Tense situation

24 Nov

Uh-oh. This correspondent will today choose to write his article in the future tense:*

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No, wait, the present (“describes”):

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No, wait, the past (“came”):

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No, wait, the future (“will try”):

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No, wait, the pres … ah. Now the reason for the strange mix of tenses is becoming apparent: this appears to be a news story (or “write-off”) based on a column by the shadow chancellor elsewhere in the same paper:

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And the full complexity of the situation becomes clear in the next paragraph. This isn’t just an article about a contemporaneous article, but also about a relevant speech due to be given later in the week …

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… which comes (will come?) after the most significant event of the party’s year – the general election defeat in April:

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So there are three distinct events – six months ago, today, this coming Friday – but, whichever way you slice it, the timeline is blurred: the tenses have bled into each other and the reader is not being accurately located in the sequence of events. Intervention is required.

It had previously been this blog’s position that there is never any need to write a print news story in the simple present tense. If you assume that the point in time from which a newspaper is written is early in the morning of the date on the masthead, then the future tense will do for any events happening later that day (which is to say, almost all of them). Anything that started the previous night should be written about in the past tense, or the present continuous if it is still going on.

But that overlooks the special case of a newsworthy statement being made by a public figure elsewhere in the same issue of that day’s paper. In this case, the news event is exactly contemporaneous with the publication of the paper – indeed, it is the publication of the paper.  That means that, for all its slightly self-conscious, declamatory tone, the simple present tense is the only one that really fits the situation.

And if you allow yourself to use it, the past-present-future of the story becomes easier to separate. Matters relating to McDonnell’s column: present tense throughout (“John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, today promises…”). Matters relating to his speech on Friday: future tense throughout (“the McDonnell speech will come as …”). Matters relating to the general election, of course, remain in the past tense; the imperfect “his promise came” in the third par, because it relates to the column, moves to the present.

News reports about your own newspaper’s content are curious items. They’re hardly unknown on the front page – if, say, you’ve got a political heavyweight declaring his defection to another party in print – but the less significant ones further back in the run are sometimes only a few pages away from the comment section in which their source material appears. But if you’re going to run them, they need to be in a present-tense time bubble of their own: so today Ten Minutes Past Deadline decides that it is changing its mind.


*Further discussions on whether “future tense” is even a meaningful term in English are welcome, although this blog remains of the opinion that “will” offers more than mere modality, and marks a kind of non-continuous, non-habitual future state that approximates very closely to a separate tense.

Surely he means baseball?

10 Nov

“Crickets”? What do you mean, “crickets”?

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This dropped into the subs’ queue, complete with question marks added by a baffled production editor, last week. It’s part of a piece about US presidential hopeful Ben Carson, written by a high-profile Capitol Hill commentator who regularly weighs in for the paper, so the OED probably wasn’t going to be the first place to look for an answer.

In fact, none of the heavyweight dictionaries, not even the American ones, record this usage. It’s only properly covered in the Urban Dictionary, which offers this nicely phrased explanation –

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– and, in the process, makes it clear that the writer has got the metaphor slightly wrong. “Crickets” would not be heard from his faith-based supporters; in fact, it is the absence of comment on the part of those supporters that allows the crickets, who have been chirping throughout, to be heard.

So the figure of speech will need to be repaired. But that’s not the end of the questions that this piece throws up. In one of the multitudinous permutations of author, subject, commissioning desk, production desk and audience now possible in a multinational news organisation, this piece was written by an American, about America, in response to a request from the UK, and handed to subs in the London newsroom to produce.

Its intended home was the UK Sunday print edition of the paper, but of course it will be going up on the web to a global audience, some of whom will understand “crickets” and some not. So do you fix the metaphor, but leave it unexplained? Take it out and replace it with a British metaphor? Take it out and replace it with something neutral?

Of all the potential pitfalls like this that lie in wait for the globalised newsroom, many are negotiated with great success. Australasian reality stars make their debut to showbiz fans in Berkshire without adverse comment. Local news stories sneak onto global most-viewed lists and engage a far wider audience than they were ever intended for. Live blogs on major incidents are handed over from bureau to bureau to bureau, Sydney to London to New York, in a race to stay ahead of sunset and keep the news alive. Home news stories with no international pretensions can take themselves around the world without assistance and survive; strangely, the ones that struggle – the only ones that really cause trouble – are those written in one country specifically for consumption in another.

