31 August 2008

Blog Day

Well, I never! I just learned that it is, apparently, the 4th Annual Blog Day today. I mean, honestly, who dreams these things up? And how come I didn't know about it even though I've been blogging for 10 years (no, not just this one, there are others - some live, some long gone).

Anyway, the rules of Blog Day decree that I must plug and recommend 5 blogs by others that I follow (hmm, hope some others are plugging me - I don't do this purely for my own amusement, you know). So here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite blogs.

Benefit Scrounging Scum
- because she writes about disability in an angry, passionate and entertaining way, exposing the absurdities and unfairness of the welfare system, talking about living with her particular condition in a way that is never self-pitying but often self-deprecating and always enlightening and showing us that life is for living no matter what hand you've been dealt. Incapacity benefit? Bendy Girl should be given a medal. (Although I don't think you can actually live on that.)

Freelance Writing Tips - yes, I know it's already fantastically well known, but Linda Jones deserves another plug for this consistently useful site and the amazing book that came out of it (or was it vice versa?). Simply, one of the handiest sources of advice and tips that really do work.

10 Yetis PR blog - my absolute favourite PR blog because it's always daft, funny, amusing, entertaining and enlightening, even when it's being serious. Wish they'd proofread before posting, though! ; p)

Musings from a Muddy Island
- fabulous photos of a beach I am quite envious that she lives on, plus a strange obsession with ampersands and printing, and lots of thoughts on books from a fellow copy-editor.

Martin Millar - cult novelist blogging on the writing life, football and rhubarb crumble. This is a consistently entertaining read and often screamingly funny. Disclaimer: I do occasionally commission Martin to write short stories for a magazine I work for, but I'd be following this blog even if that wasn't the case.

A less-on for all shops

So, Tesco has finally bowed to pressure and decided to scrap its infuriating "10 items or less" checkout signs. Pretty much all the other supermarket chains did the decent and right thing a while back and made the necessary changes. I really don't understand why Tesco still is unsure about using "fewer", though. It's been explained to them by that splendid body, the Plain English Campaign, no doubt in words even a 7-year-old could understand. Other supermarkets don't have a problem with "fewer" - I believe Marks and Spencer use it, and (I think) Sainsbury, too.

But at least "less" is going. Using "up to 10 items" or even "under 10 items" are acceptable colloquial alternatives for the pedants among us, as well as easily grasped by everyone. Less is never an acceptable substitute for fewer. The difference between them is simple to understand. You use fewer for anything you can count and less for anything you can't. You wouldn't say "Can you make fewer noise, please?", for example.

Tesco is the biggest supermarket chain in the UK - an eighth of everything comsumers spend ends up in its tills (that's 12.5%, which might not sound much in the great scheme of overall consumerism but it's a lot for one company). Tesco, while being rather bad in some ways (like a lot of large corporations), has also used its might to push through some good things, like the drive to reduce plastic carrier bags. So it's a shame they have taken so long to realise the damage they have been doing to national literacy standards.

But, hey, Tesco has finally seen the light! I'm looking forward to seeing the new signs when I next do my weekly shop. Because the signs are too high to reach with some tippex and a marker pen...

29 August 2008

Media Diet Week 35

Press: looks like I'll be banging on about Press Gazette yet again, as the new monthly edition plopped onto my mat yesterday. Despite me cancelling my subscription recently, it turns out that PG has a 30 days' notice policy. So, here it is. What's it like? It's now an A4 64-pager with a snazzy new design which looks good at first glance. And yet, flicking through the pages it seemed lacking in substance despite the plethora of lengthy features. The freelance section, one of the main reasons for buying the old weekly, has shrunk and what's left is, frankly, not interesting - 5 short interviews with a bunch of freelances on coping with challenges and an advice column on making it in Australia. Fat lot of use that'll be to most PG readers, who work in the UK. I'm glad I've seen PG in its new format. It's convinced me I was right to cancel my sub and I'll be using the website to trawl for interesting snippets.

