28 September 2008

Media Diet Week 39

Press: I'm quite amazed at the number of physical papers I've purchased this week. Four copies of the Guardian and an Observer, a Sun and a News of the World plus my local paper (for the first time in weeks) and 2 Daily Mirrors. This was largely down to the amount of travelling I've done since 8 days ago. Reading newspapers on trains is practically obligatory and certainly passes the time. One thing I've noticed is I have actually read more. I suppose it's partly because I've paid for the papers and want to get my money's worth but I'm also very aware that when reading the papers online I tend to just skim the headlines and only click on those that entice me. With a print copy, my eye is drawn not just to the headlines but also the opening paragraphs and that determines whether I'll keep reading or not. On the net, papers tend to offer only the headline of a story - the sole determinant of a click-through. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the designers of the online editions...

Blogs: two journalists I admire have started blogs - stand up Kate Bevan and Anne Wollenberg. My current gripe, though, is with Technorati, which seems to be permanently borked. Technorati's admin have admitted to having indexing problems and a backlog to catch up on but weeks later nothing seems to be fixed. Their last site status report, dated 12 September, claims all problems are resolved when they clearly are not - a look at the discussion board reveals endless complaints from fed-up bloggers who are not being automatically pinged. This particular blog went unpinged for a whole month. It took four requests to admin to get them to push a status update through for me (which saw lots of new incoming links and a hefty rise in my ranking) but since then it has languished unpinged again, 12 days and counting. I'm not alone in feeling frustrated by Technorati, which seems to be rapidly losing its reputation among bloggers as the essential indexing site. I'm looking into alternatives myself now that I can longer rely on Technorati for reliability.

TV/radio: apart from EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing, I'm still watching very little TV. EastEnders is attracting huge controversy just now for running a long-term storyline about paedophilia. It has been really well-scripted so far, with some terrific acting and I think if it helps even one abused child break their silence it will have done good. Looking back over the last few weeks, I seem to have started watching a number of things and abandoned them - Merlin and Mutual Friends to mention just 2. Very few of the new serials seem compelling enough to make me want to tune in again. Usually the autumn season signals a decent run of programmes but I suspect at this rate I may be signing up for adult ed classes to fill my evenings.

Books: the other good thing about spending endless hours on trains is the chance to get stuck into a juicy book. Last Sunday's trip back from the capital gave me the opportunity to blitz Piers Morgan's Don't You Know Who I Am? Disappointly, while he mentioned buying Press Gazette and then, a bit later, deciding not to attend its fabled Press Awards, he failed to write about the collapse of PG under his and Matthew Freud's ownership. It would have been interesting to hear his version of events but perhaps poor Piers felt it might be too painful to recall...

25 September 2008

How to Write?

...or how to dumb down my trade?

All this week, the Guardian has been giving away booklets on how to write. Fiction, poetry, screenplays... today's free guide was on journalism but you could have forgiven me for thinking it was April the 1st. Granted, even for a hardened old pro like myself there were some handy tips in there. But I feel really pissed off that the Guardian thinks it's fine to spill our professional secrets to wannabes.

It's hard enough for professionals making a freelance living as a journalist these days. Without a portfolio career in which I edit and copywrite, I would have trouble paying the bills. In current times, we are seeing publications close or slash their pagination to save money, leaving fewer outlets to sell articles to. A couple of national newspapers have halved their standard freelance rates within the last fortnight. Papers are making staff redundant, staff who then decide to try freelancing in an already crowded and tough market. And to top it all, more and more across all media platforms content is seen as something that should be cheap or preferably free. Not something produced by skilled and talented writers who deserve just reward.

Loads of people who bought the Guardian today are going to think "I could do that". People with no journalistic training or experience. People who think they can just waltz into a job that is already undervalued and underpaid and underestimated. People who'd be happy to get a byline for free, just to have their name in print.

It's going to be yet another squeeze on our already crushed and struggling to breathe profession.

The cynic in me wonders if this is a deliberate ploy by the Guardian to find yet another way of acquiring cheap or free content for its websites and print editions.

On the other hand, I sincerely hope that every section head, every commissioning editor at the Guardian gets swamped with poorly constructed pitches and unsolicited, badly written articles. They'll soon be as fed up as I am right now. And maybe then the idiots that dreamed this wheeze up will realise that it's much better to actually pay someone who knows what they are doing the going rate for a job well done.

24 September 2008

A book and a video

I may be about to land a book-writing contract.

