‘Timeless impact’

Do not treat it just as a searing reflection of Europe more than a century ago. Think about the trenches in Donbas, and the timeless impact of high explosive on the human body.

Veteran BBC war reporter Jeremy Bowen on All Quiet on the Western Front, the devastating portrayal of World War One and it’s horrendous trenches. Part of a piece in The Times (of London): The best war films — picked by war reporters.

Paved the way

“Next time, we see how a cold war between East and West paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll, which paved the way for countercultural hippies, who paved the way for Steve jobs to pave the way for computers and smartphones, which paved the way for social media, which would pave the way for undoing all the progress humankind had made so far.”

Philomena Cunk, from ‘Cunk on Earth’

‘I don’t understand’

The column is about an anti-trust case, but I liked this line from Rana Foroohar on the importance of having things explained in layman’s terms:

I’ve been amazed in my 30 years as a journalist how often just saying, “I don’t understand — explain this to me again,” can lead to an “aha” moment. When experts can’t explain a complex concept in plain terms, they either don’t understand it themselves, or are trying to get something over on the journalist.

Printer extortion

Charlie Warzel in The Atlantic, writing about the latest in a long line of ink-hustles perpetrated by HP:

The first rule of at-home printers is that you do not need a printer until you do, and then you need it desperately. The second rule is that when you plug the printer in, either it will work frictionlessly for a decade, or it will immediately and frequently fail in novel, even impressive ways, ultimately causing the purchase to haunt you like a malevolent spirit. So rich is the history of printer dysfunction that its foibles became a cliché in the early days of personal computing.

‘Until World War I, pre-work drinks were as common as Happy Hour.’

Great little piece looking back at the time when an early morning pint was not only proper, but the “healthy” option over the local London water supply.

[W]orkmen would easily drink six to eight pints of beer every day, says Jennings. For what else could they drink? The water often came from sewage-ridden sources such as the River Thames, and there were no soft drinks. Tea and coffee eventually arrived, but they were expensive, foreign imports and, even once they became more common, subject to heavy taxation. “So people drank beer with their meals during the day. That lasted well into the 19th century for many people,” says Jennings.

‘At the circus’

Kevin Williamson in the conservative National Review articulates the side of Republicanism that Joe Biden was trying to channel in his prime time speech tonight:

“But we want a Republican majority!” Okay, sure — why? To give a bigger megaphone and a better-placed monkey wrench to Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lindsey Graham? So that Lauren Boebert can have a better position on the House Budget Committee?

Count me less-than-enthusiastic about that.

Mitch McConnell and others have expressed concern at the calibre of candidates being put out there by the “MAGA Republicans” that have taken over politics in the US. Commentators like Williamson feel it too:

How many clowns do you have to see getting out of the clown car before you realize you’re at the circus?

‘The Buckingham Palace of man caves’

An insightful look behind the scenes of the Joe Rogan Experience, via Substack’s VP of comms, Lulu Cheng Meservey. There’s a bunch of colour like this:

Joe then shows us around the building. There is a large pool room that also serves as an overflow room for all the art and decor and gifts that they haven’t put on display yet. There is a huge gym — probably bigger than a high school basketball gym — with advanced equipment and fighting gear. There is an indoor archery range that includes a Kevlar screen where you can project realistic videos of game animals to shoot with a real bow and arrow, then zoom in on your shots to analyze how you did. 

It is the Buckingham Palace of man caves. 

There’s also some great observations on what makes Rogan a highly trusted interviewer for millions of people.

Joe doesn’t really prepare.

During the show, he sometimes refers to a note with general topics on his phone, but there’s no extensive research or list of questions. He does spend a lot of time with guests before the show, which I’m sure helps make for a better podcast. Joe is a warm and humble guy with no airs despite having a weekly audience larger than the population of Belgium, and he’s good at putting people at ease. That’s it though.

It’s the secret sauce of JRE and what makes it so entertaining: the show is conversational Calvinball.

I’ve long argued that being more willing to show how the sausage is made — i.e Rogan doing his research in real-time, with all the associated risk — is how we get over this current vacuum of trust in today’s media.

