Archive | March, 2016

Where’s the splash?

29 Mar

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Back in New York last week, just in time to see spring: sunlight illuminating wide, peaceful Broadway on the Upper West Side, blossom bobbing in the cold wind outside 72nd Street station. Like any Manhattan visitor, I did the Manhattan things one does: walking the High Line, going to a Broadway show, spending five solid minutes looking at the map trying to work out which F trains stop at Second Avenue.* And, of course, I read the New York Times.

As a broadsheet journalist, I understand the value of restraint, of course. And nuance, and the plurality of agendas that need to be reflected on a mature front page. But as I read (and, annoyingly, mislaid) an edition last week that was laid out just like the one pictured above, I still found myself wondering: which story’s the splash?

Instinctively I look first to the top left of a front page, to the first column, where there is indeed a story: the Bloomberg one. Is that the lead? The famously distinctive typography offers few clues: but the headline for the four column pic story appears to be in almost exactly the same bold italic. Over on the right, though, in column 6, the headline is in semi-bold caps. Does that outrank bold ital? There’s a subhead and a standfirst too: on sheer weight of furniture, it’s probably Saudis that’s the splash, way over on the right. But it took a while to find it.

The similarity of headline styles above the fold is one of the most striking things about the NYT to British eyes. It’s not that they’re small; it’s that they seem almost all the same size. By comparison, the template for a big double-page spread at the Tribune envisages a fully 40-point gap between the main headline on the page (66pt bold serif display) and the second and subsequent ones (26pt sans regular).

In fact, if you look at another striking Times layout, with the lead story in column 6 and the second story in column 5,

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you can see that there is a difference in size between the caps and the bold italics, but it’s hard to detect if they’re not right next to each other. (Also, below the pic, there is a regular, unemphasised upper-and-lower headline that appears to be slightly larger than the bold italic headline next to it. Does that make it more or less important?)

Just add to the confusion, here’s another layout from January with two all-caps headlines, one on the right, one under the picture.

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Again, the extra trimmings suggest the column 6 story is the splash, but it’s hardly what you’d call over-displayed. In fact, in all three examples, the paper is in effect being led by the photograph – especially the second one, which grandly takes up the first four columns on the page, displacing every headline down or to the right.

Typography in British newspapers is designed around the mystique of the splash: the one big story, with one big headline, delivered per day, with a supporting cast of other items as decoration. It makes every front page lively: everything looks good in 72-point bold. But the headline type doesn’t get smaller on a slow news day, so ordinary stories can end up getting a fanfare they can’t quite live up to. British news typography works on a relative scale: forget yesterday or the moon landings – this is what’s big today.

By contrast, the standard Times layouts functions at their best on slow news days: days where there are two lead stories, or, frankly, none. The single-column headlines over single-column stories communicate a judicious calm – a longer view – and a certain sense of honesty about the day’s events: an impression that many things are happening, and many things are news. So if you’re looking at a copy of the Times and wondering what the big story is, you can often find yourself agreeing with the paper: perhaps there isn’t one today.

 

* My provisional conclusion: they all do. In fact, I think, stopping at Second Avenue may be one of the defining characteristics of the F train, distinguishing it from the constellation of alphabetic alternatives (B, D, M etc) that share the line on their way to two different termini in Brooklyn, two in Queen’s and one in the Bronx via six different routes through Manhattan. I think.

 

 

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New Day, old echoes

15 Mar

Regular reader Jeff writes:

Literally the first sentence of the first article in issue 01 of The New Day begins “The controversial Bedroom Tax will be under the spotlight…” – the benefit charge/penalty nickname unqualified, unquoted and capitalised. The paper says it has “no political bias” but this style decision would seem to indicate otherwise…

He’s got a point. The New Day, the breezy – and, remarkably for these days, print-only – tabloid launched in Britain this month makes a point, as its editor writes, of impartiality: “Welcome to the New Day. Here you’ll find no political bias. In fact, we’ll give you both sides of the argument and let you make up your own mind.” But, as Jeff points out, that can be a difficult promise to stick to. Not because it doesn’t provide both points of view – the New Day does that diligently, with a for and against opinion piece on either side of a fact-box briefing – but because, as we’ve discussed before, there are attitudes and biases buried deep in your choices of phrase, deep in your style guide, that betray what you really think.

The “bedroom tax”, of course, is only called that by its opponents. If you’re in favour of the partial reclamation of housing benefit from those deemed to have more space in social housing than they need, then it’s the “spare room subsidy”, as government ministers repeatedly attest on television. As a leftie Tribune journalist, I’m very much in favour of calling it the former; but even I’m aware that neither of them are anything like neutral terms. In fact, there is no neutral term for it at the moment: so the New Day has no choice but to pick sides in its headline.

And it doesn’t end there. In a subsequent edition we find this:

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Once again, there’s  meticulously balanced pro- and anti- opinion piece on the same page, but it’s rather a moot point given that the standfirst has already made up its mind. The “snoopers’ charter” – or, as its supporters prefer, the Communications Data Bill – is another of those subjects where the term for the initiative is itself in dispute, and presents a trap for the unwary.

