Don’t pay to be published

I’m not planning to use this space to rant often, I promise, but I’ve just seen this news story and it’s made my blood boil. Put simply, a newspaper group in South London appears to be charging students to have their work published online so they build up a portfolio. Here’s the link to the NUJ’s coverage:

Now, if it’s wrong or mistaken then I’ll take this post down willingly and I’ll be relieved. If it’s right, then the whole concept is wrong in more ways than I’d care to list.

Let’s start with the parallel in the commercial world. There are companies that will pay handsomely for a place in a sponsored supplement in national newspapers and magazines, and I’m certainly one of the journalists who will write for them. And yes I’ll take a payment. These are adults, though, looking for commercial advantage themselves and making decisions about how to deploy corporate budgets.

It’s a little different in the student world.


Students, in my day, had very little money. We felt very sorry for ourselves but with hindsight we were wrong. If we ended up with a debt at the end of college then it was because we hadn’t budgeted our money very well. There was no question of paying for our tuition fees. It is now radically different and young people end up leaving college with massive debts (here’s a report from Which?). And yes, they write them off 30 years after you’ve left, but to put this in perspective I turn 50 in a couple of months, I left college in 1986, so if we’d had the system in place then I’d still be in debt.

Even in the olden days, we’d have fought shy of paying for vanity projects. The reasons would be many. Affordability is the first.

The second, though, has to be quality control. What, you think the mags are going to be a stringent about quality when they’re obliged to publish something because someone is paying for it? If I’m honest I don’t see how they could be.

This leads to a second issue. You end up with a string of these pieces in your portfolio. An editor writes you a certificate saying you’ve been published. What next, then – you show them to another editor when you seek a job? OK, but she or he is going to identify these as paid-for pieces. Do you seriously think they’ll be taken as seriously as “proper” clippings? Once again, if an employer knows you’ve paid for them, I can only imagine there would be something of a downgrade in their eyes.

This is as nothing compared to my final two objections, though. The first is a simple moral point. If you want to sell newspapers and gain a profit, you pay the people who make it, not the other way around. I can’t make sense of any system in which the writer pays the publisher unless they believe there is no other way of getting into print.

The second objection is that this is, ever so slightly, 2015. I know that won’t last but there it is for the moment. People are already looking seriously at blogs as a means of publishing their own words. Guys, if you need your work published to show an editor, do what I did and sign up to a blogging service and put your words up there. It will cost nothing – or you might do what I’ve done and pay for a design that suits you, but you’ll know why you’re paying.

If any students are reading, please, please don’t let these people think they can charge for publishing your work. They can patronise you with a little certificate if they like; ultimately, though, they should be paying you, not the other way around. And anyway, I’ll let you publish something on here for only £119. That’s a quid saved, at least.

My thanks to my friend and colleague Steve Bustin for drawing this issue to my attention

UPDATE: I’ve now been told that this company has been laying off journalists – so it used to pay for copy and is now going to get people to pay it to publish. If this is a training course then it may be worth something, but let’s label it as such rather than guarantee people a sheaf of cuttings.

Deal with a journalist

Today I’ll be media training – by the time you read this I’ll be on the train en route to Cardiff. It will take me as long to get there as it did to reach Warsaw last week.

A few things come up quite frequently when I’m facilitating these sessions so here are some quick tips to make your media engagements pay better. All are based on experiences I’ve had in genuine press interviews:

  • Prepare but don’t overthink. People who have no idea what they need to get out of an interview and subsequent coverage have no way of measuring their success or lack thereof. However, I’ve run sessions in which, after a dummy interview, the client feeds back “I wondered what was behind the question”. Usually the answer is “nothing, I just thought the readers would be interested”, but people tie themselves in knots nonetheless.
  • Don’t assume the journalist works for you. I’ve had people call me after interviews and attempt to withdraw their quotes. You can’t actually un-say things and as long as I’ve identified myself as a journalist and obtained an accurate quote honestly I’m within my rights to use it. You can amend what you’ve said in marketing documents; an interview with a journalist isn’t one of them.
  • Related point: An interview isn’t an advert for your company. It’s independent so if you’re going to claim to be a market leader, number one in your field or anything related, expect to be asked for evidence.
  • Part of your preparation should be to reserve enough time to do the interview justice. Have a look at this video; it’s a disaster, fair enough, but if the cafe owner had been concentrating on the interview he could have done a great deal better.
  • A final related point is to work out the likely questions in advance. The video above is a terrible example; in a poor area of course someone’s going to ask about serving the local market. A prepared answer about offering a poverty-hit area jobs would have neutralised the issue completely. Instead we get a defensive reaction that does the interviewee no favours at all.