Rogan has been positioned, by more mainstream commentary, as a rogue and a renegade. Someone not to be taken seriously as an interviewer. But his listenership tells a different story. When reading Meservey’s observations, I was reminded about the process described by one of the greatest interviewers of all time, Larry King, speaking to NPR:

“The less I know, the better. Now that sounds strange to people. Like, if you wrote a book, I wouldn’t read the book before I interviewed you, because I would then know too much about the book. And I’m in the same boat as the audience; they haven’t read the book.”

Has TikTok turned?

In his seminal 2018 book — 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — computer scientist Jaron Lanier talks about the joy of being an early adopter on new social platforms. It’s the brief moment in time when the platform has yet to turn its users, through the subtle nudges of algorithmic amplification, into “assholes”, as Lanier puts it.

Think of the biggest platforms. You know what this honeymoon period felt like. On Twitter, it was when the most high profile “row” would be about a t-shirt slogan at Topman, and the most outspoken person on it was Stephen Fry, or Ashton Kutcher. On Facebook, it was when you saw only your friends, could find out that the girl you liked was single, and planned your birthday night out. On YouTube, it was when plucky creators worked with tiny budgets and big creativity, and the only rabbithole to be found was a cute video of a rabbit… in a hole.

I was thinking about Lanier’s observations when reading this piece in the Guardian about TikTok creator Andrew Tate, who has risen to fame on TikTok by posting — what else — misogynistic comments:

[The] 35-year-old is not a fringe personality lurking in an obscure corner of the dark web. Instead, he is one of the most famous figures on TikTok, where videos of him have been watched 11.6 billion times.

Styled as a self-help guru, offering his mostly male fans a recipe for making money, pulling girls and “escaping the matrix”, Tate has gone in a matter of months from near obscurity to one of the most talked about people in the world. In July, there were more Google searches for his name than for Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian.

His rapid surge to fame was not by chance. Evidence obtained by the Observer shows that followers of Tate are being told to flood social media with videos of him, choosing the most controversial clips in order to achieve maximum views and engagement.

That last paragraph. Sound familiar? We’ve hit the tipping point — enough is known about the algorithms of TikTok, about the reach it can have, for the next wave of users (and uses) to start to settle in. Tate’s fans being told to flood TikTok with his most controversial clips is a pattern we’ve seen on the likes of Reddit and others, where coordinated pile-ons are richly rewarded.

Lanier’s asshole argument doesn’t let you or me off the hook, either. He argues that this kind of content, coupled with the advertising models that rely on triggering your impulses, turn us into worse, angrier people. Twitter used to be such fun, Facebook used to be so useful. Similarly, I fear the joy of TikTok is showing signs of ebbing away. Conspiracy theories — previously daft and fleeting — are being formalised; stars made of peddlers. The app has become a forum for division and fear. Until now, TikTok had largely been free of such dreck.

For me it has been, for the past maybe two years or so, the only “cheerful” social network, a place where you feel better having used it, most of the time. In a podcast interview a few years ago I described TikTok as a reason to be optimistic, due to an algorithm that rewarded creativity over negativity. But Lanier’s theory on the shittification of popular new social media apps is that there’s an inevitable perfect storm when bad actors want to flood in with engagement, and platforms all too willing to oblige in the name of growth and revenue.

Different teams within a tech company can be working on features that, in isolation, seem harmless, but end up amplifying the worst of what is now on offer. Things such as this, for example:

Some of the commentary out there sees the above — linkable keywords in comments — as a welcome threat to Google’s search dominance, an argument that makes no sense whatsoever. What I see is the internet’s newest exploitable space.

And that’s not to say bad actors (of a certain definition) are the only ones that might stand to ruin the experience that has made TikTok such a beloved app, and such a threat to Facebook. Here’s what advertisers think:

I’m not saying advertisers shouldn’t see TikTok as a channel, or have a strategy to capitalise on it. That’s what these platforms are literally designed for. I’m just saying that once they do, once they know what makes users tick, and they learn the tricks to get attention… that’s when a social network moves into its next, more miserable phase. On the internet, we can’t have nice things for long.

