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Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

Off The Page

Heard not read

“One day, Amazon believes, Voice will be the predominant interface, and conversation itself – helpful, informative, companionable, entertaining – will be the ultimate product.”

That line jumped out at me. It’s from a long piece in Wired by James Vlahos called Inside The Amazon Prize. This describes how boffins from some of the world’s leading universities are competing to get the company’s backing for their work in developing a bot which can offer a conversation capable of keeping up its end when the subject is more than just the weather.

If my experience with Amazon’s Echo device and its strange mistress Alexa is anything to go by, they have some distance to go. I use Alexa mainly for radio and I’ve discovered it takes a great deal of training. When I ask it for the ‘In Tune Mixtape’ from BBC Radio 3, it takes me to Lauren Laverne on BBC6Music. This suggests it is not using its initiative enough. Whenever I ask for ‘Johnnie Walker’s Long Players’, a popular programme on Radio 2, it for some reason offers me something called Cheesy FM. This suggests it is trying to use its initiative too much.

The kind of questions the makers suggest I should test it with are the kind of questions that no sentient human being ever asked, such as “what films has Anthony Hopkins acted in?” However, I wouldn’t bet against Amazon coming good and that’s not just because they have a mere 5,000 people working on the Alexa project. This is probably more than the British government has working on Brexit. They might just get there.

Vlahos’s point that conversation could be the ultimate product was particularly interesting. One thing we have all observed over the last few years is that while people’s desire to read does not appear to have grown, people’s desire to listen to people talking, either at conferences or spoken word events, continues to grow. All the way from the booming market for books on Audible through large-scale live shows featuring people like Malcolm Gladwell who are noted for their ability to stand up and extemporise, on to quirky events like Matt Locke’s ‘The Story or James Ward’s Boring Conference’ and even Radio 4 comedy shows like Sara Pascoe’s, which are as much information as amusement, to the person sitting next to you on the Tube who is as likely to be listening to the Remainiacs podcast as something about the football, there are signs everywhere that some people crave the company of the human voice and its unmatched ability to communicate nuance.

The interesting thing about Vlahos’s piece is I didn’t actually read it. I’m not a reader of Wired. Even if I had a copy, the chances of me getting round to reading a long piece in Wired are slim. I came across this piece via an app called Audm, which I initially came across via The New Yorker. Hence, I didn’t read it. I heard it.

Long form listening

Audm does one simple thing and it does it very elegantly and effectively. It offers long pieces from the kind of upmarket magazines and websites that run long pieces. On Audm, they’re read to you by professional voice artists. I’ve had it a couple of days and already I’ve listened to a British voice read Max Hasting’s long piece about the My Lai massacre which originally appeared in the London Review of Books, Mike Spies’ hair-raising and complex report from The New Yorker about the National Rifle Association’s 78-year-old senior lobbyist in the state of Florida, Vlahos’s piece about the Amazon prize and, just now while eating breakfast, a major review of two books about America in the age of Reconstruction from the Times Literary Supplement. I’m a big reader but I doubt I would have got round to any of these stories were I not able to consume them while walking, shopping, clearing snow or just tooling around inside the house. This reclamation of time that was previously dead is one of the most powerful forces behind the rise of audio entertainment and information.

What gives it further appeal is the fact that as you listen to the article, the text of the same article scrolls simultaneously on your phone or tablet. That means that not only can you check that what you’ve heard is right – which is particularly important when it comes to proper names in a complex business story – but you can also scan the text while the narrator reads to you. Audm was begun by two Columbia graduates. Their original idea was to crowdsource the narration but they quickly realised that people prefer to listen to voices that are authoritative and familiar, so they switched to using professionals. They have also gone to the trouble of making sure the voices match the stories. The narrator of The Littlehampton Libels from the London Review of Books is an English woman, so when she launches into the part of the story which relates what was in the letters which so shocked Sussex in 1921, you get the obscenities in their native tongue.

At the moment, Audm are publishing up to nine new pieces every week and they discriminate in favour of the kind of long form articles which won’t quickly date. They have a small number of publishing partners with whom they share the revenue. It’s not cheap. The subscription costs you $6.99 a month. However, you can pay that much for a magazine that you never get round to picking up. If you devote the forty-five minutes it takes to listen to Andrew Sullivan’s piece about the opioids epidemic which was originally published in New York magazine, you get an education on the subject that radio and TV no longer attempts to match. You can get samples here.

Words of wisdom

Peter Jackson is the Harold Evans of the magazine business. He’s been editor of everything from the Sunday Times Magazine to TV Times and was MD of Rupert Murdoch’s magazine business. Peter has forgotten more about the craft of magazine editing and design than the rest of us will ever know. For the last few years, he’s been involved in the training of the next generation at Bournemouth University and has noted how, in the rush to prepare for a multimedia future, there was a danger of people forgetting some of the hard-won wisdom about what is involved in putting material on a page to make it thoroughly effective.

Hence, he’s set a great deal of what he knows down in a new book, out this August, called Words That Make Pictures (The Crowood Press). When magazine offices were noisy, smokey places, resounding to the clack of typewriters and the rich profanity of the subs desk, young journalists got to learn a huge amount simply by listening to – or even simply overhearing – the older people in the office. Now that it’s all tappety-tappety and all the exchanges are conducted by email and juniors no longer get to hear the editor bawling out some distant PR or wheedling round some reluctant contributor, learning is a lot slower to find its way round the organisation.

In that case, the chapters here, which focus on such elementary but crucial aspects of the trade as the merits of pencil versus recorder, the importance of Digging For Anecdotes and the Writer As Cameraman plus such specialisms as profile writing and what he calls The Disagreeable Art Of The Columnists, are performing an invaluable service in setting down once and for all the huge store of knowledge that you used to be able to find in every newspaper or magazine office.

Actually, I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that there are eight elements which should go into every successful profile but I’m grateful to Peter for pointing it out to me. I’m sure you could think of an exception to Peter’s rule that you should always start with the strongest anecdote first but once you’ve heard that rule, you’d better make damn sure you know what you’re doing when you depart from it.

You should read this book if you’re starting out in this no-longer inky profession. You should read it even if you think you know it all already. Struck by Peter Jackson’s insistence that the most important sentence in any column is the last one, I feel it’s my duty to tell you that you don’t. You really don’t.