23 October 2018

From GDPR to the rise of AI in journalism: Q&A with Guy Clapperton

We talk to Guy Clapperton, senior journalist and trainer, about the ever-evolving PR–journalist relationship, GDPR, AI, and the consolidation of trade titles.

Guy writes on several topics in the technology space, from biometrics and AI, to remote working and communications tech. He believes that tech journalism now seeps into all verticals, as well as all aspects of life. It is no longer limited to just the trades, as society (and the press) becomes increasingly digitised.

  • How did you start your career in journalism?


I began as a writer at MicroScope in 1988, back when it was still a paper publication. Then, in the nineties, I became a freelance journalist predominantly covering IT and business news.

At that time, there were tens upon tens of trade publications and the UK market had become saturated. I decided that it would be savvier for me to go freelance instead of working for a trade title that could soon become redundant. Now that that technology has become such an integrated part of our lives, it’s necessary for all publications to write about it and not just the tech trades. Technology supplements in nationals have already disappeared because the stories are now covered in the main paper.

  • Do you think the tech trades have now consolidated enough, or is there more to come?


It’s certainly slowed down. When the first branch of PC World opened in the UK in 1991, it signalled the start of a computer revolution where there was suddenly a PC in every home. In response, a flurry of IT publications all launched at once.

After that, the hype quickly dies down as with any new technology. Marketing soon drops off and the publications consolidate, and a lot go by the way side. When the CD first became available, for instance, there were hundreds of CD trade titles but they’re all very much defunct now. The market will continue to change as publications continue to move online too.

  • Is there a difference between writing an article for an online publication, versus writing an article for a print paper?


I’d argue that this doesn’t make much difference from the journalist’s perspective – the skill of writing online copy is no different to that of writing offline copy. A lot of people presume there’s a vast difference between the two because of the need for key words and SEO but, if you’re writing good, clear content, you’re going to hit a lot of those anyway. There’s no substitute for clear writing.

Of course, it always helps if you’ve got someone who can check through your content afterwards to make extra sure it’s all there.

  • What’s the best and worst thing a PR can do when pitching a story?


Poorly targeted pitches are the worst thing. I get sent a lot of stories completely unrelated to my field of work. Just this morning, for instance, I’ve received a story about divorce statistics when I’m only interested in IT and tech. This is often an issue with PRs who decide to take a punt with freelance journalists because it doesn’t always say “Tech” in my job title.

GDPR hasn’t helped the problem either – a lot of PRs are now nervous about approaching journalists unsolicited so, instead, they buy a list online and these are often poor quality or outdated so they’ll have my work information from a decade ago.

However, PRs shouldn’t be disheartened. Just because I haven’t used a story doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. The fact that something doesn’t land doesn’t make it a bad pitch. I’ve got five slots I can fill, if I then receive ten superb pitches that’s an issue for PR teams – it’s often just down to the person who got there thirty seconds before you did.

  • What makes a good subject line in an email for a journalist? Or is it best that we speak to you over the phone?


Something straight forward that sums up the story. It makes it easier for me to scan my emails for a relevant story if the subject line tells me what I need to know without going into the email. I’d much rather know what it’s about, at a glance. Since the advent of Twitter, you’d hope that most people are capable of summing up a good story in few words.

As for phone calls, I receive very few and almost all the pitches I receive are via email. For journalists who are working on a national/daily paper, they can be time starved and that’s an instance where they will prefer email. However, it is perfectly legitimate for a PR with a good story to ring up a journalist. As long as PRs keep tally of how journalists react individually for email or phone, then there’s no complaints from my side. Just remember to pick your battles when it comes to choosing which journalist to ring.

  • When it comes to following up on a story with you, what’s the best way for us to go about it?


It’s important to find something extra to say about the story when contacting a journalist. There’s no point asking whether I’ve received it because I won’t remember, and a phone call like that adds no value. But if you say something different to me over the phone about that story, it’d be difficult for me to construe that call as non-constructive.

When you develop a better relationship with the journalist you’re working with, it’s also good to be honest. One of my favourite PR people of all time worked for a tech company, and he’d send over a press release and at the top it’d say, ‘pile of crap from my client, sorry for sending’ and it meant when he said something was good, I trusted him and would publish it. We had a great rapport.

  • You’re starting your own podcast this year, is there now a pressure on journalists to build their own brand and can PRs help with that?


I think if you’re wise, you try to – particularly as a freelancer. If you move from “Guy Clapperton of MicroScope” to “Guy Clapperton” there’s immediately a drop in your marketability so you must evidence that you can deliver the goods to multiple people in other ways and find ways to establish yourself in an increasingly competitive market.

Even image can be important for a journalist. I once sent out a writer to meet a client and the writer was an ex-boxer and never wore a suit. When he turned up at reception, they called security.

For PRs, sending me information to do with something you’ve seen me write about or speak about already can certainly help me to build my profile. The more tailoring you can do, then definitely the most interested I’ll be. You’re working for clients, and journalists have got to respect that, but it might be worth keeping in the back of your mind when hearing about a new story ‘this is definitely one for X journalist’.

  • What makes a great quote for a spokesperson?


Don’t make it sound rehearsed. Not like a “soundbite” where everyone’s got the same thing.

I’m looking for them to say something they really mean. Something fairly short – the most focussed they can be the better. It’s also always great if they’re saying something controversial or have a strong opinion on something – which is perhaps better for me than it is for you guys.

Sometimes I will seek out comments proactively. If there’s a story I really want to publish, it’s sometime a case of going out and finding someone who’ll say something on record. Sometimes, if you know there’s a view out there, it’s worth going out and chasing down the right quote to show it. It’s then a judgement call from me as to whether I’m pushing that person to say what I want them to, or whether it’s a sincere opinion. Obviously, I’m looking for the latter.

It’s important to remember that clients can’t always prioritise journalists and I understand that. Start-ups, for instance, may not even have a PR budget so they may not have the time or inclination to respond to me.

  • What do you think about AI in journalism taking over the role of the journalist?


It’s definitely poised to affect all industries – and journalism is no exception. It’s important to remember the benefits too, if there are topics that I’m writing about that prove especially popular, perhaps AI will suggest future topics for me to write on which could make my writing more successful. Whether there will ever be a substitute for an enthusiastic journalist conveying their passion for a sports team in an article in our lifetime however, is another question entirely and I’d say it’s unlikely.

  • Do you adapt to your audience in your writing?


Yes, I think you have to. There used to be a section in a magazine I edit that I used to think was terrible – and I’d write it in ten minutes and publish with little effort. I was going to get rid of it but, when I told my readership, they said it was their favourite section! So, I kept it in.

Similarly, when I wrote my first social media book – a reviewer complained about a section in the book. So, when I wrote the second edition, I rewrote that section because I agreed with his comments and it was better for it.

As AI becomes easier and cheaper, it can be difficult to know who is really engaging with your article and interested in it and who’s just clicked on and then off again without reading. You can often tell from how long they’ve been on the page, however.