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The Second Sub-editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

23 Jan

Image: 20th Century Fox

The copy chief hands him the file with the typed copy in it, and the man sitting at the desk takes out his pen. The newsroom is dark, the clock is ticking, and the most important and sensitive story he will ever edit has arrived – like all important and sensitive stories – right on deadline. He looks up at his manager, the two men alone in the office at an epochal moment for journalism and America. “You’ve got half an hour,” says his manager gruffly.

For years, only one copy editor had ever appeared as a character in a feature film: Lou the front-page sub in Ron Howard’s 1994 comedy The Paper.* But now there are two, because in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, the focus is almost as much on newspaper production as it is on newspaper editing and reporting.

The story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers – the leaked documents that destroyed the credibility of the war in Vietnam – is a subject worthy of what my boss at the Tribune refers to as “late-period Spielberg”: those recent films of his that tell huge American stories magisterially, at a medium pace and with limpid period detail. The ethical struggle between the first amendment and the security state is an eternal theme, taken up in several movies. But for someone like me who started their career in the Quark XPress era, it’s the recreation of a 1970s newsroom that’s really mesmerising.

There are enormous ties, and early colour TVs, and people in the background flicking through galleys with a familiar look of rising concern on their faces (is there a page missing here, or is this actually what was filed?). There are linotype machines filmed in fascinating close-up, real slugs coming out and being loaded into formes, famous headlines shown reversed in metal. There is also – and this is the thing I most regret never having seen – a pneumatic-tube messenger system for sending copy to the composing room in metal cylinders.

And there is also a copy editor. Only one, again, as in The Paper (although, to be fair, he and the copy chief had probably stayed behind specially). And he barely speaks, except to ask for a messenger tube. But you can tell he’s a copy editor, because the first thing he does, with the presses trembling, his proprietor under pressure and the reputations of four presidents hanging in the balance, is calmly cross out the first sentence of the story.

Then as now, sometimes the most important cut is the one you make in the first paragraph.  I like to think it said something like “Bombings and deception and McNamara, oh my!”. But it was probably something more like: “It’s official …”.

 

* To be absolutely accurate, as readers have pointed out previously, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed is also, notionally, a copy editor: but as she (a) appears to have an office to herself and (b) gets sent out on a whim to off-diary feature assignments, you would be forgiven for mistaking her for a columnist.

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Crud distinctions

7 Jun

So this is what you don’t do. In the light of last time’s discussion about when you might, in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, be tempted to clean up a quote, here’s a clear example of the vast majority of cases when you wouldn’t and shouldn’t.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 11.16.51

I could listen to showrunners talk all day, and this splendid roundtable with five of television’s most in-demand producers is a good example of the flair with which the LA Times covers its hometown industry – even in the face of competition from Variety, the film mags and any number of specialist websites. But in the transcription of the interviews beneath the video, that most genteel of vulgar terms, “crud”, has appeared next to the name of Fargo creator Noah Hawley.

Did he really say “crud”? Does anyone ever say that? Well, because we have the video at the top of the page, we can check. And, as you might have suspected, Hawley doesn’t say “crud” (at about the 31.45 mark on the tape); of course, he says “crap”. The word has been censored in print. It’s a classic example, presumably, of the misplaced sense of editorial propriety that Bill Walsh describes in Lapsing Into A Comma:

It’s pretty likely that somewhere someone is watching on CNN as somebody says, “I ain’t saying nothing to you [bleep]er [bleep]ers,” while reading a printed account of the same statement that says, “I respectfully decline to comment, my good man.”

The rest of the roundtable is transcribed punctiliously. And I don’t have a problem with occasional square-bracketed clarifications when they’re inserted into long-form quotes in which interviewees can clearly be heard speaking in their own voice. But it does seem odd, when happily publishing a video of someone saying “crap” on your own website, that you would bother to expurgate the word in the text beneath.

