“Some cynics would deny the existence of any real distinction between fiction and reporting. It doesn’t seem like that if you have to do it, though, and I have sometimes thought that all writers of fiction should be required by law to go out and do a bit of reporting from time to time, just to remind them how different the real world in front of their eyes is from the invented world behind them. To have a fiction in mind – whether you have laboriously created it or whether it has seemed to suggest itself – is already to have made something tractable, already to have isolated some specific characters and events, to have seen some way in which they fit together, some way in which it can all be suggested in words. Out there in the world it’s very different. Nothing, for a start, is in words – nothing is the right shape to be put into words. Nothing has its cause or its result written upon it. Even when you find witnesses who supply you with a testimony already in verbal form, their impressions of the same thing and recollections of the same event are dismayingly varied. And there’s so much of everything! All of it inextricably tangled together.


“To describe is to select – and to select only a microscopic sample from this overwhelming profusion. How even, in the first place, to select a principle of selection – how to decide on a particular subject? One way is to choose aspects of the world that seem to stand out from the rest because they are untypical or extraordinary – the heroic, the despicable, the grandiose, the grotesque, the exotic, the extreme. It is difficult to describe such things and to convey some impression of them to a reader, precisely because they are foreign to our normal experience.”


– Michael Frayn, Travels with a Typewriter, 2009


IMG_9167 - Copyedit

state of the industry

Years ago I bought a secondhand copy of The Guardian Media Guide 2001, a yearly almanac with lists of UK publishers and agencies and contacts and quangos and news events by month. I had no immediate use for it, and the Guardian stopped publishing them a few years later, but I carted it around from office to office and now, 12 years out, it is finally interesting as a historical document and basis for comparison with the current industry. Some surprises:

  • The number of daily and paid weekly newspapers has not collapsed. The number of daily titles is nearly the same. The number of paid weeklies has declined 7 percent since the turn of the century. However, it is not clear how much turnover in titles has taken place. And the papers are observably thinner and produced with fewer reporters and editors.
  • Free newspapers, which people in the late ’90s thought were going to put paid newspapers out of business, have not done so. In fact, the free weeklies in particular seem much harder hit than the paid newspapers (40 percent fewer titles).
  • There were only 23 regional morning papers in the UK in 2001, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Most local dailies were evenings.
  • Archant, which publishes our local dailies, is the nation’s seventh largest regional press publisher and is noticeably smaller than the companies above it: Trinity Mirror, Newsquest (Gannett), Localworld, Johnston, Associated Newspapers and the Evening Standard.

The numbers: Guardian Media Guide 2001 cites Newspaper Society figures of 1,300 regional and local newspapers in the UK including 23 regular morning papers (18 paid and 5 free) and 74 evening papers. Newspaper Society figures at the start of 2013 are 1,054 regional and local titles including 80 paid dailies, 12 free dailies and 3 hybrids, for a total of 95 dailies compared with 97 earlier. There are 14 Sunday newspapers vs. 17 earlier, 491 (530) paid weekly papers, 34 hybrid weekly papers, and 420 (700) free weekly newspapers.

Freesheets broken out: 5 free morning papers and an unknown number of free evening papers in 2001, vs. 12 free daily newspapers in 2013. The 700 free weeklies in 2001 have dwindled to 420, while paid weeklies shrank from 530 to 491.

the good stuff


library booksOne thing a teacher can do for you is to show you where the good stuff is in the library. We have acquired lot of good stuff lately and it’s available to all members of the UCS community. Check out some of these, for example:

