Archive | October, 2013

Zeroes and ones, part two

31 Oct

I love it when our media commentator goes off on a theme. Editing writers who have let themselves off the leash is always enjoyable, and his stream-of-consciousness style is at its best when he’s got hold of a metaphor and is running with it.

This piece – only a 240-word sidebar to his main column – is about the BBC payoffs row: the large amount of licence-payers’ money given as golden goodbyes to departing executives and the furious backlash that has resulted from them. That money could have been spent on all sorts of worthwhile things, the media has chorused, using the usual benchmarks: Downton Abbey episodes, schoolbooks, hospital beds etc. Last week, though, the BBC came out fighting, and countered the criticism with a comparison of its own. As the media commentator puts it:

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And that’s all the media commentator needs to mint a new currency of comparison, the unit of exchange being the cost of televising Sunderland v Newcastle at the Stadium of Light: one match equals one “Light”.

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When writers have got the bit between their teeth, the standard advice for editors is to keep out of their way and let them flow. And that’s good advice on the whole: intervening to correct fragmented sentences or very long paragraphs can kill the whole experience, and bring “correctness” and “readability” at the expense of enjoyment. But mistakes – actual mistakes – are a different matter. Maybe it’s my dorkish sub-editor’s soul, but I can’t fully enjoy a comic or passionate rant when a dangling modifier points all the ire in the wrong direction or there’s a glaring malapropism in the punchline. A greengrocer’s apostrophe can spoil a joke almost as much as it spoils an editorial. So the skill, actually, is to intervene just enough – to unobtrusively correct a fact or a timeline, say. Or, in this case, to correct the arithmetic.

Let’s look at what a “Light” is worth again. If £3.8m is “about half of what of what other TV networks would pay for televising the first half of  a Premiership football match”, that’s £3.8m per quarter, in effect, or £7.6m per half. The total cost of a match would be £7.6m x 2; therefore one Light equals £15.2m.

But that doesn’t seem to be how it works in the article. If BBC News costs £61.5m, that’s nowhere near as much as 10 Lights: more like four. Same with BBC4: £70.2m is less than 5 Lights, not more than 10.

And hang on a minute: did Lord Patten really say “half of what of what other TV networks would pay for televising the first half of  a Premiership football match”? That’s a funny way to put it – a lot of halves. That’s actually strange enough to need some investigation.

And lo and behold, the original article proves that doesn’t appear to be what he said. Per the furniture:

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Mystery solved. But wait – what’s this in the body text?

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So, he did say half of a half? What’s going on here? I thought I was just on for a quick tidy-up of a 240-word sidebar. But now, out of nowhere, we’re into a full-blown re-investigation of a completely different article from another desk whose content is at variance with its furniture (and which is also short an apostrophe in the standfirst). Can’t just leave it like that. Sigh.

Right: further scrutiny of this new article has revealed an actual hard number we can work from:

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 18.12.48

Aha. So, allowing for typical politicians’ numerical exaggeration (and journalists are not in much of a position to criticise anyone else about that), £3.8m is indeed, roughly, the cost of televising half a Premier League match. Good: just need to email the media desk with suggested corrections for this piece, go back to my piece and write around the quote to fix it.

Except that – dammit – we’re still not quite there. If £3.8m is right (ish), the sums still aren’t. Look at the maths once again. The cost of BBC News, £61.5m, isn’t exactly “less than 10 Lights” if you take “less than 10” to mean nine-point-something and one Light to be £7.6m: it’s barely over eight. But it is pretty close if you go with the real £6.6m figure – which is mentioned nowhere in this piece. Moreover, BBC4’s budget of £70.2m isn’t “10 Lights and a bit of injury time” if one Light is £7.6m; and if one Light is £6.6m, it’s closer to 11 Lights than 10 – not just a bit of injury time but almost a whole extra hour.

Never judge an article by its word count. Man, why did I pick this one up?


More follows in reverse order

23 Oct

The wires are down at Gospel Oak; no trains. Getting into work’s been an effort all week. Been busy too: big rush for deadline last night on news. What I need is a large coffee and an easy Friday morning on the biz section: my favourite day of the week. A couple of comment pieces followed by a wander through the street-food market for lunch. Nothing too difficult.

