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Fit to print

20 Aug

If I was surprised to see the New York Times’s notorious splash about Trump and the El Paso shootings two weeks ago, it was as nothing to my surprise when I learned that Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, sometimes doesn’t read the front page of his own newspaper (or at least has “gotten casual” about when he does so). He would have been as startled as anyone, then, when he saw the first-edition headline TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM above a story about a presidential speech, just a day after Trump had explicitly linked the issue of gun control to immigration reform in the wake of a racist mass shooting targeting Mexicans.

A tweet by the polling analyst Nate Silver drew the front page to Twitter’s attention, and a furore erupted. Baquet subsequently told the Columbia Journalism Review that, had he seen it, he would have “recognised this was a bad headline even before we got killed on social media”, and he ordered the second edition to be amended. (He honourably deflected blame away from his staff, saying “we tied the poor print hub’s arm behind its back because [the headline count] was too small”. Nonetheless, the new headline, ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS, although far from giving a complete picture, communicated much more scepticism across the same measure.)

But this is not a post about the attitude of the New York Times organisation to its print publication, or about the credulous tone of that original headline. What was also interesting about the whole uproar was that, in the era of online news, so many people seemed to feel that a print front page still mattered.

That story about Trump’s speech began its life, as so many newspaper stories now do, on the internet. According to the Wayback Machine, it first went live, with the apparently unproblematic headline TRUMP CONDEMNS WHITE SUPREMACY BUT DOESN’T PROPOSE GUN LAWS, the previous day, hours before the front page was prepared. The average number of unique visitors to the New York Times website is about 90 million a month, or 3 million per day; the daily print circulation is about 490,000. In other words, these days, the internet version of a story will vastly outstrip the newspaper one in terms of audience size. Newspapers are now also painfully late to the party, repeating much of what has been circulating online and on rolling news the previous day. In the modern news industry, the internet rules for immediacy, reach and relevance.

Why is it, then, that a print front page – surfacing belatedly in the evening and not on sale until the next day – still makes people so angry? (And it did make them angry: the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it as the kind of “cowardice” that aided “white supremacy”; the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke described it as “unbelievable”; and his rival Cory Booker told the paper that “lives depended” on it doing better.)  Of course the headline was wrong – or not so much wrong as disturbingly ingenuous, in an angry and polarised moment. But would a poorly phrased Facebook post or tweet promoting the web story, which might easily reach 490,000 people, have provoked so much outrage?

The reason, I think, is because print front pages still do something that no other forms of news distribution can do: they definitively encapsulate the news that took place on a given day. News site homepages don’t work in days – they are in a state of minute-by-minute flux as news breaks, features go live and editors change their minds about priorities. TV bulletins don’t either: there is one every few hours, each sometimes very different from the other as the news cycle changes throughout the day.

We have previously discussed how print front pages offer the opportunity for the kind of rhetorical flourish that web headlines, constrained by the need to optimise for search, do not. But print has this other role to play as well: to act, in the old-fashioned term, as “the paper of record”. There is no single definitive version of the New York Times’s web homepage for August 5, 2019: but there is a definitive Page 1. And that is what will be referred to by historians and appear in future illustrated news features – not because print is best, but because it is the only format, still, that parcels up news by the day rather than the hour. That’s why it still matters, and why politicians, readers and the Times’s own journalists still fight so hard to put the record straight.

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Spruiking to the world

11 Jun

I know English-language news stories suffer from dialect problems when read outside their home country. I know that possibly the only solution for our rapidly globalising anglophone news sites is to “honour the author’s voice”* and hope overseas readers understand. And I know we’ve talked about this before. But strewth:

For those needing footnotes:

spruik (v) Australian archaic, slang to speak in public (used esp of a showman or salesman); to promote or publicise

doco (n) Australian informal short for documentary

And David Speers is a political journalist currently moving from Sky News to the less remunerative Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a move of some significance in Australian media circles since he “is famously paid a motza by Sky” (motza (n) also motsa, motser Australian informal a large sum of money, especially a gambling win).

Of course, this is an example of a piece produced by a global news organisation, in this case the Guardian, locally in Sydney for the local market. It has to be in Australian English or it would sound alien to its target audience. Even if you are outside Australia, however, you may well encounter it: it appears on the Guardian’s aggregator page for commentary, which (like its top 10 list) doesn’t differentiate between countries of origin. And although it may be possible to control who sees such stories using users’ geolocation data, no one yet – not the Mail or the Guardian, and often not the BBC – seems to be trying very hard to make that happen.

