Reporting from the Front Line: the connection’s in the detail

Previous entry in series…1st post

WHEN THE crowds turned out in Wootten Bassett last month to repatriate the bodies of Territorial Army Rifleman Andrew Fentiman, 23, of 7th Battalion The Rifles, and Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, 28, of 33 Engineer Regiment, there was an added poignancy. It was the 100th time this Wiltshire market town had turned out to welcome home our fallen soldiers.

But while we can be filled with emotion and grief for the loss the families and friends of these servicemen and women, our experience is greatly detached. Even as we near a decade at war – in Afghanistan and Iraq – few people will have a tangible link to the military.

Perhaps we sat on a grandad’s knee as a child as they recounted stories about their experience of military service. Or through a relative or friend who may have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Falklands or Balkans. But I would guess the majority of us will never have met a soldier. Before my recent experience with the Royal Marines, I was in that category. Max Hastings said in his book Going to the Wars, soldiers can seem like “creatures from another planet”.

The closest most people will come to the military is through the press; the news reports of British soldiers being killed in Afghanistan. But even then, despite the reporting sent back from the front line, as the journalist crouches down behind a makeshift parapet in the company of troops, and we hear bullets flying overhead, detail about events can sometimes be hard to find.

We hear very little detail about the operation or patrol when a soldier is killed. A newspaper or broadcast may report simply that they were killed in a gun battle or by an IED.

The BBC News article which first reported the death of Rifleman Andrew Fentiman said he “died after coming under fire while on a foot patrol near Sangin in central Helmand province“. Later in the day, a revised article limited its description of events to “Rifleman Fentiman was shot on foot patrol near Sangin, central Helmand“. The rest of the article focused on a blog Rifleman Fentiman had posted at the start of November in which he said they were waiting for new body armour and helmets.

Questions about soldiers being provided with adequate body armour have, legitimately, been the subject of much media scrutiny. But, nowhere in these two articles is the reader informed with any detail what task Rifleman Fentiman was engaged on. Simply that he was on “foot patrol”.

Lecturers at the Cardiff School of Journalism have been emphasising to fellow students and I the importance of building up the word picture for the reader. Constructing an image of an event so your reader can picture it in their mind. After reading the BBC’s article, I could not picture the situation. The Times reported in a similar fashion, that he had been shot while on foot patrol, though printed more of the blog in which Rifleman Fentiman himself gave a picture of the situation as he saw it. So too the Daily Mail, Mirror, Independent, The Sun, Guardian, Sky News.

As far as I can see, it was only The Telegraph which dug a little deeper into the MoD’s press release to tell the reader:

“Rifleman Fentiman was shot while on a foot patrol designed to keep insurgents at bay and reassure the local population.”

Finally a reporter – Aislinn Laing – had considered it important to tell the reader the purpose of the patrol.

From an office in London, over 3,500 miles from Afghanistan, obtaining precise details about the nature of a patrol  – its purpose, aims, success in a wider context – is no easy task. And as I discovered, it can be difficult for journalists even on the front line to obtain information.

Reporting from the Front Line series continues

Series continues…3rd post

There’s life in the old beast yet…just as long as we have a burst of creativity

CONVERSATION and news was becoming quite grim for my friends and I, training to be newspaper journalists at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.

Back in September, only days into our studies, an already decaying Welsh newspaper industry was beset by further malaise with the closure of the Neath and Port Talbot Guardians. Almost every daily email from the Press Gazette seemed to bring news of more job losses.

For our broadcast and magazine colleagues, lectures from Mark Byford, Deputy Director General and Head of Journalism at the BBC, and Nicholas Brett, Deputy Managing Director and Group Editorial Director of BBC Magazines, extolled a buoyant picture in television and magazine journalism – at the BBC at least.

It didn’t instill too great a feeling of optimism among us newspaper junkies.  Envious about career prospects perhaps. It’s fair to say some of us were considering whether the newspaper route was still the right choice.

But two journalists – one at the start of her career, and the other who has achieved what most trainee journalists could only dream of – provided some much-needed positivity.

Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian for 20 years between 1975 and 1995, without the hickory pokery of a Powerpoint display, perched himself at the end of a table and spoke to us about the newspaper industry.

“The future is misty and in some ways utterly miasmic”, he said.

