Friday, 27 March 2015

Journalism: Forget the rules

"The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in; you always have to eat so much crap to find a place to stand. I waited tables for seven years, did writing on the side. If you're gonna get a job that's a little bit of a caper, that isn't really a job, that under ideal circumstances you get to at least leave the building and leave your desktop, go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it - that should be hard to get into. That should be hard to do. No wonder everybody's lined up, trying to get into it. It beats working." David Carr, 2014.

That quote from the late, great New York Times writer David Carr, brilliantly encapsulates - far better than I ever could - why journalism is such a genuinely fantastic profession.

Every day is different, you get to learn and write about interesting subjects, you meet fascinating people from all walks of life, and you can experience the thrill of breaking stories and setting the agenda.

Sometimes it doesn't feel like that though.

That's because we don't hear about those things as often as we hear about 'the rules'. The rules of presentation and tech. About how a story must be presented in a modular way, about how it must be a list, about how there must be a large photo every three paragraphs, about how we must churn out x number of stories per hour, about how it must be funny or quirky or grotesque in order to grab attention on Twitter.

This is anathema to journalism. It isn't what it should be about at all. It seems as if we've lost sight of what is important, what has always been important, and what will always be important - the story!

That's what makes people read a piece in the first place. It's what keeps people reading. And it's what gets them coming back. It's what creates an impact. All the rest is mere window dressing, or, in the words of General Charles Krulak, 'Hogwash'.

Anyway, having said all that, here are my rules on the subject (only joking, there are just two):

1. Journalism isn't about rules: it's about taking a story on its merits, thinking about the best way to tell it, and then coming up with the best means to present it.

It's about having an instinct for what makes an interesting story in the first place and then being creative with it. If you go in with preconceived ideas about which types of story will work and how you're going to tell them and present them, then you've lost already.

The story will be formulaic and boring. I've known plenty of recent stories that broke 'the rules' - they were very long and on left-field topics for example.

But they were original and distinctive; they were interesting and intriguing. They were well told and well written, and well presented, with good pics/ video etc. And guess what, they often got almost a million hits in one day. And were widely shared. And people seemed to enjoy reading them and might have even learned something too.

Yes, they needed a compelling tagline for the headline and, as a result, for social media too. But that's always been the case, you've always needed to effectively grab the attention of the reader.

2. It's about the story: good stories are good stories - on any platform! It isn't rocket science. Once you have a good story, it's easy to tailor it for different platforms.

You do have to come up with the idea for an interesting story in the first place though, and then put in the calls and the research to pull it off. And that is difficult.

But as I say, the layout/ tailoring to a platform is the easy bit. Most people can do that! People might make it sound like a science, but it isn't really. Frankly, it's bullshit baffling brains.

A poor story (predictable, dull subject; formulaically told and laid out; no insight) will be poor no matter how well it is laid out.

Some people might like the rules because this is easier than having the nous the instinct to generate, recognise and then tell a good story.

That requires you to think on your feet and make a different judgement every time, because every story is by its very nature different. That's tougher. Easier, instead, to hide behind 'the rules'.

If it were all about rules, then we may as well throw away our laptops and let the robots take over. I'm pretty sure that will never happen though, because a robot will never, ever, have the innate instinct, creativity and deftness to approach every piece differently and produce great journalism.

End of sermon. Amen.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Upheaval at Elland Road: Quick Cellino reaction

I've had a quick chat with Massimo Cellino, so thought I'd add a quick note.

He says he will return to Leeds in the middle of April, ready to join the club at the end of his ban.

He claimed not to have been too involved in the falling out between Umbers and Child, because he's thousands of miles away and banned.

And he said he's not aware of any sale, unless it's been done without his knowledge (and he has resigned from the board obviously, but still).

And he thinks there will still be time to sort the contracts of Redfearn and the young guns. "There's no rush,' he said.

So there you go.

Upheaval at Elland Road: Inside track on Child's resignation

Even when things are going well on the pitch at Leeds United - which they invariably have been in 2015 - there seem to be problems off it.

And so it was yesterday, when we heard that chief operating officer Matt Child had resigned. He left a transition letter, handed in his resignation, cleared his desk and went.

Although I certainly wouldn't claim to know Child well, I have spoken to him, am aware of some of his work and have spoken to people who have dealt with him.

He's a Leeds United fan; a normal bloke who is able to get on with a wide array of people (including Massimo Cellino!); and he has a background in commerce and private equity.

So I think he was an asset. He had forged a good relationship with the City Council, the local police, and even, to an extent, with the Football League.

Manager Neil Redfearn trusted him, and he was a good middle man between the boss and Cellino when the Italian was in situ. Cellino is, putting it mildly, a mercurial character.

So Child leaving leaves a void. Some might say it's fortunate the club is moving towards mid-table mediocrity (who wouldn't have taken that a few months ago?) yet there are important matters that need to be dealt with.

Redfearn still hasn't been offered a new contract. Nor have the young guns, Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor. All five will be coveted elsewhere.

