Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Culture Footprint Interview - 6th July, 2010

Forum for Change
Culture Footprint
Duncan Williams
Media Entrepreneur

Welcome to Culture Footprint, featuring one of the people of God making a difference in the world today, aiming to be an inspiring presence and telling the story of Christ in the culture. Interviewed by Marijke Hoek for the Evangelical alliance.
Duncan Williams is a Director on the board of Independent News Ltd. Buying up formerly loss making regional newspapers, fast tracking them into profit, Duncan has gained a portfolio of titles launched specifically at improving communication within local communities. He was born in Plymouth. His grandfather was a local vicar in Cornwall.

He likes old creaky films (Cliffhanger Serials from the 1930s and ‘40s, George Formby or Will Hay comedies and Hammer horror films), travel, meeting new people, understanding cultures and belief systems. He has a lifelong passion for the sea and if possible would like to run his media 'empire' from a boat; "Just like a James Bond villain”, jokes his family. 
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
A Pirate or a Timelord.

How did you get involved in the media?
I edited my school magazine and continued to write in my spare time. I attended Launceston College, won a place at the London International Film School and continued studying media and communications technology at Merton College, the London Electronics College and London University .
University of Life , though, is where I got the most results... I started work as a 'runner' for Goldcrest films in Soho at £80 per week. Went on to get a slightly better paid job in advertising, writing copy and scripts.  As the press started to pioneer their digital presence I was offered a job on a national newspaper and magazine title.    I learnt how advertising funded much of modern media, built a healthy book of contacts and realised that this same funding source could be approached to invest in positive media publishing...

What is the power of a good story?
A good story does as it says on the tin; It reports a truthful, inspiring message. Maybe sheds a little light on some gloom...  or draws attention to somebody or something worthwhile.  The story's power lies in the fact that through its reporting it seeks to encourages more of the same...

Does good news sell? 
Put it this way, if you were a newspaper advertiser would you want to promote your product or service next to an article about something dark and negative or positive and uplifting? Positive wins through.  Even in reporting a tragic story the reader demands a point and purpose to the retelling. It's human nature to want a good motive to override a bad one; it's what best assists group survival.

Can entrepreneurship create a better world?
During this period of time, with the economy as bad as it is, real entrepreneurs are vital to the world economy. This is reflected in the huge interest shown in programmes like Dragon's Den, American Inventor, The Apprentice and now even The Young Apprentice.  Entrepreneurs have an unshakable faith in the future; they have positive ideas and inspire others.  They create jobs and are a hub for economic growth.

What is your most treasured possession?
My left hand.  I nearly lost it, along with all my fingers, following a gory incident some years ago. Fortunately, after a lot of surgery, the fingers were sewn back together and the mangled mitt was saved.  They are all now present and just about correct... and appreciated that much more by me!

Martin Luther King Jr had a dream for society. What is yours?
Often whatever society fixates upon it tends to get more of.  So by offering a more positive media I genuinely believe we get a more positive society.  When all focus is placed relentlessly upon the negative, true vision, faith and hope all get eroded. A new pair of glasses can remind people that the world can still be a very beautiful place even in the most difficult of times.  Modern media can be that powerful.

What is the greatest challenge you face in media enterprise?
Balancing ethics, readership sales and advertiser revenue to produce long term profitability.

What do you invest in the next generation?
Training, time and experience. Interns from universities such as Oxford , London and Plymouth have all been integral to bringing in new talent, helping to keep our titles fresh and current. One lucky graduate even got a placement reporting at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

What is your most/least green credential?
I try and walk, where practical, everywhere. In fact, as my journalists will tell you, many an editorial meeting is held 'on the hoof' with me striding from one meeting onto the next, often held streets away.    However, my least green credential is my liking for McDonald's cheese burgers, so I sometimes stop off along the way...

How can the media increase wellbeing in society over the next decade?
Marginalised elements of society often find it hard to access or express views in the mainstream media.  Broadly speaking there is a trade in sensationalism and death. A tragic killing gets a mass of column inches and airtime, whereas the celebration of a human life gets far less.  A birthday of a 100 year old citizen deserves as much, if not more attention, than the gleeful reporting of yet more doom and gloom.  Coverage should always aim to be personal and real.  Profiles of people should aim to help readers identify and feel a part of the story rather than apart from it.  Ten years of revised media attitudes could have a remarkably beneficial effect upon society.

