Tweet Given that there is an obesity epidemic, you might expect that when one of the world’s leading science writers, Gary Taubes, addresses the subject — challenging thirty years of official dietary advice — it would get a lot of press coverage. That the book took five years full-time to write, and has a 60-page […]



Tweet It’s been a year since Gordon Brown arrived in Number 10 Downing Street, uncontested. I don’t normally look to record anniversaries (apart from this and this, and maybe this), nor comment directly on politics. I wish politics were better, of course, and I think the political media must take a lot of responsibility for […]

I’ve only seen a couple of mentions of this term on the internet, mainly derogatory comments aimed at my miscreant colleagues in the fourth estate, as if “garage” equalled “gutter”.

But I think “garage journalism” is a good name. We should rub it down, respray it and apply new transfers so that it can be re-used to describe the new emergent forms of journalism: citizen journalism, hyper-local journalism and the rest of small-unit production in the long tail.

Aside from what is happening on the web, I have personally been involved in some of this hyper-local journalism in recent years, but using old-fashioned print. Moreover, just last week I was excited to see examples of that same model being copied in an adjacent neighbourhood. We’re talking very small community magazines delivered for nothing door to door, produced by volunteers with the support of local business. Not about real-estate, but real life. When I walked into the Indian takeaway, the very young proprietor was insistent that I take a copy. Had one come through the door? he asked. It should have, but I should take one away anyway. Published by the local school, in partnership with small shops in the “city village”, I had not thought that the demographic would be attractive enough. But the businesses, Gawd bless ‘em, seem to have got behind it.

Eventually, I’m sure, the same crew that are putting it together will be able to develop local blog-based news, and, who knows?, maybe even a YouTube/BlipTV based TV channel that would cover the village fête and the combined schools expedition up the local high point. The magazine will seed that online local audience as it emerges and matures. And the fact that we are all filming ourselves doing things locally will make those things seem more important, and I suspect better supported by the community. The local will become even more salient. There is a widely reported Belgian community TV experiment I’m already aware, although it uses traditional cable, I think.

As the video below shows, the idea probably is not so new. It could be said to have its antecedents in the “country” newspapers of the US, where the producer of such micro-local news was perhaps a local printer, for whom publishing a local news sheet did not constitute a full living, and so this had to be supplemented with contract printing. It’s good for journalists to reflect that a fully-paid up salaried profession may not be the future, was not always the past and may not even be an accurate representation of the present any longer.

What struck me about this informational newsreel was the range of tasks the local publisher was required to have technical knowledge of, in contrast to his municipal counterpart. The point the film makes is that this type of publisher must know all aspects of his business to succeed: from reporting, gathering advertising, setting type to printing. To quote, about 8 mins in, contrasting the skills needed of this country newsman with his urban contemporary:-

All this knowledge and experience seems a great deal to ask of one man but he leads a happy life and takes pride in the fact that he is in business for himself.

The publisher of a city paper has the responsibility of running a large organization. His is a good position, and one you might do well to aim for.

These days the small-town publisher would be learning social media, digital photography/video, taxonomy and SEO, and probably worrying (like me) when, or if, he should get round to learning Ruby. How much to err toward the professionalism of Adobe? How much to plunge into the messy ingenuity of open source plug-ins?

Although blogging in some ways needs no more than a simple WordPress, Typepad or Blogspot account to get going, publishing is always bound to get more sophisticated as the experimental possibilities increase, and those of us who want to will start to tinker in search of something more presentable, goofy, entertaining, or even just as a self-distraction. It seems to me that a creative form of journalism now needs to be recognized that is akin to the garage inventor, the garage band, the 1930s sci-fi fanmags or ’70s punk fanzines. To the initiated, the concept of blogging lacks sufficient differentiation.

At least it goes some way to explain the head-scratching ‘hobby’ that hundreds of thousands of writers/publishers are going through either in search of their own satisfaction, to fulfil some community need, or find some elusive business model that starts the cash rolling in. I suspect a good many of us are a mixture of all three, and don’t know whether what will come out at the end will be a piece of fine Chippendale, or some ill-fitting shelving from which a much-prized objet (our reputation for level-headedness perhaps) will later become dislodged. As with any DIY project, it is not clear at the outset what one’s real level of skill is, how much it needs to expand, and whether it will be encouraged, admired or even tolerated by spouse and hungry family, let alone friends.

But, above all else, it seems very clear that, just as with ’60s tech, or ’70s punk, some delectable new flavours will ultimately bubble up from what might look from the wrong angle to be a rather unappetising stochastic soup.

Here is the video:

And just to pinch ourselves before we get too romantic about the charm of the local, go here to Wikipedia where you’ll find a clip of Peter Sellers adopting a similar narrative tone for comedic rather than documentary purposes to highlight a place, Bal-ham, where I was happy once to consider myself a resident. Gateway to the South, indeed.

