About Me

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I'm a journalist, ex-national papers, now working in what we call "new" media.

Harry's Place is absolutely one of my favourite blogs. Its team of writers are generally informed, humane, intelligent and realistic (personal favourites Brownie and David T). The debate in its comments boxes is sometimes amusing and often informative, featuring points of views from around the world. I look at it most days and comment there from time to time.

However, when the topic is Israel/Palestine, the comments boxes are routinely taken over by the vilest nutcases. Take this thread for example, in which David T urges readers to sign a petition to free Alan Johnston. An uncontroversial request, you might think but a core of commenters use the opportunity to blacken Johnston's reputation ("Fuck him. He chose to hang out with terrorists and saw it as his job to misrepresent them to the world" is a choice example), to complain about BBC bias, to bicker about Israel and Palestine and to speculate unwholesomely about whether Johnston is alive or dead. Depressing, really.
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Football clubs, like newspapers and restaurants, tend to be run as dictatorsships with a single dominant figure (the editor, the proprietor, the manager, the chariman, the chef, the owner) telling everybody else what to do and succeeding or failing based on his judgement. Kelvin Mackenzie's Sun and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest were two examples of the same phenomenon - a driven, charismatic boss who wasnt afraid to take decisions and seemed to get things right a lot of the time.

But for every Clough or Mackenzie there has been a host of failures -men who thought they knew what they were doing but led their clubs or papers disastrously down the wrong road. I've worked for a few editors like that, men and women who were forced by the whole history and psychology of newspapers to manage by hunch, but whose hunches were wrong. As a Manchester City fan, I've observed countless managers and chairmen behave the same way.

There is another way, less glamorous, but more reliable. Use statistics, research and data to guide your decisions. Most of the business world functions like this, but football and the press have largely avoided it. I've just been reading Michael Lewis's Moneyball, in which he tells the story of how a poorly funded baseball side punched way above its weight by using statistics to identify high-performing players who had been missed by the traditional scouting system, which relied on the hunches and prejudices of former players.

I witnessed the same sort of thing when I moved from papers to online. Suddenly we knew a very great deal about what our audience was doing, what it liked to read and what it was not interested in. No way could any online site I've worked on (with audiences far bigger than any national newspaper) justify paying hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to a star columnist. Yet newspapers do this as a matter of routine, because hunch and print tradition tell them it is the right thing to do.

It's probably too late to save newspapers from the consequences of decades of accumulated wrong decisions. It may not be too late for football clubs such as Man City. I've been interested to read reports of Ray Ranson's attempted takeover of the club. Ranson says he has a new model for running football, which doesn't involve the great dictatorial manager figure. He doesn't go into detail but, as he is involved in Prozone, which provides very detailed data on players and their performance, I strongly suspect he is in the Moneyball/internet camp and I hope his bid is successful.
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The redesigned FT print edition looks nice enough. It turns out to be the work of my old boss Richard Addis. It is hardly revolutionary though, which is presumably why, in an interview with Roy Greenslade, Lionel Barber, the FT's editor, refers to it as a 'refresh'.

Barber also mentions that one of his goals was to make the FT appear 'sharper', which immediately took me back to my newspaper days. Whenever we redesigned, refreshed or revamped the paper, or introduced a new section or a new columnist and were looking for a way to puff this to the readers, we inevitably hit on the word 'sharp'.

Why? I think because 'sharpness' in newspapers sounds utterly desirable but is almost entirely indefinable. Is the FT now 'sharper' than the Guardian or the Times? Who can say?

The truth is that the success of newspaper redesigns and relaunches is very hard to judge. Sales may go up - or, these days, a decline may be arrested - but it is very hard to attribute this to any one factor. Is it the redesign, the giveaway DVD, the Princess Diana exclusive? Are readers looking at the revamped product for longer or in more depth? Research may give a clue, but it is impossible to be sure.

In the absence of any objective measures of success, newspaper redesigns and relaunches tend to be judged as successes or failures by acclaim within the paper itself and the small world of the media. What do other editors and designers think of it? Will it pick up a gong at one of the many newspaper awards ceremonies? Loudly proclaiming your new paper to be 'sharp' may just help to influence opinions in your favour. Best of all, it is a claim that nobody can authoritatively rebut.

Contrast this with the online world, in which new designs, new launches and so on are subjected to ruthlessly objective scrutiny. How many people visit your site, how many pages do they visit, how long do they stay? A site redesign will be given clear goals - to increase page views per user, for example - and will be judged a success or failure accordingly. The question of whether or not it is 'sharp' will not enter the equation.
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Thought-provoking piece by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times about the pitfalls of blogging. The key insight is that the more anonymous we are to each other, the less considerate we are likely to be. Many bloggers simply refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem with the tone of much online debate; I think they're wrong, for the reasons set out in Appleyard's piece.

The dominant convention on the web is for users to adopt pseudonyms, so much so that it is actually quite rare to see someone posting under their real name. Why is this? Partly, I suspect, because the web was initially, and still is to some degree, a male-dominated phenomenon and blokes like nicknames (think of rappers, graffiti artists, sportsmen, musicians such as Sting and Bono). Another factor is the desire to create a different identity from the quotidien, workaday self. Nor should we forget people who need to be anonymous because they are blogging critically about repressive regimes or, simply, about their employers.