So, given that we may be encountering more antipodean English in the future, may I recommend a good reference source for unfamiliar phrases? The Australian National University’s Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms is full of helpful explanations if you should come across googs, nasho, pokies, firies** or somebody “shooting through like a Bondi tram”*** in your morning news report. I’m expecting to find it very helpful. Although you may not get to the point of having tickets on yourself, it should help you look less like a stunned mullet when the next barbecue stopper comes along.****

 

* This approach is followed punctiliously at the Tribune. I recently came across a piece that referred to Madonna’s notorious 1991 tour documentary as Madonna: Truth Or Dare. That was its title in the US, but in Britain and many other countries it was called In Bed With Madonna. I changed it for print, because the newspaper’s market is deemed to be the UK only. But what about the web, which is read globally? After a discussion, it was decided that, even though the film is American and Truth Or Dare is arguably its original title, because the article had been originated by the London culture desk, the author’s voice would prevail and In Bed With Madonna would win. Any article on the same subject written in the US, however, and reaching the same audience, would stick with the American title.

** Googs: eggs. Nasho: national military service. Pokies: slot machines, which in Australia often have a five-reel playing-card format that in effect deals you a poker hand. Firies: firefighters.

*** Departing in a hurry, in the manner of the now-defunct express tram to Bondi Beach, which would run non-stop (or “shoot through”) for part of its journey.

**** Having tickets on yourself: being full of oneself, feeling superior (origin unclear). Looking like a stunned mullet: being visibly disconcerted. Barbecue stopper: breaking news of such interest that it would even interrupt conversation at a barbecue. 

Pet project

13 Nov

Of all the Daily Star’s front pages I’ve seen, the one that startles me the most is not KILLER SPIDER MADE MY LEG EXPLODE, or TESTICLE EATING KILLER FISH ON WAY TO UK, but this:

Even for a newspaper that reports ghost stories as news stories and routinely leads on reality TV (sometimes both at the same time), it’s remarkable. The facts: a hamster in Wales has escaped inside a woman’s car and is eating the upholstery. Why is that the splash? Obviously not because of the importance of the news, but because of the opportunity it presents for the headline. What the page is meant to echo, of course, is this:

Tabloid front pages claim a special niche in the public memory: people remember GOTCHA, HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, and SWEDES 2, TURNIPS 1 even if they don’t recall all the details of the stories.* Redtop back benches are well aware of the place they hold in the common imagination, and will often run variations on their most celebrated jokes in follow-up stories.**

But those stories are nearly always big stories (by tabloid measures), and the running gags are always their own. Here, the Star is emulating not itself, but the Sun: it is running a story with no front-page value simply so that it can echo a 30-year-old headline published in its closest rival. This would be weak splash even if they were repeating their own joke; it’s quite disconcerting that they’re repeating someone else’s. It seems almost deferential. And if you were a millennial tabloid reader who’d never heard of Freddie Starr, what on earth would you make of it?

* Indeed, this is what happened here: the car’s owner, Amanda Johnson, recalled the Sun’s famous story and retrospectively named the car Freddie because it was being eaten by a hamster.

** For example, after England’s dismal 2-1 loss to the Swedes turned the press against the national team’s manager, Graham Taylor, his departure the following year was heralded with the headline THAT’S YER ALLOTMENT.

Hands across the water

30 Oct

No matter how far a British warship sails, she’s always under the watchful eye of the Daily Mail. More so than ever these days, now that the Mail has fully functioning newsrooms on three continents, all operating  entirely transparently to its global readership. Well, almost.

Observe as 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth sets off for the US on Saturday, a £3bn aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage, picking up two “US F-35B” fighters on the way. Weeks later, she “sails into the blue skies of New York City Friday” (the skies?): safely arrived, but now a “70,000 ton” ship costing “$4bn”, “multimillion-dollar” fighters embarked and accompanied by a quote from the “UK defence secretary”.

As we have discussed before, it’s not the big things that confound the emerging anglophone news agenda: everyone’s interested in Trump, Instagram models, celebrity affairs and viral video, no matter where they originate in the world. It’s the small things, the detail points that betray who you really think you’re writing for: the weights and measures, the indications (or not) of nationality, the brief explanations of localisms considered necessary or unnecessary. It may be a British-built ship flying American-made fighters, but all the available dialects for this story are local: there is no global English for the global newsrooms to speak.

Do readers notice? They don’t seem to complain. Well, not often.

And it’s just as well: it would be very hard to eliminate parochialisms at the micro level like this. Thank goodness that football pitches in Britain and America are both approximately the same size:

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).

 

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.