This headline has been optimised

20 Dec

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“Boob job scroungers” from Leeds, “va-va-voom” presenters out after hours in Sydney, twerking rappers in Beverly Hills: it’s hard to keep up when ambitious media groups start integrating their American, British and Australian stories into one big anglophone news agenda. And the fact that the stories are published online makes it even more difficult to understand, because headlines for the web are written to communicate with something even more important than the reader: search engines.

Search engine optimisation, or SEO – that is, the practice of ensuring that words likely to be used as search terms on Google are present in the headline and other furniture of a story – is a big deal. Studies at the Tribune suggest that no more than 30% of traffic to our website comes from people manually navigating to our homepage to see what’s going on: the vast majority comes from either social referral (people reposting links on Facebook and Twitter), or from search. In the case of one story I edited recently, about Black Friday, fully 90% of everyone who read it arrived via Google. Website front pages just aren’t pored over in the way that newspaper front pages still are.

What does that mean? It means that, in the limited space of a web headline, there’s very little room for jokes or obliqueness: not only do you have to include the keywords that sum up a story, it’s also best if they appear as close to the start of the headline as possible. But most of all, it means there’s not much room for explanations.

Take a look at the screenshot above from the Guardian website. As an American or British reader, you might find it largely baffling. Who or what are “Walkleys”? Which of the many Mark Scotts in the world is being criticised, and in connection with what – the American Broadcasting Company? The Audit Bureau of Circulation? What does the Duchess of York have to do with it (or perhaps it’s a different Sarah Ferguson)?

If you were writing a print headline for an international audience, you might put something like: “Star Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist publicly attacks boss at awards ceremony”. But if you were looking for it on Google, you wouldn’t type that. You’d enter something like “sarah ferguson mark scott walkleys”. And that’s what the headline is aimed at capturing. It contains almost every likely search term in 11 words. It’s good SEO.

Of course, the implication of this is interesting. The people who come to your story via Google – in other words, the majority of your audience, in many cases – are already familiar with the people they are searching for, and may even be previously informed about the story you have just published. It may be totally new to the audience coming from Twitter, who have seen a headline in a retweet, thought “what’s this?” and clicked on the link. But a Google audience is already sufficiently engaged with the personalities, or the politics, of the subject to compose a search string that can find a story they already assume must exist.

SEO headlines don’t explain what the story is about because they don’t have to: the audience they are aimed at already know. And that’s why it’s getting so hard to follow what’s going up on multinational news websites: even as the stories go global, the headlines are becoming local.

British hed said dead

25 Nov

Something big’s happened. As David Marsh, the production editor of the Guardian, announces, there’s been a change.

To quote a new entry in the Guardian style guide:

In the case of proper nouns, we now follow the spelling used in the relevant local variety of English (normally British, American or Australian). Examples: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Defense, Labor Day, One World Trade Center, Australian Labor party.

Why the change? Well, the old argument that “the Guardian is a British newspaper so we use British spellings” has served us well but no longer holds; we remain a British newspaper but one with many more readers outside the UK, especially in the United States …

A related change:

Where spelt in English, in whatever country, government departments now take an initial capital, as is already the case in the UK.

In other words, the US department of defence has – literally overnight – become the Department of Defense … This change has been driven by the growing realisation that it can appear insulting or demeaning to Guardian readers outside the UK to see their government bodies rendered in lowercase when we do not do the same for British ones.

You can see why it’s happened. But you can also see the potential ramifications of the decision, spreading out into other parts of the style guide. Because proper nouns aren’t a problem – or, rather, they are, but they are just the low-hanging fruit: the easiest decision to make among many more difficult ones if you’re trying to write a stylebook for a multinational media group.

How much further, if at all, can you go? For example, take non-proper nouns. In a story about the US Department of Labor and the Teamsters, how would you spell “organised labo(u)r” – with a ‘U”, as the British spelling, or without, to match the style for the department?

