Pet project

13 Nov

Of all the Daily Star’s front pages I’ve seen, the one that startles me the most is not KILLER SPIDER MADE MY LEG EXPLODE, or TESTICLE EATING KILLER FISH ON WAY TO UK, but this:

Even for a newspaper that reports ghost stories as news stories and routinely leads on reality TV (sometimes both at the same time), it’s remarkable. The facts: a hamster in Wales has escaped inside a woman’s car and is eating the upholstery. Why is that the splash? Obviously not because of the importance of the news, but because of the opportunity it presents for the headline. What the page is meant to echo, of course, is this:

Tabloid front pages claim a special niche in the public memory: people remember GOTCHA, HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, and SWEDES 2, TURNIPS 1 even if they don’t recall all the details of the stories.* Redtop back benches are well aware of the place they hold in the common imagination, and will often run variations on their most celebrated jokes in follow-up stories.**

But those stories are nearly always big stories (by tabloid measures), and the running gags are always their own. Here, the Star is emulating not itself, but the Sun: it is running a story with no front-page value simply so that it can echo a 30-year-old headline published in its closest rival. This would be weak splash even if they were repeating their own joke; it’s quite disconcerting that they’re repeating someone else’s. It seems almost deferential. And if you were a millennial tabloid reader who’d never heard of Freddie Starr, what on earth would you make of it?

* Indeed, this is what happened here: the car’s owner, Amanda Johnson, recalled the Sun’s famous story and retrospectively named the car Freddie because it was being eaten by a hamster.

** For example, after England’s dismal 2-1 loss to the Swedes turned the press against the national team’s manager, Graham Taylor, his departure the following year was heralded with the headline THAT’S YER ALLOTMENT.

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Hands across the water

30 Oct

No matter how far a British warship sails, she’s always under the watchful eye of the Daily Mail. More so than ever these days, now that the Mail has fully functioning newsrooms on three continents, all operating  entirely transparently to its global readership. Well, almost.

Observe as 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth sets off for the US on Saturday, a £3bn aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage, picking up two “US F-35B” fighters on the way. Weeks later, she “sails into the blue skies of New York City Friday” (the skies?): safely arrived, but now a “70,000 ton” ship costing “$4bn”, “multimillion-dollar” fighters embarked and accompanied by a quote from the “UK defence secretary”.

As we have discussed before, it’s not the big things that confound the emerging anglophone news agenda: everyone’s interested in Trump, Instagram models, celebrity affairs and viral video, no matter where they originate in the world. It’s the small things, the detail points that betray who you really think you’re writing for: the weights and measures, the indications (or not) of nationality, the brief explanations of localisms considered necessary or unnecessary. It may be a British-built ship flying American-made fighters, but all the available dialects for this story are local: there is no global English for the global newsrooms to speak.

Do readers notice? They don’t seem to complain. Well, not often.

And it’s just as well: it would be very hard to eliminate parochialisms at the micro level like this. Thank goodness that football pitches in Britain and America are both approximately the same size:

Time-travelling bongs

16 Oct

Ah, the perils of writing ahead:

Picture 188

It’s 18.38 on Thursday 4 October, and PA has just published a short news story about Big Ben. Silenced since the start of the year, the great bell is to be test-sounded by a jury-rigged hammer system, set up so that it may later ring out for Remembrance Day and the new year.

When will this happen? “On Thursday”. What time? “Between 8 and 10pm”. Anything else? Yes, there’s a quote from an MP, “who was in parliament to hear the rare chimes”.

What, at 18.38? What did they do, reverberate back though time?

For some time, when specifying the time element for web news, it has become customary not to say “today”, “yesterday”, “tomorrow” or “last night”, but instead to simply state the day of the week on which an event took place. So an online news story, accessible around the world as it is, will simply say “Thursday” even when it means “today”.*

However, when writing for print, it frequently happens that significant events are due to occur between the copy deadline the previous evening and the appearance of the newspaper the following day. In such cases, what one is supposed to do is write in a cascade of conditionals and future perfects: “It is expected that the vote will have taken place by the early hours of this morning, by which point some senators are likely to have been detained in the capitol for more than 24 hours.” However, it has sometimes been the case that – how to put this? – certain events get anticipated, and written about as though they have already happened, hours ahead of schedule.

