Posted by: Ciaran | December 14, 2010

In the picture: Julian Assange

I’m not going to add my tuppence worth to the ongoing debate over the Wikileaks cables or the allegations against Julian Assange – they have already been (and will no doubt continue to be) covered everywhere across all media platforms, and from just about every conceivable standpoint.

My observation is, in the grand scheme of things, much more trivial. But it still resonated with me, because I genuinely can’t remember having seen an instance of it before.

Broadcast news, when covering a court case where a defendant or convict is being brought to or from court in a prison van, will almost always cut away to a shot of said van arriving at or departing from court. And normally, the shot will include a number of photographers with their cameras held over their heads, pointed more in hope than expectation at the heavily tinted van windows.

But until today, as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange arrived for his court hearing in London, I can’t remember a single news outlet ever using one of those shots. In a month, or a week, or even just a day or two, people probably won’t even stop to think about it. But it just seemed to me to be one more small example of how much of a media game-changer Assange – and, in a wider sense, Wikileaks – have been over the past few weeks, in particular.

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Posted by: Ciaran | December 6, 2010

They say bad luck comes in threes…

Not a great day for the BBC then. First of all, Jim Naughtie mispronounces Jeremy Hunt’s name in just about the worst way possible – and then Andrew Marr manages to repeat the faux pas.

To top it off, Radio 4 somehow ended up interviewing an impostor rather than Liberal Democrat MP Mike Crockart.

In the fast-paced media world – and especially when broadcasts are going out live – it’s inevitable mistakes are going to happen. Unfortunately for the Beeb, they’ve managed a triad of fairly embarrassing bloopers in one day.

Still, bad luck is said to come in threes – so Radio 4 controllers must be hoping that’s it for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: Ciaran | November 28, 2010

My first taste of international rugby in Cardiff

Ever since I moved to Cardiff a little more than a year ago now, I’ve known it has only been a matter of time before I got sucked in to watching rugby.

Every international matchday has brought with it the packed streets, the face-painting and the high spirits. But until yesterday’s game between Wales and the All Blacks, I’d still not been to watch a match.

The New Zealand team wait for Wales to enter the pitch

The spectacle was tremendous. Excitement at watching Wales take on the world’s best team was building outside the Millennium Stadium for hours, and when I arrived in the ground shortly before kick-off it was approaching fever pitch.

Despite being more of a football fan, I was soon caught up in the excitement and was cheering my adopted nation on keenly.

Seconds before kick-off

Ultimately New Zealand were too good, running in five tries in a 37-25 victory. But it was an exciting and enjoyable first taste of international rugby, and I’ll be back for more.

Bring on the Six Nations!

Journalism students at UCLan have been advised against honing their skills by reporting on this weekend’s English Defence League (EDL) march, according to this report.

Blog Preston co-editor and third year journalism student Andy Halls has promised to defy the request of the journalism school to avoid the city centre on Saturday, when there will also be a march by the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) group – as well as a football match between Preston North End and Millwall.

I’m with Andy on this one. While it’s completely sensible to warn the students about the dangers they may face covering such an event, they are – or should be – old enough and responsible enough to take their own decisions on whether or not they feel safe.

In some situations, it’s about taking a calculated risk. I covered an EDL protest with a UAF counter-protest while I was still a student (albeit a postgraduate rather than an undergraduate) and was not advised against doing so.

But I wouldn’t have done it – or hung around at it – if I thought it was going to put myself in real danger of serious injury, in the same way I wouldn’t now when I’m in a job and no longer a student. As Andy said: “If they want us to be reporting hard news, they’ll have to let us make our own decisions.”

Good journalism isn’t just about having a clear nose for news or a great writing style – it’s about having the knack of being in the right place at the right time, taking the opportunities that are there, and learning where the boundaries are.

Posted by: Ciaran | September 20, 2010

The culture of free

This post also appears on the Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists blog looking at the topic of making Generation Y pay for content.

When I was younger, I used to like going to the library. The freedom to choose 10 books to take home, read, lose, find and rush back with on the expiry date was – and still remains – an exciting and pleasant prospect.

And so began my introduction into the culture of free. When I was a little older, and at secondary school, visits to my friends’ houses would mean the opportunity to listen to music they had downloaded from sites like Napster. (Incidentally, this is not an attempt to skirt the truth and blame others for being complicit in downloading music illegally. I genuinely never used Napster or Limewire or any of those programmes, which held for me both fascination and fear – both of being caught or of downloading some awful virus – the latter obviously outweighing the former).

