A couple of interviews done for BBC Radio Northampton’s Helen Blaby programme
A couple of posts done for the University of Northampton as part of its new social media marketing campaign
Ten years on from the London suicide bombings of 7th of July 2005, I’m struck by how different the news landscape was then.
Today people have been posting their memories of the attacks on social media, back then it didn’t really exist. Today people have been posting images of their journeys to work, back then newsrooms weren’t set-up for UGC. Today people have access to mobile digital news wherever they want it, back then they were reliant on the radio or going into shops to watch rolling TV news channels.
My own memories of the day are still sharp.
I was Deputy Editor of the ITV News Channel at the time and, after having been out the night before celebrating the awarding of the 2012 Olympics to London, I was on a day off. Having slept in I flicked on the news, just in time to hear Emily Reuben report that a bomb had gone off on a bus in Tavistock Square. Seconds later my phone rang with a colleague calling me into work.
Public transport was down so I drove as far as I could, eventually abandoning my car at London Bridge station and jogging the rest of the way. I had to stop at a suit shop on Gray’s Inn Road and buy a new shirt.
By the time I made it into the office the newsroom was in full swing. ITV had opted into the News Channel and the longest ever open-ended coverage of a news event in ITN’s history was under way. Colleagues from the regions were being brought in from outside London, as were the satellite trucks and newsgathering equipment to support them. Craig Oliver, then head of output at ITV News, was running the live coverage that was comprehensive and smart. You can see a taste of it above in a short section of the final retrospective programme broadcast on the channel.
These days news organisations are more sensitive about the potential trauma to staff covering a big attack than they were then. They take more seriously the impact on teams in the field and in the newsroom. But that was the first time I’d ever seen a senior colleague in tears as they tried to cover a story.
This was the kind of event that 24 hour news channels were set-up to report. And it was, in my opinion, the ITV News Channel’s finest hour. It was a minnow compared to Sky News or the BBC but it punched above its weight that day. A few months later I put together the award entry for the Royal Television Society journalism awards and I was again humbled by the professionalism of the teams both in the studio and on the ground, trying to explain one of the biggest stories of their careers as it happened around them. The channel’s coverage that day was nominated in the News Event category, I’m biased but I still think it deserved to win.
So, how did 7/7 change things? The first and most obvious way is that it was the dawn of the UGC era. It was the first time that mobile footage of a news event was brought into a newsroom and used in coverage in any significant way. ITN was off the pace digitally and had neither the capacity to receive or transmit it easily. We were unprepared for the deluge of content that was being offered and those with video from early phone cameras had to bring it into the office in person so the engineers could try to extract it and upload it to the system.
It also changed how TV news organisations thought about newsgathering. ITV News was beaten to air with pictures of some of the events because it was still thinking about newsgathering for bulletins. After 7/7 newsgathering had to be geared up for instantaneous transmission of content – 10 years later we think of that as mobile journalism and the ability to go live on a story from anywhere at any time via your phone. It was 7/7 that started news organisations on that journey.
Finally, while it was the high water mark of the ITV News Channel, looking back it was the moment that the long, slow but inexorable decline in 24 news channels began. As news organisations woke up to the potential for live coverage of breaking news using digital technologies, so the news channels have begun to look increasingly anachronistic. Six months after the 7/7 attacks the ITV News Channel was closed down. One of the reasons given to staff at the time was that in the future all news would be digitally delivered by broadband. We’re living in the future now.
Some of the country’s leading journalism academics have contributed to a new free e-book on the election.
Somehow I’ve also managed to bluff my way in too.
It’s a very interesting read and congratulations to Dan Jackson and Einar Thorsen from the University of Bournemouth on successfully publishing so quickly after the vote.
“How can I be a better writer?” is a favourite question of students, as is the more concerning complaint, “But no-one’s taught me how to write”.
Let’s start with the basics. You can learn to write. You can learn style. You can learn precision. Anyone who tells you different is wrong.
But here’s the thing; it’s all about you. You have to want to learn and you have to put lessons into practice. There isn’t a magic spell that will make you a better writer. Few people are natural, born writers. It is practice and the observance of a few rules.
There’s lots of web-based advice on how to be a novelist, or a journalist, or a copywriter, or any of the many professions where writing is a core skill. But for this, I’m going to assume that you just want tips on how to express yourself more clearly.
- Write. It’s a cliché but the first step to being a better writer is to practise. Start writing. Write a blog or a diary or, if you’re one of my students, do your assignments. Malcolm Gladwell told us that if you spend 10,000 hours doing anything you’ll become a world-class expert. How many hours have you spent writing? How much practice are you really getting? Write something every day and you will get better.
- Read. There’s no way to become a better writer unless you can recognise good writing. Read everything. Read classic literature, modern literature, biography, history and politics. Read newspapers. Read the internet, although perhaps not all at once. Draw inspiration from everything you read. Love language and when you find a writer whose style you like, read everything they’ve ever published. In this excellent video the BBC’s Alan Little recommends reading poetry too. I’ve always thought life too short for poetry but if it works for you, go for it.
