Saturday, 30 January 2010

Can I come in there ...?

*Cross post from BBC College of Journalism, 'Discussion on CoJo'*

I shouted at the wireless three times this week. I've never done that before - I've shouted often enough at people on the wireless: that's an Editor's prerogative. But never at the innocent box before.

Interruptions. Interviewers interrupting. That's what the shouting was about.

And maybe it's because I listen to the wireless now just like any other member of the audience and not as someone in charge of (part of) what's coming out of the loudspeaker.


Interruptions have always been a contentious area; presenters hate being told they do it too much, but it's one of the top two or three things that regularly gets the letters and emails coming in.

I won't name this week's culprits - suffice it to say, they've got form.

What was surprising, however, was that two of the three weren't challenging interviews at all. One was a two-way with BBC political editor Nick Robinson (purpose - to get facts across); another, an appreciation/obit where 'names' had been invited on (purpose - to hear the 'names' appreciate the figure in question).

The third was potentially confrontational, but made no sense unless the interviewee was able to set out his alternative argument - which happened not to be the 'conventional wisdom' that was obsessing that day's papers and, apparently, the interviewer. To set out that argument required several clauses to be heard in sequence - they were not.

We never got to understand or even hear his argument ... though we did get to know exactly what the interviewer thought.


Why, when, and how to interrupt an interviewee has been an issue for broadcasters since Sir Robin Day and his ITN colleagues invented the challenging TV interview back in the 1950s.

Sir Robin is a great role model - but many interviewers and their producers mis-remember him and are unaware of the interviewing code he drew up for himself 1961.

Sir Robin was a challenging, even aggressive interviewer - Mrs Thatcher said as much, as if we didn't know, back in 1987. But his aggression came from the forceful, direct and challenging wording of his questions - not from interruptions.

I was one of Sir Robin's producers back in the early 1980s on The World at One and it was striking how rarely he interrupted or talked over his interviewee. Sir Robin had an ear finely tuned to the punctuation of the spoken word and he could slice into a sentence at the briefest caesura.

One of Sir Robin's successors at The World at One, the late Nick Clarke, was renowned for the forensic sharpness of his interviewing ... but also for his politeness; criteria, incidentally, in the annual Nick Clarke award for interviewing.

Rules of thumb?

Clearly, every interview has a life and dynamic of its own. And part of the point of an interview is the on-air personality of the interviewer - otherwise, we may as well have interview robots.

(Actually, the old BBC political unit did use to have an interview glove puppet, kept on a peg by the door. It had been, allegedly, trained to ask, "what's the problem? what's the answer? how much does it cost? and where do we go from here?")

But there are some rules of thumb - and many of the BBC's top interviewers have their own.

As an Editor rather than a presenter, I'd say the following are important.

First, there are very few reasons why you should interrupt - and by 'interrupt' I mean deliberately talking over the interviewee:
* to correct a factual inaccuracy - especially a potential defamation
* to curtail (politely) an over-long answer or ...
* to bring the interview (politely) back to the main subject ...
* to insist (politely) that the interviewee answer the question ...
* to end the interview when you've run out of time

Ideally, you should never have to end an interview abruptly - it's usually a failure of planning and pacing.

The astute amongst you will note that I haven't included 'to challenge an assertion or an argument'. There's a reason for that.

A strong, effective, telling challenge is one that is cool, precise, short - and delivered at the right moment.If the audience can't hear the challenge because it's delivered over the interviewee's words, then it's the interviewer who sounds weak and ineffectual.

What's more, the struggle to be heard often takes up so much time out of the interview that the interviewer runs out of time to make an effective challenge - senior politicians use this tactic routinely to deflect any challenge.

It's worth thinking, too, about the reasons why you shouldn't interrupt:

* to show you're tough and challenging and won't back down
* to show how much you know (more than the interviewee)
* to be a participant in a discussion - unless it's the format
* to express your view or judgment - tho' as above

And interruptions that are designed to bring the interview back on track are especially irritating (and counter-productive) when the interview is going down a road far more interesting than the one originally planned.

Your urge to interrupt shouldn't overtake your ability to listen to the answers.

Role model

So who's the best around right now? Who'd be a good role model? Who's the 21st century's successor to Sir Robin and Nick Clarke?