Not that swearing doesn’t present a tricky problem for editors; it does, especially in quotes. The rule here at the Tribune is that obscenities should be printed in full and uncensored within direct quotes, but may not appear anywhere else in the paper. The Associated Press disagrees, and recommends to “replace letters of an offensive word with a hyphen” when there is no compelling need to reproduce the term in full. But it too advises against censorship:

In reporting profanity that normally would use the words “damn” or “god”, lowercase “god” and use the following forms: damn, damn it, goddamn it. Do not, however, change the offending words to euphemisms. Do not, for example, change “damn it” to “darn it”.

All of which doesn’t help much in dealing with the knotty problem that started this whole discussion off a fortnight ago: outfielder Carlos Gomez’s anger at the all-too-accurate transcription of his words as they appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim, as the Chronicle did? That’s the impeccable journalistic thing to do – except that the player might feel slighted about his halting English, as Gomez now does, other non-native anglophones may detect a whiff of native-speaker condescension, and a difficult debate about social disadvantage could develop over what was meant to be a simple baseball story.
  2. “Clean up” the quote? Definitely not: the amount of work needed to turn it into standard English goes far beyond what even the most lax judge would consider acceptable. Huge amounts of it would have to be changed: “Last year and this year, I haven’t really done much for this team. The fans are angry. They are disappointed”.
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? You could do – except, again, because every single phrase is in non-standard English, you would have to report the whole thing indirectly, leading to the peculiar situation of a player “speaking to the fans” without giving a single actual quote.
  4. Just not run the story at all? That wouldn’t satisfy anyone – not the reporter who brought the story in, the readers who like to hear from their beloved Astros, or the player who wanted to get a message through to the bleachers. (And how would you explain it to Gomez? “Sorry, Carlos, but we really can’t run this until your English improves”?)

After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.

 

Fame at last

27 Oct
© 1994 Universal Pictures

© 1994 Universal Pictures

It’s a Hollywood movie about journalists, and it’s got everything you’d hope for: caffeinated news editors, sweaty reporters, babble, hubbub, clattering keys. But also, in the background, is a different, less familiar, sound: the voice of The Only Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film**.

In this scene from The Paper, directed by Ron Howard, it’s gone 6pm on a busy news day at the slightly hapless New York Sun. Metro editor Henry (Michael Keaton) is still chasing down a hot story about a double murder in Brooklyn as a possible new splash. But over in the corner, Lou the layout sub (Geoffrey Owens) is worried about what’s currently on page one: a legally tricky headline about the driver of a crashed subway train.

LOU: Henry, do you really want to run ‘SMASHED’ as the wood on the subway?

HENRY: (distracted) Errrrr … whatever fits. (Moving away to the reporters’ desks) I don’t care.

LOU: (calling after him) The thing is, it implies that he was drunk while he was driving a train. He could have got drunk afterwards.

ANNA: (walking past LOU’s desk) You’re accurate and ethical, and I want you out of this building.

(The camera follows HENRY as he is swept away by reporters clamouring for his attention, leaving LOU staring at the headline. Then a bright idea presents itself)

LOU: (calling faintly across the room) Hey Hen, I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark, what do you think?

(HENRY, intently watching a TV report on the murders, doesn’t reply)

LOU: (walking over) Henry: I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark. What do you think?

HENRY: (still distracted) Not gonna matter.

(JANET, HENRY’s secretary, comes over.)

HENRY: Did McDougall call in?

JANET: No.

HENRY: No message at all from McDougall?

JANET: I have no motive for lying, Henry.

LOU: (persisting heroically) I tell you what, Henry, I’ll make a proof of ‘SMASHED?” with a question mark and I’ll show it to you.

HENRY (barely listening): I’m going down to composing, I’ll check it out there.

(A few minutes later, in the composing room)

LOU: What do you think?

HENRY: I hate it.

Now that – that – is the sub-editing experience. Hollywood, as we’ve observed before, understands the emotional journeys of other kinds of journalists well: reporters’ doggedness rewarded, editors’ courage vindicated, whistleblowers’ satisfaction when the truth comes out. The Paper doesn’t get subbing entirely right: there seems to be only two copy editors in a large building heaving with reporters, PAs and management, whereas in any real newsroom production staff are likely to form the largest discrete group. But the idea of agonising over a headline that gets heedlessly swept off the page two hours later aches with verisimilitude. And no other film has ever managed to capture the signature sub-editorial emotion quite so well – that nervous realisation that you’re the only person, in an office of 200 people, who’s noticed something’s wrong.

