May 13

This much trivia I now know about writing a book (and some apologies)

I have in recent months been writing a book (yes, it’s about journalism, it’s out in September and you can pre-order) and the experience taught me a lot. I also have a few apologies to make. Here are a few lessons and mea culpas.

  • Graham Greene said that writers must have a splinter of ice in their heart. I think he meant this in the strictly literary sense of a writer always having the detachment to remember a scene of passion or misery for later use. I have discovered that anyone writing a book has to be selfish for months on end, excluding most other distractions and duties. Without this ruthlessness, the writing of a book stretches into years and decades. As it is, my wife thinks it may never end. Apologies to all the people, emails and obligations I have dealt with slowly or not at all.
  • Despite writing on the screen, I think I may have consumed my own weight in plain A4 paper. With the number of words in a book, there comes a moment where you have to feel it on paper to be able to grasp where everything is and how it reads. This may be terribly old-fashioned, but I still find it easier to correct my own writing in hard copy. Then you find yourself doing it again and again as a new version needs combing and fine-tuning. Here I say sorry to a lot of trees.
  • What is about writing which creates a craving for biscuits? I was fairly restrained about the amount of coffee I drank and I did not once, not ever, give way to the temptation to eat jammy rings. But I did eat quite a few other biscuits.
  • Human beings are hard-wired to ignore their own experience. I know that I write quickest when I prepare what I’m going to write and prepare it carefully. But I have been trained by experience to write fast if needed. Several times I sat down at the keyboard to make a fast, charging start on a chapter. If I hadn’t figured it out carefully, I lost momentum almost immediately. I have known this for a long time, yet I blithely forget it.
  • This was a long, cold winter to be writing and I discovered that your lower half gets colder than your upper half. Your arms and shoulders aren’t doing much exercise when writing, but they’re moving more than your legs; I guess that explains the temperature difference. At one point I was considering long johns. Do professional writers wear them or perhaps tights under their trousers?
  • If I wrote books all the time, I suspect I might become a vegetarian. My solitary lunches contained less and less meat as the weeks went on. Unless this was because I was subconsciously afraid I would fall asleep in the afternoon, I cannot explain this trend to meatlessness.
  • A non-fiction book writer needs a large floor. By the end I had stacks of paper and books covering a space large enough for two double beds.
  • The last paragraph you wrote at the end of the day before always turns out to be rubbish. Sometimes more than needs surgery, but often just that single last paragraph. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know.

PS: The book’s called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age and I’ll tell you more about it soon.

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Apr 13

This blog is back – swift catchup on the post-Leveson dog’s breakfast

I know that this week’s media debate is going to be all about the pros and cons of real-time news sharing in fast-moving crises like the Boston marathon bombings and subsequent shootouts, but this blog has a little catching up to do. While I have been writing a book, the government, Houses of Lord and Commons and the Hacked Off campaign have managed to make a gigantic dog’s breakfast of the follow-up to the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking.

This was pretty much the only subject on which I published during the long winter, so I’ll start by rounding up that stuff. It’s hardly surprising that inventive lawyers intent on intimidation are using Leveson’s recommendations to try to silence newspaper reporting or that the Metropolitan Police, who had a grimly embarrassing time in front of Leveson, are being cautious and unhelpful. What has surprised me is the depth of the legal and political doo-doo into which the government has stepped. In a hurry to get the Leveson Inquiry dealt with before the 2015 election season opens next year, the government tied itself in knots which may take years to unravel. The Royal Charter deal on a new press regulator was a rushed botch.

The largest single dilemma which Leveson plonked in the government’s lap is defining “the press”. Leveson was so heavily preoccupied by the issue of the misuse of power accumulated by the major newspaper groups, that he did not treat this as a central issue. He should have: defining who is to be covered by law or regulation dealing with news publishing is a basic issue in an era when “the press” doesn’t really exist any more. I argue in a TLS review (£) of Leveson and a report from the Columbia Journalism School on “post-industrial journalism” that the Leveson report’s worst flaw was that it was so backward-looking.

Thrashing round trying to define internet sites and blogs which are “news-related” and suchlike won’t work for anyone except lawyers who can spend happy years in court fighting over definitions. In this BBC explainer there is a nice little film by Newsnight’s David Grossman trying to explain the new law as it relates to online publishers. The Department of Culture Media and Sport have produced a colourful new diagram to help publishers work out if they’re covered by the new law. Here’s Patrick Smith of MediaBriefing picking holes.

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Apr 12

Local newspapers: sentiment, logic and the experiments of the future

Johnston Press’s new boss Ashley Highfield set off a row which will erupt again and again in the coming years when he announced that the company is turning some its daily local papers into weeklies. Local papers are so long-standing and (mostly) loved that we find clear thinking very hard.

There is no general, worldwide “crisis” of journalism or even of newspapers. Newspapers are declining in North America and Europe but not in South America; they’re doing fine in Asia (numbers here). There are countries where journalists are badly treated and physically under threat, but that’s not new. The convulsions of the phone-hacking scandal are so far confined to Britain.

There is a crisis affecting journalism in the US and Europe, but it is worth being clear-eyed about exactly what it is. It is the ruin of the business model for printed daily papers in which news is cross-subsidised by advertising income which is leveraged on circulation numbers. That way of doing things is in trouble. That decline in circulation and income is a deep, long trend.

