The web is where the work is

17 Aug

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John McIntyre writes:

Today, I have to tell you, working as a print-only copy editor is not a job with a future. A tremendous amount of content goes online, and it must be produced, formatted, and, yes, edited. If you can’t or won’t master these skills, the paper will find someone who will. This situation is exactly parallel to the introduction of editing for print on computers thirty years ago.

He’s right. There is concern in some places that the function of the website – hitherto, perhaps, an adjunct to an established newspaper – is starting to encroach on the production of the main event: printed pages. That’s certainly what’s happened here at the Tribune. Where once the uploaders meekly fished into a pool of print stories and put a few of them on a website as an experiment, now the whole day is arranged for the production of rolling live news online, and the print newsdesk is the one unobtrusively harvesting stories for the paper that have already been published for hours.

That sounds depressing: but it isn’t. In fact, it’s good news. The success of internet news is far from the worst thing that could have happened to copy editors.

Twelve years ago, before it was clear that newspaper websites were going to work, news publishers’ proposals for survival revolved around taking costs out of the print operation. There was a distinct prospect – which has become a grim reality in many places – of print subs being bypassed altogether for a model in which reporters typed straight onto pages drawn up by designers, and either wrote their own headlines or wrote headlines for each other. Redundancy has beckoned for thousands of subs, particularly in the US and the British local press.

Now, the economics of newspapering are far from being solved, and the gaps in some balance sheets are as bad as they ever were. But the spectacular audience success of news websites has presented some copy-desk managers with an even more pressing problem: suddenly, there’s just so much work to do.

Why? On a typical print paper, a designer takes care of the pictures, worries about where the adverts sit in relation to the editorial, and talks to the graphics desk, while the sub just takes care of the text. The visual work and the textual work are divided. But on the web, there is no designer for the article – or, to look at it another way, the webpage – that you are working on. Yes, the basic web layout will be a template: but you, the copy sub, are now the one flicking through the photo library, navigating round the downpage pop-up ads and wrestling with the embed codes for the bar chart, before you ever get to the headline and the text. On the web, you are the editor, the picture editor and the designer.

This transfer of emphasis from print to web has had another consequence too. When the paper was the flagship, all the management attention and agonising – over photoshoots, headlines, word counts, look and feel – was directed to the print pages. This was the period when the web was seen as being cheap and easy, quick and dirty – a headline, some text and maybe a pic semi-automatically ported into cyberspace. But now, as the website itself becomes the calling card of a news organisation, that attention is getting focused online. We have started to see the emergence of elaborate internet-only showpieces like the New York Times’s “Snowfall” or the Guardian’s “Carbon Bombs” – productions as intricate and labour-intensive as the most impressive double-page graphic. The management at the Tribune has now explicitly asked for more production time to be taken over web stories, to furnish them with extra pictures and other display items.

What does that mean? As an experiment, below is a representative sample of articles, ranked in length order, from my last two news shifts on the Sunday edition of the paper. I timed how long it took me to edit them for print, then stopped the clock and restarted it to find out how much extra time was needed to prepare the same article for the web.

The old production system at the Tribune, which we still use for the Sunday edition, is ideally suited for this experiment, because it’s an integrated print-and-web system that prepares articles for both formats. (Production on the daily edition, by contrast, has now split onto two entirely separate platforms.) Working on a Sunday article naturally breaks itself into a two-stage, print-then-web process. You edit, cut the copy and write the furniture just as you would for a print-only paper, with the only proviso that any copy sacrificed for fit but otherwise decent is put into ‘web-only’ mode, cutting it from the paper but not from the internet.

Then, after you’ve finished the article for print, you

  1. Create a separate suite of web furniture (headline, standfirst, trail etc) based on your print furniture, rewritten as necessary to improve search-engine optimisation.
  2. Add a picture to the web article from the electronic photo library and write an Google-friendly caption.
  3. Find and embed further pictures in the body of the text (about one every 600 words or so) to break up long articles.
  4. Create a URL slug (the part of the web address that comes after the main site name, thus: http://www.thetribune.com/this-bit-is-the-slug), based on your headline.
  5. Add reference tags (usually seven or eight, selected from a large database) to the article so that it can be indexed by author, subject-matter and section on the website.
  6. Preview the webpage for appearance, and check your new furniture for widows and orphans (sometimes it takes two or three attempts to get it looking neat).
  7. Clear your search-engine optimisation efforts with the audience team, who will advise on what popular terms ought to be appearing in the headline.
  8. Launch the article.

