Friday, September 26, 2008

Lessons from a former newspaper editor

Back in July, at the end of a very difficult week, I started to accept that my dream, the newspaper Local Edition, was not going to continue in paper any more. On the same day, I was lucky enough to see Desmond Tutu speaking in Stoke. Of all the miraculous coincidences, nothing could have inspired me more than his speech that focussed on the small things and reflected back on a path that took Josiah Wedgwood from Burslem to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, free from prison after a centuries-long struggle against racist oppression.

Next week, I start a brand new role, on which I will undoubtedly be saying much more. So it's a good time to reflect on what I learnt.

I still don't believe that newspapers are dead. But their business model cannot work in the current climate. The weight of commercial funding needed is dragging newspapers - and more importantly, print journalists - down. Exciting as the new era may be for those working on the new business model, there are generations of reporters still being crushed in newsrooms across the country by groups seeking to hang on to their 30% profits. Much as the mainstream is getting on board with the internet, I still think there is a major point they're not getting. I don't believe Google is hugely profitable because it does everything it can to chase money. Rather, their vast profits have allowed them the freedom to experiment and develop tools that are as good as they can be and improving all the time. Lucky Google. Lucky us.

More and more of us are now finding ourselves in a period of exploration. Whether you grew up thinking you'd be a miner or a banker, there are no safe job routes any more. Those of us who are lucky will be able to find avenues we are passionate about, but there is no reason any more to give your life to any organisation in the hope of future rewards. At the point when I was ready to stop the newspaper, I realised I'd be happier labouring for a living than trying to sell another advertising space to a reluctant shop that hadn't made any money for a week. I was even more sick of trying to sell 'community benefit' to a millionnaire business-owner who wasn't about to start giving something back with my paper. The weight of the cost of paper was simply too much to sustain, I was risking my own reputation trying to fulfil too many roles and I wasn't making any money from it.

However, running Local Edition for as long as I could still created incredible benefits. My faith that there was more out there that people like to believe paid off and the paper pulled together contributions from fantastic writers, photographers and artists, all with the most generous spirits. Enough organisations and businesses put their money into the paper, an unproven concept, to keep it going at a break-even point. I had endless, dizzying conversations with people whose voices never seem to be reflected in centres of power. Our stories were followed up, amplifying the voices of ordinary people. I could start to imagine what these networks could look like if they were listened to and resourced. I had to grapple with a spectrum of political views far removed from the safe spaces we create for ourselves. We had to react to events, rumours and different truths that put me in mind of terrifying scenarios and possibilities. We showed it was possible to run a newspaper full of constructive news and that it would be popular.

These are some things I would tell people thinking about going down the same path:

- don't burn yourself out chasing the money you need to follow your dream. Get the money to sustain your food, essentials and a broadband connection and then carve out the time for your passion. Even a few minutes a day spent on a collaborative project makes an impact.

- the people who tell you not to get into debt are right, unless that debt is with the Princes Trust who will be one of your most steadfast friends (assuming you are in Britain, that is). There are many more organisations who will be just as wonderful and I haven't got time to list them right now, so seek them out rather than the ones that make things difficult while saying they're helping you.

- if your project is unusual, asking people who operate with a different vision for money to do it won't work. Again, use free tools to make your impact so that you're not relying on anybody else. If you prove your point, then risk-averse organisations will support you, but probably well after you need them. Be ready to know when to stop waiting.

The project has led to some great work for me and many of the people who have been involved in the paper (many of whom didn't need any help but it's still nice that Local Edition has been part of their journey). continues as one of the richest archives of Northern Stoke life on the internet and a communication forum that anybody can use. is without doubt the best music website in North Staffordshire. The company, Social Media CIC, will continue simply to provide a structure for ideas, without the burden of cashflow forecasts that demand endless growth to feed the machinery of business. It will instead create social capital and connect with other small organisations all over the world that are doing the same. Exciting times ahead...