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Apocalypse Now culminates in a meeting with a large, terrifying man in a forsaken place that few normal humans would dream of venturing into of their own free will.

I was reminded of this narrative when listening again to a BBC Radio 4 documentary by my friends and former co-workers, Andy and Grigori, about their trip to Russia’s Norilsk nickel mine several years ago. The eponymous town is a byword for extremity: bad extremity, at that. Lying within the Arctic circle and the permafrost zone, it is Siberia’s northernmost city: a grim, black stain on the white tundra. In 2003, when my friends visited, it was still a closed city, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officially designated one of the filthiest places on earth, Norilsk offers it’s residents a life expectancy 10 years shorter than the national average. I can tell you’re itching to book yourself a ticket.

When I worked in Fleet Street, Andy ran commodities coverage for me. The uninitiated within mainstream journalism will tend to regard commodities as a Cinderella profession. But you don’t succeed in this highly investigative area of reporting by being a shrinking violet. It touches the whole world, and the more difficult parts of it to boot. There is a darkness to it that is never far away; places like Norilsk epitomise that shadiness. Commodities is an environment in which a tradition of buccaneering still survives; there were moments when you kind of knew that the wrong decision of what to cover — and how — could cost somebody their life. I reported metals for a while, and so could only marvel at the depth of knowledge and range of contacts that Andy and Grigori managed to construct over the years.


Norilsk Nickel Plant from the air (Google Maps)

Andy and Grigori between them had long had to report the ins and outs of industrial activity at Norilsk because it dominates the world nickel market. As the documentary makes plain, this was no easy task. And it is important because, yes, we probably all own something that came out of the ground there. Based on what Wikipedia has to say here, you are breathing some of it each day too:-

The Blacksmith Institute included Norilsk in its 2007 list of the ten most polluted places on Earth. The list cites air pollution by particulates (including radioisotopes strontium-90, and caesium-137 and heavy metals nickel, copper, cobalt, lead and selenium) and by gases (such as nitrogen and carbon oxides, sulfur dioxide, phenols and hydrogen sulfide).”

Andy and Grigori’s programme, though, was a personal attempt to visit the human story that is Norilsk, rather than the statistical and commercial that had shaped their own long relationship with the place. The sense of environmental and other dangers is palpable, particularly as they descend into the heart of darkness that is the unlit mine 1km below the Siberian surface. There, in a 300km network of underground shafts, huge diesel vehicles manoeuvre in and out of side tunnels, sometimes at speed: behemoths looming monster-like out of the shadows. Andy and Grigori are provided with emergency supplies in the event that they get separated from their guide and lost in the labyrinth.

Knowing both men, the programme also highlights and reminds me of the themes in yesterday’s post about diversity and collaboration within teams; I touched on this before in my essay about Twitter. Andy and Grigori were essential parts of a real-time network of reporters that coordinated their daily activities across the globe using instant messaging, in particular the mIRC tool, reflecting the need for rapid coordination to break and respond to financial market news events. Unlike the telegraphese-based message wires that characterised inter-bureau communication in the old newswire days, which were terse and sometimes highly politicised, IM was particularly beneficial where remote bureaus and the very general skills needed by the staff in them, were routinely pressed to cover highly specialized beats. This required expert supervision from the main reporting centres, and mutual trust.

The blogosphere is often referred to now as “The Conversation”. But the beauty of the mIRC chat service we used back then was that the remote bureau could become an active part of even the water-cooler conversations in major bureaus like London. The diversity of the organization, that would otherwise have been latent, became active.

Anyway, I think you can hear the nature of the working friendships forged in action in the podcast.

Andy has written a book about his experience — Siberian Dreams – which is available from the usual suspects or via Knackered Hack Booksellers Inc. So reserve your signed copy now, by email, for when new stocks arrive.

You can find out more about the BBC/Royal Geographical Society’s Journey of a Lifetime broadcast series here.

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Twitter showed its worth when @ryansholin announced (at least, it was news to me in landlocked Bath) that Maverick’s – the annual big wave surfing event in Santa Cruz, Northern California — was convening this past weekend. The organisers called it last minute on Friday. All the young dudes rushed in to catch the notoriously huge Pacific west-by-north-west swell on Saturday.

Ryan, who blogs on the changing face of journalism, works for used to work for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but recently moved to GateHouse Media, a large publisher of highly local print and online publications. Maverick’s is in his back yard. He pointed us to the Maverick’s website, where I spent enough time looking at 2006 wipeouts (see below) to end up with a headache. It didn’t take long.

