Friday, 27 March 2009

Simon Kelner and the Hunger for News

He reminded me of The Apprentice's Alan Sugar: commanding, well built, self-assured. But the Independent's Editor-in-chief, Simon Kelner, was a much more refined orator and sported a stylish little beard more patiently sculpted than Sir Alan’s imperial stubble.

When he strutted calmly into the lecture hall, holding a single sheet of white paper, it took a moment for Kelner's broad-shoulders and smile-accustomed-to-luxury to replace the tweed jacket and wire-rimmed spectacles I had seemingly come to expect from the editor of the Independent: the closest the UK has to a ‘leftist’ or 'environmental' newspaper.

As he made his way down the steps towards the lectern, his strut became a measured half-jog and his smile stiffened into a mask of concentration as he absorbed the praise of his introduction.

Simon Kelner's was to be the final talk in the Harris Lectures series, which celebrated the then-Lancashire Polytechnic’s groundbreaking journalism course - the first of its kind in the country - one which only thirty students enrolled (including Kelner).

He used his 60-minute slot to provide ‘real-life insights’ into the life of a national newspaper editor and share some amusing and informative anecdotes taken from his lengthy career as a reporter (including the escaped bear in south Wales that his heyday-rival actually witnessed but failed to report, missing out on a national scoop).


Kelner explained how, like most other newspapers, the Independent had stayed up all night to devote 30-pages of the following day's content to the US presidential elections, only to later learn that circulation figures fell dramatically that day. The reason, he told us, was simple. People wanted to access unfolding and nail-biting stories quickly, as they unfolded and became more nail biting, and so they turned to the television and the internet instead of newspapers.

But when it came to analysing the elections the following day, the paper's sales jumped by around 1/3. And this, according to Kelner, was an indication of the future survival techniques that the ailing newspaper industry would have to employ to remain above water. With regard to the survival of a newspaper's electronic offering, he believes that specialist ‘niche’ publications will have to be provided on a ‘pay-per-view’-type basis.

He told the eager-eared audience that the single most important quality for a journalist to possess was Hunger: a desire and a love for accessing and delivering news, an innate curiosity for what was going on in the world.

His message was simple yet inspiring: you must continually question authority's ‘official’ version of events and seek out new ways to get ‘behind the scenes’ in order to perform the essential task of a journalist: to monitor and scrutinize the centres of power – be they local, national or global.

These weren’t the words of someone who ‘once made it big’ or professed to ‘know all the angles’; they were the passions of a man who was still deeply driven by the hunger about which he spoke.

Another interesting, if questionable, defence of newspapers: they were a ‘genre’ rather than a ‘format’. In other words, a newspaper, for Kelner, is not a means of delivering news; it is a distinct style or mode of news in its own right. Its unique role being to challenge and inform the reader and to engage us in discussion. Whereas the BBC, for example, is a format among others, simply pumping out the facts as and when they arrived. Each has its respective place but only the printed press is able, according to Kelner, to meet the demands of “serious journalism”.

I have no doubt that there is some truth behind this assertion – but, as I listened, I could also see a devoted oil painter, eyeing with distain and a little envy, the print-maker’s big new house.


Although he “never really liked the look of Nicolas Sarkosy” he thought that the French president's decision to offer every 18-year-old a free subscription to a newspaper of their choice was one of the most forward thinking ideas tabled by a nation’s leader in some time. The idea being that the percentage of youngsters who would go on to develop a serious interest in the news would greatly increase.

He ended he talk, however, on a slightly sour note. Whilst expressing an opinion which was probably shared by most other ‘serious journalists’ in the room, he expressed it with such malice and pique as to cause them to totally reconsider their views.

He had not read a single line about the recent Jade Goody “freak show”. And, although he accepted that a newspaper's ideals sometimes had to be compromised for the sake of public interest, for him Jade Goody was one step to far. He could neither believe nor stomach the fact that the Guardian had actually lead with the story of her death. He found it all “totally distasteful”.


It was approaching tea-time and my hunger had been suitably stirred. I left Sir Alan answering questions about 'the future of the industry' and occasionally over-emphasising swear-words in an attempt to connect with the predominantly young audience (and, a la Sir Alan, partly because he was just 'a bit of a lad'.) He wasn't the James Lovelock-figure I had come to imagine or naively hope for, but at least his dynamic speech-making skills would, over the years, save a few trees-worth of paper.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Channel 4 News presenter at UCLan

The Jon Snow Lecture has been rescheduled for Monday 9th March at 10pm
Hopefully we will get the right kind of snow this time!