Friday, 29 August 2014

A small post about the Newseum turns into free speech lecture

Very short post today but one well worth paying attention to if you happen to live in or near the capital.

The Times's Newseum is opening at the Saatchi Gallery, in London, from September 8 - 20.

It is well worth popping along and offers a journey through the history of The Times's archive.

I realise not everyone is interested in the history of newsprint but it has been at the forefront of fighting for the right to free speech that the likes of Hacked Off is trying to take away.

And believe me the chilling effect of Leveson and the Hacked Off campaign is blowing from the biggest national to the smallest weekly.

Do not be fooled into believing they have a point in any way shape or form. Experience has taught us this down the ages.

(Didn't mean to turn this into a lecture but with every body that should be fighting for the Press's right to stand free of government actually actively backing it, it is always worth reminding journalists what is at stake.) 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

How to get and conduct a showbiz interview

It seems that almost every other reporter wants to work on a showbiz desk these days.

The chance of hanging around with celebrities and getting the inside gossip is, apparently, an alluring prospect for wannabe hacks.

The problem, as so many soon discover, is that getting an interview with One Direction or the Kate Moss or whoever is flavour of the month is pretty near impossible for the majority of local reporters.

It has nothing to do with how talented the reporter is or how good the newspaper they write for, it is simply that demands on the biggest stars are great and the rewards for appearing in a local with an ever declining circulation are hardly worth their effort.

So you have to think your way around the problem and - as always - be ready to put in a lot of effort and your own free time.

Firstly, be realistic. By all means shoot for the stars but also be prepared to manage your own expectations because you can often get interesting chats with - at least reasonable - well-known names.

Remember that newspaper readerships are getting older, a faded popstar that was topping the charts before you were even born will, in all probability, still resonate with some, if not all, of your readers.

An older star - no longer worried about their image - is more likely to be candid about their life in the limelight. And there is also the possibility that next week they will pop up on Celebrity Big Brother or whatever passes for light entertainment in this day and age.... Or, almost equally applicable and seemingly likely, for them be arrested.

The place to start is the local theatre, arts centre, venue, festival organisers or even a TV chef restaurant opening. Large provincial towns can often attract a mix of upcoming talent, desperate for any gig as part of their path to stardom and B-listers eking out an income. Smaller towns can be surprising. Those far from big population centres with poor transport links and small venues can attract big talent, especially if they are preparing for a big tour and need a "live" rehearsal.

For any, half decent interview, you will need space in the paper. If big interviews are not a regular feature it's worth making the case for them. For a start, the venues are probably already advertisers. What's good for them is good for the paper's revenue.

And whether you like it or not, celebrity does sell. A half decent interview on the page will get read, it will also attract readers online because even the most forgotten stars tend to have a fanbase somewhere.... even if it is only a couple of people.

Once space is secured or even if it is not (there's always the web), approach the venue's pr or marketing officer. They will mostly be overjoyed to hear from you and will do their best to accommodate what you are after. It will also save you having to deal directly with the celeb's pr (if they have one) yourself - a distinct advantage, as you will soon learn should you eventually become a full-time showbiz reporter. If it is a big, well-known festival that attracts national coverage don't demand the headline act or nothing.

Building up working relationships is a key to bigger and better things for the future. Let them see what you can do and the value you can bring to them.

Arrange the whole thing well in advance of the event itself, lots of things can go wrong and last minute cancellations are not uncommon. Don't expect a face to face chat. The chances are they are playing one gig in town and moving on. The pros for the venue and the celeb themselves is often to generate more ticket sales. Running an interview after the event is of little use to the person arranging it on your behalf.

It may be possible for say the star of, say, a pantomime, who may be playing the same theatre for several weeks. But on the whole forget it.

Once arranged you must prepare. Simply calling them and asking how they are is not an interview. Read up on them, see what they have achieved, what they have been up to since hitting or fading from the spotlight, learn what their interests are and what they've spoken about in the past. Don't just rely on Wikipedia, although a telling question can be: "If there's one thing you could change on your Wiki entry, what would it be?"

Don't whatever you do make the whole thing parochial. Do ask them if they know the local area or what they are hoping to see but don't make it the focus of the whole interview.

I once sat through a round table dominated by a tedious local journo (fair play to them), who even when the star admitted he probably couldn't find the paper's catchment area on a map, continued to bombard the (pretty big) celeb with questions about it. Frankly, the end result would have been tedious even for the most proud local reader.

Also don't go in there thinking you are next Jeremy Paxman, the celeb has given up their time to talk to you. Firing questions about some long forgotten affair they had will ensure it is cut-off pretty quickly. This is not to say, don't broach the subject, just don't make it your number one question. Filling a 1,000 word space with just a couple of quotes is a pretty difficult task, even for experienced writers.

Start gently, ask about the upcoming gig, bring up their interests and, if possible do relate it to the local area if applicable. If all is going well, move it on. "I was reading about...." is often a good way to take the interview to a wider remit.

It does, of course, help to have an interest in your subject but don't get bogged down in fandom or let it show too much during the interview. Unless writing for a specialist magazine/website you have to make the subject appeal to the wider reader.

As with all interviews, tape it. Let the person know, legally you don't have to but it is polite.  To save hours of transcribing, make a note of the counter when particularly interesting comments are said. As importantly, listen to what is being said. If you engage with the subject you will get a lot more out of them. Taping, even short chats is pretty essential these days. Should the person accidentally put their foot in it by saying something controversial, it is much harder (although some will try) to deny it or accuse you of taking something out of context. Hold on to the recording for a few weeks after the interview is published.

Now sometimes interviews are very hastily arranged and you don't have time to fully, if at all, prepare. Don't try and bluff your way through, you'll be caught out and don't try and use it as an excuse if you've had a week's notice and couldn't be bothered. If you were too busy that's not the interviewee's problem.

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