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Charles on… anything that comes along

Thursday 29 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:43 pm

Heat magazine has its Ratner moment - because of the race to the bottom driven by Express group

A long time ago I worked on Business magazine, where Jeff Ferry - then one of the newshounds - was doing a piece about Gerald Ratner, of Ratner the jewellers fame. At the time, everyone was mystified by how well they did. One day Ferry came back to tell us of his progress. “He was saying to me, you wonder how we make profit? It’s because these things are crap!” We laughed at the idiocy of the guy and his customers. Great copy for the piece, we thought.

A month or two later, Ratner made the same comments - except to an audience at the Institute of Directors, with a host of national newspaper journalists listening. Within days, the brand was toast.

Now Heat magazine may have done much the same. Its centrefold of stickers included a really distasteful one about Jordan’s son Harvey - who is blind and autistic with a disorder which renders him clinically obese. (Read this Guardian piece from the mother of a disabled child for her reaction:

As the mother of a profoundly disabled, somewhat “funny looking” child myself, the sticker reduced me to tears. It played directly to some of my darkest fears for my son - that he will grow up to be lonely, an outcast and the butt of cruel jokes.

(Yeah, I know that feeling. It’s receding, but it lingers.)

But what drove Heat to such a massive misjudgement? This is a magazine that used to know its readers, and when I used to pick it up, the feeling I got was that it didn’t think its readers were cruel. But this was cruel; heartless; thoughtless. It lacked compassion.

So what’s happened to Heat? Competition. The explosion of dire celeb mags out of organisations like the Express group, which are cruel, competing with each other to be the most crummy and snide; that’s what’s happened. It’s a race to the bottom and Heat has found itself caught up. There’s now no saving this sector: it’s going to implode.

My wife - a former media correspondent on The Independent, let’s not forget - points out that precisely the same happened in the lads mag market. When Loaded started, it was witty and original. Then other mags piled in, and finally Nuts and Zoo joined, and that was it. Bye-bye quality, hello tits and trash.

Loaded now is a shabby shadow of its former self - as are those mags’ circulation figures, which in February this year had fallen 14% year-on-year; by August Loaded was down 40% and Nuts 10%.

So, crow over the coming demise of the celeb mags. We’ve been here before. The key question now: what’s the next super-niche?

(And isn’t it impressive that I found a pic of Jordan with all her clothes on?)

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:25 pm

Yes, but our other lunch guests didn’t poo on the table

(I’ve nicked the tagline from my wife’s status comment on Facebook.)

Anyway, the other day a photographer - Mark Molloy - came along to take some pictures for an article that my wife has written, following her posting about how we’ve acquired some rescue chickens. (Its title was actually “Chew on this, Colonel Sanders.”)

And he also brought his video camera, and made a little video. (No embedding, so RSS readers aren’t missing anything.)

Star of the show is herself, and also Gertie the chicken, seen in the middle section sitting on The Author’s arm. And then relieving herchickenself, with just a bare cluck - and an explosion of laughter from child 2 - while The Author carries on explaining about the economics of buying chickens who’d otherwise be slaughtered.

The eggs are great, by the way.

“I must blog more,” she says reflectively. Given that this got a commission from a supermarket magazine, I’m not disagreeing.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:16 pm

My progress on Leopard: some good, some really bad (updated)

I know I said I’d do a clean install of Leopard. Yeah, well. Call me a coward. There’s just too much in there, and I don’t have a spare machine to play that game with (and I can’t be arsed doing all the re-installation of so many things).

So I waited until 10.5.1 appeared - which seemed smart, once I tried it, because 10.5.0 has something flaky which means the wireless connection drops out every couple of minutes. If this is your problem, upgrade (via Ethernet?) at once.

Anyway, now we’re at the point where it’s a release-able version, here’s my take, to add to the few million others. Bear in mind I’m really trying to do things which are production-oriented: scripts, cron jobs, IMAP mail, that sort of thing. Twiddles generally don’t make a lot of difference to my productivity.

