Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Brave New World for the British press

In Opinion on November 23, 2012 at 9:25 PM

Next Thursday (November 29), Lord Justice Leveson will release his report press ethics in British ethics, which commentators are heralding as a step change in the industry. But this largely misses the point; the change is well underway.

The London Evening Standard reported this week, obviously with more than a little smugness, a 3% increase from last year in its readership from April to September, a 32% increase in The i’s (its sister paper), and that it posted a trading profit of over £1 million. Therefore bucking a general trend – The Times and The Daily Telegraph saw equivalent readerships drop 10% and 7% respectively.

But this tale of the decline and transformation of the print media is well-worn, and largely accepted as inevitable due to including increased competition (not only for news but leisure time), damaged reputations, ease of online publishing, falling readerships, decreasing advertising revenue and consumers’ tightened belts.

The picture painted, albeit with some self-interest and self-preservation, is often an ominous one – a worrying step into the unknown where the traditional bastions are no more, or at least no longer what they were. But could their demise pave the way for more creative, versatile replacements? A look at the way City University teaches journalism now, as reported in The Independent, might suggest so. The institution has just appointed Britain’s first Professor of Entrepreneurial Journalism, has students pitch a magazine brand to a Dragons’ Den-type panel, and extols the benefits of freelancing and ‘portfolio journalism’.

This trend can be seen in the recent rise to prominence of ‘freemium’ papers and magazines, such as ShortList and Sport in addition to the continued standing of The Metro and London Evening Standard – not to mention the vast array of new sites/blogs (often just different names for the same thing). So, superficially at least, it seems the changes will be positive for the consumer in terms of greater choice, and indeed, in many cases, the consumer becoming the creator.

But I’m not so sure it’s so great, at least from my position as a journalist/aspiring journalist (I have a kind of journalistic job and do other bits and pieces). Many others who did the NCTJ I completed nearly a year ago have struggled to find work, been in and out of work (due to job insecurity rather than inability), and taken on – somewhat against their will – jobs in the media revolving more around marketing, PR and sales.

Or gone ‘freelance’. The word often conjures up images of the networking high-flier, but is often just a nice byword for unemployment, essentially. In truth, the reality usually lies somewhere in between, though it’s typically a more fruitful situation for seasoned journos doing it out of choice, due to existing connections, rather than up-and-coming hacks doing it out of the necessity of no other options.

And the journalistic culture of extreme competition, low pay and job uncertainty is often criticised for implicitly excluding prospective journalists; notably ethnic minorities, due to finance and access issues – something new charity Creative Access aims to address by securing paid one-year internships for ethnic minorities.

I don’t wish to complain overly, particularly as I count myself lucky to have a stable job (kind of) in the industry, but it is worth considering whether positive changes to the consumer equal positive changes to the writer (or creator).

That’s even if this ‘New Media Era’ heralds a better outlook for your everyday reader, which I’m not sure it does. There’s a risk of forgetting the scope and quality of established papers – indeed, despite having one of the lowest circulations of UK nationals, the Guardian website is one of the most trafficked in the world. All the national papers have experienced and versatile journalists, and even the oft-decried tabloids target their respective readerships very well.

And then there’s the issue of editorial integrity. Journalism is in the strange position of being regarded, at its heart at least, as for the public good – informing the public, holding those in power accountable, exposing corruption and so forth – yet almost inherently needs avoid state control. So papers face an awkward balance between satisfying shareholders and readers. So, on the one hand, you’ve got ‘honest’ papers like the Guardian losing around £33m a year; and on the other, criticism of the scale and type of advertising and the increasing prevalence of advertorials and sponsored supplements. With traditional sales increasingly dropping, papers will, indeed do, face ever more tricky decisions on where the acceptable line between journalism and commerce lies.

Whatever happens, it seems the days of buying a paper for the daily commute, or buying a Sunday paper in the morning to read leisurely in the garden, are dying. And I think that’s a shame. But then I’m usually asleep on Sunday morning due to my odd, semi-journalistic, nights job, from which I get free papers. And you’re reading this online. You can fight the system, but you usually lose.