And the issues go beyond individual words. American, British and Australian English all have their own idioms, coloured by aspects of national life, which will overlap in a poly-national newspaper’s output. Do you try to regularise that? Which synonym will writers be permitted to use: “break a duck” or “get off the schneid”? Or both? Or – worst of all – neither?

American English has a huge influence over global English. Might this decision signal the start of a retreat for British spelling, terminology, tone? Some people think so: some people even think that the UK headline might be on the way out. Paul Bradshaw at OnlineJournalism looks at this announcement, looks at Huffington Post UK’s American-style furniture, and concludes: “We can no longer assume British journalists will be writing for British publications in a British style”.

Regularising the language that a news organisation uses sounds controversial but simple – a matter, basically, of decisiveness, of breaking eggs to make an omelette. But it isn’t simple: it’s almost impossible, because you can’t regularise a vocabulary without regularising the viewpoint that goes with it. The way to achieve that would be to populate all your overseas bureaus with staff from your native country: to export the British sensibility into a new milieu so that it can report back, using familiar spellings and similes, to the audience at home.

But that’s not what the globally ambitious UK news organisations – the Guardian, the Mail, the BBC – are trying to do. Their mission is much bigger: not just to report America to the British, but to report America to Americans too (and Britain to America, as well as – still – Britain to the British). So the New York bureau staff accreting round Guardian US’s British core are largely American. The same is happening in Sydney and Melbourne, where a parallel effort – British management, local staff – is taking place to report Australia to itself and the rest of the English-speaking world. The content being generated is not just letter-from-Los-Angeles dispatches for the foreign pages; it’s local stories for a local audience too.

So, if the Guardian’s Australian cartoonist chooses to commemorate Gough Whitlam on the occasion of his death, the sketches are not workshopped around three bureaus to check for name recognition. The cartoon is launched straight up onto the site from Sydney – side by side with the British cartoonists on Comment is Free – in the confidence that an audience interested enough to click on it will either know what it’s about or be interested enough to find out. When the Daily Mail puts Imogen Anthony straight onto its UK homepage with the briefest of descriptions (“23-year-old Australian model”), they are confident that the story (“sexiest dress I’ve ever worn!”) will make up for the other questions rising in British readers’ minds (“who?”).

And it follows that if the content is local, the language must be too. Rationalising the spelling and capitalisation of all proper nouns is almost as far as the style guide can go: any attempt to favour one dialect over another is just going to alienate the new home audiences that the overseas bureaus are trying to engage. The only thing to do is to let every bureau speak in its own voice and the trust that readers will adjust. If they can switch between the news agendas of three different territories – and, apparently, we already think they can – they can adapt to the unfamiliar expressions that go with them.

And that’s why the British headline isn’t dead. Perhaps it will now have to share space at home with transatlantic and antipodean ones, but the opposite is also true. For every British headline that disappears from a UK homepage, there will be another that appears on a screen in Detroit or Brisbane, encouraging a curious reader to go a little further, click on the link, find out why people are angry about a mysterious “Cobra briefing”, “D-Notice”, “ten-minute-rule bill”. The terms may be unfamiliar, but the issues might not be. And if it’s in the news, it’s probably important.

Red alert

8 Nov

This correction isn’t wrong, as far as it goes. But I’m not sure it’s right either.

