Archive | February, 2014

Real or Beachcomber?

25 Feb

If you edit business copy, here’s a bit of a challenge. Which one of these quotes is not like the others?

(1) “The decision to exit the US is not unexpected and the main focus of these results will therefore be upon the shift in strategy to focus on generating positive free cash flow. We think that this will be taken well by the market, especially as it signals the end of the space race in the UK. We believe that there are three prime drivers of shareholder value: UK recovery; lower capital expenditure and higher returns; and the online opportunity.”

(2) “We expect this appointment to trigger sell-side speculation that this will herald a material shift in business from investment banking towards retail and business operations, mathematically leading to greater stability and quality of earnings, a stronger balance sheet, larger shareholder distributions and higher ROEs and P/E multiples.”

(3) “The early trustee issue, already over-subscribed in some quarters, is to be released for repayment of the special redeemable stock, in short-term loans on ordinary holdings. Securities released on corresponding profits could very easily be used at exchange rates, by covering shortfalls. But this is not being done. Why? Simply because those who might balance the offering of dollars have not the guts to support at lower levels the demand for cumulative preference releases.”

(4) “… to restore the optics, credibility and trust of shareholders and its customers, I thought it was essential that an external candidate was appointed. I am sure that staff will be delighted and they will feel that they can all get behind him. This will be essential as the cumulo-nimbus clouds of concern gather over the entire banking sector. What will be important is the next tranche of management to be appointed. That may help to narrow the optics and credibility gap.”

The answer? It’s number three. All the others come from genuine City analysts providing quotes in response to news events over the last two years. The third one was written by the humourist J B Morton, aka Beachcomber, as a joke, about 50 years ago.

When I first read that little piece as a teenager – part of an occasional “In The City” strand that would appear now and then in Beachcomber’s column in the Express – I found it baffling and funny. Now, as a desensitised veteran who has spent eight years subbing financial news, I find it alarmingly convincing. Of course, Morton has some form when it comes to prescience: he was, as Richard Ingrams points out, the man who “invented the electric toothbrush, as a joke, only to see it become a fact of life”. But this is uncanny.

By all accounts an explosive and metrophobic character, Morton could be truly scathing in print about the things he disliked, such as socialism or public schools (“Pray take my place in the lifeboat,/’Tis a gesture I willingly make,/Since I fagged for your nephew at Repton,/It’s the least I might do for his sake”). But his gift for parody could be so accurate and deadpan that you sometimes half-believe – for example, when the column threw up an unexpected  sonnet or a supposed memoir on the Belle Epoque*  – that he might be meaning it seriously.

He is the only writer I know who satirises City journalism; at any rate, the only one who goes beyond mere expostulation at corporate-speak and jargon. But more than that: of all the comic writers I’ve read, he is the one who understands best that parody and satire are separate disciplines; that a distinctive style or register can be a strange thing of beauty in its own right; and that, absent satire, the best parody is written with something much closer to enthusiasm than scorn.

* “The sun sinks. The cafe teems with life.

Ah, Paris!

A clock in the rue Manet strikes six-thirty,  and I think of those words of de Gourmont.”

That’s it! Send it!

18 Feb

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) is on the phone to New York. The Americans want to go now. Nick Davies (David Thewlis) is videoconferencing with Der Spiegel. They aren’t nearly ready; “it’s like herding cats”. Then the Americans jump the gun: the New York Times site goes live. In the sofa-strewn and moodily lit Guardian editor’s office, the air turns blue. On the point of launching the Wikileaks revelations live into the world, setting in train an information revolution and transforming his newspaper’s global profile, Rusbridger turns to Ian Katz (Dan Stevens), and snaps: “Go.”

And so Katz hits the return key on his laptop.

Reporters and editors get great treatment in fiction: Hoffman, Redford and Robards in All The President’s Men; John Simm (or Russell Crowe) in State of Play; Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief; Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. The problem with being a production journalist is not so much that we get a bad press; it’s more that we’re completely invisible in every newspaper office that ever appears on screen. The production function – which involves the single largest group of employees in any newsroom* – is edited out completely. So it’s worth pointing out for the record – and without wishing to ruin the dramatic flow of future screenplays – that it’s not quite as simple as that.

If you’ve just subbed a major story for a newspaper website, you are likely to have up on your screen the following: the main text (one window); the print furniture (four to five windows); the web furniture (four to five windows); the photograph and caption information from  the online photo library (two windows) the HTML editing window to insert hard codes into the article that have gone awry in the outputting process; a Jabber message from the Search Engine Optimisation executive suggesting a tweak to your headline; and a half-composed email of your own to three different desks and the US bureau informing all concerned that the story is going up.

And that’s just to get the article live. On the adjacent desk will be the network front sub – the person responsible for chopping, changing and updating the ever-rolling home page on the newspaper’s website. Open on her screen will be the home page itself (in one or more of its three regional editions), the home page omnibus editing screen, the single-column mini-editor for the particular zone of the page she is working on, and a stream of emails pouring heedlessly in from all parts of the building pleading for space on the front for recipes, football videos and liveblogs about the quarterly inflation figures.