PS If you're reading this thinking "but she's still got to send me that receipt/letter/form/cheque/etc/etc", I will tie up all the loose ends in the end, promise, things have just been a bit hectic recently... :)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Is this helpful?

Time is valuable. Whenever we undertake something, we have to make a brief calculation in our head about whether the time it will take is worthwhile. This is even more the case if you're working freelance or running a business.

That's why quick activities so often get far more people to participate.

The one thing I hate more than anything else at all is bureaucracy. (hopefully you understand that I'm not comparing forms to torture or genocide, I am merely being dramatic). Forms send me spitting feathers all over the place and whining like a teenager as I scrawl half-heartedly on the stupid boxes and ratings. It's only slightly better if somebody fills in the form with me.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how dehumanised does this form make you feel?"

That's a question you rarely see.

I'm not dyslexic, but I am left-handed, so there are parts of forms that I tend to miss out because I didn't see them. I find filling them in genuinely stressful and very time-consuming. I tend to get suspicious of the usefulness of the form the longer it goes on. I start to think evil thoughts about the people who created the form. I wonder at the expense of entering data that I know for a fact is already in their overstuffed servers and wandering memory sticks. Very often, I give up, unless given another biscuit or told I can't leave the room till it's done.

More than anything, I resent the fact that part of my interactions with government bureaucracy are because I'm someone in need of 'help'. The only reason I sign or fill in the bloody things at all is because I have been part of various government schemes that have really helped me and normally there is a wonderful person on the end of the form saying "Sorry about this, but it's for the funders". Because I have been through different schemes with differing levels of bureaucracy, I know that evaluation is applied differently.

I obviously see the value of evaluation and the necessity for monitoring. A bit of reflection on your work by an impartial observer is also often very useful. Even the need to demonstrate value for money, except that I think this very often destroys actual value in the process of spreading your money as thin as it can go. I don't like the fact that because I don't have my own money to do whatever I like, I have to trade personal details for help. I would rather spend that time doing something of value instead.

I'm becoming convinced that nearly all the time-consuming evaluation could be replaced by one simple question:

"Was this helpful?"

Yes or no.

If this question was applied at the end of every interaction by a publicly-funded person, or added to the end of every web page funded by a government scheme, then we would very quickly have a body of evidence to say what is helping people most and what isn't. In other words, what works. Suggestions and refinements can always come later, with the time freed up by not having to fill in stupid forms.

Two examples:

You spend four days supplying excessive amounts of information for a branding grant that, ultimately, you were rejected for because you were the wrong sort of business (even though you had checked beforehand and your intermediary had been given the wrong information).

Was this helpful?


(now, isn't that quicker than composing endless vitriolic letters and complaining to everyone you meet?)

You had a conversation with someone you know at the council who told you you would probably be eligible for a refurbishment grant on your house that you hadn't heard about before and then asked the person running the scheme to call you. You were eligible, so you got the grant.

Was this helpful?


One of these examples wasted stupid amounts of unpaid time and contributed absolutely nothing to government outputs. The other contributed to outputs and ensured that someone in need got something they were entitled to. The difference is in the time people are allowed to have conversations with people.

Particularly in areas where online access is low, you can forget connecting with people if you're not released from your desk to speak to people. Conversations are extremely valuable. Information can be passed on and put into context. Conversations layer on each other. Most people are more likely to take action because of a conversation, or even several conversations, than they are from websites, mailshots or even newspapers. Certainly, these add to the mix and are vital to ensure you are getting accurate information and have something to refer to, but that is combined with the spark that made you look at them in the first place.

Call conversations, if you like, the Twitter feeds of real life and you might appreciate the importance of conversations once again. Journalists, take note.

I've gone off on a bit of a tangent, but when they release the next competition to do something clever to make government work better, this will be my suggestion. Wipe out every form with more than two fields and replace it with the name of the project/person/odd new computer system in a waiting room/paper-based information given to people, a name (if you must) and a yes or no answer.

Feed it into a central space and...

We might suddenly find out what's working.