23 October 2008


Sorry for no updates. Taking a temporary break for personal reasons. Back soon I hope.

19 October 2008

Media Diet Week 42

Press: once again, I've been sampling the joys of our national railway network and unsurprisingly this involved spending at station newsagents. I quite like hoofing down to London for meetings - it's a welcome break from the computer and the opportunity to indulge in print media. Wednesday's trip involved buying The Guardian and a copy of Look (because I love the high st. fashion spreads). I had little chance to read either as I got involved in a lengthy conversation with the traveller opposite, who turned out to be a repo man. He's working in interesting times (and in the field of business equipment repossession) so the insights were fascinating. For once, I didn't mind not reading on the train. On the journey home the next morning, I made an impulse purchase of Mojo, lured by the cover splash of the feuds that led to The Clash splitting and the free CD of rebel songs. Opening Mojo, I was reminded why I gave up buying rock mags a while back, despite my background as a rock hack. Today's crop are full of self-indulgent, rambling nonsense by writers of my generation who can't accept that punk is long gone and keep rehashing their own brand of nostalgia, like picking at scabs on the knee. I haven't tried the CD yet, it better be worth it. Also, Mojo has a truly nasty serif font in a ridiculously small point size that makes reading difficult and means I may never get round to investigating the finer points of the Clash break-up.

Blogs: this week's big theme has been Twitter. Dave Lee blogged first about his thoughts on extracting the best out of it. I also posted some thoughts. The Guardian's Charles Arthur reckons link-sharing is key to Twitter, while Sally Whittle shared the hilarity of TwitterKarma and etiquette. Me, I think Twitter is undoubtedly fantastic for spreading linky love but it is also a jolly useful grease gun for oiling the wheels of social networking - Twitter-natter is good for getting to know people and, this week especially, supporting friends and colleagues through tough times as they cope with dying pets and other stresses. On a technical note, I'm reluctantly contemplating abandoning Bloglines forever. Its RSS feed is still delivering the goods hideously late, unacceptable when you're in the media and need stuff quickly. My back-up is Google Reader and I'm probably going to switch permanently to that, despite my reluctance to succumb to all things G. At least Reader is reliable. And if IT apps don't want to lose market share to the Google monolith they need to ensure they are up to scratch.

TV/radio: the start of the week was full of gems on the small screen. Last Sunday, the ever-delightful and interesting Stephen Fry kicked off his US travelogue on the Beeb - yes, it was cosy and a tad predictable but it was perfect Sunday night viewing, especially as Fry has an unerringly instinctive eye for the quirky. Lulled into warm cuddliness, I flipped over immediately after to watch former Blair spin-doctor Alistair Campbell talk with extraordinary frankness about his breakdown in Cracking Up. This was top-notch telly - uncomfortable to watch at times but also important as TV desperately needs to show more good programmes about mental health, especially as 1 in 5 of us will suffer from depression at some point. I also enjoyed the opener of Wired on Monday, a thriller about bank fraud (great timing!) - it got off to a good start, let's hope it can sustain the pace and deliver a cracking denouement. Charlie Brooks (ex-Janine in EastEnders) was woefully underused, though.

Books: I'm still on The Arsenic Labyrinth! I know, I know, it's been 2 weeks already and I'm still only just over halfway through. I'm determined to finish it this week. Especially as I have some essential reads stacking up in the to-read pile.

16 October 2008


There are not many things I hate about being self-employed but doing the books probably comes top of the list. When I first started freelancing, I was really organised and sat down on the last Friday of every month to enter everything into my accounting programme and file invoices and bills. A look back through some of this blog's earliest entries shows that even a couple of years ago I was still relatively in control of the paperwork.

And then it all started to slide. Part of the problem was I never quite got to grips with the software - there didn't seem to be a massive incentive to keep struggling with it, especially as my accountant doesn't use it and is quite happy to just take a file of paperwork off me. So about a year ago I just gave up on it completely, but I kept putting off starting up a simple spreadsheet instead. It helps that I have a good memory for keeping track of which clients have paid up and I log into my bank account several times a week to look at what's going on there.

This year, I've not even filed the paperwork, just slung it all into a box folder as it was generated. But there's nothing like a deadline to galvanise you. Armed with the certain knowledge that my accountant will be on my doorstep bright and early tomorrow expecting coffee and a neatly bundled package of admin to take away, there was only one option.

