Introduction

Hello. You’ve probably got here by googling my name. I am a London journalist, at present a sub-editor on enterprise IT news website The Register.

You can read more about my professional doings on the “about” page.

I set this blog up as a student. All of what is written on here dates back to then, other than the about page. I keep the blog online so I retain control of the URL.

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Why local news is dying out: ad rates

Every day we see more depressing headlines about how local newspapers are dying out. More and more dailies are turning into weeklies, more and more weeklies are closing down, and more and more communities are being left without local news coverage.

Online news – my specialist topic since I started The West Londoner – is an easy market to tap into. Since the London riots, I’ve gained 10,000 social media followers and the website gets a modest 2,000 unique users a week. Nothing game-changing there. Fine, you might think, except to do what I do – reporting local news as impartially as possible – I need an income.

This isn’t working out at all. Not because I’m a pisspoor businessman, but simply because there just isn’t enough money for something like this to work.

Traditionally, online media has just two revenue streams; subscriptions and advertising. Although The Times is having a measure of success with its subscription paywall, there’s no way in hell that model would work for a local news site. Which takes us to the heart of my rant today, advertising.

Advertising is the traditional model for local newspapers in general. Pick up a copy of your local rag and out of (say) 50 pages, you’ll probably find 10 pages of content and 40 pages of advertisements.  However, online is a totally different story.

My main competitor for the West Londoner is Trinity Mirror Southern. Putting an advert on one of their titles’ websites will cost you the grand total of £45 per week. That also includes a print ad in five separate print products (two paid for, three freesheets). Good value for money, you say.

Yes – if you’re a local business looking for a cheap and cheerful way to attract custom.

Not so if you’re trying to make a profit and keep your business running, says I. After all, I’ve done the sums.

If I was to be competitive against Trinity Mirror Southern, let’s say I’m going to sell my ads at £35/week. For that I can only offer you exposure on a single website. I don’t have five newspapers to put your ad into for no extra charge, nor can I have that newspaper delivered to X thousand people. Even if I started my own weekly newspaper, I’d need thousands of pounds to print them every week. I’d need thousands more pounds to pay for it to be distributed around the local area. And I’d still face the problem of print readerships declining by 5% – 10% year on year.

No wonder I can’t attract advertising. I simply cannot compete with that offering.

Quite simply, from my point of view as a West London journalist, Trinity Mirror Southern have a very effective monopoly. Even fellow local news company Newsquest gave up offering printed local papers round here, leaving websites to be staffed by unpaid students.

Having done my sums based on beating Trinity Mirror’s offering, I reckon that even if I sold every single advertising slot physically available on The West Londoner, I would earn just shy of £500/month. Nobody can live off that sort of money. I’m not enough of a chav to live off benefits, and in any case (from what I understand of the benefits system) any money I earned from WL would be offset against any benefits income.

So, based on uncompetitive market conditions, I’m knocking it on the head with The West Londoner. It’s not viable and never will be while big media companies like Trinity Mirror keep their advertising rates at rock bottom.

The other big problem is rock bottom pricing of ads even at a national level. Taking out an online ad on the Daily Mail will cost you a whopping £150 per thousand page impressions. With national rates set at such ridiculously low levels (helped, no doubt, by the fact that the daily print edition of the Mail brings hundreds of thousands of pounds of revenue into DMGT), no wonder local papers are going to the wall.

The great irony is that current market regulation by the Office of Fair Trading is contributing to killing off even unviable journalism, as Northcliffe (local arm of the Daily Mail & General Trust) discovered when it tried selling some of its titles to the Kent Media Group. As a direct result of intervention in the market, people lost their jobs, so I have no idea what the answer is.

Ah well. I’m sure I’ll make a good PR rep or whatever it is I end up doing next.

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What I should have said!

I’ll start this post by apologising to City University’s journalism students, who turned up to a 6pm lecture expecting to find yours truly on a panel with 3 other experienced journalists talking about how to break into journalism.