Well, he'll hate me for saying this - but there's no question in my mind who's the sharpest, most challenging, toughest interviewer around right now ... and by some distance. Has been for some time.

He's also someone who rarely interrupts, is unfailingly polite yet never lets anyone off the hook.

You can find him here.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Guilty of Wikipedia

It is – according to the Mail on Sunday – a Bad Thing to correct, edit or add to articles on Wikipedia. It is not the sort of thing that ‘normal’ people do. It’s a bit weird. Raises all sorts of questions, don’t you know … (shakes head and wonders what the world’s coming to.)

How do I know this? Because that’s the tenor of an article about me that I expect to run in the MoS tomorrow, 16 January. And I know this thanks to a phone call from a MoS journalist on Friday afternoon, 14 January. When the call came, my mobile was on voicemail – it almost always is – so that was where the journalist left a message asking me to call back.

Now, calls from the Mail and the Mail on Sunday come in two flavours. If they’re after something from you on someone else, they generally include some idea of what – or who – their story is about. When you’re the victim, they just ask you to call back.

This one just asked me to call back.

I always return journalists’ calls – partly because it’s difficult to argue, as I do, that everyone should have an automatic right of reply and that journalism should be fair, honest and open if you’re nor prepared to answer a journalist’s questions.

The journalist gabbled nervously but got straight to the point. “We have a story about you that we’re running on Sunday and we wanted to give you a chance to comment.” Note the wording there; “we have a story … that we’re running …” So - oh dear, oh dear. What said journalist was saying, in effect, was “No counter evidence, no matter how compelling, can make us look again at this story; we’ve made up our minds. All we want from you is a comment”.

The journalist went on: “you changed the Wikipedia entries for …” and gave me a couple of names here … “we have evidence that you did it.” No offer to put the evidence to me nor any hint that such a thing could ever be on the agenda. The message was: “you’re banged to rights sonny, now do yourself a favour and come quietly”.

I pause. Partly because it’s obvious I’m not talking to a journalist who's in fact-gathering mode. I know that the more I say, the higher the risk of a single word or phrase being ripped out of context in order to ‘prove’ that … well, I’m a bit weird ‘cos I’ve participated in the most amazing knowledge experiment the world has ever known. Perhaps I should ask for dozens of other offences to be taken into consideration – changes to articles on Greek vase painting, psychology, oral poetry, epistemology, etc etc etc. But somehow I don’t think the journalist will be interested.

I pause too because I can’t quite work out where to start. Do I try to explain to this journalist what Wikipedia is? How it works? That Wikipedia isn’t a combination of Wicca and paedophilia? That it’s still legal in this country?

Do I try to explain that Wikipedia is a Good Thing (though I’d never advise a journalist to lift anything from it without checking the sources)? That it’s most good when people have collaborated, edited and corrected in large numbers? Or when people with specific knowledge and expertise have participated in authoring or fact checking an article?

Not a good idea, I think.

Do I try to explain, instead, that it’s a journalist’s duty to correct inaccuracies? And that inaccuracies come in many forms?

Perhaps not. Something tells me we’re not in that region of the universe.

Or do I reveal that this ‘story’ is no big secret? It’s not even new. I blethered on about it at the time – this was 2007, incidentally – and think I rather bored people. I’ve a vague recollection that it appeared at the time in some gossipy diary … but I can’t remember where. We even thought about doing an item about the etiquette of correcting Wikipedia articles – remember, these were Wikipedia’s relatively early days – but it never made it to air.

Do I try to explain that Wikipedia doesn’t let you correct inaccuracies or deflate puffed-up biographies or do anything ‘secretly’? That if you add or edit or correct an entry, you do it knowing that everything you do is fully public? That your changes are tracked? That anyone can see what you’ve added or edited? And can add to or correct any changes you’ve made?

No. Less is more. So I say instead: “yes I corrected those entries for the sake of accuracy”.

Said journalist is nonplussed. Drops the ‘phone or recording equipment – by the way, it’s common courtesy when you record phone calls to let the person at the other end know – and I hear distantly what sounds like a radio pantomime approaching a comic climax. When composure has been recovered, the question again. And again I say ‘yes I’ve corrected Wikipedia entries for the sake of accuracy.