The good:

  • Spaces may be quite fun, though I tend to be a tab-between-apps person. Actually Desktop Manager is much better (tip o’ the hat to Kevin Anderson), except it doesn’t work on Leopard. So I’m trying to hack the code - recompile it on Xcode, really - so it will. Hmm.
  • the cosmetic changes are nice, I think: my laptop’s so old I don’t get the transparent menu bar
  • the Finder sidebar is a big improvement: rational and organised
  • gradient on top of windows is good, and the darker-not-lighter of front windows is good too. Overall, the cosmetics are great. Would it be too much to ask them to stay consistent now, and not get screwed up by iTunes and iLife launches in the meantime?
  • left my install of MySQL completely alone
  • TextEdit can do a lot more - almost good enough to replace Word.
  • system-wide grammar checking! Neat

The bad:

  • sometimes simply crashes, hard - screen is frozen and the only way to get out of it is a force-power-restart. That’s really bad. Maybe due to lack of disk space. But how can one find out? The logs won’t get written, because the system’s frozen
  • terrible battery consumption during sleep - my Powerbook lost 9% in five hours asleep
  • wake up from sleep can be very unreliable: sometimes Mail stalls hugely (perhaps due to my using Gmail IMAP)
  • doesn’t have the System Preferences clock which can be transparent and floating above your desktop - which had been there since the beta. Boo.
  • firewall is a bit crap: turned off by default even if you had it on before
  • deleted, or hid, my cron jobs; reinstating them required editing by hand using the marvellous Cronnix
  • hid all the user settings for my web space in Sites
  • turned off PHP by default in the new server, even though I’d turned it on before
  • seems a bit heavier on memory and disk space
  • Spaces can be buggy - I spent an annoying hour having it pull me to another space for no reason before rebooting the whole fscking thing
  • Activity Monitor doesn’t show how much is being used by system accurately - says that it’s all being used by me, where that’s patently incorrect, even by its own numbers (I’m not root, after all)
  • Java apps run really, really slowly
  • Still can’t create a Smart Mailbox based on a message’s colour. How long have we had Mail? How long have we had a rule to colour Mail messages? This is just flipping ridiculous
  • Spotlight is sometimes so busy that it kills itself - my machine crashed (or went into a phase where it simply wouldn’t respond, so I force-restarted it) and apparently that took down the Spotlight index; so on restart, the machine is reindexing the whole hard drive.
  • Spotlight isn’t particularly faster.
  • The whole thing isn’t particularly faster on my 1.67GHz Powerbook (1GB RAM). If anything, it’s quite a bit slower - NetNewsWire in particular seems to be a complete dog, sucking up globs of CPU
  • did an upgrade install - but Xcode wasn’t upgraded. DURGH?? You have to go and do a separate install for all the developer tools, which is a bit un-obvious.
  • iCal scripts run really slowly. Not that they were fast before, but now they’re really slow.

Overall, though, I feel like this isn’t always faster. I do feel like I’m often sitting looking at the machine spinning its pizza at me. That’s with 7.2GB of 100GB free (don’t ask me where all that space has gone to. Movies?). That’s not productive..

Overall marks? I’d say 7/10. Some of the changes are good, but it’s still short of where it should be.

Update: hmm, my quibbles are pretty small compared with this guy’s - who had a dire upgrade and whose Keynote (equivalent to PowerPoint, only nicer) leapt unprompted to the last slide repeatedly during a presentation. Yeow:

At the start of this post, I mentioned how much penetration OS X was getting with speakers and developers (the very people that others turn to for advice on which computer to buy). What is going to happen now that speakers realize that Keynote on Leopard is not reliable and may make them look bad in front of an audience? How many will downgrade to Tiger or begin their talks with a disclaimer about how unreliable Leopard is?

Thursday 22 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:16 am

Dealing with a crisis: advice for PR folk: drop the hierarchy (updated)

I was on a panel on Tuesday at the PRWeek “Taking the drama out of a crisis” event, along with Kevin Bakhurst, controller of BBC News 24 (and former editor of BBC News At Ten) and Simon Cliffe, group head of news for GCap Media (they own tons of radio stations). We were expecting Mark Sellman, news editor of TimesOnline, but he didn’t make it - do you think there might have been a story about lost stuff?

Anyway, what was interesting was that it was clear from the morning session that the PR world is really struggling with the decentralised nature of media information-gathering now. Especially in a crisis - which is of course a short-term abruptly-emerging series of events.

The session started with a five-minute video compiled by Kevin Bakhurst showing how BBC News 24’s coverage of the Glasgow airport attacks had developed, which clearly demonstrated that it’s now eyewitnesses who provide the necessary detail, and that official channels are far, far, far behind what we - as in media - can find out from people who are close to whatever it is. (Of course, this doesn’t apply with events that happen out of the public eye and that are covered up. But.. as the lost CDs story shows, those will probably come out in time, and it’ll be bad for you.)

