Friday, 14 May 2010

Jeremy Webb - Editor in Chief New Scientist

Science, the internet and breaking into the world of journalism, New Scientist's Jeremy Webb tells Winchester students how it's done.

Jeremy Webb lives the dual life of the specialist journalist. He immerses himself in the new frontiers of scientific discovery and the fast changing world of publishing, he must be an expert in both. As Editor in Chief, he presides over not only the biggest selling weekly science magazine in the world, but its hugely successful sister website too.

New Scientist, logo, Jeremy Webb, magazine
Webb has worked at New Scientist for 16 years and he clearly enjoys it. “On a good day, my job is to travel round the world and talk to some of the brightest and most innovative thinkers in the world, now what's not to like about that? It's just a pleasure to do all the time, I meet such exciting, bright, stimulating, creative people. And the things they discover about the universe are just mind blowing.”

It was that scientific curiosity that started Webb on his path to success, he earned a degree in physics and solid-state electronics from the University of Exeter. “Studying physics is kind of like trying to get to the basics of how the universe works,” He recalls. “I've always found it intriguing and the world is a weird place and the universe is a strange place. I love finding out just how strange it all is.”

Do you have to be a scientist before you can write about it? “You can teach people who've studied science how to write but it's much more difficult to teach a good writer about science,” Webb replies. “That's because you pick it up over a long period of time, like osmosis. If you want to be a science writer, my advice would be go and go get a science degree.”

“There is an increasing understanding that science is really important. It effects every aspect of daily living, whether it's the ceramic that goes in to the hair straighteners you use in the morning to whether or not a woman can have a child when she's 55 or even the car you drive to work. Science effects the way we think about the world, it effects the world itself, it causes problems for the world, it can also provide the solutions to those problems.”

From university, he went straight into the BBC, working in their sound department (“You needed to be a specialist with razor blades and tape...”) before making the leap back to science as a reporter for a medical magazine. At New Scientist he's worked as deputy news editor and features editor before reaching the lofty heights of the top job.

“Of course it can be stressful, you always have ideas flying around in your mind and it's very difficult to calm your brain down long enough to sort things out. I can wake up at three in the morning, worrying about something or other.”

Webb attributes the success of the New Scientist website to simply being first off the bat. “We learned an awful lot about the web and how it could benefit us long long before any other publishing companies got interested. So I think just from being there fist was important. But the other thing is that New Scientist is the biggest selling weekly science magazine in the world. Nothing else can touch us, we were first in and we've got an established position.” A consistent range of innovative and well written science articles on the site have helped cement that position.

But not everything is free, the newest content can still only be found in the magazine, Webb is unapologetic. “Now I know that web culture doesn't approve of that so much but I think there's been a big understanding around the world that it's needed, certainly we've seen the publishing industry collapse because no one's buying newspapers or magazines any longer. We want to head that off before it happens in this country.”

What would Webb say to the aspiring journalism student that wants his job? “If you're serious about becoming a writer, the first thing is to get yourself published because there is so much competition these days. When people like myself are recruiting new writers we ask first how serious is this person? It doesn't matter if they've been published in a university paper or university website or somewhere else, it doesn't matter.

“Get published anywhere, anywhere just so you can send your cuttings in to an editor just so you can say look, I'm serious about being a journalist, here is what I've done so far and you can tell from these clips that I'm really keen and eager to get myself published. And that's the most important thing of all.”

When asked what one piece of advice he would give to Winchester students, Webb paused. “There is one thing... We have the possibility of an all singing all dancing form of journalism.

“There is going to be room for a type of journalist who can also programme, by that I mean who can use HTML 5, possibly flash, certainly be able to edit video. There is clearly a growing need for this kind of people and at the moment they're very difficult to find. I would say that there is a new area of journalism that's arising from that.

“The really tooled up journalist will have all these skills under their belt. I don't want to diminish the fact that having a nose for a story is really important, being able to write and interview people. Being able to write about your story in an engaging and enticing way is really important. But all these other skills will become valuable in the future.”

