Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah) to Happiness

ANYONE listening carefully during the closing scene of the first episode of the BBC drama Press would have heard anguished screams from newspaper sub editors all over the country.

You will need to have listened carefully – we are an endangered species after all – but the screen shot of an intro written by a deputy news editor had us (and journalists of all types) shouting at the TV.

One glance at Twitter was enough to confirm what we were all thinking after the opening episode of the tale of two competing, contrasting and neighbouring newspapers.

Let’s not go in to too much detail of what is wrong with that (basically, all of it – too long, dull, don’t throw all the facts in the first par, local is on the banned words list on a regional paper let alone a national whose readers could be anywhere in the country, last Friday dates it, start with the news angle…)

It needs a complete rewrite.

On a former paper the production staff had a running joke with one ‘award-winning’ reporter in particular that copy needed so much work their byline should read ‘From an original idea by…’. Or unoriginal if we were feeling less charitable.

And who let a reporter (deputy news editor in this case) write her own headline?

There were other complaints from journalists all over Twitter – absolutely no mention of the internet, the appalling design of The Herald, a reporter carrying out an interview without notes or recording, the lack of empty desks and swearing in the office, no feeding frenzy when free food arrives and unrealistic shortage of tea being made and consumed plus a few more niche complaints.

Smelly food seems to be a widespread complaint – one reporter’s name was mentioned in our office when that tweet was spotted.

In fairness, Press was pretty enjoyable. One review described it as more accurate of a newspaper world from 20 years ago – the lack of internet taking precedence confirms that – and from experience in regional newsrooms, there was certainly enough there that rang true (amid a lot that didn’t).

Certainly not as bad as feared after years of watching reporters and newspapers portrayed inaccurately in dramas which have helped to colour public perceptions of our profession.

It’s not a documentary, we get that. But getting most of the basics right is generally a good place to start and, on the whole, Press got enough right to pass muster – and enough wrong for journalists to do what they love most. Moan.

It’s not always the case. Regardless of what most people think, the press  in this country is governed by laws and every trainee journalist has to learn the basics (yes, there is a well-thumbed – albeit out of date – copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists in my desk).

The 10 points of what you can report from the first hearing – as dictated by The Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 – is pretty much the first thing generations of reporters learned. Before knowing where Oxdown is.

A sighting of a newspaper page in any drama normally has me squirming and  watching through my fingers as they blast a headline, designed to explain as simply possible to viewers, which would break any number of legal reporting restrictions. To say nothing of the quite awful design.

Occasionally a film crew will ask the professionals to mock up a page for them – not sure what one production team didn’t like about a design we provided, the look, fact it was not simple enough or that the back page had the two people behind it promoted into the British & Irish Lions squad.

The Lions featured on a genuine back page of mine in a South Wales Echo read by Larry Lamb on the beach at Barry Island during an episode of Gavin & Stacey.

But as much as those of us who nudge pictures around pages and spend ages coming up with headlines (or until a relevant song title or lyric takes to pop into our minds – very proud of last week’s niche top cats provided with dignity effort), it is the stories which really matter.

And words matter.

Each week, send out an email to our reporters and news desk detailing things we have picked up in their copy or have cropped up in the office – be it factual errors, house style or the correct distribution of sauces in a sausage sandwich order (the important stuff).

Some of it may seem trivial, some of it is useful information, some of it drives subs nuts (misspelling the village where one of them grew up is never a good idea). There may be lots of ways to refer to councillors, but only one of them is correct in house style and it looks stupid if it varies from story to story – or paragraph to paragraph in many cases.

Yes, words matter.

One example came to my attention this week and, must admit, had not given it much thought.

Committed suicide is a recognisable phrase, very easy to slip the words together without thinking.

But committed comes from when suicide was a crime so should we really be churning it out without thinking at a time when so much effort is being put in to tackle mental health and its public perception? That’s one for the next style guide email.

And then there’s one which has had a deal of personal resonance over the years, particularly in recent weeks and months – cancer battle.

Remarkably, Rachael Hodges was criticised by a small section of Twitter lowlife for not battling this despicable disease hard enough, regardless of her remarkable work in changing perceptions and putting people with cancer in the spotlight. Not hidden away with people unsure how to deal with them.

Describing it as a battle gives this horrible condition some form of dignity, a foe worthy of meeting on equal terms when all too often the odds have long been stacked far too heavily.

And just the whole thought of winners and losers in this situation is ridiculous.

Understand why people use the phrase and have yet to come up with much better, but suggest we try. Words matter.

Which all adds up to make it slightly ironic the last section of the A-Z trip through my iPod – you know, what this whole blog section is supposed to be about – ends with Happiness.

Was not the main feeling over the past month or so, but recent events have had the side effect of a lot of looking back at happier times and so amid the sadness there’s been a lot of smiles. And laughter.

The latest leg of the journey took us from White Denim to Teenage Fanclub and was dominated by Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Prefab Sprout and Juliana Richer Daily all chipping in with originals, covers and altogether different songs.