Tell us a joke...
A local news vendor was standing on the corner with a stack of papers, yelling: "Read all about it. Fifty people swindled! Fifty people swindled!"
Curious, a man walked over, bought a paper, and checked the front page. Finding nothing, the man said, "There's nothing in here about fifty people being swindled." The news vendor ignored him and went on, calling out, "Read all about it. Fifty-one people swindled!"

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Duncan Williams, tabloid dirt digger turned positive media guru :
An article by Liz Oldfield (Hunter) for theMediaNet.org / Church and Media Network

Duncan Williams has seen the very worst of the media world. Working as a tabloid ‘dirt-digger’ in the late 90s he spent his days seeking out celebrity stories in a culture where bribery, blackmail and stealing rubbish was the norm. Even born again Christian Jonathan Aitken once phoned to call him "a lying, underhanded s++t!." Now, though, Duncan owns his own ethical publishing company with a keen vision of building up struggling local and regional titles, and helping them to keep giving a voice to communities who are often drowned out in the noise of globalisation. He deliberately employs a proportion of ex-offenders and those recovering from addiction - and insists on a strongly positive editorial policy. In a nightmare market, the company is going from strength to strength. So how did he get from one to the other?

Duncan’s first contact with the media was through editing his school magazine, which he quickly renamed Bronco after a notorious brand of toilet roll. Writing gave him and his rebellious school friends a chance to let off steam, and he was hooked. At age 17 he moved from the West Country to London to attend film school, and went on to have a career in new media and film advertising throughout the 90s boom years. It was a destructive environment, with a heavy drinking culture, but even then Duncan says “writing was really a form of prayer, a way of getting in touch with my real myself when I couldn’t always express things well verbally".

A move into print at the end of the decade proved lucrative - whilst selling advertising for a series of high profile London magazine titles, Duncan realised that the real money was in sensationalist news and set himself up as a freelance investigator for all the major tabloids.

Kept on retainer, he would be given a brief by an editor and set about finding, or creating, a story about them. One well read middle England title, he recalls, would particularly like tittle tattle about society women and would pay very handsomely for insider gossip. It’s wasn’t just journalists that are paid by the papers - behind the staff whose names appear on by-lines there is a huge network of contacts receiving a monthly fee for feeding in stories, from celebrities’ close 'friends' to hairdressers and even doctors. It was not unusual to see suitcases of cash changing hands. Duncan had regular dealings with ‘Benji the Binman’ who made his fortune hunting for scandal in rubbish, and would also employ covert surveillance. Even if all that failed it didn’t mean the story was dead. “I clearly remember one day seeing a front cover of renown Sunday tabloid, a story about Robbie Williams, and knowing that 90% of it was distorted from fact, because I had engineered most of these embellishments. Robbie went on to sue and win a large out of court settlement, but most of the time, for the papers, it was worth it”. As several recent revelations about tabloid reporting practice confirm, he doesn’t think much has changed.

"Today, one rewarding amend for me, " says Duncan. " Is that I am able to commission the very celebrity targets of my past life to write positive pieces for my own publications. Obviously, celebrities have feelings too... and fortunately forgiveness is often one of them!"

Duncan says that there was no blinding light epiphany for him, just a realisation over several years that his life had “bottomed out”. He sought help with his heavy drinking and excessive lifestyle, and became a committed Catholic Christian. Not long after he made the decision to use all the money he had made to set up his own independent news company. With the support of some old tabloid colleagues, angel investors and some big hearted celebrities, this step forward seems to have worked out.

Duncan thinks it’s the most exciting time to be in papers, and that the laments over the death of journalism are misguided. Change is inevitable, but not disastrous, and can be a chance for good. There are huge opportunities for those who want to be influential people of integrity. He was able to buy shares in several large media companies after the price had dropped by 90% last year and is now on the board of five of these; “There are huge opportunities for those who want to be influential people of integrity. The digital revolution will eventually provide far more readers for local titles once they’ve embraced new platforms; Things like Kindle and the iPad provide an amazing way to get positive, ethical stories out there, and we’re showing that there is an audience for it.”

The titles owned by Duncan, and his group of positive independent news companies, including the Christian Free Press limited, are trying to make a stand against the “propaganda of negativity” that he thinks so shapes our thinking. Like many of us, and even having seen the very darkest side to the media, he passionately believes it can be a force for good.

*(Update.) Since this article was first published in 2010, Independent News Limited, Duncan Williams Limited and Christian Free Press Limited, have each distributed hundreds of thousands of Good News papers and magazines into hospitals, prisons and community centres throughout the UK.