Scaling Ros Atkins: the rules of Assertive Impartiality

What a breath of fresh air it has been to see the BBC’s Ros Atkins find such fame with his explainers.

The format — presenter-led videos typically lasting around 5-10 minutes — seems quite obvious in retrospect, but I understand convincing BBC higher ups it would be a winning strategy wasn’t easy. The long accepted view on online video is that it had to be short and simple if it was to become shareable. Atkins has thrown that thesis out of the window.

It’s been an hallelujah moment for broadcast journalism. Why? Because its success is built on solid foundations of great journalism, with little-to-no compromise in the name of clicks or fallacies about attention spans. It relies on good research, sharp scripting, quality material, trusted data and incisive analysis. In one place. And viewers, against what felt like an irreversible trend, absolutely love it.

But is it scalable?

Atkins is a stand-out personality at the BBC and in broadcast news in general. He is, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, a colossal news nerd. Throughout his career he has pushed new formats into the most rigid of places, such as the BBC World Service with “World Have Your Say”, and later on BBC World TV with Outside Source*.

He’s done this with an entrepreneurial streak not typical among news anchors. Back when Atkins was getting ready to launch Outside Source, they ran a number of pilots. The “gimmick”, if it’s not too harsh, would be a big interactive screen that Atkins could use to bring up material — statements, tweets, pictures — and also cue in reporters.

I was part of one of those pilot shows, an in-studio reporter. It wasn’t long before it became obvious that, when Atkins pressed the screen, it sometimes wouldn’t react. A harder tap followed, sometimes two. After the show, I asked if they were fixing that. “I don’t mind it,” Atkins said. “It means viewers know I’m the one actually controlling it. It makes it more credible.”

He was right. Viewers would tweet with the same observation. That instinctive understanding of a viewer’s mind is critical to the success of his explainers. And so, in that sense, Atkins is uniquely talented. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be emulated.

True to his nature, Atkins is only too wiling to help others do that. On a recent podcast, he was interviewed by Nick Bryant, a former BBC correspondent I was lucky enough to work with briefly in Washington. Like Atkins, Bryant is a nerd of his craft — particularly when it comes to the shape of words and phrases, the pictures that should be chosen — the “rhythm” of the news.

During the podcast, which I’d urge you to listen to, Atkins laid out what I think form the beginnings of what we might call the Rules of Assertive Impartiality. Or: how to scale Ros Atkins.

Assertive Impartiality is the principle that underpins the success of the Atkins explainers. It is a snappy, evidence-based, cut-the-bullshit approach to broadcasting. Done well, it commands almost instant respect. The key is to let the material do the work, with unflinching transparency.

Here are the rules (so far):

Rule 1: Offer fast-turnaround depth. Journalists are news obsessives. Normal people, for the most part, are not. It’s why many people say they don’t “follow the news”, indicating the feeling that it’s something that needs to be kept up with, like a soap opera, or household chores.

Assertive Impartiality requires bringing your audience up to speed at the point when they need it most: when the headlines are screaming about the biggest latest development in a major story. Doing so lays the groundwork to explain the latest information with credibility. For viewers, “how we got here” is every bit as important as “and here’s what happened today”. Often, in TV broadcasting, the former is reduced to a sentence at best, sacrificed in aid of the latter.

“Provide depth, but what I call fast-turnaround depth,” Atkins says. “Just at the moment when the story is peaking, here you go — here’s a full distillation of all the different developments that we think are important to you.”

There’s no better example of this than Atkins’ explainer on the libel case between Colleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy. No-one answered better the question of what on earth this Wagatha Christie thing was all about.

Rule 2: Create a judgement-free zone. Viewers are more than smart enough to make their own conclusions when presented with the necessary information. What is less needed, Atkins says, is reporters that say things like a politician has “had a bad day”. The details of his or her day should be ample to get that across (and if it isn’t, the reporter, if wanting to achieve Assertive Impartiality, should probably not have said it in the first place).

