Monthly Archives: June 2011

Why bother interviewing people…..

….when you can just stitch together the best bits of what they told other people? Johann Hari – much admired Independent writer – has been passing off quotes given to other publications as genuine quotes from interviews he’s conducted for the paper.  He’s written an explanation for this “interview etiquette” saying it’s perfectly legitimate because interviewees often write more coherently than they speak.  Erm, yes, Mr Hari, that tends to be the case.  So if that’s what you believe, why are you bothering to go to the trouble of meeting them and speaking to them in the first place?  Why not just create your “intellectual portrait” out of their best quotes.  Only don’t call it an “interview.”

The whole point of an interview, surely, is to add something new to what we already know about a person.  It’s also about the relationship that develops between the interviewee and the journalist – which can be illuminating about both.  If an interviewee is being annoyingly incoherent, then it’s fine to say so, isn’t it?  Perhaps there’s an interesting reason the journalist can tell us about. Is the interviewee hungover, unhappy, distracted, in a bad mood.  That’s the kind of stuff I want from an interview.  I can get the best quotes from Wikipedia.

A news journalist confesses

Jeff Jarvis has – as is his custom – stirred a lively debate with a couple of recent pieces about the “death” of the article as the end product of the journalist’s job.  In brief, he says that an article is too static and out-of-date once it is published.  It is also expensive and time-consuming to produce and deliver making it a luxury product.  The time, effort and resources spent on it could be better used, he argues, in doing the real journalism job of finding out what the story is and sharing updates with the reader ASAP, in real time, ideally.  Social media makes this possible, as Andy Carvin at NPR (@acarvin) has famously shown.

Of course, as Jeff Jarvis writes, the article is not actually dead.  He wrote one for the Guardian on precisely this topic after all!  But he believes that an article now has to contain loads of context, analysis and opinion (a la Economist) to justify the expense.

It got me thinking about the way I access news these days, especially now that I no longer work in a newsroom.  Do I still read “articles?”

How often do I listen to radio bulletins?  Nowhere near as much as I used to.  This is mainly because my daughters chat so much at breakfast it’s impossible to hear the Today programme properly, even though it still gets switched on.  When I do have time to myself in the kitchen to listen or when I’m out running, it’s invariably a time when there isn’t a news bulletin being broadcast on my preferred channels – radio four and World Service.  This is really frustrating.

How often do I watch TV news programmes?  Hardly ever but, then, I was never a huge fan.  It always feels that too much effort and money is put into the production values rather than real reporting but that may be my World Service envy of the resources lavished on the 10 o’clock news.  But also, watching a TV news bulletin is very time-consuming and not a very intense news fix to justify the time I have to invest in watching.

How often do I read newspaper articles?  I’m almost embarrassed to answer this one!  I download the Saturday edition of the Guardian but rarely get to read articles on the Saturday so by the time I do get time to read, the purely news articles are way out-of-date so I skip them and go to the comment/analysis pieces.  I’ll dip into Media Guardian articles – but only if they’ve tweeted their existence to me first.  I love the Guardian brand but I hardly ever buy the end product these days.  I consume it online but mostly via Twitter.  I’ll read other Newspaper’s articles too if they get a good recommendation on Twitter!

So, erm, that looks like a pretty radical shift in my news habits just over the last 6 months.  I now need to think about whether I feel more or less informed about the world.

How I fell in love with Storify.

I know I’m a bit behind the times with this one.  I’ve been admiring Storify from afar for some time but only tried it out for myself this week and I’m hooked.

I gave myself a concrete task.  I was interested in the conference on the impact of MediaCity on the North West which took place at The Hive in Manchester on Monday, 20th June.  I couldn’t go to it myself but I dipped into the twitter feed through the day.  It seemed I wasn’t the only one (£145 + VAT for the full day put a lot of people off).  So I thought it would be a fun and, possibly, useful idea to create a round-up of the day using Storify to collate and contextualise the tweets.  Maybe some of those other people who couldn’t attend would find it interesting.  And maybe some of those people who DID attend would appreciate a convenient way of reading the thoughts of other delegates.

