An alternative to the digital dictator?

Followers of my social media feeds will recall that a couple of weeks ago I shared a quote I’d forgotten about from the late, great motoring writer Russell Bulgin, comparing the role of a freelance to that of a jobbing actor.

Discovering said quote encouraged me to read again the book documenting some of Bulgin’s finest work, published after his tragically early death from cancer in 2002 with proceeds going to the Royal Marsden Hospital where he had been treated.

Russell was just 43 when he died – I didn’t know him well, encountering him mostly, as with so many of my associates in this business, on car launches. We only ever shared a car once, a Vauxhall Omega, and I recall that we broke it, driving it back towards Glasgow airport with ominous noises coming from the rear end.

So having extracted the slim but packed tome from the bookcase in which it had slept undisturbed for a few years, last night I settled down for a good read. And as I again so enjoyed Bulgin’s writing, his ability, so eloquently summed up in a tribute by colleague Gavin Green, to like all great artists paint such grand pictures with so few words, a chilling realisation came over me. Bulgin would not have enjoyed writing for the Internet…

He passed away before ‘Online’ as a specific area of journalism really took off, before the emergence of a new phrase for the dictionaries, the ‘Blog’. To make Blogs possible we gained the Internet equivalent of the printed page, clever pieces of software called Content Management Systems (CMS), of which the best-known today is probably WordPress. And within each CMS rose a dictator that today affects the working life of myself and so many others on virtually a daily basis – SEO.

It’s all about the rankings…

For those of you who are unaware, SEO is Search Engine Optimisation, what the truly net-savvy would call ‘guidelines’ but which are virtually rules, governing the way one writes online copy. These rules help such copy to be more easily found, and therefore sit higher up, those pages always turned to when we want to find out anything on the net – basically Google, Google, and errr, Google…

CMS systems vary in the way they work but most are quite similar. While allowing you to produce and format your work, they also insist on telling you how SEO-friendly the finished prose is, and, guess what, how well the CMS thinks you have written a piece!

The big problem with SEO, I reckon, is that it turns everything formulaic. A typical motoring story, for example, will generally focus on a particular car – let’s say manufacturer Fandango is launching a new model dubbed the Night Out. As far as this correspondent understands (and my crash course on internet-friendly writing has come in the most recent year of a career stretching back more than 30 so I’m probably getting it all wrong…) CMS works around a ‘Focus Keyword’. This doesn’t have to be a single word but can be a phrase, and in our example would likely be ‘Fandango Night Out’.

The problem is, SEO then demands that you use the full focus keyword in the heading and often the first paragraph of your copy. And don’t think you can be witty and post a heading along the lines of ‘Fandango goes for Night Out’ – in the eyes of SEO, splitting up your focus keyword is a very serious crime. While the online journalist is being neutered, the headline writer is becoming a skill of the past…

Don’t believe me? Take a scan through any of the leading motoring news websites – the headings and first paragraphs of each story follow a disturbingly similar pattern…

Welcome back to journalist school...

Welcome back to journalist school…

As for readability – you might have been writing for years, you might have won every award going, but paste your copy into a CMS and it will instantly tell you that your sentences are too long, that you are using too many ‘passive words’, not enough ‘transition’ ones… It may tell you this in a friendly, patronising way – “Try writing fewer words…” but you are still being told.

Now this would all be very well if the admonishment was being dished out by a grizzled old sub-editor who had seen it all before, and who had read your copy, understood its context and where perhaps it could be sharpened up. But no, in the online universe, the quality or otherwise of the work you have slaved over is decided by nothing more, when one gets down to it, than a load of binary numbers…

Why print still matters

Thankfully I don’t think a truly great writer such as Bulgin would have had to endure such insults to his talent, to have some young digital geek tell him he needed to turn commas into full stops and flowing prose into staccato bullet points. Had he survived into today’s world he would have been the leading light on one of the top-level printed motoring titles, his words a major reason why readers bought each month’s issue.

The thing about print media is that it is a very good filter. On a print title, with one or two glaring exceptions, the truly good writers will rise to the top, while those that think they are brilliant wordsmiths but clearly aren’t will eventually get found out, and go and do something else.

The Internet isn’t like that. Anyone with a computer, even a phone, can in a very short time live out their dreams as a journalist, posting what they like with the only supposed quality monitor the dumbing-down exercise that is SEO. They don’t necessarily have to be able to write well – if they learn to follow the rule set laid down by SEO, they could very easily find themselves ranked on the online billboard of Google alongside or even above true talents such as a Bulgin.

This problem is not going to go away. As print titles slowly but surely decline in number while the Internet continues to mushroom, something is needed to sort the few grains of wheat from the millions, perhaps billions, of words of chaff added to the information superhighway each and every day. SEO is currently that sorter.