The lack of progress on the contracts is cause for alarm and could soon be made to look like negligence.

So the million dollar question: why did Child resign? He has Leeds in his heart and had even worked for two months free of charge when first arriving at Elland Road, so eager was he to help out and prove his credentials.

Child didn't want to comment when I contacted him about this and I don't have contact with the club's chairman, Andrew Umbers. But from my understanding, Child was feeling increasingly marginalised over recent weeks.

The final straw came when he was informed, by Umbers, that there would be no room for him in the directors' suite for the matches against Fulham or Blackpool.

You might say that alone did not matter too much. But it was more what it signified - and the message being put across was clear.

So the club is left with Umbers very much in charge of day-to-day affairs now, in the absence of Cellino.

Is he the man to sort out the contracts? It's certainly fair to say he doesn't have the relationship with Redfearn (or with other stakeholders and club employees) that Child did.

He's an investment banker and it's not outlandish to believe he's in situ to broker the sale of the club (and earn a commission). He's done it before of course. And is that why Cellino deems him useful too?

When I last spoke to the Italian (see last post), he was adamant that the club was not for sale. But he added that everything was for sale at the right price.

"Is your car for sale, Simon?"


"Would you sell it to me for fifty thousand?"


"There you go."

And that's why I wonder if Child might even be involved again one day: a Leeds fan, who has forged good contacts locally, who knows the inside workings of the club and has a background in private equity.

Stranger things have happened.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

A chat with Cellino

Massimo Cellino has been thousands of miles away in Miami for the last few weeks, but his presence is always felt at Leeds United.

I managed to speak to the Italian on Wednesday night. Initially he sounded tired and weary, but soon became more animated. This is a man capable of many moods, thoughts and opinions, all within the space of a single phone call.

Cellino said he had just been playing golf, which has apparently become a regular past-time of his since he was banned from owning the club by the Football League.

"I've been relaxing - playing golf and catching up with friends," he told me.

"I was worried about my health in Leeds, I really was, what with everything that was going on."

At first, he sounded a little down: weary after the fights, the legal cases and the bans.

Although he's not allowed any involvement with the club during the course of his ban, he's still been closely following the matches.

“The team is doing quite well, yes," he said, which seemed a bit of an understatement for a team which has won all but two of its matches in 2015.

"It’s the young players who are responsible for that," he added.

"Mowatt, Cook, Byram, Taylor – they are fantastic young players, they are the future of Leeds. I have always said that."

And, despite the upcoming Rule K arbitration with the Football League, and stories of an imminent sale, Cellino insists he is still committed to Leeds.

“I want to clear my name and come back, of course I do," he said. "I have done a lot of big things for this club, but the work is not finished.

“The fans have kept me going through all of this. People might say these are just words, that this is bullshit, but it's true.

"If it wasn’t for the fans, I would have left before.”

With his love of a good story, he was tickled by the reports about Russell Crowe being interested in the club.

"I heard this story about Russell Crowe and I laughed," he said. "I like this actor very much and I love his film, Gladiator.

"As far as I know, he hasn't made any contact, but, look, I am not involved with the club at this time.

"When I read that Crowe is a Leeds fan, I said 'this is fantastic'. I tell you though - owning Leeds is more difficult than fighting as a Gladiator."

Cellino is clearly looking ahead to next season. And he does seem frustrated that he's far away, unable to be directly involved with the club.

“If we can get two, three new players in the summer then we will be strong next season," he said. "Then we can start to think about the Premier League. But they have to be the right players."

In Cellino's absence, the club is being run by chairman Andrew Umbers and chief operating officer Matt Child - although Cellino says that his son, Eduardo, and lawyer, Giorgio Altieri, will also be having a significant say on events.

Umbers has clearly adopted the role of figurehead of the club with some relish. The investment banker has made statements, given interviews to the press, and hosted guests and held court on matchdays at Elland Road. And, as has been publicised, he's met with the fans' group Leeds Fans LLP, who are looking to buy a 25% stake in the club.

Umbers has also been very forthcoming with his opinions on football and the team, as anyone who has spent time with him will tell you. He's talked about tactics and players, although it's not entirely clear where this base of knowledge comes from.

He also hasn't been afraid to voice these opinions directly to the head coach, Neil Redfearn.

And then there's been the confusion over emergency loan signings. Redfearn has always been clear that his squad is inbalanced - and would any regular observer of the team disagree? Umbers initially said the door was not closed on emergency loans and then turned back, saying the squad was complete enough.

But isn't that Redfearn's decision? The confusion made things uncomfortable for the former midfielder this week.

Also then there's the issue of contracts - both Redfearn's and those of the players. Umbers said all contractual issues would be decided in the summer. Which is when Cellino is due to returm.

Which all brings us back to the same point - that despite Umbers' grandstanding, nothing will be really be decided until (or if) Cellino returns.

And that is a risky game to play with a manager who has done well in difficult circumstances, and a talented group of young players who have attracted covetous glances from elsewhere.