And so, dear reader, I spent my entire afternoon wading through the box file and attempting to make sense of all my expenses (the invoices are pretty straightforward). I quickly discovered that a lot of bills that arrived by email I'd not printed off, then I had to peer at fading till receipts and scrawl notes on them so my long-suffering accountant knows what I spent money on.

Finally, it was all done. Everything is in date order in a lever arch file, neatly sorted into income, expenditure, bank statements and "other".Tomorrow my fairy godmother will start waving her magic wand and a few weeks later she will have filed my tax return for me and printed off a full set of accounts for me, including a profit and loss statement, balance sheet and all the rest.

She's worth her weight in gold. And she's tax-deductible.

13 October 2008

Twittering on...

Journalist Dave Lee recently wrote an interesting blog post about using Twitter. As a Twitter user myself, I've found it incredibly useful. I subscribe to a number of useful news feeds from various media organisations and most of my tweep crowd are fellow hacks or flacks - it's good to be able to swap links on interesting new stuff (you never know when that might trigger an idea for a pitch). I've been offered the opportunity to beta-test new tech products and I've chatted to editors about possible topics for features (I once saw a colleague pitch an idea to an ed and secure the deal, all by tweeting!). I also use it as my water-cooler to chat to colleagues and my handful of non-work friends using it.

I had tried Twitter last year but didn't "get" it at the time. This time round, I picked up on its uses right away.

Dave Lee is absolutely right when he points out that news organisations such as the Beeb need to sort out their Twitter feeds and also engage in conversation. I use the BBC Magazine feed - while it follows me back, my attempts to engage in conversation have been met with silence. What's that all about? I'd really like to build a relationship with BBC Magazine via Twitter, as one day I might pluck up the courage to pitch them. Not responding means you might as well just pump out a bog-standard RSS feed if you don't want to converse with your followers.

Most of the hacks I follow tweet a well-balanced mix of links to their articles or blogs, or links to other stuff of interest, chit-chat on newsworthy topics (yes, we're all chucking in our tuppenceworth on the financial crisis right now) and personal stuff. Those I followed who turned out to be only tweeting what they ate for lunch or whatever, I unfollowed fairly quickly. My day is full enough already and there's no space for that kind of pure trivia - it's best left to blogs or chatting to mates on Yahoo Messenger.

I blogged the other day that Stephen Fry has joined Twitter and how rapidly he got followed by thousands (and also very generously began following many of us in return too). I hope Fry's Twitter experience won't be as crippling as his Facebook one - he was obliged to create a fan page on Facebook to manage his massive fanbase and the demands it put on his already limited time. Twitter definitely seems to work best when you exercise some control over who you follow and (occasionally) let follow you back. That said, Fry's already been regaling us with some splendid photos hot from his trip to Kenya (including the notch of a rhino's ear!) and it's fun to have this little peep into his extraordinary life. I enjoy tennis ace Andy Murray's tweets for the same reason.

Twitter is definitely at its best when it combines focus and the personal and is reciprocal.

11 October 2008

Unsub: the aftermath of an edit-free zone

As newspapers continue their drive to slash costs and streamline processes, there has been a marked trend towards getting rid of sub-editors and making the journalists sub their own copy and upload it into the content management system.

A number of high-profile journalists and media commentators, such as Jeff Jarvis, have insisted this is the way to go and that editors will be given a new role as a "gentle coach".

So what really happens when sub-editors get made redundant and the hacks are left to their own devices? The Sunday Express found out recently to its cost that it was a false economy.

The memo leaked to Media Guardian sent by a senior staffer at the paper to the journalists there revealed what a disaster the decision to fire 80 sub-editors has been. And more are apparently to be laid off shortly!

I have to admit I practically wept with laughter when I read the memo yesterday. It more than backs up my assertion that subs do much more than cut copy to fit. The list of howlers, gaffes, basic spelling errors and potential legal problems arising from the daft decision to make the hacks edit their own work just proves that sub-editors are the oil that keeps the cogs running smoothly at a newspaper.

I don't have much time for the Express, but I find it depressing that any company would be prepared to publish anything so error-strewn, just to save a few quid, and trash its reputation into the bargain. If I were an Express reader, the poor quality of its copy would have me switching allegiance to another paper.

If anything, the experience at the Sunday Express should be sufficient to convince all newspapers that cutting back on sub-editors is a stupid idea. Sure, these are difficult times for the media, especially as we enter a recession and advertising revenue, which funds the press, is reduced.

I'll be interested to see whether the media commentators still think subs are an unnecessary luxury...