But again, I got used to experiencing – and when people kindly burned CDs for me, owning – completely free of charge something I would have gladly paid for, if I had the funds to do so.

And so it came to pass with newspapers. First I stopped buying them during the week, when I could read them for nothing in our sixth form common room. And then, when I went to university, I practically stopped buying them altogether, preferring instead to spend an hour or two every morning after breakfast sifting through the websites of nearly every national newspaper.

Even though they were cheap in our union shop, I only ever picked them up to read expert analysis or comment on the news – usually, by the time the paper was in my hand, I had read not only the news in it but the newer versions of those stories too.

Newspapers were only for journeys or days when I had no access to the internet, like time spent holidaying or staying with friends or family.

Once again, I was getting for free something I would have quite happily continued to pay for.

Looking back on all that, it seems like there is a curse of availability. As soon as something is out there, freely – meaning both widely and free of charge – the temptation to actually dip into your pocket and pay for it is substantially reduced.

So the prospect of making Generation Y pay for content looks, to me, highly unlikely. The genie is out of the bottle now, and it won’t go back in.

The only way forward is to exploit the areas which people will pay for, by finding the niche or gap in the market. For instance, library use is dwindling – largely, I would guess, down to the availability of cheap books not only online, but in places like charity shops. There is no need to make a special visit to the local library – just call in to Oxfam or some such as you walk by on the high street.

The same is true with music. I’ll use Spotify and Grooveshark to listen to music, rather than actually buy it. But I’ll buy a ticket to a gig, or a live show on DVD, or go and watch the biopic of the artist off the back of that.

The key is in diversifying to survive, and finding what people want – and are prepared to pay for – that they cannot easily get for free elsewhere. In media terms – and particularly newspaper terms – that might be in customisable apps, or selling discrete portions of output (perhaps by micro-payment, perhaps by subscription service), or in podcasts or web chats or in something quite different.

But whatever lies ahead, the future is not in trying to put the genie back into the bottle. It is in finding a new lamp to rub.

Posted by: Ciaran | August 27, 2010

The rub of the green

This post also appears on the Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists blog looking at the topic of the skills required by the modern journalist.

A skill? Maybe not. But luck isn’t all about pure chance and carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. In my experience, the harder you work, the luckier you get – and the odd brush of good fortune is essential for any journalist.
Let me illustrate what I mean. I went out to do some door-knocking for a story one day. As soon as I arrived in the street in question, I spotted a broadcast journalist already there.
We had a quick chat – more of a verbal poker game, with both bluffing that we knew more or less than we did – before I set about going door-to-door.
When I was two-thirds of the way up the street and had next to nothing more than I already knew, I was tempted to give up and go back to newsdesk and offer them the meagre scraps I had gathered.
But I decided to give it a few more minutes, and behind the next door I tried was an elderly lady who told me exactly who I wanted to speak to – before informing me the woman in question was out.
Trying to be positive, I carried on my fruitless knocking until I’d done the whole street. And as I walked back down the street it appeared my luck had turned – the car I’d been told to look for was back.
Enthusiastically, I knocked on the woman’s door. When she answered, she said she was more than happy to speak – but asked if I could come back in half an hour.
I wandered around the corner and made a few phone calls for some other stories, trying not to waste time. I let 40 minutes pass, and then walked back to the house.
There was no answer. I couldn’t believe how unlucky I’d been to miss the person I wanted to speak to again, and it looked like I was going to head back to the newsroom with a fairly weak story.
I decided to head down to the shops to delay the inevitable and pick up a bit of lunch. And, as I passed one shop, I felt compelled to go in for a look around.
There, in front of me, was the exact woman I had been hoping to speak to. By complete fluke I had run into her when she’d been asked to do some emergency cover in the store, explaining why she wasn’t at home.
Luck, hard work, intuition, coincidence – whatever it was, it worked that day, and the woman in question has become an incredibly useful contact. But I’d never have had the chance to speak to her without being totally bloody-minded and carrying on knocking and knocking, just waiting for my luck to change.
And I wasn’t even carrying a rabbit’s foot.
Posted by: Ciaran | August 23, 2010

A change of pace

After a couple of weeks out of the journalistic world enjoying a holiday in much sunnier climes, it was back to reality this week.

But it was a change of focus from the intense pattern of writing for the dailies, as I’m now working on Wales on Sunday for four weeks.

Much as I love the challenge of a rapid turnaround of producing stories every day, I’ve really enjoyed my first week writing for WoS.