Blogs: we are clearly still in the thick of the holiday season. The blogs I follow are irritatingly quiet apart from one or two. I hope things are going to perk up soon. I shall reserve tonight's comment for a quick rant about my RSS reader, Bloglines, which failed me earlier today. One minute I was reading new feeds, the next my entire list of subscriptions had vanished off the menu. I deleted cookies, logged out and logged in again, to no avail. The help section didn't cover the issue at all. I did discover I could still export my feed list, though, so I did and imported it into Google Reader as a back-up. Then I emailed Bloglines to ask how to fix it. Worryingly, after hitting Send the page told me I'd get a reply after the next two business days. Suddenly, I was looking at a minimum 4 days with no RSS reader and as I dip in several times a day that's no use to me at all. I panicked even more when I discovered that Google Reader had also gone blank on me - I mean totally blank. I was looking at an empty page devoid of anything. But then one of my Firefox plugins updated itself and I rebooted my browser - result! Normality restored. Sometimes a PC just needs the equivalent of a spot of percussive maintenance (I also ran the Dyson over my keyboard this afternoon to suck up the cat hair and then vacced my USB ports while I was at it. I definitely need to get a cleaner).

TV/radio: The Archers, so good over the last few weeks, has gone off the boil again. There was Will trying to murder his brother for dating his ex-wife and it was all rather thrilling. Then the scripties packed him off to Gloucester for six months to work on someone else's shoot. Feeble. Now we''re back to Tony and Brian arguing over Tom's pigs, like anyone gives a toss, and Alan and Usha's horribly right-on wedding (Usha is the only Hindu in the village and thus the focus of all matters PC). Over on the telly, I watched a rather good profile of crime-fic writer Val McDermid, whose books I've been buying since her first was published in the mid-80s. Then I made the mistake of not watching Maestro so I could see the first episode of Mutual Friends, which turned out to be a lot of froth. Despite a good cast and a rather funny premise about the death of one of their crowd, Mutual Friends was a triumph of style over substance. It seemed quite good as I watched, then after I found I could barely remember any of it. Very unsatisfying. Programme of the week was undoubtedly Who Do You Think You Are?, with chat-show host Jerry Springer who learned how both his grandmothers were murdered in the Holocaust. It was almost unbearable to watch as Springer stood alone at the railway memorial in Lodz, Poland, where one of the two matriarchs was shipped out to be gassed in a van at Chelmno. The camera drew back from him as he stood in contemplation but his mic was still on and his sobs were clearly audible. It was brave and compelling TV, and I cried too. And there were more tears at the end when as Springer finished exploring the ghetto of Theresienstadt near Prague, where his other grandma died, he was introduced to a long-lost cousin from Israel who was also a descendant of this grandmother. It was a fabulous ending to a heart-breaking programme and I was overjoyed that Springer had some positive closure.

Books: Over the last week, I've read only slightly more of The Blair Years. It's been a week of late nights where I've flopped into bed and gone straight to sleep. So, I'm still reading the introduction. Only about 800 pages to go...

28 August 2008

Going freelance - getting started

A couple of days ago, a journo friend of mine dropped by for a coffee during the mid-afternoon lull. I could see she was really stressed and it didn't take long to find out why. She works really hard on our local paper and we all know that salaries on British regional papers are a joke. My friend has real talent for writing but is struggling to raise her family on her pitiful income. Unsurprisingly, she's looking to freelance on the side until she can make the leap and do it full-time. Time for a brain-pick.

My top tips?

1. Get a blog. Build it in Wordpress or Typepad so you can have static pages as well for showing clippings, adding a biog and a contact page. And the blog is not only ongoing proof you can write, it's a chance to specialise in niche areas you are passionate about. Result - instant website at minimal cost.

2. Join a good freelancing forum. I always recommend Journobiz as it is supportive - members are very generous with advice and contacts, and it's a good watercooler when you feel alone. I wouldn't survive the working day, stuck at home as I am, without dropping in regularly.

3. Get an accountant. When you're still on a contract and PAYE, freelance earnings are easy to declare on the tax return. But once you make the leap, the time you'd spend struggling to fill in the form is time better spent earning money. My accountant takes a day maximum to verify my accounts and file my tax return. If I did it myself, it would take a week. I save money by paying the accountant to do it for me. And she's a tax-deductible expense. The same theory applies to other situations. It would take me half a day to clean the house (which I do actually do right now) - hiring a cleaner would be cheaper. Ok, the char is not an allowable expense but the convenience frees up my time to earn.

4. Pick your listings. I pay for listings in several professional directories. None are massively expensive (each averages at £55 pa) but they have to earn their keep. I only need one really well-paid gig from each to justify renewing the listing when it's time. Anything else is a bonus. I choose my listings with care - any that don't pay their way get discarded. Well, you wouldn't run an ad in a magazine that didn't bring in business, would you?