 

** UPDATE: As reader Sluggh rightly points out in the comments, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed, although she spends nearly all her time in the film as an undercover reporter, is actually a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that The Paper is the only time sub-editing is portrayed on screen. Unless someone knows different?

 

Film editors

14 Apr

Another submission to IMDb, another response it would be fair to characterise as “robust”:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.51.51

We first encountered the robot editors of the Internet Movie Database last year, attempting to get an episode summary past its stern battery of automatic parsers. Recently, though, another artificial writing assistant, Grammarly, has come to prominence following a high-profile marketing campaign in which the company attempted to grammar-check EL James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey when the film of the book premiered. It ran James’s text and that of several famous historical authors through the system, and presented its findings in a lively press release.

Grammarly is a hugely ambitious undertaking: an algorithm that attempts to read and parse text like a human editor, and check spellings and punctuation in context. Unfortunately, the marketing push didn’t go as well as might have been hoped. As was widely observed, notably by Jonathon Owen at Arrant Pedantry, the worked examples contained several infelicities or mistakes, including some questionable overpunctuating and a suggestion that The Tempest be corrected to “We are such stuff on which dreams are made on“. As Arrant Pedantry concluded, many of the things Grammarly found in its press release weren’t errors and, where it intervened, “the suggested fixes always worsen the writing”.

The IMDb parser is a much less ambitious undertaking. It doesn’t work on free-form text or purport to “read”: instead, it controls inputs tightly by using step-by-step data entry. And yet somehow, it feels so much more like being edited.

Above all, it’s the tone. As ever, the rejection notice at the top is brisk but not wholly discouraging, like a copy editor intercepting a reporter with a question. Then there’s the fact-checking and the resultant queries, and the automatic corrections for house style (surname, first name), done without a song and dance. Then there’s the institutional memory and the ever-so-slight weariness that goes with it: there are 3,304 attributes like this already – are you sure you want to create a new one? Then there’s the encouragement not to touch the type: “If you don’t understand how the ordering should be formatted, please leave it blank.” And, as we saw last time, it enforces word counts ruthlessly and threatens to reassign material elsewhere if it’s not cut to fit.

Maybe Grammarly wouldn’t have stumbled over the cap ‘W’ in “Written” and asked for guidance; IMDb doesn’t do line-by-line context and only really spellchecks the proper nouns already in its database. But this is big-picture, organisational editing for accuracy and factual consistency. Rather than entering the murky, and often highly debatable, world of comma use and the passive voice, it just aims to get things cross-referred and reliable.

In fact, quite a lot of real editors’ work is like the kind of  “database editing” IMDb does. Is that how we normally spell it? Haven’t I read that paragraph somewhere else? Someone else has written a piece about this: what does that say? The parser may not be able to write a headline, but it can certainly keep control of a multi-contributor encyclopaedia.

Assertive,  detail-oriented, unbending about style, weary but polite – and, as we see from the “override” tickboxes, stoical about the possibility of being ignored: doesn’t that sound just like an editor? These robots are getting more lifelike by the day.

The robots are coming

8 May

I wish I had the nerve to talk like this to the newsdesk:

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 10.11.15

If you’ve ever tried submitting anything to the Internet Movie Database, you may recognise this tone. IMDb is a wiki – that is, an aggregation of user contributions – but it has achieved the status of  a semi-official reference tool at the Tribune, much more so than Wikipedia ever will. And I think that may be because of its fearsome army of robot editors, which intercept and scan everything you submit, and more often than not sling it back like Jason Robards growling “You haven’t got it” to Redford and Hoffman.

No diffident pencilled queries in the margin for IMDb: for example, if you have a couple of pieces of casting information you want to add to a TV show, you’d better have chapter and verse to hand.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 20.56.06

So you say this person was in the show? Here are a list of actors with similar names: it’s easy to get confused. If you’re uncertain, click here and we’ll sort it out for you. Or perhaps you’d just like to give up the whole idea? Choose an option, please. (And by the way, you formatted the request wrongly. It has already been corrected: this is merely a notification.)