And then the killer blow: Kevin Bakhurst pointed out that the first official statement about what had happened came about three hours later and said that “an incident has occurred at Glasgow airport.” Well durr.

I then described how blogs - and being able to blog - has changed how we can gather news and opinion. It’s decentralised. We don’t have to go through PRs. If they can react as fast as the news happens, we’ll be there.

And here’s a positive example: when that big black cloud appeared over London some time last week, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out (via Google Maps) where it was. Sky News had some idiot in Canary Wharf on the phone who said “it looks like an atom bomb!” which indicated that he’d never seen a picture of a mushroom cloud.

Meanwhile someone else looked on the London Fire Brigade website for its latest incidents - which had been updated to say there was a big diesel fire at a site by a bus station. Story done and dusted. Now that’s impressive. OK, fire services are a centralised organisation. But putting what you’re doing straight onto the website? That’s impressive. That’s not waiting for someone to sign it off.

So, back at Tuesday’s event, the moderator asked how many people there had a crisis plan. About half to three-quarters held up their hands. He then asked how many didn’t rely on central approval. Only one hand was left. So what was it with this person? He did PR for multinationals - and had found, or shown them, that national needs for reaction varied enormously, and so a centralised reaction wouldn’t work.

Question from the audience. “But how should we react to this when you’re gathering information in this way?” from someone from a public-sector organisation. “We have to get our statements signed off by our chief executive.”

I suggested that the weakness was in the thinking behind the word “react”. If you’re thinking that your PR has to react, you’re already behind the game. You need to get ahead by having your people in the field feeding information towards the people who want to know it.

And that means that you can’t wait for the chief executive to sign off the press statement; if you’re in a crisis, either the CEO has to be pushinhg the statements down to you, or - more likely - you have to prove your worth by having it all prepared and pushing it out and telling the CEO to trust you. OK, you might get fired. But you’ll probably find that actually it works a lot better than you’d expect.

Update: one thing that occurred as a corollary to this is what it’s like in newspapers now. Once upon a time not long ago, an editor could read every word that went out under the newspaper’s name before it appeared, if he (very rarely she) chose.

Now, with the website? No chance. Alan Rusbridger couldn’t read every word that goes out on the Guardian website if he wanted to: there’s Comment Is Free, all the individual blogs, the comments, and then we get on to all the actual news that passes through. The editor’s task now is to delegate effectively: to choose the people who’ll be able to make the right choices, and get the correct culture inside the organisation so that what he (occasionally she) thinks is the right editorial line is reflected throughout.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:16 pm

Ouch.. that’s gotta hurt: departing reporter calls Telegraph execs “Gollums”

Quite a writeup of a Telegraph leaving party at Media Guardian (free registration required; we like being retro) [no registration! huzzah!]:

[Departing reporter Stewart] Payne told of 30 exhilarating years as a news reporter, during which he was sent to more than 100 countries.

However, he was damning about the place he leaves behind and especially the decision by the paper, which once had such regional strengths, to axe the two bureaux.

Managers tried to force both correspondents to abandon their posts and work from London. “Why has my job and David’s gone?” Payne asked.

“It has nothing to do with multimedia platforms and the hub and spoke newsrooms. They still have their place in a changing world. It has everything to do with the personalities of the people who are now in charge of news-gathering.

“The Telegraph I joined was a paper full of individuals, characters. The new regime cannot cope with that. They are one-dimensional control freaks who work to a formula. Their minds are not big enough and their shoulders are not broad enough to accept that district men were employed to share some of the burden of news editing.”

He added: “I have found myself working for humourless individuals, the Gollums of the newspaper world, craven and driven and with no flair or character.”

As he says, the idiocy of this is that you don’t have to be in the office to do work - in fact you save more time. Every piece of information that you need can be delivered through a browser and email and IM (with video) and a phone.

What you don’t get in the office is the office politics, and the buckets of poo being dropped on your head by the newsdesk which has just had similar poured onto it by the editor in the afternoon conference.

As a friend mentioned to me, every time you come in it seems like someone is leaving (and certainly at the recent Indie unofficial 21st birthday recently there were many more ex-Telegraph people than now-Telegraph people): “You’d have thought they’d *notice* that there’s a distinct sense of deserting rats about the place, but the Good Ship Barclay Twins sails on regardless,” the friend noted. Hmm.

