about at all, rather than that it’s thought of badly. But that’s only my perception, and I’d be very cautious about standing up on my hind-legs and pontificating about it. Or blaming anyone for it.

And that’s the really depressing bit about this rather old-fashioned and outdated speech: its negativity and its keenness to blame. If you wanted to point to things that are wrong about UK business and industry, those two factors would be top of my list.

The tools of the trade

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I’ve had a lot of work to do in the past couple of weeks, which is why I haven’t been on here. Most of what I’ve been doing has been interviewing for a series of articles and in virtually every case, because I’m dealing with subjects where my understanding is limited, I’ve been recording the interviews.

This isn’t something I’ve much done in the past. Way back, I learned a kind of speed-writing-cum-shorthand which mostly works well enough in face-to-face interviews or at presentations. But interviewing on the phone is trickier because the other person can’t see, when there’s a pause at my end, that I’m actually still scribbling away, capturing the previous bon mot. So I’m recording. Then transcribing.

And how boring is that? Transcribing interviews has, I reckon, to be one of the worst jobs in journalism, as each interview takes at least five times as long to write up as it took in reality. Worst of all, though, in all of my interviews, there’s this droning bloke with a terrible voice, going on and on and on. It is, of course, my voice, and how I dislike it. And what it says. Waffly questions, repeating things, playing for time, filling in the gaps, trying to think of something sensible to ask while still talking… It’s all there and I can hear it. Just get on with it, I want to tell my disembodied voice; stop talking; now.

All of this is necessary, of course, because over my lifetime in journalism the rules of the interview game have subtly shifted. These days, people interviewed very often want to see what you’re quoting them as saying; in the past, they mainly seemed less bothered, and many were actually happy that you tidied up their quotes to make them sound more coherent than they really were. Now, paranoia rules and they want to see what you’re writing. And, of course, the basic rule of good journalism is that you shouldn’t let them.

Hence the recording devices. I can get away with saying no to people who want sight of copy by saying: “Look, I can’t put words into your mouth because I’m only going to use words you actually said.” Honour satisfied on both sides. But at what a cost: the cost of having to sit there, for hour after hour, reliving a conversation and listening to the drear sound of my own voice.

Written by johnpullin

April 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Deceptions that no longer pay

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I’ve been catching up on reading in the past 24 hours and a short blog post by the wise PR chap Richard Stone drew my attention to a survey from before Christmas that had escaped me. The survey was of industrial advertisers’ intentions in 2011 and it was done by BMON, which is the online marketing advice service run by Chris Rand, one of the most innovative people in business publishing in the past 20 years.

The gist of the survey is that the smart money for this year is on email marketing and Google AdWords, which isn’t any great surprise, and that advertising in paper-based magazines isn’t so much favoured any more, which is also not much of a surprise since many mags have gone through the hoops or down the pan – choose your own metaphor – over the past year or so. But even less favoured than straightforward advertising are advertorials, those pieces of delicately pernicious advertising copy that masquerade as editorial. Apparently no one much wants these any more. Hurrah for that.

What puzzles me, and appears to puzzle Chris Rand as well from a quote on the www.bmon.co.uk website, is how business publishers got themselves into the position where they ever thought advertorial was a way forward and an acceptable source of revenue. Greed, I suppose, and a contempt for the intelligence of the reader. I have no bother about public relations people doing their jobs and attempting to draw the attention of journalists and their readers to developments: that’s a useful facilitating service just so long as everyone understands that editors make the final decisions and that they do so on behalf of their readers. I have no bother either about advertising as such: it’s paid my wages for many years and it’s an upfront honest activity that makes no attempt to pretend it’s anything else.

By contrast, advertorials are an attempt to hoodwink the reader into believing that an editorial judgment has been applied when it hasn’t. They’re basically deception. But even more damagingly they undermine the trust between editor and reader that is at the heart of successful publications of all kinds. Advertorial taints not only that particular piece of copy, but the whole publication. Even, perhaps, the whole business of business publishing.

It’s the worst of these deceptions, but not the only one, though. Richard Stone notes in his short blog that requests from editorial departments for “colour separation charges” appear to be on the decline too, and he welcomes that. This is the practice of charging a notional sum, usually less than £100, to PR companies to pay, allegedly, for the costs of printing photos that accompany product press releases; lots and lots of publications have done this for years. Again, it’s a con, and a shabby one too. In reality, there’s no actual cost these days in the “colour separation” process and it’s just a means of getting underhand revenue from a part of the publication that the reader would assume is done entirely in good faith on the judgment of editors and journalists.

Anyway, I’m pleased to see that these practices are disappearing – less pleased, though, that they have almost certainly contributed to the overall decline of the publishing sector that I’ve worked in happily, and as far as possible honestly, for years. The decline has left many publishing companies in difficulty and it’s also removed, for readers, a whole raft of useful unbiased information collected and collated with some expertise on their behalf. Now where do you look for information you can trust among the myriad sources online and offline? Google AdWords perhaps?

Written by johnpullin

January 11, 2011 at 6:26 pm

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