It’s not quite as bewildering as it sounds. But the simple act of launching one article on the web involves at least six or seven clicks, and a bit of hurried recasting from at least one if not both of you. And it’s rare, to say the least, for an editor or deputy to stoop to doing something like that. Generally a news executive’s primary function when an important story goes live on the website is to peer over the shoulders of successive members of the back bench inquiring “Is it up yet?”

And it’s always fun to watch fictional reporters being allowed to write their own headlines. In the original BBC version of State of Play, John Simm as Cal McCaffrey sits in front of his terminal, late at night, administering the coup de grace to the story that will end his old friend’s career and reputation. As a silent group of reporters watches – not a sub-editor in sight – he writes the first deck of his headline: ‘COLLINS CONFESSES TO’, and then, underneath, just a single word: ‘MURDER’.

The camera pans back to the colleagues gathered around him. At which point, if this had been the real world, one of them would have cocked their head to one side and observed: “That’s not much of a fill, is it?” But no: Della the junior reporter leans forward to click away the dialogue box that McCaffrey cannot bring himself to close. The camera turns to one of the paper’s senior executives. “That’s it,” he says finally. And the presses start rolling.

It was a great moment, and a great series. But part of me thinks it would only have been improved if someone from the SEO team had rushed up to say breathlessly: “You know, Google’s going to love it if we use his full name.”

* On the Tribune’s Saturday print shift, the news staffing typically breaks down as follows. SEO executives: one. Administrators: two. Graphics: two. Picture desk: three. Designers: three. Newsdesk, including senior editorial: five. Reporters (excluding out-of-office regional/foreign correspondents): Six.  Sub-editors: fourteen.

Above left: new information

3 Feb

There’s been an interesting discussion going on at You Don’t Say. Mr McIntyre asks:

“I wonder how many of you, and I mean civilians, not journalists, would be bothered to see information in a photo caption that is not duplicated in the associated article.

Let me explain …

It is standard practice in the trade not to run a photo of someone not mentioned in the text, and I can understand that. You see a photo of an identified person with the story, you expect that person to be mentioned in the text.

But recently … some colleagues have challenged captions that contained information pertinent to the subject that was not included in the story. I suspect that it is an unwarranted extension of the prohibition on running a photo of a person not mentioned. If the information in the caption is relevant to the story and accurate, what harm comes from running it? It’s not as if we’re at a court of law raising facts not entered into evidence.”

And the resulting responses have, to a stuck-in-the-mud hack like me, been surprisingly positive. “I do notice when captions contain extra information, and far from finding it objectionable, I prefer it,” writes one reader, Joe Kissell. Another, Garrick Stolz, says: “I appreciate unique information in captions as much as I do in sidebars.” Wayne Countryman, who has plenty of experience of handling stories that need cutting, writes:  “If a story is being cut drastically, then cutting copy that could be used in the caption is an option.”

Other readers, however, have pertinent objections. “I suppose there could be an element of false advertising. People do tend to look at pictures before text, and if they read the caption expecting to find out more about what’s in the caption in the story itself and don’t find it, they might feel cheated,” writes Linda Felaco. And Tracy Chen agrees: “I’ve had that happen … infuriating … if what was in the caption was more interesting than the article … and it wasn’t expounded upon.”

As someone in the newspaper trade, I think of the caption as part of the story’s “furniture”: that is, the package of display type – headline, standfirst, pullquote, strapline etc – that gets written to complete the story after it has been cut to fit. Editors perceive captions the way Ms Felaco does: as something that gets noticed, like a headline, before the reader starts on the body copy. Indeed, the custom at the Tribune is that all the special design-led typographical rules that apply to large type – single quotes instead of double; no  italics or other emphasis – also apply  to captions, even though they are the same size as the main text.

It follows, then, that because a subeditor would never put anything in a headline or a pullquote that wasn’t supported in the story, we never do in captions either. But is that just a habit of mind? Perhaps we should think of them as Mr Stolz does: as short factboxes to be read afterwards, not before.

Perhaps the only reason not to is the one implied by Ms Chen’s comment. The fundamental question is: why isn’t the information in the story in the first place? Because it was edited out; in the editor’s view, it was marginal. If you then put it in the caption – perforce briefly – and, as Ms Chen says, readers find it more interesting than what was left in the body copy,  the issue of editorial judgment can come up. A particularly annoyed reader might be prompted to wonder: why did you cut that? Why did you leave the less interesting bits in, at greater length? Are you biased? Don’t you grasp the real agenda? How many other things have you cut out of stories that I should have been told about?

All news is shortened and curated, of course. But it’s a small act of bravery to show how it was done, and by implication why. Especially if, as the Economist claims, the headline and the caption are the most-read parts of any story: then the readers will be getting the most important fact and the least, and nothing in between.