So the industry is changing and New Scientist will change with it. But Webb argues that the traditional magazine is far from dead.“We know that there are a lot of people who aren't adverse to sitting at a computer and reading long articles but we also know that a lot of people sit at computers all day long and when they get home they want another way to read.

“Now whether that's going to be a magazine made of paper or a magazine on an i-pad I can't tell you. But it's this idea that you can have a design with a magazine, you can see graphs and photographs in glorious technicolour. At the moment it's difficult to do that in an easy portable form with electronic media. Is the future all online or all in magazines? I don't have a crystal ball large enough to tell you.”

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Congratulations Simon Singh!

(Photo: Robert Sharp / English PEN) , Simon Singh, BCA, libel
Science writer Simon Singh has won his case against the British Chiropractic Association, fantastic news!

Libel laws in England and Wales are so lopsided in favour of the defamed (whether they have justifiably been defamed or not). We've become a haven for libel tourists, when the case for libel isn't strong enough to gain a victory in their own country they bring the case here. And probably win. We're dangerously close to a culture where good journalists are afraid to be critical for fear of being sued.

Let's hope this is a step in the right direction and we'll see real libel reform in this country soon.


Even more:

Monday, 29 March 2010

Let's shout about it

Imagine waking up one morning to a knock on your front door. It's the police and they'd like to talk to you. Pretty soon you're sitting in a cell facing life imprisonment for a crime you know you didn't commit. The horror of knowing your friends and family, anyone you ever loved or met can see you've been convicted of a terrible crime. Your life has been taken away and the people you care about think you're a rapist or a murderer.

It's a nightmare and one that many people could be living right now. Worse, it could happen to any of us, anytime.

Our criminal justice system is fallible, we know that. When the Guilford Four, Birmingham Six and Maguire Seven were released there was such a public outcry that the government created an entirely new organisation - the Criminal Cases Review Commission - to make sure mistakes hadn't been made elsewhere too.

This news item from the CCRC's website tells a great story, a possible miscarriage has been investigated by the CCRC and referred to the court of appeal. Simon Hall will have the opportunity to present new evidence in his defence and a potential terrible miscarriage of justice might be rectified.

What it doesn't tell you is that the evidence that might prove his innocence would not have come to light if it were not for the hard work of the Bristol University Innocence Project. The CCRC could not have done this without them, and more worryingly, would not have.

So the CCRC was meant to be the solution to the problem. It was born out of the anger and fear that the high profile cases created. That anger and fear just isn't around now, miscarriages of justice aren't getting the same attention they once did. If the CCRC isn't up to the task, without the public outcry seen before how can we hope for the change we obviously still need to save innocent people?

When something happens once it's unique, startling and newsworthy. It happens again and we can't believe it, how could it possibly happen again? How could we let it? Then it happens again and again, it's a trend. The anger and amazement fades, it becomes commonplace and accepted.

We've begun to accept that this is just the way it is. The system will get it wrong and sometimes the wrong person will be imprisoned for a crime, sometimes the real criminals escape justice.

What we need is to make this a huge issue again. Raise awareness and stir things up. Let's all get radical.

Students! Remember the days when there were protest marches and riots? When students were revolutionary and it was about more than just getting a degree.

Journalists! What greater moral calling do we have than finding injustice and exposing it to the light of day?

All of us, everyone of us. We need to read about miscarriages of justice, we need to talk about miscarriages of justice. We need to be outraged every time the system gets it wrong. We need to shout about every mistake at the top of our voices, so next time they get it right.

Get angry. Make a big deal of it. It is a big deal.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Journalists should fight injustice

'We must revive the link between investigative journalism and miscarriages of justice' – Dr Eamonn O' Neill

Dr Eamonn O' Neill, INUK, Innocence Network
We've been working on an innocence project for nearly six months now and I'm not exaggerating in the slightest when I say it's been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Working on a case is addictive, I've spent untold hours pouring over witness statements and forensic evidence. Fire reports, crime scene photos, e-fits and psychological profiles. Slowly, a picture of events that took place over ten years ago is starting to come together. It's captivating.