For information about my media training service please feel free to click on my media training page.

If you’re in something, be in it

Just time for a quickie today. I spent yesterday evening in Poland on the jury of the CEE Shared Services and Outsourcing event (for people who don’t know, among my freelance work is the editorship of Professional Outsourcing Magazine).

Many of the entries were well written and explained their case clearly. Which is why one or two of the remainder stood out by just putting their names in and no detail at all. Details are confidential of course, but the effect was like having an entry for PR company of the year (if there were such an award), putting the company name in and not submitting anything else.

I’ve seen this happen before when I was on the panel for the Nectar Small Business Awards, also for last year’s Guardian Small Business Awards. Some people genuinely believe the judges will just “know”, presumably by osmosis or something, that a particular business is award-worthy.

Well, here’s the news. We don’t. We need something to work with, and just a name and phone number really isn’t going to do. If you’re going to be in an award scheme, or if you’re coaching your client to enter, be in it properly. A cursory entry isn’t going to achieve anything apart from annoying the judges.

The award ceremony will take place in Warsaw this evening.

The language question

I’m off to Poland today for Professional Outsourcing Magazine, helping to judge an awards scheme and to attend the gala dinner and presentation. I’m looking forward to it – the magazine’s been a pleasure to work on for this last year and there will be people I know there.

Often I visit other countries and speak. A couple of weeks ago I faced an international group for media training, which was fun and stimulating. There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you face a multilingual audience.

Ignore the obvious

On two occasions I’ve been advised to speak slowly to give the other language speakers a chance to keep up. That’s actually so obvious I wouldn’t have mentioned it here if people hadn’t been drawing it to my attention already.

Something on which you do need to focus if your audience will have English as a second language is the quality of the AV. Last time I presented to a tiny group I was using a video to illustrate a point, but the speaker on the TV set wasn’t working. We put the volume as high as we could on my iPad but the back row struggled to hear. Would they have stood a better chance if they’d been English speakers by birth? Probably. Would it have been a better idea if I’d brought a backup speaker just in case? Absolutely, and I’ve acquired a couple. Lesson learned.

The other thing to watch is humour. It doesn’t necessarily travel, no matter how hysterical you might consider your own brand of comedy.

A few years ago I was presenting on social media in Italy, just after the fall of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. One of my slides had a picture of Rupert Murdoch. I said “I don’t know how this man affects the non-English-speaking world. He’s a media magnate who has undue influence in our political world and many of us can barely believe it – I explain this in depth because I know nothing like that could ever happen in Italy.”

One person laughed uproariously but otherwise there was silence. No reaction. I started to wonder about actual violence from the audience if I’d offended them that badly.

I continued with my next point and then the laugh came – I’d forgotten about the gap while the interpreter caught up with me. Of course they loved the Berlusconi gag, they just hadn’t heard it yet apart from the fluent English speaker, who had laughed immediately.

Lesson learned again – allow a gap for the interpreter! And given that humour relies largely on timing, think very carefully about how important a joke might be when that timing is going to be in the hands of a translator rather than your own.

Does grammar matter?

I’m running a course on sharpening writing skills for the Henshall Centre today and one of the things we’re talking about is grammar. I’ve had a number of discussions on the subject on Facebook and elsewhere – does it matter whether something you write is 100% grammatical, does anyone care any more?

My answer is that although language evolves, grammar ultimately matters a great deal because it leads to clarity.

Redundant rules
The flipside of this is that if a grammatical rule doesn’t add anything to clarity, it’s probably not useful any longer. Take one of my favourites, the split infinitive. Many people condemn this and insist it shouldn’t happen. Well, phooey to that. The original rule about not splitting infinitives came from latin, is arcane and elderly and has nothing to do with making statements clear or otherwise.

There are also regional variants. The American “I could care less” means the same as the British “I couldn’t care less” – both are correct in the right geography but there’s room for confusion.

Clarity is everything
However, there are areas in which clarity has to count for something and picking something someone has said apart to find out what they meant can take too long. It’s almost 20 years since I bought my current house, and some of the correspondence I had with the mortgage company still baffles me. It didn’t even have jargon in it (another major issue with some writing), just an attempt at sounding official by a junior who probably shouldn’t have bothered.

So I’m going to be advising sensible grammar when it aids comprehension. Short sentences. Easy words. I’m not all that worried about whether every sentence contains a verb (the previous two in this paragraph didn’t), nor whether people start a sentence with a conjunction. But poor grammar that actively distorts meaning, as some of it does, is something to watch for.

