Tag Archives: The Journal

Adventures in Editing Or How Editing Taught Me to Be A Better Journalist

13 Sep
Editor Image by dave pike, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by dave pike, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Recently, I marked the end of an era. Earlier this month I stepped down from my role as The Public Reviews’ Scotland Editor, and passed the responsibility onto my successor, the more-than-qualified and very talented, Lauren Humphreys of Glasgow Theatre Blog.

I began my role at The Public Reviews straight after my three-year tenure as The Journal‘s Theatre Editor, and after four years of commissioning, editing, publishing and generally looking after other people, I decided that it was time to look after me.

So, in May this year, I told my boss, Editor John, that this Fringe would be my last as Scotland editor. There are many reasons for this, but the main reason was that I longed to have more time to write. I’ll miss the perks of getting editor’s choice on shows that I really, really want to review and I’ll miss ranting about the innumerable bad PRs that littered my inbox like discarded shopping trolleys on wasteland but, I need to write, and I want to be a better writer.

However, my time as an editor hasn’t been for nothing. I’ve learned so much, not just about my own writing, but  also managing people, and dealing with truly terrible PR pitches. Working as an editor for the last four years has taught me so much about journalism, communication and other issues.

So, here are my top 5 lessons that I believe that everyone who aspires to be in the media should learn.

Read Your Emails

I proofread and sense check my emails to ensure that what I’ve said is clear and easy to understand. However, there are those that don’t do this, and their emails usually consist of unclear demands, spelling and grammatical errors and bizarre sentences.

After they hit send I have to try to translate the bloody mess they deposited in my inbox, which I don’t enjoy, and I usually email them back and enquire about what it is that they want. Use punctuation, have a clear message and tell me what you want, I don’t have the time to second guess anything.

I don’t know if there was something in the water in Edinburgh in August, but I encountered a few writers who weren’t reading my emails properly. At the beginning of the Fringe I sent out a link to a spreadsheet for writers to fill in with their ticket requests, which was designed to stop any double bookings and make the whole process as open and transparent as possible to everyone involved.

One writer started trying to book tickets for shows that we’d already reviewed. When I emailed them and asked them to look at the spreadsheet more carefully, they emailed back asking, “What spreadsheet?”

Another writer got confused with the spreadsheet, and thought I was allocating shows to specific people and that they’d missed out. If they’d read my email properly, they would have known that this wasn’t the case. Another writer double booked a show because they didn’t pay attention to the spreadsheet, which clearly stated another writer had booked a ticket to that performance.

If you want to get on the good side of your editor, it’s a good idea to read every single email you get from them at least once. If you’re not sure about what they’re asking, email them back and ask them to clarify.

Respect Boundaries

From weddings, to illness, to engagements and the old trope, computer problems, there are many things that conspire to stop a writer filing their copy on time.

I’ve heard nearly every excuse in the book, and while I understand that writers have lives and they might get engaged/married/be too busy planning their wedding to file copy by deadline, I have the venue breathing down my neck, so all I care about is the review.

I know that sounds heartless, but editors have a job to do, and a publication’s reputation to uphold, so their investment is in the article. I’m friendly with my writers and count some of them as friends, but I’ve found that it’s odd how easily people will open up to you when you’re in a position of authority. It’s good that they feel they can be honest with you, but sometimes, when you’ve only had a handful of emails from someone, and suddenly they’re telling you about how they split with their partner/lost their job/their dog died and that’s why they’ve not been answering emails, it’s just a little too much.

Just say you’ve had some personal problems, your editor doesn’t need to know any more unless it’s something that they can help with or if it’s something that will affect your ability to write for the publication in the long term.

Enthusiasm Means Very Little

Enthusiasm is great, enthusiasm and drive is what got me to where I am today. However, in my experience, when I have encountered a writer who has been overly enthusiastic about writing reviews for me, alarm bells have gone off in my head immediately. Because that kind of energy never lasts, and it usually hides something else.

The first enthused writer turned out to be a prolific, or to use the nickname given to the late Sir David Frost, a “bubonic plagiarist” who couldn’t write an original piece of work if her life depended on it. She was also studying journalism, because wonders never cease.

The second super-anxious writer had my back up from the very beginning; he sent me a link to his portfolio, but had not made it accessible online, so he then animatedly cornered me at a press night, telling me how much he wanted to review for me. However, without my knowledge or consent, he was also submitting the reviews he sent to me to another site, which meant that we couldn’t publish them without permission from that publication, or we would be accused of plagiarism.

