Climbing up the (pay)walls

6 12 2009

In the beginning, there was news.

Then people, for argument’s sake let’s call them journalists, thought it would be a good idea to print news. The newspaper was born.

Many years later, the internet came along.

The internet quickly became a repository for anonymously abusing people, watching pornography, and of course reading news.

When the UK’s national papers jumped on the online bandwagon they thought it would be a good idea to make their content free to whoever wanted to read it.

Sales of physical newspapers were not in as dire a state as they are now and anyway, if sales started to fall away they could always start charging and people would be happy to pay up, right? Wrong.

“Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.” – Pink Floyd, 1973

Last week, former Cardiff Journalism School student and current UK editor of Rob Andrews came back to his old stomping ground to give a talk about the problems facing newspapers as they try and bring in money from online sales.

The main issue is very simple. People don’t want to pay for something they can find for free somewhere else.

Rob explained how difficult it is for online sales to put money in the kitty

You see, you should never underestimate people’s willingness to shop around for freebies.

And with so many news aggregators around online, it is becoming easier for people to find free news if they are determined enough.

While some papers, including the Financial Times, have experienced some success after setting up paywalls, Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to do the same with The Times is likely to be less fruitful.

Because you’re worth it

Now I’m not saying many – if not all – of the UK’s national papers deserve income from their online stories.

While the stories themselves may be the same as those available for free elsewhere on the web, The Times and its counterparts frequently display a far greater standard of journalism.

Take, for example, this brilliantly-written article from Daniel Finkelstein.

It shows a lot of depth that cannot be found elsewhere, yet people will still prefer to read articles like this which are free, informative and to the point.

Keep it snappy

When I went on a work experience placement at BBC Sport, one of the first tasks I was given was to write four-paragraph stories.

I was told that four paragraphs are all you see on the first page of Ceefax, and that on the website you have to scroll down to get to paragraph five.

People don’t like scrolling down, I’ve heard. It requires too much effort.

The difference with the FT and other similar sites is that they provide expert information.

People go on sites like this because they are looking for something specific. And by ‘something specific’ I don’t just mean ‘Who is Katie Price going out with this week’ or ‘What film did I see that actor in?’

I mean information that people can trust, specialist information that readers need to be able to rely on.

Mmmm… free goo

Recent trends seem to show that people are moving towards free sites, no matter how uninformed or useless the information they provide is.

And the polls which Rob showed us seem to suggest that forcing people to pay for news will be ambitious at best.

The one potential saving grace, which seems like a fairly remote possibility, is that Murdoch’s plans will drive readers back to print media.

Is this the end for print media?

But have people really just stopped reading papers because they can get the exact same stories for free, or is it because they simply don’t like carrying a paper around with them every day and ending up with a pile of useless ‘old news’?

The Evening Standard would seem to side with the former, jumping the  gun by becoming a freesheet and – one would assume – seeking to get advertising companies on their side early and generate something approaching a steady revenue.

And while Murdoch hopes to buck the trend, few have been able to convince themselves that paywalls are the answer to journalism’s woes.

After all, the success of paywalls requires something far more difficult than writing an award-winning story. It requires convincing people to change their habits.


Album of the decade poll

30 11 2009

After arguing the case for At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command to be named album of the decade, and seeing many of my colleagues get in on the act, we have drawn up a poll so you can have your say.

Happy voting.

Album of the decade: At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command

29 11 2009

Muse. Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Clash. What do these three bands have in common?

They all released great albums in their time, but none of them knew when it was time to stop expanding and experimenting.

The failure to cut the multitude of dross from the final cut of RHCP’s Stadium Arcadium epitomises this fact, as do the unreal overproduction of the Clash’s Cut the Crap and the OTT aberration that Muse have tried to pass off as a new direction on Uprising.

It is frustrating to see once-great bands fall by the wayside in such a manner, and has convinced me to put my case forward for At the Drive-In’s swansong Relationship of Command as the album of the noughties.

Push becomes shove, days become months

When ATD-I split up in 2001, they were at the height of their popularity, with a sell-out world tour emphatic of their rise to the top.

Not only that, but they had just released an album – in the form of Relationship of Command – which ticked all the boxes.

Lyrically ingenious, wonderfully paced and the perfect length, the album had it all. Not only that, but it silenced those doubtful of the band’s ability of topping their stunning 1998 release In/Casino/Out.

It is impossible to single out one track from the album, but this is the moment which made me realise ATD-I were far more than just another great post-hardcore band.

Must have read a thousand faces

Now, for all their popularity across the pond, I am aware that ATD-I are not as well-known in the UK.

Some of you may, god forbid, never have even heard Relationship of Command in all its glory.

Consequently, I feel it my duty to give you a brief run-through of the album itself, through all its peaks and its troughs (ok, there are no troughs), and provide you with links to each individual track.