At its least harmful, this practice comes in the form of the spurious “last night”; “The Conservative party was in turmoil last night” leading a story filed at five to five in the afternoon. But this example is worse: here, an event that is likely but not certain is written about as though it had definitively occurred some hours before, a throwback to the worst practices of print – made even more conspicuous by the jarring change of tense from the start of the story, which is written, web-style, in anticipation of the moment.

This is the kind of thing sub-editors can head off firmly when they see it; but in this case the whole thing went up live on the Daily Mail’s apparently unedited wire feed, where it can’t have inspired much confidence in journalism among those who read it closely.

 

*This is still slightly confusing for middle-aged journalists: when this same PA copy came through to be used as a brief for print, members of Tribune staff stared at it blankly for almost a minute before realising it would need to be rewritten in the past tense for Friday’s paper

Like Donkey Kong

18 Sep

I left the word “on” in the copy when I sent it through, honest.

Our film reviewer was impressed when he saw a preview of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s scabrous and inventive reimagining of life in the court of Queen Anne. When the two rivals for the queen’s affections, Abigail and Lady Sarah, first clash, he wrote, the contest is “on like the 18th-century equivalent of Donkey Kong”. An odd expression for a broadsheet cinema critic to use, you might well think, but I’d heard it before.

It seems the revise desk hadn’t, though. “It’s on like Donkey Kong” means something like “you’re on”, “the game’s afoot”, “your challenge is accepted”. The simile is euphonious but nonsensical, referring as it does to the eponymous gorilla villain in an old Nintendo video game. Wired and the Urban Dictionary date the phrase back to Ice Cube’s song “Now I Gotta Wet’cha” (1992), although the Denver alt-weekly Westword claims that it was invented by San Francisco video arcade owner Robert Mori in the 1980s, as one of a number of game-related near-rhymes (eg “turnin’ up the stereo like Mario”) that otherwise didn’t catch on.

Since then it has been printed in USA Today, uttered in films and reality shows, and sung in country songs, according to Peter Hartlaub’s detailed history of the phrase in the San Francisco Chronicle, and Nintendo itself launched an attempt to trademark it in 2010.

Saying that the court intrigue is “like Donkey Kong”, however, means that it resembles trying to climb a series of rickety ladders for love and advancement while an irascible figure above you strews obstacles in your path. Nothing like the last days of the House of Stuart at all.

Actually, come to think of it …

 

(Parish notice: Ten Minutes Past Deadline will be off on its annual short break soon, returning in October when the leaves are falling in earnest.)

A hundred years ago

4 Sep

What a front page this is:

© Vancouver Sun/Postmedia

There’s a New-York Times-style triple-stack headline at the top, complete with semicolons – except that, unlike the Times, the three headlines are about three separate stories, which you then have to hunt about on the page to find; it’s not so much a headline as a news briefing. As a bonus, one of the headlines is wrong: “Nikolai” (? Vladimir?) “Lenine” (? spelling?) was not “shuffled off stage” by a “woman assassin” in 1918, as students of history will know: the Sun was misled by a telegram from Russia and was unaware that he had survived.

Then there are the peculiar tense sequences in some of the headlines: “Petrograd reports Bolsheviki leader dies by assassin” (not “has died”); “French troops take Loury; captured thousand Huns” (not “capture”). Then there are the flying verbs in the standfirsts, appearing decorously after the subject has been introduced (“They have got a footing in important wooded region; still advance”). Then there’s the Daily Express-style braggadocio in the masthead: “A Great Newspaper Growing Greater”. Someone has written a list headline (“This is August bag”). Someone’s even used the word “famous” in the furniture, which wouldn’t have passed the Tribune’s revise desk without comment.