Oh, great. Here we go again I thought. More bad news. But while saying the future is uncertain, he quickly proceeded to say newspapers can distinguish themselves from other news outlets in the digital age. On foreign news for instance, while the television evening news can transport the viewer there visually, newspapers can explain what is going on in much greater detail.

Acknowledging the newspaper industry has perhaps been lagging behind the developments in social media creatively, he said: “Newspapers have got to have a bit of a creative burst.” Newspapers need to ask what they can do that the internet and other news sources can not.

We did leave with many questions unanswered. How do newspapers actually adjust to the digital age? How can a newspaper be different? But while having been honest about the challenges newspapers face, Preston seemed equally optimistic newspapers will come up with solutions.

Last week’s editorial shake-up at the Telegraph, which moved editor Will Lewis to head-up a new “entrepreneurial unit”, appeared to be a step in the right direction. Speaking to the Guardian on Monday, Lewis said “Euston is our future”. Commentators wonder what exactly this future will be, since Lewis was extremely coy about revealing details of the venture. But the soundbites of it being “customer obsessive” and working on “cutting edge ideas”, combined with the considerable resources being made available to Lewis, are exciting. For a trainee newspaper journalist, it is encouraging to see Preston’s “creative burst” taking off in practise, even if the details are vague.

Will Lewis (left), now group editor in chief and managing director of digital, and Ian MacGregor, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who will continue to report to Lewis

Joanna Geary is a walking-talking advert for the potential of social media to the journalist. Geary is Web Development Editor, with Business responsibility, at The Times. This twenty-something-year-old, bright-eyed, enthusiastic journalist spoke to us recently about her career. In a relatively short time she has obtained an enviable job; working on, among other things, the future of Times Online. Her coyness about this was possibly a sign she knew more about Murdoch’s paywall plans than she was prepared to reveal.

Geary previously worked for the Birmingham Post, where she made her mark setting up her own blog about the media and one bringing together key figures from the local community. Then, using Twitter, she began talking to journalists in London. Through this she was head hunted for a job, which brought her current appointment. She still sounded amazed at the good fortune which had followed her determination and clear digital media insight.

The potential for building networks with fellow journalists did make me feel a little more positive about Twitter. In fact, only days later, my tweet during a broadcast of the BBC’s Question Time provoked a response from a BBC North East weather girl. And then I discovered I was being followed by Nick Clegg (no tweets from him yet though).

Twitter, I’ve found, is also a great way of tapping the brains of people more skilled than myself. I recently tweeted the following:

…and to my surprise and delight received responses from experienced digital storytellers…

…including one in Belgium!

It was the first time I saw the networking potential of social media.

This, and a gentle reminder from our lecturers to some on our course about the content of their tweets and blogs, reminded me whatever I tweet or blog is traceable and can be viewed by prospective employers. Life in the social media world is it seems a continual job interview.

Can you tell me: ‘Why do more people reach for the Star?’

NEWSPAPER circulation figures released recently showed the Daily Star sold on average 836,556 copies every day in October – that’s 139,553 more than the same month last year.

But while every other national daily continued to suffer from the malaise which has been affecting the newspaper industry, why is the Daily Star bucking the trend? I confess, despite being a trainee newspaper journalist at Cardiff’s School of Journalism, the Daily Star is one paper I’ve never been inclined to read, even for research purposes – and our library doesn’t subscribe to it either.

So when I pondered why this red top can viably claim to be Britain’s most successful newspaper, I browsed the online pages of the Star. Pages for Babes, Celebrity, Sport, Living, Fun, Jordan aka Katie Price. Okay, I made up the last one, but there just as well might be a dedicated section.

Following on from lectures given at JOMEC by Rory Cellan-Jones and Joanna Geary, when they told us how they have been using social networking sites to gather ideas and opinions from the public, I decided to try it out.

As you can see, it did not generate much of a response. And those who did, reacted as I suspected they would. But while being thankful for having friends who don’t part company with 25p for the Star, it had not provided me with a reason why 139,000 more people are buying it this year.

So, I changed tack. I created a Facebook group called ‘Musings for a Welsh journalism student‘, and invited everyone on my Friends list. So I tried again and started a discussion hoping this would yield more ideas and opinions from my friends and acquaintances. And as you can see it did.

Of 422 friends, 62 joined the group, and 3 responded to my question (that’s 15% joining the group and 5% participating in the discussion). Are those good statistics? I don’t know. But at least I’d succeeded on the second attempt.