When this was explained to the writer, he said: “Well, I knew it was a grey area…” It’s not a grey area, it’s very clear, so never assume that you know something: if you’re unsure, ask the editor.

Another seemingly passionate writer was so excited to be reviewing during the Fringe that she claimed that she nearly fainted with excitement when she passed one of the Fringe venues before the festival started. Her emails told me how delighted she was to be working at the Fringe, until suddenly, after reviewing 5 shows, she emailed to say that she couldn’t review as something had come up.

A few weeks later a theatre company contacted us to say that this writer had booked to see their show (not to review it, but as a paying member of the public) and had asked for a refund. Unfortunately, during this email conversation, they mentioned that they were a reviewer, which made the company defensive, as it sounded as if the writer was trying to use their reviewing status to get their money back.

I don’t think they were trying to do this, and it could be that because of their lack of experience in the industry that they naively thought this it would ok, but they reacted very defensively to my emails asking them about it. They refused to explain anything and they told me I’d handled the situation very badly and demanded to be taken off our reviewing team.

After this, I kept the enthusiastic ones at arm’s length. It’s usually the safest thing to do for me. Be keen, just not overly keen, because it doesn’t last.

Assume Nothing

I know that I’m repeating a point I made earlier in the post, but if I could give new writers one piece of advice, then it would be this: never assume, always ask for clarification.

If you’re booking your tickets, and you’ve not heard back from the venue, don’t assume that the tickets are there, phone the venue press office and ask. This will save you time and energy later on.

If you’re not sure about something an editor has asked you to do, email them back and ask again. I would say that most of the problems that I have had to deal with as an editor have stemmed from people not being clear and doing what they think is right, not what is right. Remember, your editor was new at this once too, email, call, text, tweet, just get in touch with them and ask.

If you have not heard from your editor, email them again and reconnect. Inboxes fill up quickly, so you need to keep pushing yourself to the top of the pile. Don’t assume that an editor has asked you to do something, or wants you to do something. Email and ask.

The Editor Is Not Always Right

Despite appearances, editors are only human, they aren’t infallible, and they make mistakes. However, unlike writers, editors have a lot more responsibility on their shoulders, and have to consider a number of issues.

The editor’s word is final, so arguing with them is not always a good idea, but if you feel that they’ve made an error, you have the right to reply. I was once a little heavy-handed when editing a review, and the writer sent me a very strong email, arguing that they refused to be “censored” and other words informing me that they were really very cross about what I’d done.

We eventually came to an agreement, and they were happy, but I stand by my initial thoughts that a synopsis should never be two paragraphs long, ever.

However, and I cannot stress this enough, don’t argue with the editor when you’re applying for work, because the editor knows the publication they work for better than you, and gets emails from people like you everyday. Persistence is a great trait to have, but don’t take it too far, and remember to be thankful for any feedback that you get, because in this industry, you won’t get very much.

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Trash and The Libel Case Or, How to Piss Off a Theatre Critic

9 Sep

I updated this blog for the first time in nearly three months last week, but I couldn’t update again without discussing the tale of my recent experience of dealing with a very difficult company at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This encounter was very unpleasant, stressful and infuriating. Despite my anger, I’ve decided not to name the company involved, but for the purposes of this blog I will refer to them as Sunshine Inc.

This was my fourth year of reviewing during the Fringe and my first experience of being a Fringe editor, as I took up the post of Scotland Editor at The Public Reviews in May. In the midst of sorting through the thousands of Edinburgh Fringe PRs I received, my editor, John, forwarded me a PR for a Fringe show, suggesting that we book tickets and make a fun evening of it. The show was being performed by Sunshine Inc, and was presented as a two-hour long interactive comedy show, that involved actors impersonating characters from a famous TV comedy.

I booked the tickets for the show through their internal PR contact, a woman I’ll call Melina, who, I have to stress was very polite, helpful and friendly at the beginning. I did have to move the tickets by one day because of a scheduling clash, but again, Melina was very accommodating, and both myself and John were very much looking forward to the evening.