- Learn to proof-read. When I worked for ITN and The Times I was often sent CVs by hopeful young journalists. I was amazed by the grammar and spelling errors in them. How could anyone who wanted to work in journalism make such simple and off-putting errors on an important document? The answer is proof-reading, or rather the lack of it.
When you’ve completed a first draft, print it out and read it back to yourself. Out loud. Use a book to cover the next line of text so your eye doesn’t wander. Then cross out all the mistakes. Recast sentences that are unwieldy. Look at each sentence and remove every word you can without altering the meaning
of the sentence. Most of us begin typing before we’ve really thought about what we want to say, when you’ve worked it out, rewrite the sentence.
In his excellent short autobiography On Writing, Stephen King recommends cutting every adverb, the words that end –ly. The idea is that if you’ve used one, you’ve weakened your sentence. If you write “The hero ran quickly” you’ve included unnecessary information, if you’re running you are moving quickly. It’s enough to write “The hero ran” or perhaps, “The hero sprinted”. The great American writer Mark Twain agreed and carried out a war of attrition on adjectives, saying:
“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
After reading all those badly written CVs I checked my own. Naturally, I found errors. We all need to proof.
- Learn the basics of grammar. If you were employing a bricklayer and they told you they didn’t know how to mix mortar, would you hire them? People who want to write have to know the basics of grammar. If you don’t know the difference between its and it’s, or when to use which or that, or the difference between “let’s eat Grandma” and “let’s eat, Grandma”, find out.
People are often afraid of grammar, fearing it’s full of pedantic rules they won’t understand. It isn’t. There are plenty of pedants; the type of people who insist you can’t split an infinitive. They’re wrong and those who say “to boldly go” should become “to go boldly” have an empty space where their souls should be. Don’t fear them; it’s just about ensuring your meaning is clear. There are some excellent and readable books that can help. Eats, shoots and leaves by Lynne Truss, Essential English for journalists by Harold Evans, and the classic Elements of style by Strunk & White are all short and informative.
And while you’re thinking about grammar also think about clichés. Avoid them like the plague. Especially if they’re as old as the hills. Try and find fresh ways to get your meaning across to the reader rather than relying on the stale thoughts of other people. John Rentoul’s The banned list and Rob Hutton’s Romps, tots and boffins will help you avoid the worst examples.
- Find a mentor. I didn’t learn to write at school or university. I didn’t learn to write as a regional journalist. I learnt to write between six and eight in the morning, weekdays, in the early part of the noughties. I was working as a journalist at ITN and every morning I would pick up the overnight scripts written for John Suchet’s programme on the ITV News Channel. Every day I would rewrite them. And every day John would come in and tell me, with great enthusiasm and razor sharp analysis, exactly what was wrong with them. After a couple of years I thought if I got one or two past him each day without his rewriting from scratch, I’d done well.
Now, not everyone can have a great TV writer dismantling their style and putting it back together again. But there are plenty of places to seek advice.
Read George Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English language. His six rules are still the basis of good style. The Telegraph’s Tom Chivers disagrees, particularly about the relative importance of active and passive voices (“The athlete threw the ball” vs “The ball was thrown by the athlete”). That’s fine. But Tom is a better writer than you and me, so he can do as he likes. You should write in the active voice.
Or there’s Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, or Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing, or Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing. You get the picture. And, as there’s no idea that hasn’t already been done better by Buzzfeed, look here for more advice from writers.
One final thought: be interested and be interesting. Readers will forgive any number of errors, provided what you’ve written speaks to them. So, have something to say and say it well.
One year into this blog, and that’s about 358 days longer than any previous blog I’ve attempted, here’s the top five performing posts of the last year.
The John Oliver post was the runaway winner, thanks to retweets by Andy Zaltzman and loyal Buglers around the world.
The online video comparison did well on Linkedin. I also tried reposting a few things on Linkedin but there didn’t seem to be much traction. More inspirational business leadership blogging required for cut through there.
With Google implementing HTTPS searches, search terms are no longer a hugely interesting resource using WordPress’s native analytics. But the most searched term of the last year was unquestionably Richard Zackheim, the new Deputy Editor of ITV News. Relatively little has been written about him so my short blog welcoming his appointment performs absurdly well on Google. Still, I’ll take the glory where I can get it…
Here’s a video I made showing how the gallery team work during a live news programme with some colleagues in the London office of Al Jazeera English.
I’m using it as a teaching tool for multimedia journalism and media production under-graduates. They tend to find it quite hard to understand the dynamic between producer, director and presenter – and spend a lot of time shouting as a result.
I think this has turned out quite well and I’m sure it will be a useful teaching tool. If you’re interested in using it for teaching it’s available as part of the open education resources from the University of Northampton – drop me a line if you want more information.