You can see the result for yourself here!

1)  Storify was easy to learn and use.  I think there were a few gremlins when I was doing this on Tuesday evening with the Twitter feed freezing a couple of times and a few other annoyances.  But I’m incredibly impatient so let’s give Storify the benefit of the doubt on that one and blame the operator.

2) It was a very quick platform for getting rid of the noise and finding the real content.  I could also add video (Ed Vaizey’s contribution was a pre-recprded interview played out at the conference) and some post-conference blogs.

3) I was amazed how much information I could get about the conference (who said what) just using Twitter.  But I was even more impressed with how much of the ambient stuff I could get at too – the vibe, the lunchtime conversations, which speaker impressed the most.  So the resultant Storify piece wasn’t just a case of “she said, he said, I thought.”  There was more of a vibe to it and I found myself able to add a bit of personality into my links as well – even though I hadn’t been in the room.  I’d assumed I’d have to keep them pretty bland but building a Stortify piece does actually give you the space for some creativity if you’re that way inclined.  I hadn’t expected that.

4) Storify is a great way of summarising a conference.  Of course, it relies on people at the conference being generous tweeters and it definitely helped that The Hive offered free wifi and told everyone that the # to use was #MediaCityUK.  I could have done with some images though!  I couldn’t find any.

5) The BEST thing is the notify button!  This meant I could thank all the people whose tweets/content I’d used and direct them to my piece.  This is a great way of networking as well as sharing.  I also posted the link to the piece on Twitter using the hashtag #MediaCityUK.

@creatingacity Thanks for tweeting from#MediaCtyUK. I’ve used yr quotes in my Storify piece

If you missed #MediaCityUK conference – or want to relive the experience – check out my Storify piece

6) I got loads of great feedback and new contacts!  I was genuinely surprised.  People seemed to like seeing their tweets used in this context and thought it was a good way of documenting the conference.  Nobody felt I’d misrepresented it in any way which proves that following a hashtag is as good as buying a ticket to attend!!

Liking Storify RT @LizHannaford @paulunger @bbcnorth #MediaCtyUK I’ve used yr quotes in my Storify piece

Great Storify piece by @LizHannaford about #MediaCityUK including one of my ramblings

@LizHannaford thanks for that – you’ve done well there summing up the spectrum of feelings. Let’s hope the managers take them all on board!

Great Storify article from the #mediacityUK conference in Manchester on Monday by @lizhannaford – spot the Tweeter

@LizHannaford your ‘tweet stream’ blog is a fascinating diary of the day. Welcome to Mellor #Stockport btw ;o)

@LizHannaford *really* like Storify format – you’ve made me re-think it! Just read your twitter biog – welcome ooop north. Enjoying so far?

OK, so I could probably have done these tweet quotes as a Storify embed but time is getting on.

So I had a lot of fun and it was quite an eye-opener.  It also seems to have got other people interested in using Storify in different ways.  I’ve followed up some of those contacts and got my first #FF, albeit on a Wednesday so I’m not sure that counts.

Can Chris Patten save the World (Service)?

World Service has been down in the dumps recently.  I have very personal experience of this!  Massive cuts, language services disappearing, loved and valued colleagues leaving.  The government cut 16% of the World Service’s £270m budget in last year’s Spending Review and that hurt.

But today came the news that Bush House gets a bit of a reprieve – a little over £2m a year from the Foreign Office to prop up the Arabic Service.

The BBC also found £9m down the back of its sofa to prop up Hindi broadcasts on short wave (there was a LOT of anger in Bush House when it was announced these were to go.)

Let’s not get too excited; that’s a drop in the ocean and major cuts and staff losses will still go ahead.

On a positive note, it’s a sign that Bush House does have its fans in high places.  On June 12th, the Sunday Telegraph published an interview with Chris Patten, the new Chairman of the BBC, in which he vowed to fight to save the World Service from spending cuts.  He was particularly keen to support Arabic, Somali and Hindi services.