There was some terrific stuff along the way but rather than another ridiculously long paragraph listing it all, here’s some of it…

  • A big thank you for the reaction and kind words following my last, untitled piece on the loss of the much-missed Nick Machin. It meant a lot. The number of hits that post has received has been ridiculous – something I’m sure says a lot more about Nick than my writing.
photo by: comedy_nose
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Girl From The North Country to God Save The Queen

Production journalist, endangered species, traveller, blogger, Gloucester rugby & Red Sox fan, indie kid turned melancholic Americano. Views partially obscured
@robglaws – Twitter profile

THE endangered species reference in my Twitter profile was partly a joke, partly a response to the latest round* of journalism redundancies and partly because… well, it’s true.

Anyone who spends their working life dealing with print rather than digital news these days can be excused for feeling like a dinosaur.

And if there was any doubt, somebody told me just that.

It was supposed to be a few drinks with old mates, back in Cardiff. It just happened to coincide with a leaving do at my old paper, so the old mates were supplemented with a fair few of a newer generation of journalists.

And many of them have known little else than a digital first approach to reporting the news (or at least whatever gets the requisite hits), so perhaps should have expected explaining my role in producing a physical product would provoke a question along the lines of ‘what’s it like to be a dinosaur?’.

The person involved was escorted to the bar for even more refreshment and those of us who have worked through the digital revolution from print deadlines to web hits were left shaking our heads and muttering something along the lines of forgetting more about journalism than he had learned.

But his words stuck with me. Is that the way the new breed look at those of us left in print only? Is that the way the powers that be see us when any future cuts are made? And are we really little but a relic of an era long gone?

Would certainly hope my skills do not consign me to extinction. Those skills learned over the years and views on journalism hewn through battles to hit deadlines and many an evening over a few beers when we all would have made top-class editors. Not even averse to producing something on a website…

There’s certainly a place for those skills, be it reporting or subbing whatever the platform they appear on. Best practice is just that, whether you are trying to tell an accurate, well-written tale on paper or on screen.

It is not for nothing we send out a weekly style guide to our reporters.

Or that reports are appearing of one newspaper operation that has come up with the novel idea of employing people to check copy before it goes on the website.

Employing subs, imagine that.

There is one aspect of my life where the dinosaur tag does sit pretty comfortably. Watching television.

It may seem odd to many people, but my viewing habits are largely based on the TV schedules.

Programmes sit unwatched for weeks, often months, on my recorded list (still refer to it as videoed or taped), even series that have had me gripped for a few episodes before missing one for some reason.

And the same is true of my Netflix subscription. There’s a lengthy list of (reasonably) carefully chosen films and programmes. Just rarely get round to watching them.

Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something right about the pace and routine of watching a series in weekly instalments rather than in one or two binges (usually late at night).

Even when there’s nothing on – Tottenham v Rochdale and the inane witterings of Robbie Savage (the personification of the trend to celebrate the inept) in the background is as good a reason to tap away here rather than delve into the delights of Netflix.

And if there’s one thing guaranteed to stop me from choosing that glittering box set, it is being told by any number of people that ‘you just have to watch it’.

Which is why that present of the first few series (that’s series, not season – one for the style guide) of Breaking Bad remains unwatched on DVD and Netflix.

And the box sets which will get me rambling in evangelical fashion (The West Wing and The Wire) were first watched, usually late at night in both cases, on TV and repeatedly on DVD. Not long completed a trawl through both terms of President Bartlet and the streets of Baltimore provided refuge on the journey around Africa.

But maybe times are changing. The dinosaur may just about be catching up with, well, catch up.

Long way to go on Game of Thrones (still in series two as keeps vanishing off Now TV, picked up on a free offer that seemed a good idea) and could well wrap up the first two series of the excellent Detectorists in the next few days – somehow only caught excerpts on initial showing.

And finally got round to watching Stranger Things. It took a while – the first episode watched before the second series had even started before watching every episode over the course of several weekend evenings.

Very good it was too and suggest the third series will be watched as it happens. Or somewhere close.

While much has been written about the music of Stranger Things as a bit of a nostalgia fest, not sure many of the 1980s offerings on the latest stroll through the A-Z journey on my iPod were to be heard on our visits to Hawkins (although an awful lot of my ’80s nostalgia does involve Winona Ryder).

Don’t remember too much by The Smiths (Girlfriend in a Coma), Half Man Half Biscuit (God Gave Us Life and Give Us Bubble Wrap) or The Wedding Present (four versions – live, Peel session, acoustic and original – of the still wonderful Give My Love To Kevin) soundtracking things the right way up nor upside down.

The latest section took us from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to… well, more Neil Young and Crazy Horse (well, the Sex Pistols’ song of the same name to be totally honest but the neatness appeals). and spanned the decades beyond the 1980s – from The Beach Boys (God Only Knows), the Pistols through Blur (Girls & Boys) and Black Box Recorder (Girl Singing In The Wreckage) to last year’s Travel Marmot album of the year by Public Service Broadcasting (Go To The Road).

