Archive | July, 2014

F*ll out in headlines

28 Jul

(Parental advisory: this post contains very bad language, albeit nothing you wouldn’t find in certain outposts of Her Majesty’s Press)

Publicly, broadsheets are a bit sniffy about tabloids. Tabloids are a bit sniffy about broadsheets. But behind the scenes, there’s one thing all sub-editors agree on: accuracy and consistency. We need clear, informed style decisions, and the discipline to stick to them afterwards. It’s the same wherever you go.

Email from the production editor of the Tribune to all sub-editors, 17 June:

“For those asking why it’s ‘Isis’: the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is a jihadist group active in Iraq and Syria. Isis was formed in April 2013 and grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq. It has since been disavowed by al-Qaida, but become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and is making military gains in Iraq.

The final “S” in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word “al-Sham”. This can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of the global jihad it refers to the Levant.”

Email from the editor of the Sunday Sport to all sub-editors, 23 July:

 “… to avoid any further confusion (and future disciplinaries) I have listed below the commonest bungles. Please print them off and stick them by your computer screen.

SHIT: Full out in copy and in headlines
FUCK: F**k in copy and in headlines
Hunt: C**t in copy and headlines
WANK: Full out in copy, w**k in headlines
TWAT: Full out in copy, tw*t in headlines
COCK: Full out in copy and in headlines
BOLLOCKS: Full out in copy and in headlines
BELLEND: One word, full out in copy and headlines

Can this please be the end of it? I hate to be formal but I’m getting sick of repeating the same things on a weekly basis.

Otherwise, keep up the good work.”

I bet freelances can hardly remember which publication they’re working on some days.

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It won’t be wrong till morning

8 Jul

Well, that story didn’t last very long. Ten minutes after I’d launched it onto the internet, I noticed its sheepish-looking author approaching the home news desk. I didn’t catch all the conversation that followed – at least not the first part – but the news editor’s rising “You mean it’s wrong ALREADY?” was audible in most parts of the newsroom.

After the apologetic reporter had shuffled away (“Well, how do you think I feel?”), the task of taking the story down and deleting it began. If a story is as (a) legally fraught and (b) libellous as this one was, there’s no room for the cheery news-website attitude of “never wrong for long”. Delete and apologise is the order of the day.

But that’s an extreme case. When the mistake is less explosive, and the story is sound enough to stay up on the site while the wrinkles get ironed out, the question then becomes one of degree: how wrong can you be, and for how long?

In fact, the question of “how wrong” can probably be solved using a traditional newspaper yardstick: if it’s so bad that it would have to be pulled off the page altogether, then the same should happen on the web. If it can be legitimately fixed by the stone sub deleting a line and getting a new headline set, then it’s fine to stay up on the site, with the proviso that you should make the changes with expedition. But the question of how long an online story can be worked on and refiled before it becomes a matter for the corrections desk is an entirely new one, for which there is no print-era precedent.

In the old days, an evening newspaper reporter might have two or three stories on the go at once, but she could expect to file each of them only once, towards the end of the day. That allowed time for more information to be gathered, more sources to return phone calls and more colleagues to be consulted for advice. But web news is rolling news, always wanting some copy on what’s breaking, so newspaper writers have had to learn the art of filing “first takes” within 15 minutes and thinking more deeply afterwards.  This routine is now ingrained at the Tribune: stories often come and go two or three times during the day, the last time “for web and paper”. On big set-piece news events like the Budget, reporters actually write to timetables, with set filings expected as the chancellor progresses through his speech.

So no one is expecting completeness on a first take. And, implicitly, total accuracy is no longer expected first time either. Errors of a non-fatal nature – that is, those that do not invalidate the news content of the piece altogether – can be rectified and included in the next web update without any need to acknowledge the error (although if readers have pointed out the mistake in the comments below the article, it’s good manners, and good accountability, to acknowledge them).  But the reader’s editor has shown no appetite for getting involved if a fleeting inaccuracy occurs in a hasty breaking-news piece whose expected shelf-life is about half an hour. Indeed, practically speaking, how could he? The mistake can be fixed in less time than it takes to notify him, and the article itself will often have been replaced in toto before the corrections desk gets back from lunch.

It’s dangerous to take that approach too far, though. We have quailed at a policy of endlessly, silently, perfecting old stories as the days and weeks go by, and rightly so. There’s something slightly Orwellian about a newspaper that, on its record, has apparently never made a mistake. And in any case, so many news stories have self-limiting relevance: no one clicks on the “jury has gone out” story once the “verdicts in” story is written; further discreet polishing would be pointless.

So the point at which a faulty story stops becoming a work in progress and crystallises into a mistake must be somewhere in between. At the Tribune, the rule is an overnight one. For the length of the calendar day on which a story first appears online, it can be modified and republished on the website without official intervention; but from the day after online publication, any complaints and corrections must be routed through the reader’s editor, and any resulting amendments must be explicitly noted at the foot of the article.

Why is that the rule? Well, you have to draw the line somewhere. And what could be more natural for a group of daily print journalists than to draw it at the end of the night, after the last edition has left the print works and nothing further can be done to put things right? We may be a global news website with tens of millions of readers, but we’re still a newspaper at heart.