Tag Archives: journalism

Giving gifts to journalists – our ethics

Sometimes when I’m media training I’m asked about giving gifts to journalists. This is something that’s changed over the years and, I believe, it’s better now. The simplest advice is not to do so.

In the late eighties when I started as a tech journalist, there wasn’t a year without a case of wine or something turning up at the office for Christmas, usually from the marketing department of a company about which we’d written regularly. There was no linkage in our minds between this and the coverage.

There were also more overt gifts. One editor I knew rarely paid for his own laptop computer. He explained that a few PR people and he regularly planned that he’d be the last person to review a unit, and by the time it had been pulled apart that many times it wasn’t cost-effective to retrieve it. Hence, free laptops for years.

There are exceptions of course. Food and drink journalists can’t reasonably write about their field without tasting, and expecting them to send back the remainder of a bottle of beer would be absurd.

The tech-based generosity all came to a halt a couple of decades later. First, the financial crash happened. Second, a lot of marketing departments did some thinking.

Are you drinking someone’s job?

Two things happened. It started to occur to people on both sides of the fence that if money was being spent on journalists then it wasn’t going on the core business. When people were losing their livelihoods all over the place, it was less comfortable when someone biked a bottle of bubbly or something over.

Second, during the late 1990s the Internet became more popular. It had always been known that the UK and the US had different cultures when it came to “freebies” (they were much more strict than us). Being in closer contact with each other held us in the UK up to the light and we could see how this looked to other people.

That said, there may be times when you want to give someone a little thank you. Here’s something that happened to me only a couple of weeks ago.

Say it with as little money as possible

I was interviewing someone and we were getting on well. He was interesting and I warmed to his subject. He told me there was a book I’d really enjoy, and asked for my email address. I gave it, politely, expecting information on the book.

When I checked, he’d sent me the audiobook. Now, Audible.com has a promotion so that you can send someone a copy of your favourite book free of charge, I believe (it’s obviously promotional but you do get the whole book).

I found I had a gift that was: a) personal and thoughtful, because it was a result of an actual conversation, and also b) free to the sender.

Meanwhile my wife works in the public sector; their stipulations, if someone insists on giving them something, are that it has to be declared if it’s worth over a fiver and unless it’s perishable, they tend to put it into a prize draw for their nominated charity anyway.

On the “perishable” theme, when someone gave me some help with a contract once and wouldn’t accept money, I sent a box of cookies. I had to query non-delivery so the company sent out another couple of boxes to be certain. By the time the fourth box had arrived my contract friend was begging for them to stop.

In fact the more I think about it, the more I think “just a really good story thanks” is about right for most journalists I know.

Marketing and journalism are different – tell your clients!

Journalism has to be independent or else it’s marketing. That’s the theory anyway. In practice things are changing, but are they doing so for the better?

In media training sessions I sometimes get asked why journalists won’t let an interviewee change their quotes. The reasons are many: by asking to check quotes you’re hinting that we can’t do our jobs, our job is to reflect what was said rather than what you wish you’d said (unless there’s a factual inaccuracy), and above all we’re supposed to be independent and not someone who works for you. Except things are getting a little blurred.

Advertorials have been commonplace for some time. The deal is relatively simple: a company pays a publisher to write (or supplies the copy for) something that looks like an article but is in fact an advert. As long as it says something like “advertising promotion” across the top, the reader knows what they’re getting and nobody minds. The unwritten rule is that it has to be well written.

Now look at this article: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/forbes-aims-to-bring-journalists-and-advertisers-together-on-the-page-through-new-co-storytelling-approach/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2016-11-21&utm_source=Press+Gazette+Daily+new+layout

For those who don’t want to, the essence is that for six years, Forbes has been putting journalistic copy alongside marketing copy so that there is an element of what it calls “co-storytelling”. So someone like me might write something on one page about, say, the Google Pixel phone, while someone from Google writes their account on another. Their copy gets labelled as promotional.

So far, so good. Except…would that someone like me be writing about the thing in the first place if the company hadn’t booked the promotion? Therefore, if the piece wouldn’t have existed without the fee, is it really independent?

Bloggers

There are variants of this, of course. Bloggers are an interesting example, sometimes not getting paid at all and some getting paid to promote products directly, without a clue as to why anyone should object. The unpaid variety sneer at journalists, who they say wouldn’t be writing about anything at all if they weren’t being paid by someone.