Just in case you think I’m suffering from apostrophe failure, “Maverick’s” is short for “Maverick’s Point” — Maverick being a white-haired German Shepherd dog whose human surfing companion was reputedly one of the first to try the giant waves near Half Moon Bay back in the ’60s. The dog tried to swim out to join his surfing buddy, but the conditions were too treacherous and he had to be tied to the car bumper instead for his own safety.

Surfing heaven, sailing hell

I could not have cared less about surfing a few months ago. I’d seen crazy folks surfing mid-winter in Cornwall, desperately seeking even the tiniest waves in full wet-suits, while I stood (marginally less frozen and windswept) safely on shore. British surfing culture, such as I imagined it, left me cold; old surf-bum cliché mashed up with the with teenage surf fashion — who needed it?

It wasn’t that I didn’t have an affinity for the sea. I spent my twenties sailing a yacht most weekends and studying navigation on Tuesday evenings at night school in very non-coastal Parliament Hill, North London. I’m qualified as a Royal Yachting Association coastal skipper, hold the obligatory VHF radio operator’s licence, and can confirm that yachting in the home waters of the UK is indeed like standing in a cold shower tearing up £20 notes. Who needs that either, frankly?

Crucially, though, for a yachtsman, the place where land and sea meet when the wind is blowing onshore is a no-go area. The lea shore that is surfing heaven is the sailor’s total nightmare.

But last summer in Devon, my aversion to surfing changed. It was so wet on land in August that, having been rained on solidly in our camp site for several days, we thought we might just as well embrace our dampness and at least add the wind-protective qualities of neoprene. Courtesy of Loose-fit in Braunton (the world’s first carbon-neutral surf shop, they assure me), we invested in some state-of the-art suits and plunged into the foam at Saunton Sands, encouraged by the Loose-fit slogan: “Hang Loose in the Juice.” We were only on trashy bodyboards, purchased at the beach-side store, but it was surprisingly exhilarating. It transformed a holiday that would have otherwise been a washout.


As a non-scientist, what intrigues me about surfing and sailing, particularly when it comes to understanding and managing risk, is that they embrace and expand your knowledge of the non-linear. For instance, the Beaufort Scale for wind strength (which yachtsmen must learn to determine how much sail to carry, and what course to chart, and whether to go out at all) goes from 1 through to hurricane 12. But clearly a hurricane is not just twice as strong as Force 6; in fact, it’s at least three times the wind strength, and produces more than 4.5 times the wave size.

When I did a search of Art De Vany’s blog, as I’m wont to do when I want to understand something complex, it immediately threw up the insight that surfing is what de Vany describes as a “power law” activity. And that was what struck me when a large wave unexpectedly up-ended me (not for the last time), and I experienced the sensation that surfers call “flush-through” or “wash-thru”: when the ocean breaches the sea-defence that is your wet-suit’s collar and your nether regions get flooded with icy cold water, rendering you a human washing machine on a particularly vigorous rinse cycle.

Now, Ryan, at Invisible Inkling, talks a lot about the wave of change that is causing journalists and publishers to experience some of that metaphorical cullion-tightening wash-thru too. He urges journalists to re-skill, get blogging, Twittering and exploring social networks. Because newspaper circulations are falling, and revenue models that can guarantee the future of serious news-gathering are so far proving highly elusive.

Riding the wave

Putting these two things together reminded me of my own youthful Jeremiah pronouncements and specifically a now somewhat banal — but nonetheless prescient — observation I’d made in a meeting in 75 Wall Street way back in 1996, when I was London bureau chief for Knight-Ridder, and the idea of monopolising the Internets was just a twinkle in the young eyes of two 23-year-olds called Page and Brin.

I’d been summoned for meetings there with my fellow news managers to strategise the recovery of the Knight-Ridder international newswire that had spent several months passing through the uncertainty of an auction before being acquired from the Miami-based newspaper company (then still a thriving independent entity as one of the two largest publishers in the US) by venture capitalists.

I forget how many staff we lost precisely, but we were at least fully decimated. Fearful of acquisition by a competitor and enforced redundancy, so many had left seeking greater security, often with said competitors.

Private equity firm Welsh Carsen Anderson & Stowe, the firm that had bought us, had a bold strategy to overturn Reuters, Dow Jones-Telerate, and the emergent Bloomberg, and capitalize on a wave of financial market disintermediation by being the first company in the financial information industry to apply internet protocol. They acquired a bunch of information companies, ripped out their proprietary networks and technologies, and introduced standards.

WCAS already owned what it claimed was the world’s largest private intranet, contested only at that time by Hewlett Packard. After buying us, WCAS tried to buy that doyenne of early internet adopters, Compuserve, too. They had the blessing of — and not a small amount of investment from — the world’s largest banks and pension funds. At one point Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was our official spokesman. Continue reading ‘the maverick’s story’

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