Instead, I was stuck on the Circle Line thanks to a defective train somewhere between Baker Street and King’s Cross, or possibly beyond. I then proceeded to get so lost whilst walking from Angel Tube station to City University that I had to phone my girlfriend for Google maps directions. I was so madly out of the way that it took a good ten minutes for her to establish my location, never mind talk me onto my objective.

Anyway. I got to City an hour late, missed everything that the other panellists said, spoke for 3 minutes, totally failed to mention anything I wanted to mention, bored everyone, and then went home via the pub. This is what I actually meant to say…

Creating your own opportuniy in journalism in easier than ever. I built the West Londoner’s main website (http://thewestlondoner.wordpress.com) on WordPress as my CMS, with a Twitter account (@thewestlondoner) and a Facebook page (The West Londoner) slaved to it so they auto-posted updates from the main website. I used bit.ly to replace the built-in cross platform functionality of these services because the customisation options are far superior.

That said, anyone can work internet-based services to a basic degree. What I did was establish a personalised, human conversation with my readers. Any idiot can do NCTJ-style writing and pump out meaningless anodyne articles in the vague hope that someone might read them. What works better is actually asking your readers what they want to read about, and then giving it to them. I’m told this is called Market Research. I did a bit of it, and still have 10,000 followers to this day – sod conventional wisdom, I’ve found a formula that works and I’m damn well sticking to it. As I said in my 3 minutes at City – if you can’t find an opportunity, create your own.

Content is king. WL took off primarily because the content was fast, accurate and better than the rest. It helped massively that I’m passionate about reporting news (actual hard news, not celeb tittle-tattle or meaningless vox-pop laden guff) because when the going got hard, with the 14 hour days, I still had the motivation to keep on going. No matter what you write about, be passionate and let that passion shine through in your writing. If your passion happens to be unbiased and accurate local news, bingo, you’ve found a niche that nobody else will cover.

Money is also important. It’s all well and good writing, but if you can’t monetise what you do, you’re heading down a blind alley. I was lucky – after putting up a Paypal button and asking for donations to my post-riot beer fund, I ended up with £2,000. I need to talk to more people but I believe that the ad-supported model could work for a local news site/blog, but it’s something that needs more investigation. Certainly I don’t recommend relying purely on reader donations to keep operating, nice as it is!

Above all – keep your content fresh, relevant and decently targeted, use every means available to push that content out to potential readers, and make your readers aware that you are a human being, not just another keyboard monkey in an article factory somewhere.

What did all this achieve? I now have a big achivement on my CV and a few well placed contacts who, one day, might be able to offer me paid employment in return for generating large social media audiences for their own websites/concerns …… Give it a go yourself; you simply never know what headhunters at big media firms are looking for.

I would say more, but I’m dog tired and want to sleep. Tweet me @gazthejourno if you want to ask me stuff, or leave a comment here.

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The West Londoner

Very brief post. I am the editor of The West Londoner, the hit news site that had 1 million page views in one day. I’m shattered, but I’ve also updated the “Gaz elsewhere” page to include some of the coverage of our coverage, if that makes sense.

I’m still looking for a job! Managing editors, please have a look at the “Contact” page and drop me a line – I would be more than happy to work as an online journalist for your organisation and bring the hugely well-regarded standard of my coverage to you. I’m bursting with ideas to increase social media engagement with the news, and my track record so far speaks for itself!

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Journalism defined – in law

I came across this whilst reading Autonomous Mind’s interesting piece about BBC secrecy regarding complaints about climate change coverage.

"The law is an ass" - or not, maybe?

If you look at page 4 of the Scribd document with the email from the Information Commissioner, you’ll find part of the text of a Court of Appeal judgment which sets out a legal definition of journalism:

The Court of Appeal has also helpfully accepted a definition of what constitutes journalism that was introduced in the Information Tribunal. This definition was worded as follows:

“107. The first is the collecting or gathering, writing and verifying of materials for publication.

108. The second is editorial. This involves the exercise of judgement onissues such as:
* the selection, prioritisation and timing of matters for broadcast or  publication,
* the analysis of, and review of individual programmes,
* the provision of context and background to such programmes.