Joel Durston

Mo’ money Ro’ problems for Abramovich

In Sport on November 22, 2012 at 9:17 PM

So another one bites the dust, and another is appointed, albeit temporarily, to the quite possibly the most poisoned, though no doubt lucrative, chalice in football. In case you haven’t guessed, this is the news Roberto Di Matteo has been sacked as Chelsea manager, despite having won the FA Cup and Champions League in under a year, and been replaced with Rafa Benitez, in the ‘interim’ at least.

I’m not entirely sure Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea is what Notorious B.I.G. (and Mase and Puff Daddy) was singing about when he sang Mo Money Mo Problems, but it certainly holds true, what with eight managers in eight years signalling a discontent which to 99% would be incommensurate with Chelsea’s nine major trophies since 2005. (This in addition to a legal case brought against him by one-time business partner Boris Berezovsky; the estimated most expensive divorce case ever (with settlement figures of £5.5 billion conjectured), and a 40-person “private army of bodyguards”.)

The idea of Abramovich treating Chelsea as a ‘plaything’, a ‘kid’s toy project’ is a well-worn cliché, but never truer than now. For Roberto Di Matteo had been thrown in at the deep end, in the middle of the season, and managed to win both the FA Cup and Champions League in addition to rescuing a pretty wretched league campaign, dealing with the recent racism controversy about as well as he could, and perhaps most importantly galvanising and uniting a team seemingly riven by internal strife. Even this season, Chelsea have done relatively well. Granted, they have had a mediocre Champions League campaign, but they can still progress. And the attacking midfield trio Mata, Hazard and Oscar (“Mazacar”) – the latter bought if not by Di Matteo, then at least in his tenure – have at times set the Premiership alive with their creativity and industry, taking them to a respectable third. So even by Abramovich’s standards, this must go down as a ruthless sacking. To wit, consider that there were, at least to my knowledge, no harbingers of dooms for this decision, even among the often voracious, vulture-like British press (see the current Mark Hughes situation) – or not since Di Matteo’s quick success put paid to the pre-emptive strikes, anyway.

So, rash? Definitely. Idiotic? Quite possibly. Time will help with that one. But Abramovich presumably has some reasoning behind the decision. Di Matteo’s sacking certainly adds fuel to the fire of suspicions that the Italian was merely keeping the seat warm for Pep Guardiola – with suggestions the former Barcelona manager has already been called but couldn’t be coaxed out of his self-imposed “sabbatical” in New York. And while it might be a bit much to suggest Abramovich in some way did not want the success of last season, it’s fair to say it would have made the decision to axe Di Matteo, who we can now say with some certainty was only ever thought of as temporary, easier and more justifiable. And the interim in Benitez’s title implies a similar predicament for the Spaniard…unless he somehow contrives to win the World Cup, one can only assume. (The omens do not look good for the former Liverpool man, either; supporters’ groups are against him and some have labelled him Rafa ‘beneathus’ – though admittedly much of this could be put down to mere club rivalry.)  Indeed, as the joke doing the rounds goes, maybe no Chelsea manager can be anything but ‘interim’.

Reading between the lines, there’s maybe also some undue affinity with Torres. While Di Matteo’s sacking and the fact that Torres’ was dropped against Juventus on Tuesday night could, in isolation, easily be put down to coincidence, when put in the wider context it’s certainly a plausible reason. Abramovich has long been dogged with suggestions he press-gangs his managers into playing his favourites, often despite evidence radically to the contrary. It was widely cited as a reason for Jose Mourinho’s somewhat shock departure from the Bridge; notably the (understandable) lack of game-time for Shevchenko, bought as a £30.8m flagship signing, allegedly far more due to Abramovich’s wishes than Mourinho’s.

