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Are you ready for some soccer?

17 Apr

Spotted on the Daily Mail, both on the UK homepage:

Blackburn Rovers’ Bradley Dack and his reality-star ex-girlfriend are bread and butter for the Mail’s British site, and you might argue that the son of Lance Armstrong is too: but for sure neither Bradley nor (one suspects) anyone else in League One has ever been a “preferred walk-on”*. Of course, that’s because the two men operate in entirely different sports: but last week Mail UK had them both playing “football”.

This blog is generally sanguine about the accidental merging of news agendas as media organisations spread out across the anglosphere. A story’s a story, even if confusions occasionally arise over different dress sizes or the fact that more than one country calls its currency the “dollar”. If articles leak across the content management system into other jurisdictions, as one has here, there’s often no harm: British readers are happy to critique an NBA player’s scatter cushions or admire a Jersey Shore star’s $5,000 dress.

But this word, you suspect, is going to be a sticking point. In the US, American football is just “football” and football is “soccer”. In Britain, “football” is the game sanctioned by the FA, and all other games with the same name are qualified geographically: American football, Australian rules football, even Rugby football. American readers might be disappointed to discover that a story about a troubled “football player” doesn’t involve the NFL, and in Britain there would be open revolt if UK news organisations routinely referred to the national game as “soccer”, even though the term is British in origin.

Imposing one style across all jurisdictions is out of the question here. So what to do? This appears to be another case where the sometimes unsatisfactory approach adopted by the Guardian on its transatlantic ventures – that of “honouring the author’s voice” – is the only one that’s going to work. As its former production editor in the US, Maraithe Thomas, explains:

We might be born of a British news organisation but we were here to report on the US and to carve out our own space as a fully American news outlet. But then were we going to change the English of veteran British journalists, who were reporting over here, into American English? That didn’t feel right. …

What we decided to do, as I did my best to explain to the Atlantic, was to honor the individual reporter’s voice. British English would of course be maintained throughout the Guardian newspaper, but online we would follow the reporter’s lead.

This approach does, of course, create many problems of its own, not least the one of leaving readers to work out which “football” a news organisation is talking about in any individual story. But not every Americanism or Britishism travels smoothly across the Atlantic: sometimes there’s serious cultural resistance. And when there is, whichever sport you’re talking about, it’s unwise to pick sides.

 

*That is, a college player not good enough to be granted a sports scholarship, but nonetheless likely to see playing time (as opposed to normal non-scholarship players, who frequently must hang on tooth and nail just to stay in the squad).

 

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The Big Zayn Story Is Right Next To The Leaked Brexit Documents On The Homepage And Everybody’s Just Like Whatevs

6 Feb

BuzzFeed got the big story of last week, and we’re all talking about it!

Wait, not that one. This one:

Sorry about that, but it’s an easy mistake to make, because one of the things about this era of digitally mediated news is that the very serious and the very frivolous now exist side by side, and nowhere more so than on BuzzFeed:

And the really interesting thing is that, on BuzzFeed and elsewhere, there’s often not the least embarrassment about it. We saw last month that an abashed New York Times recently apologised for citing Twitter user Jillian C York by her temporary Halloween username Chillian J Yikes!. But jokey handles are a part of many online forums, from Tumblr to the Tribune’s comments section, and any sense of loss of dignity or gravitas arising from that informality is quickly evaporating – especially as social media becomes the source, and not merely the conduit, for many news stories.

The Macquarie Dictionary, probably the most authoritative source of Australian English, declared its 2017 word of the year to be “Milkshake Duck”* – a phrase coined by the Twitter humourist known only to the world (and, one suspects, to Macquarie as well) as @pixelatedboat. The Daily Mail ran a story about historical sexual harassment allegations sourced from a series of tweets by Canadian user @JodiesJumpsuit without ever identifying her by name. And a few years ago, the Tribune’s economics editor was doing a reader Q&A online and had a very sensible conversation about policy with a reader identified only as “underwearstain”.

This isn’t the same phenomenon as the collective irreverence that leads to important research vessels being named (or nearly named) Boaty McBoatface. In cases like that, creating discomfiture in high places is all part of the fun. What’s significant about this, again, is that there is no discomfiture: the profound and the silly are becoming comfortably assimilated in our new global forums. For a Gen-X broadsheet journalist like me, BuzzFeed’s blend of listicles, OMGs and heavyweight Westminster scoops is disorientating in the extreme. But perhaps it’s just at the forefront of a phenomenon that we are rapidly becoming accustomed to elsewhere.