109. The third element is the maintenance and enhancement of thestandards and quality of journalism (particularly with respect toaccuracy, balance and completeness). This may involve the training and development of individual journalists, the mentoring of less experienced  journalists by more experienced colleagues, professional supervision and guidance, and reviews of the standards and quality of particular areas of programme making.”

Right at this moment I’m a little too busy to analyse this, what with my NCTJ Law exam being tomorrow, but when I’ve got a spare moment I’ll examine it in depth. Do share the link, and have a read of the report in full – it’s disappointing to see the BBC hiding behind a loosely-worded exemption.

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A byline!

Opinion piece by yours truly about tuition fees for the Uxbridge Gazette available on their website. Please comment over there!

In other news, I’m now applying for jobs. Lots of jobs. If any kind soul out there has any advice on getting into production editing/sub-editing, I’d be most grateful.

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Real reporting – theory meets practice

A couple of weeks ago I was putting the finishing touches to my final edition of Le Nurb, the Brunel University student rag. It was about half six in the evening when suddenly my phone went off. My MA course buddy Chris had left campus about ten minutes ago and had seen a road accident right outside. Was I interested?

Fifteen minutes and one breathless cycle ride later I was on the spot. The story itself wasn’t a biggie – someone using a traffic-light controlled crossing had been hit by a car, apparently after walking out on a green light – but this was the first time that I was on the spot of a breaking news event.

There were a couple of ambulances present along with a police van. Traffic was blocking back in both directions, and two fully-loaded buses were sitting patiently in the queue as well. Campus security were watching as the ambulance crew stabilised the casualty, who they were easing out from under the car.

Yours truly then started making like a journalist and Investigating the Scene…

Step 1: park the bike. This went instantly awry as one of the security goons came and started carping on about that particular bike rack being “for staff only”. I’m sure lots of academic staff are at work at 7pm.

Step 2: go take photos. Armed with my little point’n’click digicam, I went forth. A second security goon instantly went into angry-shouty mode, telling me to bugger off and have some consideration for the poor sap under the car. Privately, I sympathised, but hey – a good story needs a good picture, right?

Step 3: take pictures of anything that isn’t the casualty on the stretcher so as not to raise further ire from the security goons. Hence I got pics of the ambulance, the buses, the police car, the watching crowd, the security goons themselves … anything but the actual scene.

Step 4: interview witnesses. Everyone I approached either said they weren’t willing to be quoted or were already witnesses for the police. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the score is with interviewing police witnesses and prejudicing them, so I had to let the interviews slide.

Step 5: Get official quotes. I went to the campus security office and rang the bell. Security goon no.2 came to the window. There were no quotes to be had.

However, the Met Police press bureau were reasonably happy to provide a standard, if anodyne, quote, so I ended up sticking that in.

It’s quite different from making up answers to the formulaic NCTJ reporting exams. Dealing with irritated security personnel isn’t part of my MA course. Neither is convincing reluctant passers-by to give me an interview. And the NCTJ, in their wisdom, certainly don’t cover anything like these practical skills. Classroom-based theory is all good and well, but there’s nothing quite like exposing it to reality and seeing it go somewhat pear-shaped.

Ah well: you live and learn.

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Video for online – too much of a niche market?

‘Video for online’ is one of the NCTJ modules that my university’s chosen to make compulsory for us. Apart from giving us an excellent opportunity to bugger about with professional-level kit (just how far can you zoom in on someone’s nostril hairs before they notice?), I do think that, for non-broadcast hacks like yours truly, it’s a bit of a timewaster.

Lights, camera, nononomoveleftabit... - sea turtle, Flickr

Somewhere (and I can’t remember where!) I read earlier this week that local papers are ditching the idea of producing videos for their websites and sticking to the traditional photo and/or Google Maps mashup. The theory being, it’s better to be pounding your beat than it is to spend the entire day in the office producing a three minute video.

Given that local news isn’t taking up video, judging by the website of my local paper (the Uxbridge Gazette) and the quality papers like the Telegraph and the Guardian have made a very plain distinction between their written content and their multimedia content on their homepages, it seems that video just isn’t going to be the be-all and end-all that certain industry figures may have hoped for.

