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Journalism

‘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.”

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.)

Where people are getting their news on Ukraine

Here’s a good dive by the Reuters Institute into how people are consuming news about Ukraine, and what they think of the quality of coverage. The findings are based on a YouGov poll of more than 5,000 news consumers spread across Brazil, Germany, Poland, the UK, and the US:

These countries were selected because they represent different levels of proximity to the conflict, ranging from Poland, which borders Ukraine, to Brazil and the US, which are on different continents.

Some encouraging findings for the news biz. The poll found interest in the conflict was still, even in today’s fast-paced environment, pretty high: a majority of citizens in all of the countries polled were following developments; Germans apparently the most intently.

And while much is made of people getting most of their news from social media “these days”, the overwhelming source being turned to is traditional broadcast news. That follows a long-established pattern of citizens turning to trusted TV in times of crisis, the researchers conclude, but noting that social’s share of attention is increasing, particularly among the young. In Brazil in particular, 23 per cent of those surveyed said they paid the most attention to social media when following news of the conflict.

Overall, those surveyed gave the news organisations they follow a pretty decent report card -- with the exception of the US, where fewer than half of respondents felt the media was failing them on a number of key responsibilities:

My money doesn’t jiggle jiggle

A moment of viral fame for Louis Theroux, the documentary filmmaker (and a personal hero). From the New York Times today:

His agent has been fielding dozens of requests for personal appearances and invitations to perform. Mr. Theroux, a 52-year-old British American documentary filmmaker with a bookish, somewhat anxious demeanor, has turned them all down, not least because, as he put it in a video interview from his London home, “I am not trying to make it as a rapper.”

But in a way, he already has: Mr. Theroux is the man behind “Jiggle Jiggle,” a sensation on TikTok and YouTube, where it has been streamed hundreds of millions of times. He delivers the rap in an understated voice that bears traces of his Oxford education, giving an amusing lilt to the lines “My money don’t jiggle jiggle, it folds/I’d like to see you wiggle, wiggle, for sure.”

It’s a great craze, one of the best in TikTok’s short history. Here’s a good one, with a mere 13 million views:

But as amused as Theroux is about all this, he can’t help feeling a little downbeat. He’s become a one-hit wonder… without ever actually releasing a record. The fame he’s long sought in America has come for the wrong reason:

“I’m pleased that people are enjoying the rap,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a part of me that has a degree of mixed feelings. It’s a bittersweet thing to experience a breakthrough moment of virality through something that, on the face of it, seems so disposable and so out of keeping with what it is that I actually do in my work. But there we are.”

It’s always baffled me that Theroux’s work, which shines an incredibly intimate light on America, its quirks and its problems, has never found much of an audience here. Theroux’s work on the prison system, religious extremism and the right-to-die was groundbreaking. His film on paedophilia was one of the most disturbing pieces of television I’ve seen — yet riveting. But somehow, few here seem familiar with his work.

Maybe his slow style doesn’t land. Or maybe Americans are averse to having people they perceive as outsiders give their take on how they live and the problems they face. I don’t know. All I hope is that this jiggle-jiggle fun leads people to discover his documentaries too. Right now, some of the very best of them are on HBO Max.

‘Let them see what they’ve done’

Timothy L. O’Brien writing for Bloomberg Opinion asks the question of whether Americans should be shown images that bring home the brutality of school shootings.

Jacqueline Kennedy made a point of wearing her pink, blood-spattered Chanel suit on the plane back to Washington after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Aides encouraged her to change. She refused. ‘Let them see what they’ve done,’ she insisted.

O’Brien goes on to say:

But showing people the reality of gun violence — consistently, responsibly and without flinching — matters over time. And anyone hoping to end gun massacres in the U.S. should consider whether most of the images they encounter after shootings actually force them to grapple with reality or simply airbrush it.

He’s right. An unwritten rule in western media is that it is sometimes ok to show dead bodies, but only those in far away lands, or those who feel sufficiently different to ourselves — whether Mexican drug cartel members, or washed-up refugee children. That in itself demands reflection.

We know change comes from visuals that shock us into action — or rather, shock us out of inaction. The open casket of Emmett Till, the Greensboro sit-ins, the murder of George Floyd. Three huge moments in the racial justice movement that would not have had the same impact were it not for imagery that demanded change.

I was in Uvalde last week. I heard accounts of what happened that will stay with me forever. But it’s this vivid recollection, told to CNN by an 11-year-old girl, that moved me the most:

[11-year-old survivor Miah Cerillo] said after shooting students in her class, the gunman went through a door into an adjoining classroom. She heard screams, and the sound of shots in that classroom. After the shots stopped, though, she says the shooter started playing loud music — sad music, she said.

The girl and a friend managed to get her dead teacher’s phone and call 911 for help. She said she told a dispatcher, “Please come … we’re in trouble.”

Miah said she was scared the gunman would return to her classroom to kill her and a few other surviving friends. So, she dipped her hands in the blood of a classmate — who lay next to her, already dead — and then smeared the blood all over herself to play dead.

Miah will relive that scene in her mind for the rest of her life. It will change her. America would be changed too if it was forced to see such horrors. Police reports described piles of bodies. Parents had to do DNA tests in order to help identify the mutilated victims.

The descriptions should be enough. As someone who has lived here for seven years, and spent considerable time in parts of the country seen by outsiders as beyond help, I can tell you Americans are good. Americans are compassionate. They care about their communities and their families. But that instinct has been hijacked by forces that know political tribalism means votes.

As I type, President Biden is outlining sweeping new gun control policies. Inexplicably, he faces an uphill battle to put them into law. Confronting Americans with the reality of what happened in Uvalde — and the 20 mass shootings that have happened since — may be the only way to release this country from the grip of its most deadly disease.

The whole fleet is lit up

(h/t William Ham Bevan )

What a treasure Woodrooffe was. From his Wikipedia page:

“Woodrooffe continued to work for the BBC, and in 1938 he was the main commentator at the FA Cup Final between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, the first to be televised. After 29 minutes of extra time it was still 0-0 and Woodrooffe said “If there’s a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat.” Seconds later Preston was awarded a penalty from which George Mutch scored. Woodrooffe kept his promise, appearing on the BBC television programme Picture Page the following week and eating a hat shaped cake.”