{jumps up and down and makes funny whoop-whoop noises}

A lovely hack colleague of mine suggested me to her publisher last week as a potential author for a practical handbook on living with epilepsy. I quickly fired off some emails - one to the publisher to establish initial contact, one to a hack pal who is also a published author and very generous in helping other writers put together credible book proposals - I asked her for a copy of her fabled how-to-do-it guide.

On Monday, the publisher emailed back and invited me to call her for a chat. I did so this morning, having read through her company's general briefing for pitching to write a title for them. We had a very useful discussion and the upshot is I've been asked to put together a proposal within the next fortnight. She seemed very keen to have me on board, as I'd be writing very much from an inside point of view. Fingers crossed, I'll get the contract.

It's not going to make my fortune, that is clear, but it'll be good to have a book on the old CV and boost my profile. And I know I will enjoy writing it.

In other news, yet another hack pal has been busy creating. Cast your mind back a couple of months to our dear food critic Giles Coren and his little tantrum towards the subs at The Times. Naturally, an outburst like that doesn't get forgotten quickly and the hackosphere is still chattering about it. Enter my pal Shandypockets who, while ill in bed the other day, put a video together for our amusement.

The clip is from a 2004 movie called Der Untergang (The Downfall). The subtitles, however, belong solely to Shandypockets.


23 September 2008

Quiet, working and *that* competition

Sorry, I've been so quiet. I took the weekend off for a much-needed proper break and headed to the bright lights of London for a show, dinner out with friends and late-night chats over a bottle of brandy.

I've been working flat out the last few days as I race to meet a deadline. There are more in the offing, too.

I just popped over to the 3rd Annual Writing Blog Awards. The winners have been announced. As expected, I didn't make the top 10 (but congrats to those who did), but it was fun in a weirdly masochistic sort of way. And it's attracted new readers (quick wave hello to you all!).

19 September 2008

Media Diet Week 38

Press: despite my best intentions, it was late Monday by the time I was back in the habit of reading the news again. And Tuesday by the time I was reading my usual daily round of papers online. There's been only one story all week worth paying attention to - the global financial crisis. I've been affected directly by this - I edit for overseas investment banks and my daily workload unexpectedly dried up when trading was suspended on the exchanges in some countries as their listed shares went into freefall. But I digress. What was most interesting was how the financial news seemed to be being driven by one man - Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor. His updates on the HBOS takeover by Lloyds were extraordinary by any standard, with hourly updates of the hottest gen ages before anyone else knew what was going on. It was fascinating and addictive to watch and no other news outlet was so on the ball.

Blogs: undoubtedly, the event of the week for me was tagging onto the back end of the Manchester Evening News' hosting of the Manchester Bloggers meeting. An incomplete round-up of the blog reports has already been posted. I was chuffed to see my pull quote, it certainly put a smile on my face. I still want a MEN coffee mug, though. It's always interesting to meet other bloggers - mostly they are faceless entities who draw you in with their prose and meeting them in the flesh can be a bit of a shock, but you get to see other sides of them than just the one that comes across in their posts. Web 2.0 and social networking are not to be sniffed at but human contact is important too.

TV/radio: another thin week for me given my busyness. I missed most of my regular TV fare and was reduced to catching up with EastEnders on iPlayer, godsend that it is as I refuse to subscribe to SkyPlus. I love the easy availability of online content, especially when it's live - I had an enjoyable afternoon today half-listening to and half-watching the Andy Murray Davis Cup rubber on the internet as I was hacking away with work stuff.

Books: sadly for Creditor, I'm still enjoying Piers Morgan's latest, Don't You Know Who I Am?, which is keeping me entertained on trains right now. Interestingly, at 40 or so pages in, he mentions the decision to buy Press Gazette with Matthew Freud (I wonder, Creditor, are you berating Freud too, or those who blog about him? Just curious...) but haven't got as far as the bit where he fesses up about how it all went to so wrong. No doubt I'll be wiser by the time I get back from my weekend away, which will include long hours passed on trains with books. Only then shall I pass judgement, if I need to pass it at all. The Blair Years is on hold for now. Must be because it's conference season, which is as good a reason as any to ignore politics.

18 September 2008

Of blogs and MEN

It's amazing where they let you in these days upon the flashing of a press card - Manchester Evening News last night hosted a bash for local bloggers so naturally I gatecrashed. MEN has just moved into swanky new premises in the heart of the city, so new I could smell that odd aroma of brand-new electronics, like when you enter Comet.

