Tag Archives: blogging

When can you manicure the lawn?

My dad has been a journalist for years. He has written for papers, run his own newspapers, magazine, radio programs and still writes when he has something to say. He is actively political and writes because that’s how he gets his message across. I studied politics, twice, but don’t always have something say. .

On a car journey years ago he was telling me about a young journalist who had written an article about which began: ‘God sat on his throne and smiled at the beauty of the day’ or something similar. ‘Quick’ said his editor, ‘get me a quote from God’.

His point was the same one as Terry McDermott notes in his article ‘A Thousand Cuts’ about the difference between reporting and blogging. McDermott’s word ‘slumbered’, used to describe two political candidates in a meeting, was changed to ‘lumbered’. He was asked if they actually slept through it. The reply was no, that it was meant figuratively, not literally. “We don’t use figurative language here” he was told.

The ‘here’ in the previous paragraph refers to a newspaper and while I have never worked at one, I grew up with many a journalistic word of warning and was raised to ensure that every glance I took, at a piece of writing, was a critical one. I once categorically refused to allow someone to use the phrase ‘manicured lawn’ in a piece they were writing. The word manicure refers specifically to taking care of the hand from the Latin word ‘manus‘ (as in manual, in terms of labour, not an instruction manual), I told them.

Another of my dad’s favourites was the discussion on what is news. Dog bites man is not news but man bites dog… now there you have a story. A common journalistic cliche in any language but one turned on its head in Terry Pratchett‘s book The Truth. The first newspaper in Ankh Morpork is the subject of this tale and the former Western Daily Press journalist manages to turn the cliche into something all the more witty and self-referential. Half way through the book, and probably only a month or so after I was adamant about manicuring the lawn, I saw that he went and used the same phrase. Who was in the wrong?

I started writing this post as I was catching up on last week’s FT Weekend and had just read an article by Chris Giles on George Osborne’s trip to China. The headline is ‘China takes an interest in Osborne’s reading list‘, the emphasised part is ‘Countries with high budget deficits must show the world they can deal with those deficits’. My favourite bit is the Chinese vice premier telling Osborne of his love for Jane Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. “The Treasury could not confirm last night which were the chancellor’s favourites, nor whether he had read them.” It was a smile of a moment in an otherwise straight report on a visit. FT house style and everything.

McDermott’s article contrasted blogging and reporting and it’s a much agonised distinction on both sides of the writing medium (professional and not). The point may be that, while the medium is the focus of the argument, the conversation will fail to die down. When you have nothing to say then the way you write may be the only thing left to talk about.

As my sister reminds me now and then, Ephemeral Digest is a blog, and I can write what I want. I am privileged to not have to worry about what constitutes news and what makes an article. Now and then I do worry about it but a funny moment in a broadsheet reminds me that there’s always a balance out there.

My dad’s advice wasn’t just a way of discussing writing. He was trying to tell me how to best get my message across. My ambition is to find more ways to do that so I’ll happily stumble along and be creative when necessary. Until grass grows hands, however, I won’t be manicuring any lawns. That’s a promise.

Eating: yes. Blogging: sporadically. Critiquing: ?

Everyone Eats is a feature article, by Robert Sietsema, in the Jan / Feb 2010, Columbia Journalism Review. Its title continues with the pointedly honest appraisal: ‘but that doesn’t make you a restaurant critic’. Too true. The article provides a history of restaurant critics and the evolution of food reviews. Most importantly, Sietsema notes the process used by a prominent restaurant critic, and it is this latter part that I want to share with you.

Craig Claiborne, food Editor for the New York Times from 1975 and for three decades after, is generally credited with being the inventor of the modern restaurant review.

Claiborne added structure and ethics to restaurant reviewing: reviews would be done by a single individual who would be named in the piece. At least three visits would be made to the restaurant and a party of three or four would eat and try to cover as much of the menu as possible. Some dishes would be eaten more than once to check for consistency. There would be no free meals and the publication would pay for the dining experience.

Most important of all the reviewer would remain anonymous and not allow the restaurant to realise that a review was in progress. Any reservation would made under a false name and no suspicious behaviour would take place during the meal.

These were his rules and the very structure of them provided a thoroughness that almost makes this critiquing business into a science.
I admire the notion that food reviewing is a serious business and should be addressed as such. In my reviews I want to be as truthful as possible while also noting that my opinion is as subjective as anyone else’s.

I would love to be thorough about all the food but I often get distracted by one item and then lose interest in the rest. As an unpaid blogger I also don’t have the funds to visit a restaurant at least three times over a short period, let alone take along three friends, so we can sample all the items on the menu.