In this vein, the often-maligned “he said, she said” reporting has a distinct place. Particularly when the “she said”, from a source of authority, flatly exposes the bullshit of the prior “he said”. Just lay it out.

Rule 3: Share evidence without delay. When broken free of the shackles of broadcast news, both on time and structure, we’re gifted a special treat: we can do whatever the hell we want. That means putting the right things in the right places. Achieving Rule 2 relies on this bit. Back up assertions, the Assertive Impartiality, with the evidence immediately.

“Anytime I was being forthright and particularly assertive, I didn’t just provide evidence for that assertion at some point in the piece,” Atkins says. “I juxtapose the assertive statement with the evidence there and then, so anyone consuming it can see the factual basis of what I’m saying.”

Rule 4: Be (more) honest about the process. It’s always struck me that anyone who has spent time in a quality newsroom, one where facts matter, very quickly becomes an evangelist of the process. If only the public could know the lengths journalists go to make sure something was true, they’d perhaps be more trusting of journalism.

(Notably: trust in American journalism peaked after All The Presidents’ Men, the legendary movie about the reporting behind Watergate, was released.)

Assertive Impartiality demands an openness about where information comes from. That doesn’t mean revealing sources, obviously, but just being blunt. If it was in a rival publication, just suck it up and say so. We should tell viewers, as Atkins repeatedly does, that “Downing Street sources” typically means a senior advisor hosting a conference call with a few reporters. Or that “the Daily Mirror broke the story”. It’s fine.

The public have become skeptical of journalese, and not before time. Assertive Impartiality works best when the process is part of the story.

Rule 5: Lose the adjectives. In scripting, which should be as sparse as possible, the presenter needs to move out of the way. Adjectives are not your friend.

Says Atkins: “I don’t really get involved in using adjectives to describe things, because that’s me bringing something of myself. Every time you bring something of yourself, which is essentially a perception and not much more, you risk being accused of speculation, or something that’s not fact-based, or bringing your own agenda. If you write very sparse, adjective-free scripts, you’re not at risk of that, because your entire piece is rooted simply in the information.”

Rule 6: Momentum matters. Don’t let the above make it seem like Assertive Impartiality, and the explainer format, is a paint-by-numbers exercise. It isn’t.

In his excellent book The Art and Craft of Feature Writing former Wall Street Journal feature writer William Blundell describes the best feature writing as being like a river. Each paragraph flows from one to the next, picking up new information as it finds its winding way way to a conclusion. You can, at times, stop at the shore, but not too often and not for too long.

Explainers are no different. No material can exist in isolation, each must do its work to relate to what came before it, and tee-up what comes next. That’s what makes it a story.

There’s little room for error, Atkins says, in eliminating the “weaknesses” in a script. “In a digital context, much more than TV, even if the first three minutes and the last three minutes are good, if the minute in the middle isn’t, and is a bit boring, your digital audience is gone.”

To achieve this, Bryant noted the need to look outside of journalism for storytelling inspiration. Stand-up comedians are particularly good. Indeed, in some respects, you could argue Atkins’ schtick isn’t dissimilar to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight—done straight.

These may all seem obvious. In that case, a bigger question might be why these principles have been neglected or abandoned entirely in much of the mainstream media’s output.

Is applying Assertive Impartiality appropriate in every part of the news biz? Quite obviously no. And it’s important to remember that what Atkins does is not the coal-face of news reporting. Much of the information he uses to report, as he readily explains in diligently following Rule 4, is from newspapers and other raw material gatherers. Without them, he’d have little to go on.

Explainers are part of the ecosystem, one in which Assertive Impartiality, applied as above, can help rise the broader reputation of the media. News organisations may be lacking Atkins in their ranks, but they certainly don’t lack the resources to follow these princples. That should be hugely encouraging news to everyone who cares about what we do.


(*He also shook things up in another important ways, launching the BBC’s “50/50” project to increase the inclusion of female voices in news coverage. It spurred a huge improvement.)