What Samuel Johnson has to offer the news business

It strikes me as timely to ponder this, from British essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson:

What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.
Samuel Johnson

While we’re on it, here’s a couple more…

Without credible communication, and a lot of it, employee hearts and minds are never captured.
John Kotter (author of Leading Change)

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.

Larry King
*Quotes from The Book of Political & Business One-Liners.

If you find any of those website elves, send them my way

This is an old post but I’m leaving it here for the hell of it. Failed links have been updated (where possible) or removed.

Is it just me, or do you find in your organisation that people expect websites to mushroom by magic, as if little elves were at work while you slept?

I’ve lost count of how many newsrooms I’ve come across which rely on the efforts of a single, young, overworked web editor to monitor and update their website 24 hours a day, seven days a week (impossible, of course, they just do their best Monday to Friday and hope nothing breaks on the weekend to make them look like muppets).

And then there’s the large institutions which have nothing – NOTHING – in the budget for maintaining some of their websites. Nothing. Nada. No one to make sure the sites are up to date, clean, free of dead links, lovely to look at, useful.

Did I nod off and miss the memo that said websites are for free?


Bring back Dougal Stevenson

Every now and then I get an urge to create a Facebook group or something to campaign to bring back Dougal Stevenson. He was a TV newsreader in my youth, one of several with similar qualities.

Dougal Stevenson didn’t smile and joke with an attractive sidekick to let me know when the story was light, or grimace to let me know the story was serious, or banter with a cheeky weather presenter or get matey with the sports guy (and pretend to know about sport).

He just read the news, dispassionately, from a piece of paper while two or three images were displayed behind him. More please.

Here he is:

Thanks to CedricRusty for bringing Dougal Stevenson to YouTube.

RSS is great – if you speak English

This is an old post but I’m leaving it here for the hell of it. Failed links have been updated (where possible) or removed.

I got a bit of a reality check at a GIMD journalism conference I attended recently, in several ways.

The conference’s scope included ethics, minorities and reporting in conflict zones. I spoke, briefly, about how the internet is profoundly changing the delivery of news, how people find and keep up to date with news, who gathers news and how.

Among other things, I touched on how much information is available online, how we can download Google Earth for free, check out Wikipedia (and contribute to it), ask questions of Yahoo Answers and Google, get news alerts from Twitter, blogs, Facebook, RSS feeds and email, how free blogs and cheap mobile phones seriously lower the entry barrier to publishing. And how news companies, faced with declining audiences, have little option but to jump into this new reality.

I acknowledged how poor infrastructure and censored internet access limit this explosion of new communication pathways in many countries. But I was grateful to have a few more home truths illuminated for me.

For a start, an Eastern European journalist made a point of taking me aside and saying, in essence: ‘You know, all those RSS feeds are fine, but they’re not much use if you only speak, say, Slovenian. In my country I can count on two hands the number of RSS feeds in my language that are worth subscribing to.’

I can’t help but think that an explosion of output from individuals in such countries will only be a matter of time – as the price of entry falls (cheap desktop computers and mobile phones) and connectivity increases with the spread of broadband infrastructure. But it’s a fair point.

It was sobering to hear people talk about having their lives threatened, of having sources imprisoned for talking to them, and learning that 172 journalists and media staff died in the course of their work last year, according to the International Federation of Journalists (report has moved).

On the upside I heard about a family under house arrest who used a smuggled mobile phone and Twitter to keep in touch with the outside world. And I met someone who works with a group that excels at hiding internet connections from snooping oppressors.

I learned that in parts of rural China the availability of cheap mobile phones with cheap data plans is combining with growing use of wi-max to bring connectivity to communities who might otherwise have waited their lifetime for hard-wired infrastructure to reach them.

While I was there I read about an environmental protest in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, that had been organised through blogs, websites and text messages. The protesters ‘walked peacefully’ through the city to ‘criticise the building of an ethylene plant and oil refinery in Pengzhou, a few minutes’ drive outside the city.’

The earthquake now dominating news headlines struck Sichuan a few days later.

Later I read about an initiative started on Facebook in Egypt (where only 8pc of the population have internet access), which its young organisers had hoped would launch a passive protest but which waned as group members lost interest, confidence or heart. Later, some told of seizures and beatings received because of their involvement.

It’s an uneven world.

