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The Editor's View December 06


'Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.' Paul Auster

John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Careful where you peddle your news. . . short stories alive and kicking. . . Freedom of information threatened

NOW we can all be reporters and get paid for stories and pictures. Five News and the Sun have launched a campaign to encourage people to submit stories and pictures to their news services.

"We want videos as well as your great stories and pictures," the Sun promises.

And the Five News website is promising "at least £100 plus your name on air."

It looks good, doesn’t it? In the United States it is known as "participatory media."

Channel Five prefers to call it "viewer content." Others like the term "citizen journalism."

The BBC News Interactive loftily observes that it has long welcomed material from viewers via its "yourpics" facility. But it does not stoop low enough to pay contributors.

These organizations are intent on filling their online sites and hard copy publications on the cheap. It’s just like local radio stations which fill hours and hours with phone-ins.

With mobile phones which can take photographs, Blackberries and other gizmos the man on the spot can not only record a news event but also transmit it.

Imagine you are on the verge of a terrorist outrage. Most news media would pay big money for exclusive pictures, running into four and possibly five figures if exclusive. Most of the money they would then recoup from syndication rights to other countries.

So take care if you light upon a world exclusive. A mere £100 and your name mentioned would be a rip-off.

Even a funny picture, say Camilla losing a heel and hopping about on one foot while a lady in waiting found another pair, would make a cool £500 from a tabloid – perhaps more if exclusive.

IT’S TIME that some good Rupert from the BBC decided that the short story is dying and that a programme should be launched to resurrect it. It happens every other year. The good R fresh out of Uni (as they say) has probably had an offering rejected by Writers’ Forum or perhaps even the New Yorker. (Save that latter rejection slip Rupe, it could be your most treasured possession.)

Do these people ever read Alice Munro or William Trevor? Have they heard of Margaret Atwood? Do they not realise that Dick Francis, George Macdonald Fraser and others have brilliant collections?

I am reminded of this by a new collection from Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock, published by Chatto at £15.99.

Reviewing a collection of stories is rather like dipping into a bag of liquorice allsorts. You might like the pink ones and the white and black ones but let somebody else have the blue ones.

We are in familiar Munro territory, reading her commentary on how life and seasons change over the years, how family life can be amazingly complex. If short stories are your thing - and that means many of our readers - read, enjoy and then analyse.

HAVE you noticed how the government is trying to water down the Freedom of Information Act? Pity really for this was fast becoming a vital factor in our democracy and a source of revenue for wide-awake freelance writers.

The Act applies to local and national government. You identify something of interest local or national, phrase your question very carefully to elicit a response and you should get the facts within 30 days.

Frequently this means that topicality can be lost and anything acutely embarrassing to officialdom can be covered up with statements we know by heart: "lessons have been learned...additional measures have been put in place."

However, clever people at the Guardian, the BBC, Mail on Sunday, News of the World and Birmingham Post have been turning up good material.

How else would we know about lamplighters earning £91,000 a year?

It’s too costly, moans the government but had to admit (under the Freedom of Information Act) that they were costing in Whitehall clerks at £300 an hour!

This Act does not just apply to foot-in-the-door hacks from the nationals, but to everybody: from members of the public to local freelancers.

Perhaps Councillor Mrs Comely-Girth does not want her constituents at Little Muckspreading to know she visited New York with her chauffeur to see how the Big Apple coped with recovery after the terrorist attack. Freedom of Information should mean just that - not just for people who can afford it.

What was that old trade union slogan - the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Write to your MP and tell him you don’t want the government mucking about with the Act.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2006. Reproduced from Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.