Workin’ for MTA

14 Sep

Somebody else seems to be as intrigued by New York subway signs as this blog is:

It does make a good poem, probably entitled “Z”:

To Jamaica Center

Weekday afternoons.

Express to Myrtle Avenue,

PM rush,



Other times,

All stops

But for a public information notice, it is, as we have had occasion to discuss before, a bit short of words. And this time we’re dealing with the kind of comprehension-bending complexity that only the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can produce. If you find the semi-fast service to Amersham a bit confusing, get a load of this, and imagine trying to put it on a sign:

“The J operates at all times while the Z, operating internally as its rush-hour variant, runs with six trips in each peak direction on weekdays; both services run through the entirety of the BMT Archer Avenue and Jamaica lines, via the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Nassau Street Line between Jamaica Center–Parsons/Archer in Jamaica, Queens, and Broad Street in Lower Manhattan. When the Z operates, the two services form a skip-stop pair between Sutphin Boulevard–JFK and Myrtle Avenue-Broadway. In addition during rush hours and middays in the peak direction, they run express in Brooklyn between Myrtle Avenue-Broadway and Marcy Avenue, bypassing three stations. At all other times, only the J operates, serving every station on its entire route. (per Wikipedia)

So, what we have is:

• a platform from which two services run along the same line, the Z train and the J train


• the Z train is an express that misses out stops, and the J train is a “local” that stops at all stations. Fine.


• The Z train only runs in rush hour, on weekdays, and it only runs in the peak flow direction (ie into Manhattan in the mornings, out of Manhattan in the evenings)


• When the Z train is running, it affects the J train’s schedule: the J train then misses out some (but not all) of the stations that the Z train stops at, and ceases to be a true “local”. They become a “skip-stop pair” (try saying that three times quickly).


• There are three stations that neither the J or the Z stop at, but only during weekday rush hour, and only in the peak direction. At other times the J train will stop there.

So, to return to the sign: this is Essex Street station in lower Manhattan, and trains from this platform are heading to Jamaica Center in Queens, ie, out of Manhattan. This platform is therefore not affected by the Z train in the mornings, but is affected by it in the evenings (the “PM rush”), when the skip-stop comes into operation. Essex Street station also comes just before the three stations that get missed out altogether in rush hour, so trains from here are “express” (ie almost non-stop) as far as Myrtle Avenue station in Brooklyn on weekday afternoons (but only afternoons).

So after an hour’s research, you can start to see what they mean. I still think there’s a problem with the sign, though: for one thing, the Z bullet at the start makes you think that everything that follows applies only to the Z train. In fact, crucially, the J train becomes a skip-stop train too. But the second sentence gives the impression that you can always rely on the good old J to stop everywhere (which you can’t), or maybe that Z trains run in the peak and J trains in the off-peak (which isn’t the whole story either).

Can we do any better with the wording? Last time, we had some success in inserting a few existential clauses, but that won’t cut it this time. Get me rewrite.

Judging by the length of the longest line, I reckon you could get 125 or so characters on the sign if you fill all three decks. Maybe it could say something like this?

Z J to Jamaica Center. Both trains express to Myrtle Ave wkday afternoons and skip stops in PM rush. J all stops other times

At least I think that’s what it means. Input and commentary from people who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about would be very welcome.

And with that bit of wish-fulfilment out of the way – no New York for me this year, what with the global emergency and all – TMPD is off for its late summer break. See you when the leaves are falling faster.

The Lada of success

31 Aug

Along with the headlines we dream of one day writing (my ambition is to get “Crema vs. Crema” on a group test of espresso machines), I’m sure I’m not the only sub-editor to fantasise about making a stunning save on deadline – a last-minute intervention that prevents a disastrous error getting into print, and shows off one’s combination of erudition and alertness. One of those cool foreign-desk moments, pulling an earbud out of one ear to shout over to the desk: “My Pashto’s pretty rusty, but it sounds like the Mullah’s saying ‘retreat’, not ‘surrender’.” Except that, when my moment finally arrived, I didn’t get to say anything as cool as that. Instead I had to go up to the back bench, and, within earshot of most of senior management, mumble “excuse me, I think this is a Moskvich”.

The occasion was a colour feature about Havana and the struggle of its taxi drivers and mechanics to keep their old Lada cars on the road. Vivid, atmospheric, rich in castroismo, it was very Tribune. The trouble was, alongside the enthusing about the Lada’s Italian heritage and classic 1960s lines was the picture above. “A Lada car on the streets of Havana Centro” the caption says, but as someone who spent far too much of their childhood reading The Observer’s Book of Automobiles, I wasn’t so sure.