  • The Universal Journalist, David Randall (070.43 RAN). If you want to read just one book on the time-honored basics of journalism, this book by an Ipswich native who is a top news manager at The Independent on Sunday is an excellent choice. Randall explains how reporters and editors make decisions on what to report, how to look for information, and what to include, with plenty of “war stories” on decisions gone right and disastrously wrong.
  • Essential Public Affairs for Journalists, James Morrison (351.41 MOR). A detailed manual of how the UK government works with suggestions for stories and online resources. If you wondered about the rules for MPs insulting each other, the difference between federalism and subsidiarity, or the history of the government’s efforts to build housing, it is all in here, and though the book looks massive, the individual topics are very readable.
  • Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday (659.20 HOL). This book by a “media manipulator” explains why news channels are clogged with pointless controversy stories and celebrity news. For example, he gives a detailed explanation of how media “goes viral.” Although Holiday’s record doesn’t make him the most reliable source, this book is a revealing look at the blogosphere and a possible inoculation against falling for the trickier sorts of publicity
  • The Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of feature-length reporting by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post (818.54 WEI). Weingarten is the master of the perception-reality feature, where the story tests a concept. In Pearls Before Breakfast, he puts Joshua Bell in an underground station to see who stops and listens. In Snowbound, he goes to Savoonga, Alaska, mainly because the name seems funny. This is a whole book of his work, well concepted and thoroughly reported.

Hyperlocal outlook: challenging

We discussed hyperlocal media with Jon Kingsbury of innovation charity/think-tank Nesta this lunchtime in an intense two-hour session. Jon shared findings from Nesta’s reports, including one done by Kantar, and exchanged views with participants, some from our own hyperlocal media (In touch with…, a-vision). He stressed that there is little hard information about new media readership and profitability and Nesta’s studies have “tried to define where knowledge wasn’t rather than where it was, to shine a light where there was very little knowledge available.” Here are some of the talking points:

  • Hyperlocal is a contested term but generally means serving a single town, village, postcode or other highly localized community. Hyperlocalization has been seen as a hopeful area for the news industry because people do want to know what is going on immediately around them and national (and even regional) media don’t tell you. Jon stressed that the growth of smartphones and location-sensitive tagging opens further potential for “mobile first” news that has yet to be realized.
  • Jon said survey data show that people want information about their surroundings but aren’t as interested in the citizen engagement opportunities that press gurus talk about. Many of the examples shown in the seminar were of listings and advertisements – parish newsletter and yellow pages type stuff.
  • Very few hyperlocal media sites in the UK are making money. They are fragile because the news-related advertising market is so weak. Advertising pounds are flowing to large consolidated platforms such as Google and Auto Trader, not to mention Facebook which also has the most hyperlocal homepages. The successful independent websites tend to operate in large, dense neighborhoods (like Brixton and Kentish Town in London) which other advert sellers have overlooked.
  • For news websites, close attention to Google rankings is critical in attracting readers now that people use search as their main interface. Researcher Dave Harte has calculated that a hyperlocal news story is published once every two minutes, but nobody knows how many of them get read.
  • Since information is a public good, it’s been proposed that sites could be funded by local councils. Bloggers and entrepreneurs who identify as journalists are naturally allergic to this as it compromises their independence from the officials they cover. In a small operation you can’t separate the editorial department from the business department. Even in bigger shops, it can be a challenge.
  • Another idea is to set up a programme of national funding. But national media policy is based on providing universal access and filling gaps, and there is no particular gap in hyperlocal information availability – we have more information at our fingertips than ever before in history and new public information blogs crop up all the time.
  • Many citizen journalists on these blogs are doing worthy work, but their efforts lack staying power. Once the founder needs to spend more time earning a living, they taper off or fold. And if you want to open a reader forum and really use the public sphere, that’s even more time consuming – just blocking spam is a job.
  • Traditional media haven’t done a good job pushing into hyperlocal and are currently trying to make fewer stories go further, not find new stories. Readers have rejected efforts like patch.com where a standard model is franchised everywhere without grassroots local involvement, Jon says. People seek authenticity and trustworthiness based on local reputation – local look and feel. Is there a good way for bigger media to ally with the independent bloggers, although they have traditionally seen one another as threats? Could national and regional media give the hyperlocal blogs stability while the blogs give them authenticity and extend their reach? To be continued.

