Monday, 12 November 2007

Shome mistake, off-shorely

Ugly word, off-shoreing. But I like the sound of it.

In what the NUJ believes to be a first, News International is exporting much of the work done by 30 TV listings journalists to India.

It’s been happening to call-centre staff and others for some time; now it seems it is the turn of some sectors of journalism.

The work has been sub-contracted to PA, Press Gazette reports, which has two production centres in India, as well as one in the north of England.

Presumably this is not going to be an isolated event. Many more such moves are likely to follow. When I was at the Sunday Express, many subbing jobs were transferred to Preston, so it’s only one small step further to shift them abroad.

But here’s the question: Is this a threat, or an opportunity?

Obviously, if your job could be whisked from under you, it’s a threat. But that can’t happen with many journalistic jobs. The pool of those who can do high value reporting and editing, for an English-speaking audience, is severely limited.

Many currently UK-based journalists will fall into this highly-valued category. But while they need you – or someone of your calibre - to do your job, you often don’t need to do it in the UK.

So the smart move might be to off-shore yourself.

After all, for many journalists these days, where you are based is not important. Unless you have to regularly make face-to-face contact with the people you write about, or attend some form of proceedings routinely, you can work from pretty much anywhere, as along as there is broadband.

Last week I was in the south of France, training journalists for a company that decided, a few years ago, that it could base its web publications anywhere. So the founders decided where they’d like to live, and moved.

It certainly seemed a step up from cold grey November London as we sat outside a restaurant for lunch. At under 10 euros for two courses and a glass of wine, the meal was a damn sight better than what you’d get in your average office lunch spot in England.

Could all publishers up-sticks like this? Maybe not all – but plenty.

For many of us, the world really ought to be our lobster. There is really no reason why we can’t live and work somewhere warm, where the food is fantastic and the wine cheap, where it’s 10 minutes from the airport to the office, crime is low and property a fraction of UK prices.

Off-shoreing? Don’t mind if I do.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Pay, local rags, and trade mags

David Montgomery may have been wrong about the value of subs, but he was quite right when he said journalists in the regional press are grossly underpaid.

Speaking at a German embassy reception for journalists on the George Weidenfeld Anglo German exchange programme, he said wages on the UK’s local papers were appalling.

The evidence is clear. As an example, compare trainee journalists on regional papers with their compatriots on trade magazines.

On newspapers, trainees routinely start at around £15,000, and toil for a minimum of 18 months before taking their NCTJ National Certificate Examinations. If they pass - and only 50 or 60 per cent do, first time around - they get about £18,000.

On magazines, new recruits simply take a pre-entry course that can be as short as nine weeks. In their first job they can expect to be paid between £18,000 and £21,000. It could be more. They don’t have to take any further exams, as newspaper journalists do, and they aren’t classed as juniors for 18 months, as they would be on a local rag

So, which is the more attractive route into journalism? As the Americans might say: You do the math.

It would be understandable if the trade press entry route were the preferred choice of the most talented and ambitious young journalists. Trade press reporters are becoming increasingly successfully in climbing the greasy pole to what used to be called Fleet Street.

True, few young journalists – in mags or local papers – are motivated primarily by money. Just as well.

Those I meet who are on newspapers aren’t interested in the trade press. But, increasingly, many bright young entrants recognise that it can be as fascinating to get to know the intimate workings of an industry as it is to discover all that is happening in a town.

And, while a local paper can begin to equip you very effectively as a generalist, trade magazines can give you a head start in developing a specialism. And it is a specialism that will make you employable.

What our audiences will value is an expert’s analysis of the meaning of events – not just an outline of what has happened.

The young journalist who has taken the trade mag route will develop these skills far faster than the local rag cub reporter who spends 18 months grinding along the golden wedding, court, council committee, flower show route.

And, a couple of years down the line, they’ll already be at least £6,000 richer.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

What have the subs ever done for us?

David Montgomery has opened a debate in the pages of Press Gazette by questioning the usefulness of subs.

Press Gazette quotes him saying: “Never before has a journalist been able to reach out to their audience without intervention.”

Funnily enough, I remember being told exactly the same thing when I joined the Independent prior to its launch in October 1986.

In the early days, The Independent had no subs – part from one or two that wily department heads slipped through the net.

The reason given for avoiding them was very similar to what Montgomery, who these days is chief executive of European newspaper giant Mecom, argues now. It was that technology had made them, and their craft, unnecessary.

Monty says: “I see a situation where experienced journalists that can be trusted have no barrier to communication with their audience.

“Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check…Senior people will always monitor the content, a core group will create the product.”

I was deputy features editor in The Independent’s early days, and when I suggested subs were really rather useful, I was told that they were no longer necessary because of full page make up on computers called GT68s.

The Independent, which pioneered this technology in the UK, hired a group of bods called GT68 operators – largely from the regional press– whose job it was to draw up the pages electronically. Then, each writer could file their copy directly into the file that had been set up for them, press a button and bingo, job done.

It was said there was absolutely no need to sub the copy of highly intelligent, educated, experienced Independent writers.

That held for a few months, with those of us who were employed to commission also having to do a huge amount of unacknowledged copy subbing.