10 October 2008

Media Diet Week 41

Press: the turmoil on the financial markets around the world this week has meant the papers have been out of date even before they rolled off the presses. Fortunately, papers these days are online too and the best ones update hourly or even faster. Print editions are best left for in-depth background features as the headlines change so rapidly. I've been glued to the Guardian this week for financial updates and also Robert Peston's blog on the BBC website, which to my mind has the most incisive analysis and most interesting forecasts. The best other material I've read this week is the Guardian's G2 special today on deafness. It's great to see disability being covered intelligently and with some humour too. More please.

Blogs: there seems to have been a theme this week out there in cyberspace - word lists. First, I stumbled over Difficult Words, which was a fairly comprehensive list of words that are often confused with others (hat-tip to Juliet). I also rather enjoyed BBC Magazine's wordy musings this week - the bizarre story of the dictionary reader, Ammon Shea, who is a tad obsessed with the vast vocabulary of the English language. Following on from that, the Magazine published our 50 favourite words, some of which are splendidly silly. And there's also the Magazine's very handy list of financial jargon, which is pretty useful right now. When editing financial stuff (daily in my case), these are largely familiar to me but I've yet to see my clients using "dead cat bounce". Still, at least I'll know what it means if it does crop up.

TV/radio: a thin week as I was out a lot and, as usual, resorted to BBC iPlayer to stay up to speed with EastEnders and The Archers. I managed to catch all of Place of Execution, which finished this week, a fairly faithful adaptation of Val McDermid's brilliant crime novel. The only other telly of note was Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which I used to watch religiously when Mark Lamarr was in the driving seat. I lost interest when they tinkered with the format (now back to how it was) and I never quite took to Simon Amstell. But Buzzcocks was essential viewing on Thursday as Stephen Fry was guest captain oppposite Phill Jupitus. Needless to say, Fry was his usual brilliant self, but I don't doubt viewing figures were pushed higher after Fry made an appearance on Twitter the same day. Within hours he'd amassed a following of thousands and I was overjoyed when he started following me in return. Whodathunkit?

Books: busy week, so still only a third through The Arsenic Labyrinth. How did I run out of time to read books? Twenty years ago, on a career break to do my degree, I thought nothing of reading 7 or 8 books a week and I went out almost every night back then. These days it seems to take a month to get through just one.

08 October 2008

Stalked and garbled

So there I was this morning, fuelled on my favourite Columbian coffee and putting my article together. I'd already completed a couple of interviews and done my background research. Now I was writing it up and rearranging the paragraphs, reworking sentences and making sure what I had planned in my head was what was appearing on the screen. I had just one interview to go.

The phone rang.

- hello, says I.

- hi, it's xxx here. I hear you're writing an article about us.

- um, yes I am. I was actually about to ring you. (I really was. You can't write a story without letting the other party have their say.)

Hmmm, was my interviewee psychic? Stalking me?* We agreed to chat again in 5 minutes' time so I could get an official statement. In the interim I turned the air bluer than Jamie Oliver's latest programme, while I frantically ripped my office apart hunting for my Retell 156.** I found it and wired it in with seconds to spare. Then breathed out and flipped the "record" switch.

Sheesh, ain't that always the way when you get caught on the hop. At least my stalkerinterviewee had no idea how unorganised I was.

Copy filed, I nipped out for a bit and returned to find an offer of work on my phone. The message was so garbled that I had to listen 5 times to figure out their phone number and I had no idea of the person's name. Then it was my turn to go stalking as I googled the number to get a company name and, importantly, the name of the person who just rang. This is one reason why email follow-ups are very useful. If I leave a voicemail for someone, I often mail them afterwards just to make sure my message is clear and they have all my contact details to hand.

* Joke!

** This nifty bit of kit doesn't look like owt special, but it plugs into the phone and a digital recorder so you can record a two-way conversation.

07 October 2008

Busy bee

Somehow I managed to finish the book proposal today. I drafted the bulk of it on Sunday and then wrote a draft introduction today of around 1,000 words. I'm quite pleased with what I've submitted and I'm confident it will pass muster with the publisher. They've already acknowledged receipt and said I will hear next week if I get the contract. Fingers crossed.

In between I've crammed in no less than 3 medical appointments - 2 check-ups and my flu jab. I also wasted 30 minutes waiting around in the pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions, only to be told there is a supply problem for my epilepsy medication. Great. Now I have to go to another chemist tomorrow to collect half my tablets. The rest I can't get at all. I feel a rant coming on - time to pick up the phone and berate Big Pharma for putting me at risk of seizures if I can't get my meds...

