Since you’re here...

Preamble: This is a post about the Guardian’s ‘Since you’re here’ ads inviting readers to become paying members, as an alternative to erecting a paywall. The ads have always bugged me because I think they could be much more persuasive. I first drafted this in October, then decided not to publish it. Instead, I emailed the Guardian directly – I wasn’t expecting a reply and, sure enough, didn’t get one. Around the same time, the Guardian announced how well its campaign was working. So I forgot about this post and left it in my drafts. But reading it again, I think it makes some good points. However well the strategy is doing, the copy could be a lot better. So, anyway. See what you think.

I try to read a wide mix of news sources, but for a long time my default option has been the Guardian. There are several reasons, but they all ultimately relate to its business model – no paywall, no billionaire owner, no government influence, and no shareholders apart from the Scott Trust.

The business model increasingly relies on voluntary donations from readers, either as one-off gifts or monthly payments. If you’re a Guardian reader, you’ll be aware of this, as most articles are interrupted at some point by this message:

It’s never struck me as a particularly effective message, persuasion-wise. Partly because it embodies the tone that all the Guardian’s critics hold against it. Earnest, slightly preachy, uncomfortable talking about money, very middle-class-guilt-trip-inducing.

Guardian critics would say that it’s therefore pitched perfectly for Guardian readers. And they might be right. Maybe a moral guilt trip is an excellent way to sell to Guardian readers. (Reports suggest readers have responded well enough.)

But I’m convinced they could do a lot better. It’s not just the tone of it – the messaging seems all wrong. Especially “We do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective too.” It’s a neat enough turn of phrase, but it’s surely wrong for this age of bubbles and division. You shouldn’t be buying the Guardian because it parrots your ‘perspective’ back to you. And the Guardian is underselling itself in any case, because it doesn’t have one ‘perspective’ – it’s a platform for many perspectives. That’s one of its selling points.

Speaking of which, where are the selling points? The whole paragraph dwells on the Guardian and its future, but never connects it to the reader and what’s in it for them (apart from that unsatisfactory nod to echoing their perspective).

It’s frustrating because the Guardian at its best is full of wit, confidence and authority. And it’s an important cause – independent, investigative journalism is badly needed as a bulwark against the old enemy of Murdoch/Dacre and the new enemy of algorithm-driven fake news.

So given it’s a cause I believe in, I’m going to pitch some ideas to them. I wouldn’t normally do this and maybe it comes across as presumptuous, but it seems appropriate in this case. They’re not free ideas – there’s just no paywall. If they like them, they can pay me whatever seems fair.

First, here are some straight headlines, making the case concisely and with no excuse-me-sorry-about-this intro:

Investigative journalism
needs investment

To hold power to account
we count on you

No billionaire owner. No shareholders. No paywall.
There is no better model for fearless, independent journalism. But to keep delivering it, we need your support more than ever. (No pressure.)

Put those with a call to action, and you start to get a more confident, authoritative tone.

Or for a longer copy version:

You haven’t reached your article limit this month because there isn’t one. We plan to keep independent, investigative journalism free for everyone, regardless of income. So we’re not building a beautiful paywall, or even a renovated fence. But if you can afford a little to support us, you will be backing journalism that answers to no one except its readers. We know some powerful people would rather you didn’t do that. We’d love it if you did. 

What else? Maybe this:

You don’t have to subscribe to our point of view
to subscribe to the Guardian

That’s a better message than ‘it might well be your perspective too’, isn’t it? It broadens the market and suggests that Guardian readers are independent thinkers. 

You can also introduce a visual dimension. Use one of the many dramatic shots in the Guardian archive with this headline:

A thousand shots like this
for the price of a single espresso

That’s also an act of price anchoring – compare it to a coffee, something from the Guardian-reader world. And it’s selling a benefit to the reader, instead of appealing to guilt. Remind them what they’re getting for their money:

Your support means the world
and everything happening in it, every minute of every day

That’s a pretty good sell.

And remind them that it’s good value:

Good journalism matters more than ever
And actually costs less than ever

That’s true – if you give £15/month, it’s still less than it used to cost for a daily paper.

You can also try some caustic wit, and attack some agreed hate figures. Use a big picture of Trump/Dacre/Murdoch with:

He doesn’t want you to support us
but please do it anyway

or:

Without your support, journalism becomes a race to the bottom
Specifically, Murdoch’s bottom.
And then up it.

or maybe a picture of Boris Johnson with:

Leaders pay for their lies
when readers pay for our journalism

You can also tap into some of the people that Guardian readers like:

Please give Frankie Boyle a tenner
Or make a monthly gift to the grumpy git. 