There were a few inspiring stories. The Charlton Champion in Southeast London carries out public affairs reporting (here’s a council meeting report). The Kentish Towner expanded from a blog to a free print (print!) edition in February. Mywelshpool offers local listings for Welshpool which is overlooked by bigger media. The San Francisco Public Press also prints a paper (a broadsheet!) once a month. It has no ads, just a broad patchwork of foundation funding, contribution and single-copy sales. Thanks again to Jon for a great kickoff to our journalism seminar, and to all who attended and shared their experiences.

UCS Journalism seminar with Jon Kingsbury: May 1

We are pleased to welcome Jon Kingsbury, who directs the Creative Economy Innovation Programme at Nesta, to speak at our first large-scale journalism seminar. We’ll meet at noon on Wednesday, May 1 in Auditorium 4 at the Atrium Studios, UCS campus (map: southeast corner of West Building). Nesta, a London-based charity founded with Lottery money, awarded 10 grants to hyperlocal media projects last year and we look forward to learning what’s been learnt from that so far, and to starting a dialogue about hyperlocal journalism in Ipswich.

In other news, the Digital Freelancing & Features module is well in progress and we’ll be back later with news of the longform projects the students are working on.

last-minute FAQ about our first module

Next Tuesday at 5 pm the journalism course kicks off with the first meeting of our first official module, Digital Freelancing and Features with Arts Writing. It will run through probably June 12 with except for the first two weeks of April (spring break). I’m looking forward to introducing all the participants to each other and having a great term. Here is the last-minute FAQ:
How much work is in the module?

You’ll write about four or five stories or reviews plus some other exercises and a longer piece that you’ll work on throughout the course. There will also be reading of many articles by others. Most writing assignments will have to do with the arts but the longer story can be about any subject that interests you. The longer story is circa 1500-2000 tightly packed words – I just calculated the length of some of the model stories, so this is a more reliable guide than the 4000 I may have scared you with earlier. We’ll work on the long stories piece by piece and I will teach you the Wall Street Journal formula for in-depth story writing. We’ll also identify possible markets for your work and write query letters to editors.

What will we do week to week?

There are four elements to the course, not all of which will be present in any given week:

  • The didactic part: Reading and discussing examples of good writing, which I will assign; instruction on planning your own writing.
  • The writing workshop part: Everyone reads each other’s work and we discuss it, constructively; you also get separate feedback from the instructor. Learning how audiences see your work is a standard element of journalism and writing courses and a major benefit.
  • The computer lab part: Everyone learns WordPress, Twitter, basic Photoshop, or tries new things if you already know it. This is so you can push your writing out to audiences and/or maintain social media at work.
  • The guest speaker part: We have a number of guest speakers from the arts and arts writing who will be helping us to become more perceptive observers by guiding us through some of their work and experiences.

Can I do anything to prepare?

Interview yourself about what you’d like to write about (whether in the arts or not), books and articles you’ve enjoyed reading, writers you’d like to emulate, blogs you enjoy. Journalism is about specifics so if you start with yourself, be able to define some specific enthusiasms or curiosities. E.g. not just “I like reading” but “I like reading New Music Express” or books by Zadie Smith or graphic novels (formerly called comic books) or Vogue Italia or gardening instructions or train timetables or memoirs by prominent exiles or whatever. Come up with some possible long story subjects. We’ll start narrowing down your ideas in the second week.

What else should I know?

We’re not writing PR in this course. PR is a perfectly worthy thing to write, but we’re going to do journalism and that means we need to be free to incorporate critical opinions of the things we’re writing about. So for your coursework you need to steer clear of writing about things you or people close to you work on or participate in. Now is a good time to experiment with writing about things you aren’t involved in but are curious about. If you do PR in your day job or want to do PR, having done journalism will help you understand how critical people can be, and enable you to advise your clients better.

Is it too late to join the module?