 

* Basically, “the type of instant celebrity on social media who becomes discredited within days of rising to fame”. Pixelated Boat’s original tweet, in 2016, read: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”

Cootamundra to the world

20 Sep

BONUS UPDATE: The very day after we were discussing Rebel Wilson and the Australian dollar exchange rate, this appears on the UK homepage of the Daily Mail! Man from Cootamundra (where?) discovers crashed ute (what?) on the Olympic Highway (where?) and, with great courage, pulls him to safety. Now he’s all over the web front page of Britain’s best-selling mid-market tabloid without a hint to international readers about where the drama took place (which is, of course, Australia).

If you need footnotes: Cootamundra is a town of about 5,500 in New South Wales; the Olympic Highway is a country road in the southern part of the state, so named because it formed part of the route of the torch for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics; and a ute, that most distinctively Australian of vehicles, is a light pickup truck based on a saloon car chassis (it’s short for “utility”). None of these explanations make it into the front-page standfirst for British readers, although on the article page itself, there is at least a description of Mr van Baast as an “Aussie hero” in the display type.

In fact, the story is written from such a defiantly local angle that one suspects even readers in other parts of Australia might be nonplussed: it’s not clear how familiar readers in Perth might be with the name of an inland rural highway through another state, even though viewers of Prime 7 News Wagga Wagga (which provided the dramatic pictures) would know at once.

But it also underlines the other emerging trend in the globalising digital news agenda: that, from celebrity photoshoots to fiery rescues, a story’s a story, wherever you are in the anglosphere.

The innocent meteor

22 Nov
Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

 

Back before the world ended, I came across this story in the subs’ queue:

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That doesn’t sound good: “nearly one in four” of young people voting for an “imaginary alternative candidate”? But then you read on, and – most unusually for journalism – you find that there are even bigger numbers in the third paragraph than there are in the first.

Some 53% of the 1,247 people aged 18 to 35 said they would prefer to see a meteor destroy the world than have republican Trump in the Oval Office, with 34% preferring planetary annihilation to a win for the Democratic former secretary of state.

This almost never happens: the standard newspaper rule is that the largest number – in an election, a poll, a statistics release – is the news. The tendency is to calculate the worst possible case, the theoretical maximum jail term, the largest achievable bonus payout, and set your baseline at that. This is how the term “headline figure” has come to have a qualified edge to it: even in newsrooms, it means “the number that needs a bit of context” rather than “the definitive total”.

But why, then, if Reuters is writing a story about millennial disaffection, is it ignoring the biggest number – more than half of young people would rather face destruction than Donald Trump – in the survey? Why has it led with the finding that, in statistical terms, crosses the line in a distant third place?

Because, as an American mainstream media outlet, it has to. Because, in Professor Jay Rosen’s words, it needs to be “innocent”.

Rosen has written extensively about the historical requirement for American news providers to appear impartial. As he puts it:

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

In Britain, we have the BBC to provide balance while the different sides of Fleet Street wage war on each other’s beliefs. But in America, it’s different. Its geographical vastness helped to create media monopolies, cities in the plain with just three TV channels and a newspaper that had a whole town of Democrats and Republicans to itself. Straight-down-the-middle news, in those circumstances, was not just the fairest approach but probably the best business model too.

Since then, as cable news and social media have spread and the culture wars have intensified, there is a new pressure on the mainstream to prove its rectitude under constant accusations of bias – never more so than with political news, and of course never more so than at election time.

So, from one aspect the angle Reuters chooses in this story – “young people equally disaffected with both candidates”  – might be seen as a classic fair-dealing compromise. But it also generates some misleading implications: an impression of millennial ennui and of a demographic split down in the middle. In fact, the numbers show that many more young people fear Trump than Clinton – a 19-percentage-point difference – and that the nihilistic none-of-the-above option is the least favoured, not the most, of those three choices.

Of course, these numbers would swing strongly towards the Republican side if the poll had been conducted among border patrol officers in Arizona or autoworkers in Saginaw. But that’s the point – whichever way a demographic leans, almost none of them can offer the kind of 50/50 balance that a good-faith media organisations would feel comfortable with. Young people are strongly for Clinton; white working class voters are strongly for Trump. Whoever you choose to focus on, innocent, even-handed conclusions are very hard to extract from this sort of sectoral polling.

Media organisations on the left and the right are accused of cherry-picking statistics for reasons of bias. The trouble is, in cases like this, impartial wire services are cherry-picking statistics too – except that instead of choosing the biggest number, they are choosing the safest one.