Or why not showcase some of the brilliant writing that goes on every day in the Guardian, e.g.:

Boris, a malevolent baked Alaska, is living out in public the great dramatic sweep of a life that asks what if a hero, instead of a single tragic flaw, had all of them. Frankie Boyle

Every month, we publish about 90,000 sentences. This is one of them. A contribution of £20/month works out at 0.02p for the above sentence. We believe this is good value.

For specific things like the Patron scheme, you could try some self-deprecation:

Patronise the Guardian (for a change)
Get more from the Guardian. And help shape its future. Become a Patron. 

Finally, you could throw in a disclaimer:

Please don’t support the Guardian
... if you can’t afford it. We aim to bring independent journalism and informed opinion to everyone, everywhere, regardless of income. But if you can afford the price of an extra coffee or two every month without it being a stretch, then your support makes all the difference.

Maybe that’s a paternalistic, Guardian-y sentiment, but it’s an important one, and in terms of persuasion I suspect that *not* asking for money is a good way to get it. (Another thing that rankles about the existing ad is that phrase ‘a small favour’ – it’s not that small a favour for the just-about-managings.)

Anyway, those are some ideas. I genuinely support the Guardian’s business model and what’s at stake is more than just the Guardian itself – it’s the whole balance of the fragile news ecosystem online. We could be looking at a future of paywalled bubbles versus algorithm-friendly free news.

But it all depends on demonstrating the model can work – and it’s a tough persuasion challenge to get people to give money they don’t need to give. I think the Guardian could blaze a trail with this, but they have to come across as the smart, cool people – not the earnest vicar awkwardly shaking a collection tin.

Now I just need to get them to read this.  

Postamble: This post is a slight follow-up to a previous post about the New York Times ad campaign, which you can read here if you’re interested.

Realtime Notes: Quarterly Review pt.2

Following on from Part 1 (see previous post), this is part 2 of the Quarterly Review, looking back on three months of Realtime Notes – Instagram poems written in rapid response to current events.

Part 1 covered What Happened. Part 2 takes the form of more general reflections on why I’m doing it and what I find interesting about it.

In the spirit of a project that sometimes feels like me talking to myself, I thought I’d do this in the form of an interview with myself.

So Nick, why did you start this project?

It wasn’t a planned project – I wrote the first one (above) while sitting in the pub one day, and decided to continue. I don’t think that first one was one of the best poems, but it had some of the main ingredients there – a sense of drawing a link between the personal and the global, and a register that combines wordplay with some serious topics.

I think I started to get that more successfully the next day (note 4 above), where you have elements of family events and world events overlapping. (NB: At this point, I hadn’t learned how to do em-dashes on my phone.)

Before that moment in the pub, I’d had this pressing sense for a while that I wanted to do a new project, and I’d been interested in the idea of ‘live’ writing – exploring an area between the spontaneity of speech and the craft of writing. Realtime Notes isn’t live writing – they’re all edited and crafted, just in a short space of time, usually anything from 3 to 30 minutes, although some take longer. But I’m interested in that idea of treating time as a formal constraint in poetry.

What does that mean?

Well, I think most formal constraints in poetry have more or less gone now. You can make it rhyme or not, scan or not, make it a prose poem. You don’t even have to write it yourself – there are lots of ‘found’ poems around. But one of the last remaining expectations is that poetry should take time. It’s about highly concentrated language, under the pressure of sustained editing and craft – the ultimate ‘slow’ art form.

So to do this thing where you’re rattling out poems as near-first-drafts runs counter to that and feels slightly taboo. I’m not saying it’s a new thing – people have written quick poems before. Coleridge woke up and wrote Kubla Khan in a few minutes before he was interrupted by someone knocking on the door – I’ve always identified with that person knocking on the door.

Why do you do them on your phone?

Initially, it was just the immediate tool to hand. I like writing on screens – I saw an interview with Leonard Cohen where he talks about the added theatricality that comes with bright black on a bright screen, like black fire on white fire. It’s also useful that the Notes app automatically time-stamps each note – I consider those the titles to each poem. And it’s easy to create a screengrab and share it quickly to Instagram.  

Why Instagram?

