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The three-newsroom problem

5 Jul

Vienna – “Austria’s capital, Vienna” – is the most liveable city in the world, and the Tribune is all over the story. Global news, global news organisation: it’s the perfect fit. Except that, no sooner have we announced the winner than, one paragraph later, we’re straight into a controversy about … Auckland.

Now, Auckland was last year’s winner by reason of its strict lockdown, and now it’s 34th for the same reason, which is interesting. OK. But two brief paragraphs about Vienna later, we move on to … Melbourne. Melbourne came tenth.

Then we address Australia’s other major cities, none of which are in the top 25. Finally, at paragraph seven, we get to a brief rundown of the six European cities in the top 10.

By paragraph 11, we’re back on the subject of Melbourne, with a quote from the premier of Victoria,

and you start to suspect that, just possibly, this global-interest story about all the world’s cities was filed by the Australian office. The byline tells you only that the article is by “Staff and agencies”,

but the dateline reveals a launch time of 2.43am, British summer time – approaching 10pm for the US office, which is day shift only, but 11.43am, right in the middle of the working day, down under.

The Tribune has three fully fledged newsrooms: London, New York and Sydney. The demerits of having a trio of autonomous operations running in parallel have been rehearsed at length in this blog, but of course there are merits as well. For instance, live blogs and big rolling stories in one country can be kept alive all night and into the morning by the other two offices; as a natural consequence of the time zones in which it operates, the Tribune never sleeps now. Quality of coverage may dip a little as, say, London reporters wrestle with the snakepit machinations of Capitol Hill, but breaking political news at 5am EDT will be up ready for a breakfast audience across the US before the baton is handed back.

In these circumstances it is instinctively understood who the story “belongs” to, and which are the senior and junior newsrooms in each case. There is also a clear, if slightly troublesome, policy about whether you should write local news chiefly for a local audience in each jurisdiction: the answer is yes, even if those stories sound a bit baffling to readers abroad. The three-newsroom problem that we do not seem to have addressed yet is what to do about stories of apparently global relevance where all the interest will in fact be local, and vary according to where it is being read.

Last year we discussed the Sydney-bureau story about heat deaths around the world in which all the experts quoted were Australian. This story has a further problem: despite introducing antipodean figures as though they were familiar names, it also tries to adopt a slightly tortured citizen-of-nowhere approach to the geography (“Switzerland’s Zurich”, “fellow Swiss city Geneva” and so on). London, the Tribune’s home and headquarters, is not mentioned until the 18th paragraph. The same is true of New York (or, as the article calls it, “the US city of New York”).

A conscious attempt at impartiality mixes with the subconscious desire to find relevance for the home market, and for two-thirds of its audience the story jars. But it’s hard to believe that writers in New York or London would, or could, have approached it any differently.

And that leaves us with a suggestion that defies efficient planning and good internet practice, but seems to make the most journalistic sense: if you have three newsrooms, are there in fact some stories that you need to cover three times?

Who, what, why, when, wherever

7 Dec

For a second, I thought we’d done it – I thought we’d found the first anglosphere news story that gives you no clue whatsoever about where it happened.

Comedian Celeste Barber, nationality unspecified, has made fun of influencer Adelina Lazarova, nationality unspecified, in a parody video following a storm over Barber’s mocking of model Emily Ratajkowski, nationality unspecified. And where did all this happen? That remains unspecified.

Lazarova was being mocked for backflipping out of a convertible Lamborghini in high heels on social media, and Ratajkowski was being teased over a seductive bikini videoclip, so the real answer to the question “where did this happen” is, of course, “on the internet”. Nonetheless, we have a Russian-born, Emirates-based influencer doing gymnastics (in New York, as it happens) and a British-born American model famous for her globetrotting, and finally we seem to be floating free in the borderless kingdom of online news …

Except that there are still one or two clues to bring us back to earth. That “copping” in the headline: that’s redolent of a certain southern-hemisphere flavour of English. And further down, it is reported that Barber is about to tour Australia. Why would that be of interest to anyone except people living in … ah, yes. A closer squint at the byline, in Mail Online’s pale, self-effacing font, confirms it: “By Caleb Taylor for Daily Mail Australia”. The reason that Barber’s location isn’t stated in the piece is not because it doesn’t matter any more – “hey, a story’s a story!” – but because she doesn’t need to be identified to an Australian audience. This is a case of the Mail trying to sound Australian, not trying to sound stateless.