Before you accuse me of ignoring the TV sector, remember: I’m very much a print man at heart! In fact I quite like the sound of Jeremy Hunt’s announcements on the proposed new local TV channel – if only because it means more jobs – but I do question its commercial viability.

It goes a bit further than that, too: despite the popularity of the Kindle and Apple’s latest overpriced gimmick the iPad, and even in the face of declining newspaper circulation figures nationally, I just don’t think the written word will ever be less popular than the spoken or the pictorial.

After all, you’re reading this post…

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Local news reporting – no thanks

(note: this post was written some 36 hours before one of my NCTJ* exams. Therefore, my feelings towards the NCTJ and local news reporting in general are, at this moment in time, less than charitable)

When did you last pick up one of these? Courtesy of John Thirm, Flickr

Drudgery is something nobody wants to do for a career. I accept that, if you need the cash, you’ll put up with a lot. After all, having a roof over your head is infinitely preferable to a cardboard box. But in the context of journalism, I’m struggling to see why you’d put yourself in the firing line of local news.

Job prospects in journalism are at an all time low, with there being fully 1/3 fewer jobs now than there were ten years ago. This is not a healthy industry. Combine that with the spectre of employees at Newsquest mulling a nationwide strike, allied with plummeting circulation figures for hard copies and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

Set against this context of a collapsing industry is the local news sector. Now, you and I both know that local news operations are absolutely vital; as well as keeping locals up to date, the national media also rely heavily on them for generating their own stories. Unfortunately for local papers, falling circulation combined with papers that are often little more than advertising brochures with the occasional “missing dog” story tucked somewhere inside make them an ever less attractive prospect for the consumer. That, and you can normally find their biggest stories online for free – after all, how else do you expect the nationals to pick them up?

The long and the short of it is, there are precious few jobs available and for those that are going, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades (or have the NCTJ qualification, which amounts to the same thing). As well as the universal newsgathering  and reporting skills, you apparently need to be a media lawyer, a Westminster pundit, a local government expert (understandable) and be a web communications guru (social media, search engine optimisation, photography and video, etc) as well.

In my humble view, you simply cannot produce reportage and analysis if you’re constantly keeping up with all of these things. Take this report from the Harrow Observer on problems with new trains on the Metropolitan Line. It refers to them as “S-Class” (they’re actually called “S Stock”) and there’s no explanation of what a “sleet train” actually is (it’s a train fitted with special brushes that runs all night, when the Underground’s normally closed, and sweeps snow and ice off the rails).

Do I blame the hapless hack for these mistakes? Partly. On the one hand, fact-checking is every journalist’s personal responsibility, and it can’t help that the big newspaper companies are looking at moving their operations into regional “sub-editing hubs” despite the consequences. On the other hand, when you’re working alongside just five other people to fill a 56-page newspaper every single week, well, I can excuse some errors if you’re working under that kind of pressure. The simple fact, though, is that this sort of thing doesn’t do your reputation any good.

The Week, an organ I’ve singled out before on this blog, proves that educated and informed analysis is the future of journalism. Hard news is becoming an increasingly worthless commodity that’s instantly recycled and plagiarised by all of your competitors, removing the uniqueness of your scoops. In this market-driven era of journalism, no matter how good your local news reporting may be, if you can’t get a good price for it then there’s not much point in trying to make a living from selling it.

And so we come full circle – you’re slaving your guts out for below average in an increasingly hyper-competitive market. Your product’s suffering, you’re being worked harder and harder and expected to learn more and more skills that used to be the preserve of many others, and all the time everyone else is stealing your stuff.

Of course, the truth is probably miles away from this and my uninformed rant is just that, but hey, it was therapeutic and helped clear my mind for my law revision. 🙂

*The NCTJ is the National Council for the Training of Journalists. This mob run the very local-news-focused NCTJ Diploma, towards which I’m currently studying.