I caught the bug at last October's INUK training event. The personal stories of miscarriages of justice we heard were infuriating and heartbreaking, the passion we saw in other members of the INUK was inspiring. Last week, myself and other students from the University of Winchester attended a similar event.

The chair and first speaker was Dr Eamonn O' Neill, a freelance investigative journalist and one hell of a role model for journalism students. He opened with a talk that made the journalists in the audience sit up that little bit straighter and swell with pride. The Innocence Network wants the skills we have to offer and thanks to the example set by Dr O' Neill, we want to give them.

He reminded us of the long tradition of journalists exposing the truth and freeing the wrongfully convicted, the late Ludovic Kennedy being a prime example. The BBC TV show Rough Justice, that resulted in 15 quashed convictions, was axed in 2007. According to Dr O' Neill this is just another symptom that there has been a decline of coverage in recent years, a dearth of journalists willing to put the time into investigating cases.

When Winchester first joined the INUK we were a little apprehensive about being the only university running cases without any law students. Now I choose not to see that weakness, instead I look at the strengths that journalists bring. Investigative journalists have incisive minds to spot what's important, they really want to get to the bottom of things. They have curiosity and persistence, a strong sense of purpose, a feeling of outrage about wrongdoing and a moral conviction to find the truth. They're prepared to be very unpopular and are determined enough to knock on the 16th door in the rain when they're tired and the first 15 doors have led them nowhere. They have courage and put tough questions to powerful people.

I think those are exactly the qualities needed to expose a miscarriage of justice.

'The system is process over truth, law before people' – Dr Michael Naughton

Michael Naughton, INUK, Innocence Network
The founder of the INUK, Dr Michael Naughton then took the floor. He reminded us of the importance of factual innocence over legal innocence. As an innocence project we should be concerned with finding the truth, whether that means our client is innocent or guilty. We're not looking to free a prisoner on a legal technicality, rather find concrete evidence to prove that they either did or did not commit the crime they are imprisoned for. Circumstantial evidence is the enemy.

He argues that the current system is flawed and I'm inclined to agree with him.

'When there is no hope, there is always hope' - Mark Newby

Mark Newby, INUK, Innocence network
Mark Newby was the keynote speaker at the conference. As a solicitor he's exposed injustice and freed the wrongfully convicted. He took the opportunity to take us through five of his cases and in the process showed how determination and an eye for detail can save lives.

He gave us a blow by blow account of how he and his team proved factual innocence. I took notes and Winchester's innocence project will be stronger for it.

It was a fantastic day and I came away with a host of ideas I can't wait to implement into our project. Growing up, many of the moral absolutes I held have been shattered by the reality of our society and justice system. It's my work with the Innocence Network UK that has convinced me some absolutes are worth clinging to. There is right and wrong, there is guilty and innocent. Sometimes it can be as simple as that.

(Photos courtesy of United Against Injustice)

Friday, 26 February 2010

Profile writing

First thing's first, don't ever spell your lecturers name wrong. Especially when she's a highly successful journalist and you're just a wannabe. It does not impress.

Now that I've solidified my status as a consummate professional in your minds, let me tell you all about profile writing.

The method – Start by searching through press clippings then sketch out a life map of the person. Interview their friends and foes and verify everything. That's just good journalism anyway. The subject of the profile might not talk to you but give them the chance to comment, to deny what's being written about them, just as if it were a regular defamatory news story.

  • Think of it like a pen portrait
  • An obituary... but for a living person
  • Who are they?
  • How did they become who they are?
  • What does everyone say about them?
  • Tell an anecdote/funny story that sums the person up
  • Try a delayed drop introduction
  • Don't comment in your own voice, just write the facts
  • Apart from perhaps the into and outro tell their story in straight chronological order
  • It must be balanced

We were given an hour in the session to create our own 300 word profile, apart from being far far too long and 15 minutes past the deadline I think it turned out OK. But of course I'm now fired from my imaginary magazine job. Never miss a deadline...

