12
Dec 14

Nick Denton: a quotation to add to the collection

NDentonWLeitch_033110.jpgI think it is hallway of the Chicago Tribune building which is decorated by quotations on journalism and the freedom the press carved into the stone walls. Many are inspiring, most are sonorous and a few are pompous.

I have a new candidate for this collection. Its language is in the informal style of the 21st century rather than the more formal wording of earlier eras. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, wrote a 4,000-word memo to his staff this week brutally critical of both himself and some senior members of the groups’ staff (background here). This paragraph leapt at me:

“Editorial management’s mission for next year is simple. Here’s your budget. Break some stories. Expose the story behind that story. Say what others cannot or will not. Make us proud. This is the one of the greatest editorial openings of all time. Don’t fuck it up!”

Gawker has a claim to be the most successful online journalism start-up on the planet (despite the fact that some journalists don’t think it’s good journalism). What Denton’s rallying cry illustrates so well is that in the digital era much changes, but not everything does. Adjust the prose style and that paragraph could have been written or spoken by any galvanising editor of the past three centuries. It belongs on a wall somewhere.


01
Oct 14

The importance – for experiment – of not being embarrassed

catAs news media have to re-think much of what they do by experiment, popular media should be making use of one big, built-in advantage. They don’t embarrass easily.

Hidden away in this account of experiments at the Swedish mid-market tabloid Expressen is a clue. The paper’s head of mobile, Johann Hedenbro, was mostly busy talking to a MediaBriefing conference about the efforts they made to build their own version of Upworthy and how they are trying to make money from mobile users.

He makes the point that with small screens, it is more natural to split editorial material up into specialised streams. And he mentions, in passing, their “new, embarrassing site likeanimals.se”. The site is apparently so embarrassing that I can’t even find it either on my PC or phone (maybe I’m just not looking right: if you find it please tell me). Let’s assume it’s yet more pictures of cute and cuddly cats. And let’s also assume that Mr Hedenbro isn’t really embarrassed by it.

This says something about how experiment works. If you’re afraid of being laughed at for being trivial and not serious about journalism, you will limit your experiments. The quality of experiments lies partly in pushing them right out to the limits and sometimes beyond.

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21
Feb 14

David Hepworth’s blog, reasons to like

For the first time in a long while I’ve added a new line to the blogroll (scroll down on the right): one of several blogs written by David Hepworth, an experienced magazine editor and publisher.

DAVID HEPWORTH

I’ve never met Hepworth but I’ve been following his work for a long time. When I was editing the Saturday edition at The Times, the magazine Hepworth was then publishing, The Word, was the most enjoyable magazine I read in any month. It was irreverent, snappy, wise and funny. It covered movies, books, music and almost anything that babyboomers like to enjoy, watch, listen to or collect and it did so without ever implying that the readers were idiots who needed to be tricked into reading something. In short, it had a lovely, likeable editorial personality. Strictly speaking it was a music magazine, but it felt like something broader and more eclectic.

Being so good, of course The Word was a weak commercial proposition and folded. Like a fool, I never kept any copies. See here the kind of distress its closure caused.

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11
Jul 13

Two unconnected but inspired magazine covers (which by definition need no commentary)

timeegyptcoverbizweekcoverHat-tips to Gordon MacMillan and Jay Rosen respectively.


03
Jun 13

The ever-changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013

I’m in Thailand (at the World Editors Forum) and the news is full of protest all over the world: Bangkok itself, Turkey and in the unpredictable places where the ladies of Femen pop up and take off their clothes.

Protest needs innovation as much as any department of life and perhaps it needs it more than most because protest goes nowhere if it isn’t noticed and doesn’t spread. Innovation is deviation and new protesters must find new and original ways to imprint a message instantly in as many minds as possible, preferably without words. It must be an image delivered instantaneously because protest can be snuffed out fast and because there is anyway so much else competing for peoples’ attention. Compelling visual wit is harder than it appears.

The examples above represent a remarkable cluster of originality in this specialised global competition. In Turkey, they wave beercans to protest against new restrictions on alcolhol. Much better, a hundred or so people held a kiss protest at a subway station in Ankara to make fun of the increase in rules on public behaviour.

guyfawkesHere in Thailand, demonstrators have reached back into an example distant in both geography and time. Political movements in Thailand have long been signalled by colour (yellow vs red mostly) but yesterday, the anti-goverment crowd wore Guy Fawkes masks and the (equally peaceful) counter-demo wore red masks. Needless to say, young Thai activists have not been reading books about 17th century British history. They picked up the cue from the 2005 film V for Vendetta in which people march on the parliament in London wearing the masks. (The use of these masks isn’t confined to Thailand and didn’t start here – examples here – but looks especially odd so far from its origins).

