About me ... from hot metal to online ...
Some years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, I was serving my early apprenticeship in journalism as a Junior Sub-Editor on a national weekly newspaper.
At that time, we had typewriters
, hot metal
In the 25 or so years since, I have been fortunate to participate in the ever-changing face of publishing from mainframe direct-entry computer systems to desktop publishing to satellite printing to web publishing.
And, while it’s a blessing to no longer go home with the day’s headlines printed on my forearms (from leaning on the ‘stone’ while trying to read the inked typeset lines in reverse), one thing has never changed …
… the craft of writing
My professional bible in those early days was The Simple Subs Book, which was written in 1968 by Leslie Sellers, the then Production Editor of the Daily Mail.
Within it, there is a series of questions that every writer and editor should ask themselves about a piece of work:
1. Are the facts right?
2. Are there any loose ends?
3. Is everything clear?
4. Does it flow like honey, or does it stick in the craw?
5. Does it make any unnecessary demands on the reader?
6. Can it be simplified?
We can, indeed, learn from the past as those rules still apply today. Perhaps even more so when the short attention span of the average online reader is considered.
And, in relation to online content, Mr Sellers might well have added that good copywriting has to pass the AIDAS test…
grabbing - Attention
strengthening - Interest
stimulating - Desire
delivering - Satisfaction
My own newspaper path included the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, the Evening Times, the Evening News and The Mercury (Australia) as well as projects for The People and The Independent and an award-winning period as launch Editor of The Glaswegian, then the UK’s most widely-distributed free newspaper and the first to be published using Apple Macs and QuarkXPress.
With the latter I was fortunate to pick up many national awards including ones for Editorial Excellence as well as Best Design and the main honour of UK Newspaper of the Year.
And, while successes were due to a number of factors, the approach was always to begin with the questions:
Good newspaper articles begin by answering most of these questions. And they can also be applied to larger editorial projects, design initiatives and, of course, online copywriting and editing.
In relation to applying that offline knowledge and experience into New Media, my own first taste of using online content came about in an unusual way.
I’d just completed a mammoth project of, then as Production Editor, introducing new technology into Mirror Group’s Daily Record and Sunday Mail, replacing traditional publishing systems and practices with Apple Macs, desktop scanners, an electronic picture desk and more.
Looking back, it was probably that which opened my eyes to the power of electronic publishing.
For example, while it had previously taken a large team to produce the content and pages on the night of a General Election, in 1983 that team became just me on an Apple Mac (oh, I loved it so) supported by a single programmer (they may speak Klingon but I accept they’re truly gifted!).
Anyway, after the project was completed and just as I was drawing breath, I received a call from a colleague, Elsa McAlonan, who at the time of writing is Editor of Woman's Own. She had been drafted in to a hush-hush Mirror Group project and had been asked to invite me to participate.
The project? David Montgomery, then Chief Executive of the Mirror Group, wanted to launch a new middle-market newspaper, code-named Newsday, and its first copies were to be created and then published in Scotland prior to a proposed national launch.
Next thing I knew I was holed up in a hotel outside Glasgow with Elsa and three executives who had been dispatched from London - David Banks (Editorial Director and former Editor of the Daily Mirror), Pat Pilton (Editorial Manager and, the last I heard, Director of Editorial Operations at the Press Association) and Len Gould (who went on to edit The People).
My task was to create a design for the newspaper, edit the first drafts and create a production platform. But there was a problem … we had no content!
And the project was so secret I couldn’t communicate with my colleagues at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail.
But, ah ha, I had heard of CompuServe! So I opened an account, bought a modem (yes, crawling along at 9.6 kbps) and Voila! I was able to download content and photographs from other newspaper archives for use within the draft pages.
Sadly, a distracting newspaper price war then broke out and, as a result, the only final copies of the Newsday pages that were ever seen were outputted to a laser printer in a purpose-built office that was only ever occupied David Banks and me!
But … I’d seen the light and the CompuServe experience quickly led me to this thing called the Internet and a knocking at the door of the Managing Director, Kevin Beatty (who later headed up Associated Newspapers' new media operations and, the last I heard, is managing director of Northcliffe Newspapers).
I had said ‘Kevin, we really need to be part of the Internet and the Web. It’s the future of publishing’, or something along these lines.
And so it came to pass. This time hidden away on an executive floor, I taught myself HTML, designed and built a Daily Record and Sunday Mail website and launched it as the UK’s first online tabloid (only the Electronic Telegraph pipped us to the post as the first UK newspaper online).
And I had a new job title - Online Editor. Some of my colleagues at the time cautioned me. ‘It’s like CB Radio’, they said, ‘a passing fad’.
But I thought differently and so did David Banks, who shared the vision and assisted my passage to London where I became Group Online Editor of Mirror Group. From those lofty floors in Canary Wharf the first electronic editions of Mirror Group’s titles began to appear, starting with The Sporting Life.
And, yes, for those who remember, I was also responsible for launching L!ve TV online – complete with topless darts and the rabbit newsreader. Sorry about that!
However, that distraction aside, my own belief was that Mirror Group should not simply repurpose print content for publication online. Rather, I believed it should also take selected content from its various channels and create a new online brand, which I labelled MegaNet.
This would, according to my then future-thinking plan, have existing content edited specifically for the web and custom content created for the online readership. And it was a step ahead of the information portals that were to follow.
But something called AOL came along and, for me, everything changed.
AOL had few content sources when it launched in the UK and, after participating in long hours of negotiation, I found myself party to an agreement which would see my team change focus – to become key content providers to the online service.
There was no content management system in those days. This was raw cut and paste from the desktop publishing system into the AOL templates, on-the-fly editing and through-the-night working.
Great early experience of preparing content for online readers in a certain form but a relentless effort which also distracted from the larger opportunity - the Internet.
Therefore, eventually, David Banks and I took another diversion which saw us setting up what was then Media.Co.Uk Ltd and led to me giving up the 20 or so years in the newspaper world to focus independently on online initiatives.
Web development, consultancy, online content editing and copywriting … not many people were doing that at the time (not enough are doing it well even now!). And, with clients like Ladbrokes, it was an early success story.
However, once more, a new Internet opportunity arrived at my doorstep. Scotland On Line came calling and tempted me with a great challenge … to lead the further development of the online Gateway to Scotland and establish it as the ‘definitive Internet source of all things Scottish’.
At that time, Scotland On Line (www.scotlandonline.com
) was the joint initiative of ScottishTelecom (now Thus) and D.C. Thomson (famously publishers of The Sunday Post and The Beano).
And, during my two years or so as Head of Publishing and Content, page views were increased some 700 per cent.
Scottish news, sport, football, tartans, travel … even a web cam on Loch Ness for those global monster spotters! It was a great train set and a wonderful opportunity to develop and present content ideally suited to the online readership.
One of the email newsletters also helped us win a national new media award ahead of entries from the BBC and The Guardian … happy days.
However, in 1999, having been there, done that and had the T-shirts printed, I decided to leave Scotland On Line to its own devices and venture again into independent territory.
Since then, it’s been MediaCo (Internet marketing, web publishing and content development) and, of course, a book about Online Writing …