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For sure, Antonov, based in Kiev, is domiciled in and owned by what is now the independent state of Ukraine. But the famous company was not exactly a pre-Communist symbol of national aviation. It was founded after the war as Soviet Research and Design Bureau No 153 in Siberia, under a Russian, before moving to Ukraine in the 1950s.  And the An-26 – Nato reporting name “Curl” – is a proper Cold War relic too: the first one flew in 1969; the last one was built in the year Gorbachev came to power. They were conceived at the height of Soviet influence, by a Kremlin-sponsored constructor operating in a highly centralised union that extended across 15 states. Is it historically meaningful to insist that they were “Ukrainian-made”? Or has the strife that has split the countries today created a retrospective sensitivity to a distinction that was much murkier then than it is now?*

Or perhaps the objection is simply related  to the continued use of “Russia” as a metonym for “Soviet”. Certainly, it’s hard to think now, amid the complexity of national tensions in the region, that the word “Russia” used to be taken to include Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states at a stroke. But it did, ubiquitously: during coverage of the Cuban missile crisis; in this piece written in 2007 by Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita; and in this one on Soviet design written earlier this year, to take just three examples from the Guardian itself. In each case, “Russia” appears in the headline for “USSR”; in the latter two, commenters regularly adopt the same usage below the line.

So it’s not quite clear why this correction has suddenly come up. Not, as I say, that the readers’ editor is wrong. The meaning and resonance of “Russia” is changing, and the best solution, here and probably every time this issue comes up, is to say “Soviet-made”. Perhaps it’s timely: stories about the eastern bloc will be high up the news list this weekend as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.

But when there’s an old Cold War turboprop droning into British airspace over Kent and RAF fighters going supersonic to intercept it, it takes you straight back to 1981. No wonder the writer reached for the comforting Iron Curtain terminology that people of my age grew up with. Enemies are like jokes: the old ones are the best.


An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone via Wikipedia


* And, if enforced, would this rule also applies to other eastern bloc products? Trabants are the vivid automotive symbol of the differences on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall; would they now be described as “German-made” because the DDR no longer exists? 



Errors and omissions excepted

29 Oct


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Kevin Langston, the New York Post reports, who was given 15 years in jail for his part in a gun-running operation, “is about to get sprung from the slammer early”  because of a mistake: the court’s official record shows he was only given a sentence of five years. According to the Post, “prosecutors say the transcript showing the shorter term was missing a ‘1’ due to ‘an error by the court reporter’, who has since retired and can’t be found”.

The Brooklyn district attorney is clear that this is a straightforward mistake:

“It is our position that this defendant benefited from a court reporter’s error,” said a spokeswoman for DA Ken Thompson. Langston, she said, “heard the judge sentence him to 15 years. The sentencing judge gave him 15 years, and that is what he should serve.”

But the appeals court does not see it as being nearly so straightforward, and has now ruled that Langston had “acquired a legitimate expectation of finality” with the five-year sentence. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle points out, although the court did have the power to amend the errant transcript, it went uncorrected for seven years.

The ultimate decision in the case – the DA’s office is reportedly “weighing its options” – will be a complex one, likely to involve discussions of double jeopardy (for example, whether any change in the transcript would mean Langston was being sentenced twice for the same crime).  But the central problem is a very familiar one to anyone who, like me, used to work as a legal editor: in court, typos are not a trivial matter.

Years ago, while working on a book about bills of lading and maritime law, I was proofreading extracts from widely used bills quoted in the text against the original documents. Quite by chance, I discovered that a significant chunk of one popular bill’s terms and conditions had gone missing from the latest official reprinting of the form. They were present in our book, quoted from the previous version, but absent from the small type on the new document itself.

I drew the author’s attention to this as a curiosity. Somewhat to my surprise, he not only got in touch with the issuing authority – which confirmed this had been an accidental omission – but insisted on reopening that chapter to explain what was absent, concluding that, legally, “the effect of this is unclear, to say the least”. Whatever the upshot of a hypothetical dispute over the missing clauses on that form might have been, it was clear that they could not simply be taken as read.

In descriptivist linguistics, what is meant ultimately takes precedence over what is said: this is why double negatives become intensifiers, “head over heels” means “upside down” and “irregardless” means the same as “regardless”. But in law, and in legal editing, it is frequently the other way round. What is said can trump what is meant – even if there was no confusion about intent; even if there was a mistake. This is why when you’re editing a court report – or writing a headline that might one day appear before a judge – descriptivism may not be enough to save you. When the lawyers are hovering, it’s not enough to know what you meant; you have to know what you’ve said.