Then this: “Don’t you think this undermines your position?” said in the tone of voice you might use when speaking to an MP with a very clean moat.

How can I explain that the opposite is true? Where do I start?

Is there any point in explaining that Wikipedia was still pretty young at the time. The entries in question were short, mostly ‘stubs’ … and full of inaccuracies. Silly things like audience figures, roles, names, descriptions, sequences of events. Some were mistaken, unchecked ‘common knowledge’. Others had been written by … well, by people who appeared to have an interest in portraying some events and some individual’s roles in a particular light.

No, this question is based on an assumption that is 100% wrong. It would have undermined my position to know about these inaccuracies and do nothing about them. I even opened a second Wikipedia account with a username that was then the same as my BBC login name so that it would be clear to anyone who cared where I’d corrected an entry and how.

Again, no point, I’m thinking, in explaining any of this. So I stick to the formula: “I edited the entries for the sake of accuracy”.

Now, I’ve no idea what the eventual story will be. Or whether it will run at all. If it does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some ‘oddities’ and embellishments in the ‘evidence’ – like I say, I was never offered the opportunity to know what it was or is - not even for accuracy's sake. But we will see.

On the substantive point though; yes, I am guilty of Wikipedia. In my youth – well, ok a few years ago, in my early fifties – I added, edited, corrected, supplemented dozens of articles about a whole range of things and on a whole range of people. As accurately and impartially as I was able. All openly, publicly – as indeed participating in Wikipedia has to be.

And of course this episode reminds me that I haven’t been involved in Wikipedia for a while. I became lazy as Wikipedia became better, fuller, richer – though still not, to repeat, a source journalists should use without further checking.

So, thanks Mail on Sunday for reminding me that I should get involved once again. And here’s how I’ll start – I’ll take time out to look at the articles this journalist and ‘source’ (funny how Wikipedia insists on naming sources but … well, never mind ) are frothing about and if there’s anything there that’s inaccurate and needs correction, I’ll get stuck in.

There. You heard it here first.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The challenges of learning new multimedia and social media skills

News:rewired, January 2010
***Notes from opening remarks at the 2010 news:rewired event, City University***
This is a very special event – the kind of event, frankly, we don’t have enough of here in the UK.
I feel very privileged to be here this morning to talk about one of the tough questions that faces all of us in different ways.
How do we meet the challenges of learning – and teaching – some of the key skills of our new media environment. Multimedia and social media skills.
One thing I would say – the coward in me is relieved I’m at this end of my career and not the beginning … though I’m not escaping what is a very complex world.
After 25 years as a BBC frontline editor – the first programme I edited was the weekend that the task force was sent to the Falklands – I'm now one of the team - the BBC College of Journalism - responsible for teaching journalism in the biggest news organisation in the world. The BBC.
What I do want to talk about are the principles and assumptions we’ve used to build our responsive, informal and online learning.
And to do it in a way that lays down some challenges. Just in case you hoped today was going to be cosy.