It happens in the smaller type too. Refugees are “refugees”, not “migrants”: again, another ruling that chimes with Ten Minutes Past Deadline’s outlook, but one with which surely not all readers will agree. Also, the phrase “avoided jail” has made an appearance in an early edition; as the Tribune’s production editor notes:

This can sometimes read as if we think they should have been jailed … It would be better to say what punishment was actually given to them rather than take it on ourselves to imply that they should have been given a different one.

It’s not an easy problem to solve. In fact, the New Day might well argue, what are you supposed to call the snoopers’ charter in the furniture – especially in a three-word headline and a 16-word standfirst? You’ve got two or three words to signal to the reader what’s going on. There just isn’t space to give an impartial summing-up of the rhetorical differences. And the commitment to impartiality is genuine: the face-to-face shootouts between commentators signal it clearly. It’s just that even where the spirit is willing, the language can’t always follow.

 

Comment in chains

1 Mar

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What’s great about the internet is that there’s space for everyone. All views get an airing, even if it’s only in the comments below the line. This person thinks that Kanye is today’s Mozart: a minority opinion, perhaps, but one now proudly spoken. The voiceless have been given a voice.

Or perhaps not quite in this case, because this is my friend from California, trolling. He’s taking part in the “Daily Mail game”, in which competitors join in conversations in the comments under Mail articles and try to score as many downvotes (as awarded by fellow commenters) as possible for their remarks. As we can see, this one has scored a splendid 176 red negative votes, and, obviously a natural (“Honestly, we need closer ties with Europe!”), he’s already close to 5,000 down-arrows overall.

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And this, perhaps, is a hint as to why the tide appears to be turning against comments on new stories. In April 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times suspended reader comments on its site, and, as Wired recounts, over the intervening period almost a dozen notable news outlets have done something similar. In most cases, they have done it quietly, or partially, or temporarily, sometimes under the guise of technological upgrades to create “new commenting experiences”.

But now, since the start of the year, the Daily Telegraph has not only relaunched its website without a comments feature, but made it a point of public policy (“readers can continue to comment on and share articles through Telegraph Facebook pages, or via Twitter, in the usual way”). And, most strikingly of all, the Guardian – the paper that embraces the dictum of its most famous editor that “Comment is Free” – has announced a scaling back of its below-the-line facility that will see comments disabled automatically on race, immigration or Islam stories unless there are sufficient resources to provide the high level of moderation such subjects always require.

Comments under news stories have always created problems for their hosts: the lurking threat of libel or false rumour, the disingenuous astroturfing, the hate speech, the wandering off topic, the flippant bad taste over disasters. The rise of online engagement has led to the rise of what the Guardian’s former editor, Alan Rusbridger, has described as an entirely “new breed” of journalist – moderators – whose entire job is to control the risks commenters create. But until now, news organisations have stuck with them nonetheless, because of the one huge benefit they provide: audience.

People who just read a story click on it once. But if they comment on a story, they become involved. If someone replies to their comment, they click again to read and reply. If someone else comments, perhaps they reply to that. They check back in to see how the debate is progressing, or if the author has joined in, or how many recommendations their original comment has earned. Every time counts as a click, a visit; clicks and visits add up to an audience. And audience is what you use to sell digital advertising.

As print sales have declined and the internet has risen, newspapers’ strategy for survival has depended on this kind of audience – especially the loyal, core audience that comes back time and again. As hardcopy circulation declined and less money came in from print adverts, the reasoning went, digital readership would grow, and more money would come in from internet adverts. And digital readership did grow, smoothly – in the Tribune’s case, from 6 million to 7 million to 8 million a day. In fact, it’s still growing. But, as of last summer, the other half of the equation has failed: newspapers’ digital ad revenues have just collapsed.

The reasons for this are complex: some leading advertising figures are beginning to suspect that digital advertising is simply not being viewed, thanks to ad blockers, and are reluctant to spend. Many are turning towards the vast, data-rich, targetable audience that big social media sites can provide and away from newspapers’ much smaller, much more opaque readerships. (According to one set of statistics, the digital ad market grew by 30% year on year – but all but 1 percentage point of that went to Google and Facebook.) The future for newspapers was already looking tricky even while online revenues were going up. But, whatever the reasons, the unthinkable has now happened: there is now no growth in either print advertising or digital advertising.

Obviously, the consequences of this, if it continues, will be manifold, and the decisions to be taken difficult. But one conclusion seems inescapable: that the link between audience and revenue has been broken. And if that’s the case, then the risks papers run by publishing online comments suddenly seem much less worthwhile than they did before. Now a growing downside has to be managed – numbers of comments are still rising – while the upside has stagnated. And so one of the first things to happen in this new, underfunded future may be an extension of a trend that’s already becoming apparent: that comments will simply be turned off.*

 

 

*Not here though – comments are very much open, as always