A friend very aptly put it that Abramovich is a man who “knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. But in a way the opposite is true, as the Shevchenko saga shows. Let’s face it, the immediate worth of £30 or £50 million to a man worth over an estimated $7.6 billion is not too much, but the intangible, the reputational value, if you will, may well be much more. Because, for all his hard-nosed business past, Abramovich often seems a man of whimsy and caprice, given to vanity and wary of losing (supposed) face. It was similar accusations – that Abramovich took a dislike to the benching of much off the ‘old guard’ such as Terry and Lampard – that attended the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas last season.

A similar kind of attachment and stubbornness is not unfeasible in terms of Torres – again supposedly an ‘Abramovich signing’ – a £50m, one-time (still?) world-class signing who, in nearly two years, still weighs in at nearly £5m per goal for Chelsea. And it’s certainly a view Neil Ashton, writing in the Daily Mail, takes. It hardly seems fair to place Torres’ poor performance at the door at Di Matteo, though – Torres is playing in the lone striker role in which he’s excelled at Liverpool and Atlético Madrid and receiving great service from Mata, Hazard and Oscar (“Mazacar”). But by no means all in Abramovich’s world is fair (and I’m sure Di Matteo’s pay-off will go some way to easing the pain).

Di Matteo’s sacking also lends weight to the idea that Abramovich has an overarching desire for the Champions League – an ostentatious billionaire’s playground to some degree – since this is the only competition Chelsea are really disappointing in at present.

Yet, in all this madness, the sacking might yet work, as Jonathan Liew argues in this piece, because football is such a mercenary world now, not least in the court of a Russian oligarch. In it, Liew shows the respective success enjoyed since 2005 by Chelsea, who have had eight managers in that period, and by Manchester United and Arsenal, who have both had just one:


Teams’ trophies per manager since 2005

So one more trophy for Chelsea than United – though one less Premiership title – and eight more than Arsenal. But the crucial stat missing here is the finances. In fact, Chelsea fare pretty badly when it’s factored in that, in basically same period (since the 2005 summer transfer market), they are £326.5m in deficit in the transfer market (including agent fees – but not wages…and the approximate £70m in managerial pay-offs). If one spends an average of over £40m in excess of what one takes in every season, is it any wonder one’s winning titles?! Frankly, with all the expensively-assembled world-class talent at Chelsea’s disposal, it would take a really rather shit manager for them not to win anything, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest they might have done even better had managers had more time to create real stability and unity in the camp.  As a point of comparison, United’s outlay in this period was £93.7m and Arsenal actually gained £41.82m. So, using an admittedly crude calculation (though arguably no less so than the above chart), this works out at £32.68m per trophy for Chelsea, £11.71m for United, and Arsenal, in a sense, getting paid £41.82m for winning a solitary FA Cup.

But, hey, it’s Roman’s money*, not ours. And despite – or because of – him appearing to be auditioning for a part in the sequel to mediocre Hollywood comedy Horrible Bosses, it’s been a fun ride hasn’t it…

*Notwithstanding socio-economic arguments of his money actually being stolen from the Russian people in his underhand seizure of lucrative oilfields after the break-up of communism and successful investment of black market money…but that’s a different story.

Joel Durston

‘Pollio’ outbreak across the US

In Satire on November 13, 2012 at 9:27 AM

A week after the US election, a new virus is spreading across the United States of America.

‘Pollio’, as scientists are calling it, is a condition where people have an obsessive capacity to canvas other’s opinions, and is now evident to some degree in nearly all American states.

Scientists believe the condition can largely be attributed to withdrawal systems experienced by those who got hooked by the relentless statistical analysis of the US election.

This was a huge part in the election for both parties, news channels and the seemingly omniscient, almighty Nate Silver; but particularly the Democrats who this year made 125 million phone calls to voters and did 700,000 canvassing shifts.

Tom Adamson, scientist from The Institute of Science and Stuff, said: “such a rapid change from there being an election, and one which would ‘change the fate of the world’,  to there not being one has been very traumatic for some people.