The World Service needs all the friends it can get at the moment as it prepares to merge with the rest of BBC news in W1 (Broadcasting House).  It’s fair to say that most people in the Bush House newsroom I speak to are genuinely concerned that the distinctive journalism, agenda, remit, tone and language of the World Service will be lost when it is a small corner in the domain of the loud and powerful domestic news channels.  World Service managers and programme editors will need to develop extremely sharp elbows and adapt to a very different culture if it is to preserve its voice.

So whilst I’m delighted that the government has found more money to support World Service, I’m not sure it has such passionate support within BBC news itself (let alone amongst license-fee payers who may wonder why they should support radio programmes for people in Somalia) where it is often regarded as a quaint remnant of a colonial age – although very useful when a big story breaks overseas and BBC news hasn’t managed to get a “real” reporter there yet.

One incident from a few years back sticks very firmly in my mind as I chew my nails and worry about the future of the World Service.  I remember once setting up an interview for World Service with a non-BBC contributor “down the line.”  The contributor was being looked after at the other end by a BBC News producer.  Before they realised I could hear them, I heard the producer explaining to my contributor that this interview was for “World Service – the one that broadcasts to ex-pats.”  I jumped in to explain that World Service was NOT a service for ex-pats.  For one thing, we have an audience of 125 million (I can’t remember the exact figure at the time, but something pretty big) and I really didn’t think there were 125 million British ex-pats in the world.  The producer wasn’t interested and I could sense her rolling her eyes at my contributor.

I’m not saying everyone in BBC news has that attitude towards World Service, but it does exist.  So there is an internal culture which World Service will have to defend itself against pretty strongly as programmes fight for diminishing resources.

On the subject of BBC funding, Martin Bell stepped into the debate this month with an article in the British Journalism Review.  As BBC News and World Service are looking for savings of 20%, he criticises “wasteful practices.”  Top of his list of gripes is the relatively recent fashion for sending news “anchors” (as domestic BBC TV newsreaders seem to have become) to far away places to stand in the general vicinity of a Big Story and read scripts off an autocue, rather than reading them from the autocue in Television Centre.  The anchor still hands to the actual correspondents to report the story so, as Martin Bell asks, how does this add to the newsgathering or news-sharing process?  Even Helen Boaden, the director of news, seems to have come round to the idea that this is possibly just a bit of a gimmick rather than core journalistic activity.

In some ways, the practice of sending Huw Edwards to distant locations is more annoying to journalists in the World Service Newsroom than the knowledge that some of our senior executives are getting huge salaries (something Chris Patten says he’s going to deal with.)  It’s not because they have anything against Huw Edwards himself.  It’s just because they know the huge expense involved in sending him and his team overseas and the minimum journalism it generates – at a time when BBC News has lost so many good reporters from the Delhi Bureau, for example. What message does that send to the license-fee payer?

So, the World Service is under threat from the merger with BBC news and the general cuts facing all networks.  But it also needs to look to its own house as it faces the future rather than just feeling hard done by.  World Service is brand-rich but resource-poor.  It needs to capitalise on the former and learn to live with the latter because that’s not going to change any time soon.  Since it is inevitable that it’s going to lose correspondents and reporters in so many interesting corners of the globe, it needs to find other ways of telling the global news and probably new ways of delivering (or sharing) it.  It is already doing that with in-house reporters who know how to curate social media, filter out the noise, VERIFY (Gay Girl in Damascas, anyone?) and explain the context.  It has multilingual staff from all over the world who can do this. But it needs more staff who are skilled to do that.  And fewer who can’t, I’m afraid.  Other, leaner organisations are already amazingly good at reporting the world in this way but they don’t have the internal expertise, culture and trusted brand that the World Service has built up over the years.

Perhaps that’s what Peter Horrocks, the Director of World Service, was thinking about when he talked about “partnerships” at the LSE on 10th June at the annual Polis journalism conference on Media and Power.  He was taking part in a debate on the role of International Journalism and paying for a public service and he explained that because funding is being reduced, it is no longer possible for journalists to do their jobs all by themselves. Partnership is essential, whether it is with NGOs, technology organizations, or other broadcasters.