Which is a reasonable point of view. And then of course there’s the fake news – remember when Donald Trump said if he were to go into politics he’d be a Republican because they’ll believe anything? It’s a great quote but according to fact-checking site Snopes, he never said it.

For the moment at least, I’m going to stick with advising clients that the journalist is going to want to stay independent, won’t allow them to change quotes, won’t let them vet articles before they appear.

But I’ll be watching what happens carefully in case things change.

What is journalistic balance?

Balance is an issue that often comes up in my media training sessions. Will the journalist be biased, I’m asked, and is there anything that can be done about it? I tend to tell them it’s complicated. I’m honestly not dodging the issue.

In the UK at least, broadcasters are charged with reporting things impartially – here’s chapter and verse from Ofcom. There’s no similar law in, say, the US, which is why they can have Fox News and we can’t. Equally there is no such law covering printed matter, which is why when there’s a general election or EU referendum the papers will come out in favour of one side or the other.

All of which makes it very interesting to hear that Birkbeck College has published a paper stating that the BBC has devoted twice as much airtime to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s critics as to his supporters. This surely means the BBC is biased and therefore in breach of the charter by which it exists?

It’s tempting to think so. My answer is more complex: there’s an issue about “journalistic balance” and it’s a lot more difficult than just “publish opposite views and give them equal weight”.

What is balance?

The question has come up in relation to politics and I want to take it away from there for the moment. The name of Jeremy Corbyn tends to arouse strong emotions (I’ll come back to him later I promise). Likewise, during the EU debate, there were plenty of objections from both sides to suggest a bias against them.

So I want to have a look first at what I was taught about good journalistic practice and then look at how it may have let us down in the past. I’ll then bring it back to the present day.

In the dim and distant past…

I became a full-time journalist in 1989. It’s a fair while ago but the teaching on how to write a good news story is still imparted today: you get someone stating a view and you get the opposite view in as well.

This is of course in the case of news stories in which there is any room for controversy. “Andy Murray wins Wimbledon men’s singles for the second time” is a fairly uncontroversial statement because it’s demonstrably true. Other stories are less so. In the tech business world in which I’ve specialised over the years you might have “Study shows that outsourcing creates rather than eliminates jobs”, which would have been based on research such as this piece from Loughborough University’s Centre for Global Sourcing and Services. There is plenty of room for a “balancing quote” as we call them on whether it creates the jobs that suit the people who have just lost theirs, or whether it’s correct in every instance.

So we have balance – a 50/50 view – and if that’s in place in an article, many people will confirm that the job of an impartial journalist has been done.

Let’s look at that again and use another example.

Bad science and climate change

One of my favourite books that references journalism is Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”. It’s a collection of his Guardian articles and he continues to collate them on his website.

As an aside, one of the things to which he objects is the misuse of numbers and incomprehension of figures. So if someone says “coffee doubles a particular group’s risk of getting cancer” it makes a good headline, until you realise that it’s gone up from one person in a sample of fifty million to two people – it’s still tiny.

The other thing he hates is the idea of balance being presented as a 50/50 thing. If three times as many people believe one thing as the other, then why is a 50/50 split on television supposed to be “impartial”?

You can represent this through graphics, infographics and whatever you wish – I think I’ll leave it to comedian John Oliver, who took five minutes to look at the climate change issue. A lot of broadcasters present climate change and balance as a 50/50 issue, particularly in the US: here’s the five-minute sketch in which he nails the issue once and for all in my view:

Obviously climate change matters. However, some things matter even more.

Children’s health

I said I didn’t want to discuss politics (although I will in a minute) because it provokes high emotions. OK, so, kids with autism…that’s right, I’m going to discuss the MMR vaccine controversy of recent years, and more particularly the press coverage of it.

In 1998 a paper appeared in the British Medical Journal asserting that there were possible links between autism and children and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This Wikipedia page sums it up – the first couple of paragraphs tell you the basics of the story. The research was later proven to be completely fraudulent.

What concerns me as a journalist interested in balance is that there were never as many medically qualified people supporting the scare stories as there were against. However, Wikipedia, in examining the role of the press, cites numerous studies in which the press was found to be overemphasising the weight of the “experts” confirming the fraudulent research. It even quotes one source concerned that the original doctor and his followers were able to refute the science just by standing there and saying it wasn’t true. Ben Goldacre’s book is an excellent read on the subject.