“Particularly, we have found, for a certain type of man, usually in his forties, who wears glasses and tweed jumpers, has an alphabeticised record collection and keeps an Excel spreadsheet of his monthly outgoings.”

He went on to explain that pollio is affecting pollsters and strategy geeks of all classes and political persuasions.

“Some of the more gregarious pollsters can be seen on any market square, clipboard in hand, waiting to prey on the next unsuspecting poll-ee – but a lot just congregate on 4chan,” he said.

“Pollsters from both parties try to draw the people in with nice light questions about sport or the X Factor, but then bring on the politics.

“Democrats typically ask very right-on questions about redistributive taxation and social rights. And Republicans typically ask very leading questions such as ‘do you want your taxes paying for an unemployed person’s house?’ ‘is Obama a dirty Muslim?’ or ‘is this country to become even more of a European socialist hell-hole under Obama now?’

“Some are so obsessed about canvassing they just ask about what cereal people had in the morning, and one apparently got really self-reverential and asked if people like him were polling people too much.”

Most then use this data for their blogs, which they endlessly tweet about, and some even send them to the high lord of stats, Nate Silver, in the hope of approval or even a job.

Also, this week British policy group, Think-tank Thinking About Think-tanks, published a report entitled Demographics and Political Strategy and That Kind of Stuff, which explored this growing political trend.

Lead researcher, Nida Propajob, said: “this trend, which we are calling the statistisation of society, has its origin in myriad causes, but chief among them is popular television.

“Stats used to be the preserve of the kind of people who consider The Economist toilet reading, but with the advent of X-Factor voting and colourful graphics and stat-boxes on sports broadcasting, everyone thinks they’re the next Jon Snow.

A colleague at the think-tank, Simon Cooper, offered a more scathing view of the findings. He said: “Well, this all clearly shows democracy has eaten itself. Twitter and Facebook make everyone feel they’re groundbreaking thinkers and prophetic soothsayers, but really, they’re just idiots. I’m going to live in China.”

“John Motson’s got a lot to answer for!’”

Joel Durston

Toynbee toying with the Tories

In Satire on November 7, 2012 at 9:30 PM

Journalist Polly Toynbee has been receiving illicit payments from the Conservative party, who she regularly derides in her Guardian columns, leaked emails seen by TAY reveal.

In what could prove career-ending revelations, the emails, between her and a Conservative minister, detail payments of around £1,000 for two or three articles a week in a mutually beneficial agreement.

The Conservative minister said to the columnist: “Your precious, self-righteous whines masquerading as commonsensical, everyman journalism have been instrumental in allowing us to paint opposition to our austerity measures as confined to merely couscous-eating middle-class professionals who get offended on behalf of others and poncho-wearing Occupy freaks who rail capitalism having never done an honest day’s work in their life”.

He also went on to praise the journalist’s overall commitment to the ruse, including her political campaigning and regularly-used Twitter profile and even public spats with spats with the Conservative party which led to a typically effusive statement from Boris Johnson.

“[Toynbee] incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism,” he said.

And on the other side of the leaked correspondence, Polly Toynbee thanked the Conservative minister for their “continued hard-line but common-sense policies” as they played into the “trite and clichéd image” the Tories have, despite austerity being necessary at least to some degree because of Labour’s “nice but naive policies under the last administration”.

She said: “This political atmosphere allows me, as a half-decent writer, to spew out some half-baked rubbish implying that the state should solve all of society’s ills and then bathe in all the adulation of those that think I’m the ‘voice of the voiceless’ (Seriously, does anyone ‘voiceless’ really read the Guardian?! They do have that thing called ‘X-Factor’ for that, I believe, don’t they?!)

“I thought people might start raising suspicions about my real motives once I started plugging my new book at the end of every article, but surprisingly not (or at least not very much). My kids’ private education and the villa in Tuscany don’t pay for themselves you know…and mere Guardian wages certainly don’t, not even for me.”

Joel Durston