Archive | May, 2019

The ladder of others’ errors

28 May

I am reminded, as I periodically am, of Andrew Marr’s penetrating and double-edged tribute to sub-editors in his book My Trade, published in 2004:

The biggest division in journalism is between natural reporters and natural ‘subs’. It is a flesh and bone thing. The history of journalism is littered with awed accounts of men* who could tame torrents of sloppy, incoherent copy and turn them into clear, clean stories. It is a great talent and any writer who has been corrected by a great sub knows it. But it can come at a human cost. There’s a sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness to life’s natural subs, the result of clambering up and down a ladder of other people’s ignorance and errors. So much sloppy writing, third-rate thinking, self-indulgent prose and looming deadlines can sour your view of life forever … Subs are more inclined to be learned, to hold strong political and religious opinions, and to be either morose or ferocious; and they never get out of the office.

It’s not entirely complimentary, although given our total absence from some journalistic memoirs, it is at least nice to have been noticed. Some of it sounds like the natural incomprehension that the big-picture person (Marr, for those who don’t know him, was editing a national newspaper in his 30s and is now a top-line BBC broadcaster) feels towards the details person; it is not unknown for newsroom leaders to detect “a sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness” in those tasked with making their ambitious visions come true. And it is true that sub-editors are paid to worry for a living; in any discussion about recently released John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban”, the sub-editor will be the one saying “actually, shouldn’t it be Talib?”. But there is a difference between playing a defensive position, as a copy desk essentially does, and having a defensive personality: just ask Rio Ferdinand.

Furthermore, being a sub is not just trapping errors: it falls within our gift to write headlines, the most visible act of journalistic creativity and (as we like to joke with the Tribune’s reporters) the only part of the paper that anyone actually reads.

I wouldn’t count myself as morose and, though I might like to think otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not ferocious either. But it is probably true that moroseness is more prevalent among subs than it is reporters, where it would be a fatal handicap in a job that demands sociability. And correcting faulty copy is not as soul-destroying as Marr makes it sound. But as a description of sub-editing, “clambering up and down a ladder of other people’s errors” can hardly be bettered. And he’s certainly right about one thing: even on a day as sunny as this, we’re still stuck in the office.


*Sic. I think he’s looking at it from a long-term, historical perspective


The fine art of resurfacing

14 May

So what are the ethics here, exactly? We know that “resurfaced” news is not actually new at all, but old stories that have returned to prominence for some reason. Sometimes, as in the recent surge of interest in a rebarbative John Wayne interview from the 1970s, it happens because of a generational rediscovery of old events or old-fashioned views: while that interview wasn’t technically news, it appears to have been a revelation to many people under the age of 40. Also, quotes from it were put up on social media and went viral before it was picked up again by the mainstream media: news editors in those circumstances might argue that there was evident new interest in a story they didn’t realise had been forgotten.

But whether you think instructing a reporter to write up an old magazine article is a waste of time or not, it’s clear that here the act of “resurfacing” was done by a third party: all the the media itself did was respond to a piece of widely shared journalistic archaeology carried out by a member of the public. What if the situation were different? What if an article were to mysteriously resurface even in the absence of any obvious social media or news interest?

A story about Holly Willoughby’s lively early career on children’s TV is mother lode for the Mail: alcohol, risqué incidents, an opportunity to dig out racy pictures of one of the paper’s and its readers’ favourite celebrities. (As Decca Aitkenhead wrote in the Sunday Times last month: “To describe the Daily Mail as being obsessed with Willoughby would be an understatement – and also slightly unfair, for, in truth, almost everyone is.”)

But as you read the piece, which was published on 1 May, things start to get a bit strange. It is described as being drawn from an interview with the Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine, which leads you to think that the article is a midweek trailer for next Sunday’s paper – “read more revelations at the weekend!”. It’s only when you look into it a bit further that you discover, with a sense of disorientation similar to watching one of JB Priestley’s time plays for the first time, that the Mail on Sunday closed down Live magazine in 2013.

There is no hint of this anywhere in the article: no sense that this is all already on the record, that at least six years must have have passed, that none of it is news. The whole article is bathed in an eerie, and deceptive, timelessness. Willoughby’s current age, 38, is given at the top of the article, giving the vague but distinct impression that she has been speaking to the newspaper recently.  It takes the Express, stumbling along in its rival’s wake, to point out (briefly) that this interview has actually been “resurfaced”.

No renewed third party interest in the interview is cited, or evident, in the piece. No one appears to have tweeted “have you seen this old interview with Holly Willoughby?” No explanation is offered for the renewed salience of what was revealed a significant period of time ago. The Mail, it would appear, has simply rediscovered a copy of one of its defunct Sunday supplements, seen what was inside, and placed it at the top of its Sidebar of Shame for several hours – where, one suspects, it got plenty of traffic once again. Some stories are too good to check; it seems also that some stories are too good to run only once.

But what are the ethics here? Don’t you have to wait to be prompted before re-running something from your own archive? And when you do, don’t you have to explain why you’re doing it? Can you resurface your own articles just because you like them? Is this even allowed?