That way you can either see for yourself what you have been missing, or simply relive the glories of this majestic record which has been topped by nothing in the nine years since its release.

Bitten on the entrance

The band dives in at the deep end, the blistering drumming of Tony Hajjar on opening track Arc Arsenal letting the listener know he or she is in for one hell of a ride.

In fact, it is nearly a full minute until you are introduced to the primal roar of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, barking his lyrics out loud so clear.

It is not long before all the pieces of the jigsaw come together, with the guitars of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward, as well as the wonderfully understated bass-playing of Paul Hinojos, coming to the fore on the multi-layered Pattern Against User and the deliciously uncommercial lead single One-Armed Scissor.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (left) and Cedric Bixler-Zavala

If there’s one main strength to be picked out of ATD-I’s music, it’s their ability to continually engulf and amaze the listener.

After a long, relaxed playout at the end of One-Armed Scissor, Bixler-Zavala launches mercilessly – and without warning – into the uncompromising vocals and surreal lyrics of Sleepwalk Capsules, before taking some time to chill out on the beautifully mellow Invalid Litter Dept.

Pacifier Pacifies

If the genre of post-hardcore has had to face one criticism, it is that the music is often unrelenting and brash, not allowing the listener to recover.

One of the strengths of Relationship of Command is its ability to let the listener breathe without bombarding them with an aural assault throughout the album.

This is demonstrated by the fact that two of the heavier tracks, Mannequin Republic and Rolodex Propaganda, are broken up by the chilling and complex Enfilade.

It is clear that this is an album which makes you, nay, forces you to think.

With a track as accomplished as Quarantined so far down the track listing, ATD-I could almost be forgiven for setting up the preceding tracks as a countdown to the album-defining moment.

But anyone who has heard the ambition of Cedric and Omar’s new band The Mars Volta, or even Sparta, the less-successful side-project of the band’s other members, will realise these guys don’t do things by halves.

Rather than sit back and wait for the majesty of this pivotal track to astound everyone within the vicinity of the listener, they almost set themselves the target of improving on perfection. And of course they pass with flying colours.

Not only that, but they follow it up with a triumvirate which showcases their versatility and unreplicable talent.

First comes the affecting Cosmonaut, whose closing lyric ‘Is it heavier than air…am I supposed to die alone’ presents the track as a heavier, yet no less poignant, repositioning of Pink Floyd’s forgotten classic The Gunner’s Dream.

Then, as if the album was not already heart-wrenching enough, Non-Zero Possibility comes along.

A tale of desertion and depression whose true meaning only the band will know, the penultimate track paints a moving picture which will stay with you for weeks.

And, appropriately, the closer Catacombs is a fitting way to end not only a classic album but also an accomplished career, bringing together all the strengths of this incomparable band.

Dancing on the corpses’ ashes

So, what of the band’s legacy?

As I have already alluded to, three of the band broke off to form the unheralded Sparta, who in my opinion never received the plaudits they were due.

The reason for their lack of attention? A little band who go by the name The Mars Volta.

TMV’s debut De-Loused in the Comatorium, a concept album based on the life and death of artist Julio Venegas, features on many people’s lists about the best album of the decade, yet for all its brilliance it is not a patch on ATD-I’s final bow.

To relegate such an inventive follow-up to the status of also-ran shows how marvellous an album Relationship of Command really is.

In the nine years since its release, many pretenders have attempted to usurp its position as album of the decade, but in my opinion it has brushed this plethora of challengers to one side and retained its crown with ease.

The other entries so far:

Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – by Ciaran Jones

Sufjan Stevens – Come on Feel the Illinoise – by Alex Smith

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm – by Joe Curtis

The Libertines – Up the Bracket – by James Franklin

Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Meby Hugh Morris

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Agoby Ammelio

Daft Punk – Discoveryby Will Gilgrass

The Killers – Hot Fuss by Nick Moore

Kings of Leon – Only By the Night – by Caroline Cook

Bright Eyes – Digital Ash in a Digital Urn – by Emma Davies

Coldplay – Parachutes – by Dan Bloom

The Strokes – Is This It – by Alfie Tolhurst

Kings of Leon – Youth and Young Manhood – by Becky Rutt

Snow Patrol – Eyes Open – by Sarah Scott

Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope – by Fiona Roberts

Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around – by Mike Brown

Arcade Fire – Funeral – by Rob Goodman

Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP – by Tom Mooney

Sporting icon of the decade

26 11 2009

Following on from my post nominating Michael Schumacher as sporting icon of the decade, a poll has been drawn up so you can cast your vote for the German great.

Write, hear, write, know

24 11 2009

Did you always want to be a journalist? Joanna Geary did, and she’s turned out to be quite a good one.

