Thursday, May 19, 2022

Great! In-person journalism events return. How could they be different?


The blueprints there, right there, I‘ll tell the audience. If you want to do innovation and diversity and how they bolster each other, the blue print is 1994.

Back then 30 youngsters turned the British media upside down heralding the change we’re now living. Channel One TV was the UK’s first 24-hour cable news output for London. And another first, it was the pioneer of one-person broadcast units, referred to as videojournalism.

For a profession continuously grappling with how to do media representation, frustratingly, it’s been done, at least for its staffing of reporters. Its strategy was driven by its key management, the Fleet Street titan Sir David English (speaking below), the station’s team of Julian Aston, and Nick Pollard, and consultant Michael Rosenblum. (see fuller film at bottom of page).

Channel One thrived until advertisers squeezed their finance five years in, but as a revolution in media very little came close to it sense of innovation. These two clips, amongst many, from highly respected industry figures, set out that narrative.

As an incubator for talent and diversity it yielded Rav Vadgama, Award-winning Producer and videojournalist for Good Morning Britain; Dimitri Doganis, founder of Raw TV and recipient of many awards e.g. BAFTA; Trish Adudu, now a radio presenter and personality for BBC CWR, the BBC Local Radio service for Coventry and Warwickshire; and Rachel Ellison MBE, now a leading coach in leadership.

Channel One turned around my career following stints with BBC Newsnight, Reportage and the World Service covering South Africa and Pres. Mandela’s inauguration, but a permanent job appeared out of reach within established broadcasters, even with a testimonial from the UK’s leading think tank in International affairs.

New Journalism

Twenty seven years on, media legacies in diversity delivered by Channel One have atrophied. Its innovation was intrinsically linked to its diversity in what psychologists refer to as analogical thinking fermenting “external views”. It sowed a deep seed in many if its participants.

Many questioned journalism, news and story form. Steve Punter, one of the station’s stalwart videojournalists jokingly referred to the group as an assembly of unique different individuals that oddly shouldn’t work. It was the media equivalent of Marvel Avengers.

My head scratch would formally complete twenty years later, following hundreds of interviews and air miles, historical searches, training and debates in uncovering an inevitable form of journalism called Cinema Journalism. It would earn me a PhD and several industry awards.

From 2005 onwards with digital threatening traditional journalism practices I had the task of converting UK regional newspapers and the FT into new forms of videojournalists and platform encoders. Innovation and diversity too was key. It led to the good fortune of speaking at a fair number of conferences in the UK e.g. Apple and abroad (e.g. Russia) around journalism innovation and creativity, collaboration and diversity.

See here for more

Journalism has been wrestling with several often intransigent and dynamic issues on different fronts, such as how to pay for journalism, how to master social platforms and reach new audiences, how to neuter disinformation and bad actors and how to keep the profession honest and hold power to account.

In person gatherings have been an ideal touch point to address these, bringing professionals together to share knowledge, tackle festering issues and build contacts.

Yet, as the end of the second decade drew near, there was a sense you could slide from one conference to another, meet familiar faces, and quite often observe recurring panelists and themes catering for the same-o, same-o. Sometimes it could feel like the conference equivalent of cabin fever — stasis; you’ve been here before.

The totemic events of 2019: COVID and the criminality against George Floyd amplifying a global movement in BLM were a “wake up call”.

A New Way of Conferencing

Within journalism, at least of the professional kind, whatever it was doing before 2019, coming out of it would be different. If you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep on getting what you get. Journalism was going to be re-birthed; its storytelling and philosophy captured in headlines required surgery, its actors needed widening. Things couldn’t continue as normal.

My first in-person event courtesy of the Society of Editors (SoE) leaves me cautiously hopeful. I had just recently finished working as an advisory board member for the British Library’s major exhibition: Breaking the News: 500 Years of News in Britain, as well as contributing a chapter to their book on Black Lives Matter and the language of News.

A kindly email following on from the exhibition would reach me explaining how the SoE’s conference might be of interest. The title Future of News has been a popular one that often proves hugely attractive. Two years ago I chaired a 250 delegate conference on the subject. It would be attractive again.

Photos: David, DSLR 5D

SoEs lineup, not exhaustive here, was something to admire: Keynoter Ros Atkins, the BBC man who has single handedly revolutionised journalism and explainers; leading figures from the BBC and Telegraph and RTS winner Warren Nettleford of Need to know debated the future of news chaired by Kamal Ahmed, Editor in Chief of The News Movement.

Changing the newsroom featured a panel with Guardian executive Joseph Harker; seasoned war correspondents lent their expertise to the Ukraine war coverage. It was foregrounded by a poignant silence for fallen journalists. Then Alok Sharma MP closed the event with Cop26 in his rear view mirror whilst applauding the robustness of the press.