What used to be a staple of foreign-desk reporting – the what’s-happening-in-Washington dispatch written by an American for Britons – is becoming almost impossible to edit, because you become trapped between its intended print audience (British English speakers who want a primer) and its likely audience on the web (American readers with an appetite for Beltway news who may already follow that author). Add more newsrooms across the anglosphere and the problems multiply. Do readers feel more alienated by exotic localisms such as “white-anting”* or “bodega”**, or by having something they already know explained to them like novices? Because you can’t edit to please them both.

This time, we decided to remove “crickets” altogether and replace it with a simple reference to silence. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to remove a metaphor from the copy of a brand-name columnist, but it’s equally uncomfortable to wave through something that provokes open bafflement in your own newsroom.

It’s still not clear what the solution is to this problem; it’s a coin toss every time. But it’s possible that it might solve itself: given how well unmediated news seems to travel these days, the whole genre of letter-from-abroad explainers might soon become a thing of the past.


* (Austr) Metaphorically, to undermine or hollow out an organisation or movement; to destroy something from the inside, in the manner of a white ant or termite.

** (US, particularly New York) A local food and wine store, especially if of Puerto Rican ownership; a cornershop

Fame at last

27 Oct
© 1994 Universal Pictures

© 1994 Universal Pictures

It’s a Hollywood movie about journalists, and it’s got everything you’d hope for: caffeinated news editors, sweaty reporters, babble, hubbub, clattering keys. But also, in the background, is a different, less familiar, sound: the voice of The Only Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film**.

In this scene from The Paper, directed by Ron Howard, it’s gone 6pm on a busy news day at the slightly hapless New York Sun. Metro editor Henry (Michael Keaton) is still chasing down a hot story about a double murder in Brooklyn as a possible new splash. But over in the corner, Lou the layout sub (Geoffrey Owens) is worried about what’s currently on page one: a legally tricky headline about the driver of a crashed subway train.

LOU: Henry, do you really want to run ‘SMASHED’ as the wood on the subway?

HENRY: (distracted) Errrrr … whatever fits. (Moving away to the reporters’ desks) I don’t care.

LOU: (calling after him) The thing is, it implies that he was drunk while he was driving a train. He could have got drunk afterwards.

ANNA: (walking past LOU’s desk) You’re accurate and ethical, and I want you out of this building.

(The camera follows HENRY as he is swept away by reporters clamouring for his attention, leaving LOU staring at the headline. Then a bright idea presents itself)

LOU: (calling faintly across the room) Hey Hen, I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark, what do you think?

(HENRY, intently watching a TV report on the murders, doesn’t reply)

LOU: (walking over) Henry: I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark. What do you think?

HENRY: (still distracted) Not gonna matter.

(JANET, HENRY’s secretary, comes over.)

HENRY: Did McDougall call in?


HENRY: No message at all from McDougall?

JANET: I have no motive for lying, Henry.

LOU: (persisting heroically) I tell you what, Henry, I’ll make a proof of ‘SMASHED?” with a question mark and I’ll show it to you.

HENRY (barely listening): I’m going down to composing, I’ll check it out there.

(A few minutes later, in the composing room)

LOU: What do you think?

HENRY: I hate it.

Now that – that – is the sub-editing experience. Hollywood, as we’ve observed before, understands the emotional journeys of other kinds of journalists well: reporters’ doggedness rewarded, editors’ courage vindicated, whistleblowers’ satisfaction when the truth comes out. The Paper doesn’t get subbing entirely right: there seems to be only two copy editors in a large building heaving with reporters, PAs and management, whereas in any real newsroom production staff are likely to form the largest discrete group. But the idea of agonising over a headline that gets heedlessly swept off the page two hours later aches with verisimilitude. And no other film has ever managed to capture the signature sub-editorial emotion quite so well – that nervous realisation that you’re the only person, in an office of 200 people, who’s noticed something’s wrong.


** UPDATE: As reader Sluggh rightly points out in the comments, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed, although she spends nearly all her time in the film as an undercover reporter, is actually a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that The Paper is the only time sub-editing is portrayed on screen. Unless someone knows different?


Five headlines that mean you might be working for a broadsheet and not BuzzFeed

13 Oct

Number four made me lol!

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OK, maybe “lol” is an overstatement. And that’s the trouble: BuzzFeed has hired a lot of ex-broadsheet reporters to make a determined run at hard news, and putting a “serious” feed alongside the usual gif-heavy listicles seems to be working. This could be a problem we in the old media need to respond to. I’m just not sure we’ve got the, er, range of material at the moment.

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Of all the innovations that new media is credited with making, what BuzzFeed is doing now might be the most fundamental. For as long as there have been newspapers, there have been tabloids and broadsheets. But I’m not aware of any media outlet that has tried being a broadsheet and a tabloid at the same time, and most certainly not on the same page.