In some ways, it would have been better for me to do it on Twitter – I have more followers on there as opposed to a couple of hundred on Instagram. But Instagram felt like a friendlier place to put this stuff, which is sometimes more personal. And there’s a nice spirit on Instagram where a lot of people are pursuing creative projects – sketching, photography and so on, so it’s a more natural fit. 

Using Notes and Instagram must have limits too?

Yes, in a way they’ve created the main formal constraint on the poems. If you want to keep a portrait format on Notes (which generally looks better and more readable), then it limits the line length. And it’s a struggle to get more than about 17-18 lines onto one Instagram shot. I have tried poems that run over more than one shot, which I may explore more. But generally I enjoy the enforced brevity. 

I’ve also done a couple of experiments with video poems, which is a nice extra possibility created by the technology. 

Talking of formal constraints, whats your attitude to form with these poems?

Some of them are a lot more formal than others.

For example, I’ve enjoyed using limericks as a frame for serious subjects. 

And there have been a few haikus, mainly as a form of sports reporting.

I find myself using rhyme a lot. I like rhyme – it’s sometimes seen as one of the more childish elements in poetry, but I think it’s deadly serious, the purest form of what poetry does – using language as music as well as message, and creating magic when they combine. When you’re writing at speed, I think it’s more realistic to weave in rhyme rather than achieve perfect scansion.

Speaking of which, I was quite pleased to semi-invent this form, where all the words in a single poem rhyme – I call it a uni-verse.

Other times, I like playing with existing forms like nursery rhymes and song lyrics – it gives you a frame to move around in. 

forthine.jpg

And there is also a recurring biblical theme in a lot of the poems – I like the severe perspective you get when you offset current events with ancient texts. 

And then sometimes they’re very loose or more like prose, but then the formal element is in the patterns of thought, and creating these little echoes in the text. Sometimes I directly take phrases from headlines and news reports. I don’t often go for obviously ‘poetic’ sounding language – I like using normal words, but trying to create that little spark that turns them into something more. 

Do you feel like you’ve found your ‘voice’?

I’ve been conscious of not getting too stuck in one style, so I deliberately try to mix it up. For example, it would be tempting to try to make every poem a witty piece of wordplay – essentially a gag – but then you end up feeling like a performing monkey.

I want to give myself scope to write looser, weirder, more allusive stuff too. Some of the poems take quite a conversational style, where I guess Billy Collins (the American poet) would be a reference point. 

I’m conscious of wanting the poems to be fast to ‘get’ as well as to write, because I think that’s in the spirit of realtime-ness. So I think generally you get something on the first read as you scroll through Instagram, rather than having to spend ages pondering it. But I like to think they reward repeat reading, because you can go back and notice some of the formal elements of how they’re put together. 

Generally, I think it’s important for poets to discover what their voice is, and it can take a long time to manage it. One of the advantages of this project is that it forces me down that path of discovery, and accelerates the journey. The time limit removes some of the self-consciousness that comes when you have all the time in the world, and I think it can reveal your voice to yourself. I do feel there’s a recognisable voice there, and it’s a question of working with it rather than getting trapped in it. 

Do you get writer’s block?

One of the reasons I’ve kept going at such a pace is that I’m afraid of stopping, because I think then it would start to dry up. In the past, I’ve even found that with Twitter – if you don’t tweet for a few days, you lose your mojo and it’s hard to get back up to speed again. 

Some days definitely feel harder than others, but I have a mental list of prompts that I can use to can help spark something. For example, if I have nothing, I might think about form first – like what if you make it a dialogue, or what if you start annotating your own poem (above). Sometimes it can feel like magic – you feel you have nothing and then something appears out of that nothing.

How do you ever do anything else?

It definitely takes up headspace, but it’s mainly spare headspace – I like following the news anyway, and even on the busiest days there are usually gaps... 

...like over a coffee or train journey. It might get difficult next time I’m working on another big project, like a book. But I’m hoping to keep going for a while. Generally, I think the more you write the better you get – doing this keeps the brain alert, so when it comes to doing other writing, you don’t have to ‘warm up’ as much.

Where do you see it going in future?

I’m still thinking about that. I’d like to think it would make a good book one day, because as well as being a book of poems, it would also have a plotline, or multiple plotlines, and whatever its value as poetry, it should have a certain value as a diary of one person’s consciousness living through what are pretty extraordinary times. 