The reasons provided: increased demand for gossip; dumbing down – obsession with entertainment over serious news; and more mockery of people who buy the Star. Okay, it is progress on “Pffftt” and “No bloody way! Hah”.

At 25p, the Star is the cheapest national newspaper. Other papers continue to increase the cover price, and yet see circulation tumble. And, as high-and-mighty as we may be at the content the Star publishes, they are clearly spot-on with their target audience. If people want more gossip, that’s what they get when they buy the Star. Can the same be said for the other nationals with regard their content and what their respective audiences demand?

Reporting from the Front Line: introduction

I RECENTLY had the opportunity to join the Royal Marines as they spent ten days on training exercises near Caerwent, Wales.

For 24 hours, with nine other trainee journalism students from Cardiff School of Journalism, I was embedded on simulated operations and patrols with marines from 40 Commando.

I had seen journalists reporting from the front line, filming crouched down behind a mound of earth as bullets flew overhead. But this would be the first time I would experience first hand life with the military. The closest I had come to gun fire was courtesy of 007.

In the preceding weeks, a friend and fellow student at JOMEC, had been filled with excitement and anticipation about getting his hands dirty with war reporting for the first time. If there had been an opportunity to head to Kabul or Baghdad, he would have been there. For me, becoming a political journalist, sat in the comfort and grandeur of a Whitehall reception room, taking a briefing from the Prime Minister, seemed a much more sensible option.

But, after 24 hours having gained an insight into what journalism on the front line could be like, I sat on the minibus back to Cardiff re-evaluating my options as a journalist. I thought, perhaps I would prefer to swap a cup of English Breakfast for a wet, and the potential wrath of a spin doctor for the threat of enemy fire.

I also felt for the first time a much closer connection with the military. I spoke to army squaddies younger than me who had done service in Afghanistan, and who recounted to me stories of comrades who had died or been badly injured. Of course, I had heard this before, but now, there was no media glass between. What they said was more a tangible reality.

This is just the introduction to a series of blog entries which I have written about my experience with the marines. In the following posts which I will be posting over the next few days, I have considered some wider issues about the media and the military. Pieced together they are really a monster blog (a blogathon perhaps). But for reading ease I have split them into shorter posts.

Reporting from the Front Line series continues…2nd and 3rd posts

Am I @ruskin wasting my time by tweeting?

EARLIER this week we had a lecture from the man with the job gadget-obsessed luvvies envy – the BBC’s Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones. We see him in Tokyo and California road testing the latest mobiles, robots, and readers.

In every lecture so far we have been bombarded with ceaseless praise for all that’s new in the social media world. Cellan-Jones, however, brought some perspective to events. Questioned about Twitter, he said “doubtless it will go out of fashion soon”. It may have been a throw away remark, but it brought a smile and a hoorah from a few of my classmates who have little enthusiasm for it, and one or two who have flatly refused to sign-up and start perpetually tweeting like a canary on gas.

He told us that of 150 emails he receives each day, only a few are worth considering further. Cellan-Jones will have seen social media fads come and go. And as we discovered with his cynicism and confusion about the new “personal communication and collaboration tool” from Google – Google Wave is yet to convince and take off since it was launched back in May.

And yet, he does recognises the potential social media sites like Twitter offer, however long they last, in being able to directly and easily engage with his audience. In his latest report for BBC News about a new computer system targeted at the older generations he tweeted to find a willing OAP to test the computer and found Betty who was offered up by a relative.

This lecture’s lesson? Give it a go, it wont do any harm, and you may just get something out of it.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

IT was a Thursday lunchtime, and with a chillier breeze in the air the first signs of winter had hit Cardiff. Unusually, the maths class finished early, so, eager as ever, the journalism students sat expectantly, waiting to discover who next would appear to lecture and invigorate us in more pioneering ways of social media….

Step one, set the scene. Next, develop the story.

Today was to be a  lesson in storytelling, from Dr Daniel Meadows, a Cardiff University lecturer, photographer and storyteller. JD Lasica, a leading figure in social media and UGC, has described Meadows as “one of the icons of the Digital Storytelling movement”.

At the age of 21, Meadows – looking unrecognisable in his flared trousers, wooly jumper, bushy mop, and scarf cast over his shoulder like Tom Baker – set off around England in a double-decker JRR 404 omnibus, photographing, what would become a catalogue of the ordinary man, woman and child in the 70s, and giving those photographs away for free.