Yet, there’s a question worth grappling with. Post Floyd and COVID what new role, if any, should conferences be playing in journalism education? How different should they be from their predecessors? Is is a question of greater diverse and targeted programming within the decision makers? Is there a new function for the circuit of conferences from professional bodies yet to be acknowledged?

SoE’s conference placed diversity as an integral conversation in Changing the Newsroom. Harker emphasised the need for an action, rather than an aspiration, and even that. He addressed what he called the elephant in the room, and few would deny it, asking why the SoE took six months to apologise for their position that racism did not exist in the British press.

If, as it’s widely recognised, journalism (not a homogenous discipline) needs to have emerged from the last two years with greater introspection and reflection several custodians are well placed to deliver on this. The SoE remains one of the UK’s most influential journalism bodies and a look at their virtual conference page displays a raft of initiatives.

Conference to dos

Myfirst in-person has me in reflective mood as I think to the several conferences now opening up and how they might build post 2019?

  1. Ensuring the growing unease of what was wrong in journalism does not dissipate. This requires concretising new visions and memories in ways that shift thinking. Work at the British Library and as an artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre typified this sort of brief. Storytelling always circles around culture, but because of how it crystallised as News many years ago in largely homogenous cultures, cultural framing has rarely acquired the prominence in journalism as objectivity or impartiality. It should.
  2. Increasing diversity of speakers on all panels and ensuring people of colour are not solely invited to conferences to speak exclusively on race and culture sessions. Nettleford and Nabihah Parker speaking at the SoE on innovation was refreshing. Equally, on a spectrum of issues poignant to older audiences the Black and brown frozen middle should be welcomed.
  3. Actioning targeted conference talking points and procuring commitments or pledges from execs. At the SoE event panelists agreeing to visit universities to share knowledge was one. Inviting senior execs to agree to material change in say hiring diverse staff could be one of many others.
  4. Physically build the future. In a recent post on this platform I ask why a new wing of solutions journalism, solutions media, shouldn’t engage in physical builds, for instance engineering apps (see here). Media, remember, has no natural borders. If there’s a sense of what’s wrong why not engineer alt solutions.
  5. Facilitating exchange hubs, so delegates can find one another to swap ideas. The usual route is after drinks, but I’ve often found they can be hit and miss. I had a highly entertaining conversation with a delegate which emerged serendipitously only when she spoke ( off subject) about Brit School, and I segued into my son Robert who appeared on BBC Young Dancer.
  6. Leverage conference talking points via active use of social media and post conference reports, targeting ( Hashtag) specific groups. Greater interactions with universities and students would facilitate this. There’s an integrated debated between academia and the practice of journalism that is yearning to be reshaped.

Short film by David Dunkley Gyimah called The Thirty — pioneers of British Media

About the author

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is recognised as an international journalism innovator and expert in media and international affairs. A chemistry and maths graduate turned journalist and creative producer his career spans thirty plus years combining media and academia. He’s worked or presented for a number of outfits and international brands e.g. Channel 4 News, Apple etc and continues to consult for major companies. A former Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre, he’s the first Brit to with the (US) coveted Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism. On Medium he’s designated one of their top writers in journalism, amongst 28k writers posting 68k stories. He’s based at Cardiff University.

How the Avengers of Journalism rewrote the face of journalism.

Here, pick up this camera and go out and shoot.

Shoot what?

Anything, but no more than five minutes. Don’t spend too long.

That’s all the instructions they were given. One by one they filed into the room unaware of the challenge. Some candidates were dismissed outrightly.

Yes! Thank you.

Your flaw; that intuitive look and feel at handling a camera. And by the way if you were from the BBC, chances are you didn’t last long in the interview.

There’s such a thing as institutionalised journalism in which you prefigure you know how journalism works. This here location off Soho street in London, about to give an electric shock to journalism as a patient, wasn’t it.

It was like you were about to jump off a 100 foot cliff insisting on a paraglider helping you descend. There is no paraglider.

And so 3000 applications applied to a small print in the Guardian newspaper with a P.O. Box extolling the virtues of a new film form for journalism. The advertisement, blink and you’d miss it, looked likely something from the pages of dodgy job offer. You will become video journalists, whatever that was!

You’ll be the first in the UK, and amongst a select few in the world. 3000 hopefuls were painstakingly whittled down to a hundred, and then thirty like something out of the X-factor, before its days.

“We were odd people, very odd people”, says one of the successful Steve Punter. “It was a mix of Black people, white, Jewish, Moslems, agnostics, LGBs and so on”.