Sometimes it’s not the food but the atmosphere or the company that will be the highlight of the evening. The service may stand out or the dessert might be the only thing I remember with any clarity. I take photos of the food before I eat and occasionally may take notes as well. That’s sure to arouse some attention although I can’t remember anyone offering any free dishes.

I have doubts about my own consistency and there are few professional food reviewers I go out of my way to read. I adore the work of Mark Taylor who writes in the Bristol Evening Post on a Thursday and edits the magazine Fork. However there are other reviews, such as ones I’ve read in the Metro, where from the first sentence I failed to believe a single judgement. A particular review was about a place I had visited recently and the effusive proclamations about the food had probably more to do with the two bottles of wine drunk by the reviewer, and partner, than the actual quality of the restaurant.

I raise these points as an exercise in self-awareness and with the intention to introduce more consistency into my critiques. If you also write reviews, professionally or not (i.e. paid or unpaid), then do mention any rules you may have, or procedures you may follow. I would love to hear them. (Don’t forget to mention the bribes.)

The image is from the tapas style lunch I ate at the Clifton Lido in Bristol.

Using the Guardian as inspiration

A New York Times review of So Much For That by Lionel Shriver has the reviewer Leah Hager Cohen remark that the content in the novel about healthcare and the economy sounds more like editorial. She goes on to say that this might reflect Shriver’s journalistic status as a regular contributor to The Guardian of London”. Of London? I’d not heard references to the Guardian framed in such a way before so I searched and the location specific reference does not appear to originate from the newspaper.

I realise that there are other newspapers entitled ‘Guardian’ (Guardian of Nigeria, The News Guardian of North Tyneside, the Croydon Guardian, the Sutton Guardian and a few others out there) so there must be some need to whittle it down to specifics.

The references to the London location were mostly from American newspapers and one of the most interesting articles I came across was by the Nieman Journalism Lab. The project is “a collaborative attempt to figure out how quality journalism can survive and thrive in the Internet age” and is run by Harvard University. The article is about the MP expenses scandal which was brought to light by the Daily Telegraph and then opened up to the public by the Guardian. The analysis explores how interaction is promoted and how value is gained from the audience.

The Daily Telegraph had gained access to over 2 million documents and once they were made publicly available they were put online by the Guardian. 170,000 documents were reviewed in the first 80 hours, thanks to a visitor participation rate of 56 percent. The Nieman Lab talked to the developer, Simon Willison, and he had some tips on how to get people involved in providing valuable information: make it fun, give people a goal to share, provide a narrative (a purpose) and make it personal.

The Guardian (in London) makes it look good and promotes a level of interaction which is very high. The European Journalism Centre (ECJ) also looks to provide interaction, involvement and high quality results and has funded a European blogging competition, TH!NK3 in pursuit of such goals as

  • promote high quality journalism through professional training, particularly in a European context;
  • provide a forum for discussion, debate, and exchanges of views and experience for journalists, editors, media executives and other media professionals;

Th!nk3 is the third global blogging competition funded by the EJC. It will focus on sustainable development and global cooperation in the lead up to the high-level plenary meeting on the Millennium Development Goals at the UN 65th session of the General Assembly in September 2010.

The competition brings together journalists, journalism students, academics and experts from 27 EU Member States, neighbourhood countries and beyond, to write about global cooperation in international development. TH!NK3: Developing World will run from 24 March, 2010 to 31 August, 2010.

I will be attending the Brussels launch event, which will include speakers, workshops and opportunities for all participants to meet each other and network as a team. TH!NK3: Developing World will also offer the project’s top bloggers the chance to cover the issues from the field via reporting expeditions to Asia, Africa and New York City. In order to qualify for these awards, participants must blog at least 20 times throughout the competition.

Lionel Shriver’s latest work follows on her acclaimed success as the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin which was a winner of the Orange Book Prize. As the NYT reviewer mentions, “the questions this novel raises about human existence prove less ontological than economic” and the story is about a man planning to leave his current unfulfilling existence to a place where money is worth more, an island off Tanzania. The UN Millennium Goals are

  • End Poverty and Hunger
  • Universal Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Child Health
  • Maternal Health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Global Partnership

and the work involved will look at reasons that take account of economics but are more about everyone coming together and working towards a better world. Readers of this blog will get to read (or at least note) these posts and while I’m excited about the opportunity I also welcome any interaction from others. The next step is to figure out how to make it fun. Ideas are always welcome.