Three quick stories
Story 1:
In April last year, the BBC opened the biggest multimedia newsroom in the world here in London. Eleven hundred journalists working on multimedia, multiplatform news content.
It was intended to be – and was – a transformation. Both for the organisation and for individual journalists.
Expectations about roles were changed. As were the combinations of skills required. Journalists who’d worked for years monomedially were encouraged to take on new skills. Or totally new roles.
Live and continuous and the web were put at the heart of the BBC News offer.
News 24 became the BBC News channel; News online became the BBC News website. TV became video; radio became audio.
A multimedia internal news agency was the flywheel of the operation; the blogging and podcasting networks became less constrained.
The then head of the newsroom, Peter Horrocks, wrote thoughtfully about UGC and the role of audiences in Big Journalism’s newsgathering and fact checking.
In short, it was an example of Big Journalism making a rapid movement in the direction it saw journalism moving.
With multimedia, multiplatform journalism at its heart … though, at that stage, not social media.
We were asked to put together some online learning to help the project along.
And it seemed important to try to capture both the big picture – what was happening at the organisational level – and the many individual perspectives.
So one of the things I did was to task a multimedia producer and a Flash developer with making an interactive movie did both those things – in particular, mapped the changing skills any individual would need.
It was, and still is, a beautiful 3-D map/graphic. You click on graphic of TV centre to open a 3-D map that gave you an overview and what was going on in each part of the production chain.
And you could drill deeper and deeper right down to the individuals in any part of the production chain to watch a video of each of them describing their role and the skills they needed to carry them out.
We launched it when the newsroom opened – it was amazingly popular. Pretty well every journalist explored his or her future.
But we had to re-author the map during that week – because the newsroom itself and the roles within it had been tweaked.
Within a week of the newsroom opening, we had to redraw the map, rewrite text and re-shoot some videos – it had changed again.
It wasn’t long before organic changes to the newsroom and the roles within it were being made faster than we could reflect them in the Flash movie.
So we gave up. But it’s still a beautiful movie. A historic document – a snapshot.
What’s the moral of this story?
The obvious one is that our landscape is changing faster than we can describe it, let alone understand it.
Or work out what we need to know – the skills we need to have to deal with it.
The less obvious one is that even big news organisations like the BBC are changing rapidly, organically, dynamically – sometimes in ways that seem chaotic. But only in the way that any complex organism seems chaotic.
One example.
The BBC newsroom has begun organising itself into what it calls ‘story communities’ around Big Stories. They began using MSM to communicate and keep the community together - now, there's a dedicated application that does this.
The ‘community' grows and shrinks according to the needs of the story - drawing in new skills as they're needed and sharing content.
Less obviously, for all the Big Journalism’s skills at resembling a rabbit caught in the headlights of multimedia and latterly social media … it’s probably doing better than you think at adapting and capitalising on new media.
I think I detect a hint of ‘return to the cottage industry’ in a lot of what is written about new media’s potential for journalists.
Don’t make the mistake, for example, of thinking that journalism’s future will be populated mainly by ‘news entrepreneurs’ – it won’t, as even that particular idea’s uberzealots will tell you.
Don’t make the mistake, either, of thinking that in future journalism will be entirely or even mainly about the kind of skills we’re talking about today.
Like it or not, much journalism is about process and organisation – and seems likely to remain that way.
Demand for people who can organise an outside broadcast or coverage of a court case for live and continuous news remains and will remain high.
Demand for people who can elbow their way to the front of a scrum – ditto. Or for people who can field produce, problem solve or persuade players to appear on screen or on the web.
And so one of the challenges of learning multimedia and social media skills is to understand them not just for what they are and what they can do, but how they fit with the other essential - arguably more endurable - skills of journalism.

Story 2.
In a different universe, 2002 to 2006, I was editor of Today.
In one of our more turbulent periods, I wrote in an email that described a particular journalist’s report as “a good piece of investigative journalism, marred by flawed reporting.”
In that different universe – five years ago – that email became part of the evidence to the Hutton inquiry. It was about Andrew Gilligan’s infamous 0607 two-way. That was the two-way in which he attributed to his single anonymous source the judgment that the Government included a particular claim in its pre-Iraq war dossier although it “probably knew it was wrong”.
My wording “a good piece of investigative journalism, marred by flawed reporting” attracted a lot of comment.
One BBC veteran insisted there was no difference between ‘journalism’ and ‘reporting’ - and that I didn't know what I was talking about. Another of journalism's Big Beasts said it was yet more evidence that the BBC didn’t know what words meant so how could you expect them to tell the truth.
Of course, the point I was making was, and is, that there are at least - at least - two distinct and discrete sets of journalism skills. But that neither of these sets can exist independent of each other - not for a journalist anyway.
First: finding, checking, assessing the facts.
Then: telling those facts – accurately, impartially, independently. And engagingly.
Andrew had succeeded in the first part of that. But failed in the second.
The moral of this story?
Well again, the obvious one – you can’t separate the getting skills of journalism from the telling skills. Good, multimedia storytelling doesn't somehow get you out of the responsibility of finding out in the first place.
Nor do good 'getting' skills make up for an inability to articulate accurately what you have found out.
Less obviously, however good your 'telling' skills and however good your innovative 'getting' skills ... they don't supplant more fundamental, enduring journalistic skills.
Making contacts who know; persuading them to speak; noting accurately what they say; verifying their claims, testing them; thinking through who you have to approach next before you have a story; pursuing a long investigation; finding stories in opaque documents; filling in the gaps without speculation or sensation when authority holds its information tightly to itself; finding ways through the democratic deficit.
Multimedia and social media skills work when they supplement or facilitate these and other of journalism’s fundamentals.
They don’t supplant them.

