In defence of Frontier and DFNI

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That just might rank as one of the more unlikely headlines that I have written over the years…

It was spurred by a recent feature in Peter Marshall’s deliberately and refreshingly provocative Blog,

Peter, travel retail’s top filmmaker (he is the man behind the excellent Airports Dynamics TV), describes the Blog as “a relevant and sometimes irreverent look at the global airport and travel retail industry”.

So far, so good. Our industry can get precious at times about its self-importance and a little bit (or even a lot) of satire is a welcome antidote.

Many of Peter’s columnists choose, of course, to remain anonymous, allowing them to take pot shots at their chosen targets without compromising professional relationships (an important observation in light of my comments below about trade media). And so was the case in the Blog’s uneasy mix of half-serious, half-fun ‘ Star Awards’, described (preciously) as “not the usual type of awards. Rather they are a combination of industry lemons, spoofs and awards that are genuinely merited”. The implication being that most industry awards are not “genuinely merited”. Whatever that means. More of that in a moment.

I liked some of these awards a lot and some not a jot. Satire can be brilliant in the hands of master exponents, flat or cringe-inducing when attempted by others. Some of the comments are both pointed and fair. Some are just the former. Some are witty (“Flamboyant as a matador and just about as practical for Travel Retail”) and some are simply tasteless (Stansted Airport, “a superlative example of an architectural wet dream”). However, if a satirical blog aimed to please everybody, it would defeat its own raison d’être, and a layer or two more of thick skin would not harm any of us in travel retail.

So we come to the title of my Blog and the skin I inhabit. Is it thick or thin? Here’s what the (anonymous) judge for TRunblocked’s Award for ‘Lo’ Trade Coverage says: “Media coverage is rarely without bias, especially in the B2B press. But the Travel Retail sector generally scores badly for its unquestioning cut-and-paste of press releases complete with all the puff and plaudits. One recent 250-word product story from a leading title included ALL of the following words: high profile, revolutionary, prominent, fantastic, innovative, glamorous, world-class. Credible Pulitzer Prize contender or just laughably embarrassing?!?”

In the spirit of being big enough to take it as well as give it out, the point about ‘cut-and-paste’ is valid in some, in fact too many, cases. The ‘puff’? Yes indeed (and, yes, I read that same story referred to above, not on The Moodie Davitt I’m pleased to say). Though I suggest the judges might also take aim at some of the dirge that emerges under the guise of press releases from less skilled exponents of the communication art. That, however, is no defence; it should be the media’s job to sort out the finest wheat from the cruddiest chaff and too many don’t – or can’t.

‘Unquestioning?’ As any journalist down the years at The Moodie Davitt Report will avow, I am the toughest of taskmasters when it comes to what I consider vandalism of the only language I am proficient in, English. VTFP is a well-established acronym in our company. It stands for ‘Value the full point’.

‘Gush alert’ is another of my regular missives to writers grappling with press releases that can sometimes (and, I emphasise, there are many honourable exceptions) fall half-way between Mills & Boon prose and the linguistic ability of a pre-schooler.

“Media coverage is rarely without bias, especially in the B2B press.” Says who? What a shoddy, Trump-esque ‘fake news’ generalisation.

And don’t get me started on tautologies (the saying of the same thing twice over in different words – e.g. they arrived one after the other in succession). Ok, you have got me started. The worst of these is the qualifying of ‘unique’ (‘truly unique’, ‘absolutely unique’ and, look away now while I throw myself off the building, ‘very unique’) which sends me into the kind of apoplectic state usually associated with an early morning Donald Trump tweet. Others include ‘new innovation’, ‘first pioneered’ (ye gods, my former sub-editor found that in MY copy, the shame, the deep, deep shame…), ‘genuinely merited’ (sorry, Peter, but merited = merited = merited), and ‘German-produced’ (you mean ‘German’, right?).

So, I’m sorry, Mr anonymous judge but we do not practice “unquestioning” cut-and-paste of press releases. Try telling that too any of my staff, who are questioned each and every day.

And what about this? “Media coverage is rarely without bias, especially in the B2B press.” Says who? What a shoddy, Trump-esque ‘fake news’ generalisation. Actually, make that a Kellyanne Conway “alternative fact”. I hereby offer this brave anonymous writer an interim job as my deputy editor for a week in our London HQ. Come and see how we treat neutrality, objectivity and fact-checking, let alone sweeping and unvalidated generalisations that can land you in a libel court quicker than you can write ‘all anonymous commentators are cowards’ (in fact they’re not, but you get my drift).

And, so, to my unlikely defence of Frontier and DFNI (which I edited from 1992 to 1997 and was Managing Director of from 1996 to 2002).

Here’s what TRunblocked said, “Singled out for the worst editorial coverage was Frontier. Actually, there are joint winners here Frontier/DFNI. If all else fails when the competition is too strong…. merge! It’s like a couple who have run out of conversation, the only thing left to do is to get married! (These guys also qualified for the ‘What do we do now’? Strategy Award).”

Let’s start with the merger. This is what I wrote in a former Blog and I stick to it. “Driven by market forces and economics, it’s the right move, eliminating cost and placing focus on a fused, focused and hopefully stronger entity.

“With four international titles (The Moodie Davitt Report, Travel Retail Business, DFNI and Frontier) and numerous regional ones in a consolidating marketplace, the media channel is simply overcrowded. You would be hard-pressed to find a single industry executive who believes so many titles are necessary. Competition is good. Clutter seldom is.

“Market forces alone are likely to dictate further changes. Consolidation and competition can be a brutal joint force. The winners will be those who remain relevant, who are fleet-footed and who have integrity.”

If I still ran DFNI, I would have done the same thing. Merge. Frontier has the strongest awards entity in the business (not perfect but credible and much more sought after than TRunblocked’s – sorry Peter) and in Chris Madden (now part of the merged team) an excellent, decent and hard-working journalist, who has authored many a good piece on Frontier. The new-look DFNI team too has good young talent, which we should all welcome (we cannot expect all travel retail’s top journalists to be of pensionable age like yours truly and the recently departed and much-missed Doug Newhouse. And I had to learn somewhere too – it happened to be at DFNI).

No trade media title is perfect and there are some serious flaws among them. I am intensely self-critical of my and our own coverage, too, and every day aim to do better both personally and as a company. But each of the international and regional titles also provides valuable information and services to a sector that, after all, can vote with its readership and spend if it doesn’t like any of them.

One of my fundamental rules of business is to respect your opposition. None of us like competition much, all of us need it. I read each one of them every day. I note the good, the bad and the (only occasionally) ugly. And I learn from them all.