Here’s what I found:

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The lengths of time spent print subbing vary as much as you might expect: from an hour and a half for a 1,400-word double-page spread with all the trimmings down to less than 10 minutes for a single-stick news story with a one-column headline.  But the time taken to web an article after subbing it varies much less: from half an hour for the big piece (most of it spent on picture research for the additional photos) down to 12 minute for the short story. There’s an irreducible minimum of work needed to get an article online, no matter how insignificant it is: you have to follow at least seven of the eight steps listed above every single time. In fact, as the table shows, at below the 500-word mark, the time needed to web an article starts to exceed the time needed to edit it traditionally. In other words, short news stories now take more than twice as long to prepare as they used to.

The editor-free, reporters-typing-onto-pages model, if it was ever going to work, might have worked in an impecunious non-digital era where to fill two text boxes was to finish the job. But that’s not how it is on the web. The web needs work: work that is too time-consuming and technical for a reporter to do. And that’s why copy desks that embrace the internet may actually be good news: because in cyberspace there’s more work to do, not less.

The secret of singular ‘they’

3 Aug

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Singular “they” is a good thing. It helps you avoid the clunkiness of “he or she”/”his or her”/”himself or herself” all through an article where gender is irrelevant. It is sometimes the preferred non-specific pronoun when referring to a trans person. And there’s one other thing it can do as well: it can help avoid a lawsuit.

The Sunday Times’s high-profile revelation about doping in athletics comes with some alarming statistics, but no names – at least, not of the guilty. It has identified and exonerated some favourite British stars, to widespread national relief, but also found one “top UK athlete” whose blood-test results are said to be highly irregular.

But because journalists agreed with the whistleblower who provided the data that they would not identify anyone on the suspicion list – and possibly also because the athlete in question, who emphatically denies the allegations, has threatened to sue – identities have been strictly concealed. Everything is withheld: the name, the events, the sport, and, thanks to singular “they”, even the athlete’s gender.

A top British athlete looked shaken last weekend when the Sunday Times showed them the list of their own results in the blood-doping data …

The athlete firmly states that they “never cheated” and supports calls for more money to be spent on stamping out blood-doping …

The data shows that the athlete’s blood scores increased as their performances improved on the national stage …

… the athlete swore on the lives of loved ones that they had never doped …

Last week the athlete said their score had been elevated because it had been taken when they were dehydrated after winning a race in summer temperatures.

Thanks in part to singular “they”, the whole article largely avoids the danger of jigsaw identification. All that can be gleaned from it is that the person in question is a “top UK athlete” (whatever that means); that they were some kind of racer (which rules out the Olympic ball sports or field events like javelin and hammer); that they were active in the first decade of the 21st century; and that they are, perhaps, retired (with a hint of finality, the article refers to them having tested unusually highly “on three occasions during their career”). That’s all.

In those circumstances, perhaps specifying gender wouldn’t have gone much further in directing suspicion. But incorporating all athletes of both sexes that fall within those very loose parameters leaves even the most eager speculator with little to go on.

 

Due to a cartooning error …

21 Jul

Some corrections make one hang one’s head in shame:

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Others, however, not so much:

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Every four years, thanks to the generous human resources policies at the Tribune, the chief sub gets a sabbatical of between four and eight weeks and it falls to me, as his normally carefree deputy, to actually earn my salary and take the reins of the business section while he’s away.

When you’re the chief sub, no matter how big the paper or the pages you produce, you feel personally responsible for all of it. In fact, the Tribune’s weekly biz section is small enough that you can lay out all the pages, pick all the photos and revise all the articles yourself, if they’re filed in good time. But that means the pain is all the sharper when you discover something that passed before your eyes popping up in the corrections column.

The first mistake was just infuriating, especially when one prides oneself on one’s punctiliousness in compound hyphenation; but it is an embarrassing classic of the genre, especially as it inadvertently touches so closely on a real issue of ethnicity and opportunities.

The second one, though … I’m not entirely sure there can even be a mistake in a cartoon. An apology for a lapse of taste, certainly: but a factual correction?