This sort of reportage can’t be right. It does, however, stand up to the “one source for, one against” mantra to which a lot of journalists adhere. There’s another thing: I don’t have any research but anecdotally, when I tell people news stories are likely to carry their own view and a contrasting one, they assume that’s reasonable enough. If they’re talking about which smart watch is best or something, that’s fine, there’s no harm done. Think, though, of the increases in measles, mumps and rubella following the MMR scare. Reflect also that presidential hopeful Donald Trump still believes in the link.

This stuff matters.

Back to politics

So I come back to the coverage of Corbyn and the Birkbeck criticisms and I apply different figures. I’m hypothesising here, I don’t actually believe this stuff but bear with me a second.

The problem is apparently that the BBC is quoting twice as many people against Jeremy Corbyn as they are in his favour. Similar criticisms have been made by UKIP, pro-Europe campaigners and goodness knows who else recently, but let’s stick with Corbyn.

His MPs passed a vote of no confidence in him at the end of June, the result being 172-40. That’s a ratio of over 4:1 against him from his own elected representatives – the 2:1 against him from the BBC starts to look arguably biased in his favour as a result.

The counter-argument is that many people have joined his party since he became leader. It’s now up to around half a million according to this Guardian report. So there is an argument that the MPs may no longer be representative. We don’t know how they’ll vote in the forthcoming leadership election, but let’s be overly generous and say that the MPs have got it wrong and they all decide to vote for Corbyn in the end (I did say I didn’t believe this stuff). That’s half a million votes out of nine million who voted Labour in the last general election, and out of 47-odd million who are eligible to vote assuming last year’s figure hasn’t changed that much.

So, on what do you base the notion of balance in this instance? The MPs? The membership, which is going to vote again by September 24th and only then will we know what they actually think? Or just throw in the towel, do 50/50 as Birkbeck seems to think is ideal?

Balance is complexity

This is the bit in which I do a bit of towel-throwing myself and concede that I don’t have an answer. The MMR and climate change instances confirm that going for 50/50 and calling it balanced is trite. In principle presenting both sides should allow people to make their own minds up. In practice, an appearance on TV or in print adds weight to a view and in turn influences people. They believe there is a solid school of thought when there may only be one or two outliers.

However, suggesting the BBC is too generous to Jeremy Corbyn when it’s under fire for allowing his critics too much space is also ridiculous. That same amplification that adds weight to ridiculous views in the 50/50 system will also amplify and possibly distort other views. Reporters often see themselves outside the exchange of views and the substance of debates; in fact we become part of it, and a very high profile part as well.

If I had one message, one takeaway from this blog that I’d like everyone to consider, it would be this: asking for balance is fine, but we don’t actually know what it means. Reports, academic and otherwise, that suggest bias, tend to assume that 50/50 would be unbiased and in many cases it’s just not.

Will the journalist be biased? It’s complicated.

Journalism is not part of your content strategy

I had a discussion with a contact the other day. He wanted to place some journalism as a precursor to doing something commercial with a publication.

Seen from the marketing position only it looks reasonable enough. Magazines and websites are mostly commercial enterprises and will form part of your content strategy.

Only…that’s not how journalism works. Here are a few reasons why not:

  1. Our only selling point as an entity in our own right is our independence. Immediately we submit ourselves to being part of someone else’s content strategy, we’ve failed in our basic mission.
  2. Our readers trust us to be independent on the same basis. It might sound as if I’m taking this a bit seriously but we do, genuinely, care about the readers – which is why, whenever there’s an advertorial placed, it will have “in association with” or something written above it. In a well-resourced magazine or website, the editorial content will absolutely stand on its own.
  3. One argument I’ve heard is that if we’re commercial enterprises we need to be flexible in order to be viable. OK, but if we started giving away editorial as part of a “commercial” arrangement, where would the advertiser’s incentive to spend money come from? We’d be giving away our crown jewels for nothing – and undermining their only value simultaneously.
  4. It’s possible or indeed probable, particularly if you’re a tech company, that the publication’s brand is older and arguably more valuable than yours. No journalist will ever say this to your face but have a think: you reckon the Times or Telegraph are going to risk their brand reputations for a couple of thousand quid’s worth of promotion you might one day throw their way? (Or not..?) We’re businesses in our own right, with our own objectives and values. Marketers who regard us as extensions of their own operation will get short shrift.
  5. You can add the journalist’s personal reputation to point 4. None of us want to be thought of as the sort of person who’ll sneak a plug for a client in on a promise of further money rather than writing exclusively in the interests of the readers, although as this blog post outlines some way in, I’m aware there are some dubious practices around.