Newspapers rarely print anonymous or pseudonymous pieces and there is a reason for this. In readers' eyes, anonymity (unless for clearly understood reasons such as personal safety) detracts from the authority of the article. Also, the more I read articles by Bryan Appleyard or any other journalist, the more I understand his view of the world, his principles and prejudices, so the the more I get out of each piece I read. From the other side of the fence, most journalists are keen, for reasons of ego and career progression, to see their names - their real names - in print as frequently, and is as large type, as possible.

So I think Appleyard is right. What's true of print should be true online. The only way the Web is going to develop into a mature medium is if most people, most of the time, are prepared to acknowledge and take responsibility for what they write.
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The call for the NUJ boycott of Israel has become worldwide news and has, in some quarters, been seen as a manifestation of media bias against Israel and Jews generally. I think this is wrong, not least because only 66 members of a union of 40,000 voted for the motion. Granted they were delegates who spoke for their branches but I suspect in few cases had members specifically discussed this motion.

The NUJ itself has issued a statement on the vote and it is pretty clear that the leadership is embarrassed and frustrated by the motion and is virtually begging members to overturn it.

Leigh in the comments on my earlier post argues passionately and coherently in favour of the ban. I still disagree with him. Yes, the NUJ passed motions condemning China and Russia but there was no call for a boycott of their goods. This isn't a trivial distinction - it's quite right for a journalists' union to note and condemn breaches of press freedom. Calling for a boycott is something quite different (and even Israel's opponents acknowledge that it has a free and vigorous press).

Israel has done things that deserve criticism but I don't believe that Leigh's comparison with apartheid South Africa holds water. If the NUJ really thinks it should be in the business of boycotts, there are many, many countries more deserving of this treatment than Israel.

Personally, though, I think that, whatever we may think of a particular regime, journalists have a duty to engage with it and tell the truth about it, rather than turning our backs.

Leigh also argues that unions that take strong 'stands on international issues are more likely to defend members vigorously. I'm not convinced. The Israel motion has distracted attention from the good work the NUJ has been doing on low pay, contract work and so on. That hasn't helped underpaid, hard-pressed journalists.
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Martin Stabe links to Paul Bradshaw who reports that the NUJ is to investigate profits in the new-media sector, with a view to ensuring that journalists get a fair slice of the cake.

The money generated from internet advertising is going up in leaps and bounds. Yet, as Martin says, some publishers continue to plead that it is hard to make money out of the weband use this as an excuse to underpay journalists.

However, I think this is starting to change. Having spent the last few months recruiting web journalists, I've been struck by how few there are with experience and talent and how many businesses are pursuing them. I think this is going to start pushing salaries up quite sharply.

In print journalism it is precisely the opposite story. There is a massive oversupply of eager young graduates desperate for a job and employers are learning, even on national titles, that they can use this pool of talent to hold wages down.

If I was a young journalist looking for my first or second job, I'd certainly be looking online.
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So here's my union, the NUJ, voting to boycott Israel. A few thoughts:

1. How feeble and irrelevant. What difference will it make to anything?

2. The motion was passed on a vote of 66 to 54 out of a union of some 40,000 people. Democratic?

2. Why does a journalists' union need to have a foreign policy? How is it going to help low-paid journalists, or help deal with the transition from print to new media - the two issues that, quite rightly, are key planks of NUJ policy?

3. If the union does need a foreign policy, why is it singling out Israel for criticism while, as far as I can tell, having nothing to say about China, Sudan, Egypt, Iran, Cuba, Russia or any other regime where human rights are trampled underfoot? I'm generally resistant to the view that anti-semitism is alive and well in Left-wing politics, but sometimes I wonder.

3. Why do I bother belonging to a union that feels the need for this sort of pathetic, student-union posturing?

Ironically, as the NUJ is voting to boycott Israel, the Palestinian journalists' union has been boycotting its own government and presidency in protest at its failure to act to free Alan Johnston, the kidnapped BBC journalist.


The NUJ has spoken up strongly on the Alan Johnston case but the minority who voted to boycott Israel might want to consider the difference between the Palestinian journalists' act of principled solidarity and their own pissy political posturing.

Some reaction

Israel Matzav: Britain's National Union of Journalists votes to boycott Israel
Toby Harnden
Martin Stabe
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Tonight on the News at Ten, an item on CCTV cameras soundtracked to "Stars of CCTV" by Hard-Fi. When did the BBC start doing this? Why?
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In the circles in which I move the prevailing view is that tabloid journalists are dimwitted and amoral, while those working on broadsheets are clever and sophisticated, and those who work on the Guardian are the cleverest and most sophisticated of all, as well as being highly moral, too. All a bit irritating, to me at least, since I worked on a tabloid for a few years - and I've met a fair few Guardian journalists so I know what they're really like.

Anyway, in this interview Piers Morgan does his bit to redress the matter, making Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger look foolish and morally rather compromised, and all that without really touching on the Marina Hyde issue.

Oh, and has losing weight improved Alan Rusbridger's sex life? As with most of the questions put to Rusbridger, we will never know the answer.

Oddly, I can see nothing about any of this in Media Guardian.

*Yes, I know the Guardian isn't a broadsheet any more.
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The BBC is running an old picture of Patrick Moore on its front page today. This is what he looked like. I remember watching him in the Sixties but I don't recall him looking so fiercely impressive.

Looking at the picture I was reminded of another figure from my TV youth, Lord Charles (that's him on the left).

Could they possibly be related?
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