5. Join your union. It's no secret that I have deep misgivings about the NUJ, which I recently rejoined purely for practical reasons. When you're staff, you get the press card automatically. When you're flying solo, if you want accreditation, you need to join something. It's not just about the press card. The union does offer other benefits too, like free legal advice and cheap professional indemnity insurance. And it's funny how when redundancies loom at a workplace, the NUJ sees a spike in membership applications... But seriously, it's better to be in the tent pissing out when you work for yourself, and have at least something behind you.

The bonuses? No boss, no commute, no office politics and complete freedom to work for whomever you choose...

A shameless appeal

I was going to blog about some dictionary debate (maybe I still will in a few days) but then a colleague suggested I should be put forward as a nominee for the 3rd annual writing blog awards.

So I went and had a look and thought, yeah why not? But I need nominations - and who better to ask than all you lovely people who keep reading me week in, year out.

So now's your chance to tell the blogosphere about why you think I should be considered. All you have to do is visit the nomination blog post and nominate me in the comments under the post. Don't forget to add my blog URL and why you think I deserve the nomination.

Thank you all, I'm counting on you! Mwah!

27 August 2008

A short history of Penguin

A colleague drew my attention to a book called Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane. Lane was the founder of the iconic publishing house, Penguin Books. His biography has been out a while - I'm not quite sure how I managed to miss it when it was first published.

It's about much more than the world-famous imprint, though. It's also about the development of quality publishing too. I'm reliably informed that it's quite a racy read. For example, Lane hired a man called A.S.B. Glover, who had bombarded him with a steady stream of complaints about typos and factual errors - Lane decided the only way to shut him up was to employ him as a proofreader. And he was considered to be so good at his job that Lane said Glover was "the only man I have ever known who could correct galley proofs whilst strap-hanging in a busy rush-hour tube".

Hmm. Compared to Glover, my daily round of on-screen copy-editing must give the impression I'm a complete lightweight. But at least I don't have to commute.

Also intriguing is the revelation that the early editorial meetings took place in a Soho Spanish restaurant where much wine was consumed and the manuscripts were dumped in heaps on the floor. As the editors got drunker, there was more chance a budding author might be looked upon favourably.

It all sounds like gripping stuff and definitely a book I shall be seeking out on my next buying spree.

24 August 2008

Media Diet Week 34

Press: not much to comment on this week. The postie delivered my mail on Thursday and the "flumph" as it landed on the mat was eerily quieter than previously. Probably because I've cancelled my subscription to Press Gazette. I'm still in two minds about having taken that drastic step as I miss it. However, the revamp of PG's website is looking promising, although it's disappointing to see the loss of the Knowledge section. I picked up a copy of Women's Fitness to read on the train the other day, drawn by the coverlines. Inside, though, it had no distinguishing features from any other fitness mags aimed at women. Just the same old, same old serving of diet, exercise and beauty. Even the exercise pages were woefully thin at just a page or two with not enough detail - the "drop a stone in 4 weeks" feature listed lots of exercises but no information on how to do them. Very helpful. And an article on swapping jogging for fell-walking will be useless for most readers, who probably don't live within an hour's drive of their nearest hills...

Blogs: well, the blog du jour of the past week was apparently this one, after my post on sub-editors. First, Greenslade picked it up, then it attracted attention here, here, here, here and here. Not to mention the comments on my original post by Jeff Jarvis, among others. Looks like I touched a nerve, then... I'm pleased - this is an important debate to have. I can see the validity of the argument that news blogging is about the here and now, the immediacy of getting the news out there, rather than worrying about the typos. But there's a deeper argument to consider, about the need to maintain literacy standards across the board, not for journalists so much as readers. Somehow, I don't think this topic is going to go away. On a different note, I'm really enjoying the emergence of the new TNTJ blog ring run by young journalists who are blogging on the future of journalism. It's got off to a great start and I'm looking forward to following these young hacks.

TV/radio: quite apart from the saturation coverage of a certain sporting event, the TV schedules have been really dull this week. Must be late summer, that limbo between some series ending and the start of the autumn season proper. I watched Boris Johnson discover his roots on Who Do You Think You Are? despite not being a Boris fan. It was unexpectedly interesting, despite Johnson's regular yelps of "Cripes!" and "Wowee!" I suspect the next episode, with Jerry Springer, will be a lot better, though, not least because Johnson has little charisma on camera.