Modesty Blaise, split infinitives and style guides


It’s not every day you find a joke about split infinitives in the opening sentences of a novel. But Peter O’Donnell provided just that when he transformed Modesty Blaise (think Emma Peel combined with Lara Croft) from a cartoon character into a full-flesh master criminal turned special agent extraordinaire in the opening book of a series.

‘I would suppose, sir,’ he said cautiously, ‘that Modesty Blaise might be a person awfully difficult for us – er – actually to get.’ He blinked towards the big, grey-haired man who stood by the window, looking down at the night traffic hurrying along Whitehall.

‘For a moment,’ Tarrant said, turning from the window, ‘I hoped you might split that infinitive, Fraser.’ ‘I’m sorry, Sir Gerald.’ Fraser registered contrition. ‘Another time, perhaps.’

Well, it was 1965, so I suppose your average pulp fiction reader would have got the joke, having learned grammar at school. Unlike those of us who fronted up at school after 1965, by which time rote teaching of grammar had fallen out of favour with the result that generations of students have graduated without the faintest idea what an infinitive is, split or otherwise, let alone a dangling participle or the subjunctive mood. Myself included.

My saving grace was picking up a style guide when I got into journalism. Style guides are created by publishers to set writers straight on matters of grammar and syntax and ensure they observe common spellings, styles, use of numerals and names. The idea is that consistency makes life easier for the reader and creates a sense of trust – if the publication gets the little details right, the big details must surely be right too.

There was a time when you had to work for a news organisation to get your hands on a style guide. Then some organisations started publicly publishing theirs as hardcover books. The first one I read cover to cover was a battered, borrowed Economist Style Guide. I say borrowed, but I just found it in a box of books – with Modesty Blaise and a pile of other 50s and 60s paperbacks accumulated somewhere along the way – so I guess it was more of a gift, given that I can’t now remember who gave it to me. Oops.

Next came the perennial The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers and the elegant The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Both of which remain useful reads, the latter proving a particularly long-standing companion thanks to gems like this:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph should contain no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. – The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Nowadays many newsrooms publish their style guides online for anyone to use, and they can be very useful indeed. So here’s a couple to be getting on with: The Economist, The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph. I’d be glad to hear from you if you have links to any others.

As for the stylish Modesty Blaise – smart, elegant, discerning, rich, athletic, deadly – it must surely be time for a comeback (if only to give that Twittering Chuck Norris a run for his money).

NY Times tribute to Dith Pran (2008)

Dith Pran, the photojournalist who survived and documented the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and whose story is told in the movie The Killing Fields, died in New York in 2008.

The New York Times did an impressive job bringing together his obituary – including adding a recent interview with him to their video project, the Last Word – with stories about him, by him, slide shows of his images and audio of his reactions to the first public trial of a Khmer Rouge figure. (You’ll need to register with the NYTimes site to see some of this. Registration is free).

Seeing his images again is a reminder of how powerful pictures can be in storytelling.

Which reminds me, NZ journalist Chris Bourke wrote a couple of posts on photojournalism recently which are well worth a read. In one he reminds us of some of the biggest moments in photojournalism history and laments the decline of photojournalism:

“I despair when I see quality magazines that once championed photo journalism now making do with endless bland images from agencies. The publishers are tight-fisted, so the photo librarians cut corners (there are plenty of gritty agency shots that aren’t “posed by models). The result is a vanilla magazine, from cover to back page.”

In the other post he writes about an extraordinary interview he had in London with John G Morris who, among other things “managed the legendary photo-agency Magnum in its early years, and was photo-editor at the New York Times and Washington Post during the tumultuous 1960s”.

He talked to Morris about the front page images that helped turn Americans against the war in Vietnam, about the difference in coverage of World War II and the war in Iraq – “Let’s face it, [in the Second World War] we were propagandists. The American and Allied press was not neutral, we were fighting the war and we were an instrument of propaganda” – and much more.

Well worth a look.

One-liners from Webstock

Back from productive week in Wellington meeting people and attending Webstock, a conference for web designers but more widely relevant.

A few one-liners that stayed with me:

Design for how people really are

You can never have too much data

Figure out how to make data explorable

Your site is not your product

People are passionate about things they’re good at

People don’t want to be tool experts, they want to be expert at the things they use the tools for

Use your own products

If you want compelling feedback on site usability, video people using it (their faces tell the story)