What’s everybody else think?

No I won’t go off the record

If there’s one thing I could change about so, so many of the interviewees I’ve met over the years as a journalist then it’s the jack-the-lad thing of telling me something off the record.

So, who are your key customers, I ask. Well, we’re about to sign someone big, comes the reply. I can tell you off the record.

I find this peculiar. I’ve identified myself as a journalist, why would you want to tell me something I can’t repeat? To ingratiate yourself perhaps – although why anyone thinks I’m going to be shouting “whoopee, a story I can’t sell or use” is beyond me.

Here are some unpleasant truths about “off the record”. They are why I always advise my media training candidates against even thinking about it.

Nobody understands it correctly. Oh all right, that’s an exaggeration, but some people don’t. Many years ago I worked on a computer trade magazine. Someone once told me, when I asked them a question, whether they could go off the record. I agreed, assuming I could write the story with “sources close to the company said…” and was stunned when the bloke who’d told me every fact I’d printed called up and demanded to know the source. I told him I’d never disclose a source but since it was he who’d told me everything I’d make an exception. He was livid; to him, “off the record” meant (correctly I now believe) “don’t use it at all”. I’d assumed it meant “unattributable”, an arrangement with which other sources had always seemed comfortable.

The counter-example from years ago was when John Lennon told a journalist off the record that he was leaving the Beatles. The journalist didn’t report it and Lennon was livid when Paul McCartney came to the same decision and it was all over the press – Lennon phoned the journalist and asked why on earth he hadn’t reported? “It was off the record”, came the slightly weak response.

So, what do you understand by “off the record” – and are you positive the journalist understands the same thing?

I may not be trustworthy. You might think I’m a nice man. I probably am. But I’m a journalist and am hungry for stories so if you tell me something very important that’s off the record, I have a decision to make and it may not end up in your favour. Or there’s the other reason not to trust me; I might make an honest mistake and forget a particular comment or fact was off the record. Why would you assume otherwise?

I don’t work for you. This is the killer, for me anyway. I don’t actually work for you, so why would I want to help manage the timing of your news announcements? This isn’t supposed to sound aggressive (although it probably does) – but seriously, why am I expected effectively to manage your press schedule?

Those are only a handful of the reasons why, if I’m interviewing you and you say “well, off the record…” I’ll stop you and ask for something I can use instead. If we both know we were on the record the whole time, neither of us has to do any mental juggling – it might sound a bit strict but honestly, it’s a load easier in the end.

I always advise my media training candidates that “off the record” doesn’t exist. That way it won’t catch them out later.

Information on my media training service is here. My thanks to Kate Warwick of PR Savvy for reminding me to have a rant about this subject!

“No comment” and other things you thought were a good idea

In media training yesterday I went through the usual things – with a strong candidate who had no experience talking with the press. He absorbed the lot, processing it by having to know the reason for everything, and the day was an absolute pleasure as a result.

One of the many things he queried then accepted was the idea of never saying “no comment”. He’d heard this and seen it and thought it should be acceptable.

I could see why, but have another think. If a journalist asks someone “do you beat your partner” and they respond “no comment”, does that look like a denial or a dodge? Loads of people will assume violence is indeed happening.

There are a number of techniques to get away from awkward or impossible areas, but “no comment” isn’t one of them. It always sounds defensive, and gives us (the journalists) an option to say you declined to comment on (fill in the sensitive issue of your choice here). Far better to bridge into something else if you can. “That’s an important issue but what’s really bothering our customers is…” or “There are always different views, but our focus is…” and then carry on with the point you needed to make.

Other misconceptions

Popular media has ironically given rise to a number of other bad ideas about the “rules” governing the press. Here are a few, and I’ll put more on future blog entries as they occur to me:

  • Saying “allegedly” means you can say anything. No you can’t, the libel laws apply to allegations – that’s the whole point. “Have I Got News For You” has used “allegedly” for comic effect – tell me I’m a thief, allegedly, and I can still sue.
  • You can instruct a journalist not to use a quote after you’ve said it. No, in the UK at least it’s our job to report what was said and to be accurate. We’re not your PR department so you don’t get to vet your quotes afterwards and amend them to reflect what you wish you’d said instead.
  • If you’re a blogger you can speak without the constraints of libel laws. Actually you’re covered by the same restraints that protect everybody else; your subject may decide you probably have insufficient funds to make it worth suing you, but that’s their decision and not something based on any extra rights you might have.

I’d welcome any other examples as comments.

Information on my media training sessions is here – get in touch any time if you have any questions.

From senior UK journalist Guy Clapperton

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