Steve Punter got accepted by filming a bike courier at work, except he got so close to the courier’s approach that he got clipped by a wheel, the camera smashed into his face with blood pouring from near his eye socket.

Heavens knows what the interviewers must have thought when he walked inside to deliver his film, blood now all over his shirt. Actually we know. They were horrified at his condition, but wow what a film when they cleared the blood from the lens and hit playback. This guy had the eye of Hawkeye and a film sensibility to boot.

Another applicant wowed the interviewers by riding pillion on a motor cyclist he flagged down. Yeah, just like that! The shots were like something out of the film Premium Rush (2012) as the cyclists weaved through rush hour traffic at some ridiculous speed.

“They didn’t want people who fitted into a box; they were looking for a particular form of dynamism, adds Trish Adudu.

When we all gathered for the first time, you couldn’t help but question why you, and the person in front of you what super powers they might possess.

Thirty people were pulled from newspapers, magazines, research posts, secretaries, civil servants etc, says a leading figure in British media Sir David Nicholas narrating a soon-to-be made documentary.

Personnel, tick! The next thing was what the f*** are we all going to do? That’s when they wheel in this guy, something like Nick Fury, except he ain’t black and doesn’t wear a patch. Michael Rosenblum was a New Yorken, who didn’t pull his punches.

The UK team behind this new “amazing” venture were scouring the US for ideas. Chicago, Philly, New York, when they came across an operation called NY1. These reporters did everything themselves, everything, and ran journalism like it was a beat operation. That is you had certain areas and patches you covered. It was like you were your own boss, an uber driver of journalism deciding on what fare, or in this case story you’d cover.

The team liked the set up, and in the process of transplanting it to the UK, made Rosenblum an offer. The thing was though in the free-for-all entrepreneurial cage-fight spirit of New York, where anything could go, would the idea work in the British sensibility of Queensberry Rules?

Management, the team, Rosenblum and this motley outfit were about to find out, and it wouldn’t be pretty. The press would quietly, then full scale, come to loathe us. Why?

“Well, we were part of the breakdown of a well ordered unionised and structured way of producing television”, says Dimitri Doganis, “ and everyone was trying to produce cheap but high quality TV”.

It’s 1994, the year of Friends, Kurt Cobain’s earthly Nirvana, and Nelson Mandela being crowned president of South Africa, shedding Apartheid.

Rosenblum’s training included the art of the quick steal. Where as TV news making could take 3 hours, we learned to do it in 45 mins. We’d go out for shoots and then deconstruct them afterwards. The visuals mattered, and behind the scenes there was a tug of war happening inside management about what cameras to use. Would it be the nimble handy VX1000, at UKP 2500 which wasn’t quite your definition of pristine pictures, or would it be the Beta cam at UKP 15,000, which weighed a bit and whose pictures weren’t top notch.

Meanwhile, countdown to the launch was imminent, the press were having a field day with shifting opinions; some who saw it as the end of the BBC monopoly rubbed their hands with glee. Others like the Mirror newspaper launching its own service, which would feature bunnies reading the weather, probably had effigies of the station’s heads somewhere.

There’s a saying, “everyone has a story to tell”, but how do you know, and is it worth the listen? At an expensive Chinese restaurant in North London, where the videojournalists were taken out for supper, we’d find out. After our meal, we were instructed to find a story from the diners.

How on earth are we going to do that? I thought. Minutes later I found myself crouching down to table height of a couple, whilst I explained my plight and they regaled me with their life. Job done!

We were something approaching numinous. It was like a weird sprinkling of dust in which the industry would come to fear and loath you, says Dimitri.

Each one of us had something strange that would make this gig work. Julia Caesar, who became entertainment correspondent would wear the brightest read coats in premieres which caught the eye of celebrities like Tom Cruise, so much so that at every premiere he’d walk over to her. From pariah in which camera men ( they were mostly all men) rubbished her, soon they were leaving prime spots when she’d arrived, knowing that anyone next to her would get their money shot.

Me, fancifully I thought I could have been Tony Stark looking back on the days. I was forever tinkling with the tech, something that would pay a major dividend a decade later, when I would build one of the first video-magazine platforms encoded using the Flash engine and lingo from Director.

In the meantime, we had a point to prove, and the industry was about to be turned upside down. You see, you can revolutionise through tech how to fashion films on a platform, but the real revolution is a mindful one, analogical thinking that makes connections with the unexpected taking on board the seemingly impossible or absurd. Through the combination of fun, and our own innovations the most bizarre ( to some) relational adaptations emerged that fostered compelling but odd outcomes.

And one of them, years later of incubating, was going to be the story of how Cinema would usurp a penchant for journalism-making, and its practitioners would offer the widest source of expatiation from their own diverse backgrounds. This really was like the Avengers.