Publish the bans

9 Oct

Most things aren’t banned,  not even in style guides. They’re “best avoided”, “not preferred”, “overused”, but not banned. House style expresses choices, counsels caution on homonyms, or corrects misunderstood facts and lazy thinking, but those don’t count as prohibitions.

Style guide editors can be withering in the extreme about poor writing without actually proscribing it. The Tribune’s production editor, an expert in being withering, points out about the word “iconic” that it is “in danger of losing all meaning after an average three appearances a day” in the paper. He then, in a separate entry, appends a list of everything we described as iconic “during a heady fortnight in 2010″, which appears to have included bluefin tuna, Kraft cheese slices, Nigel Slater and the parliamentary constituency of Hove. But even that doesn’t result in an outright ban:  “Our advice, even if our own writers rarely follow it, is to show a little more thought, and restraint, in using this term”.

Even with swear words and offensive terms, although there are adjurations to be very careful, we are permitted to print them in full when (for example) reporting stories about hate speech or disciplinary hearings.

No: a proper ban is a blanket prohibition on a word or phrase wherever it appears, even in its correct meaning. A strict-liability offence. And even in our style guide, there are some. This is what’s listed as banned – actually banned – at the Tribune.

authoress along with comedienne*, manageress, lady doctor and male nurse

full-blown Aids essentially meaningless: “people have Aids only when they present with an Aids-defining illness” (Unesco)

black-on-black violence “Imagine the police saying they were ‘investigating an incident of white-on-white violence between Millwall and West Ham supporters'”

committed suicide “suicide has not been a crime in the UK for many years”

dialogue of the deaf  “most deaf people are perfectly capable of conducting a dialogue”

the disabled Use “disabled people”

happy-clappy “avoid”

kaffir lime replace with makrut lime

lepers say “leprosy patients”

mentally handicapped say “person with learning difficulties”

Mid-East “never, even in headlines”; always Middle

north of the border “avoid this expression: we work on national newspapers”

persons “No! They are people”

post-ironic “idiotic”

practising homosexual along with “the equally grotesque ‘active homosexual'”

Siamese twins use “conjoined”

shark-infested on the grounds that a creature cannot “infest” its original habitat

skyrocket “No!”

spinster “has acquired a pejorative tone”

squaw now regarded as offensive

third world described as “outdated (as well as objectionable)”

wrinklies “patronising, unfunny way to refer to elderly people; do not use”

* The phrase “feminist comedienne” recently got quite a long way through the production process before being intercepted.

Defcon substantial

25 Sep

What is it we’re on that the moment – “severe”? Yes, that’s right: it was raised from “substantial” a month ago. Or do I mean lowered?

The UK Threat Level system, introduced eight years ago, is the national indicator for alertness to terrorism threats in the United Kingdom. The possibility of attack is measured on a five-point scale, in ascending order of danger, as follows: low, moderate, substantial, severe, critical. It’s a list full of strong words; in fact, you might argue, rather too full.

With the well-known US defence readiness condition (Defcon) system, which uses numbers, there is no rhetoric in the status beyond the simple raising or lowering of the level, once you have recalled which way the scale runs (five is low, one is high). Colour-coded systems have a little more emotional content to them – red alert! code blue! etc – but remain essentially inarticulate. For example, one of the status levels in the old “Bikini” alerts, the forerunner of the UK’s current system, was the terrifying-sounding “Code Black Special”. It sounded like the designation for a pre-emptive nuclear strike; in fact, it was just the midpoint of a standard threat scale that started at white at finished at red.

But once you employ words instead of colours, you employ rhetoric: you reveal how you want your audience to feel. And your audience, as readers, can begin to evaluate the way you write.

