My First Death Knock

This whole post is apropos of nothing in particular, it’s the type of story every journalist has, but I found myself thinking about it recently and so I wrote it down.

There are a few set questions anyone applying for a job in journalism gets asked at interview – among them is a request to summarise what they would do if Newsdesk sent them out on The Knock – which usually means a death knock. (Update 1.10.10: Andy Dickinson raises the growing issue of ‘Facebook plundering v human contact’ debate here)

My first successful death knock was a boat; not on a boat, you understand, but the actual storm-crushed remains of a fishing vessel whose owner was still missing at sea, days later.

I was 18 and had been a junior reporter for about four months when a lad I was in school with nipped from his home to secure his new (to him) fishing boat in stormy weather; shortly after he boarded, moorings, boat and owner were swept away.

I was sent to try and talk to his mother, and got to her front door before her friends and neighbours steered me firmly without any real usable quotes.
The local undertaker was always helpful but his services were not required yet for there was no body. The lifeboat crew told me what they could but there wasn’t much, given that they’d returned empty-handed.
Three days later the boat fetched up at Pendine sands, on a part of the beach which fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence. As in, you couldn’t go anywhere near that particular area unless you worked for the MoD… 

… My father worked for the MoD at Pendine.
So I told him my problem; I wanted to be a journalist, I had 12 months to prove myself on the local paper and on my first death knock I was getting nowhere. I was desperate to show some spark of wit and a picture of the boat would swing it.
I guess he could have taken the photo for me but it was more his style to put one over his bosses and let me get the photo myself. So, instead, he came up with the kind of plan usually only seen in Ealing comedies.

Taking two colleagues into his confidence he got a lift to work and, during the afternoon, walked out through the gates telling the hated Redcaps (Military police) on the gate he was picking up his daughter’s car. Then he met me, in my Fiesta, at a pre-arranged location nearby. I got in the boot, with a camera, he drove back. 
At the gate, Workmate 1 was chatting, as planned, with the Redcap and my father was waved in without a glance. We swapped to Workmate 2’s MoD Land Rover and drove through the second checkpoint looking official, passed  what was, at one time I believe, the longest rocket launch track in the world and on to the restricted area of the beach.

I saw the boat, and it stopped being a lark. The Double R was a corpse – a beached wreck with her paintwork sandblasted away and holes punched in her keel. She lay, tilted to the side,  with the cabin smashed in. That was when I truly understood I was reporting on the aftermath of a tragedy. Someone I vaguely knew had gone out, buttoning his coat against the storm, to secure his boat and means of employment, and he had died an unimaginable death.
Pendine sands are truly vast, and I took my photo of a broken boat alone in an expanse of sky and sea. When developed it looked pretty good, too. I lost the print years ago but I’ve got the cutting still. I never got a byline, even though it was front paqe news, and no one asked me how I got the photo.
We left the beach. Dad drove my Fiesta home, I got a lift with his mate, crouching down to get through the gates.
The boat’s owner was found a couple of days later – his body surfaced and a tourist pleasure boat had to stop and recover it (it’s an offence not to, I believe). There was a near mutiny on that boat when the tourists learned a decomposing mariner was being gaffed and hauled aboard. That little detail never got printed however.

Today I contributed a content strategy, with particular emphasis on what sort of feeds we should consider aggregating and the level of showbiz news a user might require. Which might explain why I’ve been reminiscing about reporting days. 
Tell you what, Pendine beach seems a very long time ago.

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Websites and apps I really need to find the time to explore further

Time is a precious resource. There is never any of it to spare during the working day; it zips past at weekends at super speed and creaks by during meetings and dental appointments at a glacial pace. All this means there are various online sites and applications that I don’t have time to do anything with; or, if I do have the time, I am in an Inappropriate Place, like a Coffee Nation franchise (with 20 minutes wifi only, the tightwads) or on a train.

So I spend a lot of time saving things to my bookmarks with tags like ‘must try’ or ‘to do’ or ‘looks good’ that sit there untouched for, well, some time. Tonight I inched a couple of steps in the right direction – I opened my bookmarks and had a sort through. There were several apps launched as the Next Big Thing that had quietly died without ever becoming even the Next Little Thing, others than I had just incorporated into my daily use without conscious effort, and a few that I have as much chance of ever understanding and using as I do of flying to the moon.
But there were also several apps and websites I know I should make the time to try out properly. Some of them look very complicated to set up but I suspect a bit of planing at the outset will, ultimately, be rewarding.