Honestly, your position as an advertiser or prospective advertiser with a magazine or website won’t matter to a decent editor or journalist. When I was in the trade press years ago the ad team would constantly try to find out what we were reviewing, what we were writing about, with a view to selling ads on the back of it. Other than general subject guidelines and sometimes a public features list (if we were doing a round-up of printers, for example, then of course we’d let the ad team know – but we wouldn’t say which models we were looking at or whether the reviews were positive) the contents of the magazine were confidential to the editorial team until publication day.

By all means there are a few poorly-resourced magazines that will throw editorial into a commercial deal and not tell the readers. The readers will eventually twig, they will stop trusting the magazine, the magazine will go under. The vast majority of reputable publications will not, repeat not, use their editorial content as a pawn in a commercial game.

Do you need someone to work with you on understanding how to work with the media? I can help – contact me on the form below or on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Don’t say this to journalists

Last week I looked at things not to say to editors. Suppose you’re an interviewee rather than a writer: what would be my top five things not to say?

In no particular order I’d recommend against the following;

  1. No comment. Even if you genuinely have nothing to say, this sounds evasive and as if you’re hiding something. I was once told “I don’t want to comment and I don’t want to read your paper saying I declined to comment.” The thing is, the guy had declined to comment and it was my job to tell the truth. There’s almost always something better to say; bridge into another subject if you possibly can. “My customers aren’t raising that point with me, what they really care about is…” will get you out of a lot of trouble. I’m unlikely to argue with your customers.
  2. I’m not talking about that today: Frustrating though it is, journalists aren’t there to jump to your tune. Of course you want to focus on your own agenda but you wouldn’t be this rude to a client – so try being a little smoother with someone who’s going to communicate with thousands of clients. Your announcement schedule has everything to do with your internal schedule and nothing to do with ours – try not to pass the problem on to us, we’re probably not going to like it.
  3. Can we go off the record? Loads of people use this one. If you absolutely must, go ahead, but be sure the journalist is trustworthy, organised enough to remember what was on the record and what wasn’t and that you’re both talking about the same thing. To me, “off the record” means unquotable; I’ve seen others who assume it means “print it but don’t attribute it to me”. If it could only have come from you, you could still end up in trouble.
  4. Your paper is rubbish. Seriously, I’ve had this. You’re entitled to your opinion and for all I know you have a point. But what useful objective is going to be served by annoying someone – not just journalists, in any context?
  5. I don’t read the press. You probably do a bit, since “online” counts, but that aside, this is a subset of “your paper is rubbish”. Starting off an interview by trying to belittle the other person speaks loudly about your own insecurities, and most journalists are experienced enough to understand that. Try not to tell us you’re terrified, we’ll only scent blood…

Do you need help engaging with journalists? Contact me using the form below or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

Media mistakes 10: Your media trainer won’t write about you

“I would never hire a media trainer who didn’t guarantee to write about my client immediately afterwards, I wouldn’t be doing my job.” This was the dismissal I had a few years ago from a formerly trusted contact who’d seemed interested in using my services. It was wrong on so many levels.

I don’t come across it often but it happened so it’s worth addressing. Here’s the deal with ethical, proper media trainers:

  1. We’ll tell you that nothing is off the record when you’re dealing with journalists – except when we’re training you. On that occasion we’ll keep confidences as we’re acting as your contractor (or if you’re going through a PR company, a subcontractor).
  2. Very importantly, we’re in your pay while we’re doing this contract work for you. No, I don’t care if there’s no formal contract, a court will recognise the fact that we’ve been hired as contract enough. We therefore can’t claim to be independent or unbiased – you owe us money,  we have a vested interest in your continued existence. And even if only for a few hours, we’ve been insiders.
  3. Now, our only value to editors is as unbiased sources of information – so, would you commission a writer with vested interests if you were that editor?

Of course you wouldn’t. And no decent media trainer will pitch stories about companies they’ve trained for months after the training has happened. One guy with whom I trained a decade or so ago told all his clients not to bother pitching to him for six months after the training session, he had a distinct cut-off point.

