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Snap judgments

6 Jan

The web production editor writes:

A reader has pointed out that generally when a Greek place name begins with Skala eg Skala Kalloni on Lesbos, the skala part means “harbour” or “landing place for boats” and it is used to distinguish it from a nearby inland town of the same name (minus the “skala”) eg Kalloni on Lesbos.

As such, please avoid just using the name Skala to refer to a town because it is nonsensical (unless, of course, that is its only name).

The caption on the agency photo on page 6 today referred to refugees arriving at the village of Skala on Lesbos. This was all the information provided by the agency so if we can’t verify the full name of the village it is better to avoid using it altogether if we can. (Emphasis added)

Mistakes in photographers’ caption information are a problem. They bypass the experienced eyes of the writer of the article; even when a photographer accompanies a reporter on the job, the reporter rarely sees the pics and almost never the caption details. They also often bypass the commissioning desk: news editors will try to familiarise themselves with their picture options when briefing the page designer, but not in every case; no one consults the head of foreign news on every downpage cutout or mugshot. And at the Tribune, with the amount of news being edited and published online every day, sub-editors have direct access to the photo library to select their own pictures, so many photographs launched on to the web even bypass the picture desk.

The result is that photographs and their captions have a shorter route into publication than any other piece of content except the Sudoku puzzle. In a fact-checking process that runs from reporter to news desk to sub to revise sub to (if you’re lucky) proofreader, the caption skips the first two stages altogether and, on the web, gets published after the third one, to be revised later on.

That explains why newspaper captions can tend to echo the present-tense descriptive style peculiar to agency photo information (“a man is seen waving …”) and their all-too-familiar verb choices (“celebrates”, “gestures” etc); captions get less polishing than other parts of the body text. It also explains why so much classic corrections-column material arises from how photographs are treated in the production process.

But when the error originates with the agency, what little protection there is against error disappears. If, as in the uncomfortable case of this Guardian correction, a reputable photo agency sends out a picture of a private individual who has been thrust into the news, and it turns out to be the wrong person, it’s basically uncheckable:

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Just as a sub-editor can be the single point of failure on picture choice and caption-writing, the photo agency is the single point of failure on veracity. Very few people except those acquainted with the individual in the news will know it’s a mistake, and not many of them are likely to be in the newsroom, so the first person to hear about it will probably be the readers’ editor. In the Guardian case, there was also internal miscommunication over a recall from the photo agency, but in any situation where there is a significant delay between release and retraction, the picture will be all over the web, and in Google’s caches, long before remedial action can be taken.

Many things have to fall into line for a mistake in raw copy to get all the way through to print: a misapprehension by the reporter, a fumbled effort at clarification from the desk, a sub who lets through an ambiguous paragraph, a revise sub in a hurry on deadline. But a mistake over an online photograph can happen, as it were, in a flash.

By Giorgos, we’ve got it

31 Aug

Here are your options:

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Even on the fast-revolving carousel of Greek finance ministers, we haven’t come across this problem for a while. Yanis  Varoufakis’s name seemed to be anglicised (or, to be more precise, romanised) the same way the whole world over, from the Wall Street Journal to Paris-Match, and the brief tenure of the now-departing Euclid Tsakalotos didn’t seem to cause any major problems. But five minutes of  puzzled Googling for a short news story has thrown up any number of transliterations for the new man, Manchester-based academic Γιώργος Χουλιαράκης. The ECB says approvingly that “he knows what he’s doing”. Let’s hope, during his brief tenure until the Greek elections, that we look like we do too.

House style is always important to a certain extent – consistency of spelling and word choice all add subliminally to the authority and tone of a publication’s work. But transliterated proper nouns is where it really matters (and, simultaneously, where it’s hardest to be consistent). English-speakers not familiar with Greek nomenclature might well assume that Yorgos Houliarakis and George Chouliarakis are two different people with similar names in Athens, just as many might still be unclear that Deir ez-Zour and Deyr Azzour* – another notorious pitfall for transcription – are one and the same place in Syria. God bless Google – it finds all the variations whatever you search for. But that does mean that you can be deceived by confirmation bias when you hurriedly paste the reporter’s spelling into the search box  and see it come up with hits.

It’s a hard problem to solve. You can set some general rules for transliteration, as the Tribune’s style guide does in a 600-word entry on Arabic names, but even that starts off by admitting “there are dozens of ways of writing the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s name in English, and a reasonable argument can be made for adopting almost any of them”. The only real solution is to pick a style, notify everyone and keep a long and growing list of romanisations available for the copy desk to refer to. It’s a fiddly, awkward, case-by-case approach that can’t be replaced by rules or “common sense”, but it’s worth it: because otherwise you can cause an awful lot of confusion without ever being wrong.