And what else was that assailing my nostrils? Ah yes, the whiff of nostalgia. We toured the newsroom and I realised it was 17 years since I'd last worked full-time on a publication, in an office... It being after 6, the newsroom was fairly quiet with just a skeleton shift cracking on with things. The phones were eerily silent too. For a moment, I thought: - I could work here. Then I pictured the vast open-plan space crammed to full with bodies, shrieking telephones, shouted orders and bosses bearing down on me and reminded myself why I went freelance. Newsrooms have changed enormously since I trained. MEN's had a TV studio in one corner, for one thing. No running back and forth dozens of times to the typesetter on press day, like I used to, either.

After the tour, deputy editor Maria McGeoghan chaired an informal debate on blogging and the media, in which we had a lively discussion about the use of tools such as Twitter and how bloggers can drive the news agenda. Even Getting Ink, not a Manchester blog, got namechecked because of the trolling issue and how bloggers handle comments (and it wasn't me who raised it, honest!).

Then it was time for the goodie bags. Yes, goodie bags! We got Guardian Hay Festival cotton bags and a copy of the Manchester Evening News. No fancy MEN coffee mug then. I knew I should have swiped one off the subs' desk when I had the opportunity. Once we'd trousered the swag, it was off to the pub for a swift pint and a bit of networking with the other bloggers before it was time to bid farewell and get the train home. Must do it again sometime...

16 September 2008

Black holes and recession-proofing

Not a reference to the large hadron collider, but it might as well be.

My pitches are all currently vanishing into nowhere right now. Unfortunately, this is the freelance's lot and I know enough not to take it personally but it's still frustrating. One particular story I've been trying to sell for weeks. It's topical, it has the right amount of sleaze attached to it and it raises serious questions about the conduct of a certain section of the press. One editor was kind enough to respond fairly quickly with a "no, it's not quite right for us" but the other one is resolutely ignoring me. I wish this ed would just mail back and say no.

I'm trying to place another story, a health one, with a mag I've written for a few times already. Despite follow-up mails designed to elicit a firm yay or nay, this ed is ignoring me too. Grr.

It seems to be the season - other freelances I know are also being blanked. It's not personal. And times are hard right now in the industry as publications tighten their belts - the credit crunch means less advertising being sold, means fewer pages, means fewer slots to fill. And staffers being "let go". One staff colleague lost their job last week. I hope this person won't be the first of many amongst my circle. My local paper's pagination has been slashed - not that I write for it, but it's an indication of tougher times to come. It's now so thin I'll have trouble lining the cat's litter tray with it.

I'm lucky that I have enough non-journalism work (other writing jobs and copy-editing) to keep me going. A number of colleagues today were talking about the stock-market turmoil in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and asking me for advice (finance is one of my specialisms). Undoubtedly some of them are going to hit a rocky patch as the economy stutters. It's definitely the time to diversify - I already do that, but some freelances I know are looking at teaching part-time or taking on bar work temporarily, just to pay the bills.

My own plan, by Xmas, is to move into new areas in my fields. I had a tentative offer to do some pro-blogging today - I don't know if anything will come of it but it's definitely a time to expand my expertise. And as I'm planning to move again soon, I'm also considering new training in InDesign so I can take on in-house shifts as well.

15 September 2008

In the finals!

So, this blog has made it to the finals of the 3rd Annual Top Ten Blogs for Writers Contest. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who voted me (er, all five of you...). But don't all hold your breath now, there are 37 of us on the shortlist.

TBH, my chances of getting into the top 10 are very slim. It's a US contest, for one thing - I suspect I may be the only Brit in there. Plus, almost all the other blogs shortlisted that I've looked at seem to be about how to earn more money, find more clients, be more successful... ah, smell those cultural differences! This blog just doesn't cover that sort of thing. It's not that I'm not interested - of course I want to earn more money, have more clients and be more successful. We all do. It's just I see little point in covering that sort of thing when others out there are already doing that better than I could. Most of my fellow contestants are also professional bloggers, which I'm not.

As a Brit, this blog potters rather than pushes, and I like to muse, rant and ramble when the mood strikes. In short, it reflects my working life to a certain extent, which is sort of what I planned when I started DoaW.

Anyway, the gloves are off now. I just hope I don't end up humiliated at no. 37...

14 September 2008

Media Diet Week 37

Warning: this will be a very thin one.

Press: I have not read a paper for a whole week! There, I've said it. I left home last Sunday lunchtime and didn't return till very late on Tuesday night. Normally on a Sunday I'd be stuck into The Observer and the News of the World, but I had no time last week as I was packing to go away. Monday and Tuesday I had limited access to the net so my time online was limited to scanning my email for anything urgent. Wednesday I was back home, looking at a day filled with playing catch-up. I was vaguely aware that it was Big Bang Day but didn't have the energy to pay a lot of attention. Anyway, I don't seem to have been sucked into a black hole yet. Not that sort, anyway. By Thursday I was simply out of the habit of reading the news and although I planned to resume today, it hasn't happened. Living without the news is a bit weird at first, then you sort of stop caring. But no doubt I'll be back to normal tomorrow.