Of course, it’s leaving parties which give you the best stories..

Thursday 15 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:23 pm

Still waiting for IMAP on Gmail? You might already have it…

I’ve got a Gmail account, but ever since it was announced that it would have IMAP, I’ve been waiting for it to show up in my settings. You know, you have to go there and see if it offers it to you, and then rejoice.

Except day followed day followed day and - no sign. I’d check in (because I only downloaded Gmail via POP) and still no settings for IMAP.

Until I found this Google Mail FAQ: “Why isn’t IMAP available in my Gmail account?“:

If the option to enable IMAP isn’t available in your Google Mail account’s ‘Forwarding and POP’ settings, you can enable IMAP for your account by simply enabling POP access.

Which I’d already done. So, wait, I should be able to create the IMAP account by just setting it up.

And lo… it works. Set up, ticking over nicely. One downside: you get all your spam downloaded as well (into a folder called “Spam”), though that does make it easier - I guess - to review whether anyone you know has been caught in its clutches.

One thing, though. I’ve no idea how Google thinks it’s going to make any money from Gmail if it offers IMAP. I didn’t know with POP for Gmail. Neither way shows you any adverts. Maybe it’s a come-on for an upsell to paid-for Gmail. But hmm, it seems a pretty thin sales line. Why buy it when you can get 4GB.. and rising.. for free with IMAP? Beats me.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:37 pm

The three blogs you should read? Try three hundred

I gave a talk recently to some PR people about how our business is changing: that we’re using blogs as both input and output far more than we ever did.

Another big change is that for me, ideas either come directly from blogs - often corporate blogs - or get cross-checked on blogs, particularly the 700-odd that I have in my newsreader (NetNewsWire on a Mac, if you’re wondering; no Windows version available, I’m afraid, but there are tons of Windows newsreaders).

So I can follow what various freelance contributors are up to via their blogs; it’s often a good way to find out where they are and what they might have to offer.

That doesn’t mean that I won’t go for an idea if it’s not been blogged about. But it has to be a pretty interesting idea, generally. My list of 700, while long, has a pretty big tail of topics.

If I see an interesting subject pop up, I can do a search to see if anyone else in my newsfeeds has written about it. I can see what things have been blogged in the past four hours (I could make it the past day by tweaking the script). It’s robust.

However one of the people asked a question to which I didn’t really have an answer: “which are the blogs that you read that you’d really recommend?”

This is akin to asking “which are the best three songs ever?”. It’s a complete Desert Island Disc question: it’s different for everyone.

You could start with the alleged 100 most important blogs (the ones to read if you only have time to read 100 blogs), but the really important thing - in the PR world - has to be to find the other companies and potential clients who you’ll need to know about. And of course the other PR companies. And the blogs about PR companies. And then to drop those of the alleged “100 most important” which you realise aren’t that important.

I know, it feels weird to be telling people about how to find blogs in this day and age; but then, that was the implication.

(And how did I find that list of the alleged most important ones? By looking back at the post where I remembered seeing it a while ago.)

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 2:20 pm

GrowlMail screwed up your Mail so it keeps crashing? Yeah, but what should the developers do? (updated)

Update: for those who’ve read this already, the answer turns out to be “use Applescript” - which has the advantage that, being a script, it can’t corrupt anything inside Mail because it uses very public APIs which never touch the internals. OK, now read on.

Sometimes you get exposed to the people who develop software, and it’s not as pleasant as you’d hoped. That’s been my experience in uncovering a problem with Mail when you get a sudden surge of IMAP mail if you’re also using an add-in called GrowlMail.

GrowlMail, it seems, in its 1.1.1 incarnation, can - if you get a lot of IMAP email arriving at once - screw up Mail’s Envelope Index (which basically keeps track of where and what messages you have) to the extent that Mail will constantly crash, for example if you try to reply to a message.

The problem is quite easy to solve: delete GrowlMail (it lives in Macintosh HD/Library/Mail/Bundles), delete the Envelope Index (and one you might also find, called “Envelope Index - Journaled”) and restart Mail. It will import your messages and create a new, clean, Envelope Index.

GrowlMail is itself an extra for the Growl plugin, which puts useful little notifications on your screen when stuff happens in the background - you’ve uploaded a file by FTP, you’ve received new email (subject and sender), and so on.