The picture editor gave me one of those picture-desk stares. “I don’t really know a lot about cars,” he said. “It says it’s a Lada.” “Ah yes, but if you look here below the rear window pillar, there’s a cabin air vent, whereas on a Lada …” “Yes, OK, if you say so.” I returned to the back bench. “Yes, I think we’d better change the pic. You see if you look at this feature here above the rear wheel…” “Yes, OK, can you just make sure it’s right? Thanks.” I returned to the subs’ desk in dorkish pride, looked round at my colleagues, thought about explaining what had happened, and decided to spare them.

(However, for those interested … If you look at the picture above and compare it with this fine machine belonging to the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, which really is a Lada,

you will notice that the blue car has a small vent on the side of the body, above the rear wheel, whereas the police car doesn’t; instead it has a similar vent actually mounted on the rear cabin pillar.

Then, when you start looking properly, you can see the blue car has a curved crease, or wing line, running the whole length of its side, culminating in a vestigial tailfin, whereas the Lada does not. Also (he continued), although the blue car has lost its lights and badges, you can see that the radiator grille is a different shape and that the indicators, if they were still there, would be in a completely different position. (Could it be one of the very earliest Ladas, you’re asking? Ah, but they had round headlights. These ones, or what’s left of them, are clearly rectangular.) I’m confident that the blue car is in fact a Moskvich 2140 – a model, as we know, developed out of the classic Moskvich 412 – built in the USSR from the 1970s until the end of the Cold War.)

Not only that, but as I hunted for a replacement, it emerged that several other Cuban vehicles in the picture library were being wrongly advertised as Ladas, including this one, which is clearly another Moskvich,

and this one:

Good lord, man, that’s a Renault Dauphine.

But nonetheless, we were spoiled for choice with the images. A Lada with a hammer and sickle decal on its side. A Lada with its occupants waving the bandera nacional triumphantly from the windows. And the winner: a young couple kissing passionately between two parked Ladas in front of a sunlit mural of the revolution. Cuba can make anything look romantic.

Picture post

17 Aug

I’m not sure I’d ever make a photo editor, but if you lay out news pages you have to know which pictures you like and which you don’t, and for some reason I was struck by this one.

It’s a picture of Laura Kenny of the Great Britain cycling team by Alex Whitehead of SWPix. And it’s so well framed, with the Olympic rings up on the banking above her, that it looks almost like a portrait or an old-fashioned photoshoot: “Ride slowly around the track, and don’t look at the camera.”

But there’s a strangely charged quality to it that you can’t put your finger on, until you read the caption and realise that it was taken, not during a photocall, but shortly after a huge crash in the women’s omnium that took down half the field, including Kenny, and left two riders and an official unable to continue. Then the picture reformulates in front of your eyes: suddenly you see the faraway look in Kenny’s eyes that you had noticed without noticing, and realise that the only reason you can see her eyes at all is because the visor on her helmet was broken off in the impact. It’s not a picture of an Olympian fulfilling a media obligation, but of one trying to pull herself together.

As reinterpretations go, it’s not as disorientating as the critic Walter Pater’s famous suggestion that the Mona Lisa might be underwater (“in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”). But the meaning of the image is sufficiently hidden that it doesn’t make a good news photo. It need a caption to explain it, whereas there are any number of agency pictures of riders flying through the air that would tell the story on their own. News pics need to be a kind of search engine optimisation for the eyes: clear explanatory visuals to go with a clear explanatory headline. If you want to publish photographs that reveal their truth slowly, you probably need to get your art critic involved, as the Guardian did for several years.

All this is quite rarefied photographic air, of course: often the material you’re dealing with is, shall we say, less charismatic. Last week’s business section in the Tribune carried a full double-page spread on the rise of air source heat pumps. We sent out a photographer who has immortalised Malala Yousafzai and Leonard Cohen in stunning monochrome, and he still came back with a picture of a smiling couple standing next to a beige box. As the production editor, who was laying out the spread, grumbled, “even Robert Capa would struggle to make this one interesting”.

Weather outlook

3 Aug

Any of the Tribune’s three world-girdling newsrooms could have produced this alarming story on heat deaths:

Some stories are local, which is why we set up English-speaking operations in the US and Australia, but some stories are global, and the climate crisis affects everyone. In the end, it was Australia who wrote up the report for all three of us, and it duly found its way into the print subs’ queue for the newspaper in London.