This goes far beyond the “funnies” in American newspapers or the “and finally … ” items on TV news, carefully left to the end of the run. This is side-by-side gravity and irreverence at the top of the homepage. And it might be a transitional phase, but it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed as just another straight news source with none of its trademark “buzz”; it’s very possible that this is the final concept. In which case, I’m not sure we old-media types have anything to counter it with, unless the non-farm labour statistics are particularly upbeat over the next few months.

Newspapers have followed new media onto the web, into the blogosphere and across Facebook and Twitter, and done very well at it. But this looks like one path that we can’t go down at all.

Style is substance

27 Sep

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And they say style doesn’t matter:

The Guardian has been until now one of a dwindling number of newspapers and broadcasters using the term Burma rather than Myanmar, the regime’s official name for the country. What has divided the media on this issue is that the name Burma is associated with the democratic movement there, while the name Myanmar is associated with the army-dominated government which decreed its use in 1989, a year after troops had shot down thousands of demonstrators.

The choice of name was thus a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval.

Style can help with a lot of things. It can give a sense of authority and competence to prose by providing consistency and tidiness. With new or foreign names or places, it can rule out the genuine confusion that variant spellings and transliterations can cause. But, as the Guardian suggests, it can do much more than that: style can encourage you to think in a completely different way.

We will from today be using the name Myanmar, partly because it has become almost universal and partly because colonial names should be part of the past, along with the empires that gave rise to them.

This is a complex decision: one in which a leftwing paper’s nervousness over the legacy of colonialism is matched with an equal concern over modern-day totalitarianism – and the conclusion, in effect, becomes an entire editorial about a change to the house style guide. For sure, some style decisions are simple coin-tosses over which spelling to stick to for consistency; but not this one.

And three days earlier, with the Syrian crisis reaching its peak and fear of “migrants” growing, the Guardian’s production editor, David Marsh, was making an even bolder decision about style.

“The language we hear in what passes for a national conversation on migration has become as debased as most of the arguments, until the very word ‘migrants’ is toxic,” he writes. “Journalists, like politicians, prefer to keep a story simple, assuming readers and voters have a short attention span. Labels such as ‘migrants’, however, deny people their humanity, and somewhere in this sorry saga we are losing sight of the fact they are people.”  Therefore:

You will still see the word “migrants” or “migration” in the Guardian as a general expression to cover people who for whatever reason have moved, or are moving, from the country of which they are nationals to another. But “refugees”, “displaced people” and “asylum seekers”, all of which have clear definitions, are more useful and accurate terms than a catch-all label like “migrants”, and we should use them wherever possible.

This is not a right/wrong decision about a word being used incorrectly: as he says, the strict definition of a migrant covers everyone from the persecuted to the ambitious. This change is essentially a tone and judgment decision, a rhetorical decision – and therefore, in fact, a style decision.

You may agree or disagree with it as a choice, but it’s hard to disagree with the principle on which it was made. Words can quickly develop colours, meanings and overtones that outstrip the lexicographer’s ability to chronicle them. Nuances can change in between editions of Collins or Webster. Editors have to be alert to the changes as they happen. And that’s where style comes in: style guides begin where the dictionary ends.

And that’s why style is important. If a newspaper without sub-editors is not too bothered about how many ‘s’s there are in “focused”, then maybe it’s also not sufficiently curious about whether Yorgas Houliarakis and Giorgos Chouliarakis are the same person. And, if so, then maybe it finds itself incapable of keeping abreast of the debate when a national political controversy builds up over whether a migrant is actually a refugee. Style may start with the small stuff, but it doesn’t stay there.

The anglophone hotline

14 Sep

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Up at the top of the Guardian’s US website last week, everything seemed normal. There was the 9/11 anniversary, James Clapper, the shootings in Colorado, a police killing in LA, the Republican race; and foreign news from Syria, Hungary and Japan. Oh, and one item of British news too. But not about the British prime minister; nor even about the leader of the opposition, little though that person is generally known in the States: about a politician who at that point had never held any kind of frontbench job, or even won the election he was standing in. Corbynmania hasn’t just come to Britain: it’s cracked America too.

Why might this have happened? A look further down the US homepage, at the “most popular” listings, gives us a bit of a clue.