Presumably, this isn’t a serious undertaking to observe strict realism in all visual jokes – because once you start correcting metaphors, where do you stop? The cartoon also shows Jean-Claude Juncker at the wheel of a vehicle bearing the livery of the “EU Euro Police”: to clarify, perhaps we should make clear that there is no such organisation. Nor, to the paper’s knowledge, has Alexis Tsipras ever been the victim of a rear-end collision near the offramp to “Grexit” while driving an overloaded hatchback painted in the colours of the Greek flag.

In newspapers that never publish corrections unless forced to, there is never any need for a clarification to be other than brief and to the point. The existence of a regular corrections column in every issue of the paper, by contrast, is possibly the single most significant indicator of editorial probity a paper can make. But it does mean that the column can suffer from the same problem that afflicts the rest of the paper: that it has to be filled, no matter how much or little material there is that day.

Many readers’ editors have bylined weekly slots for longer discussions about grey areas or lighter matters, but the corrections column itself  – 200 or so words, five or six days a week, rain or shine –  is a 1,200-word job that has to be delivered no matter how few readers have complained.

So one thing that’s tending to happen is that the ambit of the column is starting to widen. The Guardian has taken to occasionally correcting instances where house style has not been followed, even though the word that was used instead is not incorrect, such as this example involving ‘wrack’ and ‘rack’:

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(“Rack” is greatly to be preferred in this case, of course, and I would always delete the “w” myself. But both spellings for that definition appear in Collins, which means that it’s not a homophone but a variant, and arguably not a “mistake” at all – more an internal point of interest for staff.)

And, because the never-ending roll of errors can be depressing to recount, the other thing that’s tending to happen is that levity and tonal variation are being introduced: here, for example, the Guardian introduces some tennis-themed kickers to its Wimbledon corrections:

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It’s all harmless fun, I suppose – and I’ve never yet seen anyone be foolish enough to make a joke over an actual apology or retraction. But it does indicate that something is starting to change – that the Fleet Street corrections column is moving from being an innovation to being an institution: part of the show, almost.

In a newspaper culture whose traditional response to mistakes was silence and defiance, that might be something to celebrate. But for an appointed outsider like an ombudsman, whose independence, even from the editor-in-chief, is supposedly total, it might be something to be wary of too.

Is that finished yet?

6 Jul

 

Picture 85

Ah, the feature for page 30 is in. Thirteen hundred words of body text, headline, standfirst, pullquote, and a caption. No, wait, hang on – 44 captions.

And, just visible somewhere in the middle of the queue*, one sub-editor setting to work with a will.

Poor Robert. Wish him luck.

 

*Click to enlarge

The progressive prescriptivist

23 Jun Small taxi

If you ever wondered what “Mx” meant – as in the courtesy title, “Mx Pat Smith” – you can now look it up. Stan Carey at Sentence First writes that the dictionary for which he works, Macmillan, has created an entry for it for the first time.

Mx is like Ms, but whereas Ms is a title that is non-specific about marital status, Mx is a title that is non-specific about sex. It’s intended for trans people, intersex people and others who would prefer not to be specific, at least in formal correspondence, about gender.

Although it’s completely new to me, Mx appears to have been invented, according to a well-researched post by Nat Titman, as long ago as the late 1970s. The lexicographer Jonathan Dent attributes its first use to a US magazine in 1977, and observes: “The early proponents of the term seem to have had gender politics as their central concern [and] saw the title as one which could sidestep the perceived sexism of the traditional ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’.”

But the key here is that, whoever invented it and whenever it happened, it was invented: that is to say, it was consciously proposed as a new word in the hope of introducing it into the language. Mx has no roots in Middle English, nor was it naturally appropriated from 18th-century Persian. It is a suggestion, a proposal, an innovation; in other words, it is prescriptivist.

In its identification of a point of weakness in the language and its determination to do something about it, it is almost Fowlerian in spirit; indeed, it calls to mind Fowler’s quote in Modern English Usage:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the most modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

Exactly the same was true, 114 years ago, about Ms. As the linguist Ben Zimmer notes in the New York Times, when the term was proposed, it too was an innovation – another artificial construct designed to bridge an obvious gap in the language. Just a few years after the publication of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, an anonymous resident of Massachusetts wrote in the Springfield Sunday Republican:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill … Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.