Story 3.
Spool forward a few more years – to around 2005, the early days of serious newspaper multimedia.
I was interviewing Ben Hammersley at the Frontline Club – mostly about being Ben who, as you know, is one of the UK’s earliest genuine multimedia/multiplatform journalist.
He is a man to respect – who practices what he preaches.
Among other things, he really got the wired, networked idea. He helped develop some of the Guardian’s early blogging platforms.
Sensibly doing the whole thing from a café in a piazza in Italy.
But when we spoke at the Frontline, he was pushing the multimedia storytelling frontiers with some energy.
They were exciting times – and Ben’s vision of the future journalist was based on what he knew was possible. He knew it was possible because it was what he was doing.
That you could, as a journalist, spot your story. Develop it. Check it … and then decide the best way to tell your story.
Text. Text and stills. Audio and stills. Video.
The fact is – some people can work this way. But they’re the minority.
As I meet journalism students around the country, I keep coming across a mindset that every journalist has to have every available skill developed to the same level. An anxiety at the skills they don’t have or aren’t taught or aren’t taught well or in the right combination
Ben’s dream journalistic ecology is fine for him and fine for some – but it’s not for everyone.
A news organisation that produces multimedia journalism does not have to be peopled exclusively by pan-media journalists.
Quite the opposite – large news organisations need people with higher than average levels of graphics skills; video editing skills; writing skills. And higher than average social media skills.

So, what are my conclusions. My final thoughts.
1. That you learn and keep on learning is at least as important as what you learn.
You will not get very far in journalism any more unless you have the mindset that accepts and understands you will need to learn something new, changing the way you do things several times in your career.
2. Cruise and surf
Be a journalist when you're thinking about new skills.
Be aware of what exists and what’s changing - just like you do with news stories; what other people say about them; what they could do for you.
But don't think you have to have hoover up every skill.
3. What do you well? Which of the skills around would help you do that better? How do new skills fit with your old ones
There is nothing worse than watching someone who has no audio sense edit a news package or podcast.
At the same time, there’s nothing worse than watching someone who writes great headlines or lead paragraphs think that writing great tweets is somehow different.
4. Extract the real value from each skill you try
What are you really getting from this new skill? What’s it giving you? What’s it giving your work?
5. … and be ruthless
If it is isn't delivering – drop it.
6. When you find the set of skills that works for you, keep thinking, keep innovating
Example – blogging has done an awful lot more than simply increase the number of people who can 'do' journalism.
Robert Peston and Nick Robinson (and thousands of others) have found that it changes the nature of ‘the story’ – no-one has to wait for the next bulletin and the opportunity to fashion the perfect package in order to get a story or a development out.
And it advances trust and expertise as good blogging criteria - show you can't be trusted or that you have no expertise and the info fog will close around your blog.
7. Don't ever deceive yourself that 'big journalism' is over – it isn't and never will be ...
It will change and it will adapt to and incorporate the kind of skills and techniques we're talking about today.
But they're not the only ones that have value to journalism– though they can enhance the value of those other skills.
8. … on the other hand, organisations are not cleverer than you
Change, even in Big Journalism, can come from the bottom up - from the realities in the ways people are using new skills and new applications.
9. Don't lose the bigger picture
The sets of skills we're talking about today are important.
But they’re not necessarily the ones that are doing most to change journalism.
The personal web, granular searching and more clever metadata and augmented reality are doing and will do more to change journalism than multimedia or social networking
10. Skills are a means to an end
In journalism as in everything.
And no matter how exciting multimedia and social media are – the way in which new, easier ways of doing things come on stream - they're not an end in themselves.
Don't become a Twitterhead - like a petrolhead who knows everything about cars but forgets the point of them is to go from one place to another.
Make sure you stay outside the bubble.

Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain. But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since ...