That’s the spirit. And if you submit anything as ambitious as a three-line episode summary, you get pulled apart like a rookie screenwriter at a pitch meeting:

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 10.09.24

There are misspellings. You have written too much: if you insist on overfiling, we will simply move your piece to a different slot inside the site (delicious). And, my favourite bit of all:

“The following fixes have been applied automatically: ‘…’ has been replaced with ‘.’ in accordance with IMDb rules.”

No judicious exceptions, no stretching a point. Ellipses are just banned, rather like the way all semicolons were excised for some years on the Tribune’s sport section. It’s a rule. And I suspect that “surveilling”, even if spelt correctly, will turn out  to be “not in the dictionary”. I’ll just change it now. They won’t like it.

For the first time in my life, I feel like a writer.

 

Anatomy of a headline

3 Apr

Some of them are funny, some of them are confusing, some of them are dull, some of them are actionable. But they all start off looking like this:

Picture 13

Headlines, as we discussed briefly a few weeks ago, aren’t typed in as a coup de grace by the reporter who has just written the copy, whatever Hollywood might have you think. Long before the correspondent has filed, the newsdesk has usually told the designer what’s been commissioned, and at what length, and a layout has been sketched out with likely photos, dummy text and display type.

It’s not quite the same everywhere. On tabloids, some pages are designed around the headline: senior subs brainstorm jokes until they find an angle, then hand the gag to the designer and order them to make it fit. But at a broadsheet, page design takes precedence over copy-editing, so when you pick up the headline out of the subs’ queue, it looks something like this: a jumble of space-filling letters, bound in a pre-set box.

And it’s also not true – would that it were – that once the first draft has been put through, the presses immediately start rolling. That only ever happens in State Of Play. In fact, it all goes past several eyes and through several stages before the page is ever passed.

On a typical shift, I might write about six to eight headlines: this is the story of what happened to one of them last Saturday.

The story was a piece of first-person reportage from our Turkey correspondent in the run-up to the local elections. In a divided country, she had visited a loyal stronghold of controversial prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. She had discovered an oasis of calm in an Istanbul full of unrest, and a general view that, even though Erdogan was not standing in these elections, they would in effect be a referendum on his rule and the corruption allegations that surround it.

As it was our first Sunday piece on Turkey for a while, I felt something general was called for – a scene-setting, elections-coming-up, nation-in-ferment kind of thing. And I liked the picture the designer had chosen. So I wrote this:

Picture 12

I struggled with a synonym for “scandalised”. “Divided” was too short to fill out the second line. “Outraged” wasn’t long enough either.  So I talked myself into keeping it, despite its unsuitable Regency connotations,  and sent it through to the revise queue.

The revise sub – who, like all revise subs, can detect weakness in a headline like a tiger scenting blood on the breeze – immediately homed in on “scandalised”. It took her about a minute to find an improvement:

Picture 16

Then, with no other major changes, it and the rest of the story were put through to Finalled: the point at which the page can be proofed and shown to the editor and deputy editor.

Sometimes that’s the job done, and the page is nodded through and sent. At other times, though, the sight of a finished page serves merely to crystallise in the editors’ minds what they were really hoping for in the first place.

This was one of those times. They didn’t like the angle; they didn’t like the headline; they didn’t even like the photo. So the deputy editor called over the picture editor, talked to the designer, and sat down to write the headline himself. And it came out looking like this:

Picture 18

Rather than go for the general, as I did, the right thing to have done would have been to go for the particular. I guessed readers of the Sunday edition would be fresh to the whole story; in fact, the editors wanted to assume a certain amount of familiarity and emphasise the fact that we had a new angle. The picture is lively, colourful and shows an explicitly pro-Erdogan scene, to go with the explicitly pro-Erdogan interviewees in the story. With all the paper’s forces marshalled under the guidance of a senior figure, the whole thing has become sharper and more coherent.

