Flip-flop

9 Jul

Business section masthead puff as submitted to the production editor:

Business section masthead puff as returned from the production editor:

This is why senior management gets the big bucks. Perhaps the image was intended to create the impression of a carefree summer spirit, shoes and shades thrown down any old how as the sound of the waves grows irresistible … ?

No, you’re right.

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Box-office figures

25 Jun

Thanks, Google. Actually, I was just checking titles and release dates of films for a piece about how the sex scene is dying out in cinemas. But thanks.

I’m quite impressed that it even saw a sum it could calculate in that search. It’s not like I was looking for the French arthouse romance 5×2. Thank goodness I didn’t need to check From Here To Eternity.

Spruiking to the world

11 Jun

I know English-language news stories suffer from dialect problems when read outside their home country. I know that possibly the only solution for our rapidly globalising anglophone news sites is to “honour the author’s voice”* and hope overseas readers understand. And I know we’ve talked about this before. But strewth:

For those needing footnotes:

spruik (v) Australian archaic, slang to speak in public (used esp of a showman or salesman); to promote or publicise

doco (n) Australian informal short for documentary

And David Speers is a political journalist currently moving from Sky News to the less remunerative Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a move of some significance in Australian media circles since he “is famously paid a motza by Sky” (motza (n) also motsa, motser Australian informal a large sum of money, especially a gambling win).

Of course, this is an example of a piece produced by a global news organisation, in this case the Guardian, locally in Sydney for the local market. It has to be in Australian English or it would sound alien to its target audience. Even if you are outside Australia, however, you may well encounter it: it appears on the Guardian’s aggregator page for commentary, which (like its top 10 list) doesn’t differentiate between countries of origin. And although it may be possible to control who sees such stories using users’ geolocation data, no one yet – not the Mail or the Guardian, and often not the BBC – seems to be trying very hard to make that happen.

So, given that we may be encountering more antipodean English in the future, may I recommend a good reference source for unfamiliar phrases? The Australian National University’s Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms is full of helpful explanations if you should come across googs, nasho, pokies, firies** or somebody “shooting through like a Bondi tram”*** in your morning news report. I’m expecting to find it very helpful. Although you may not get to the point of having tickets on yourself, it should help you look less like a stunned mullet when the next barbecue stopper comes along.****

 

* This approach is followed punctiliously at the Tribune. I recently came across a piece that referred to Madonna’s notorious 1991 tour documentary as Madonna: Truth Or Dare. That was its title in the US, but in Britain and many other countries it was called In Bed With Madonna. I changed it for print, because the newspaper’s market is deemed to be the UK only. But what about the web, which is read globally? After a discussion, it was decided that, even though the film is American and Truth Or Dare is arguably its original title, because the article had been originated by the London culture desk, the author’s voice would prevail and In Bed With Madonna would win. Any article on the same subject written in the US, however, and reaching the same audience, would stick with the American title.

** Googs: eggs. Nasho: national military service. Pokies: slot machines, which in Australia often have a five-reel playing-card format that in effect deals you a poker hand. Firies: firefighters.

*** Departing in a hurry, in the manner of the now-defunct express tram to Bondi Beach, which would run non-stop (or “shoot through”) for part of its journey.

**** Having tickets on yourself: being full of oneself, feeling superior (origin unclear). Looking like a stunned mullet: being visibly disconcerted. Barbecue stopper: breaking news of such interest that it would even interrupt conversation at a barbecue. 

The ladder of others’ errors

28 May

I am reminded, as I periodically am, of Andrew Marr’s penetrating and double-edged tribute to sub-editors in his book My Trade, published in 2004:

The biggest division in journalism is between natural reporters and natural ‘subs’. It is a flesh and bone thing. The history of journalism is littered with awed accounts of men* who could tame torrents of sloppy, incoherent copy and turn them into clear, clean stories. It is a great talent and any writer who has been corrected by a great sub knows it. But it can come at a human cost. There’s a sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness to life’s natural subs, the result of clambering up and down a ladder of other people’s ignorance and errors. So much sloppy writing, third-rate thinking, self-indulgent prose and looming deadlines can sour your view of life forever … Subs are more inclined to be learned, to hold strong political and religious opinions, and to be either morose or ferocious; and they never get out of the office.