Crowdmap – Real time mapping of crowd coverage of events/incidents. I signed up ages ago but have done nothing with it since other than create one map I later deactivated. Needs a project of some sort and I will have to get my head around what that might be. The examples on the site are all about disasters and natural incidents but I had hoped to use it for the Mathew Street Festival coverage. Events conspired against me on that one but it’s definitely an app for the future.

Amplify – seems to be a cross-posting content clipper with aggregation, social media and multimedia integration. You get your own email address to post through and the microblog function gives you 1,000 characters and there’s a blog platform as well. Beyond joining up recently and adding some Twitter friends, I’ve done nothing with it. Worthy pursuing though, I feel.

iMacros for Firefox – installed, running merrily away in the background of my browser. I do NOTHING with it. I couldn’t even remember what it was for, but as it was filed in my ‘very useful’ bookmarks folder so I’m pretty sure it is one I should have a proper play with. Basically it does this: “It sits in your Firefox toolbar, and lets you record tasks whether they are oft-performed web development tasks, or simple tasks such as opening a series of tabs you use each day”. So it’s a time saver – once I have the time to use it.

Outwit – again, installed and sat at the top of my browser, a constant silent taunt to my inability to just knuckle down and learn how to use it. Outwit trawls and collates content so you don’t have to; download its Hub (general content) Images or Docs and it dozens of data recognition and extraction functions fitting in a Firefox extension.

TimeFlow Analytical Timeline – a visualisation tool for temporal data, it does everything from plotting  events over time on a scrollable, horizontal timeline to allowing users to aggregate data by headers in the data sets, offers various views and seems, in short, to be useful.

The OS Open Space API – need I say more?

Maptube – for viewing, sharing, mixing and mashing maps online. I did actually use this (at least a year ago) and it is NOT complicated. But it does suffer from not being something I particularly connected with and so I forget it’s there as a content creation option. Again, one for a project I guess.

deviantART MuroDigital drawing programme that also has collaboration options built in. Loved this when I did a quick test but never went back to try it again. Must go back and explore further.

Simile – In terms of welcoming the new user, a site with the sub-heading Semantic Interoperability of Metadata and Information in unLike Environments is not exactly reaching out with open arms to love you. But wait! there’s more; Simile also seeks to enhance inter-operability among digital assets, schemata/vocabularies/ontologies, metadata, and services. A key challenge is that the collections which must inter-operate are often distributed across individual, community, and institutional stores. We seek to be able to provide end-user services by drawing upon the assets, schemata/vocabularies/ontologies, and metadata held in such stores“. On reflection, I now know exactly why I saved it but never did anything with the site. However, it is a really useful repository of myriad applications and addons, so I will be revisiting it in the future. With my dictionary.

Soup – blog/aggregator/pinger. On revisiting it now, I don’t understand why some people rave about Soup; still, at least that’s one I don’t need to worry about finding the time to learn more about. Unless you know differently?

Socialmarker -a pan-site tool for adding web pages to social bookmarking and social news sites. There is a Firefox addon but since mine currently include Share on Posterous (occasionally used) Share on Tumblr (rarely used) Import to Mendeley (never used) and Share on Cliqset (used once to test) I don’t think it’s going to make any difference if I add it. However, I do think this is a site worth me spending a bit of time using before I decide whether or not it’s a keeper.

Stripgenerator – (below) used it once twice, loved it. Never had sufficient time or wit to return – but I still think it’s a great site and one I should use more. Ditto Xtranormal.

* The quote is, of course, Douglas Adams. 

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Meeting friends from Norwegian newsrooms

I had the pleasure of meeting a group of print and broadcast journalists from Norway who dropped by the Post&Echo offices on Friday, while they were on a union-led, team-building outing to Liverpool.

Lars Johnsten, of Drammens Tidende, contacted me to suggest meeting up after a mutual acquaintance (whom I first met and admired on Twitter before making Real World contact at the News Rewired conference earlier this year), journalist and blogger Kristine Lowe, hooked us up.
And I’m so glad she did. 