Books: it's been a busy week, with little time for bedtime reading. I have managed to start Alistair's Campbell's The Blair Years, however, although I've only read the foreword to the paperback edition and the introduction so far. I suspect this is going to take me several weeks to get through, while I read other books alongside. But so far, so good (the book, not Blair).

22 August 2008

Work - what I'm doing...

I've been so busy lately blogging on various issues that I've not really said much about what I'm actually doing.

Back in May, I signed a massive contract to write stuff for a book (not write a book). That job started in June and I'm plodding away at it. The initial contract runs until mid-September, but I've since been offered writing work for the rest of the year on the same project.

I'm juggling two mid-sized web copywriting projects in between, as well as copy-editing for my regular editing clients.

Where I've had time (and ideas) I've been pitching features to various papers and magazines. My hit rate of late has been slim, but that's partly because I've not felt massively inspired and partly because I've not had the time to drum up ideas. In between all the work, I've ended my relationship and moved house so keeping an income flow through my regular work took priority and the journalism took a back seat somewhat.

I write this exhausted. I was up at 5.30am to catch a train to London. My day was spent firstly seeing one of my regular magazine editors to discuss the state of play for the next issue, followed by lunch with a freelance hack pal, followed by a lengthy meeting with an author whose book I have agreed to take on for editing (it needs restructuring first, then who knows).

By the time I arrived home, I'd been out for more than 12 hours, 5 of which were spent on trains (I'm excluding travel within London itself). I do these kind of trips once every two months or so. Because of the 200-mile distance, I have to maximise every trip and cram in as many meetings as possible before collapsing onto a train for the home stretch. I got home to a bleeping answering machine, more than 70 emails and a very pissed-off cat.

To those who think freelancing from home is all daytime telly and entertaining mates who drop round for coffee unannounced, I'd like to see you do all that and somehow be in a good mood when you get home...

When you work for yourself, bringing in the work is the no. 1 priority. Which means meetings and travel and putting yourself out there. I don't have time to schmooze friends during the working week, much as I love them. Schmoozing clients, real or potential has priority. Else the mog and I go hungry.

Media Diet will be posted tomorrow. I'm off to bed.

18 August 2008

A luxury? Sub-editors revisited

Over the last few months, media commentators have been engaged in a debate over the future of sub-editors. Jeff Jarvis blogged today in the Guardian that subs are a luxury. But are they? I've posted before on what sub-editors do, so let's look again at what's going on...

A small number of UK newspapers have already dumped their subs completely, not just for online but also print editions too. Newspaper proprietors are largely only concerned with the bottom line so if they can get their product out there for less, they will. Subs do not just clean up typos and dodgy punctuation or cut copy to fit. They also need an excellent working knowledge of media law, which is ever-changing, in order to prevent all kinds of legal howlers that could see a paper being sued. Papers that think they can cut corners by axing subs could be leaving themselves wide open to all kinds of problems.

The downside is that journalists themselves are being asked to sub their own copy. Quite apart from the problems arising when you try to edit your own work, many journalists do not write great English (and rely on the subs desk to do rewrites) and most do not have the comprehensive understanding of media law that subs do, but have only a limited working knowledge of libel law. Beyond that, staff journalists for some years now have been working longer hours in expanded roles (but not for more money, let's not forget that). Now, suddenly, they are being asked to take on the sub-editing that would previously have been someone else's exclusive task.

Jarvis's comment today is the umpteenth run by the Guardian over the last 4 weeks or so. Press Gazette has also covered this thorny issue. I'd take issue with much of what Jarvis says, though. For one thing, blogging is most emphatically not journalism, although it may play a role within journalism and media law is equally applicable, and thus there will remain a need for subs who can edit out legal problems. Secondly, newspapers - at least in the UK - are unlikely to abandon print altogether in the next 10 or even 20 years (you can shoot me if that turns out to be wrong, but then you'd have to shoot a lot of other media commentators too). Thirdly, if a paper gets rid of its editor too, or even its section editors, who then decides on the stance of the paper, the angles it will cover news from, what areas of content it will carry? Who provide direction and guidance, not just to the readers but to the staff?

