How to interview almost anybody for fun and profit

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After last week’s posts about the deception, plagiarism and Wikipedia editing conducted by Johann Hari (see Johann Hari’s apology is a “lesson in cynicism” and And another quote about Johann Hari), it’s beneficial perhaps to remember that the vast majority of journalists aren’t actually venal, immoral, plagiarists and phone-hackers.

Jason Arnopp has been interviewing people for so long that he reckons he’s amassed over 1,000 subjects in his 23-year career. And now he’s decided to write his own, self-published ebook full of interview technique tips.

Thankfully (because he’s a mate and it would be really embarrassing if it was awful) it’s good. Really good.

Continue reading How to interview almost anybody for fun and profit

How to interview almost anybody for fun and profit5Scott Matthewman2011-09-27 12:32:49

After last week’s posts about the deception, plagiarism and Wikipedia editing conducted by Johann Hari (see Johann Hari’s apology is a “less…

And another quote about Johann Hari

If you go to interview someone who is famous or important or witty or wise (as opposed to a member of the public swept up in a news event) and they say only boring or incoherent things, it is mostly your fault.

From The Economist’s Bagehot’s Notebook. Continuing:

If you come away with gems, you know it, and may call your editor to say: “It went really well, he gave me some really great quotes.” If you come away with a notebook full of mush, you are not allowed to go to another interview conducted by someone else who was given better quotes and take them without attribution. If you do, that is stealing.

For me, Johann Hari’s behaviour on Wikipedia – using a made-up persona to accuse journalists with whom he’d fallen out of homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc., while tidying up his own to paint him in a more positive light, is even more damning than his contempible disregard for basic common sense when it comes to interview technique.

That’s why, when the Independent’s new editor, Chris Blackhurst, says that there’s “no doubting [Mr Hari’s] talent as a columnist and we are hoping to see him back in the not too distant future,” my thoughts are (a) there bloody well ought to be doubts, and (b) the only reason you hope he’ll be back will be because of his notoriety value rather than his quality or unimpeachable reputation.

If he does ever return to national newspaper journalism, Johann Hari will have joined the ranks of Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips and the like: employed not because the newspaper believes they are examplars of journalistic excellence, but because their appalling, unethical behaviour will sell newspapers/website page impressions by virtue of their freak-show nature.

Call me idealistic, but I don’t think that’s how newspaper editors should select their content.

Johann Hari’s apology is a “lesson in cynicism”

At heart is not Hari’s lack of journalistic education – as his new editor claimed ludicrously last night on Newsnight – but his very low opinion of journalism. You don’t stuff up your interviews with quotes from elsewhere and then pass them off as your own work unless you think that no-one will notice or care. You don’t pinch someone’s name to attack critics on Wikipedia unless you imagine colleagues are stupid. Ease of career passage has bequeathed Hari nothing but contempt and cynicism. His ‘apology’ is a lesson in cynicism.

Madame Arcati on Johann Hari’s admission that he plagiarised quotes for his interviews, and also used the pseudonym of “David Rose” to maliciously edit the Wikipedia page of other journalists he had fallen out with and attempted to edit his own to make it more positive. (For more background, see Jack of Kent’s blog post).

“A necessary outbreak of journalistic self-loathing”

Journalism may be the fourth estate and have a function in a proper democratic society but I don’t think I’m sharing any secrets when I say that there is nothing democratic about the way a newsroom, or a newspaper, works. The editor is always right, even when you suspect he’s actually wrong. This is because he can fire you – and may well if you whinge in such a way that it gets back to him. It’s like most other jobs, but more so.

So newspapers are an industry full of people who joined it because they were interested in questioning authority, but who have found that in order to be able to do so in the wider world they have to learn to keep a lid on it in the office.

Emma Hartley, in one of the best responses to the phone hacking scandal I’ve yet read.

What should replace the PCC?