After weeks of doom-and-gloom stories about the future of my chosen field, it’s refreshing to get a more positive outlook on things.

Joanna’s talk gave me hope. Hope that, five years from now, I might not be living in a cardboard box with mountains of debt.

Joanna Geary. She smiles just as much in real life, you know

Joanna Geary. She smiles this much in real life too, you know.

Joanna Geary is still in her twenties, and has already risen to the rank of Web Development Editor for The Times.

This is a far cry from the message I have garnered from conversations with the selection of ‘hacks’ – old and young – who I have gently pestered for work experience.

Here is just a selection of the responses I have received after mentioning my ambition to start a career in newspaper journalism:

“Newspaper journalism is going down the pan.”

“There are no jobs around nowadays.”

“You should probably take a year or two out, then see if things have started to pick up.”

“Who are you and who let you in my office?”

None of your business

If it didn’t offer me enough hope that Joanna has come such a long way in such a short space of time, her route into journalism was right up my street.

Her ‘in’ was as a business reporter at the Birmingham Post, even though that was maybe not where she saw herself as a wide-eyed youngster driven towards journalism by a combination of parental encouragement and considerable self-motivation.

Similarly, I am confident that it was my work as Jobs and Money editor for Cardiff University’s student publication Gair Rhydd which got me where I am today.

It was not my first choice of position after the demise of the much-lauded Television section, but the change of pace was probably a blessing in disguise for me.

While thinly veiled satirical attacks on public figures was no doubt fun, for me to fulfil my ambition of becoming a serious journalist I needed to make the move towards, well, serious journalism.

One thing led to another and here I am, using my blog posts as the chief vestige of humour within a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, postgraduate diploma course.

Look around you

While Joanna’s newspaper work undoubtedly helped her gain a foothold in the world of journalism, it is a combination of inquisitiveness and ambition which has helped her make great strides over the last few years.

After being alerted to a blog called Created in Birmingham, she felt the need to step up her game and decided to contact the website’s creator, Pete Ashton.

He started talking to her about blogging and within 18 months Joanna managed to take what she learned and apply them to a project which has helped her significantly augment her income.

After being instructed by her employers to set up a blog network for the Birmingham Post, a feat which no other regional newspaper has even attempted to repeat, she asked around for contributors, using her twitter account and her own blog.

Not only was she able to set up a successful blog network, her work also helped her obtain a virtual job reference from revered journalist Jeff Jarvis, and her career continues on an upward spiral to this day.

Um, try to do lots of good journaling?

I believe that many of us took Joanna’s advice on board, and if we are to pick out one person’s example to follow, who better than someone who was in our position not too long ago.

The overwhelming majority of students on my course already have twitter accounts, and most of us interact with eachother as well as following journalists and celebrities from across the globe.

We are well and truly part of ‘the conversation’, and we have learned that, if we want someone’s help in relation to all things journalism, all we need to do is ask.

Case in point: my friend and fellow journalism student Caroline remarked on a twitter conversation between two of her ‘personal journo heros’ and amazingly got a reply from one of them, Charlie Brooker.

Rather than the two obvious responses of shocked silence and unsubtle sycophancy, easy options which I might have gone for not too long ago, she decided to dive in and personally ask the Guardian and BBC4 funnyman if he had any tips for aspiring young journalists.

While his advice, ‘Um, try to do lots of good journaling,’ was perhaps not the most inspirational, it still offered hope to the generation of young journalists to which I belong.

And reading between the lines, it is evident that Charlie – like Joanna – gave us all one great piece of advice: speak, and people will listen.

And now for something completely different…

16 11 2009

I know this blog is normally about journalistic issues, but I thought I’d do something else for a change and join an ongoing debate about the sports icon of the noughties.

After Alfie Tolhurst set the ball rolling with his nomination of Ryan Giggs, a number of my coursemates have given their suggestions, so I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.

So, without further delay, I present to you my nominee for the sporting icon of the decade…

Michael Schumacher

They say a sign of the very best sportsmen is not what they do on the field of play, but rather how much they are missed when they depart.

It is with such a maxim in mind that I present to you my entry to the sports icon of the decade poll, Hurth’s finest (sorry Ralf), Herr Michael Schumacher.

King of the Road

Since ‘Schumi’ retired from Formula 1 in 2006, the sport has seen three different drivers claim the crown, each with a different constructor.

Many argue that it is the quality of car which has contributed to world titles for Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, as two of these men won by extremely narrow margins and none have yet managed to retain their crown.

Consistency was no problem for Schumacher, however, as he relegated four different drivers into second place over his five year winning streak, taking the title by a margin as high as 58 in 2001.


And when the German was in the driver’s seat, the sport was all about results and great performances.