But still, with regard to the Five W’s of reporting, this is the first anglosphere news piece I’ve seen that doesn’t make any explicit effort to answer the question “where?”. Indeed, if there hadn’t been a passing reference to Lazarova’s showing-off taking place in the US, there wouldn’t have been a geographical locator anywhere in the text. And, you might argue, in cases like this there doesn’t need to be: if the news (OK, “news”) happens on Instagram, then it happens everywhere at once. The mainstream media is hesitantly becoming stateless, expanding into markets bounded only by language, but social media doesn’t even have that constraint: you can sign up to all three protagonists’ accounts in a home-country native version of the app wherever you are. The only thing that may hold you back after that is the captions to Lazarova’s selfies, which are frequently in Cyrillic.

Subs – please check

12 Oct

HMS Ambush on sea trials. © Crown copyright 2012

*

“We have been regularly referring to the value of the Aus-French submarine deal as $90bn,” writes an astute member of the Tribune’s night shift to colleagues. “But this is 90bn AUSTRALIAN dollars, not US dollars.”

That is an excellent point. “This makes sense for an Australian audience but is confusing for everyone else. Lots of writers and subs are referring back to Aus pieces for their info and copying this sum into stories for a US, UK and global audience. Non-Australia folk: please be on the alert for this (and for similar Australian stories of global import). Australia folk: if a story is very much global, would you consider using the notation A$? Anyway, something for discussion.”

It certainly is something for discussion: this blog has wrestled for years with the problems of anglophone news organisations trying to bestride the globe while remaining part of a national dialogue. The Aukus submarines deal, agreed between Australia, the UK and the US, looks like a perfect anglosphere news story – after all, these are the three countries where forward-looking British papers such as the Tribune now have newsrooms. But although that means the coverage has been panoramic, the small but essential details are proving as troublesome as ever.

Some newsdesks did fall into the trap. Eastern Eye converted the “$90bn” that France stands to lose from the cancellation of its own submarine deal with Australia into “£66bn”:

But that is the sterling equivalent of 90 billion US dollars, not Australian; the correct figure for A$ is about £48bn.

The Tribune does not appear to have gone that far, but by saying “$90bn” in several pieces without context we may have been giving the impression – it’s easily done – that we were speaking of the world’s reserve currency when we were not. And in this article in the Mail, focusing on the Biden angle and with a US political writer leading the bylines,

the $90bn figure also stands unqualified.*

Interestingly, the same article gives comparative costings of various submarine types further down,

and those figures are not in US dollars either. A Virginia-class boat seems to cost about US$3.4bn (which is about A$4.5bn) and a new HMS Astute would set you back about £1.4bn-£1.6bn, which is not as much as $2.6bn in US currency. It would seem that the costs in this US-focused article are being given consistently in Australian dollars, but without ever saying so.

Why would you not specify? Perhaps because, as we have discussed so often, journalists at the Tribune and similar organisations are often encouraged not to. Our purpose in expanding across the anglosphere is to provide local coverage in underserved markets, to bed in as a homegrown news source. So we write in different flavours of English depending on which continent we’re on, and speak of weights and measures as locals would. In which case, as the night sub’s email suggests, adopting international terminology for a national currency is something that very much needs to be “considered” before it is enforced. Too much globalist perspective, too much wire-service neutrality, betrays you as an outsider.

This causes a slight problem when local stories meant for one country’s consumption become visible on another country’s homepage. But it causes even greater problems when the three jurisdictions you cover collide in the same global story. Because then, whose worldview wins?

*“Advanced” warning – I know, I know.

Weather outlook

3 Aug

Any of the Tribune’s three world-girdling newsrooms could have produced this alarming story on heat deaths:

Some stories are local, which is why we set up English-speaking operations in the US and Australia, but some stories are global, and the climate crisis affects everyone. In the end, it was Australia who wrote up the report for all three of us, and it duly found its way into the print subs’ queue for the newspaper in London.

Which was fine, except that, in this globally relevant story, the first person quoted …

was Australian, and the second person quoted …

… was Australian, and the next part of the story …

… concerned a study in which Australia had done notably badly (whereas the UK and the US had only done moderately badly), and the broadening out of the theme …

… took us into the kind of Australian domestic shorthand that I suspect may never have been encountered in the Tribune’s home news pages before.

It’s not hard to guess what the Australian Medical Association is, but the Hesta Super Fund is more recondite: a huge pension fund of a specifically Australian type called a “super fund” that once (but no longer) restricted its membership to employees in the health service. That explanation almost leaves UK readers none the wiser than the name: It’s sort of a “health body”, but not quite, and seems to be politically engaged in a way that no major pension fund in the UK ever is. In the end, I glossed it as something like “major health-focused pension fund”, but I’m not sure that enlightened many readers on the Tube.