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26
May 13

Three somethings for the weekend

When I began this blog in 2010, at weekends I would occasionally do a post on a few pieces I’d read that I liked, good journalism well-written (and often contra-suggestive). These posts consistently received the lowest hit rates of anything I wrote.

I guess the reason was that people read blogs less at weekends, the posts didn’t contain strong opinion and you have to click links to see what I’m talking about (and you impatient lot don’t seem to like doing that). But I’m going to go back to doing it occasionally. Despite the endless threnodies for the End of Journalism As We Know It, there’s a lot of very good writing out there; sometimes I want to explain why in more than the 140 characters of a tweet.

The more writing there is being done, the harder it is to catch the good stuff. The quantity of words in circulation has increased by a colossal order of magnitude; the day is exactly the same length as it always was. The depth and quality that is present in the writing generated by the internet’s indiscriminate output is the subject of this excellent essay in optimism by Robert Cottrell, founder of thebrowser.com, who reads and selects long-form writing so that you don’t have to. He has better qualifications to judge the true noise-to-signal ratio of writing on the internet in English than most.

  • First recommendation is a piece in the current Prospect magazine on Nigel Farage and Ukip by Edward Docx. Millions of words have poured into the media since Britain’s fourth political party scared the other three with a strong performance in recent local elections. This reportage and analysis is one of the most perceptive I’ve read, slicing through a lot of cluttered thinking. As a taster, this is Docx on British bullshit detectors and why Farage connects with voters in ways that neither the Conservative or Labour leaders can:

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13
Jan 12

Ed Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisis

I was going to write about the use of jokes in politics and how political reporters never cover the subject for fear of sounding trivial. But then jokes suddenly starting happening everywhere.

The leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, Ed Milliband, made one of those doomed “relaunch” speeches last week which no one outside the political industry much noticed. An interview that morning intended to set the stage for the speech went awry when Milliband found himself being asked if he was too ugly ever to be elected Prime Minister.

Milliband’s looks may or may not be a liability but he has bigger problems. He never seems to find anything funny and never makes any jokes anyone can remember and retell. Plenty of leading politicians are born without a sense of humour, but the smart ones have that corrected. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t naturally hilarious and had to have jokes explained to her. But she had a speechwriter (the theatre director Ronnie Millar) who was funny and who, as someone reminded me the other night, carried a small notebook everywhere in which he recorded lines that he could use.

Milliband shares this humour-deficit with the strange collection of people currently slugging it out (“mud-wrestling for dwarfs” one commentator called it) for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. John Dickerson of Slate reflects here the Great Republican Humour Crisis and on what the presence or absence of gags tells you about politicos. And his piece has jokes. My favourite is the self-deprecating story told by a now-forgotten man called Mo Udall. Canvassing, Udall walks into a barber’s shop and introduces himself as the local candidate who’s asking for their votes. “Yeah,” replies the barber, “We were just laughing about that.”

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09
Nov 11

Serendipity and Mr Kurkov

When I travel I read more serendipitously and randomly, wandering off the path I normally take through newspapers and magazines. And as I sat in trains and planes, I fell across this piece from the New York Times by Andrey Kurkov.

I sat up immediately because I had never before seen any journalism by Kurkov, who I know only as a novelist. He is Ukrainian and his debut novel Death and the Penguin deserves to be more widely celebrated as a small comic masterpiece. In the course of a short, spare novel about a man who makes friends with a penguin who has wandered out of an untended zoo, Kurkov manages to say more about the bleak reality of post-communist societies than a dozen textbooks. The tone is quirky and ironic; Kurkov belongs on the same literary shelf as Bulgakov. There are other novels: I recommend A Matter of Life and Death, which in the course of a meandering story about an obituary writer manages to speak powerfully about a corrupted state.

And so with his New York Times piece. The gentle irony and local detail are deceptive (“The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 brought great joy to my family”). His conclusions about law and public honesty apply well beyond his own country. Indeed they could apply to Italy, where I happened to be when I read it. The government was just falling in Rome.