A couple of months ago, I booked a one-day media law course for myself and some of The Stage‘s columnists, courtesy of the PPA. I hadn’t imagined that the training would take place at a time when journalistic ethics and issue of legality in the media is at the forefront of the nation’s headlines.

The disgraceful actions of some people at News International – and the ongoing disputes about who knew what when, who lied to which investigating authority and just what it was about multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch that attracted Wendi Deng – has already cost one newspaper, a number of chief executives and two of the Metropolitan Police Service’s most senior officers. It’s not inconceivable that further resignations, and criminal prosecutions, will follow.

The role of the Press Complaints Commission has been called into question here, especially after its initial enquiry found nothing amiss at News International, a result of the company withholding evidence.

It seems inevitable that the PCC will be replaced, following the Government’s wide-ranging public inquiry into phone hacking in particular and the press in general. But what would replace it?

Continue reading What should replace the PCC?

Good arts coverage? Not Today, thank you

If you were listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning, you might have heard a segment talking about a forthcoming stage production of The Ladykillers, which was originally an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

What was significant about the short item was the fractious nature of the piece, a three-way discussion between Today presenter Justin Webb, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington and writer Graham Linehan, who has taken on the task of adapting the film so that it works for a live theatre audience.

The segment started out easily enough, with Linehan talking about how he has changed the story slightly so that all the action takes place within the one set, and how that frees up time that would otherwise be taken up with scene changes to explore characters in more depth.

But that changed under Webb’s stewardship, as he brought in Billington to dispute the merits of adapting any film for the stage.

Continue reading Good arts coverage? Not Today, thank you

Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls

On Saturday, Times columnist Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) tweeted that:

I’m not being funny, but you really won’t ever read a better interview with Lady Gaga than mine

And it’s true. The interview in question is, quite frankly, one of the best pieces I’ve ever read. I said as much on Twitter and, according to the statistics provided by link-shortening service bit.ly, my tweet contributed (at the last count) a paltry 113 clickthroughs to the total of 57,595 that have currently been recorded by that service.

By any measure 60,000 page impressions is a phenomenal amount of readership coming to the Times website that would not otherwise have done so. The actual number of links distributed from person to person is likely to have been even higher, as many Twitter and Facebook users use other third-party link shorteners or share the link in full.

Next month, of course, both the Times and its Sunday stablemate will go behind content paywalls. To view even one article on the website, you will have to pay either £1 for access to the whole site for 24 hours, or £2 for access for a week. For practical purposes that means that articles such as this will become much, much harder to gain any sort of traction in the wider field.

Continue reading Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls

The phone that’s just a phone. Even when it’s not

Alan has good taste in phones. This Nokia [6700 Classic] not only looks great, but has superb functions, including a five-megapixel camera with auto-focus and LED flash.

There’s also fast web browsing, video recording, a memory which is expandable to 8GB, five-hour talktime and three-day standby on one charge. One tester even claims it plays music non-stop for 12 hours at a reasonable volume.

So we’ve made it our Number One Phone For People Who Just Want a Phone.

The emphasis is mine. The idiocy of listing all the non-phone features of a phone that’s “just” a phone? That’s all the News of the World’s.

The feature looks at 10 non-iPhone mobiles, on the basis that a (probably fictional) “Alan” can’t work out how to use the iPhone (“Where’s the touchpad? How can you call people?”). He also wants an unlocked phone, so that he can use any SIM card in it. So he’ll hate whoever compiled the article, as all the prices quoted are for phones locked to networks either on contract or pay-as-you-go deals.

Unfortunately the article’s not online, so I can’t link to it. It took me a while to work out that it wasn’t, though: at the top of their gadgets page, oh-so-amusingly names GADGiTS, it cites a blog link of notw.co.uk/gadgits, which leads to a ‘Page not found’ error page.

Hardly a way to incite confidence in the paper’s coverage of IT-based topics, one would think.