A freelance copy-editor colleague raised a question today about how Jarvis's vision might affect editors who take on web work. Personally, I don't think it is a major issue for copy-editors moving into web-editing. If they are sub-editing news sites, they should have a copy of McNae's on their desk - it's as essential as a dictionary or any other standard reference work in use by editors. If they are editing for corporates, it's unlikely such clients will choose to cut back on editing when their website and other corporate literature represent their public face and brand and need to maintain a high level of quality.

Is Jarvis right? Or is he misguided? Personally I think copy-editing or sub-editing is about much more than merely cutting copy to fit a CMS template and so I believe there will always be a place for a skilled and experienced editor who is capable of more than a simple tidy-up job.

What do you think?

Edited to add: Roy Greenslade has posted on this issue again this morning. Thanks, Roy.

16 August 2008

Media Diet Week 33

Press: no contest this week, it's been Press Gazette all the way. I was infuriated by the paper's lackadaisical attitude to its subscribers, so I took my fury to the editor and his blog. I was not alone. Irritated hacks were busy venting on Twitter and Journobiz, where it also transpired that Thursday's letter from PG to subscribers, in which the editor-in-chief Tony Loynes went in for the hard sell to persuade people to stick with the new, enfeebled PG, came in several versions. Some subscribers were being offered free entry to PG's freelance database (which was launched only in June and was being offered back then for £62.50). Others were offered a free copy of the Hollis media directory for 2009. Curiouser and curiouser. It then turned out that the Hollis directory has always been offered to subscribers, although never to me, and that a number of journalists never received it at all despite chasing for it. I made the difficult decision last night to cancel my subscription - I'd like to support the industry paper, but not at that price and not as a monthly. And especially not when it's now such poor value. The subscriptions office showed no surprise when I asked for a refund - clearly, many others have too (I know personally of quite a few who have cancelled). So farewell PG, I wish you well but seriously doubt your chances of survival now.

Blogs: I won't bore you all further with Dominic Ponsford's blog (see above), which occupied so much of my time in the last few days. Say hello instead to Joe's Blog, in which our eponymous blogger has been posting some interesting stuff on technology, particularly in a social context. It's still notably August and holiday season - the blogosphere is pretty quiet right now.

TV/radio: I am still glued to House of Saddam, which has turned out to be absolutely gripping stuff, surely one of the best dramas in ages on the TV. I was also delighted to discover that BBC4 had decided to repeat Sleepers, a comedy drama first shown in 1991 in 6 30-minute episodes. The premise was simple - two Soviet agents were secreted into the UK in the 1960s and told to integrate until called into duty, then forgotten about. Until 25 years later, with hilarious consequences as the KGB, MI5 and the CIA race all over the UK hunting them down. Why it has never been reshown earlier is a mystery - Sleepers has not dated at all and there are fine performances from a very much younger and slimmer Warren Clarke and a seemingly ageless Nigel Havers as the two hapless agents. My other TV fix this week was Andrew Marr's Britain From Above, which was beautiful and fascinating, and demonstrated just how thinly our infrastructure is stretched and how close to falling into chaos it is.

Books: I decided I'm not quite ready for Alistair Campbell's diaries so this week I opted for something a lot lighter - Jessica Callan's Wicked Whispers, her account of life as a 3AM girl on the Daily Mirror's gossip column. A very entertaining read, with a lot of insight into how this particular type of journalism works behind the scenes.

14 August 2008

PG Tits

The appalling manner in which Press Gazette continues to treat its subscribers continues apace.

I won't bore you here with the details. I went one better and took my fury direct to the editor, Dominic Ponsford, who blogged about the change from a weekly to a monthly. I have at least 2 comments on there already - more may follow.

I hope they have the guts to respond and play fair with subscribers. So far, they've failed to do either.

11 August 2008

Unim-Press-ed Gazette

If there's one thing I really hate, it's crap customer service. And I'm not the only one when it comes to Press Gazette keeping its subscribers in the dark. The weekly hack rag has a lot of very pissed off readers right now.

As I've already blogged, PG has been in trouble a while. It took the national media to break the news that the UK's only weekly industry magazine was to go monthly. This was a week ago. PG responded last Friday by publishing a statement of sorts on its website, but there was no mention in the print edition (which arrived belatedly on Saturday because of technical glitches). The comments underneath indicate how annoyed subscribers are at being kept in the dark.