I can pinpoint the moment when things changed in features, and we were allowed to hire our first sub. It was during party conference season. The leader writer, having toiled with the Tories at Brighton (or it may been Blackpool) then went off to cover Labour at Blackpool (or it may have been Brighton).

I can’t remember now, and he couldn’t remember then.

He got the town wrong, in his opening sentence. The chiefs were incandescent. How could such a competent journalist have made such a fundamental mistake?

Less judgemental was the senior executive who had read and approved the leader before publication.

So, slowly but surely, we were allowed to hire subs.

The thing is, when your brilliant writer or your thrusting executive cocks up, you need someone to carry the can – and subs are really good at doing that.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Did Churchill have a spin-doctor?

If I wasn’t such a slow reader I’d have got through Alastair Campbell’s diaries months ago. So, apologies for coming to this a little late, but I’ve just read what Nicholas Soames told him about Churchill and spin doctoring.

As The Times has put it “Alastair Campbell came under great pressure during the Andrew Gilligan, BBC, Dr David Kelly fiasco. Just as he was feeling the strain, he got a supportive call from an unexpected source. Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP, called him and bellowed that the media were “total shits”. He continued: “Do you think my grandfather [Sir Winston Churchill] had a spin doctor? Course he f**king did”

What? Could this mean that all those great sound-bites from the summer of 1940: "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"... "we shall fight on the beaches" ... "this was their finest hour" ... "never was so much owed by so many to so few" were penned by some tame Rottweiler?

Actually, no, I don’t think it could. Following extensive research (I Googled it) I can say with cautious confidence that Churchill was his own spin doctor, and a supremely competent one at that.

John Ramsden’s Man of the Century tells the story of how Winston Churchill, in the last years of his life, carefully crafted his reputation for posterity, and reveals him as “the twentieth century's pioneering, and perhaps most gifted, spin doctor”.

John Sergeant, the BBC’s former chief political correspondent, has said “Who was the greatest spin doctor of the twentieth century? Churchill, I suppose, in Britain. And his greatest achievement in this field? Turning the appalling defeat at Dunkirk, into something else, if not a victory, at least into a kind of deliverance, for the British army. Yes, statesman spin.”

Indeed, the Churchill Centre (Patron one Lady Soames DBE, Sir Winston Churchill's youngest daughter) runs on its website an article by Dr Stephen Bungay, who says: “Oratory was the main instrument he used to maintain his shaky position in parliament, to solidify support in the nation, and to get the war fought. It was a very personal instrument, for he employed no speech writers. Churchill was his own spin doctor.”

Words were Churchill’s metier. He didn’t have to deal with any precursor of Paxman or Humphreys. As Michael Cockerell has pointed out “When BBC TV News began half a century ago, Winston Churchill was prime minister. The Old Man called television a "tuppenny ha'penny Punch and Judy show," and never gave an interview, claiming it had no part to play in the coverage of politics.”

If Churchill was a master of spin, it was spin through language, not media manipulation. But is the orator’s art dead in the modern world of politics?

No. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Clinton had a words man - a great writer - on the team.

When I was writing The word…and how to find it, I learned that Clinton had three equal directors in his presidential election campaign – one responsible for strategy, one for communications, and one for language.

David Kusnet was the director for language. Kusnet was hired, he says, because Clinton had read a book of his called Speaking American. Kusnet meant by this title that it was important to speak directly to the American people in language that they could not merely understand intellectually, but which would connect with them emotionally. Clinton measured the words of his campaign against this goal. He was following Ronald Reagan, another great master of the spoken word.

Kusnet has written : “When Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he called for ‘a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom’.

“Twelve years later in his acceptance speech, Democrat Bill Clinton invoked a similar set of values – ‘opportunity, responsibility, and community’ - that had been watchwords of his successful presidential campaign.

“Reagan and Clinton spoke in everyday language that evoked moral values, not public policies. They were elected and re-elected against opponents who tended to speak the language of government and politics, not normal life. Not surprisingly, ‘speaking American’ beats speaking Bureaucratese.”

This is not a skill you find all that evident among politicians. How many memorable phrases can you think of from current or recent leaders? We had one or two in the early Blair years – “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” - but I can’t think of any since.

Kusnet had three pieces of advice for Clinton that would stand any writer in good stead. They were:

“First, speak the language of everyday experience. If you're advocating an increase in the minimum wage or opposing a trade agreement that could cost American jobs, explain what it all means for a single mom struggling to support her kids on her paychecks.

“Second, ask yourself what values are at stake - and talk about those values. If you're supporting a living-wage ordinance, then the issue is the moral value the community places on hard work. If the issue is government contracts for companies that bust unions, then the discussion includes individual Americans' rights to free speech and freedom of association. And if it's exorbitant salaries or corrupt practices of corporate executives, then the issue is personal responsibility. Whatever the issue, an appeal to morality is more persuasive than one that's purely technical.

“Third, tell stories, parables really, that evoke people's sense of what is right and wrong.”

Can Brown and Cameron speak English, as Clinton and Reagan spoke American? Or do they need to get some writers onboard?