It’s not entirely complimentary, although given our total absence from some journalistic memoirs, it is at least nice to have been noticed. Some of it sounds like the natural incomprehension that the big-picture person (Marr, for those who don’t know him, was editing a national newspaper in his 30s and is now a top-line BBC broadcaster) feels towards the details person; it is not unknown for newsroom leaders to detect “a sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness” in those tasked with making their ambitious visions come true. And it is true that sub-editors are paid to worry for a living; in any discussion about recently released John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban”, the sub-editor will be the one saying “actually, shouldn’t it be Talib?”. But there is a difference between playing a defensive position, as a copy desk essentially does, and having a defensive personality: just ask Rio Ferdinand.

Furthermore, being a sub is not just trapping errors: it falls within our gift to write headlines, the most visible act of journalistic creativity and (as we like to joke with the Tribune’s reporters) the only part of the paper that anyone actually reads.

I wouldn’t count myself as morose and, though I might like to think otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not ferocious either. But it is probably true that moroseness is more prevalent among subs than it is reporters, where it would be a fatal handicap in a job that demands sociability. And correcting faulty copy is not as soul-destroying as Marr makes it sound. But as a description of sub-editing, “clambering up and down a ladder of other people’s errors” can hardly be bettered. And he’s certainly right about one thing: even on a day as sunny as this, we’re still stuck in the office.

 

*Sic. I think he’s looking at it from a long-term, historical perspective

The fine art of resurfacing

14 May

So what are the ethics here, exactly? We know that “resurfaced” news is not actually new at all, but old stories that have returned to prominence for some reason. Sometimes, as in the recent surge of interest in a rebarbative John Wayne interview from the 1970s, it happens because of a generational rediscovery of old events or old-fashioned views: while that interview wasn’t technically news, it appears to have been a revelation to many people under the age of 40. Also, quotes from it were put up on social media and went viral before it was picked up again by the mainstream media: news editors in those circumstances might argue that there was evident new interest in a story they didn’t realise had been forgotten.

But whether you think instructing a reporter to write up an old magazine article is a waste of time or not, it’s clear that here the act of “resurfacing” was done by a third party: all the the media itself did was respond to a piece of widely shared journalistic archaeology carried out by a member of the public. What if the situation were different? What if an article were to mysteriously resurface even in the absence of any obvious social media or news interest?

A story about Holly Willoughby’s lively early career on children’s TV is mother lode for the Mail: alcohol, risqué incidents, an opportunity to dig out racy pictures of one of the paper’s and its readers’ favourite celebrities. (As Decca Aitkenhead wrote in the Sunday Times last month: “To describe the Daily Mail as being obsessed with Willoughby would be an understatement – and also slightly unfair, for, in truth, almost everyone is.”)

But as you read the piece, which was published on 1 May, things start to get a bit strange. It is described as being drawn from an interview with the Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine, which leads you to think that the article is a midweek trailer for next Sunday’s paper – “read more revelations at the weekend!”. It’s only when you look into it a bit further that you discover, with a sense of disorientation similar to watching one of JB Priestley’s time plays for the first time, that the Mail on Sunday closed down Live magazine in 2013.

There is no hint of this anywhere in the article: no sense that this is all already on the record, that at least six years must have have passed, that none of it is news. The whole article is bathed in an eerie, and deceptive, timelessness. Willoughby’s current age, 38, is given at the top of the article, giving the vague but distinct impression that she has been speaking to the newspaper recently.  It takes the Express, stumbling along in its rival’s wake, to point out (briefly) that this interview has actually been “resurfaced”.

No renewed third party interest in the interview is cited, or evident, in the piece. No one appears to have tweeted “have you seen this old interview with Holly Willoughby?” No explanation is offered for the renewed salience of what was revealed a significant period of time ago. The Mail, it would appear, has simply rediscovered a copy of one of its defunct Sunday supplements, seen what was inside, and placed it at the top of its Sidebar of Shame for several hours – where, one suspects, it got plenty of traffic once again. Some stories are too good to check; it seems also that some stories are too good to run only once.