Now it's Monday and there have been developments. Once again, Media Guardian broke the news that PG will publish its final weekly edition this Thursday. Over on Press Gazette's own website, there is no mention of this latest twist. Did they learn nothing from the comments on their website that readers would like to be told by PG itself what the current state of play is, instead of hearing it elsewhere?

Ex-editor Ian Reeves mentioned in his Guardian piece the thorny issue of subscription refunds. Last week, I was firmly in the camp of "I've paid for my year's sub, I'll give the new format a chance". Today, like many others, I feel infuriated that PG's owners lack the courtesy to tell us what's happening. I'm so exercised about their contempt for their loyal supporters, I am indeed tempted now to ask for a refund. We have paid up and supported Press Gazette through all its recent ups and downs. We deserve to be told first. I'm struggling to understand why PG can't publish news on its current status on its own website. It's supposed to be a journalism publication for journalists, after all. So why is everyone else but PG keeping its own readers better informed?

08 August 2008

Media Diet Week 32

Press: this week's bad news was the announcement is that Press Gazette is to stop being a weekly publication and go monthly instead with a focus on features rather than news. The rumours were already circulating in late July that this might happen, so it's not a surprise. A monthly is not going to be much use to journalists, though, in today's fast-moving media environment. It's only a few weeks since I renewed my annual subscription and I feel a bit short-changed. Editor Martin Stabe was quickly challenged on Twitter by readers and said he would try to find out what the situation for subscribers is... Well into August now and the silly season is upon us again. And (you couldn't make this up, honestly) who should pop up from the past but Joyce McKinney. What perfect timing!

Blogs: seems like everyone is on holiday right now, the blogosphere is so quiet. I'd like to draw your attention, though, to my friend Craig McGinty for his wonderfully thoughtful post on the internet and creativity. There's a lot to consider in what he says and it's certainly a call to action of sorts.

TV/radio: it's begun. Saturation coverage of the Olympics. I suspect I'll be listening to Radio 4 a lot more than usual over the coming fortnight in an attempt to get away from it (and isn't The Archers brilliant right now, with Will Grundy missing after attempting to murder his brother because they both love the annoying Emma). Fortunately, China's massive time difference (7 hours ahead) means the evening TV schedules shouldn't be too disrupted.

Books: I'm still reading Mark Billingham's fabulous Death Message, although I hope to finish it tonight. That'll be followed, I think, by Alistair Campbell's diaries, unless I'm tempted by something else in my to-read stack.

07 August 2008

The wrong notch, aka Web 2.0h.no

I'm a big fan of social networking on the internet. I use LinkedIn for professional contacts and I hang out on Facebook for both work and fun. I tweet away on Twitter to colleagues and I have accounts on StumbleUpon, Delicious and various other Web 2.0 applications.

But I was rather taken aback today to receive an exclusive beta invitation to Bedpost. This is a social networking site too far. I'm well aware that whatever you post on the net stays on the net. Forever. Which is why I won't be signing up to Bedpost. I don't have the inclination to record all my past conquests on somebody else's website, no matter how reassuring the privacy policy is. And I certainly don't want my sex life hanging around in cyberspace for ever. Some things are best kept private.

They say that in space no one can hear you scream. In cyberspace, I fear the world hearing past screams of pleasure.

This is Web 2.0h.no rather than Web 2.00000h.yesyesyes.

Rite, so well orl spel like this in the fucha then...

Yet another mad professor has suggested that we should just accept common spelling errors. Ken Smith is not a teacher of English, or a linguist. He's a criminologist. Perhaps he's come up with this loony suggestion because the criminals he studies have a low grasp of our language? But no, his students have trouble spelling, so rather than try and teach them or correct them, he'd rather just let them off the hook.

It's a sad indictment of our education system. Not only do we no longer teach kids in school how to spell properly and write well, but we let them into university with substandard English. And this crazy proposal would mean standards slipping even further.

I've lost count of the number of wannabe journalists posting on forums, asking how to get into the profession, and displaying the most appalling grasp of the language - saying i instead of I, for example, or using textspeak. And this in a job where mastery of good writing counts for, well, pretty much everything.

I'm not singling them out, though, as their English is as bad as everyone else's in their generation. When I left school, pretty much everyone in my year had a good grasp of spelling and grammar regardless of what career they had in mind, apart from a few undiagnosed dyslexics who didn't get the help they needed.