Lot of emails from the economics columnist this morning. And here’s another one. What does he want?

Have just filed parts of column in reverse order.
More follows.



It should be said at once that this sort of communication from the economics columnist is vanishingly rare. He is one of the most august and respected of the Tribune’s writers, but he doesn’t act like it. He could file late, dictate his own headlines and dig his heels in over every cut, but he never has, as long as I’ve known him.* He remembers names. He invites his subs out for drinks. And he always files on time.

But not this week: this week was looking a little star-crossed from the moment this email arrived on Thursday:

Please forgive me! I wrote my column this morning and gave it to the Fax people, who failed to send until four hours later, by which time Janet had gone down with flu. I am now off to [senior central banker’s] farewell.

Will type it all out again on my Ipad at crack of dawn, before a lecture I am giving at Queen Mary at 11 am, and see you all later.

Apologies for late copy.


From which it may be deduced: he’s very well-connected; he has a busy and energetic schedule; although past retirement age, he has developed an unlikely but burgeoning aptitude for tablet computing; however – to explain – his preferred method of filing is still to bash his column out on an old manual typewriter, with deletions and additions, and fax it to his secretarial service, where Janet types up a fair electronic copy and emails it in.

Talking of which, what’s this further down in the inbox? It’s from Janet: she’s struggled off her sickbed.

So sorry about today, but I’ve managed to do first two pages attached

This column’s not just being filed once; it’s being filed twice, remotely and simultaneously – once in reverse order, once in the more traditional  fashion. Or at least, not twice in full, but by a method rather like the digging of the Channel Tunnel: start at both ends and hope to meet in the middle. That’s why the economics columnist is filing in reverse. Yikes.

Sub-editing has changed almost beyond recognition since the advent of desktop publishing; so much so that someone like me – a converted book editor with a firm grasp of InDesign – can fit right in. It didn’t used to be like that: when type was set in metal line by line and the printers were in the basement, the skills were quite different. As David Sullivan recounts in That’s The Press, Baby:

“In those long-gone days, on-deadline stories might go to the composing room in takes as they were written. There was no way a 25-inch breaking story could be set in type by one operator, then proofread and corrected in the composing room, if the entire story went down at once, and still make deadline. You would send it down take by take. … When the paper came off the presses, copy editors checked it to make sure that the right headline was on the story (errors here more often than you might think), that an entire take hadn’t been left out or the story failed to end.”

I’ve always wondered what those days must have been like, when subbing was as much about managing a process as it was about checking facts. There might not be a vacuum-tube system at my desk or a press-room messenger waving galleys, but this is as close as I’m ever going to get to finding out. I’ve got an inbox full of takes, some sketchy indications about start and finish and an empty space at the bottom of the page. There might be duplicate material, muddles over ordering or two missing paragraphs in the middle; it’s up to me to notice.  This is  journalism as light industry, copy-editing as administration. Let’s go.

InCopy finishes booting up and I look in the subs’ queue. There appears to be something that looks like the economics column – the full 900 words –  already waiting.

I look over at the chief sub. He looks over at me laconically. “I’ve already done it.”

Looks like there’ll be time for a flatbread from the food trucks after all.

* When you’re a new casual sub, you’re almost invisible: writers who would rather not be approaching the desk at all will sometimes come over, see no veteran face they recognise, look at you appraisingly, and turn away without a word. Others will queue for the attention of a busy chief sub on press night even though all the newbies are free and ready to help.

On the second or third week in our new offices, the economics columnist came over with some corrections during a particularly busy night and, rather than queue, courteously inquired: “Who shall I see about this?”. The chief sub pointed me out and said: “Talk to Ed.” He turned to pick out the face, having never seen me before. “Ed! Hello! Right! Just a couple of things. But what did you think of it? Did you think it worked?” And, immediately, we were two conspiratorial veterans at work in the hubbub of the newsroom: him in this fourth decade at the Tribune, me in my fourth month.

Undrop it

16 Oct

All stories benefit from editing; of course, I would say that. And nearly all stories benefit from actually being cut: if you take the low-value stuff off the bottom of a story, and move up the odd salient detail, a shorter story becomes a better story: more focused, more efficient, less diffuse. But sometimes you’ve got to cut even when you don’t want to. And sometimes a story changes slot, or changes purpose, so drastically that cutting from the bottom is no longer an option. Sometimes you’ve got to cut from the top.