So am I a dinosaur, a throwback to the slowly dying print world, to even suggest that the direction we are going in is wrong? Or can there be a better way? Answers on a postcard please – yes, proper hard copy required, so that SEO can’t get at it…

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Posh restaurants – stop hijacking our food

Yesterday was number two son’s 19th birthday and as a result the Charman family went out for a meal in a local pub.

Now I like the occasional pub grub, partly I suspect because being on the car launch circuit I get to eat an unhealthy amount of posh food in very posh hotels. But in a pub, well unless you are dining in one of these ghastly pubs that think they are posh hotels you open the menu and it simply describes what you are getting.

1403MenuAll of which had me casting my memories back to the turn of the millennium, when I was editing a local newspaper. The best part of the week was compiling my column ‘Sideways Glance’ – it was the one bit of the paper that gave me the opportunity to write about whatever was exercising my mind – long before blogs such as this one.

Doing some filing the other day I found a disc with several of my old Glances on, including the one reproduced below, all about posh grub. I have no qualms about reproducing it here, because it seems to be that over a decade on, not a lot has changed…

“SO there I was last week, sitting in a plane on the way to Scotland to drive yet another car, and taking a look at the British Airways in-flight magazine. This was not my first choice for reading material you understand but made necessary by the plane I was on not being the one I was meant to be on – that had broken and during the ensuing 2.5-hour wait for a new plane in Gatwick’s North Terminal I had read both the magazine I had brought for the flight and the extra one I bought when I discovered the delay.

Anyway, my gaze fell on a feature interview with Bono, lead singer with the Irish rock band U2, which I do like. Bono starts off this interview by painting a picture of the atypical rock star – he doesn’t have to live in posh hotels, he’s quite happy bedding on the floor at a student’s digs, being one of the ‘ordinary people.’

1403SmashHe then describes his childhood, how his mother died when he was 14 and he became unofficial cook to a house full of males, describing to the interviewer how he used to throw everything in one pot and then saying “do you remember Smash?”

Umm – yes Bono, we do, coz if you go in any supermarket on an ordinary shopping trip the instant mashed potato made famous by a load of chortling metal aliens is still there, large as life on the shelves – not quite so ordinary a person then eh?

But the way things are going with food, the likes of Bono may soon be rediscovering the pleasures of eating what we the ‘ordinary population’ tuck into each evening. Because it seems posh restaurants are hijacking our nosh!

As I’ve mentioned before my motoring work requires me to attend several car launches each year, normally involving posh hotels and equally posh restaurants – it’s a tough job but someone’s etc etc. Over the years I’ve become used to studying menus written in a language all their own. Firstly they use words that most normal dictionaries are not likely to offer much clue to – Pomfret of this, Terrine of that, and then they translate it all into French, or Italian, when you’re dining in a hotel in the middle of Manchester…

Imagine my surprise then, when I attended a launch in Sussex and at said posh hotel was offered as a lunch choice ‘Traditional Sausage and Mashed Potato in an Onion Gravy’. Yes – bangers and mash! It was delicious, but it was still bangers and mash.

Then a matter of weeks later, and this time the venue was sunny Bagshot – again, hotel with several stars, and we return from our morning drive to find our lunch is ‘Traditional Fish and Chips.’ Note that word traditional again – you get the impression that stick the T word on the front and you can put anything on a posh menu.

1403SuetPudAnd they are – neatly hijacking all the foods from my childhood. One of my fondest memories from my formative years is my mum’s Spotty Dick and Custard, wrapped in a big sheet and cooked in a massive pot. Now I can go in a restaurant and order it for pudding – except they now call it Spotted Dick – sounds better than spotty. It’s on the Traditional Menu alongside Jam Roly Poly.

I have a theory that to blame for all this are cooking programmes on the TV. They’ve multiplied over the last few years, because we cannot seem to get enough of them, and I reckon all those TV chefs are running out of ideas, so they’re nicking ordinary food and tarting it up. My fish and chips for example was served with strange curly chips, made to be very springy, on which was placed the fish – “Battered fillet of fresh cod, served on a warm bed of sliced saute potatoes.” Yeah – fish n’ chips!

So rest assured as you tuck into your greasy spoon breakfast in Dorking High Street (Mind you if you can find a greasy spoon among the wide variety of eateries in Dorking High Street you’re doing well). You’re eating the kind of food they really want to serve up in the Hilton and Ritz.  I’m off for tea now – beans on toast tonight with some grated cheese on top, or should that be freshly picked beans over warmed pain slices served with a sauce tomate au gratin?…”