Not yet, but almost. You need to fill out the MA programme application (lower right link here – it’s just two pages long but you do have to create a logon first), send me a writing sample and have a chat with me, because for bureaucratic reasons we would need to admit you to the whole MA programme even if you only take this module. So if you have been thinking about it, think faster!


study finance FAQ

As we get closer to our first real classes, people are starting to ask me questions about money – quite reasonably. Here is everything you wanted to know about finance that I have an answer to:

  • How much does UCS charge for the journalism degree?
    According to the postgraduate fees page, £5,490 in total for UK/EU students and £9,000 international. That is the 2012-2013 price and could change next year. For individual modules, £610 for UK and £1,000 international, according to the same page (on 18 Feb 2013).
  • What grants are currently available?
    If you are a UCS graduate, you get 10% off further study.
    If you work for UCS and your supervisor is OK with it, further study is free. (See Corporate Development Policy, section 7.1, Fee Waiver.)
    There are a few Postgraduate Solutions Bursaries nationwide.
    I will try to post any journalism prizes, competitions or internships on the @ucsjournalism Twitter feed as I hear of them. There’s one there now, from Vogue  for young writers.
  • When do students pay the fees?
    Once they have enrolled they will be issued an invoice. The invoice is payable in full within 30 days unless they wish to pay by direct debit.
    Alternatively, students can pay in monthly instalments by direct debit from March until June (I was asking about the single module for this term – D); a direct debit mandate is available on MyUCS (the internal computer system).
  • What about those who are working for UCS?
    They should complete a staff development form on MyUCS. A copy of the form should be sent to the Finance Department so they can amend the fee.

If you have other routine questions that I could get answered and put up here for all, please let me know. I haven’t got information on career development loans and other aspects of student finance – for those questions, students are advised to talk to the UCS Infozone which can tap expertise from Finance and Student Support.

One thing I can help with, though. If you have the possibility to get funding for a module or course from your employer (these are career skills, after all) or or you have found a way to request funding as part of a grant for e.g. community work or art or entrepreneurship – if you have located such an opportunity and you need a statement or want to talk over the application, please get in touch with me and I will try to help.

spring news


Hello, UCS journalism blog. After tending @ucsjournalism on Twitter, my own blog, and the project described below, it’s time to take care of this corner of the social media garden.

The last month has been very exciting for the journalism programme:

  • I taught the four-session, free journalism taster course, which got an enormous response. More than 70 people showed up for the first class, and about half of them were still around at the end. They were a wonderful group from all segments of the community, from sixth-formers to UCS students and graduates to people coming from Colchester and Lowestoft at the end of the working day. Quite a few were already working in media in some form.
  • The group spent a lot of time discussing social media and one of the activities we have planned to keep in touch is a shared Twitter feed, @PeopleofIpswich, which will be written by a new person each week starting on Fridays. This is a species of social media called rotation curation; see @PeopleofLeeds for a more advanced example. An excellent chance to shine light into corners of Ipswich and Suffolk that others may overlook, or just liveblog street fairs and wildlife sightings.

Also, I hear there is work afoot to restart the UCS student newspaper. So we’re moving ahead on many levels.

taster course

taster class

On this day we held the first meeting of the free UCS journalism taster course, advertised through Twitter, MyUCS, the School of Arts & Humanities alumni list, and the East Anglian Daily Times careers section.

The four sessions were:

  • January 24: News reporting and writing. Breaking news report exercise. Skills for reporting and writing. News sources. Press releases. Why we do news.
  • January 31: News production. Headline exercise. Grammar of headlines. Writing for skimming. Ethics exercise.
  • February 7: New media. News ranking exercise. News values. Experiments in new media. Alternative newswriting.
  • February 14: News analysis. Interviewing and icebreaking.
    Twitter and setting up @PeopleofIpswich. Special Valentine’s Day case showing how media reproduces social structure.

Thanks to all the participants! It was great to meet you and we hope to see you at future events.