It nearly always happens when something originally commissioned as a light-relief news feature – one of the most vulnerable kinds of story when agendas start changing – gets moved from its original page by a stronger piece, but still needs to appear somewhere in the paper. The typical place for a demoted story is as a short “news briefing”  (known at the Tribune as a “nib” (news in brief) or a “mod”), where everything has to be (a) short and (b) straightforward.

That’s not too difficult to arrange for stories written as straight news in the classic “inverted pyramid” structure taught in journalism school, with all the important facts at the top. Then you can just trim everything off after the first three paragraphs. But that usually isn’t how light-relief news features are written. They start with quotes or teases or an offbeat hook. They keep you waiting for the core news item. They almost invariably employ what’s called a “dropped intro” – an intriguing piece of the puzzle, a little bait-and-switch designed to slow you down and keep you reading.

Many editors hate them. I don’t, always: one dropped-intro piece, with a nice picture, can provide a welcome change of pace  in a relentlessly grim run of national pages or a sea of quarterly results stories in the business section. But there’s one place they’re never welcome: on the nibs page. There just isn’t space.

Here’s a good example. This is the decorously dropped opening of a  lighter 600-word report filed by our Madrid correspondent last week and originally slated for a good spot in the foreign pages.

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I liked it when I picked it up; I was going to leave it as it was. But then something changed on the newsdesk and, in front of my eyes, the feature detached itself from its original page and reappeared as the first of five nibs crammed in willy-nilly above a large advert.

Our nibs all used to be a standard length: 15 lines or (at best) 100 words, so that they could be completely interchangeable and modular (that’s why they were called mods). There’s a bit more flexibility now, but, still, 130-odd words is not very much space under any circumstances. It’s certainly not enough to accommodate a dropped intro that runs to nearly 50. So it had to go.

The Tribune is a “writer’s paper” and we are expected under most circumstances to preserve the writer’s voice and style, and cut and mend as invisibly as possible. But when you’re faced with a cut as drastic as this, that rule has to go out of the window. Come what may, you have to move the facts to the top and throw the rest away. You’ll be discarding a lot of actual news when you go down from 600 to 100; you can’t be too squeamish about losing the decorative bits too. So the introduction eventually ended up like this:

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That moves the news to the first clause, gets the key quote into the first paragraph and makes more space further down for another fact or two.

It was what needed to be done, and I get the sub-editor’s satisfaction of solving a problem in a small space. But still, I didn’t really relish it.

The Madrid correspondent has to generate words and thought where there was nothing before, every day, to order, whether he feels like it or not. Writing for a living is difficult, and writing to daily deadlines especially so. Last week, having produced exactly what was asked for in good time, through no fault of his own his words were de-assigned, moved, squeezed, shortened and eventually largely replaced with mine.  That’s not much of a reward for doing your job right.

So you feel bad about it. But you can do it. To anyone.

As originally filed:

“It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five.”

The news in brief:

It was 1775.

No verbs downtown after 36th St (eves/wkends)

9 Oct

Subway sign

Well, that was exciting. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from New York, but I got it. I saw Lower Manhattan and Battery Park retreating in the sunlight from the back of the Staten Island ferry while powerboats and bulk carriers crossed in our wake. I watched the Hudson River passenger boats tail-slide gleefully into their piers, load up in three minutes and bellow away downriver past the chess players in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I got hustled through the checkouts at Zabar’s so fast it was like there was an evacuation drill going on. But nothing felt more like New York than going down into the subway.

It’s deafening. Walking down the little spiral staircase into 79th St station, the noise that greets you puts The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 to shame. When the uptown and downtown expresses pass through at the same time on the centre tracks, the simultaneous BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG/BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG completely drowns out the sound of your local train arriving. At South Ferry, the station is built on a curve so tight that little metal gratings have to extend outwards to the doors to bridge the gap between train and platform, and the squealing of flanges when the next service arrives verges on the ultrasonic.

The vistas, the noise, the lights, the heights: it was all fantastic. The only thing that was slightly lacking was verbs.