It has been my first taste of writing for a Sunday paper, and – obviously – it’s a totally different routine.

The more investigative nature of the stories generally means they take longer to research and put together, and the happy collateral of that is you’re not sat praying for somebody to answer the phone before the end of the day or reply to your emails as you know you’ve got a bit of time to prepare the article.

As the emphasis is for the pieces to be a bit more hard-hitting, it can mean a change of approach is necessary, too. This week, for example, was the first time when I’ve had to change clothes before leaving the office, as the usual suit and tie would have made me highly conspicuous.

It’s another learning curve for me, and no doubt there will be many lessons in the weeks to come, but it has been a great introduction in to the world of Sunday papers so far.

Posted by: Ciaran | July 19, 2010

This is not an automated post – honest

We live, as people never tire of telling us, in a ‘digital age‘. Technology is breaking down frontiers, the world is getting smaller, we’re all connected, and the cliché continues to thrive as a literary device.

But for all the bombast – and the bullshit – there are the occasional little nuggets of infuriating brilliance which technology throws up. Take today, for example.

The automated reply is fairly staple in this new digital era, but normally we’re fairly open about it. “I’m away from the office today,” we learn of colleagues and contacts as emails bounce back to us. Delivery failure reports. Automatic receipts. I have one email account that is almost exclusively filled with automated emails, as I seldom use it for personal contacts anymore.

Automated emails which pretend they are not automated, though, are quite a different kettle of fish. This morning I fired off a round of emails to all 22 of the local councils in Wales – and in my email I asked not just for an acknowledgement, which I have come to expect, but a specific detail in that acknowledgement.

True to form, most came back with a bog-standard auto-reply along the lines of: ‘Thank you for your request, it is important to us etc.’ Some, to their credit, followed this up with a further email of acknowledgement, and the detail I had requested. Some left out the computer-generated guff, and acknowledged personally. Others did not reply at all.

But a select couple, who I will resist the temptation to name, tried to make me feel all special and loved by sending automated responses and disguising them as real replies.

The first began: ‘Thank you for your recent request for information held by [this council].   For your information, this is not an automatically generated response.’ It omitted the detail I had asked for, but I was – for a short while at least – fooled. Until, 10 minutes later, I got sent the exact same email but from a different person within that organisation. Whoops.

Then, this evening, I received a reply from a different authority. This one may have had some human input, as they had graciously managed a ‘Dear Mr Jones’ at the top. Again, I was deceived – until I spotted this at the bottom:

‘[council name]

(initials of person replying)’

I’ve got no problem in principle with auto-generated replies – just don’t try and mislead people.

Posted by: Ciaran | July 17, 2010

Balancing act

I’m three weeks in to working at Media Wales, and loving every minute of it so far. It’s been hard work, and I’ve already been able to try my hand at a lot of new things. For instance, I’ve learnt a whole lot more about the Battle of Britain than I knew this time last month, and I’m now something of an expert on the history of golf in Wales.

When I was on work experience at the Telegraph Media Group a couple of years ago, a very well-known figure there told me: “Journalists can come in for a day knowing nothing about a subject, and leave being experts in it.” It’s part of what makes every day so exciting and different – you never know what you’re going to have to do when you walk through the door.

One of the only things I don’t think any level of training can truly prepare you for, though, is the number of plates you have to keep spinning as a reporter. I’m quite a methodical person and I like to work through things one at a time if I can.

But when you’ve got a few stories on the go at once and the phone keeps ringing, you have to be able to switch your focus very quickly – and I’m surrounded by top-quality journalists that make it look easy.

That’s been the main level of adjustment so far, but I’m loving the challenge and the rush of the work.

I’m also thinking of pitching a blog to WalesOnline – I’m coming up with ideas but if anyone has any suggestions then let me know.

Posted by: Ciaran | July 11, 2010

New beginnings

A little under two weeks ago I started a job with Media Wales in Cardiff – being paid to do what I love doing, which is to report the news.

In the last month – and after more than 100 posts in under nine months – I’ve had a blogging break while I’ve been deciding where to go from Thank the monkey, as these pages were previously known.

Now the name, along with the look, has changed, and Workin’ Progress has been born.

As of this week, I’ll be using my blog to chart the start of my career in the media industry and try and keep it as a record of the things I learn (as well as an aide-mémoire for future years), as well as writing about journalism as a whole.

In the meantime, if you’ve got any thoughts on the redesign – or anything else – then I’d love to know what you think.

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