I was recently fortunate enough to be able to ask Newsnight journalist Paul Mason a few questions in regards to an essay I was writing as part of my degree. He very kindly wrote way more than I anticipated, all of which is invaluable if you’re at all interested in any type of journalist career.
My question asking skills are pretty awful. So apologies for the lack of creativity.
I popped three questions in an email, they were:
- How do you feel social networking sites (such as Twitter) have changed the way you go about journalism ?
- What would you say are the best ways of engaging a reader in a subject they may not be interested in?
- Why do you use history in many of your articles?
1) Social networks have changed the world for journalists, but Twitter is by far and away the biggest change. First, because I – and others I know – use it as a primary news source. If you follow other journalists you can see events happening in realtime – such as during the fall of Gaddafi. Sometimes those journalists will try to correlate each other’s facts, or shout out for help – as for example when someone in Libya tweeted “they’re using sniper rifles, anybody tell us the range” and within minutes people were able to look up the kind of rifles sold (by a British firm) and the max range (1000m).
Second, because it exposes spin based on false information and destroys it, holding the perpetrators to ridicule. Third because it places you under pressure – from your peers and from the audience. Fourth because it allows you to disseminate an instant link to your work. So if I do a blog on the BBC website, or an article in a paper, I can send the bitl.y link to my 60k followers. If it gets retweeted by someone big – as my “Twenty Reasons” blog did in February 2011, by @glinner among others – it can go viral.
I would finally say that the generally networked society is changing the audience’s perceptions fast. People are constantly filtering information – and they are begining to treat journalists like music fans treat artists: I like him, not her etc. People feel they have a right to information, and will sometimes even question the running order and editorial treatment of the daily current affairs programme like Newsnight. And because I am the only high-profile reporter on the show with Twitter, they will attack me even for things I had nothing to do with!
2) That’s easy. Focus on the specific, the human, the personal. Use suspense, the delayed-drop. And the sub-editor’s job is to avoid putting people off before it’s about enticing them in. So if you look at, eg this:
Simmering Anger in Seville – but what about? The band musicians don’t look angry. And then it’s sold on my on my picture byline. Finally you get to read something and it’s completely not about anger:
“The Spanish version of the soprano cornet is tiny: it curls like a golden snail in the hand of the player. There is only one valve, and it is tweaked, like a tap, so that the melody it produces swoops and squeals.”
I am quite pleased with this article, because it exemplifies the way I write. It will seem old hat in 10 year’s time – but it’s learned from Orwell, from the New Journalism (Wolfe, Talese, Terry Southern (!) Hunter S Thompson etc) by pure trial and error imitation. And of course then putting yourself in a situation that the reader could never be in. Or is not likely to be in.
3) The heart of TV journalism is narrative. The famous slogan of the US show 60 minutes was “Tell Me A Story”. And I, and the people who can regularly knock out decent TV reportage, spend a lot of time studying and discussing narrative structure – so reading Robert McKee’s “Story” (I’ve been on his course of the same name).
What I think I am doing is *reportage* and there is a lost art of doing this, which relies on recognising you are writing *literary non-fiction*. I do it in the articles and in the VTs, though VT is teamwork and you end up in huge arguments with your producer, who drives the edit. I’ve read a lot of Chinese reportage – there were maybe 10 or 20 people doing in China in the 1930s what only Orwell or Hemingway were doing here.
So as to the use of history – one of the main aims of journalism has to be to get the reader to say: heck I didn;t know that! That totally changes my view of the world. Now while this can be done through a scoop of revelation, it’s also possible to achieve through what we call “a scoop of understanding”. History can provide both: and I’d remind you that in the digital age there is ever more “history” being produced – photos and records digitised, names crosscheckable etc.
For me however there is also a political motive. In the past 20 years the neo-liberal economic project tried to destroy various categories in history, above all the “class struggle”. Why do I know about The Silver Lake? Because I’ve studied German music in the 1920s and 30s. Why did I relate it to the experience in Greece? because I genuinely did sit there and have a moment of revelation while speaking to the forlorn anarchists and leftists who seemed to be revelling in despair. My brain made the connection. Having done that I remembered that the Silver Lake had been shouted offstage in 1933 by fascists, just as the play Corpus Christi was – but then I had to speed-order a book called Kurt Weill on Stage to find a decent description of what happened.
And this is probably another clue to why history is so powerful in current affairs writing: it is knowledge that can’t be Googled.
As to history in VTs, again, the moving image is incredibly powerful – and at the BBC I have access to brilliant archive material. Generally 30 seconds of black and white archive can enhance understanding in any ideas or analytical piece, and I probably have to ration it otherwise I would use it all the time!
Thanks again, Paul!