Blogs: likewise, I've been out of touch with the blogosphere. Not much seems to be happening, apart from Sally blocking a troll at Getting Ink, and rightly so. Oh, and the Guardian's blogs all moved house, sort of. Anyway, they're all in one spot now, which is handy.

TV/radio: being away meant missing half of EastEnders. I planned to catch up on the omnibus but life got in the way. The second half got interesting, though, with a couple of very juicy and lengthy storylines in the offing about revenge and paedophilia (not necessarily linked). I was tickled to learn from the BBC's press releases that Tom Archer is to be appointed Controller of Factual Production. Sadly, the real Tom Archer is still raising pigs in Ambridge. I've watched very little else but did tune into Radio 4 for the Torchwood drama on Big Bang Day. Excellent stuff.

Books: I'm still no further forward with Alistair Campbell's Blair Years diaries. I have a long train trip coming up next weekend so I plan to attempt another chunk. At this rate, I might finish them by Xmas. I did take yesterday off to finish Spider, which was quite good on tension but I was able to guess the plot all too easily. I'm now about 3 pages into Piers Morgan's Don't You Know Who I Am?. Review next week.

10 September 2008

A moan* of editors

Garblage warning: I'm tired. Apologies in advance for typos and general ramblingness.

It's September and that means it's time for the annual gathering of the SfEP. I almost didn't go this year but had my arm twisted by the organisers, who wanted me to present something. Copy-editors and proofreaders tend to be seen as rather staid, possibly because many of us live with a level of pedantry akin to borderline OCD. I don't mean that we are inflexible about language rules, more that it's hard for us to resist whipping out a pen in a restaurant and correcting the typos on the menu.

Put more than 100 of us together for 2 and a bit days and, well, you can probably imagine what a lot of the conversations might be like. However, we do like to have fun. And while some of the older, more staid members are indeed likely to toddle off to bed at 10pm after a small sherry, there's enough of us who are bit more rock 'n' roll about staying up drinking beyond chucking-out time. So quite a few of us are probably coping with extended hangovers just now. I certainly didn't relish falling into my own bed back at home last night at midnight, then having to get up at 6.30 this morning to edit for an overseas client on a major time difference...

But I digress. there was a lot to pack in over the 2 and a bit days, what with workshops, seminars, guest lecturers (including the very wonderful David Crystal, our VP and witty speaker) and entertainments. I prepared nothing in advance for my slot, because I'm like that - I like to just run with something. And as I was doing a live on the net demo, it didn't need a lot of prepping. Although I could have done without the hangover from the previous night's bar antics. As usual, I failed to win anything on the raffle but I did come home with a nice mug and a book.

What I most enjoy about events like this is the opportunity to take a break from work and let my hair down among friends and colleagues while learning new things. One workshop I sat in consisted of a collective brainstorm to share useful resources such as online specialist dictionaries. You don't know what you don't know until you sit down with others who know things and offer them to you freely.

Now I'm home - the cat has pissed on the mat to show his displeasure at being left to fend for himself (with only a neighbour between him and starvation), I have 7 messages on my ansaphone, a mountain of post and a very full inbox. Normal life - hello!

* As far as I know editors have no collective noun - moan was recently suggested by a colleague and rather appropriate it is too...

05 September 2008

Media Diet Week 36

Press: it's not long since I had a pop at The Sun's redesign. I still find it clunky and slow, but earlier in the week I dropped in to The Mirror's website and was reminded all over again why I hate it. It looks good - I love the mosaic of full-colour pix on the home page - but when I click on News, why does it take me to a page that offers only 3 main stories followed by 2 secondary splashes? There's another link that says "More News" so I have to click again to read all the headlines at a glance and see what stories I actually want to delve into. This is stupid, useless design - forcing readers to make extra click-throughs endears you to no one. Not even your most loyal readers. And I'm not one of those - the Mirror will remain a site I will only ever dip into when absolutely necessary because of its user-unfriendliness. Thanks are due to The Guardian today for the funniest film review I have read in years. Peter Bradshaw's linguistic tongue twistas had me in stitches. All reviews should be this entertaining. More please. And, lest I forget, R.I.P. Eve.