We have come across this problem in a minor way before, when a developing international story gets handed off between newsrooms: the weights, measures and currencies start to fluctuate, and views change about what the reader can be assumed to know. But this is a slightly bigger problem. We don’t yet have reporters with a contact book big enough to provide region-specific quotes and examples for three different continents. Nor do we have the resources (usually) to write up a story three times in all three jurisdictions. So you end up with a story flavoured with the sources, agenda and analysis of one particular newsroom, and the other two have to make do with what’s supplied.

As we have discussed more than once, the UK’s anglophone news organisations are anxious to ensure Australian readers don’t feel their domestic news has been written by outsiders. But what we haven’t considered so far is the possibility that British readers might be getting that feeling instead.

We the people

22 Jun

Apologies if you’re having lunch, but something has come up in the world of anglophone news. From the Mail’s UK homepage a couple of weeks ago:

The issue is not the shock value of this report from Daily Mail Australia, unpleasant though it is. Nor is it a lack of geographical specificity, something about which this blog has previously complained: the country of origin is clear. The issue comes at the end of the headline when the international mask slips and the sub-editor refers to “our” waterways.

At the Tribune, the audience team don’t like us saying “our” in the furniture. They have an eye to the global visibility of the website and want things to be accessible to all English-speakers. You can see their point: directly addressing a community to which some readers do not belong has an exclusionary effect. But at the same time, this kind of assumed familiarity becomes hard to avoid when one of your international newsrooms is writing a home news story for its home audience – all the more so when it is under instructions to cater to its home audience first, and not the mothership in London.

And the problem is not confined to accidentally identifying yourself as part of a community. Should you be making local jokes and allusions in headlines, like Guardian Australia does here?

Or do you take the International Herald Tribune approach and retreat from all signals of national identity? (For readers outside New South Wales, I should explain that the Big Banana here is not, as you might think, Russell Crowe: it refers to Coffs Harbour itself, which prospered in the banana trade and now has a large theme park of that name.)

And you’d need to be very local to New South Wales, I think, to grasp this headline first time:

The key is to know that the state police force has a squad known as the “fixated persons unit”, which investigates potentially violent lone-wolf offenders. Even with that information, you might find that a nine-word noun phrase is going it a bit for a headline: the verb-seeking reader does tend to fasten on “fixated” as a likely candidate and get confused.

Friendlyjordies itself is a YouTube channel that satirises Australian politics: not really a name to conjure with, then, across the anglosphere. But if you’re already in for “fixated persons unit”, you’re probably in for that too. And how else could you really put it? “Arrest of member of Australian satirical political YouTube channel by anti-terrorist New South Wales police unit… “? You solve the problem of alienating audiences, but then you run out of space. Localisms can be essential for compression and communication – but then, just as surely as if you’d said “we”, you’ve circumscribed the size of the audience you’re talking to.

Dis-cursive

2 Mar

This hasn’t come into focus at the Tribune yet, and perhaps it never will, but it will need thinking about if it does. What happens if a writer objects to the italicisation of words in one of their native languages during the publication process?

Levels of italicisation vary between style guides – some do it for films and book titles, some not, for example – but the Tribune’s style guide is brief and to the point about other languages: “Use italics for foreign words and phrases (with roman translation in brackets)”. There is some look-and-feel guidance about words that have become totally familiar in English, such as cafe, which should not be italicised and do not take diacriticals (as a former edition of the style guide used to say, “that would be a debacle”). But unfamiliar words take italics in our publications. Which then raises the question: unfamiliar to whom?

Although it is written by an editor for editors, this blog has always had at least a scrap of sympathy for writers who are unhappy about changes made to articles after they’ve written them. If you unsplit an infinitive in the cause of readability under someone else’s byline, the sticklers’ complaints will go to the writer, not to you, and you may be faced not only with the ire of peevish readers, but the ire of the reporter as well, who is inclined to agree with them. In such cases, an editor can end up isolated in opposition to both the author and the audience.

A disagreement over italics would probably be different, and might essentially become a debate with the author over who the presumed audience actually is. The person who wrote the tweet is a Korean American children’s author whose books are about young people of a similar background exploring their heritage. It is therefore probably essential for her that Korean words are not “othered” by being italicised to draw attention to their presumed unfamiliarity. (In fact, it would appear from the context of her thread that she has control of the process and has made that ruling for herself.)