It was fascinating to talk about the issues and developments in the industry, and get their take on things – cutbacks, newspaper ownership, paywalls and what (if any) content you could conceivably charge for. Lars’ paper has just developed an iPad app and I will be very interested to see how that takes off. Likewise, they were interested to know how the newsroom operates having taken out a production tier, with reporters writing onto electronic pages and no sub editors. 

I snapped a quick photo of some of them discussing Saturday’s front page design with editor Alastair Machray and designer Richard Irvine…

Norwegian journos visiting the Echo

It brought home to me – yet again – how my work as a journalist, and my day-to-day job – has been enriched by social media. Without Twitter and blogging, we would never have had that point-of-contact and this random meeting – which really enlivened a Friday afternoon – would probably have never happened.
It’s a small point, but it’s one I do well to remind my self of. And it’s a nice example to have up my sleeve if I’m asked (as still occasionally happens) what the returns are for the time invested in social media. Making real life friends is a pretty good return, I’d say.

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No laughing matter…

Mistakes happen. Twenty years on I still remember the Editor’s Hairdrier I got for leaving the letter ‘l’ out of a front page news story on public rail works, and I have (occasionally) felt a little swell of gratitude for Microsoft Word after its suggestions saved my blushes.
But this little slip was too good not to save and – now that some months have passed – share. It’s from one of my local weekly papers and it did make me smile…

 …Which is more than can be said for George’s leg, I guess.

Getting over a blogging breakdown

Dear Blog, 

I’m sorry I’ve been away; it’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I have had very little to say for myself and you, Blog, are partly to blame for that.
You see, when I first hooked up with you and gave you your name, I also saddled you with a mission statement – the rather ponderous
Thoughts on changing times for journalism and newspapers that still sits just beneath your title today (although that may change soon). And lately I haven’t had many thoughts about journalism or newspapers, at least not any that would stand sharing.

Because recently, Blog, I have found it increasingly hard to negotiate the choppy waters of ‘changing times’; I have, if you like, lost my compass. I have striven to be optimistic about newspapers and the future but sometimes the words rang very hollow indeed.

Like, I’m interested in data journalism, visualisations and applications but I don’t think it’s the sole rock on which a business should be founded. I’m interested in apps but I think probably mobile web is just as important if less headline-grabbing, I’m interested in story-telling yet I’m bored of big reads – but if you hit me with nothing but headlines and push Slow Journalism off the page, I feel superficial and guilty that I don’t care enough to read 3,000 words of deathless prose.

So I’m afraid I’ve been ignoring you, Blog, but if it makes you feel better, you aren’t the only one. I deserted my other online playgrounds too – even the BFF ones like Twitter, and Google Reader, and Delicious. Not only did I have nothing to say, I didn’t want to hear anything interesting from anyone else either. Because it might not make a difference to how I felt, and that would mean that the estrangement was probably going to become permanent. 

What changed things was, randomly, a delayed hair appointment. I was stuck in a coffee shop with wifi, waiting for the clock hands to move, when I logged onto Twitter and instead of my recent lurking, I gatecrashed a conversation between Nigel Barlow, Jo Wadsworth and Andy Dickinson. The subject interested me, and within a few tweets the conversation had grown to include thoughts from Glyn Mottishead, Sue Llewellyn, Sam Shepherd and Mary Hamilton

It grew into a really interesting debate – the type of thing you’d like to move into the real world and accompany with some ale – and it reminded me how valuable my online networks people and conversations are to me. It reminded me, Blog, that I started you so I could have conversations with myself and others about journo stuff I was trying out, and thoughts or half-baked ideas I’d had; I realised that going dark was just another way of sulking because the Utopia I had in mind when I started blogging in 2008 hadn’t panned out. 

The Panning Out is still going on, and it’s going to continue for a long time – in fact, it’s never going to stop. It will just move on to the next thing, and the changes will keep happening. The trick is not to start longing for and end to change, I guess, because newspapers and journalism stopped changing for a long time and that is, in part, what’s led to the current crisis. 

Anyway, Blog, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m sorry I stopped talking to you, and I hope we can move on from our brief falling out. If it makes you feel better, I had a catch up with my mate Neil MacDonald earlier and he revealed, unprompted, that he’d had a blogging crisis and had ground to a halt. I see he’s over it now though. I’m not quite, but I think I’m getting there. 

Love always, 

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