* Or Deir Ezzor, or Deir el-Zour, or …

Marginal differences

14 May

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It’s not all that hard to count to 331, but, as we can see above, there’s more than one way to get there.

In the aftermath of the general election, it fell to me to check the paper’s giant map of the seats won and lost across Britain on 7 May. In particular, the graphics department wanted to know how many gains – gross gains, that is: gains before losses – had actually been made, so that they could list them all around the map. Out of a total of 650 parliamentary seats, that seemed like an elementary request. Or so I thought, until I found that two reliable sources (the Guardian, top, and the BBC, above) were giving completely different figures.

To take the Conservatives as an example, both sources have them winning 331 seats in total. But the Guardian has them gaining 38 seats from other parties (and losing 10), while the BBC has them gaining 35 (and losing 11). How can that be? No wonder graphics was puzzled: I was too.

Clearly, since they imply net gains of 28 and 24 seats respectively, the two sums can’t even be working from the same base figure of constituencies held before the election. So what figures are they using? Subtracting the net gains from the total of seats now held – 331 – is an obvious place to start. That reveals that the Guardian (331 – 28) is working on a basis of 303 Conservative seats already held, while the BBC (331 – 24) is working on a basis of 307.

Hmm. Odd. Can we relate either of those two figures to data about the previous election? Time for a quick trip to the Electoral Commission’s website, where we find that … oh:

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Now we have a third figure for seats won in 2010: 306. What’s going on? Can we not even agree on a figure for the number of seats the largest party in the country holds from one general election to the next?

And then, after slightly longer than one cares to admit, the light began to dawn. The clue to the Electoral Commission figure is down at the bottom of the graphic: “Speaker (1)”. The Speaker of the House of Commons is an apolitical figure who votes only in the most exceptional of circumstances; nonetheless, he or she is still notionally an MP who stands for election as a representative of one of the parties. And the current Speaker, John Bercow, is a Conservative: the Tory MP for Buckingham. So if you add him to the Conservative total, you get 307: the same as the BBC’s figure. And then it all starts to become a lot clearer.

Clearly, the BBC is using the data from the 2010 election as its basis point. So what is the Guardian using? One obvious possibility is that it is factoring in changes to the makeup of the Commons that have taken place since 2010. Can we account for the discrepancy by looking at byelection results in the last parliament?

According to, there were 21 byelections in the last parliament. Three of them resulted in the Conservatives losing a seat, and all three are still reasonably memorable events for political wonks: author Louise Mensch’s unexpected resignation from her seat in Corby in 2012, which resulted in a Labour win; and the high-profile defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless from the Tories to Ukip in the runup to the election, when both incumbents won their seats back under new colours.

That reduces the number of seats the Tories held in parliament from 307 to 304, which is getting closer to the Guardian’s figure. Could it be that the Guardian is simply discounting the Speaker’s seat? It seems not: the election interactive is clear that it is talking about all 650 seats in the country, not 649 as would be the case if Buckingham were excluded.

It’s only when, exploring the interactive, you discover the striking fact that ultra-safe Tory seat of Kensington is described as a “gain” that you find the last missing piece. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and MP for Kensington, was suspended by the Conservative party, and ultimately decided not to stand for re-election, after being caught in a cash-for-access newspaper sting in February. Technically, therefore, as a sitting MP who has had the party whip withdrawn, he counted as a seat lost before the election, and therefore a Tory “gain” (from an “independent”) when his successor duly won. So the Guardian’s total, omitting Mensch, Carswell, Reckless and Rifkind, is also correct: 303.

So who’s right? In short, everyone. The BBC is working on a previous-election basis, using unmodified figures from the 2010 ballot. The Guardian is using eve-of-election figures, reflecting the actual position of the parties on the day before the country voted in 2015.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. If you work on an eve-of-election basis, you’re using running totals based on the quality of your own electoral research and arithmetic. If you work only on the official previous-election numbers, the maths is simpler, but you have to remember the “byelection factor”: some triumphant regainings of marginals lost in midterm will actually be “holds” for your purposes, and some routine victories for the winners of half-forgotten byelections actually “gains”.

If you’re wrestling with British electoral totals (and you might not be for another five years … although who knows?), here’s a table covering four of the most likely problems you may encounter (click to enlarge). As to how 2020’s calculations will go, if the major boundary changes and seat reductions planned by the Tories go through in this parliament – heaven only knows.