He has a huge task on his hands.

I left the BBC…..but I’m OK!

In July this year, I left the BBC after 22 years.  This is my journey beyond the BBC and into the unknown.

On 1st July 2011, I will cease to be a BBC employee.  I will hand over my dangly ID and henceforth my only relationship with the BBC will be as a license fee payer.  I will no longer be able to waltz into a newsroom and rearrange a running order, write the lead story or demand the presence of correspondents on air.  And for some reason, I really don’t mind.

I’ve worked at BBC World Service since 1989.  It was where I’d always wanted to work and I loved it.  By the mid 90s, I was in my dream job as a World Service journalist and had the time of my life working with some fantastic editors, producers, presenters and reporters from all over the world on Newshour and the World Today.  We were full of ideas, phone bashed like crazy to get people on air, never gave up, spoke God knows how many languages between us, travelled to bizarre corners of the World and had fun.  I learnt so much in that department.

I did work in other parts of the BBC too (eg Good Morning Scotland, Today in Parliament), but always felt drawn back to Bush House.

In recent years, I’ve been in the Newsroom at World Service.  The newsroom deals with fact – fact without the trimmings.  The emphasis is on the written word, providing a definitive summary of the world that could be relied on as accurate and impartial.  News room programmes – bulletins and World Briefing – were programmes of record and that meant correspondents’ despatches, live reporting and clips of the main players.  That’s exciting when there’s a big breaking news story and you’re taking listeners around the world to build up a picture of a developing event.  But most of the time, putting together that kind of programme isn’t very exciting.   When you go on air in the studio, your main job is to watch the clock to make sure all the material fits the time slot, hitting all those “hard posts” which enable rebroadcasters to opt in and out of our schedule.

As time went on, I realised I was becoming bored and losing confidence in my ability to make programmes.

Then I met Claire Wardle.  She’d just started running one-day courses for BBC journalists on “Making the Web Work for You.”  I signed up and went on one of the first ones.  My God, she packs a lot in to a one day course!  I was such a social media beginner, the vast majority of it went way over my head and by the end of the day, I’d forgotten everything I’d learnt in the morning and felt a bit unwell.  But I was really excited by it all and over the next few months, I invested some time into exploring the various tools and ideas she’d talked about.  I was still a novice, but I was a happy novice getting excited when I found  practical applications for these new skills.

But there was another consequence of her course.  I found myself becoming more and more interested in the processes of journalism and less interested in the stories themselves.  Yeah, yeah so it’s another election somewhere in the world, but how are different journalists and media organisations and start-ups finding the new angles, verifying the facts, sharing the story?   It was an exciting world and I felt left behind.

So now I find myself living on the edge of the Pennines having left London after 22 years.  My husband now works at BBC North, soon to transfer to MediaCity.  For a long time, I desperately wanted to work there too, excited by a new project.  But I gradually realised my heart wasn’t in it any more.  If I was going to relocate to the other end of the country, it seemed silly to just shoehorn myself into an unsatisfactory BBC job when I could take the opportunity to reinvent myself completely.  I was lucky my husband had a full time job now and I had the luxury of not having to be a breadwinner.  It seemed foolish to let this freedom go to waste.  So I took voluntary redundancy from the World Service which, following savage cuts, was having to shed staff by the van-load.

To cut a long-ish story short, that’s how I’ve found myself about to become a visiting lecturer in radio journalism at the University of Salford on its BA degree course (so I will be working in MediaCity after all!)  I’m also seriously looking for research opportunities and am pretty sure that’ll be in the “geeky” end of journalism, thanks to Dr Wardle’s inspiration.  But the first step is to see whether I actually like being back in academia.  I think I will.  When I left the University of Sheffield, I was adamant I did not want to stay on as a post-graduate.  I wanted to get a proper job and do something useful!  But there was always a little niggle at the back of my mind telling me I would probably end up back in academia some day.

So, that’s pretty much how I got to this point.  I’m at the start of a journey and, as I hope you can tell, I’m pretty excited about it.