I don’t know what the count rules are for those staggered three-deck headlines, but someone seems to have broken them for the Lenin story: the first two decks are so full that it looks like the third has been set right by mistake. “…is summary of report” is a slightly anticlimactic way to end a headline that starts “Huns now admitting defeat”.

But it’s impossible not to love the rhetorical panache of the subheads (“ONWARD FROM BAPAUME”), the profusion of visual entry points, or the exhilarating jumble of the 12-story layout. 1918 was a tumultuous year, to be sure, but in the 2 September edition of the Daily Sun, published 100 years ago this week, there’s not a headline you wouldn’t want to write or a story you wouldn’t want to read.

Turn left at the crosshairs

21 Aug

Possible language-change alert:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

“At the crossroads” means to be at a turning point. “In the crosshairs” means to be someone’s target. But it looks like these metaphors may be careering down different roads towards the same poorly lit intersection.

As to which direction things will go in after the collision, it’s not clear. The sense of numbers 1, 3 and 6 appears to be “in the crosshairs” (and to be fair to Hasan Minhaj, the speaker featured in the first example, that’s clearly what he says in the video: he’s  misquoted in the headline). But 2, 4, 5 and 7 clearly suggest the meaning “at the crossroads” (indeed, in number 7, The Good Bike Co of Prineville, Oregon, are literally describing a junction).

The newest example (the first one) appeared last week on the BBC website and the oldest ones date back to 2009; those were all I could find on Google for “at the crosshairs” as a metaphor. So it’s early days yet: there’s barely a flicker on the Ngram.

But still, there’s something worryingly plausible about it as a phrase: the easily overlooked malapropism, the fact that both metaphors express, broadly speaking, a sense of being in a tricky position. On the subs’ desk we’ll do our best to keep directing traffic, of course. But how often does language change obey a stop sign?

Drop catch

7 Aug

Er … how’s that?

If you’re baffled by the headline, and perhaps reading “take drops” together, as I was, here’s some background. Earlier this summer, in the deciding match of the one-day cricket series between England and India, England captain Joe Root hit the winning runs, scoring a century as he did so, and then performed what appeared to be a rapper’s “mic drop” – the showy discarding of a microphone, with an air of finality, at the end of a show – with his bat.

Then, last week, in the first of the five-day Test matches between the two countries, Kohli ran out Root with a direct hit when Root was unwisely attempting a second run. Kohli then celebrated in a similar manner, only with an imaginary microphone, because he didn’t have a bat.

The TV cameras didn’t really pick it up, but more than one press photographer did, and the picture duly found its way onto several sports sections the next day, including the Guardian’s, with an “ooh, controversy!” angle to the copy, even though the players seemed very happy to play down the whole thing.

But if you’re going to make mic drops the back-page story, you need to be sure that your audience understand what they are. Readers of the culture section might well be familiar with a gesture that was popularised in rap battles and comedy clubs, but this is a headline for followers of the most traditional form of Britain’s most traditional game: the sport whose VIP spectators wait to be given permission to take their blazers off in 95-degree heat. If the first time they encounter a pop-culture term is broken up in the middle of a complicated headline, the learning (and comprehension) curve is going to be almost vertical.

If you do know what a mic drop is, it’s hard enough, because your eye jumps straight to “drops” after “mic” and ignores “take”; at first I thought they had left an entire rogue verb in the headline. It took me about 45 seconds to realise that (I think) you’re supposed to read “mic(k) take”, as in mickey-take. Of course, that would rely on you pronouncing “mic” phonetically and not as “mike”: but no one refers to them as “mick drops”. Moreover,  “drop” has become semantically detached from its noun phrase because it is now functioning both as the main verb of the sentence and as part of another idiom (to “drop <someone> in it”, ie to cause them trouble).

As a commentator might say about a big inswinger that misses all three stumps, this headline is “doing a bit too much”.  If “mic drop” needs quotes round it in your tweet, then it needs to be treated slightly more gently the first time it appears in print. (And let’s not even get into whether, for precisely this sort of reason, the abbreviation should be “mic” or “mike”).