Standards have slipped so far that universities are willing to let in anyone to study a Mickey Mouse degree, regardless of their literacy level, because they need the government funding. And so we have the situation that semi-literate undergraduates who probably ought not to be studying are, because anyone can do a degree now.

I wonder how Ken Smith's criminology students will fare when they graduate. What will happen to them when they apply for jobs, only to fall at the first hurdle because the HR department took one glance at their badly spelt application form and binned it? If they manage to continue studying, how will they handle submitting research papers? I've often edited better-written English in academic papers drafted by students for whom English is a second or even third language.

I suppose I shouldn't complain. It'll keep me in editing work, after all...

05 August 2008

PR annoyances of the month

A double posting tonight, as I return to an occasional favourite of mine...

First up, a very nice PR person actually took the trouble to call me a couple of weeks back to ask me about the kind of topics I normally write about and to see if I would be interested in any of her clients. I explained that her patch didn't really overlap with mine except very occasionally. We agreed that she could email her client list for me to peruse and that I would get back to her if I saw any possibilities for feature ideas. I've been a bit busy since then and haven't had time to look at the list.

I was rather cross today to get an email from her colleague. Said colleague wrote that she was glad to hear I was interested in the type of products her clients sold (er no, I didn't say that), she attached a "feature" that she asked me to place (the feature actually being a press release that consisted of a long list of product benefits - there was no story at all as the product has been on the market at least 10 years in the UK) and finished by saying she'd continue to send me releases (that I almost certainly do not want). An object lesson in how to piss a hack off. And tomorrow I have to write back to her sweetly explaining what she got wrong (I say sweetly because actually I don't want to piss off the colleague who called first).

I also got a release today of no use to me whatsoever from Rainier PR telling me all about why Londoners are sick of reading about Amy Winehouse in the media. Er, hello, anyone home at Rainier? I don't live in London and couldn't give a flying duck about whether its residents want to read about Winehouse's personal problems.

Of what possible use is a London-focused release to any hack a) not living in London and b) not writing about London? This is yet another example of Londoners driving the media agenda with London-based news and forgetting that the vast majority of British people live elsewhere and would rather know what is going on in their own area. It's the same mindset that dictates that the "news" is based on Westminster and the government and reflected in the very patchy media coverage of many counties on the BBC's own news website.

PRs take note: a bit more attention and focus to detail never goes amiss.

*I do realise I'm probably pissing into the wind here...

Firefox follow-up

A bit late, but following up my Sunday post on my Firefox set-up, Craig McGinty has posted his.

As I said before, no two Firefox users ever seem to have the same set-up. Craig's is totally different to mine, reflecting how differently he uses the web. The chief difference between us is that Craig does so much through Google, using it for feeds, mail and document handling - I'm still using POP3 mail (although looking into IMAP), use the Bloglines site for my RSS feeds and Office for document processing. I use Google mainly as a search engine, with the occasional foray into maps, plus Google Analytics to monitor all my sites and blogs.

Anyone got any more interesting tips and tricks on using Firefox?

03 August 2008

My browser set-up

Craig McGinty and I have been discussing our browser set-ups and challenged each other to blog about it. So here's how I operate.*

I spend a lot of time on the internet every day. If I'm wearing my journalism hat, I'll be researching, fact-checking, hunting for quotable experts or bouncing off other hacks. When I'm editing, the huge array of online dictionaries come into their own. When I'm copywriting, I can check out the websites of my clients' rivals. I need a browser that can let me do all these and much more, with ease.

I switched over to Firefox a couple of years ago, when the applause became too loud to ignore and reviews persuaded me that it was more secure than IE (it is). I was hooked immediately, loving the tabs (now copied in IE7) that allow me to have multiple windows open at once without clogging up my system tray.

What I love most about Firefox, though, is that it is totally customisable. No two Firefox users will have an identical set-up. I'm not too fussed about skins - all I require is that the icon buttons are a sensible size (neither too big nor too small) and it looks "clean". I'm currently using the Classic Compact skin for Firefox as I like the button size, which is a slightly smaller version than the default skin.

