Archive | January, 2014

… and THAT blogpost

28 Jan

Lots of EMPHASIS on Mail Online these days:

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I found all these on just ONE visit to the site the week before last. And there were more:

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Of all the things broadsheet subs envy about their tabloid colleagues – the puns, the gossip columns, the chutzpah – the chance to use emphasis in headlines is the surely the biggest. All writers sometimes miss the emphasis of the spoken word: at times, it seems almost impossible to convey the Tribune newsroom’s sense of excitement without it. If only you could run a broadsheet like a tabloid: English National Opera RUDDERLESS. Quantitative easing TAPERED. Hungarian wheat production STABLE.

And its usefulness goes beyond mere enthusiasm. The Mail specialises in emphasis-as-editorialising: it almost never explicitly fulminates in the furniture or even the copy about the latest outrage against common sense and British decency: it simply hits caps lock for the crucial word and let the readers’ ire do the rest. That way, the facts of the news stories function as the commentary for a right-thinking audience:

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But the most useful attribute of headline emphasis is also the most assertive one. Subs constantly worry about how much an intended reader can be assumed to know about the subject of a piece. Writers and editors instinctively understand, for example, that a business story in the business section can be more technical than one on the front page. But exactly how much? When is it safe to stop explaining what “quantitative easing” is, or at least take it out of quotes? After months of stories, the audience’s familiarity with the subject grows and the glosses can be reduced to well-practised little phrases (“the central banks’ scheme to, in effect, print new money”), but a judgment has to be made every time.

Not on a tabloid. On a tabloid, you can confidently expect people to have been paying attention, and assert a familiarity with a core news agenda that no broadsheet would ever dare to assume. This makes headlines on second-cycle or old-favourite stories so much easier to write:

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Which foam finger? You already know which one: or you should. What tattoo? You know, that one. What do you mean, you haven’t seen it? Keep up.

Making the reader feel responsible for their deficiencies in awareness is an audacious thing for a news organisation to do. Even if you have been running stories on the subject for weeks, it still flirts with rudeness and exclusion. But it works for tabloids because, more broadly, the narrative they seek to establish is one of a consensual, common-sense, right-of-centre majority: all in it together, all of one mind. Broadsheets, with their plurality of commentators, their factboxes on Alawite separatism and their readers’ editors, are far less confident about the truth.  Both broadsheets and tabloids attempt to set a news agenda: but only tabloids ever assume they’ve succeeded.


It’ll never catch on

17 Jan

“Seventeen storeys up in his fashionable North Beach apartment, Richard Halloran is calling a local number that will connect him to a computer in Columbus, Ohio.

“Meanwhile, across town, at this less than fashionable cubbyhole at the San Francisco Examiner, these editors are programming today’s copy of the paper into that same Ohio computer.

“When the telephone connection between these two terminals is made, the newest form of electronic journalism lights up Mr Halloran’s television.”

It is 1981, and the future has already arrived. Mr Halloran (“Owns home computer”) thinks it might be the answer. The newscasters are less sure. But it’s the guy at the Examiner who can see the way ahead most clearly. “We’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much either.”

That sounds about right.

Via: @newsmary

Closer to extinction

15 Jan

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It’s not so much the title – “Closer” is English rather than French, for sure, but magazines take their names across borders when they travel. Der Spiegel doesn’t become “The Mirror” on its English-language website, and  even in Britain we say “Paree-Match”.

It’s more the other things. As sets the international agenda with its sensational photographs of President Hollande purportedly being scootered to a late-night rendezvous with the actress Julie Gayet, you can’t help noticing that a lot of international influence has already found its way into France’s gossip magazine of the moment.

By “international”, of course, I mean “English”. Look at the website’s tagline: Les “stars” et les “news people” en “live”. Four English words in an eight-word slogan. News People? And it’s particularly sad that Closer doesn’t even see fit to use the splendid Paris-Match word “vedette” for “star”.

Over on the right-hand side there’s a fine piece of fully translated e-commerce: “Votre magazine en ligne – Mobile abonnement”. But, below, the menu headers return to a disconcerting cross-channel mélange (“Actu People”) in which Insolite*, Beauté and Mode sit alongside Shopping and Zapping.  (And couldn’t The Voice 3, at least, be La Voix? It is in Quebec.**) It would take a heart of stone not to wince slightly for the Académie at this.

When Cardinal Richelieu set up the Académie Française for Louis XIII, of course, ambitions for national languages were far more prescriptive and sweeping than they ever would be today. But if we’re looking for a reason why the institution might still exist in an entirely different era, I think we might have found it. As we have discussed before, prescriptivist linguistics bodies are often attacked for ignoring the inevitability of language change – for not being evidence-based. But what if the Académie is studying the evidence, and the evidence has persuaded it that French is in disorderly retreat?

* basically “Strange News”

** Although even in Francophone Canada, the word for “coaches” is not “entraîneurs” but “coachs”

Hormones and Hoodlums

9 Jan
Laurence Topham/Guardian

Laurence Topham/Guardian

Journalists and scientists trapped in the Antarctic, icebreakers from four countries advancing and retreating, fetching cold-weather outerwear, live-tweeted helicopter rescues – now that’s the kind of Christmas news story everyone can get behind. Action, adventure, no politics (despite a bit of half-informed bleating about climate change in the Daily Mail) and a happy New Year ending.