Which was fine, except that, in this globally relevant story, the first person quoted …

was Australian, and the second person quoted …

… was Australian, and the next part of the story …

… concerned a study in which Australia had done notably badly (whereas the UK and the US had only done moderately badly), and the broadening out of the theme …

… took us into the kind of Australian domestic shorthand that I suspect may never have been encountered in the Tribune’s home news pages before.

It’s not hard to guess what the Australian Medical Association is, but the Hesta Super Fund is more recondite: a huge pension fund of a specifically Australian type called a “super fund” that once (but no longer) restricted its membership to employees in the health service. That explanation almost leaves UK readers none the wiser than the name: It’s sort of a “health body”, but not quite, and seems to be politically engaged in a way that no major pension fund in the UK ever is. In the end, I glossed it as something like “major health-focused pension fund”, but I’m not sure that enlightened many readers on the Tube.

We have come across this problem in a minor way before, when a developing international story gets handed off between newsrooms: the weights, measures and currencies start to fluctuate, and views change about what the reader can be assumed to know. But this is a slightly bigger problem. We don’t yet have reporters with a contact book big enough to provide region-specific quotes and examples for three different continents. Nor do we have the resources (usually) to write up a story three times in all three jurisdictions. So you end up with a story flavoured with the sources, agenda and analysis of one particular newsroom, and the other two have to make do with what’s supplied.

As we have discussed more than once, the UK’s anglophone news organisations are anxious to ensure Australian readers don’t feel their domestic news has been written by outsiders. But what we haven’t considered so far is the possibility that British readers might be getting that feeling instead.

The limits of SEO

20 Jul

Do you remember Mohammed Emwazi? Maybe it doesn’t ring a bell. Do you remember “Jihadi John”, though? Emwazi, it seems, was much better known by his Isis sobriquet than his real name: a basic analysis on Google reveals 103,000 hits for the latter versus 403,000 for the former.

But we didn’t call him that at the Tribune. The foreign desk asked us not to. Perhaps a mention somewhere in the copy to clarify that Emwazi was indeed known by that nickname, but never in the headline or at the top of the story. The desk didn’t want to “trivialise a serious situation”, or add tabloid pizzazz to the torture and beheading of hostages. So we didn’t. We’d have got more clicks if we had, but we stopped.

The same applies to the “QAnon Shaman”, the “Yorkshire Ripper” and several others. “It means we sometimes take a hit on search,” the web production editor writes, “but we do it so as not to make light of the individuals and their motives/actions”.

A few weeks ago on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, a member revealed that his publication asks subs to allow “mens”, no apostrophe, in certain circumstances for search engine optimisation, because Google fails to return as many results if you type it correctly as “men’s”. There was consternation, as you might expect, and some doubt as to whether it was in fact necessary, but it illustrated the kind of discussion that we normally have about SEO. Who’s top of the search results? How can we get more traffic? Are we doing the right thing? It’s much rarer, but perhaps more revealing about your organisation, to consider the things you won’t say even when Google wants you to.

With us, the reasons vary. Our coverage of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses scandal is probably being hampered by our disinclination to say “subpostmasters” or “subpostmistresses”; we won’t use one without the other for reasons of inclusivity, but using both makes headlines unfeasibly long. We are going with “post office operators”, which is probably not what people are typing into their search engines. We insist on “register office” – the correct term – not “registry office”, even though Google Ngrams suggests that the latter has almost always been more popular than the former (and produces significantly more hits in search). And we say Brexiter, not Brexiteer – despite a two-to-one swing against it on Google – simply out of a determination, as strong today as ever, “not to make them sound like jolly pirates”.

‘I’ve got a great idea …’

6 Jul

…let’s do a mock-up of Harry Kane as Michael Caine for the front page! The Euro 2020 quarter-final’s in Rome, so it’s “The Italian Job”, get it? (OK, so The Italian Job was set in Turin, but close enough.)

However, there are deep undercurrents of British popular culture swirling here. Ostensibly, the visual references are indeed to the evergreen heist film – there are the England flags, the patriotic Minis and so on. But the “Harry” of Kane’s name, as well as his lugubrious expression and black-framed glasses, point to a character in a different film altogether – the laconic spy Harry Palmer in one of Caine’s early breakthroughs, The Ipcress File. Charlie Croker, the cheery criminal he plays in The Italian Job, hardly wears glasses at all. And the instantly familiar phrase on which the headline is based – “My name … is Michael Caine” – doesn’t come from a film at all, but from a song. It was a hit for Madness in 1984, with a voiceover by the great man himself, and a video that, again, draws on an Ipcress-ish aesthetic.