Daniel Meadows and his Photobus
Like Dr Who and his Tardis, Daniel Meadows travelled around England in his Photobus

Meadows is now producing short videos, telling simple stories about the people he encountered. The one which recounts his stay (strictly observational) in a psychiatric ward at Prestwich Hospital, Manchester, was quite enthralling. But there are no flashing lights or special effects. Meadows is more Mike Leigh than Steven Spielberg. His approach of combining a series of still images with a voice over is simple, but effective. He tells the story, and gives depth to his photographs. Kipling, Blyton, Dahl – like them, Meadows is a storyteller, but for the digital age.

Have we said goodbye to Wales’s national press?

IT has been a few weeks since veteran journalist and broadcaster Patrick Hannan died.

BBC Wales’s tribute to him brought together the great and the good of Welsh broadcasting and politics, to pay tribute to a man who was a journalist, historian, broadcaster, and writer.

Rhodri Morgan described him as an “extraordinarily talented and witty journalist and broadcaster”. And Helen Mary Jones AM said, “Wales has lost a champion.”

Perhaps the greatest tribute came from a fellow panelist on the Radio 4 game show Round Britain Quiz. Peter Stead, a historian, broadcaster and writer said:

“We do not have a national press in Wales.

“”We have a press that relies on press handouts, on press conferences and telephone calls.

“We do not have a press that analyses, that takes that one step back. So Patrick Hannan, I would argue, in the last 15 years was in fact a one man national press.”

It is some praise for one individual. While I was more accustom to seeing the familiar faces of Jamie Owen, Sian Edwards, and more recently Lucy Owen, beamed into my living room when I was growing up, I do recall hearing Patrick Hannan on the wireless from time-to-time when I visited my grandparents.

As the BBC’s short documentary explained, he was for people of my grandparents’ generation the face they relied on daily to report the stories which mattered to them. From Aberamen, a mining village in the Cynon Valley, he understood how these working class communities operated, and knew what mattered to them in his reports.

So then, according to Stead, Wales no longer has a national press, now that its sole editor, reporter, and writer has died. Where now for Welsh journalism? Stead’s words, if they are to be believed are a damning indictment of the current state of the press in Wales.

Indeed, the landscape is not rosy. The Neath and Port Talbot Guardian’s have stopped printing, jobs have been lost, and those left are having to look for ways to optimise revenue from their internet output.

The Audit Bureau of Circulation reported declining year-on-year sales – again – for the three biggest newspapers in Wales. The Western Mail (32,926), down 11.4%. Cardiff South Wales Echo (39,361), down 11.8%. South Wales Evening Post (46,069), down 10.1%. And as the figures show, the picture in England is no better. The Press Gazette described it as “the worst set of results since the Second World War”.

As a trainee journalist hoping to find a job on a newspaper next summer, it is not encouraging. There are questions about how newspapers will respond to the explosion of online demand for news, and the implications for advertising revenue. Of course, the finances are fundamental if news organisations are to survive – aside from whether the content appears in print or digital form. Revenue is needed to keep the content flowing.

But what about the actual content? What do newspapers in Wales print? I call into the corner shop on my way to lectures in the morning to buy the Western Mail on a daily basis. It is a newspaper which purports to be the national newspaper for Wales. But, I regularly despair at what I see on the front page. Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen talking about a house he has renovated, or news regurgitated from London with a Welsh spin. Originality does not seem to be a high priority.

The emergence of Twitter, and the popularity of blogs and other social networking sites means news and opinion generated by the public across Wales is being published online. It could be asked do we need a national press if this information is readily available for the public to access? I would argue strongly in its favour.

Having this information available online is a brilliant development for journalists because it provides another place for us to find sources and unearth stories. I believe Wales needs a national press who can filter this, and provide us with accurate, fair, and measured professional journalism. As a trainee journalist looking for a job you might not be surprised at this. But there are reasons (other than the personal) which lead me to suggest the necessity of a national press, which has its eye directed firmly on Welsh affairs.

10 years have passed since Wales narrowly voted in favour of a National Assembly. I believe it is essential, particularly as the debate over further transfer of power from Westminster to Cardiff Bay continues, there be a national press in Wales which analyses, takes one step back, and reports on these affairs.

It would have been too great a task even for Patrick Hannan to have covered alone.