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‘I saw this terrible news today.’ My friend, a sensible person, is distressed. ‘A terrorist group is breeding babies to be brought up as fresh soldiers for their cause. How can we resist such fanaticism?’
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘It’s probably a mix of propaganda and sensationalism.’
I’ve written before about how the Internet is filled with misleading nonsense (“a vortex of vacuity; a crisis of kaka; a whirlwind of piss-poor polarisation”) in one of my most popular blogs: The Internet. 7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation.
Lesotho: one of the most beautiful countries on earth has the lowest life expectancy – Photo RP
I’ve also written about the elegant Tuchman’s Law (hit the link for the full article), which says: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (more…)
What if the team supporting a political campaign had precise information about the opinions, preferences and voting intentions of every single individual in a country, and could tailor their campaigning precisely to that individual?
They have it already.
The Vice News article “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down” is the second scariest thing I’ve seen for ages.
It analyses how the harmless-sounding British company Cambridge Analytica uses information gathered from social media – all your “likes”; which shows you watch on TV; every quiz you ever did on Facebook; what you click on; what you buy; what you drive – in fact the whole of so-called “big data” – to build up a picture on you more detailed than anything George Orwell could have imagined in his worst nightmare.
If the Thought Police in 1984 had had big data, they wouldn’t have needed Room 101. They would have known everything already.
As others have observed, Orwell got total surveillance right. What he didn’t anticipate was people voluntarily putting on-line all the information about themselves a potential authoritarian state could ever need.
‘It’s relentless,’ the god-like figure says to me. ‘From 7 a.m. things are coming in. All day – even when I’m in meetings, mealtimes. Until late at night. It’s the 24-hour news cycle.’
I’m talking to a top figure in an elite organisation: someone I respect and trust.
In fact, this person is almost a household name. Most people would see him or her as someone who has risen to the top through an awesome combination of intellect, charm and hard work. Yet this person is struggling to cope with information coming in on one device – a Blackberry.
What chance do the rest of us have? You may be addicted to multiple devices.
When Blackberrys were first introduced, people called them Crackberrys. No wonder. Ten years later, our smartphones are one hundred times more addictive – an addiction as strong as alcohol or gambling, as the video below (watch it later!) points out.
What can you do? (more…)
My recent blog “The Internet. 7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation” set out troubling facts about this most wonderful of inventions.
One of my concerns was that:
“the Internet polarises opinion. Imagine a billion people in a desert, shouting. Who can shout loudest? The best way to attract online attention is to be shocking and extreme. Slag someone off. Be outrageous. You know that famous, reasonable, internet commentary site? No? That’s because there isn’t one. You can’t be reasonable and famous on-line.”
So I was interested to see this weekend in The Financial Times a piece by Simon Kuper, “Paris attacks: Notes from a wounded city” (NB if you don’t have a subscription to the FT, you can sign up to read the piece – and several more every month – free).
Kuper’s piece is characteristically thoughtful. I like his resistance to simplifying everything – particularly anything as tragic as the Paris attacks. But I was most struck by his comment that in the world of punditry and politics, “the people with the clearest messages win“.
Thus, Kuper suggests, if you want to look at the world in a more nuanced way – he quotes a man who asked of the 13 November events “with what perception must I perceive this?” – you are unlikely to be invited onto TV to pontificate about how we should react.
What people want is certainty; and that is what pundits offer.
That is often the equivalent of shouting loudest. But it is not always the best way to approach important issues.
Do check out Simon Kuper’s piece, and my earlier blog.
So you want to write the perfect article? Welcome. I’ll tell you how.
The essential starting point is to have a clear central message. What are you trying to say? What’s your point? Clarity on this makes everything which follows much easier.
My companion piece “7 tips for writing the perfect article” explains how to decide on your message; focus on readership; and ensure what you’re writing is relevant.
Once you’re clear on what you want to say, it’s time to get started. “The best way to start work is to start work”. Structure is everything.
Many journalists use a simple template. There are lots of ways of doing this; but the following, based on advice from a US journalist friend, has worked well for me in numerous feature articles during my time as a freelance journalist. A worked example is at the end of this blog.
Robert Pimm hard at work writing in Istanbul
Your article should consist of the following elements. I’ve set them out in the order in which they will appear (more…)
So you want to write a non-fiction piece for publication as a blog, newspaper article or in other media. Let’s call it “an article”. Where to start? Here.
1. What is your message? A clear message is the most important – and difficult – element of writing an article. If you don’t know what your message is or why you’re communicating it this way, stop right now. The good news? Once you’ve decided your key message, the article is already half-written. Check out this piece, where the message is “if you’re going ski-ing, you may find that a ski-guide helps you have more fun“. That message must be newsworthy and interesting – are you or the editor confident people will want to read it?
2. How to decide on your message. So what is “newsworthy and interesting”? Two possibilities:
i) a news peg. Something has happened out in the world. People want to know about it. You’re going to tell them. It could be an anniversary, a local or national event, or a personal angle on something people know about. My piece about Berlin traffic-light men, for example, reports on how images designed for East Berlin began to spread into West Berlin in 2005.
ii) a news line. Maybe you have something to say which is newsworthy. Invented something new? Got an announcement to make? Published your new book? Developed a miracle diet? If it’s of wide interest, (more…)
Istanbul is possibly the most historic living city in the world. But other cities have extraordinary histories, too.
25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. I was living in London at the time, and was as surprised as anyone. I thought: “should I travel to Berlin? This looks like history.” But I made a mistake, and decided I was too busy at work. I’ve been regretting that decision ever since.
Later on, however, I was lucky enough to live and work in Berlin for seven years, from 1999 to 2006. During that time I came to know and love this terrific city, with all its confusion, vibrancy and troubling, sometimes dark, history – it’s one of my favourite places on earth.
Getting to know Berlin included walking the entire 166km length of the “anti-fascist protection wall” with some friends, in ten instalments. I wrote a newspaper article about walking the wall, for the Financial Times, in 2003. It’s a lyrical piece, focusing on “my three favourite spots where you can best appreciate the wall that isn’t there“. It includes the following:
Tourist: Where’s the wall?
Guide: Here. (more…)