Growl is cool. Unfortunately its developers, or those who lurk on its forums, seem to have a less cool attitude to people who take the trouble to report problems and suggest improvements - even slight ones.

Here’s the thread in the Growl forums where I finally reported the problem (since I didn’t feel like going through the pain of opening up a bug). (And here’s a subsidiary thread on the related topic.)

Note that I had to jump through a couple of hoops to get there - sign up (dear lord, another username and another password; do I need more? But you can understand why it’s needed). So I’ve been comparatively helpful as a user: this is me giving feedback.

Yet as the thread progresses, and two other people weigh in who have had the same problem, the developers’ reaction becomes: well, someone’s reported a bug, let’s just pull GrowlMail. Why listen to users? They’ll only whine.

My reaction: no, that’s not necessary. You only need to change the ReadMe, or add one saying “GrowlMail warning”, or something.

The reaction of one developer: people don’t read Readme files. I don’t know why we bother - maybe we’ll just pull that as well.

I’m left astonished. But it’s not the first time that developers have turned out to me to be pretty obnoxious. David Watanabe, who has written an OK Bittorrent client, seems to have the attitude that users are simply there to be ignored. He doesn’t reply to emails you send. He doesn’t let comments up on his blog if they’re questioning what he does. Basically, he’s an ass. More here, collected from teh intarwebs, to save you the trouble.

So what is it? I suspect it’s just that being a developer doesn’t always scale. Product gets big, you’re still just you, zillions of emails come in. It takes dedication.

Still can’t understand the Growl developers, though, who would rather withdraw a product than add a single text file labelled something like “GrowlMail: known bugs” to the disk image. Honestly: Growl is great- I’m using it now to see what Last.fm song has come on (hmm, Heavy Metal Bakesale by Local H; apparently related distantly in sonic terms to Queens of the Stone Age). GrowlMail has issues. But you don’t have to destroy the distribution to save it.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 7:15 pm

Didn’t Led Zeppelin do a song about it?

A terrific metaphor from Daniel Jakult of Red Sweater Software:

Say you live in a village that just happens to be situated under a large dam. If the dam breaks, the village dies. If the dam stays, the village lives. Half the village is convinced the damn needs renovation. There are small cracks and a tiny amount of water is leaking through. Some experts say the small cracks are indicative of a larger problem, and eventually they will turn to large cracks, before giving way completely and flooding the town. Others say it’s poppycock, and the dam is strong as ever.

So the village is left with two choices. Fix the dam, perhaps at unwarranted expense, or leave the cracks and hope for the best. When it comes to consequences like wiping out the village, I believe giving the benefit of the doubt to the worried half is worth your consideration.

(Posted using MarsEdit, which Daniel now owns and updates.)

It should be pretty obvious what the topic is, I hope. But this is the most elegant way of putting it that I’ve seen for a while. Very like the Stern analysis, really.

Friday 2 November 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:00 pm

The Alex cartoon: damn, we’d like that

Another wonderful Alex cartoon. When the Independent lost it all those years ago to the moneybags at the Telegraph, great was the wailing and gnashing of teeth. But now those helpful people at the Tele have put it online so we can scarf it up.

The fun with Alex, if you haven’t come across it, is to try to guess the payoff line of the fourth frame before you look at it, but after reading the first three.

(Just in case that’s coming up blank: the image is here, and the first three frames show Alex sitting with his wife Penny staring at the night sky. “People think we bankers only care about material facts… cold figures on a balance sheet.. but that’s not really true,” he says.

Penny turns to look at him slightly admiringly. “All of us who work in banks are aware that there are some things you can’t put a price on.. that you can’t simply value in pounds and pence..,” Alex continues: “that there’s a huge intangible mystery at the centre of our existence…”

They look at the sky again, and he adds: “That somewhere out there is an amazing truth we can only guess at.. we don’t talk about it much but I don’t believe any of us ever loses our simple childlike capacity to wonder..”

The fourth frame cuts to him and his mate Clive in a bar. Now guess the punchline…

What’s amazing is that Peattie and Taylor have been doing this day in, day out, for more than 20 years, and their quality hasn’t slipped; and they also do Celeb in Private Eye, which follows the same form (three-frame leadup, fourth frame gag). If you’ve got a good thing going, why stop?

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