The subway service mutates dramatically at weekends as a matter of course: services stop short, start at different places, come in on different platforms (and that’s before you even factor in the engineering works). There are, therefore, lengthy signs everywhere to that effect: the one above is a typical (and not the most complicated) example.

Perhaps it was the jetlag, or years following terse instructions on the Underground, but I didn’t grasp them at all. I instinctively assume that signs are written in the imperative and, if there are words missing, supply understood commands to suit. So my first take on the sign, as someone who knew nothing about the system, was “[TAKE] Broadway Local to Whitehall St weekdays and eves [BECAUSE THERE IS] no late night service on this platform.” But that doesn’t make sense. The same approach works deceptively better with the next one:  “Wkends [TAKE] R to Bay Ridge-95 St on N platform.” But the last sentence on the sign actually includes a “take”, as though it alone were a command. It took me four or five reads to grasp that these messages are almost entirely descriptive or existential: [THESE ARE] Broadway Local trains to Whitehall Street. [THERE IS] no weekend or late night service on this platform. And so on.

That’s not how we do things here at home. The Underground service never mutates as much as the subway’s, but even at Camden Town, the most potentially confusing station in London, signage for the Northern Line (which is almost two separate lines in one, with two northern branches and two routes through the city centre) is kept to a minimum – you’re told “Bank branch” or “Charing Cross branch” and given the train’s destination, and it’s up to you to plot the route from there. No one attempts a platform-level description of all the possible permutations, and certainly not without verbs. It’s probably just as well. If you did, the sign might look like this:*

Edgware and High Barnet trains alternately via Bank or Charing Cross peak times. Off peak all Charing Cross trains to Kennington, all Bank trains  to Morden. Peak Charing Cross trains also to Morden. Off peak Mill Hill East shuttle service to Finchley Central,  some peak Mill Hill East trains to and from Morden (some via Charing Cross).

No one would get to the end of it; it would make even confident out-of-towners start to doubt themselves. The best way of catching the right train on the Tube is still the old-fashioned way: stick your head in the door, bellow “TOTTERIDGE AND WHETSTONE?” interrogatively and wait for someone to look up from their Financial Times and say crisply: “no”.

* With thanks to for the (fully verbed) source material.

The Battery’s down

1 Oct

Off to New York this week for a break. Never been. I’ve travelled all over the US, including Hawaii, but nearly always in the west or south: Memphis, the Redneck Riviera,  Route 66, Oregon, Pasadena. I’ve heard the late-night Santa Fe DJs fade into the static as you cross the desert to Roswell, but I’ve never seen Times Square. The eastern seaboard’s been flyover country to me. Can’t wait.

But my Americanophile reputation at work would have taken a serious dent if I’d ever come across this in copy, because I’d have missed it completely:

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The clues have always been there. Senator Joseph McCarthy. The House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s so obvious when it’s pointed out. But McCarthy and Huac go together in my mind like salt and pepper. If it had been me editing a similar piece, I might have got lucky and used a conjunction after McCarthy instead of a possessive (“McCarthy and Huac”, not “McCarthy’s Huac”), thus leaving open the possibility of disjunction and sparing the worst of my blushes. But really, it would have got right through me.

Who was the chairman of Huac, then? Rep Edward J Hart took the role when it became a permanent committee after the war – I’ve now, finally, looked it up. (Why isn’t it called Hartism?) I imagine this is the kind of classic save American national editors make in their sleep, the same way foreign news subs stoop wearily to take the stray “s” off “Talibans” in home writers’ copy (“Ah, you don’t speak Pashto? Well, Taliban is the plural. The singular is Talib. Try to remember.”)

Newsrooms are full of sharp and literate people. When I was chatting with the business reporters last week, somebody asked what poujadisme meant in relation to Ed Miliband and almost everyone on the economics desk simultaneously chimed in to explain. It was a splendid working-on-a-broadsheet moment.  But crushing, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God corrections such as on the Huac article are a reminder, not just that there’s so much we’ll never know, but that there’s always so much we ought to see and never do.

Saved from my embarrassment this time, at least, I’m on my mettle now. Ceaseless vigilance is the watchword. Apparently, New York’s so good that it’s been named twice. I aim to crack down pretty hard on redundancy like that.