There was just one thing missing. When the helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long made its entrance, in all its contra-rotating, stalkish, faintly insectoid glory, you knew it had to be Soviet in origin. Yet you’d search high and low in all the news reports – and still not find out its Nato reporting name.

If you grew up in the Cold War and had an aeroplane spotters’ manual, Nato reporting names were the strange poetry that infused your technological education and coloured every spy novel, skirmish report and east-versus-west thriller you nervously read. In the half-informed world of the arms race, they were the designations given by the western military to eastern bloc aircraft and missiles for easy reference in the field: words chosen (randomly? I’ve always wondered) and linked only by their initial letter: F-words for fighters, B-words for bombers, H-words for helicopters and so on.

Often they were the only thing that could be said for certain about a rumoured new type of Soviet warplane. Have a look at this page from my battered copy of the 1955 Observer Book of Aircraft:

A snatched, blurry photograph as though from a spy camera, uncertainty even about the type number or the extent of deployment – the only thing for sure is that it’s a “Badger”. In fact, this page is almost entirely wrong: the mysterious new bomber wasn’t even an Ilyushin, as it turned out, but a Tupolev – the long-serving Tu-16, still in service today with China. All the intelligence changed: only the reporting name stayed the same.

By the paranoid and glamorous standards of identification names, of course, “Badger” is  a bit of a disappointment. There are much better ones: Faithless, Fencer, Foxbat, Fresco; Bear, Bison, Blackjack, Backfire; Halo, Havoc, Homer, Hound. Kamov helicopters seemed to fare particularly well in the draw for names: the Ka-25 Hormone, the Ka-26 Hoodlum, the Ka-50 Hokum.

How could any journalist leave them out of an aviation story? They’re instant colour; headline words on a  plate. Reading a report on an arms deal, or a near-miss, without a Nato identification tag is like reading a court report about a mafia boss that doesn’t give his nickname. (Well, most of the time: perhaps there’s not quite so much glamour about the Kamov Ka-10 Hat, the Sukhoi Su-9 Fishpot or the Tupolev Tu-91 Boot).

There were many types and subtypes of Soviet aircraft and so many words were needed. Some of them are so recondite that you have to look them up – the Mil Mi-2 Hoplite*, the Yakovlev Yak-28 Brassard** – or are just plain odd (the Mig Ye-2 Faceplate).

And the rescue helicopter? In fact, you can just see the type number on the fuselage in some photographs, and some reports make the effort to identify it briefly. It’s a Ka-32, a derivation of the Ka-27, another Cold War-era Kamov with a splendid reporting name: Helix. What could be more apposite for a helicopter ascending on its contra-rotating blades? The Helix from the Snow Dragon, on its way to land on the Aurora Australis, with the Polar Star, at full steam, less than a week away in case of mishap. Philip Pullman and Arthur Ransome together couldn’t have picked names any better than that.

* (in ancient Greece) a heavily armed infantryman

** an identifying armband or badge

The pointing of the snark

3 Jan

Anyone know what this is?


It’s a “snark”: a punctuation mark proposed – if sources are to believed, as early as 1580 by the inventive English printer Henry Denham – to indicate the presence of irony in a sentence.*

In fact, Denham originally proposed it for use with rhetorical questions; subsequent observers lobbied for its revival to mark ironic passages, and many now insist that social media is crying out for such a device. But without success: despite four-and-a-quarter centuries of misunderstandings, dud punchlines and needless offence, there’s still no real demand for a mark that resolves, once and for all, whether you were being serious the other night on Twitter.

The smiley 🙂 is a useful prophylactic when addressing a mass electronic audience – some people append it to almost every tweet, just to be on the safe side – but its intent is to really signal friendliness, a lack of hostility, in what might be construed as dissent or criticism. Irony is a bit beyond it: it really just stands in for the smile you adopt when edging  your way towards the bar in a crowded pub.

My favourite definition of irony – one not too different, in fact, from Collins’s – comes from the days when the Sunday edition of the Tribune had its own style guide, before they were merged five years ago. Aimed more – I like to think – at writers than editors, it ran as follows:

ironically avoid when what you mean is strangely, coincidentally or amusingly. Irony is a deliberate incongruity between what is said and what is meant

And that definition suggests  the explanation for why the snark has never caught on. A few years ago, in the Wall Street Journal, Henry Hitchings suggested that the reason for its unpopularity is that “internet culture generally favors a lighter, more informal style of punctuation” – as witnessed by recent suggestions that the use of the full stop in social media is perceived as “aggressive”. But, in this case, there’s more to it.

The central point of irony is the ambiguity: the uncertainty as to what is being  said. It is set as a rhetorical test on the audience: its effect relies on the fact that the reader is rewarded for choosing the correct interpretation. To indicate its presence beyond doubt, with punctuation, is to close off all alternatives and to deny the reader that moment. Marking the presence of irony has the effect – ironically – of removing it from the sentence altogether.

* Thanks, Buzzfeed, for the image