Tim Burton

“I would do anything Tim [Burton] wanted me to. You know - have sex with an aardvark... I would do it.” – Johnny Depp

His films have created cult followings so strong and fans so dedicated that Spielberg and Scorsese can only look on in wonder. His work is instantly recognisable and if he asked Johnny Depp to have sex with an aardvark, he’d do it. By all accounts, Tim Burton is unique, a man with a striking vision and one of the hottest properties in Hollywood.

Tim Burton, profile
His is the story of the outcast thrust into the spotlight. A misfit whose loner nature and dark imaginings, the very things that set him apart as a young man, would eventually make him the beloved idol of millions.

Born August 25, 1958 in Burbank, California, Burton had an uncomfortable suburban childhood and increasingly distanced himself from his family. He left at the age of 10 to live with his grandmother and developed a taste for the darker side of film. But perhaps it was this time of isolation that helped him create a different mindset to most of his creative peers – and earn him a scholarship from Disney animation. It was his odd and gothic animation work there that would earn him his chance in the director’s chair.

Early success with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice meant his name was flying around the right circles at just the right time, when Warner Brothers were looking to shake the camp image of Batman from the sixties. A man with a dark, twisted vision was needed and Burton fitted the bill. Batman and its sequel Batman Returns were huge critical and commercial successes and Tim Burton had made the A-list.

Tim Burton, profile, Helen Bonham Carter, Alice in Wonderland
He reached the lofty position that most directors can only dream of, picking his own projects and being given free reign to mould them with as little interference from the studios as possible. Whether working on his own tirade of bizarre creations (Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride) or transforming beloved classics into dark fairytales (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland), Burton has cemented his own style and generated such loyalty from actors that they would screw African mammals for him.

But whilst in many eyes he can do no wrong, Burton has had his fair share of critics. Misfires like Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes generated their fair share of flack and calls that he’d lost his touch, the latter being called a ‘curdled whimsy’ by Rolling Stone magazine.

Critical bomb or not, it’s hard to see how Burton could see Apes as a failure, it was there that he met fellow oddball and now wife Helen Bonham Carter. A woman who seems to have caught his attention and not let go, he’s cast her in nearly every film he’s made since. But before the cries of ‘whipped!’ fly out, it’s worth noting that he makes her audition for every role she gets. A sign that maybe Tim Burton’s personal life is still just as bizarre as his films.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Murdoch tames the internet. Or not.

The following interview from Sky News Australia reveals a lot about Rupert Murdoch's attitudes to the internet and how he intends to conquer it. As possibly the world's most powerful media mogul he has the potential to completely rewrite the rulebook on making money online. Or he might have misjudged the public's attitude to the internet entirely.

Murdoch owns part of Sky News Australia, so the question of bias may be raised. However it could be argued that the interviewer, David Sheers, is brave to press critical questions such as whether Fox News is truly fair and balanced. Behind Murdoch is a wall of newspapers. happy coincidence or carefully choreographed statement?

  • Websites that are making a couple of million are not making 'serious money', Murdoch is clearly operating and thinking in terms of capital that eclipses most other organisations.
  • Accessing News Corp's content will be cheaper than buying a newspaper, the savings being made from printing and distribution costs. However, it's not free and consumers used to free content may resent even the smallest of fees - especially if there's still free alternatives from other news providers. It may be dependent on whether other media providers follow suite or not.
  • The hard copy newspaper will disappear, but not for 20 years. We know this will happen eventually but it's interesting to see that those at the top believe it too and are preparing for it.
  • It's a generational thing, people under 30 just don't buy newspapers. We've had this discussion with our lecturer here at Winchester university, there has been a complete shift in culture, possibly propagated by the rise of the internet.
  • "The BBC is a scandal", he believes they can use their £4bn+ budget to force their way into new mediums and opportunities where commercial enterprises just can't compete. Mr Murdoch appears frustrated that he BBC is able to be a global leader with new products like 'iplayer' and they don't have to deal with advertising and revenue in the way he does.
  • He appears to support the 'three strikes and out' method of dealing with file sharers that proves to be controversial and unpopular if imposed in the UK.
  • Murdoch is very critical of the current American administration, perhaps he is unable to work with them in the same way as he has been able to before.
Gordon Brown, Rupert Murdoch, The Sun
  • Every world leader is afraid of the press. It's hard to argue with the point made here when we know how long our politicians spend wooing news editors in the lead up to elections. And we know the power of the press, huge damage has been done to Labour and Gordon Brown now Murdoch's UK papers have switched allegiance and support Cameron. The viscous front page attacks from the Sun about Brown's hand written letter to the mother of a dead soldier being a prime and current example
  • According to this interview, Murdoch regrets that the UK papers have turned against Gordon Brown but feels that it was the right decision. I believe he's seriously downplaying his own hand in the editorial process here and that it would ultimately have been his decision, his call to turn against Labour.