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When to delete Luhansk

17 Feb


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Friday afternoon, and an email comes in from our stringer in Ukraine, whose article has just gone live:

Hi guys,

I had sent an email earlier about the difference between Luhansk and Luhanske. Sorry for the confusion, but the place where I was today was Luhanske, not Luhansk as it says in the dateline right now.
Also, there is an error in the following graf; it should again be Luhanske, not Luhansk:

Burned-out trucks — some still smoking — lined the cratered highway from Artemivsk to Debaltseve, which remains in contention. Government soldiers who were trying to tow a damaged ambulance out of the partly ruined town of Luhanske admitted that anyone who went further down the highway toward Debaltseve would come under heavy fire from rebel small arms and artillery.

In this graf, however, it should be Luhansk, not Luhanske:

Two people were also killed and six wounded when a shell hit a packed cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk, a local official said, adding that other shells had struck elsewhere in the town.

In real life, there’s always some inconvenient homophone that would never be allowed to come up in fiction. Luhanske, where the stringer is, is 95 kilometres from Luhansk, right in the heart of the recent fighting around Debaltseve and one transliterated letter away from the much bigger rebel city, itself a scene of conflict in the struggle between east and west in Ukraine. And Luhansk also gives its name to the wider oblast, or province, that has declared itself a People’s Republic alongside Donetsk. (Luhanske itself is in Donetsk oblast, of course, not Luhansk oblast: that would be too easy.)

Saturday afternoon, right on deadline. The level of noise is increasing, the shouted instructions are coming faster and the production editor is handing round the international front page for a rapid press-read. The same stringer has filed a late update on the fighting from nearby Artemivsk, and it’s been hustled through the editing process and onto the page.

Although rebels have been able to virtually surround Debaltseve and pound it with rockets and artillery, the road connecting the city with Ukrainian forces in Artemivsk is not fully under either side’s control. Pro-Russia forces shelled the city 15 times and attempted to storm it early yesterday …

Yesterday a military ambulance delivered the body of a soldier killed in the village of Paschnya, which is in the no-man’s-land between Luhansk and Debaltseve, to the mortuary in Artemivsk.

Hang on. Luhansk. Is that … does he mean Luhansk? If he means the city, it’s miles away. Can there really be a no-man’s-land stretching 95 kilometres into another oblast?

Another hasty skim through the article, and there’s no sign of any reportage or sourcing from that far east: all the quotes and accounts come from forces and officials around Debaltseve. A quick check on Google Maps reveals that, yes, Debaltseve, Luhanske and Artemivsk are all close, linked by the E40 road; on the other hand, there’s absolutely no sign of a village called Paschnya anywhere. And the distraction is increased by the locator map on the page, right next to the paragraph in question: Debaltseve is marked, Donetsk is marked, and so is Luhansk, off to the east; but there’s no sign of Luhanske or Artemivsk. But then a check through the stored revisions of the article reveal that, inadvertently,  the ‘e’ was indeed deleted off “Luhanske” at an earlier stage.

The problem with journalism, or at least with newspapers, is that there’s never enough time to sort everything out properly. The fast read, panic over Luhansk, Googling and hasty conferring with a colleague has taken about two minutes. The best thing to do would be to reinstate the “e” in Luhanske, add a few lines to explain away confusion, recut the article to fit, and redraw the map at a slightly larger scale so that the town can be added to it (at its current scale, the blob for Luhanske would be right on top of the blob for Debaltseve).

But there isn’t time for that. All there’s time for is to reinstate the “e”, and, as a prophylactic against possible confusion, hurry over to the graphics desk and ask them to delete Luhansk, the city, off the map altogether, and reoutput it. There’s just enough time for it to auto-update on the page before it’s sent: at least it won’t look like a typo or lead readers astray.

Locator map

And then it was gone: the page was sent and ran like that for the first three editions. Looking back at it now, the single reference to Luhanske is a bit baffling without explanation, and, on the map, I see I completely overlooked that we’d referred to a nearby city as Horlivka in the text (which is correct Tribune style) and Gorlovka on the map (which is not).

But the stringer refiled after midnight, with a new top that explained clearly where Luhanske was: new quotes, new facts, rewritten all the way through. As the story acquired momentum through the night and into the next morning, the online version, updated regularly, was shared more than 500 times and drew more than 3,000 comments. The problems of the initial version were completely swept away.

It was just a first take; just a holding story for the early edition, before the ceasefire agreement took hold and the story really began. Some articles take a lot of effort and then only last for five hours. But you never know which ones will last and which ones will end up on the spike.