I also have a vague idea of doing an exhibition, where all the words are on walls and screens and you’re kind of immersed in them, like walking through a year. Maybe that’s a vain hope in both senses of vain, but there could be something in it. 

Thanks for talking to me Nick.

Any time.

 

Thanks for reading this review – and big thanks if you’ve been following on Instagram. All the likes and comments, on and offline, really mean a lot. And I’ve already made some new connections with interesting people – someone even commissioned a poem. 

Meanwhile, the next quarter is already under way (with another sad celebrity death). Follow at instagram.com/nickasbury

Realtime Notes: Quarterly Review pt.1

I recently passed the three-month mark in a project called Realtime Notes – a series of Instagram poems written rapidly in response to current events. I started on 17 August and have been posting at least once every day – currently on note 189 in about 90 days, so more like two a day on average.

The quarterly milestone seems like a chance to take stock, so here are some reflections on the journey so far. The review comes in two parts – the second part will contain some general reflections on the writing process. This first part is about (to borrow Hillary’s phrase) what happened. And a lot happened.

1. Terrorism

The project started with a poem about the terrorist attack in Barcelona, written in a maudlin moment on my own in the pub. Since then, incidents have included the shootings at Mandalay Bay and Sutherland Springs, the Manhattan van attack, and the failed Parsons Green attack in London (above).

Responding to these events in the moment means you don’t get the distance or perspective that time provides, but you do gain some of the emotional immediacy that comes with that weird, sickly breaking news moment. Wordsworth talked about poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’,  but this is more like emotion recollected while feeling emotional.

2. Natural disasters

Nature kept things pretty real, from the earthquakes in Baghdad and Mexico to hurricane season and the aftermath in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. The hurricanes poem (above) was an outlier in that it took longer to write than most of the poems. It’s an anagram poem where the right-hand column uproots and rearranges the words on the left. 

3. Deaths

This is a cheerful post so far, isn’t it? Inevitably, celebrity deaths were a recurring feature (among the countless anonymous deaths in Myanmar and elsewhere). Bruce Forsyth, John Ashbery, Lady Lucan, Hugh Hefner, Tom Petty (above), Ian Brady, Sean Hughes, Fats Domino, Charles Manson... 

4. Brexit

There was also a lot of Brexit going on. Negotiations, coughed conference speeches, David Davis, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, a general backdrop of geopolitics unfolding in the background of life. Again, the above poem was a slight outlier – a reverse Brexit alphabet that took a while to draft. 

I also continue to pursue my theory that Brexit MP Dan Hannan’s full name is Daniel Hanniel-Nanniel. This is entirely false, but it feels true and I intend to keep treating it as such.

5. Russia

The other unfolding story is Russia and its influence on various elections. One day, this will be a grand narrative that we’ll all watch on a BBC4 documentary. But it’s interesting (albeit distressing) to live through it in real time, as in the brief breaking news one above. 

It also makes for a good adventure story, tying in nicely with Stranger Things 2. While these Realtime Notes are all individual poems, I like to think of them as part of one continuous work, which is part-novelistic in form.

6. Trump

Talking of Russia, Trump loomed large and moronically over everything. Again, I often think about how all this will look in retrospect, from some (hopefully) calmer vantage point in the future. But it feels worthwhile to record what it’s like now. 

7. Weinstein and men

The Harvey Weinstein story has put a theme of maleness into a lot of the recent poems. If you remember that one poetry class you did in school, you might be aware of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rhymes, which I explored above. 

halloween.jpg

And Kevin Spacey and Louis CK made a disturbing appearance for Hallowe’en. 

8. Bit of sport

Among the heavier issues, it’s nice to cover sport now and then. I’ve found myself writing live poems while following Liverpool and England games, which becomes a poetic sport in itself – writing and publishing the poem before a change in the scoreline ruins the last line.

9. A loft conversion

Part of the spirit of the project is to mix the personal and the political, the mundane and the momentous, in the same way that they are mixed in real life. For the last couple of months, we’ve had a loft conversion in progress, which provides some useful structural support for various metaphors.

10. Other things

And then there are all the little personal trials and domestic humdrum. From the point of view of the individual consciousness (in this case, mine) a busker or a squirrel in the garden can be as real a character as a president in some other country.

And maybe the squirrel really does know what will happen next.

That’s it for part one – in the next part, I’ll talk (mainly to myself) about the writing process, the poetic approach and the things I find interesting/challenging about the project. 

You can follow along at instagram.com/nickasbury – and sincere thanks if you already have been.