All of this probably got processed completely subconsciously by readers: you have to stop yourself to notice that you’re looking at a portmanteau joke comprising two cinematic genres and a pop lyric. And it also happens too quickly for you to remember that The Italian Job ends with the plucky Brits teetering on the brink of disaster and the prize slipping out of their reach. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen on Saturday.

We the people

22 Jun

Apologies if you’re having lunch, but something has come up in the world of anglophone news. From the Mail’s UK homepage a couple of weeks ago:

The issue is not the shock value of this report from Daily Mail Australia, unpleasant though it is. Nor is it a lack of geographical specificity, something about which this blog has previously complained: the country of origin is clear. The issue comes at the end of the headline when the international mask slips and the sub-editor refers to “our” waterways.

At the Tribune, the audience team don’t like us saying “our” in the furniture. They have an eye to the global visibility of the website and want things to be accessible to all English-speakers. You can see their point: directly addressing a community to which some readers do not belong has an exclusionary effect. But at the same time, this kind of assumed familiarity becomes hard to avoid when one of your international newsrooms is writing a home news story for its home audience – all the more so when it is under instructions to cater to its home audience first, and not the mothership in London.

And the problem is not confined to accidentally identifying yourself as part of a community. Should you be making local jokes and allusions in headlines, like Guardian Australia does here?

Or do you take the International Herald Tribune approach and retreat from all signals of national identity? (For readers outside New South Wales, I should explain that the Big Banana here is not, as you might think, Russell Crowe: it refers to Coffs Harbour itself, which prospered in the banana trade and now has a large theme park of that name.)

And you’d need to be very local to New South Wales, I think, to grasp this headline first time:

The key is to know that the state police force has a squad known as the “fixated persons unit”, which investigates potentially violent lone-wolf offenders. Even with that information, you might find that a nine-word noun phrase is going it a bit for a headline: the verb-seeking reader does tend to fasten on “fixated” as a likely candidate and get confused.

Friendlyjordies itself is a YouTube channel that satirises Australian politics: not really a name to conjure with, then, across the anglosphere. But if you’re already in for “fixated persons unit”, you’re probably in for that too. And how else could you really put it? “Arrest of member of Australian satirical political YouTube channel by anti-terrorist New South Wales police unit… “? You solve the problem of alienating audiences, but then you run out of space. Localisms can be essential for compression and communication – but then, just as surely as if you’d said “we”, you’ve circumscribed the size of the audience you’re talking to.

Northern Star

8 Jun

Stopwatches at the ready: how long does it take you to “get” this Daily Star front page?

British readers will be at a considerable advantage here. But I’m British and write headlines for a living, and I had to stare at it for almost a minute in Sainsbury’s before I worked it out.

This is the Star, of course – the national newspaper that puts stories about escaped hamsters on its front page – but it’s not a joke or “silly” article. It’s a perfectly legitimate piece of media news, albeit one that could sit comfortably on an inside page.

If you still need pointers: it’s a story about a decision to give British regional accents more prominence on the BBC, and the headline is written in Yorkshire dialect as a form of illustration. This much you might gather from the pun on “happen” (or ‘appen) in the strapline. In Yorkshire, “happen” can be used as a sentence adverb that functions in the same way as “perhaps” or “maybe”, and means essentially the same thing (so the sense is “perhaps it will happen”).

It’s a classic Yorkshire-ism that would set most British readers on the right path, but what comes after in the main head is still a challenge. What they’re trying for, you eventually realise, is a rhyming pun on “News at 10” using the Yorkshire phrase ’Ow do?, meaning “how [do you] do?”. I think what makes it particularly difficult is that, having started marking the dropped h’s with apostrophes in the strap, they then abruptly stop, so I was stuck on “OW” (cry of pain) and “DOS” (Microsoft operating system) for about 45 seconds before the light dawned. ’OW DO’S might need a lot of punctuation for a five-letter phrase, but it would have been clearer.

I mean, I say it’s difficult, but that may only be an indication of how painfully southern I am (born in London, raised in Sussex). Perhaps a lot of people got it straightaway. Still, given that the story is about unseen continuity announcers rather than well-known frontline newsreaders, it’s not 100% clear what Sophie Raworth (Surrey-born, crisp RP) is doing on the front page, or why she has acquired a northern accent and flat cap. News anchors being required to fake a dialect? I may be behind the curve slightly on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what it says in the text.