Exactly how much worse than “substantial” is “severe”? In this context, aren’t they almost synonymous? “Critical”, the highest level, is slightly easier to prioritise, as it is well understood as the most acute status in medical bulletins. But in the American Hospital Association’s five-point scale, the next two conditions below “critical” are “serious” and then “fair” at the midpoint. The gradations are much wider and better defined. Less formalised UK hospital bulletins sometimes drop straight from “critical” to “stable”, at other times via “critical but stable”.

But in neither case could you confuse the midpoint word with the highest word. The trouble with the UK terror threat scale is that it contains three terms that each, at a pinch, could pass for the highest one. The result is that you get dispiriting announcements to the effect that “the threat level has been lowered to severe“. Lowered to severe. The words are so close in meaning as to create a kind of unrelieved despondency whichever one is used, even when the threat of attack is relenting.

This is not to underplay the seriousness of the situation: heaven knows, no one who has lived or worked in London for the last 20 years needs to be reminded of how real terrorism is. But the danger  is that, by making such fine distinctions between such strong words, you lose the chance of galvanising the public at a time of crisis. Instead, you simply generate an exhausting, permanent vigilance that can vary only in the small range set by the scale.

Terrorism alertness systems are an important signal from government of awareness and action; properly used, they can call an entire nation to alert, and perhaps even reassure them afterwards.  But they need to be better written than this.

Big problem

11 Sep

This email from the Tribune’s deputy production editor goes in pretty strongly:

Just a reminder about the definition of enormity (sinful, wicked, morally wrong … not v big).

Now that’s a position that would be contested in many quarters. I hear the word used to mean “v big” far more often than I do to mean “morally wrong”. And the dictionaries tend to disagree too. Collins, our house dictionary, sticks largely on the traditional meaning and allows the idea of size only informally:

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But Merriam-Webster includes the third meaning on an equal footing with the others, holding that it is, officially, ambiguous:

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So, is the deputy production editor a stick-in-the-mud? Well, maybe not when you read the opening sentence of the article he was concerned about:

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Scottish independence is the most hotly contested issue on our website at the moment. Thousands of comments flood in for every article; fierce and sometimes hostile debate spills over even into pieces that only touch on the issue briefly. A misreading of “enormity” as a pejorative in the first sentence might have caused anger, creating extra work for those moderating the comments on the article, as well as an uncomfortable postbag for the writer, and possibly the editor, the following day.

However, as the deputy production editor says:

Thankfully the … piece on the front of today’s paper was clear-headed and even-handed enough for eagle-eyed readers to realise it was just a simple misuse of the word rather than an intentionally trenchant intro…

It’s possible that all readers either took the word at its more informal meaning, or, if they didn’t, kept reading until they understood that that was what was meant. But if the latter, we may have been fortunate: as Slate has found, most site visitors only read half of any story they click on, and a disappointingly high number don’t scroll down a story at all.  The tone that’s set in headline, standfirst and opening sentence is often the tone that readers take away with them.

As has been suggested here before, if you are helping an author into the cauldron of a debate like this, you have to watch their back. Yes, of course, language changes; it changes especially quickly when, as here, established professional writers start to embrace emerging meanings of words in their published work.

But precedent like this doesn’t eliminate the standing definition of the word at a stroke; language change takes years. If a reader took “enormity”, the 17th word of the article, in its traditional sense and objected to what he thought was being said, you couldn’t rely on authority to convince him he was wrong. You could point him to the bulk of the content of the piece and invite him to reconsider his interpretation; but all that mollifying substance comes after, not before, the most potentially inflammatory word in the piece, and may have already coloured everything he went on to read.

As editors, we can’t let that happen. Sometimes, we can sit back and observe the language changing, but not this time. We need to intervene on the writer’s behalf and ensure that a word that unstable doesn’t get near a subject that inflammatory.  It’s not true to say that “enormity” doesn’t mean “v big”; but, at the moment, it means other things too.


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