But what are the ethics here? Don’t you have to wait to be prompted before re-running something from your own archive? And when you do, don’t you have to explain why you’re doing it? Can you resurface your own articles just because you like them? Is this even allowed?

POIGNANT!

30 Apr

Did you see that? It was really POIGNANT! A quiet moment of NUANCE! It’s not all SHOUTING!

As a broadsheet sub-editor, I sometimes yearn to capitalise a word, tabloid style (ideally in red letters, underlined, and set slightly at an angle to the rest of the headline). It’s the most compact way, for example, of indicating an admission has been made after previous denials during a scandal (Disgraced cabinet minister DID make 3am phone call). But in the sober world of the quality press, we can’t: we have to tail off at the end and mumble something like “despite previous claims to contrary”.

If I had capitalisation privileges, though, I’d be more sparing with them than they seem to be at the Express:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is quite a lot of shouting, about almost everything: so much so that it interrupts the rhythm of the sentences and starts producing unexpected effects. It’s hard, for example, to read “we HAD one already” in anything other than a New York accent, and ‘NO’ SIX TIMES had Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling if You Want Me) stuck in my head for hours.

By contrast, the Daily Mail can demonstrate a fine ear for when to add emphasis, and an awareness of stressed and unstressed syllables that might satisfy even Giles Coren.

Even at the Mail, though, standards are slipping. In the headline below, although  “LET” is the word that’s most newsworthy, it’s not where the emphasis falls in the phrase. For musicality, it should really be “… let rivals Aston Villa SCORE”.

And that capitalised “NOT” in the second part of the hed is neither stressed nor necessary. I’d have gone for no emphasis, a dash after “injured” and changed “but” to “and”.

However, as I say, working in what Kelvin Mackenzie calls the “unpopular press”, I never get the chance to make these decisions. The only time anything like this has ever arisen at the Tribune was when our former news editor, who is mixed-race, wrote a piece in the week Obama was first elected with the headline “Now I can be proud of what I really am: black AND white”.

After a discussion, we went with italics rather than capitals. It felt more broadsheet.

A talent to amaze

16 Apr

Goodness, can this be right? Is the most famous friendship in British showbusiness under so much pressure that fans have been reduced to tears – and all because of one presenter’s jibe about the other presenter’s wife?

No, of course not. Nothing of the sort. And yet every word of that headline is true.

For those concerned, And and Dec are not at each other’s throats over something Ant said about Dec’s wife. As soon as you  read past the headline, you find out what really happened. But of course by then, fearing the worst, you’ve already clicked on the link.

What actually happened was that, as part of hosting Britain’s Got Talent, Ant and Dec went on stage with an illusionist who played on the fact of their close friendship by blindfolding them and making it appear that each could feel when the other was being touched on the arm. They then both drew something with their eyes closed that turned out to be identical. This was the “test” of how close they were, and the thing that apparently moved viewers to tears. Prior to that – and unrelated to the “tests” – Ant had observed to Dec how amusing it would be if the illusionist, whose face was completely covered, turned out to be someone they knew, like Dec’s wife.*

Why, in a story full of celebrity moments and eyecatching variety acts – including my favourite, the tambourinist who hits himself in the face with his tambourine – did that brief aside make it all the way into the headline? Perhaps we can make a guess.

The misapprehension can’t survive through the lengthy standfirst, of course, so the confusion evaporates almost as soon as a reader has clicked through to the article. But we have talked before about how misleading headlines can be, even accidentally, when divorced – as they often are on homepages – from any accompanying furniture. If the ambiguity is not entirely an accident … well, then the sky’s the limit.

And you can see how easily such confusion can be created. After years of reading real news, the brain assumes the most important facts of the story are in the headline, that those facts are related to each other, and that, in the language of headlinese, prepositions imply causation. All you need to do is subvert any one of those conventions – and this headline, by accident or design, breaks all three – and you’ve created fake news. You don’t have to make anything up. You just have to leave things out.

 

* You might think that struggles to qualify as a “jibe”. And you might also think the viewers were reduced to tears by Ant and Dec jointly. You might not think it was entirely down to Ant (whose troubled personal life has made him, of the two, far more the subject of newsroom interest in the past two years).