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The Guardian’s national homepages, for Britain, Australia and the US, are carefully editionalised, but the top ten most popular rankings, as we have discovered before, remain global lists, blindly counting all the clicks with no distinction made as to where they came from. So while Guardian US readers scanning the top stories get a familiar choice of topics, those wanting to find out what’s hot on the site today are presented with very different choices: Labour; Labour; American TV; Labour; European refugees; Labour; football; cricket; a UK reality show; and an acutely British scandal about two barristers having a row.

American readers might find, at best, three out of 10 of those stories familiar. But the priorities of Guardian readers as a whole are obvious from the list, even if you don’t recognise any of the names: Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership election are hot. The US website is an American publication, certainly, but a Guardian publication too: a balance needs to be struck between local stories and “Guardian stories”. So Jeremy makes the front page, with a concise explanation in the headline of where’s he’s from and why he’s news.

You might think this was a simple case of a British newspaper unavoidably exporting British news values as it expands overseas – of a one-way cultural transfer. But there seems to be something more going on than that, because look what was top of the American site this morning:

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Tony Abbott, the suddenly-now-deposed Australian prime minister, has made it to America too, and not just as a piece of “other news”. He’s the US splash – a splash about a man who runs a country of 23 million people, 10,000 miles away.

This isn’t just a British news organisation bringing British news to America: this is a British news organisation bringing Australian news to America. This is a cross-fertilisation of agendas that goes far beyond London Calling or the BBC World Service. Tony Abbott’s name is in lights on all three Guardian websites. He’s become the lead story on Anglosphere News.

Yes, managers, editors, and news brains – as they travel from country to country, setting up newsrooms, recruiting staff, instilling culture – bring their home sensibility to their new nation’s reporting. They do change the news. But, at the same time, the news changes them. Once you have experienced firsthand the excitement of an Australian “leadership spill”  – a political party’s out-of-the-blue uprising against its own leader or prime minister – it stays with you. Then, when you have moved on to your next country, and you hear of another one, your news sense – broadened by travel, fine-tuned by personal experience – is awakened again. You pollinate your new office with the excitement you remember from your old one. The insularity that would once have stopped you running the story has gone: only the journalist’s enthusiasm remains. Within six hours of the story of the spill breaking, Tony Abbott was out and Malcolm Turnbull was in: a national leader democratically challenged and toppled in 350 minutes from start to finish. How can that not be news?

As I write, the live blog on Abbott’s downfall is up to second place on the Guardian’s global popularity list, but Australia has been wide awake and clicking all day. How did it play overnight in Dallas-Fort Worth? We can’t tell. But it’s early in the US. Heat maps on news websites show that people visiting a newspaper’s homepage click on the lead article more than anything else on the site; if we think it’s news, it seems, loyal readers are prepared to take a look at it. And some stories really do deserve a wider audience.

By Giorgos, we’ve got it

31 Aug

Here are your options:

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Even on the fast-revolving carousel of Greek finance ministers, we haven’t come across this problem for a while. Yanis  Varoufakis’s name seemed to be anglicised (or, to be more precise, romanised) the same way the whole world over, from the Wall Street Journal to Paris-Match, and the brief tenure of the now-departing Euclid Tsakalotos didn’t seem to cause any major problems. But five minutes of  puzzled Googling for a short news story has thrown up any number of transliterations for the new man, Manchester-based academic Γιώργος Χουλιαράκης. The ECB says approvingly that “he knows what he’s doing”. Let’s hope, during his brief tenure until the Greek elections, that we look like we do too.

House style is always important to a certain extent – consistency of spelling and word choice all add subliminally to the authority and tone of a publication’s work. But transliterated proper nouns is where it really matters (and, simultaneously, where it’s hardest to be consistent). English-speakers not familiar with Greek nomenclature might well assume that Yorgos Houliarakis and George Chouliarakis are two different people with similar names in Athens, just as many might still be unclear that Deir ez-Zour and Deyr Azzour* – another notorious pitfall for transcription – are one and the same place in Syria. God bless Google – it finds all the variations whatever you search for. But that does mean that you can be deceived by confirmation bias when you hurriedly paste the reporter’s spelling into the search box  and see it come up with hits.

It’s a hard problem to solve. You can set some general rules for transliteration, as the Tribune’s style guide does in a 600-word entry on Arabic names, but even that starts off by admitting “there are dozens of ways of writing the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s name in English, and a reasonable argument can be made for adopting almost any of them”. The only real solution is to pick a style, notify everyone and keep a long and growing list of romanisations available for the copy desk to refer to. It’s a fiddly, awkward, case-by-case approach that can’t be replaced by rules or “common sense”, but it’s worth it: because otherwise you can cause an awful lot of confusion without ever being wrong.


* Or Deir Ezzor, or Deir el-Zour, or …


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