This debate borders on the related issue, discussed many times in this blog, of news organisations allowing different dialects of English in the different countries in which they operate. The newsrooms set up by British news organisations elsewhere in the anglosphere are intended to speak to a domestic audience, not simply to report back to London. That’s why you sometimes end up reading articles about a “tradie” (a uniquely Australian term for tradesperson) startling a gigantic “huntsman” (a species of spider unknown in Britain) on the Daily Mail’s UK homepage.

The unspoken assumption is that Australian readers are the significant audience; if non-Australian readers see it, they will be able to figure it out. (As one of the supportive responders to the original tweet says, “if I see a word, I don’t understand, I’ll look it up.”)

On the other hand, it’s worth restating the traditional general defence of italicisation – that too great a presumption of understanding can alienate and discourage a potential audience who are unfamiliar with the subject. Italics, quotes and signposts to the reader such as “so-called” can all encourage them to navigate new intellectual or cultural territory, whatever it may be, and educate themselves. Another responder to the tweet, suggesting an exception for neologisms, writes that they could accept italicisation for a completely made-up word: “italic would let me know its ok to not understand it because its not a real word.” But doesn’t that principle – “it’s ok not to understand it” – apply to anything that might confuse the intended reader?

None of which helps solve the fundamental question in this debate, which is: who is the intended reader? Do you agree with the author about that? And if you don’t agree, which one of you decides?

The Rebel effect

13 Oct

If you were, say, an ambitious anglophone news operation with sites in the UK, the US and Australia, and you wanted to test how well those operations were gelling, here’s one subject you could start with: Rebel Wilson.

Australian, US-domiciled, tabloid-friendly and popular everywhere, she regularly seems to present a test to the three-newsroom model. We have already seen the Mail and the Guardian stumble over the subject of her $4.5m libel win three years ago (Australian dollars? US dollars? Not sure!). Now she’s dieting furiously on Instagram, and inadvertently creating another weights and measures problem.

She announced* last week that she was only three kilos away from her goal, kilos being the measure that Australians commonly use for body weight.

In the article, even though it was produced by Daily Mail Australia, this is translated in the opening paragraph to 6.5 pounds, presumably with a northern-hemisphere audience in mind. On the UK homepage, the stories briefly appeared next to each other on Tuesday: one in the celebrity highlights box, the other in the Sidebar of Shame, one with the kilos measurement, one with the pounds.

At the end of the first paragraph of text, a British-friendly conversion into stones and pounds is added in brackets, for the full suite of anglosphere measures,

but further down, in a picture caption, a (presumably Australian?) sub-editor has fallen back into the system they know best (with the conversions given slightly different priorities).

Does it matter? These are just details: as we have discussed before, it doesn’t stop you understanding the heart of the story. Rebel’s diet is going well; Kylie is being generous; Big Lizzie has arrived in New York. But weights and measures are always redolently local and surprisingly resistant to change. And while small things like this remain so difficult to marshal for an international audience, readers are still being left with the subconscious impression that they’re reading a story meant for somebody else.

*Or, in Mail-speak, “flaunted”

Off-brand

31 Mar

At the Tribune, as we’ve discussed, we allow the US newsroom to write about Thursday ousters and the Australian newsroom to write about docos being spruiked, while the London office is exempted from calling football “soccer“. We “honour the writer’s voice” in each jurisdiction, so as not to foist an alien dialect of English on our intended audiences on different continents. If that means that, say, British readers are baffled by the phrase “spill vote” in an article written for Sydneysiders, then so be it. That has been always been the policy – or it was until we published a piece on the coronavirus paracetamol/ibuprofen controversy, and this email came round:

Now, I appreciate that there’s a war on, and that this may not be a harbinger of the future. But it is instructive that, when a story really matters – when it tramples across national boundaries, as the biggest stories always do – the writer’s-voice policy starts to wobble. You might argue that if the story has already been read half a million times in the US, then readers have successfully translated it for themselves, as they usually appear to do with international celebrity news. We’ve always held that line previously: that the domestic audience for each of the three newsrooms must not be offended by use of language that speaks first to another market.

But lives are at stake now, and in the bewildering blizzard of news about the pandemic, the thought of further confusion being caused by the separations in our common language is hard to bear. If only we could report the news so that everyone who read it could understand it equally quickly. Sadly, however, although we have a global crisis, we still don’t have a global English.

Another day, another dollar

21 Jan

Stories of the disastrous Australian bushfires are winging around the globe, and donors, including celebrity donors, are responding worldwide. But while the multinational anglophone news services – the Mail, the Guardian, the BBC  –  are in prime position to spread the word of the millions being pledged, they are having trouble, not for the first time, deciding exactly what kind of millions they are.

