Cristina Nicolotti Squires poached by Sky News

One of ITN’s most successful and creative executives, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, has announced she’s leaving to become Director of Content at Sky News.

It is a big job with responsibility for news and current affairs across multiple platforms.

And it is a big loss for ITN. Cristina is a formidable presence in the newsroom. Smart, resourceful and passionate about news, she will be a tough act to follow as Editor of Five News.

Like her predecessors  Chris Shaw, Deborah Turness and Geoff Hill, she’s used the editorship of the comparatively small-scale Five News as a springboard to bigger things.

She moves to Sky at a time of considerable change. Many of the old guard are moving on. Not just on-air talent such as Jeremy Thompson and Eammon Holmes but some of the most experienced backroom staff too.

Head of News, John Ryley, is clearly preparing for a future of on-demand digital news as well as a live streamed channel – perhaps no longer delivered on TV nor based in a studio.

Professor Richard Sambrook from Cardiff University has written persuasively about 24-hour rolling news being a product of newsgathering technology that now looks outdated. Even the most traditional 24-hour channels, such as Al Jazeera, are considering what post-TV news looks like.

As 24-hour news veteran, I still retain an affection for the form. But there’s no doubt that it cannot compete with the immediacy of digital news, even if there is still value in a live stream of content. It is hard to gear up to rolling coverage if you lack the platform and resources to produce it.

So I will wait with interest to see what Nicolotti’s Sky News will become – how she’ll balance innovation with maintenance of the existing product. And hopefully she’ll kill off the ruddy awful “The Pledge“.

 

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Five tips to make you a better writer

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“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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Reasons to be cheerful about the future of news

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A couple of weeks back I hosted a Q&A session at The University of Northampton with ITV News’s Head of Digital, the redoubtable Jason Mills.

Unlike many in the media, he was cheerful and upbeat about the future of news – even going so far as to tweet me this after the session:

That reflects my own view.

Last year, when I was applying for jobs lecturing in journalism, I spent a lot of time telling anyone who would listen that there’s never been a better time to be a journalist. The entire industry is being remade, rule-books ripped up, received wisdom over-turned. People throughout the media are comparing the digital revolution to the invention of the printing press. New companies are being set up, experiments are being carried out, reputations are being made.

Of course, things don’t look so rosy if you’re a middle-aged hack on a newspaper. Innovation and disruption are exciting things to do, but not so comfortable to have done to you. As George Brock from City University has outlined in his relentlessly optimistic “Out of Print: Newspapers, journalism and the Business of News“, it’s the people who repeatedly throw the spaghetti against the wall who are going to create the new publishing platforms and maybe some of them will strike oil too. For those dazzled by the pace of change, institutionally or personally unable to react, it will be all too easy to be over-taken by the pace of change.

But I think there’s reason to be optimistic. For some time it’s been fashionable to predict the rise of the individual journalistic brand. The reporter or columnist who becomes bigger than the institution they work for. Recent moves in the United States suggest that time has arrived and that journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein and David Pogue are now able to command significant value to transfer to digital start-ups, bringing their cachet with them.

The Pew Research Center has published some new data looking at the size of the digital native news market. It looks encouraging, these are significant editorial departments. And as Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti has made clear, these are organisations with significant editorial ambitions which stretch far beyond 28 Devastating Truths about Adulthood Nobody Ever Tells You.

It’s a fascinating time. Both to be a journalist and to be a journalism teacher.

But, as one former ITN colleague tweeted me earlier:

Still that is another story….

David Dimbleby to present BBC Election 2015

David Dimbleby (credit BBC)

The BBC have announced the presenters for next year’s election programme – The Guardian has a write up here.

So, can I have that as a near-miss? Senior Dimbleby stays on for last curtain call with Huw Edwards, the junior Dimbleby, no longer in the wings but sharing the stage.

Still I think it’s an opportunity lost. James Harding could have used the moment to mark a definitive break from the past. Instead this is the future shuffling, blinking into the limelight. And hopefully they’ll make better use of some of the other talent than last time around – Emily Maitlis deserves better than crunching results on a touch-screen.

So, not-scaring the psephological horses over at the BBC. Adam Boulton will presumably host Sky News’s election coverage as an anchor rather than political editor. Your move ITV…

 

Why Al Jazeera English needs to think again about digital news

The Guardian has published an interesting interview with Al Anstey, Managing Director of Al Jazeera English.

It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the disgusting behaviour of the Egyptian government in arresting Al Jazeera journalists on trumped up terrorism charges through to the network’s expansion plans.

I’ve worked with Al at ITN and Al Jazeera. There’s no question in my mind that he’s one of the sharpest people in TV news. Highly intelligent and thoughtful about the role of international TV news, he’s robust in defending Al Jazeera’s reporting and has a comprehensive vision for its development.

Which is why I found this quote so disappointing:

“We already have the highest quality content gathered by a fantastically diverse team around the world. If you break up the constituent parts that go into a two-minute television package, what you have that hits the cutting room floor is gold dust,” he says. That “gold dust” – longer interviews, more informal chats with the correspondent, explainers – can be “tailored to different platforms and provide a much richer resource depending on which platform you are looking at”, adds Anstey. “It’s about changing the mindset.”

The idea of digital news as DVD box-set extras is very old-fashioned. It’s the same kind of thinking that saw TV companies early attempts at digital include behind the scenes video-diaries or cross-promoted longer versions of broadcast interviews.

The reason it’s so disappointing is that it starts from the wrong premise. Rather than looking at what the audience wants and needs from a news service, it starts from the point of view of “we have this unused stuff, let’s shove that up online”. It’s the antithesis of providing a user-focused news service.

Put crudely, journalists have made editorial decisions about cutting material to emphasise the key lines – if they thought there was value in using the stuff on the cutting room floor, they’d have already used it. Why would anyone think that time poor digital users want to sit through the extended cut?

But change is needed.

Al Jazeera English’s website needs over-hauling. The navigation is based on inheritance from the TV channel’s structure and its reporting looks divergent from the core news operation. It also needs to continue to break new ground using digital media to report from around the world and to engage with an increasingly digitally literate global audience.

I’d also like to see put more focus on its eye-witness reporting, rather than the less interesting opinion pieces which, for me, sit oddly with the channel’s desire to provide impartial coverage of complex situations.

I applaud Al’s desire to bring greater convergence between the digital and broadcast sides of his operation, but I hope he will bring change that will see more digital innovation based on satisfying audience needs rather than on making more of costly newsgathering at the expense of user experience.

And just as I was thinking about this blog, I spotted this piece from Buzzfeed on innovative short-form video. It may work, it may not – but it seems to me to be a sophisticated attempt to engage with a tough to reach audience.

New deputy editor for ITV News

A quick post on the appointment today of the excellent Richard Zackheim as Deputy Editor of ITV News. I worked with Zackers on a number of ITN services, most notably at the ITV News Channel where he was a talented programme editor. He’s personable, decisive with an acerbic wit. I think he’ll do well back at ITV.

I think it’s fair to say his appointment was a surprise. Even ITN seem to have managed to put out a press release without a photograph of Zackers. Hopefully it’ll manage to rectify that for the Media Guardian article.

So, Geoff Hill begins to reshape ITV News in his image, bringing across a trusted lieutenant from Channel 5 News. I’ve no inside scoop on who else was in the running for the role, but I suspect the changes at ITV sparked by Geoff’s appointment still have some way to run. There’s a number of people who will feel Zackers has leap-frogged them and may decide to go. His predecessor, Jonathan Munro, now over at BBC News may be about to take some calls.