Bookmarks - I like to have these open in the left sidebar because I find that handier than pulling down the menu option in the navigation bar. If I need to, I can toggle in History or a few other options such as the calculator add-on. I used to have the old Delicious add-on prior to Firefox 3.0, which came with a couple of handy toolbar icons for adding links or viewing your account. I don't like the new Delicious add-on at all, chiefly because it merges your Delicious selections with your bookmarks - in fact, installing Delicious Bookmarks turns the bookmarks menu into a Delicious menu. I have good reasons for wanting to keep the two separate, as I use Delicious as a dumping ground for URLs I want to save for future use but know I won't use enough to justify keeping them bookmarked in my browser. Delicious is very handy for stashing web pages that I might use as background research and the tagging makes it easy to find them. I disabled the new add-on and a trip to Delicious's home page provided me with a couple of additional buttons to post to and access my pages without surrendering my bookmarks menu. The bookmarks toolbar is also indispensable. You can just drag and drop your most frequently used bookmarks onto the bar instead of having them in the sidebar. I keep here the 20 sites I visit the most frequently.

Navigation bar: here I have some essential add-ons - Stumble Upon, Undo Closed Tab, Me.dium, Fireshot, Clipmarks and ReminderFox.

My other add-ons include: Adblock Plus and the accompanying Filterset.G, for blocking ads; the British English dictionary; Customise Google; FireFTP; NoScript, which allows you to decide whether to allow a page in full; TinyUrl Creator; and WikiLook, which has to be the handiest ever dictionary look-up tool.

Over in my search engine bar, I have installed, among others, Wikipedia, Creative Commons, a couple of dictionaries, CrossEngine (which cross-searches multiple search engines) and Rollyo - this last allows you to create your own search options within fixed parameters. I have several set searches on here, chiefly for cross-searching multiple dictionaries, but you can instruct Rollyo to search almost anything.

What else? Let's see... ah, yes, Twitterfox, which I prefer to TwitBin. SEO for Firefox is handy for looking up my search engine rankings on my blogs and website (sorry, can't find the link). I have the plug-in calculator but rarely use it, as it's quicker to access one from my keyboard. Menu Editor and Favicon Picker are great for further customising the look of your set-up. What I really miss at the moment is FEBE, which has not been updated yet for FF3, but performs backups of bookmarks, extensions, preferences, passwords and more. There is a beta for FF3 but I'm waiting until the bugs have been ironed out.

I have a few other things installed, too, but they are things I use rarely so I'll leave them out for now. And that's about it. I'll be very interested to see how Craig's set up Firefox on his computer and also to hear from anyone else about handy extensions or useful tips.

* All my set-up is based on a PC using Windows XP Pro.

01 August 2008

Media Diet Week 31

Press: it was with something approaching alarm that I read Press Gazette's report on the magazine-sharing site, Mygazines.com (and I'm not linking to it). It's another route to infringing copyright of writers and I sincerely hope that it will, indeed, be taken off the internet asap. Bad enough that we have to google ourselves regularly to see who is stealing our work and not paying us for it, then serve DMCA notices, but I imagine copy theft on Mygazines.com won't show up so readily in the search engines. Incidentally, Charles Arthur of the Guardian regularly takes a pop at copyright infringers on his blog. It's top stuff.

Blogs: Daryl Wilcox, who runs the very useful ResponseSource resource for hacks has written a fantastic post on the transparency of his company's database. This was in response to Sally at Getting Ink, who noted that Cision are trawling again. I was among many (probably thousands) who received the email from Cision requesting my details. I've yet to respond as I fear receiving yet another deluge of unwanted PR spam. I get quite enough already. And I don't like being on databases where I have no control over the integrity of my entry. So I guess for now I'll be giving Cision a wide berth. The public discussion is really important, though, so thumbs up to Sally and Daryl for initiating it.

TV: programme of the week was, for me at least, House of Saddam. Critics were comparing it to The Sopranos in both the previews and reviews. I've never watched the Sopranos so can't compare, but this was fantastic telly - intelligent, well-scripted drama that was absolutely gripping, with quality acting and a sense of real insight (allowing for the fact that obviously artistic licence has been taken, although the Radio Times for this week carried a feature that noted the amount of serious background research that went into it). I was disappointed that Kelly won Missing Top Model as I'd really expected Sophie to triumph, but the judges never seemed sure whether they wanted a model who happened to have a disability or a disabled role model who could model. Whatever, it's been an intriguing look at notions of beauty and disability and raised a lot of important issues.

Books: it's been a slow week, so I'm still on Mark Billingham's Death Message. I had an Amazon splurge last weekend, though, so I have a nice, shiny stack of new books to keep me entertained over the summer, so I'll be reviewing them here as usual. When I finish Death Message, anyway...