And so he went on to propose the use of Ms as a simple, embarrassment-avoiding alternative: “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

A few years ago, there was an interesting discussion on You Don’t Say about the politics of linguistics: specifically, whether prescriptivists were rightwing and descriptivists leftwing. Left-of-centre commentators pointed out that prescriptivists spent much of their time being explicitly conservative: defending old usages and deriding new ones. Right-of-centre commentators objected to the what they saw as the hypocrisy of political correctness, which they perceived as the “prescriptivism of the left”. What the invention of Mx, and the success of Ms, suggest is that the linguistic-political divide is more complex than simple left-and-right.

In the decades that followed the proposal of “Ms”, the term provoked political debate. It was mocked as modish, or defended as equitable: a classic left-right disagreement. But that debate did not take place between prescriptivists and descriptivists; it happened between two different schools of prescriptivism, conservative and progressive – one group who wanted to preserve the language, the other who wanted to improve it. Engineering change and enforcing traditions are both equally alien to descriptivism, which, in its purest form, simply observes popularity and usage regardless of antecedents.

The procedure by which words get into a dictionary, of course, remains a descriptivist one: Macmillan would not have considered Mx for inclusion simply on the basis of one magazine editor’s decision. Usage, and evidence of usage, is the only measure of success or failure for an innovation. Prescriptivism proposes, descriptivism disposes.

But that process is not as easily projected onto the left-versus-right political map as it might seem – for example, modern linguistics might have waited indefinitely for a non-sexist alternative to “chairman” if a progressive prescriptivist had not suggested “chair”. Descriptivism can be laissez-faire as well as inclusive; prescriptivists can innovate as much as they preserve.

Lines below the line

2 Jun

They always tell journalists never read to read the comments, but sometimes it’s worth it. In between all the routine messages that get posted under news articles on the web – the rude, the facetious, the rambling, the diatribe on a different subject posted to the wrong piece by mistake – occasionally you find something fascinating.

Like this. It’s posted in the comments of a fine poem on climate change, “Doggerland”, written in the Guardian by Jo Bell. It’s from the author herself, and it’s not really a comment at all: in fact, apparently as the result of an oversight, it’s a very slightly different version of the same poem.

The published poem itself reads as follows:

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Bell’s message, posted quite soon after publication, is sent simply to address a technical problem. “Thanks for publishing my poem but the line breaks are wrong – it should look like this. Perhaps it does in print!”, she writes, and posts the poem again underneath as a guide.

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A Guardian editor responds quickly: “Sorry about that Jo. It’s been restored to the correct format now.” But neither of them appears to have noticed that the poem that Bell reposted was not quite the same one.

The first two verses are identical. But whereas the third verse in the published version begins:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading uplands sixty fathoms back; saw nettled deer tracks
pooling, inch by sodden inch, into a whaler’s channel

Bell’s posted version reads:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading high ground sixty fathoms down. He sickened for
the nettled deer track, brimmed into a whaler’s channel

They make for an interesting comparison. It seems a good choice to leave out ‘sickened’ in the published version. It’s an emotional word that tips the hand of the poem too early: the published version saves the surprise of Pilgrim’s conversion to the last verse. ‘Pooling, inch by inch’ is a good addition, providing a sense of the geological slowness of the sea’s rise, the sense that ‘time is water’. On the other hand, ‘sixty fathoms down’ in the posted version is much easier to understand that ‘sixty fathoms back’, which is an odd adverb to use for a measure of depth.

There are changes in the next verse too. The published version reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shift and shiver; saw the caverns filled, the railways rivered
and the Pennine mackerel flashing through lead mines

Whereas the one posted in the comments reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shiver; saw the caverns full and railways rivered
Pennine mackerel flashing through the lead mines

Here the rhythm of the posted version emphasises the internal rhyme, shiver/rivered, better than in the published one: the shorter 12- and 11-syllable lines in the former are 14 and 12 syllables in the latter.

It’s hard to pick a favourite between them: I’d almost prefer a hybrid version of the two. And the posted poem isn’t a perfect guide to the line breaks for the editor, of course, because some of them aren’t even the same lines.

On the assumption that no one at the newspaper would have dared to rewrite a poem, the question then becomes which one is the earlier version and which one the later – or, to put it another way: which is the work in progress and which is the poem?

