Spending time with younger journalists

My last spell as an editor was running a trade publication: New Zealand Reseller News.

There, I made it my business to spend time with younger journalists. Most days we had morning coffee in a café. We took 30 minutes away from the office, computers and phones in an informal editorial meeting.

Each day I would discuss the journalists’ story lists. We would talk about how to tackle stories, who to talk to and share inside knowledge to help each other write better material. I would assign jobs, and encourage the journalists to talk openly about what they knew and what they picked up in the course of their work – often this would generate fresh story ideas.

Our paper was never better than when we did this. We were better informed, motivated and worked as a team. It showed to other publications in our group and to the computer industry people we dealt with .

At the meeting I took time to go over editorial issues, media law and grammar or style points. It was a mini-training seminar.

In my experience informal on-the-job training is more powerful than 12 months or three years in a classroom. I learned that way as a junior reporter and hope the people I worked with learnt something valuable from me.

It wasn’t a one-way flow. I encouraged criticism or discussion. At times I learnt new ideas. Moreover, by teaching others I refined and improved my own skills. In some cases I had to give reasons to explain why we had this or that rule. It kept me on my toes.

If you were to ask me then which part of working in an editorial office I would miss the most, I would have named many things, but in hindsight, I missing teaching younger journalists more than anything else.

When news goes molecular

I’m excited by South China Morning Post editor-in-chief Reg Chua’s effort to find the new building blocks of journalism.

In the print era, the news story was the basic block. Chua says stories are less valuable in a digital age and daily news stories have even less worth when readers come back to them at a later date. Returning to old stories is now easier thanks to online newspaper archives and search engines.

Chua describes how software tools cleverly pull atoms of news (facts) from sources then knits them back together to form Molecules of News. In effect this means mining raw data for useful information.

In some ways this isn’t too different from the way journalists research sources when writing news.

As every journalist knows, much of the raw data collected in daily news gathering never makes it into news stories.

Chua says the news industry misses the value locked in that data. He thinks the challenge is for news organisations to find ways to turn this into money.

Clearly one approach is to chain atoms and molecules of news together in ways that make it easier to extract information. This means thinking about data structures, not news stories. This could involve writing reports (or atoms, or molecules) directly in to a pre-built data structure.

Chua’s last idea – suggested in a reply to my comment on his post – is the part I find exciting. I’m going to make developing a working news data structure my background project for the year.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on how this can work for a freelance journalist.

Why I don’t sign non-disclosure agreements

Ex-journalist Alan Jones doesn’t sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) – story no longer online.

Jones works as a consultant helping tech start-ups with product strategies and marketing communications. He says asking people to sign a legal document which says “we don’t trust you” isn’t a great way to start a business relationship.

Like Jones, I don’t sign NDAs, but for different reasons:

  • I’m a journalist. I write news. NDAs stop me from doing that. My job is to get past corporate gatekeepers to tell readers what’s going on.
  • Early in my career I was burnt when a company asked me to sign a non-disclosure. It then gave the story as an exclusive to a rival. I never trusted that company or the people involved again. I haven’t trusted NDAs since either.
  • I’ve often worked as an editor for titles which use wire services. NDAs are written so I can’t run overseas-written leaks about the secret squirrel stuff.
  • Journalists have no business conspiring with public relations or marketing executives to mislead or misinform readers.

There are times when journalists are justified signing NDAs:

  • Product journalists and reviewers need to sign NDAs to get products before an official launch.
  • When an NDA is effectively a short term news embargo. For example, you’ve an exclusive interview with a top expert the day before a major announcement.

There could be other times, let me know in the comments if you think of any.

Lastly, nothing annoys me more than turning up to an interview or an event and having a previously unmentioned NDA shoved under my nose. The last time this happened I turned around and walked away.

No copyright in newspaper headlines

Australia’s federal court decided copyright doesn’t apply to newspaper headlines.

The decision strikes a blow against publishers wanting to hide content from non-paying online readers behind paywalls.

It came in a copyright claim made by Fairfax Media over headlines in its flagship business newspaper, The Australian Financial Review (AFR).  Disclosure: I spent seven years working as a freelance journalist for the AFR and a further two years as an associate publisher for its parent company.


Fairfax was looking to halt Reed International reproducing AFR headlines on news abstracts in its LexisNexis service – which incidentally, like the AFR, is also behind a paywall.

The AFR has operated a newspaper paywall long before the strategy became popular with newspaper publishers. For many years the AFR was derided for being out of touch with its paywall. Now everyone is in on the act, the case takes on more importance for the publishing industry.

Summaries substitute for articles

My old boss, chief executive Michael Gill went in to bat for the copyright claim. He said Reed intended its summaries to substitute for the articles and breached copyright by reproducing AFR headlines and by-lines.

The judge ruled otherwise saying Fairfax’s sample headlines were not literary works “in which copyright can subsist”.

She said Reed’s conduct was fair dealing and not copyright infringement.

Gill said Fairfax was considering appealing the decision.

Torn over copyright decision

As a journalist who has received an annual income from Australia’s Copyright Agency, I’m torn over the decision.

On the one hand, I feel publishers need protection from copyists who simply scrape data from the web, then repackage and sell it. Many of my stories from this site appear on other people’s sites – that makes me angry.

And well written headlines – the AFR employs some of the best sub-editors and many headlines are first-rate – provide readers with part of a story.

On the other hand, there’s always been an acceptance small works such as headlines, titles and advertising slogans are not protected. Now would not be a good time to start.