By charging for content that internet users have come to expect will be free, Murdoch is taking a huge gamble and one that I'm doubtful will pay off in the way he hopes. My generation doesn't buy papers, a point he concedes - we get our news for free. Why would we start paying now, even if the medium is one we're more familiar with? Content such as the embedded video from youtube at the beginning of this post is exactly the kind of material he seems to resent being freely available. But perhaps internet culture has come to far to do a u-turn now. If Rupert Murdoch is saying this is the way forward, why does it feel so much like it would be taking a step backwards?

Monday, 2 November 2009

News Editor - Learn by doing?

Winol - Winchester News Online. This is a project journalism students at Winchester university are being graded on. Essentially we've been tasked with setting up our own news organisation, we have an online news and features site and weekly we'll produce a 15 minute live news program. We've just had our first dry run and blimey was it hard work. The temptation to wander around mumbling 'student', 'just learning' and mistakes will happen' is growing by the second.

Winol, Winchester News Online, journalism

I'm in the role of news editor and my tasks are to choose the right stories to pursue, manage my reporters and ensure the content is delivered on time. This week I think I failed on all accounts. So either this bizarre optimism I'm feeling is insanity creeping in or I'm confident the next run through will be many times better. Let's hope it's the latter eh?

News is a unique and unpredictable beast, no amount of sitting around planning and discussing will change local events and give us an amazing Hampshire news bulletin. We have to find the news and then report it in the most engaging and informative way possible. So the most important aspect of news journalism is also the most difficult, tracking down interesting happenings somewhere as sleepy as Winchester.

I honestly believe reporting news is much more demanding than feature writing - not to knock features or those who write them, we have a fantastic features team at Winchester that's working extremely hard and coming up with great ideas. It takes a completely different skills set to write features, one I lack completely and I admire those who do. But they do have that luxury of being able to make up ideas, try that in news and people tend to get a little narked off...

All news teams, no matter whether they work for TV, radio or print will meet frequently in a meeting chaired by the editor. They share the stories they've found and the editor decides which ones make the cut. Now being able to speak from experience - this is the make or break part of the entire news day.

If the right stories are pitched and chosen then everything after will go down like a cold beer on a hot summers afternoon. Running with weak ideas will be forced, frustrating and ultimately make for a very weak final product. The problems this week were evident: a lack of communication and preparation.

And the solutions? As the news editor I need to be available all the time, I can't go out to work on a story myself. I'll be there on the end of the phone if I'm needed and I'll keep track of my reporters, know where they are and what they're doing. But I need to trust them more rather than trying to micromanage every aspect of every story. If they pitch a story to me and I like it then I'll give them the go ahead. My team are enthusiastic and committed, everything else will come with time and practice.

We've started an online calendar of upcoming events, our news diary that we can all access and update. By looking ahead we can build up a list of news prospects that will make it easier in the Monday news meeting to find the right stories fill a bulletin. We'll also bring the meeting forward to earlier in the day, the more time we have to work on the pieces, the better they will be.

The week was as difficult as it was rewarding. It was a start and there's definitely something there that can be built upon in the coming weeks. It wasn't until I made these mistakes that I knew how to avoid them. I've tried, and missed the mark. Now I've learnt from it and now I'll do a better job because of it.