Not that any of it matters now, of course, and the interstellar third-party candidate never really featured in the race. But at this rate, possibly more than a quarter of young people may be scanning the Kuiper belt hopefully as we approach the midterms.

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.

 

 

Surely he means baseball?

10 Nov

“Crickets”? What do you mean, “crickets”?

Picture 77

This dropped into the subs’ queue, complete with question marks added by a baffled production editor, last week. It’s part of a piece about US presidential hopeful Ben Carson, written by a high-profile Capitol Hill commentator who regularly weighs in for the paper, so the OED probably wasn’t going to be the first place to look for an answer.

In fact, none of the heavyweight dictionaries, not even the American ones, record this usage. It’s only properly covered in the Urban Dictionary, which offers this nicely phrased explanation –

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– and, in the process, makes it clear that the writer has got the metaphor slightly wrong. “Crickets” would not be heard from his faith-based supporters; in fact, it is the absence of comment on the part of those supporters that allows the crickets, who have been chirping throughout, to be heard.

So the figure of speech will need to be repaired. But that’s not the end of the questions that this piece throws up. In one of the multitudinous permutations of author, subject, commissioning desk, production desk and audience now possible in a multinational news organisation, this piece was written by an American, about America, in response to a request from the UK, and handed to subs in the London newsroom to produce.

Its intended home was the UK Sunday print edition of the paper, but of course it will be going up on the web to a global audience, some of whom will understand “crickets” and some not. So do you fix the metaphor, but leave it unexplained? Take it out and replace it with a British metaphor? Take it out and replace it with something neutral?

Of all the potential pitfalls like this that lie in wait for the globalised newsroom, many are negotiated with great success. Australasian reality stars make their debut to showbiz fans in Berkshire without adverse comment. Local news stories sneak onto global most-viewed lists and engage a far wider audience than they were ever intended for. Live blogs on major incidents are handed over from bureau to bureau to bureau, Sydney to London to New York, in a race to stay ahead of sunset and keep the news alive. Home news stories with no international pretensions can take themselves around the world without assistance and survive; strangely, the ones that struggle – the only ones that really cause trouble – are those written in one country specifically for consumption in another.

What used to be a staple of foreign-desk reporting – the what’s-happening-in-Washington dispatch written by an American for Britons – is becoming almost impossible to edit, because you become trapped between its intended print audience (British English speakers who want a primer) and its likely audience on the web (American readers with an appetite for Beltway news who may already follow that author). Add more newsrooms across the anglosphere and the problems multiply. Do readers feel more alienated by exotic localisms such as “white-anting”* or “bodega”**, or by having something they already know explained to them like novices? Because you can’t edit to please them both.

This time, we decided to remove “crickets” altogether and replace it with a simple reference to silence. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to remove a metaphor from the copy of a brand-name columnist, but it’s equally uncomfortable to wave through something that provokes open bafflement in your own newsroom.

It’s still not clear what the solution is to this problem; it’s a coin toss every time. But it’s possible that it might solve itself: given how well unmediated news seems to travel these days, the whole genre of letter-from-abroad explainers might soon become a thing of the past.

 

* (Austr) Metaphorically, to undermine or hollow out an organisation or movement; to destroy something from the inside, in the manner of a white ant or termite.

** (US, particularly New York) A local food and wine store, especially if of Puerto Rican ownership; a cornershop

Five headlines that mean you might be working for a broadsheet and not BuzzFeed

13 Oct

Number four made me lol!

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OK, maybe “lol” is an overstatement. And that’s the trouble: BuzzFeed has hired a lot of ex-broadsheet reporters to make a determined run at hard news, and putting a “serious” feed alongside the usual gif-heavy listicles seems to be working. This could be a problem we in the old media need to respond to. I’m just not sure we’ve got the, er, range of material at the moment.

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Of all the innovations that new media is credited with making, what BuzzFeed is doing now might be the most fundamental. For as long as there have been newspapers, there have been tabloids and broadsheets. But I’m not aware of any media outlet that has tried being a broadsheet and a tabloid at the same time, and most certainly not on the same page.

This goes far beyond the “funnies” in American newspapers or the “and finally … ” items on TV news, carefully left to the end of the run. This is side-by-side gravity and irreverence at the top of the homepage. And it might be a transitional phase, but it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed as just another straight news source with none of its trademark “buzz”; it’s very possible that this is the final concept. In which case, I’m not sure we old-media types have anything to counter it with, unless the non-farm labour statistics are particularly upbeat over the next few months.

Newspapers have followed new media onto the web, into the blogosphere and across Facebook and Twitter, and done very well at it. But this looks like one path that we can’t go down at all.