Saturday, January 24, 2009

Giving voice to those who dare not speak

One of the most interesting aspects of the Net is the effect it has had on journalism. The simple invention of the Comments section has given everyone a voice and allowed complete anonymity. The reactions to news stories on the Bookseller’s website often make for the most revealing reading on the site. Recently, the magazine achieved something of a ‘personal best’, with some 80 comments on the Waterstone’s Confirms Job Losses story.

Before Waterstone’s was owned by HMV and became the corporate organisation it now is (this is not entirely a criticism: Jon Howells remains one of the best press officers in the business), it was just about possible to ring branches to get reactions to stories. I did it many times, the whole ‘off the record’ rigmarole, the whole ‘one bookseller commented’ etc etc. It is time-consuming and laborious, but it is also real journalism.

But now? You don’t even need to call! They’re all hitting the keyboards before you even pick up the phone. Of course, as with so much on the Net, one has to read the Comments carefully, weeding out the abusive, silly ones, and it’s always worth remembering that people usually only write if they want to complain: far fewer people write to say everything’s dandy. But I don’t think it is true to say that all the comments are inaccurate.

Having read all the Comments on the site after the story that there would be redundancies as a result of Waterstone's moving to a central distribution hub, I would make two point. Firstly, Waterstone’s Get Selling training initiative may have involved head office too, but it does sound patronising. Can you imagine Penguin introducing a ‘Get Publishing’ scheme?

Secondly, surely it was a PR blunder for MD Gerry Johnson to receive a bonus at the end of the year, when staff are about to be made redundant. Here’s what one Waterstone bookseller said about that on the site: ‘With the staff at Quercus taking a pay cut to make sure there are no redundancies, and several larger publishers enforcing pay freezes, Gerry’s big fat cat bonus sticks out like a sore thumb.’

To which I would add, it seems out of character for Johnson, who comes across as very much a ‘man of the people’, a straight talking guy who seems to have a lot of commonsense.

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