The lines on the graphs have been drifting down for years. As one of the analysts at the Enders consultancy pointed out (£) in the wake of Johnston Press cutbacks, the circulations of local papers have been going down for 40 years: this is nothing surprising or new. A graph of the total aggregate circulations of all British national papers across the whole of the 20th century shows that the combined sales peak for all of those papers was in the 1940s (see slide 5 here). The internet may have made the headaches of newspaper publishers much worse, but the rot started well before the web was ever thought of. Finding a new way of financing news matters even more than phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

One of the most basic foundation ideas of the newspaper was its separation from the state. Free news media choose to live out in the cold of open economies. When the society, economy or technology changes, the media must change. Digital communications alters all three and turns a lot upside down. Information doesn’t require capital to move; news no longer goes one-to-many but one-to-one; printing isn’t required. And so on. The history of news reveals endless experimentation amid chaos and fast-changing conditions. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that news media in Europe and America enjoyed a stable, institutionalised era which gave journalists the impression that secure employment in large organisations was the norm. Historically, it isn’t.

There was a piece last weekend in the Sunday Times magazine (£) which captured the paradox of much gloomy pessimism about newspapers sitting side by side with experimentation. The paper’s writer Tim Rayment assembled many grim statistics recording the falls in circulation, jobs and reach. To illustrate the problems he had gone back to Cleethorpes, the north-eastern town in which he had been a cub reporter. The local paper was having a tough time, to be sure. But Cleethorpes has a new fledgling weekly paper challenging the incumbent and a local news blogger, who annoys and provokes the powers that be in the town. So the risk of decline was there – but so were the seeds of future change. Something is lost in the transition chaos. But new energy is released as well.

Update 23.4.12: (lengthy) defence of the value of local papers via a survey of what the major British owners are up to by the knowledgeable Liz Gerard and interview with me about pressures on local papers on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House yesterday (item starts 32 minutes in).





Oct 11

Julian Assange’s odd autobiography

Here’s my review in the Times Literary Supplement of Julian Assange’s recent autobiography, an odd but fascinating book. It may be that the passions once stirred by any non-reverential mention of the Wikileaks founder have died down. But I fear that the man who once, enraged by something I had written about his hero, called me a “supercilious weasel” may start up again.


Feb 11

Wikileaks and Assange: two books

I’ve reviewed the first two books of what will be a literary cascade on Wikileaks in today’s Times (£): the account of Julian Assange’s collaboration with The Guardian by David Leigh and Luke Harding and the inside account from Daniel Domscheit-Berg of his time as Assange’s lieutenant.

The former is largely devoted to the clinching and subsequent collapse of the cooperation between Assange and The Guardian. Domscheit-Berg’s book, driven mostly by pique, is a lengthy complaint about Assange’s dictatorial methods. Both books include useful background on the early origins of Wikileaks. Both books underline that Wikileaks is Julian Assange, no more and no less.

I have discovered that writing blogposts (or reviews) about Julian Assange puts you in the line of fire from his passionate devotees if not from Assange himself. I’ve already been called a “supercilious weasel” and there’s probably worse to come. So if you’re new to this blog you’ll find earlier posts by entering “Assange” in the search box to the right of this post, including my reflections on his two appearances at City University last year. The first of those, much the more intriguing of the two, was before the major leaks of 2010 began.

A few offcuts from the books that couldn’t be squeezed into the review: Continue reading →


Sep 10

Fast Food News

Kept forgetting to post a link to this presentation I did at a WAN-IFRA conference in London this month (same one as Arthur Sulzberger spoke at). I was asked to speak about “fast food news” and had been invited before the iPad appeared on the scene and entirely changed the how people think about wireless, tablets and the mobile internet. So, despite the title, I ended up as I usually do talking about the journalism, the world, the universe and everything. If the slides don’t make sense, there’s a editorsweblog summary here.

The one-sentence takeaway? The more information people have available the more often, the more they will eventually rely on filters, meta-information and (whisper it) editors.


Jul 10

Serendipity, Shirky and Alan Jacobs

A commonly heard objection to the internet is that serendipitous browsing doesn’t happen as it did with print. People only read what they know to look for and their knowledge and outlook is therefore narrower than in earlier eras.

I can see the risk and I haven’t done any systematic research, but I can only say from anecdotal experience that the “narrowing perspective” theory hits two problems. When you are surfing the net, you can move forwards, backwards and sideways in knowledge at a speed that isn’t possible in print. While some people think that this increases the risk that long texts are not read enough, more knowledge is available more quickly to more people.

Second, I don’t proceed through web-borne information in a straight line and nor do most people I know. We zig-zag, get distracted, follow threads, loops and links down paths we never knew existed. In other words, the web has its own version of serendipity; it’s just a different one.

This is a verbose introduction to a fine review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus by Alan Jacobs which I found in just such a serendipitous wander. (New readers on Shirky’s book start here or here.) Note Jacobs’ use – don’t know if it’s his coinage or not – of the splendid term “hive-mind”.


Jul 10

Taking a (little) brick out of the paywall

The past few days brought not one but two collisions with the paywall at The Times (for the first of these see post immediately below). On Saturday, the paper printed a short review they’d commissioned of Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus in the Weekend Review section.

Shirky is the subject of occasional mentions and links in this blog and I’d have liked to link to my review. I can provide it here but of course you have to subscribe to The Times to read it. As an experiment, I’ve pasted the text I filed to The Times at the foot of this post. You can read it for free as long as The Times doesn’t object.

Let’s be clear why I doing this test. I’m not against charging for editorial content, just as I’m not against paying cash for a printed paper. Copyright belongs to the paper since the review was commissioned and submitted normally.

I’m trying to underline two connected points about paywalls. The Times (disclosure: I worked for the paper until last year) now operates what I call an “extreme paywall”: the charge applies to everything except the front page. Behind the barrier sit millions of fragments of information, ranging from the important to the specialist to the insignificant. A newspaper website is simultaneously a rolling news site  and a huge data mountain, an encyclopaedia of current affairs, frequently updated.

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