The show, however, was not like we expected, and we quickly realised that while the characters in the piece were designed to look and sound like the TV characters – they dressed similarly, and they even used their famous one-liners – this was where the similarities to the TV show ended. The evening consisted of these actors using new and ‘original’ content instead of established sketches from the TV programme, which wasn’t what I was expecting. Suffice to say, I didn’t enjoy Sunshine Inc’s offering, and I wrote what was I felt was a negative, yet honest and fair review, which was published on The Public Reviews website shortly after. In my review, I stated that the show was “unauthorised” as when I researched the show, I found a number of articles and quotes from the makers of the TV show saying that the show had not been authorised by them. Quotes from Sunshine Inc’s Managing Director, Francis, revealed that he hadn’t contacted the makers of TV programme to ask for permission to use the characters. Furthermore, on Sunshine Inc’s website they stated in the small print that their work had no association with the makers of the original TV show. So, with this information to hand, I mentioned in the review that the show was unauthorised.

A few days after the review was published, Melina emailed me to ask if we had any feedback on the show, and I replied with a link to the review, along with a brief response explaining that I hadn’t enjoyed the evening, but thanking her for inviting me and John along.

Melina’s response was interesting, to say the least; she emailed me back almost immediately and asked for the details of our “Managing Director” stating that there were points in my review that were of “great concern”. I responded, explaining that John, my editor, was the best person to contact and included his email address.

However, Melina emailed me again to ask for John’s mobile number, but because John was reviewing throughout the day, I was unwilling to share his phone number without his consent, or without him knowing what was going on. I decided not to respond to her email immediately, and concentrated on getting in touch with John to explain the situation.

As I tried to get hold of John, however, Melina continued emailing me demanding John’s phone number, saying that Sunshine Inc’s managing director, Francis, wanted to speak to him. Again I didn’t reply to her emails as I was concentrating on getting in touch with John. However, Milena’s emails continued, and she then began demanding that I remove the review from the website “immediately”. She also claimed that the show was authorised, yet didn’t say by who, and didn’t produce any evidence of this authorisation. When that failed to elicit a response from me, she further claimed that my review was “lies” and was therefore “libel” and again demanded I take the review down “immediately”, or they “would take legal action'”.

After reading these emails, John asked Milena to send him an email detailing her concerns, and to also highlight what parts of the review that she and Francis believed to be libellous. He further asked her to include the evidence of their authorisation so that we could address their concerns. Milena, however, ignored this, and emailed me again, telling me to take down the review before they took legal action. I replied, repeating what John had said, and also stressing that we couldn’t help them until they told us what issues they had with my review. I also asked her to send me evidence of authorisation, and asked for specifics, including the details of who exactly had authorised the show, such as the TV channel, the production company or the show’s writers.

Milena responded, ignoring my request, offering no evidence of authorisation, and further accusing me of trying to discredit the company, alleging that I had something against Sunshine Inc. This is untrue; I had never heard of Sunshine Inc until John forwarded me their Fringe PR in May. After reading this email, and following legal advice, I was told not to respond to any further emails from either Milena, Francis or any other representative of Sunshine Inc, as they had stated they were taking legal action, and could use our emails against us in the future. The lawyer also assured us that if they really were taking legal action, we’d be hearing from their lawyer, and not them, as they would also be told not to contact us for the same reasons.

However, despite my silence, Milena continued to email me throughout the day, and her emails became steadily more aggressive and more bizarre. John even forwarded me an email that Milena had sent to him, alleging that I was involved with a rival theatre company, naming the founder of that company, a woman I shall call Julie, and stating that this company had a “history of malicious intent” against Sunshine Inc. Incidentally, when Milena emailed John with this allegation, she inadvertently libelled me and Julie by alleging we were working together. These emails culminated in Milena taking a screenshot of my Twitter account, stating that the nature of my tweets regarding their show, which had been written after the review had been published, showed my negative review had been “premeditated” and that they were “taking further action”. They further accused me of “gross unprofessionalism”.

I contacted the Fringe Media Office to ask for advice about the situation. To my surprise, they told me that they were aware of what was happening, as Sunshine Inc had contacted them earlier that day. They told me that in a phone call that lasted around an hour, both Milena and Francis had spoken to Fringe media officers, demanding that the Fringe use their “considerable power” to force John and me to remove the review from The Public Reviews. The Fringe Media Office refused, as they don’t possess that power, nor do they want to.

A few days later, someone from Sunshine Inc called my mobile, but I let the call go straight to answer phone. They didn’t leave a message, and luckily, they haven’t tried to phone me since. Their emails, however, continued until the end of the Fringe, as they emailed John on several occasions to ask for the details of our “Managing Director” and for an address, so they could send an “official letter of complaint.” Eventually, John emailed them back, explaining that we had no managing director, we had no official address as we are online media, and that the best way to get in touch was to email him with specific concerns. Which, irritatingly enough, was what we asked them to do weeks earlier, when they had first made legal threats. They responded, asking “Who owns and runs The Public Reviews?” To which John explained that he did, and we haven’t heard from them since.