Not just trainers

I’ve seen a number of dubious practices over the years. The PR person who approached me with a view to getting stories placed, which would involve payment to me and there was no need to tell any editors as this was “commercial reality” that “most journalists” would understand. I didn’t bother calling him again. The people who called me once about how much I’d charge to write about them in the national press and who were genuinely surprised when I told them any payment would come from the publication, assuming there was a decent story in it. They’d apparently been paying another journalist good money every time their name was mentioned and hadn’t been aware that the paper would have been paying for the work, too. Then there was the journalist who couldn’t be bothered to write anything so got a PR person to write an entire article, to which he added a first and last paragraph – and took full credit and payment from a national newspaper.

None of these practices are ethical or fair to the editor or reader, both of whom have the right to know what they’re reading.

So no, if you want to hire me as a media trainer there’s no point in insisting I should write about your client immediately afterwards – that would be a clear conflict of interest and no decent journalist will do it. A PR person will do this and will declare their interest to an editor, so there’s no difficulty because everyone is aware of the circumstances. But if a trainer claims they’re going to place an interview with you in a publication shortly after your session with them, be careful – if the editor finds out about the deal ,the piece probably won’t appear, and your trainer will vanish shortly afterwards.

Do you need help understanding how the media works? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 9: (Most) Journalists aren’t trying to trap you

Why did you hire me for media training? That’s a question I ask every training delegate I come across and the most common answer is that they want to avoid the traps journalists will lay. They’ve done interviews before and they weren’t sure of the journalist’s agenda or what he or she was up to.

They are often disappointed when the answer is “nothing, mostly, just trying to write a decent story for the readers”.

The most extreme example of this was when I asked one candidate to “tell me about yourself and your organisation”. She panicked, said she couldn’t answer that, asked to stop the exercise and said, accusingly, “Why would you want to know anything about me?”

The answer was that I didn’t. A name and job title would have been fine, then move on to the company information she wanted to press.

Another time – a favourite story, this – I asked a guy the same thing during a session. “Tell me about yourself and your organisation”, I said. “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard,” he said. “And it’s a fact that if you asked my last boss whether I resigned or whether I was pushed he’d disagree with me, but let me tell you, I resigned!”

I was no longer remotely interested in anything else he had to say. I just wanted to know more about his sacking SORRY resignation.

Sometimes the agenda is in your mind

In both of these cases the difficulty was in the mind of the person answering the question. In most of my media training sessions my first question is “Tell me about yourself and your organisation” – it’s me clearing my throat, trying to lower the temperature, just to make sure we have the basics covered. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Most journalists, in fact, will approach businesspeople with a view simply to writing the story up (or broadcasting it, webcasting or whatever they do). They aren’t looking to stitch you up, trash you or humiliate you.

One or two might, and of course a lot of the tricks they play and the strategies to deal with them are very much at the heart of my training offering. A lot of the time, though, you’re going to have straightforward questions from people who aren’t playing mind games, they’re just doing a job, the same as you.

Do you still need help with your media interaction? Want to know what to do when a journalist asks that question you were hoping they wouldn’t, or fails to ask the question that would lead in to your big sell? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 or email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 8: The interview won’t be on your terms

Press interviews can go wrong for a number of reasons. One I’ve seen often is that the interviewee believes that by stating what they want to be interviewed about, they can stop the journalist asking difficult questions or straying into other areas.

I heard an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme once in which someone had a press launch of an innovation coming up at 10.00am. Their PR had got them a slot on “Today” when they said they would be launching at 10 – the interviewer pointed out that they’d come on a radio show at 7.30, so presumably had something to say, and the interviewee declined to comment any further. The obvious question, which the interviewer was too polite to ask, was: in that case, why are you on this programme?

Another time they had an interviewee on talking about something and they slipped another question in at the end. The answer was “That’s cheeky, you’ve already asked me to come on and talk about that and I refused.”

The fact is, we don’t work for you – we might well co-operate and it can work really well, but we’re not your employee and you may not tell us what we may and may not discuss.

We’ll think it’s our interview

When I had a staff job in the 1990s I had one of the worst interview experiences ever. The idea was promising: a PR person had a client who sold into the education sector. They suggested my magazine should sit in on, and report on, a negotiation. We all thought that was a terrific idea.

The trouble started when the client’s client turned up 45 minutes late and claimed my publication had changed the time (which was entirely fictional). He then produced an old copy of the magazine, from a time before I worked on it, and said he was following up the interview that had been published in that issue.

This was of course drivel.

