30 November 2008

This ain't the Tansa for subbing

A colleague drew my attention to Tansa the other day. It's basically a software program that will sub text. The Economist and Telegraph are, apparently, already using it.

One freelance colleague half-jokingly said it would make all sub-editors redundant by Christmas. A frightening thought, given the massively high levels of redundancy in the industry at present.

Even more sobering is the scenario another colleague envisioned - the temptation when under pressure for the sub operating the software to let a piece of copy go through entirely unread by anyone except the original writer. Cue potential for libel. Or decency issues.

It may have been invented as a tool to ease the pressure on the subs' desk so they can get on with reading through for sense, defamation problems and so on, but no doubt the bosses will see it as an opportunity to slash staff and save money.

Software will never replace the human touch, but I believe it will lead to more personnel losses and falling standards if proprietors think it's a way to save money.

27 November 2008


No, not me. It would be quite hard to sack myself. But the last 2 weeks have been full of unrelenting gloom about redundancies in the press. You can read some of it here, here, here and here... And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I feel for my staff colleagues who are facing redundancy. I worry for those who are still there but have no idea how long for. I see newly redundant colleagues thrust into freelancing not from choice and having to figure it out on the hoof.

A friend was made redundant today then asked to reapply for her job, which now has a new title and - amazingly - a slight pay increase. So it's not all bad but these are very worrying times.

I've been quiet on here as I've had a massive workload and been keeping my head down getting on with keeping the proverbial from my doorstep. I'm grateful I have a broad spread of clients but I do wonder how long many of us freelances can keep going.

11 November 2008

PR pap of the day

I think I'm going to have make this a very regular feature, such is the poor quality of the press releases dropping into my inbox every day (and worsening, too).

So, to today's:

One in Four People will Suffer from Mental Health This Year

That was the title. My initial reaction was shock that only 25% of the nation are sane in the brain and the remaining three-quarters are all stricken with problems ranging from depression to personality disorders.

My second concern was that there are only 7 weeks left until the end of the year. Does this mean that the population's mental health is only going to be suffering between now and then? Because really, if you plan to make a 12-month forecast it's best to do it at the start of the year. Alternatively, if you actually mean next year, then say so.

Reading the release, it becomes clear that, of course, the statistic is about 25% of people having mental ill-health. But with such a shoddy, misleading intro I just want to hit delete. After all, if the bunny can't get the title right, what's the chance of any of the rest of the statistics therein being accurate?

10 November 2008

Wannabe hacks revisited

I occasionally dip into a certain forum for journalists that seems, unfortunately, to attract a particular class of post and a certain type of poster.

There is a high number of posts offering unpaid work, which might be ok if it was for a 2-week work experience somewhere decent, but usually they ask for experienced professionals, a lengthy commitment and no reward beyond a byline. One recent post was about the launch of a luxury lifestyle magazine, asking for seasoned contributors and expecting them to supply their own equipment - asking a writer to bring a laptop would just about pass muster if the publication was a community paper run on a shoestring. It's not acceptable when the magazine is aiming to attract advertising from high-end brands and expecting to sell to very high earners.

But enough about that.

What I find more worrying, of major concern even, is the high number of people posting and asking the most elementary questions. A couple of days ago someone new to freelancing was asking how to get paid. I'm well aware journalism courses often don't teach anything on freelancing but I'd expect a journo grad to have the nous to look up some info on the net somewhere on the basics of running a small business. There are quite a few government-funded sites, for example, that provide this sort of gen in simple language. More alarming was the poster's remark that this was a big company but she had no idea how to contact anyone there beyond an email address. Now if a journalist can't even google a company name to find their HQ and phone number, then I fear for the future of the nation's press.

This was a fairly typical query. Others run along the lines of "can I expect to be published without flashing a degree or two first?" and "do editors give the reporters stories to write about? Or does the reporter have to generate the stories him/herself?". The one that seriously alarmed me was "What happens once the news piece has been done, does it get proofed and then edited?" This was from someone who had just done work experience on a local paper and even written some stories for it. It does beg the question why the poster hadn't asked anyone on the paper while there to give them a quick tour cum rundown of how a paper is put together. But more shocking I think is the fact that so many universities are turning out journalism grads who basically don't seem to have learned anything practical or useful. What are they doing on their 3 years on campus? I would seriously love to know.

Back when I trained (long before someone invented journalism degree courses), I learned pretty much everything within 6 months on the job. I was subbing within 2 weeks because it had to be done and making up mock page layouts within a month. I stayed for 30 months and the only thing I didn't learn was shorthand (or proper typing) because the mag didn't have any budget to send me to day-release college. There was no internet then, but I learned fast how to find out info at the library or the town hall. Not knowing was not an option as I feared my editor's wrath.

I came away confident in my skills and knowing I could handle most things thrown at me. Today's lot give the impression they wouldn't know how to fend off a wet paper bag if it were thrown at them.

I don't want to say "Eee, it were better in my day", because it undoubtedly wasn't. The kind of tools available to today's journalists are amazing and wonderful and I would have given my eye teeth to have had mobile phones, the internet, laptops and the rest back then. So why, if they have access to such great kit are we churning out hacks who don't have a clue?

EDITED to add that Press Gazette reports that "new journalists lack key skills". Not sure whether to feel vindicated or even sadder.

Bunny annoyances

Not 1 but 2 bunny boilings landed in my inbox today.

Flacks take note:

1. Sending a press release with the title "JOURNALISTS! READ THIS FIRST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" is going to annoy me. A lot. Partly because there is no need to use shouty caps or 22 exclamation marks (yes I counted them, saddo that I am). It doesn't scream "OMG you must open me as I contain such massive important news". It screams "delete me". I did, out of curiosity, open it - purely to see if it merited even 1 thousandth of that dumbfuck tells-you-nothing title. It didn't - it was about some spa face mask. That title might just have made the grade if it had been to publicise some bigwig's response to Paul Dacre's speech on press freedom, which has been the talk of the hackosphere today. But it wasn't, so it didn't. And another thing - don't send face mask bumph to journalists that aren't beauty writers. Because we really don't care about face masks.

2. I get a lot of "Top 10 Tips" releases - most are dreadful and fit only for deleting. I had a classic today on money-saving tips when shopping for food. Tip no. 4 - experiment with cheaper substitutes such as oyster mushrooms instead of chicken, pancetta instead of bacon - caused me to spray my coffee over my monitor. Since when has pancetta been cheaper than bacon? No 9. was a goody too - rice is a much cheaper alternative to pasta - hello, are you aware that the price of rice is now so high that many Asians in the far east can no longer afford their staple diet? That there are global rice shortages? That even in the UK, rice is both expensive and hard to source? Yes, the price of pasta has gone up too but it's still cheaper than rice. If you must bombard hacks with tips, let them be factually accurate. Meanwhile I'm left wondering where that bunny did her shopping. Harrods? (Where pancetta possibly is cheaper than bacon, if the bacon is sourced from an organic supplier hand-rearing his weaners halfway up a Peruvian mountain and feeding them on Beluga.)

06 November 2008

Book news

The publishers are racing ahead with my book. The ISBN has already been registered with Nielsen, I've got to get a decent author pic for the cover by the start of next month and the publication date has been set (Spring, in case you are wondering). Oh, and there's the little matter of the deadline for my draft. End of 2008. Which means I have precisely 7 weeks to deliver a manuscript and I haven't started writing yet.

I need to get my skates on.

There's the little matter of finishing the other book project I'm working on, plus editing the MS for another author, plus all the other work I have taken on. Panicking? Me? Whatever gave you that idea?

PS: thanks for all the well wishes during my absence. It's good to be back!