Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cleanskins: A dose of Roma Therapy

I learned a new term today at work. Sue from Advertising told me I had four cleanskins to work with for next Tuesday’s paper. I looked blankly at her. Cleanskins? Was this something political or was I being offered wine or chicken, I thought. No, Sue patiently explained, it meant I had four full pages without ads to do what I liked with. Cleanskins were an old trade term I’d simply never come across in my short experience. Yet it made perfect sense as soon as it was explained to me.

There have been many moments like that as I deal with the new realities of life as a journalist.

The biggest of these realities is the deadline. Much of my time in Roma has been spent dealing with it. It is constantly at the back of my mind and it is adrenalin-fueling as it approaches. This feeling comes twice a week in Roma as The Western Star is issued on a Tuesday and a Friday.

My Roma is the one in Western Queensland not in Italy. It was named for Lady Diamantina Roma who married George Bowen, Queensland’s first Governor-General. I wished they named the town Diamantina. Though geography doesn’t matter too much on the Internet, it’s a real pain sharing the name of your town with a major world capital. Though most of the conversation is in Italian, there is plenty of English conversation is about the football team called Roma or the Eastern European gypsies that Hitler loathed as much as the Jews.

My Roma is a small town 480km west of Brisbane in the centre of a district called the Maranoa. I’ve been here three weeks and I arrived slapbang in the middle of summer heat. Already I can tell the difference between 38 degrees and 42 and am beginning to feel that 30 is downright chilly. Yet I’m finding its dry heat more manageable than the suffocating sticky Brisbane equivalent in summer.

But airconditing is proving a must. Aircon is on the faultline of my political principles. The Green in me is annoyed by its flagrant waste of resources but the leftie praises the fact that I'm made comfortable by such wonderful cheap technology. I’m now searching for a conservative side that will make serious money out of aircon made from renewable sources.

In the meantime I’m earning a crust as a journalist. After four years of political blogging, I thought working for a masthead would provide me with good experience and a grounding in the daily realities of industrial journalism.

I must do a disclosure at this point. Starting at the newspaper has presented me with a problem about what to say about it in a blog. I’m bound by rules I’ve happily signed up with my employer not to compete against the paper. There are also issues of confidentially and conflict of interest. I like my job here in Roma and people I work with and don’t want to say anything here that would jeopardise it. The views here are mine and not associated with APN Media.

But being here has made me see some clear differences between the roles of blogger and journalist I wanted to talk about.

Firstly there is the power of the masthead. There are few bloggers around worldwide who have the power to ring people up and ask for quotes with a reasonable certainty they will be taken seriously. But every local masthead has this power and respect.

If they are not always treated a straight answer, then at least they usually get the courtesy of a carefully constructed response which you can often query further if need be.

Also you are much more likely to elicit a response from a member of the general public when you identify yourself as a representative of a trusted brand. This means that as a journalist you will have access to a lot of information. It is a powerful tool that needs careful management to avoid being abused.

For all its faults, I’m finding regional newspaper journalism is still trusted and unlikely to go extinct anytime soon. People engage with local papers because they still fulfill a strong social function.

They also hold up a sizable mirror to local events unmatched by any other media. Radio has the immediacy and bonhomie of local characters, but there is little local journalism. TV is even more openly piped in from remote places. The Internet is either underdeveloped or untrusted or both. In towns like Roma, that leaves papers with a duty to provide citizens with information they need to make sense of a plethora of local events. It is a clearing house of gossip, a fount of news, a big notice board for the community and a window on events elsewhere in the world.

But it is also a commercial entity and I’ve come to see newspaper ads as my friends. Apart from paying my wages, they also fill crucial space that suddenly makes filling a 24 page newspaper less daunting and leaves me with less cleanskins to worry about.

That’s another difference between blogging and journalism. As a journalist I see 40 x 30 centimetre blank sheets of paper that have to be filled regularly where as the only pressure I had on me as a blogger was a self-imposed rule to blog daily or as near to daily as I could. Space is not an issue on the Internet, but lacking this design constraint doesn’t necessarily make it better.

It is this tyranny of the blank page that sets the creative rules of journalism. An Internet post can be one line long or a thousand but the newspaper is more or less the same size every time. The pressure to find stories is relentless and they exist wherever you find them. That means using phone calls, tips, emails, press releases, old issues, wider issues, softer issues. Papers abhor an information vacuum. The white space must be filled. If there is no ad on the space, then there simply has to be editorial content.

This is where photos come in. Picture not only tell a thousand words they can fill the space of a thousand words on the page. And people like seeing pictures of themselves and people they know in the paper.

Being a rural paper, I have to take most of my photos myself. I never ever envisaged myself as a photographer though Fernando Mereilles’ City of God is one of my favourite films. On most engagements I usually first have to deal with my terror of my poor photographic technique and the possibility I’ll ruin the photo. So to get over this, I’m slowly trying to act as a photographer, and make more demands of subjects. I'm also taking more photos in the hope that some will come out. There may even be some good ones in there, or least presentable after being tightened up with a crop.

Photography is therapeutic and redefining my idea of being resourceful but at this stage, I still prefer the written form ahead of photojournalism.

It is wonderfully invigorating to grapple with an issue I don’t understand and attempt to unravel it and re-present that for a wider audience. In this, the blog has been very useful training both in terms of research and of threading an argument together in competent layperson’s terms.

But a major difference of style is the use of the direct quote which is almost compulsory in industrial media but rare in blogs. Having one source is immeasurably better than none because it enlivens the piece and adds variety with an additional point of view. Stricter authorities such as the ABC demand there be at least two sources and I’ve seen arguments that three should be the minimum.

But getting so many people to talk on the record is not always easy, not even for a masthead. People are cagey or a response needs to be vetted by a media unit. And in a busy world, people are rarely on tap for a ready quote. As the deadline moves ever closer, experts quickly deteriorate from being people who have expertise in their chosen topic to being the person who actually returns your call.

The telephone is my friend. I didn’t use the telephone much as a blogger, I use it a lot as a journalist. It helps I don’t have to pay the bills for the call. I always feel a slight sense of nervous energy every time I dial a number. People don’t hide as much on the phone as they do in email.

The only thing better is real life meeting. I’m doing that a lot in Roma and enjoying it too. And I know that if I’m really serious about tackling those cleanskins, I’m going to have to wear out a lot of shoe-leather too.

1 comment:

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