And that’s how it really happens: by proofs and stages, by revisions and increments. At the end of the US remake of State of Play, after Cal McCaffrey has keyed his story straight onto the page, no one even asks to see a page proof, let alone have another crack at the headline. Yes, they’re four hours late, but it’s hard to believe that any editor – especially one played by Helen Mirren – wouldn’t imperiously demand a printout to hold up and sign off. Even if, in real life, by that stage the pre-press manager would be phoning the newsroom every three minutes to bellow himself hoarse.

That’s it! Send it!

18 Feb

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) is on the phone to New York. The Americans want to go now. Nick Davies (David Thewlis) is videoconferencing with Der Spiegel. They aren’t nearly ready; “it’s like herding cats”. Then the Americans jump the gun: the New York Times site goes live. In the sofa-strewn and moodily lit Guardian editor’s office, the air turns blue. On the point of launching the Wikileaks revelations live into the world, setting in train an information revolution and transforming his newspaper’s global profile, Rusbridger turns to Ian Katz (Dan Stevens), and snaps: “Go.”

And so Katz hits the return key on his laptop.

Reporters and editors get great treatment in fiction: Hoffman, Redford and Robards in All The President’s Men; John Simm (or Russell Crowe) in State of Play; Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief; Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. The problem with being a production journalist is not so much that we get a bad press; it’s more that we’re completely invisible in every newspaper office that ever appears on screen. The production function – which involves the single largest group of employees in any newsroom* – is edited out completely. So it’s worth pointing out for the record – and without wishing to ruin the dramatic flow of future screenplays – that it’s not quite as simple as that.

If you’ve just subbed a major story for a newspaper website, you are likely to have up on your screen the following: the main text (one window); the print furniture (four to five windows); the web furniture (four to five windows); the photograph and caption information from  the online photo library (two windows) the HTML editing window to insert hard codes into the article that have gone awry in the outputting process; a Jabber message from the Search Engine Optimisation executive suggesting a tweak to your headline; and a half-composed email of your own to three different desks and the US bureau informing all concerned that the story is going up.

And that’s just to get the article live. On the adjacent desk will be the network front sub – the person responsible for chopping, changing and updating the ever-rolling home page on the newspaper’s website. Open on her screen will be the home page itself (in one or more of its three regional editions), the home page omnibus editing screen, the single-column mini-editor for the particular zone of the page she is working on, and a stream of emails pouring heedlessly in from all parts of the building pleading for space on the front for recipes, football videos and liveblogs about the quarterly inflation figures.

It’s not quite as bewildering as it sounds. But the simple act of launching one article on the web involves at least six or seven clicks, and a bit of hurried recasting from at least one if not both of you. And it’s rare, to say the least, for an editor or deputy to stoop to doing something like that. Generally a news executive’s primary function when an important story goes live on the website is to peer over the shoulders of successive members of the back bench inquiring “Is it up yet?”

And it’s always fun to watch fictional reporters being allowed to write their own headlines. In the original BBC version of State of Play, John Simm as Cal McCaffrey sits in front of his terminal, late at night, administering the coup de grace to the story that will end his old friend’s career and reputation. As a silent group of reporters watches – not a sub-editor in sight – he writes the first deck of his headline: ‘COLLINS CONFESSES TO’, and then, underneath, just a single word: ‘MURDER’.

The camera pans back to the colleagues gathered around him. At which point, if this had been the real world, one of them would have cocked their head to one side and observed: “That’s not much of a fill, is it?” But no: Della the junior reporter leans forward to click away the dialogue box that McCaffrey cannot bring himself to close. The camera turns to one of the paper’s senior executives. “That’s it,” he says finally. And the presses start rolling.

It was a great moment, and a great series. But part of me thinks it would only have been improved if someone from the SEO team had rushed up to say breathlessly: “You know, Google’s going to love it if we use his full name.”

* On the Tribune’s Saturday print shift, the news staffing typically breaks down as follows. SEO executives: one. Administrators: two. Graphics: two. Picture desk: three. Designers: three. Newsdesk, including senior editorial: five. Reporters (excluding out-of-office regional/foreign correspondents): Six.  Sub-editors: fourteen.