This happened during the second week of the Fringe, and while I like to consider myself as an experienced and confident reviewer, this incident shook me to the core. It made me question myself, my writing, my abilities and my voice, and was an extra stress during an already incredibly stressful time. I trained in art journalism for two years at university, and I have worked hard for the last three years since graduating to establish myself as an honest, objective and constructive critic. While I have had my fair share of abuse because of my reviews, this is the first time that I have been threatened with legal action for what I have written. I researched the piece thoroughly, as I do with every review I write, and I wrote a truthful and accurate review.

What’s very interesting, however, is that Sunshine Inc had one other reviewer attend the show, who also gave them a negative review. I have spoken to the editor of that publication, and they have not been contacted by anyone from Sunshine Inc. Recently, I made contact with one of the writers of the TV show, who confirmed that Sunshine Inc had never received authorisation from him to use his characters in their show.

Reviews are, essentially, the reviewer’s opinion, and as with any thing else in life, opinions will differ on almost many subjects, especially when it comes to performance. People are entitled to disagree with critical opinion, just as they are entitled to disagree with popular opinion. However, threats of legal action, and the intimidation, bullying and harassment of journalists simply because someone disagrees with what they have written, are immoral, unethical and odious. I cannot and will not be treated this way, by a company that are so desperate to undermine my authority and my review that they are prepared to not only accuse me of libel, but also in turn, libel both me and Julie in email correspondence. I have no idea if Milena and Francis have threatened journalists before, but judging by how quickly they threatened me with legal action, I would hazard a guess that this probably isn’t the first time that they’ve done this.

My advice to any company that is disappointed with a review is to see what they can take from it. If the review is constructive, then there will be something positive in there that you can learn from. If the reviewer has made an error, such as a spelling error, or got the name of an actor wrong, then feel free to contact them and tell them. Journalists, like all human beings, are fallible, and often work to very tight deadlines, especially during Fringe time. Tight deadlines, full schedules and many, many sleepless nights can lead to mistakes in copy. Editors are often very happy to correct inaccuracies when contacted.

However, a difference in opinion is simply a difference in opinion. Libel law exists to protect people who have been libelled and who have had very unfair things said about them in print. It does not exist to prosecute journalists who give a show a negative review, and it most certainly was not created to be used as a threat designed to intimidate journalists, editors and bloggers. Libel is a very, very damaging word and process, it comes with responsibility and should only be used if there is an actual case for libel proceedings. Journalists are busy people. Journalists are especially busy during the Fringe; we don’t even have the time to respond to the most basic emails during August, let alone waste precious hours and even days, dealing with baseless and utterly false allegations against us. I am very angry that I had to devote what little time I had during the Fringe to Sunshine Inc, because it cut into my reviewing schedule, which meant that I couldn’t attend the shows that I really, really wanted to review.

So to all journalists and bloggers: familiarise yourself with UK media law; study it until you can recite it. Join the NUJ – they have lots of lawyers who can deal with threats like this on your behalf. Stand your ground, don’t give into intimidation, bullying and aggressive, underhand tactics by “companies” like Sunshine Inc.

To all the people who supported me during this difficult time, including John and Glen at The Public Reviews, my close friends and family, the Fringe Media Office, Liam Rudden of The Edinburgh Evening News, Nick Awde of The Stage, and the CATS panel, including Michael Cox, Joyce McMillan, Mary Brennan, Allan Radcliffe, Mark Brown, Neil Cooper, Mark Fisher, Thom Dibdin and Gareth K. Vile: thank you. Your words and advice were of great comfort, and I’m so glad that you took the time to listen to me and support me last month.

And finally, to Sunshine Inc, I will say this: journalists communicate with one another. This means that if you threaten a writer or a publication with legal proceedings, other writers will hear about it. Once others learn about your treatment of journalists, it damages your reputation more than any negative review ever could. Some might say that’s ironic, but to me, that’s poetic justice.

Update: Following a request from Interactive Theatre International (formerly Interactive Theatre Australia) I am happy to confirm that the show and company in this blog have no connection with Interactive Theatre International or their show, Faulty Towers The Dining Experience which was performed at B’est Restaurant at this year’s Fringe.

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