Marginal differences

14 May

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It’s not all that hard to count to 331, but, as we can see above, there’s more than one way to get there.

In the aftermath of the general election, it fell to me to check the paper’s giant map of the seats won and lost across Britain on 7 May. In particular, the graphics department wanted to know how many gains – gross gains, that is: gains before losses – had actually been made, so that they could list them all around the map. Out of a total of 650 parliamentary seats, that seemed like an elementary request. Or so I thought, until I found that two reliable sources (the Guardian, top, and the BBC, above) were giving completely different figures.

To take the Conservatives as an example, both sources have them winning 331 seats in total. But the Guardian has them gaining 38 seats from other parties (and losing 10), while the BBC has them gaining 35 (and losing 11). How can that be? No wonder graphics was puzzled: I was too.

Clearly, since they imply net gains of 28 and 24 seats respectively, the two sums can’t even be working from the same base figure of constituencies held before the election. So what figures are they using? Subtracting the net gains from the total of seats now held – 331 – is an obvious place to start. That reveals that the Guardian (331 – 28) is working on a basis of 303 Conservative seats already held, while the BBC (331 – 24) is working on a basis of 307.

Hmm. Odd. Can we relate either of those two figures to data about the previous election? Time for a quick trip to the Electoral Commission’s website, where we find that … oh:

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Now we have a third figure for seats won in 2010: 306. What’s going on? Can we not even agree on a figure for the number of seats the largest party in the country holds from one general election to the next?

And then, after slightly longer than one cares to admit, the light began to dawn. The clue to the Electoral Commission figure is down at the bottom of the graphic: “Speaker (1)”. The Speaker of the House of Commons is an apolitical figure who votes only in the most exceptional of circumstances; nonetheless, he or she is still notionally an MP who stands for election as a representative of one of the parties. And the current Speaker, John Bercow, is a Conservative: the Tory MP for Buckingham. So if you add him to the Conservative total, you get 307: the same as the BBC’s figure. And then it all starts to become a lot clearer.

Clearly, the BBC is using the data from the 2010 election as its basis point. So what is the Guardian using? One obvious possibility is that it is factoring in changes to the makeup of the Commons that have taken place since 2010. Can we account for the discrepancy by looking at byelection results in the last parliament?

According to parliament.uk, there were 21 byelections in the last parliament. Three of them resulted in the Conservatives losing a seat, and all three are still reasonably memorable events for political wonks: author Louise Mensch’s unexpected resignation from her seat in Corby in 2012, which resulted in a Labour win; and the high-profile defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless from the Tories to Ukip in the runup to the election, when both incumbents won their seats back under new colours.

That reduces the number of seats the Tories held in parliament from 307 to 304, which is getting closer to the Guardian’s figure. Could it be that the Guardian is simply discounting the Speaker’s seat? It seems not: the election interactive is clear that it is talking about all 650 seats in the country, not 649 as would be the case if Buckingham were excluded.

It’s only when, exploring the interactive, you discover the striking fact that ultra-safe Tory seat of Kensington is described as a “gain” that you find the last missing piece. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and MP for Kensington, was suspended by the Conservative party, and ultimately decided not to stand for re-election, after being caught in a cash-for-access newspaper sting in February. Technically, therefore, as a sitting MP who has had the party whip withdrawn, he counted as a seat lost before the election, and therefore a Tory “gain” (from an “independent”) when his successor duly won. So the Guardian’s total, omitting Mensch, Carswell, Reckless and Rifkind, is also correct: 303.

So who’s right? In short, everyone. The BBC is working on a previous-election basis, using unmodified figures from the 2010 ballot. The Guardian is using eve-of-election figures, reflecting the actual position of the parties on the day before the country voted in 2015.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. If you work on an eve-of-election basis, you’re using running totals based on the quality of your own electoral research and arithmetic. If you work only on the official previous-election numbers, the maths is simpler, but you have to remember the “byelection factor”: some triumphant regainings of marginals lost in midterm will actually be “holds” for your purposes, and some routine victories for the winners of half-forgotten byelections actually “gains”.

If you’re wrestling with British electoral totals (and you might not be for another five years … although who knows?), here’s a table covering four of the most likely problems you may encounter (click to enlarge). As to how 2020’s calculations will go, if the major boundary changes and seat reductions planned by the Tories go through in this parliament – heaven only knows.

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