And if anyone finds Paschnya on the map, I’d be interested to know.

The Battery’s down

1 Oct

Off to New York this week for a break. Never been. I’ve travelled all over the US, including Hawaii, but nearly always in the west or south: Memphis, the Redneck Riviera,  Route 66, Oregon, Pasadena. I’ve heard the late-night Santa Fe DJs fade into the static as you cross the desert to Roswell, but I’ve never seen Times Square. The eastern seaboard’s been flyover country to me. Can’t wait.

But my Americanophile reputation at work would have taken a serious dent if I’d ever come across this in copy, because I’d have missed it completely:

Picture 595

The clues have always been there. Senator Joseph McCarthy. The House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s so obvious when it’s pointed out. But McCarthy and Huac go together in my mind like salt and pepper. If it had been me editing a similar piece, I might have got lucky and used a conjunction after McCarthy instead of a possessive (“McCarthy and Huac”, not “McCarthy’s Huac”), thus leaving open the possibility of disjunction and sparing the worst of my blushes. But really, it would have got right through me.

Who was the chairman of Huac, then? Rep Edward J Hart took the role when it became a permanent committee after the war – I’ve now, finally, looked it up. (Why isn’t it called Hartism?) I imagine this is the kind of classic save American national editors make in their sleep, the same way foreign news subs stoop wearily to take the stray “s” off “Talibans” in home writers’ copy (“Ah, you don’t speak Pashto? Well, Taliban is the plural. The singular is Talib. Try to remember.”)

Newsrooms are full of sharp and literate people. When I was chatting with the business reporters last week, somebody asked what poujadisme meant in relation to Ed Miliband and almost everyone on the economics desk simultaneously chimed in to explain. It was a splendid working-on-a-broadsheet moment.  But crushing, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God corrections such as on the Huac article are a reminder, not just that there’s so much we’ll never know, but that there’s always so much we ought to see and never do.

Saved from my embarrassment this time, at least, I’m on my mettle now. Ceaseless vigilance is the watchword. Apparently, New York’s so good that it’s been named twice. I aim to crack down pretty hard on redundancy like that.

Oceans apart

13 Aug

This just in from the mid-Atlantic:

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American video aficionados visiting the Daily Mail’s US homepage don’t need to be told who Sydney Leathers or Weiner are, of course. They’ve seen plenty of them, in every sense. But right next door for readers in the New World: UKIP MEP (what?) Godfrey Bloom (who?) in “Bongo Bongo land” storm (what?) walks off Channel 4 News (who?).

I don’t know how to break it to you, America. It looks like, from now on, we Brits won’t be the only ones enduring the rantings of preposterous saloon-bar xenophobes who work for a currency union 5,000 miles away from New York. That’s the emerging one-story-fits-all Anglo-Saxon news agenda for you. Ten Minutes Past Deadline is standing by to help translate any British weirdness, if you’ll let us photocopy your notes on Chelsea Handler.

And don’t ask how the Tribune managed to miss the cat-dressed-as-shark-rides-on-robot story. Just seemed too workaday at first glance, I guess. Damn.

Mid-Atlantic swells

6 Aug

America: we’re coming. Here in the hard-pressed newsrooms of Britain, there’s a growing sense that you, as so often in history, represent something of an opportunity. Looking up from yet another set of distressing financial results – certainly in the Tribune’s case – we see, across the ocean, a glittering land of huge national online advertising budgets but, as yet, few genuine national news websites, and we think: lots of space over there; it’s just like the Old West. We see a country being dragged unwillingly, thanks to Fox, away from its carefully impartial regional media monopolies and towards a national, partisan, relentless slanging match and we think: you know, that’s starting to look a bit like Fleet Street.

So: we’re coming. Perhaps not all of us at the moment, but the Daily Mail and the Guardian have already queued up at Ellis Island and are settling in to digs off Broadway or on the west coast. Not to produce a print newspaper, of course; that would be too expensive. And not with a digital paywall either: we really are yearning to be free. But we have a strong idea about what we want to do in – or to – the American news market.