Brevity is the soul of wit, and the bane of the feature writer

I wonder – does nobody buy Sunday papers any more because their contents are drivel, or can those papers only afford to commission drivel because nobody buys them?

Thankfully, the Independent on Sunday puts ‘editor-at-large’ Janet Street Porter’s column online, so we can read it for the cost of what it’s worth — approximately nothing.

I don’t suppose we can blame Street-Porter for the startlingly unoriginal headline, [Twitter ye not, for it will not change the world](http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/janet-street-porter/editoratlarge-twitter-ye-not-for-it-will-not-change-the-world-1772833.html). I mean, it only shows a healthy respect for the oeuvre of Frankie Howerd by the subeditors’ desk, albeit a respect that others [have shown before them](http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/22/wikipedia-internet). However, the resulting spew of words can only be put down to her.

It takes 730 words for Street-Porter to demonstrate that she has no idea what she’s talking about when it comes to internet messaging service [Twitter](http://twitter.com).

> If I want to know whether a show is worth going to at the Edinburgh Festival, or if Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album is worth buying, I certainly don’t want a 140-character Twitter; I want an intelligent review written in real sentences, not some bastard lingo that’s the ugly love-child of texting and abbreviations.

We can do that. For the Fringe, _The Stage_ is providing notifications of each one of its 350+ reviews through the [@EdinburghStage](http://twitter.com/EdinburghStage) account. Each review is, as Street-Porter requires, intelligently written by one of our six full-time (or a couple of additional, part-time) festival reviewers. The Twitter notification consists of the name of the production, its location and a link to the full review. If there’s room, we also include a short summary of the review but nobody’s under any illusion that this is the review in its entirety.

> Interestingly, teenagers have already sussed Twitter is crap and aren’t taking it up. According to a Nielsen survey, only 16 per cent of the people twittering are under 25, while a whopping 64 per cent are between 25 and 54. The largest group of users are aged 35 to 49 – and that’s enough to deter the young. The use of social networking is already dropping among teenagers as the number of 25-34 year-olds using sites such as Facebook increases. In fact, ITV might have sold Friends Reunited in the nick of time, because at this rate the only people trying to meet up via websites like it will be so middle-aged, dreary and dull that no one will bother logging on.

This is the same Janet Street-Porter who, five years ago, was saying [Yah-boo to the youth cult](http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/janet-street-porter/editoratlarge-yah-boo-to-the-youth-cult-555138.html):

> For a long time now I’ve been writing that this country’s obsession with youth is ludicrous, when it’s the crumblies who have all the power, the disposable income and the ability to vote Labour in or out at the next election.

“Yes, this obsession with youth is disgraceful. Except when I can use it to justify whatever conclusion I’ve decided I need to come to in order to fill this week’s page of newsprint.”

Back to today’s article:

> Twitter panders to all that is shallow and narcissistic in our society, reducing lives and experiences (like childbirth and death) to missives that last even less than the average British male’s attempts at foreplay.

“You see what I did there? A pop at masculinity, by implying every man’s bad in bed, just to prove a point about a service I don’t really understand. What’s that you say? By doing so, I’m being as shallow as I imply Twitter is? The very idea!”

The closing sentiment of Street-Porter’s diatribe really takes the biscuit.

> It makes me angry that we’re so keen to stop talking in sentences, and are swapping having real conversations for knee-jerk reactions. If this is the future for politics, we’re in trouble.

Forgetting, of course, that Twitter is a conversational tool, whose _component elements_ are limited to 140 characters. Those elements can then be built upon to build greater conversations, either on Twitter or diverging off onto blogs, message boards or the real world.

The knee-jerk, of course, is the bread and butter of the newspaper columnist, as shown here. And in an environment where journalists are paid by the word, brevity is far from being the soul of wit: it becomes the enemy of the purse.

To paraphrase Street-Porter herself, if columnists like her are the future for print journalism, no wonder it’s in trouble.