Culture clashes

25 May

Oh for goodness’ sake!

I’m sick and tired of these basic errors about Diphilus of Siphnus slipping through. (Diphilus of Siphnus? You know, the Cycladean physician of the third century BC, notable chiefly for being quoted in the writings of Athenaeus of Naucratis).

As this blog has previously observed, if you’re not sure whether you’re reading a broadsheet or a tabloid, a correction like this will tell you. In this case, the distinction is even more obvious when you read the footnote in the context of the paragraph that precedes it:

Only a broadsheet – perhaps only the Tribune – could manage to mention Diphilus of Siphnus in a tart recipe.*

Indeed, the arts and lifestyle pages always seem to bring out the best in a broadsheet corrections column. Away from the legal deletions and mis-spelt names of the news section, the patient erudition that is the hallmark of the readers’ editor can shine through:

At last someone in the building has got a grip on the Queen Mary’s Marriage Act (passed 1554; not repealed, presumably out of an abundance of caution, until 1863).

And along with that historical discernment comes a talent for diplomacy, born of years of placation and mediation between the opinionated. For instance, why say “due to an editing error” when you can signal culpability as gracefully as this?

“Restore” – smoothly done. (You can imagine a puce-faced music critic bellowing down the phone: “Do you think I don’t know the difference??”).

Elsewhere in this elegant intellectual landscape is the cryptic crossword. As these are an almost exclusively broadsheet phenomenon, readers’ editors in the quality press are alone in being required to tackle the rarefied mistakes they throw up:

Very disappointing for all concerned, especially the setter; whereas 9pm is very much in the heart of TV primetime, 11pm is not. It still works as a clue, but you know – it’s not as clever.

It’s only when popular culture – alas – intrudes into the arts section that the spell can be broken. Let’s hope nothing goes wrong when we review that notoriously scabrous animation about foul-mouthed Coloradan schoolchildren:

Oh dear: television always spoils things. Perhaps we’ll have done better with a more middlebrow show about one of America’s founding fathers?

Oh dear.

*Actually, on further review, doesn’t the maths in this correction seem a little odd? If the error is a simple question of confusing the third century AD with the third century BC, how is it that Pliny’s writings can be one century later in the first instance, then three centuries later when corrected? I think there’s a word missing: it should probably read “… three centuries later, not one century earlier.

Noun pile growth threat fear

11 May

The noun pile is a firmly established part of British journalistic life, but it’s fascinating to look back at the first pioneering steps in its creation (or at least as Michael Frayn imagines them in his satire The Tin Men):

If Goldwasser was remembered for nothing else, Macintosh once told Rowe, he would be remembered for his invention of UHL.

UHL was Unit Headline Language, and it consisted of a comprehensive lexicon of all the multi-purpose monosyllables used by headline-writers. Goldwasser’s insight had been to see that if the grammar of “ban”, “dash”, “fear”, and the rest was ambiguous, they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence, and if they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence they could be easily randomised …

UHL, Goldwasser quickly realised, was an ideal answer to the problem of making a story run from day to day in an automated paper. Say, for example, that the randomiser turned up


By adding one unit at random to the formula each day the story could go:




and so on. Or the units could be added cumulatively:






Of course modern sub-editors no longer have to restrict themselves to monosyllables, or even common multi-purpose words: great news for those working to tight headline counts, such as those on the BBC website. Nowadays we can effortlessly produce noun piles like this:

So, to parse it from back to front, as one should: a teacher has been banned. Which teacher? The strip club teacher. Which strip club teacher? The Longridge Towers school strip club teacher. Which Longridge Towers school? The one in Northumberland.

Actually, that last bit seems odd. As far as Google can ascertain, there seems to be only one Longridge Towers school in Britain. “Northumberland”, then, isn’t serving to narrow down a series of options, as it would in a classic noun pile. As we have previously discussed, in the internet age, the syntax of Unit Headline Language has at times been adulterated by the addition of good SEO words, presumably on the basis that there are so many nouns in the phrase already, who’s going to object to another one? But it does disrupt the progression of specificity that is the hallmark of the classical form.

Even given that problem, the noun pile headline remains invaluable, particularly for those legally tricky stories where using a verb might get you sued. And it sounds like that aspect of the technology was perfect right from the start:

Goldwasser had had a survey conducted, in fact, in which 457 people were shown the headlines




Asked if they thought they understood the headlines, 86.4 per cent said yes, but of those 97.3 per cent were unable to offer any explanation of what it was they had understood.

We’re scarcely able to improve on those numbers today.