I got a commission from a national newspaper yesterday so this afternoon and this evening has been spent researching and interviewing. My deadline is lunchtime tomorrow, giving me not a huge amount of time to pull it all together and write it up. Except I have to use that time to chase my meds at the other chemist as they will only hold the tablets until lunchtime. I sense a major conflict of interests approaching and probably a headache too.

The afternoon will be filled seeing my GP, again. And queuing at the hospital for routine yearly blood tests. I lead such an exciting life...

05 October 2008

Media Diet Week 40

Press: I seem to have ever less time to read the press and I'm not sure why that is. I'm not going out more at present than I was a few months ago, nor am I spending more time on the computer. If anything, I'm spending less, the PC slack being taken up by a slight increase in my TV viewing. So I was rather surprised today to find myself clearing out a barely read copy of BBC Good Food, pausing only to rip out 3 recipes. New purchases this week included Great British Food, bought for research with a view to pitching (a previous copy acquired for the same reason got lost in the house move) but I'd like to find the time to read it for pleasure too, and Bizarre, as it has a story in it on a campaign I'm involved with. I don't usually read Bizarre as it's just not quite my thing even though it ought to be, so this is a rare purchase for me.

Blogs: Technorati seems to have finally started resolving its problems. My blogs are being pinged again and I'd like to think it's cos I had a moan last week. On the downside, my RSS reader Bloglines is now playing up and being very slow at picking up feeds. I have a back-up in Google Reader but I prefer Bloglines for a number of reasons so I hope this is a temporary blip. I have become obsessed with a new blog called The Bureau, largely because the author clearly belongs to my professional body but their identity is maddeningly elusive. I am clearly more pedantic than Bureauista, though I draw the line at grammar nazism.

TV: I've noticed that my TV consumption has increased slightly. Ok, it's doubled. Probably. But all that means is that I'm probably averaging 90 minutes a day rather than 45 (an episode of EastEnders plus the news headlines, maybe). Naturally, I'm watching Strictly Come Dancing again this year, but I'm irritated by the length of the results show. An hour is over-egging it and I find myself tuning in just for the last 20 minutes. There are also far too many couples this year and I fear the BBC is stretching its brand to the limit. There's cashing in on a hit show and there's alienating loyal viewers. We really do not need Claudia Winkleman on 5 nights a week for 16 weeks. My new secret vice, though, is Katie and Peter: The Next Chapter. I hate reality TV yet I find this weirdly addictive, not least because Jordan has had so much "work" done on her face that her upper lip is becoming a star in its own right. Lesley Ash must be weeping at the loss of her trout pout title.

Books: deeply engrossed in The Arsenic Labyrinth right now. As crime novels go, so far it's shaping up very nicely. And as crime novelists go, Martin Edwards just gets better and better. The Blair Years is still on hold...

02 October 2008

Woefully neglected

No, not me (although I could argue a case!) but this blog. I've had one of those weeks where I've been running around like a headless chicken.

I've finally signed off two writing projects, which means (I hope) that I can start preparing my book proposal for the publisher tomorrow. And also start the long task of cutting a client's book manuscript in half and knocking it into shape so they can present something usable to the agent and hopefully get a publishing deal.

I spent a large chunk of yesterday learning basic belly dancing steps. I should point out that this was in the name of journalism and bloody hell, but my back and abdominal muscles aren't half making their presence felt today.

It's also been a week of visits. A copywriter colleague dropped in for coffee earlier in the week and we had an enjoyable chinwag for an hour or so over chocolate macaroons. If things go according to plan, we may be working together before too long. Tomorrow, the last remaining parent drops by, the one I haven't seen for 13 months and with whom I have had only sporadic telephone contact in that period. Fortunately for both of us the royal visit is likely to last only an hour and may inspire me to pitch the event to a paper somewhere (although knowing my luck, said pitch would fall into the same black hole as all the recent others).

At least my mate C is arriving tomorrow to erase all memory of the parental drive-by. It's been a while since I last saw C, who is a high-flying scientist doing amazing things in a lab somewhere at the other end of the country. She'll be here for 24 hours and what we have in common (apart from being gorgeous and talented) is epilepsy. So my town can expect to see two pissed-up spazzers out on the razz tomorrow night, followed by the pair of us crawling around in dark glasses on Saturday as I attempt to show C the sights while we fight off our hangovers...