He then accused me of not doing my research, said I should have spoken to his PR person who would have explained this was a followup to the original piece. My guess is that this was how she’d sold the idea to him; when we put it to him that we should witness a negotiation, he said that was out of the question.

It wasn’t a great interview and I don’t think we ran anything. I suspect the main culprit was the troublemaker’s PR, mis-selling and failing to explain stuff to the stroppy individual in question and no doubt hoping he’d co-operate once he was on site. He didn’t.

His own problem was that he assumed (wrongly) that his PR person had set the meeting up, but even if she’d done so, his assumption that the journalist would be writing what he wanted us to was flawed.

Freedom of speech

The thing is, our duty as journalists is to our readers. We have obligations to our sources and subjects of course. If I write something inaccurate about you, I won’t enjoy hearing about it but I’m human and I know I can make mistakes. I will want to correct it very quickly indeed. I am also obliged to be fair. If someone is saying something about you and your company, I owe you the right of reply if I intend to report their comments.

But we have the freedom to ask and write whatever we wish beyond those parameters. Obviously you have the right to decline to answer a question, or to refuse an interview that’s unlikely to be good use of your time. Those things stem from the same freedoms that allow us to ask the questions we want in the first place. And very often it’s in our interest to ask about the things your business is promoting – when it works, it works very well.

But when you’re inviting a conversation with a journalist, remember we’re independent, we don’t work for you any more than you work for us and we’re going to ask whatever questions we think our readers would want us to address. That’s how it works and it’s unlikely to change. And that’s why it’s important to prepare for interviews and have strategies in place in case the conversation starts to move away from the areas you want to discuss.

Do you need help with press interaction? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Do we need a new newspaper?

Photo Trinity Mirror

Two significant things have happened lately in the newspaper world and I think they’re more related than people have assumed. First, the Independent has decided to start publishing online only. Second, we’re expecting the first issue of a new paper, the New Day, in less than a week.

So what’s going on?

First it’s important to deal with the Indie. I have to say I’m sad but not at all surprised. It’s been years since I wrote for it, partly because one of my commissioning editors was unbelievably rude (she had a reputation for telling everyone they couldn’t structure an article, that everything they’d written was unrelated and incoherent…then publishing anyway, which is what happened to me) and second because the absolute last time I wrote for them, they decided to cut their freelance rates without warning. There was no point in objecting, I was told, there were new people in charge.

That’s not how I do business. I took the loss and worked elsewhere. It’s not how anybody does business. It may have been unrepresentative and I have no idea how many sections of the paper were affected, but I wasn’t surprised to hear it was going.

It will be interesting to see whether the digital version is successful. Taking away the overhead of printing certainly sounds like a positive move (and following journalist cutbacks of 20% a few weeks ago I imagine my Guardian friends are watching this like the proverbial hawks) unless you’re employed by the printer; whether the brand is as easy to sustain without the print version as a flagship or even loss leader remains to be seen. The Daily Mail has done extraordinarily well on the Web, but would it work without that printed flagship?

New Day

My guess is that it wouldn’t work for people my age (50) but younger people won’t mind so much about the printed stuff – they’ve grown up with screens rather than learned them in adulthood. So it’s arguably an odd time for Trinity Mirror to be launching New Day, which emerges on the 29th.

The BBC suggests the difference between this and the I is that the I is a cut-down version of the Independent, whereas New Day will be a standalone title.

This is where they miss the point and where there is a link between the two. The I won’t be a cut-down version of the Independent when it’s owned by Johnston Press, and especially when there is no Independent in hard copy form (even if it retained its ties, it’s going to be standalone as far as the hard copy buyer in the newsagent is concerned).

So New Day has an opportunity in appealing to time-poor people whose views don’t coincide with those of the relatively liberal Independent stable. At the moment, though, it’s aiming to be politically neutral and will not have a leader as such, but a selection of easy-to-digest news.

And this is where the real risk is going to emerge; never mind a new title, they’ve come and gone before and will continue to do so as the digital world makes further inroads. What’s new is that we’re all so used to the papers being so strident about their views (Guardian to the left, Telegraph to the right, Mail even further to the right and soforth) that something genuinely neutral could risk looking pretty bland by comparison. Oh, and did I mention this one won’t have a website so if you want it you’ll have to buy it? Or just log on to something else.

I wish the new launch nothing but well – why would anyone say otherwise? But they’re going to have to find an attention-grabber other than “neutral” to sell in the number they’ll need to make it sustainable.