The Mail’s message to America, judging from the extensively tweaked US site, is less spittle-flecked outrage and more celebs and gossip – get ’em here. UsWeekly’s cute, but it’s all yoga mats and baby-joggers in Central Park: you never get the real juice. And TMZ’s a bit too sleazy for comfortable reading at work, right? So read us: we’ve got the red carpet fashions, but with a bit of acid style criticism thrown in; we’ve got the scandal, but we sound shocked about it.  Whereas the Guardian’s pitch is clearly this: there’s no need to hastily remodel MSNBC as a rebuttal-and-prebuttal guard dog to fend off the conservatives – we’ve been doing that since 1821. There’s no need for the Gray Lady to butch up and learn how to rabbit-punch like the talk-radio hosts. We’ve got this. You may not have dealt with much street-gang demagoguery, but we face off with Associated and the Daily Telegraph every day. (Oh, and by the way? Your national security apparatus is spying on you.)

And it’s going well – spectacularly well in the case of the Mail, which is clocking up way over 100m browsers a month these days. But there is a slight problem.

News websites are large, multifoliate and deep. It’s relatively easy to set up a front page that’s branded and URL-specific for the US. But what about the dozens of section fronts and sub-fronts one level further down on the site – business, media, sport, travel, environment, politics?  How much time and money do you have to re-curate all of them for each specific national market? Come to think of it, do you even have enough country-specific news items to put on them all?

The answer, certainly at the moment, is no. The main news stories on the Guardian’s US site, for example, are substantially different to the UK homepage, but over on the right hand column, where the features and sport are, the US site looked like this last weekend:

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Right, so that’s NSA, NSA and … day three of the Ashes. (You can imagine the consternation in parts of the Midwest: they had to go in to a third day? What, did it rain?) It looks a bit incongruous. But really, what else is there to do – run a piece of half-baked wire copy on the Yankees as the lead? An extensive US sports reporting infrastructure isn’t in place yet. The over-by-over report is one of the Guardian’s signature products. For better or worse with regard to the US market, it’s what time and money has been spent to create. It is that most coveted property of news organisations everywhere: original content. So up it goes in the top slot under “Sports” (not “Sport” – that would be British!).

And at the Mail, there’s the same problem. The big banner leads swop over nicely from the UK to the US editions, but the long run of  fashion and celebrity items down the side – the Sidebar of Shame – clearly takes so much effort to refresh that not everything changes completely between editions, with the result that the gossip’s getting a distinctly mid-Atlantic feel these days.

This is a snippet from the UK edition on Sunday:

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and it contains one famous British footballer and three US reality stars from shows that either aren’t shown or are currently barely visible in Britain (from top to bottom: Basketball Wives, Dancing With The Stars and Real Housewives of New Jersey). To be fair, Derek Hough did briefly go out with our own Cheryl Cole, and Real Housewives was on an actual terrestrial TV channel – Channel 4 – at one stage. But you suspect it’s the US agenda that had Teresa and Derek appearing on the UK front page last weekend.

Meanwhile, at the same time on the US sidebar, we find this:

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Kinky heels, muffin tops, family feuds – check, check, check (at least no one “looks worse for wear in an inappropriately low-cut dress” today). And you can’t argue with seeing Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Alba and – at a pinch – Lily Collins in the American edition. But wait: is that Pixie Lott, sparky and popular British songstress, attending a wedding in Essex? Does anyone in America have the faintest idea who she is?

And the problems usually only multiply after the front page. As we see above, the item on Jessica Alba makes reference to her US dress size: 2. But if you click on the link, you get taken to an article written, launched and sized in the UK, and you see this:

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Again, what can you do?* Leave it as “size 6” in the US teaser? Every US reader will think: no way she’s suddenly that big. Change the UK article to US sizing? No one in Britain will believe anyone could be that small. Publish two completely separate articles under separate URLs, one edited in the US, the other in the UK? There’s hardly the time and resource to recheck every article from the other bureau for possible mid-Atlantic confusions, and even when you find them, they’re often awkward to fix. Anyway, it would hopelessly split your hits on Google. And even if you could solve the language problem, you still haven’t resolved the larger conflict between the two different news agendas – and won’t be able to for years, until you can afford a full US-based reporting operation running in parallel with the British one.

But there is a radical  and much cheaper option, if you’re prepared to think big enough. You can simply act as though it were perfectly normal to keep New Jersey informed about chirpy London girl groups and Wiltshire up-to-date on the love lives of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Don’t worry too much about cultural relevance; just broaden the readers’ palettes. They’ll like it, or they’ll learn to. It might be too much to hope that America will join the debate over whether Jonathan Trott is worth his place at number three in the Test team. But if you can encourage readers to think that what happens on Real Housewives Of The O.C. or I’m From Essex, Get Me Out Of Here is worth reading whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, then you won’t have to change the site so much – because you’ll have succeeded in changing the news.

* Given that you’ve decided that it’s appropriate to be writing about this at all, that is.