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Why the thought of court reporting terrifies me

I’m no coward. I’ve been on the wrong end of a deer hunt in Scotland

A typical Scottish mountain valley, courtesy of 1Sock on Flickr

(navigational errors on an Outward Bound course), had to cut short a visit to family due to a Tamil Tiger incursion in the neighbourhood (back when the LTTE were still an armed terrorist force) and, on the same visit, saw the flight I was due to leave the country on blown up by suicide bombers (on the ground at the terminal – thankfully very few people were injured) a few days before I was due to get on it. None of this shook me in the slightest. As it happens, I thought the Sri Lankan TV’s idea of broadcasting pictures of the bombers’ mangled corpses was a pretty neat idea. What does scare the bejesus out of me, though, is the thought of going into a court as a journalist.

All NCTJ students have to sit exams in media law as part of the course. Personally, I tihnk it’s a darn good idea that we’re made familiar with the relevant bits of the law before we’re let loose on some unsuspecting publication, although the lazy student in me does question why I have to learn all sorts of irrelevant crap by heart.

Gorden Kaye - alias Rene from 'Allo 'Allo

Why would a reporter need to know that Gorden Kaye, of Allo Allo fame, was accosted by two reporters while he was semi-conscious in hospital? This is what happens when you allow lawyers to start setting exams rather than just writing the questions … but I digress.

But what genuinely scares me is the number of impenetrably Byzantine laws surrounding the reporting of court cases. As a member of the public I used to glance over reports of ongoing trials and wonder why they almost always lacked interesting detail. Now, as a half-trained hack, I understand why these reports contain virtually no detail – and I hope to hell that I never end up having to cover something in court.

For starters, taking any kind of camera into court is illegal. To be precise, it constitutes a strict liability offence under Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925. This not only includes the courtroom, but the “precincts”

Taking photos in the car park of Loughborough Magistrates' Court could be illegal. Image via Phil McIver, Flickr.

of the court itself; apparently case law holds that this can even extend off the property of the court itself onto the pavements surrounding it and so on. This makes sense, inasmuch that witnesses do need protecting from excessive outside influences.

What doesn’t make sense is Section 9(1)(a) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which expressly forbids the bringing in “any tape recorder or other instrument for recording sound”. Why? What possible motive could there be for prohibiting the simplest method of recording court proceedings? It smacks of arbitrariness to me – and, conveniently, it also keeps shorthand writers in employment.

I could go on, and talk about the automatic reporting restrictions triggered by the arrest, or issue of a warrant of arrest for a suspect, or the charging of a suspect, or issue of a court summons. These restrictions make it a criminal offence to state anything other than a suspect’s name, age, occupation, address and the offence as written on the charge sheet. If you, the reporter, dare tell the public more than those dry and dusty facts, you are committing a strict liability offence punishable by prison, hefty fines or both.

But these are just the start; a court can impose anonymity orders at will, using the powers granted them by Section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This power gives judges carte blanche to prevent the reporting of … well, whatever they feel like, without let, hindrance or method of appeal at all. Judge thinks ‘such and such’ matter might be a bit embarrassing if it got out? No problem, bang a section 11 order on it and threaten to jail anyone who dares challenge you. Don’t pass ‘go’, don’t collect £200 – contempt of court is an instantly jailable offence.

Even worse is Section 47 of the Youth and Criminal Justice Act 1999, which not only allows judges to impose severe reporting restrictions, but even allows them to prohibit reporting of the fact that the restrictions themselves exist! Naturally, any breach of this sort of thing instantly lands the hapless hack with a hefty fine.

Mr Justice David Eady, who was criticised by Paul Dacre (editor of the Daily Mail) for his attempts to introduce a privacy law "by the back door".

It’s no wonder at all that the public have lost confidence in the court process, seeing as how these powers are regularly used. Judges, already unaccountable to anyone, can use these to manipulate what the media can report about the goings-on in their courts and effectively silence any coverage that they deem undesirable. Of course, there isn’t any central repository or restricted acccess website or similar where you can keep track of what restrictions are in force on a given case at any one time – you’re forced to keep attending the courtroom “just in case”, or else see yourself summarily banged up without a trial or appeal.

UK justice is broken – and this is before you look at the joke that is sentencing…

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