But the two highlights came from the mighty John Grant. Impossible to pick which of Glacier and GMF to include on the playlist, so they are both there.

Enjoy. Just be aware, GMF does stand for what you think it might.

Been called worse.

  • *Not the last
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Freedom to Fuzzy

ONE of those Facebook on this day posts popped up in my feed this week, recalling my attempts to adjust to working a Monday to Friday, nine-to-five week.

That was seven years ago and lasted little more than a year during a career diversion out of journalism and in to the travel industry.

But since first switching from a weekly newspaper to a daily – one still embroiled in the unfolding tale of the Fred and Rose West killings when OJ Simpson was about to be more than an ex-sportsman turned actor – my working life has involved weekends.

Until now…

Be it covering rugby matches and the accompanying travelling and writing or producing pages for Monday’s papers, Saturdays and Sundays have been normal working days. 

But no longer. The past week has been the first since our newspapers took the leap from dailies to weeklies and the working week of the production department switched to a standard five-day Monday to Friday.

It’s taken some getting used to, not least because we did it from a standing start after the final daily newspapers, producing the first week’s product in three days.

And it’s not exactly been nine to five – it’s been more nine (ish) to whatever time we have finished. Which meant nine (the other one) on one night and around 4.30 on quieter ones, having wandered in nearer 10.

For people used to working weekends, taking days off in the week and considering leaving the office anything before 7pm as an early finish, it’s all been a bit odd.

What do people do on Sundays? Or with full evenings? Especially once Pointless has finished.*

Our working hours are minor changes in everything that has happened in the office in the last month. And the newspaper industry.

It came as something as a shock to us all. Not so much the decision, more the timing. We knew something would change, we just weren’t expecting it to be so drastic and so sudden.

And, however many times you go through this – reckon my personal redundancy process counter is up to double figures and have somehow survived them all, even the one where my hand went up for voluntary – it is not pleasant to go through uncertainty and see friends and colleagues disappear from the newsroom to uncertain futures.

Been debating what to write about the changes, the reasons behind it, the state of the newspaper industry and the reaction to the decision and a week in, not sure there’s a totally coherent answer there.

There’s several future posts in all that once the dust has settled and, for now, we just want to get on with it.

I remain a huge advocate of newspapers and their role in the world, especially when providing a much-needed scrutineer to politicians – global, national and local – and anyone in a position to make a decision which can impact on readers’ lives.

And, yes, the decision to go weekly would not have been my choice. But, it is an understandable one in the current climate – however many people tell us we are wrong. Right before telling us they haven’t bought the paper in years.

One thing that does need pointing out is the reaction of more than one former colleague or fellow journalists past and present who have jumped in to have their say.

Many have been measured and realistic about the state of the industry, others have criticised and repeated claims they have not bothered to check – most notably that the papers will be “thrown together” by people in another office who don’t know the area and don’t care.

Can assure them, we are based in the area, care about it hugely and the paper and I have never just “thrown together” any pages, article or paper in 27 years doing this. If that happens, it won’t just be weekends I won’t be working on newspapers.

And we’ll continue to check our facts.

The sense of change and end of an era has been echoed by the A-Z journey through my iPod as it reached the end of the F section on this section from The Housemartins to Grant Lee Buffalo – track 3,794 out of 13,090 (for now).

It looked at one point as if the whole journey had ended at The Friendly Beasts by Sufjan Stevens when my iPod basically packed up.

An F word which popped up a few times in this section came in to use, but one thing about Apple is you can find solutions for most problems online – albeit with fairly liberal use of the same F word – and it popped back in to life.

It brought a decent, if not classic, selection headed up by a pair of Half Man Biscuit tracks from across the decades – the early Fuckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus and more recent Fun Day In The Park, complete with wonderful rhyming couplet,  ‘Soft play area with free bananas/Iguana Andy and his iguanas’.

There was the familiar figure of Billy Bragg (From A Vauxhall Velox), the lovely French Navy by Camera Obscura (more of them in the next entry), the sadly departed Stornoway (Fuel Up), Full Moon, Empty Heart by Belly – one of those bands rediscovered on this journey – a Jam classic (Funeral Pyre) and Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches which somehow became a bit of a regular on the Trans Africa.

Grant Hart

Continuing the apt timing, there was Friend, You’ve Got To Fall by Husker Du, pretty much about the time the sad news broke that drummer Grant Hart had died. Not without damaging the hearing of a generation of guitar music fans.

And there was Future Boy by Turin Brakes. There’s some decisions to be made as this boy heads into the future over the next few weeks, probably starting with whether to see them live again at the end of the month.

Hopefully we’ll have worked out how this new weekly stuff pans out by then.

  • It’s not exactly no weekend work, there’s been a couple of Sunday hours ahead of finishing this post. More changes in the next month or so will produce even more free time as my journey time from work changes from more than an hour to about a minute. There are plans for that spare time, but more of that to come.
photo by: paul bevan
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