Now this has given way to petty squabbling, spying scandals and budget controversies. It seems that without a milestone like Schumi against which decisions could be measured, F1 has lost its way.

Countless footballers and rugby players may claim their team suffered as a result of their departure, but to claim their sport went downhill? Only one man can do that.

We Germans aren’t all smiles and sunshine

But it would be unfair, not to mention stupid, to merely look at the post-Michael era when this article is meant to be about the man himself.

Of course the facts speak for themselves. In the years 2000-2006 Schumacher won five world titles, finishing second and third on the two occasions he missed out on the biggest prize.

And in 2004 he scored a remarkable 148 championship points, including an unprecedented 13 wins.

You can see how much it meant to the guy

This of course ignores completely the two world championships he won while with Benetton in the 90s, which helped contribute to a record 91 grands prix over the course of his career.

And while few in the business would blame Michael for remaining stoic and serious after his retirement, he has shown a lighter side and a willingness to have fun away from the wheel, as this final clip demonstrates.

So, who are the other contenders?

Usain Bolt

Zinedine Zidane

Roger Federer

Lance Armstrong

Ryan Giggs

Cristiano Ronaldo

David Beckham

Shane Warne

Adam Gilchrist

and this offering

The reels on the bus

10 11 2009

So far on the journalism diploma course we have been forced to grow up fast.

After three years of enjoying the student lifestyle, it has been made clear to us that this is more like a job.

Lie-ins and four-day weekends have given way to 9-to-5s, strict work deadlines and ‘professional life streams.’

Given all of this, it was refreshing to get a perspective on journalism from someone who hasn’t really ‘grown up.’

Dr Meadows

With his youthful smirk and smart-casual attire, Dr Daniel Meadows could easily be mistaken for one of the ‘down-with-the-kids’ teachers in a teen movie.

Dr Daniel Meadows

He seemed to be making a statement with his entrance, and to be honest it could have gone either way.

Or so I thought. But Dr Meadows had the room hooked from the start with his genuineness and awkward charm. He gave the impression he didn’t want to be pigeonholed by the ‘doctor’ tag.

Say cheese

And it was this same charm which helped Dan kickstart his journalistic career, with something called the photobus.

The year was 1973. Britain was going to the dogs, the world was at his feet, and journalists were still using clichés.

It was a time when, as Dan tells us, it was very difficult to break into the world of journalism.

Without the familial or platonic connections which might fast-track him into this world, and without the blogging framework which helps all us desperate hacks get a foot through the door, Dan took to the streets.

JRR404 in all her glory

The vehicle above is JRR 404, the bus in which a young Daniel Meadows lived and travelled the country, taking photos of anyone who was won over by his charisma and wafro.

And the results of this experiment would prove more far-reaching than even Dan himself could have imagined.

This uninspiring lecture theatre is as far as possible from the streets of 70s Britain, and unambitious manufactured pop – rather than the expressive invention of punk and reggae – is the soundtrack to this generation.

So it is perhaps less surprising than you would think that in 1999 – 25 years after the first photos were taken on the ‘Free Photographic Omnibus’ – the images captured on humble black and white film still carry great importance.

Dan captures our imagination with tales of Lynne the go-go dancer, and Florence, who proclaimed herself ‘one of lifes losers.’

While the stories themselves are inspiring and emotive from a human standpoint, Dan’s methods helped enlighten us about the value of images, both still and moving, in the work of any journalist.

Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe

At the end of the lecture, we were advised to look at a short film by Marcus Bleasdale entitled Rape of a Nation. The film is a wonderful piece of journalism, and a perfect example of one man’s effort to use the visual arts to give a news piece more impact.

Bleasdale’s work will hopefully be successful in bringing the political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country whose name alone evokes a cruel irony when juxtaposed with his images, to the fore.

The conflict has had criminally little coverage in this country compared to situations in Gaza and Bosnia which – while no less appalling – surely do not deserve a monopoly on western guilt.

Even the recent genocide in Rwanda, which saw hundreds of thousands die needlessly, only captured our attention when visualised in films such as Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs. Until then, as one character says with such painful honesty in the latter, “They’re just dead Africans.”

Seeing is believing

While it is perhaps going too far to say that it is the responsibility of journalists to bring such significant stories into the public eye through the media of pictures and videos, we should certainly not ignore the opportunity which technological developments have given us.

With print and online journalism perhaps more closely aligned than ever before, those of us with the facilities to make the suffering of the Congolese and others more ‘real’  should not waste this opportunity.

And the logical step up from driving around Britain with a bus and a camera is flying around the world with the means to instantaneously publish whatever you feel should be seen.

I will leave you with this wonderful collage, compiled by the band A Perfect Circle. While it cannot be classed as conventional journalism, the convergence of all forms of media mean that it is capable of fulfilling the same task we all should set out to achieve.