Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Nelson Mandela: a life reported, an ebook I recently edited,  tells the Nelson Mandela story as seen through the eyes of the Guardian and the Observer.

From the first mention of him organising African independence movements in March 1953, to the reporting of his funeral, 60 years later, both papers have covered all the key moments of Mandela's life. This collection of news reports, interviews and commentary, offers a unique perspective on one of the 20th century's greatest statesmen.

It was during the early 1960s and the emergence of the so-called ‘Black Pimpernel,’ that the papers started to regularly write about Mandela.

The Observer in particular took a keen interest in South African affairs. David Astor, the paper's editor, founded the Africa Bureau in 1952 as a focus of anti-colonialism and anti-apartheid in London, and his Sunday paper led the way in rousing British opinion against the racist system

Colin Legum and later Anthony Sampson became the Observer’s experts on South Africa, and they were among the first to spot the potential of the ANC. The paper covered the 1964 “treason trials” in great detail and campaigned for the men to be spared the death penalty. Mandela also asked Sampson to cast his eye over the famous ‘Why I am ready to die’ speech.

During the long years of Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island, the papers would print the occasional interview or scrap of information. However, it wasn’t until the launch of the campaign to free him in the early 1980s that Mandela’s name began to appear again.

The book mixes news reports with more personal pieces by writers like Mary Benson who knew Mandela in the 1960s (she showed him around London when he was on the run).

However, neither paper has shied away from carrying more critical pieces such as Chris McGreal’s Stain on the icon, a honest assessment of the Mandela presidency. But there is also commentary from the likes of Gary Younge who sought to restate Mandela as a determined political activist, rather than a kindly old gent.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

David Bowie: A life reviewed

From hippie singer/songwriter, Ziggy Stardust, the ‘plastic soul’ phase, experimental electronic albums to 1980s global megastar, David Bowie’s musical reinventions have rarely been predicted. On top of this, he has confounded the critics by taking on serious acting roles (with good notices), becoming an internet pioneer, venturing onto Wall Street with his Bowie bonds, and dabbling in the art world.

Bowie: A life reviewed, tells the ever-changing Bowie story as reported by the Guardian and the Observer. Starting with his elevation to pop stardom via 1969’s Space Oddity it covers most of the classic albums and tours through contemporaneous reviews, interviews and features. The book gives an insight into what critics really thought at the time, rather than the nostalgia-tinged selective memory occasionally favoured by pop historians. As such, releases that have attained near-mythic status sometimes receive less than glowing write-ups.


The book closes with a review of the The Next Day - and the beginning of a new chapter in the life of David Bowie.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Nostalgia for press cuttings

Despite the prevalence of full-text databases, digital archives and other electronic sources, old-fashioned press cuttings can still be a valuable research tool for journalists. I wrote about this, along with the nostalgia for the scrappy files, for the Guardian's Open door column.

The response was predictably misty-eyed, with the piece providing an excuse for people to reminisce about the good old days of Fleet Street. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it was interesting to discover that a campaign has been started by a group of journalists in Leeds to try and preserve cuttings libraries. Presserve aims to identity titles which still have such collections, with a view to estimating the amount of work (and the costs) necessary to digitise the material and make it publicly available online.

More details can be found on their website and a letter about the group appeared in the Guardian.


Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Digging out gems from the archives

I recently wrote a piece about about how the Guardian library uses archive material in the paper. It was for the Open door column which is a good place to look if you're interested in reading about the day-to-day business of running a large news operation.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Beatles: A band reviewed

Fifty years ago the Beatles released their first single, Love Me Do. It eventually reached No 17 in the UK charts, but this modest debut was the trigger for a musical revolution.

I've just edited a new ebook, The Beatles: A Band Reviewed, that tells the story of the 'revolution' through news items, reviews and interviews that appeared in the Guardian and The Observer. From the heyday of Beatlemania and the groundbreaking albums to the mixed successes of the solo years, it covers all the key events. It also includes not so well-known stories, such as that of a Guardian reporter who received hundreds of phone calls, night and day, from people asking if they could speak to 'Sgt J Pepper'.

Read about the very first Beatles related feature to appear in the Guardian on the paper's music blog, along some fascinating Pathé news footage.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

SLA Europe: Engaging with social media

Finding the right social media voice can be one of the biggest challenges for those new to the world of Twitter, Facebook, and the community conversation. Just how much personal information should you reveal without damaging your professional persona?

This was one of the key themes to emerge from Engaging with social media for fun and career success, a recent SLA Europe seminar, held at Morgan Stanley’s Canary Wharf offices.

Three speakers, Neil Infield, Meghan Jones and Laura Woods, all early adopters of social media tools and with a wealth of experience between them, passed on tips, advice and a few words of warning.

Laura began the session by saying that when on Twitter it important to present yourself as a real person, not just an automated RSS feed. She suggested taking a ‘profersonal’ approach - that is blending professional comments with something a bit more personal. Instead of just retweeting and making dry comments, throw in tweets about your own interests and engage in conversation. The key thing to remember is that just because you’re talking about work issues you don’t have to erase your personality.  

This point was echoed by Neil who stated that you 'need to present yourself as a whole human being' when using social media. Of course to what extent you can do this varies from sector to sector.  Meghan suggested having multiple personas through different accounts and possibly using pseudonyms. All speakers emphasised the fact that anyone - not just your dedicated followers - can read your posts and comments, so think twice before writing or uploading pictures.

Perhaps it came as a surprise to some, but there are clear career benefits to using social media. Through blogging and tweeting Laura explained how she had raised her profile and as a result had been offered speaking and writing commissions. Meghan talked about the ‘serendiptious opportunities’, be it making new contacts or promoting work projects, while Neil said that his blog was an important tool for driving traffic to the British Library’s Business & IP Centre.

As a warning to those who still feel uncomfortable about the whole ‘engaging with social media’ business, Neil made the simple point that whether you like it or not, your clients are already out there using it. If you don’t get involved, they’ll pass you by.

That said, don’t feel obliged to sign up to everything. Sample different tools (take note: Twitter may not be around forever), but stick to what you feel comfortable with. As Meghan confessed, ‘I’m a Facebook refusnik’.

Other points made included the fact that LinkedIn is perfect for those with a bad memory as after an event you can remind yourself as to who you were talking to. Also, tweeting may be a much more effective note taking method than scribbling away in a notebook - condensing a point into 140 characters focuses the mind.

Possibly the best piece of advice though came from Neil who suggested that it is better to ‘ask for forgiveness rather than permission’ when in doubt about something you want to publish. Perhaps this should have come with a disclaimer but is very much in keeping with the ‘never wrong for long’ approach taken by news website editors.

 Photographs: Seema Rampersad
Thanks to the three speakers for giving such excellent talks, SLA Europe for organising the event, and  Seema Rampersad for the use of the photos.


Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Spoiler

My holiday reading included Annalena McAfee's novel, The Spoiler. Set in 1997, the book follows young reporter Tamara Sim as she profiles the much-feted aging war correspondent Honor Tait in the hope of landing a staff job on a national newspaper. A satire on what used to be called Fleet Street, the book includes very funny descriptions of life on both broadsheets and tabloids, as well as exposing all the backstabbing, lying and cheating that goes on. 

Having said that, students of journalism may well want to read it in the hope of picking up some tips - particularly on how/how not to carry out an interview. Also, a recurring theme throughout the book is how the media is on the cusp of technological revolutions - and the resistance of many of the characters to the internet shows just how far we have come over the past 15 years. 

That includes the library. McAfee's description of the old cuttings collection is almost spot on:
'the busiest department in the building, a maze of tightly packed, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves crammed with hanging files containing envelopes of photographs and wads of cuttings on everyone who had ever appeared in a newspaper'.
And as a senior editor explains its purpose to Tamara, 
'Here is the compost...which nourishes our freshest bloom; the poop behind the scoop. '
Very good. One minor quibble though is the use of 'the Morgue' as a name for the newspaper library. Perfectly fine for a North American archive but in Britain it's nearly always 'cuts' or just 'the library'. Of course this is something that any self-respecting fact-checker would have spotted...