We have previously seen how a libel settlement awarded in Australian dollars was reported around the world, even in the US, as being simply in “dollars”. But this time, it’s not the media that is being vague about currency – it seems to be the celebrity donors themselves.

Elton John announced simply that he would be donating “$1m” to firefighters, speaking live on stage at a concert in Sydney. Chris Hemsworth made the same non-specific announcement in a video on social media. John is a Briton with ties to both the US and Australia, but particularly the former; Hemsworth an Australian who works in Hollywood but now chooses to live in his home country. What denomination of currency does each of them think in when they are speaking off the cuff? What kind of dollars do they mean?

Other celebrities have joined in. The singers Kylie Minogue (Australian, famous in Australia and Britain, somewhat less so in America) and Pink (American, lives in America, popular around the world) both pledged “$500,000”. If one were to guess – and it would only be a guess – one might surmise that Minogue meant Australian dollars and Pink United States dollars. But if so, that creates considerable unease about allowing the sentence “The pop star Pink said she would donate $500,000, which is the same amount Kylie Minogue pledged.” Is it actually the same amount?

The Daily Mirror, which professes less global ambition than some of its British rivals, feels confident enough to convert Minogue’s pledge into pounds on the assumption that she meant Australian dollars: £265k (as opposed to something like £380k if she had meant US).

But they haven’t done the same for Hemsworth, her fellow Australian, who broadcast his pledge at home in Australia but was equally non-specific.

Of course, in a crisis of this magnitude, when aid is urgently needed, this is a detail that should only worry sub-editors. Or perhaps sub-editors and international hard rockers with an eye for detail:

Thanks, Metallica.

 

Capital territory

12 Nov

In the world of globalised anglophone news, stories intended for one market can be hard enough to parse in other markets as it is. When a quirk of the style guide get in the way, it can make things even more difficult:

The headline, written by Guardian Australia for Australians but, as usual, globally available on the website, creates a familiarly steep learning curve for those unfamiliar with politics in Canberra. Ken Wyatt is the minister for Indigenous affairs and the IPA (Institute for Public Affairs) is a conservative thinktank; that much quickly becomes clear. But what are overseas readers to make of the phrase “… engaging in bigotry in voice to parliament video”?

As the always-alert Memphis bureau, which spotted this story, writes

I found  the whole “voice to parliament” phrase very hard to understand at first – especially as it’s not clear that it’s a compound noun referring  to some sort of proposed consultative body. Initial caps on the words or hyphens or quotes or something would have made it clearer that “parliament” and “voice” go together to describe one thing. And I wouldn’t have been wondering what bigotry-in-voice is (talking in a demeaning way?), or which parliament video they were doing this to. But it’s not just the headline, the whole article reads oddly until you work out that the ‘voice to parliament’ is a (semi-)defined thing.

“Voice to Parliament” is indeed a thing: it is a proposal for greater Indigenous influence in Australian affairs and comes from the “Statement of the Heart”, the communique from the landmark Uluru Meeting in 2017 in which 250 Indigenous leaders met representatives of federal government to discuss constitutional reform. The statement proposed change based on three key concepts: Voice, Truth, and Makarrata (meaning “treaty” or “coming together”). The Voice to Parliament is an as-yet-unformed representative body based on the first of these that will communicate on behalf of the first nations to the government.

And it would be much clearer in the context of a sentence if the phrase were rendered in initial caps. Unfortunately, however, the Guardian is determinedly lowercase in these matters. As its style guide says:

Times have changed since the days of medieval manuscripts with elaborate hand-illuminated capital letters, or Victorian documents in which not just proper names, but virtually all nouns, were given initial caps (a Tradition valiantly maintained to this day by Estate Agents).

A look through newspaper archives would show greater use of capitals the further back you went. The tendency towards lowercase, which in part reflects a less formal, less deferential society, has been accelerated by the explosion of the internet: some web companies, and many email users, have dispensed with capitals altogether.

Our style reflects these developments. We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity. As with any aspect of style, it is impossible to be wholly consistent – there are almost always exceptions, so if you are unsure check for an individual entry in this guide.

You feel that this is a case where consistency could have been sacrificed for clarity. Or at least, that’s how it seems from here in the opposite hemisphere. But perhaps the phrase is much better recognised in its own country, and easily spotted in the middle of a headline? In the world of globalised anglophone news, unintentionally baffling two-thirds of your audience is just something you have to live with. This is a piece written in Australia for Australians: it’s what sounds right to them that matters.