Blogs: I was pointed towards The Gentlemen Ranters a few days ago, which is an amusing collection of hack anecdotes and spoof features. Love it. More please! Fleet Street Blues has been strangely quiet for weeks but has broken its silence to let us know it's going to be even quieter for a couple of months - intriguing! Talking of quiet, the Churnalists also seem to have chucked the towel in (or should that be hung the towel over the beer pump?). Shame.

TV/radio: It's been a good week for telly. After watching Jerry Springer last week on Who Do You Think You Are, I felt it would be hard to top that for compelling TV but I was wrong. God On Trial was, quite simply, brilliant. It shone. Even as it shone a light into dark corners. Anthony Sher led a fantastic cast reflecting the cream of British actors. I leave it to Andrew Collins for a proper review, and I agree with his parting comment about the licence fee... God on Trial clashed, of course, with WDYTYA, which fortunately has a next-day repeat, so I was able to catch up with Esther Rantzen's trip into her past. Forget about it being a good week for telly, this was a great week for Holocaust TV. But how could the BBC film Rantzen standing in the centre of the long-razed Warsaw Ghetto and fail to place her at the stunning memorial to the ghetto uprising just around the corner?

Books: I am a failure. I've read none of Alistair Campbell's diary this week at all. Not even paragraph. I did pick up something lighter (relatively speaking - it depends if you like serial killer thrillers or not. I do). I started Michael Morley's Spider and have managed about 40 pages over the last nights. Not much has happened yet.

And finally... I can't leave this week without a reference to BBC News Online's Magazine, which published 20 examples of grammar misuse on Wednesday. They were all sent in by readers and what tickled me most was the number of complaints against the BBC itself for slack use of language on the website. Aunty, consider your wrist slapped.

02 September 2008

Beer o'clock

It's coming up to 6.30pm as I start this post and I've just cracked open a beer. Most days I'll pour something to mark the line between the end of my working day and my free time in the evening. Sometimes it's beer, sometimes it's a glass of wine. But early evening is always beer o'clock.

I need the beer today as I'm cross at how little work I've actually managed to achieve today. I was up just before 7 and by 8 had done an hour's editing for a client. I spent the next hour reading The Guardian online. Then I spent the time between 9 and 10 finishing a corporate job and chatting to that client. Then my landlord called. Then a friend rang (quick wave goodbye to the best part of an hour!). Then I read another paper online, dipped into Facebook and Journobiz and, before I knew it, it was 1pm!

I started doing my monthly invoices but the printer finally ran out of the last drop of ink so I jumped in the shower at 2 and headed out at 3 to buy ink. By the time I got back, via a window specialist to sort out my window key problem, it was 4.30 and I'd missed the post. Oh well, I discovered I didn't have enough stamps anyway - the invoices will go in the post tomorrow. I was also too late to ring the council to get pest control to come round and exterminate the rat that appeared in my back garden last night, but I did find time in the morning to ring the estate agent to blast them about not taking down the For Sale sign outside 10 weeks ago - this morning, I found some kids had pulled it out of the flowerbed during the night and slung it across my pathway. It's gone at last.

Other things I wanted to get done included chasing some pitches (they all seem to have fallen into a black hole) and pay some urgent bills. Tomorrow, tomorrow. Except I'd reserved tomorrow for a bit of shopping as I urgently need some new clothes to replace the schmattes I'm living in at the moment. Now, I'll have to do the invoices, the bills, the window keys (again) and the rest.

A colleague on Twitter today said freelancing is a rollercoaster - it is, and sometimes you can't get off. No wonder I need beer...

On the plus side, I got a nice email at the end of the afternoon from a potential new client offering editing work. I rang her back to chat more - it's local, on site and will probably pay well. I've mailed back my CV and she'll talk to her client (she's a go-between) but it looks positive as it's in my specialist field. Fingers crossed. Regular work = Good.

01 September 2008

Fry's English too light

The last two Monday mornings I've been tuning into Fry's English Delight. Like its almost-namesake, it's a slice of frothy confectionery - apparently tasty at the time but rather sickly sweet and utterly unmemorable. After this morning's episode, I can barely remember what was discussed apart from the opener about the white-van man offering quotations as he drove around London. This is not my memory failing me, but a programme of little substance. And so very disappointing - Fry is usually not only witty and sharp but also manages to take listeners on an exciting trip with him. Not this time - this was Fry's Quirkless Too Lite. Fry is an official national treasure - was I wrong to expect more of him?

Elsewhere, following up yesterday's Tesco story, I stumbled across a report in today's Daily Mail (normally a paper I avoid) which tells the world that Tesco has still managed to get its grammar wrong, even while cleaning up its act. Complete with pic: