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The Lada of success

31 Aug

Along with the headlines we dream of one day writing (my ambition is to get “Crema vs. Crema” on a group test of espresso machines), I’m sure I’m not the only sub-editor to fantasise about making a stunning save on deadline – a last-minute intervention that prevents a disastrous error getting into print, and shows off one’s combination of erudition and alertness. One of those cool foreign-desk moments, pulling an earbud out of one ear to shout over to the desk: “My Pashto’s pretty rusty, but it sounds like the Mullah’s saying ‘retreat’, not ‘surrender’.” Except that, when my moment finally arrived, I didn’t get to say anything as cool as that. Instead I had to go up to the back bench, and, within earshot of most of senior management, mumble “excuse me, I think this is a Moskvich”.

The occasion was a colour feature about Havana and the struggle of its taxi drivers and mechanics to keep their old Lada cars on the road. Vivid, atmospheric, rich in castroismo, it was very Tribune. The trouble was, alongside the enthusing about the Lada’s Italian heritage and classic 1960s lines was the picture above. “A Lada car on the streets of Havana Centro” the caption says, but as someone who spent far too much of their childhood reading The Observer’s Book of Automobiles, I wasn’t so sure.

The picture editor gave me one of those picture-desk stares. “I don’t really know a lot about cars,” he said. “It says it’s a Lada.” “Ah yes, but if you look here below the rear window pillar, there’s a cabin air vent, whereas on a Lada …” “Yes, OK, if you say so.” I returned to the back bench. “Yes, I think we’d better change the pic. You see if you look at this feature here above the rear wheel…” “Yes, OK, can you just make sure it’s right? Thanks.” I returned to the subs’ desk in dorkish pride, looked round at my colleagues, thought about explaining what had happened, and decided to spare them.

(However, for those interested … If you look at the picture above and compare it with this fine machine belonging to the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, which really is a Lada,

you will notice that the blue car has a small vent on the side of the body, above the rear wheel, whereas the police car doesn’t; instead it has a similar vent actually mounted on the rear cabin pillar.

Then, when you start looking properly, you can see the blue car has a curved crease, or wing line, running the whole length of its side, culminating in a vestigial tailfin, whereas the Lada does not. Also (he continued), although the blue car has lost its lights and badges, you can see that the radiator grille is a different shape and that the indicators, if they were still there, would be in a completely different position. (Could it be one of the very earliest Ladas, you’re asking? Ah, but they had round headlights. These ones, or what’s left of them, are clearly rectangular.) I’m confident that the blue car is in fact a Moskvich 2140 – a model, as we know, developed out of the classic Moskvich 412 – built in the USSR from the 1970s until the end of the Cold War.)

Not only that, but as I hunted for a replacement, it emerged that several other Cuban vehicles in the picture library were being wrongly advertised as Ladas, including this one, which is clearly another Moskvich,

and this one:

Good lord, man, that’s a Renault Dauphine.

But nonetheless, we were spoiled for choice with the images. A Lada with a hammer and sickle decal on its side. A Lada with its occupants waving the bandera nacional triumphantly from the windows. And the winner: a young couple kissing passionately between two parked Ladas in front of a sunlit mural of the revolution. Cuba can make anything look romantic.

O Capt, my Capt

16 Feb

Captain Sir Tom Moore? Sir Captain Tom Moore? Not everybody got it the right way round when the Burma veteran and beloved fundraising champion died earlier this month, but on our subs’ desk we were wrestling with a different question. Should we be abbreviating his rank?

The style guide editor emails:

There’s been a divide on this in terms of whether to abbreviate the Captain to Capt, as per the military ranks section of the style guide. That section refers to how to describe serving officers, but in Moore’s case he was retired, and had actually been promoted to honorary colonel last year. Captain Tom was the nickname by which he was known so shortening to Capt Tom seems a bit jarring. 

I understand shortening to Capt might be useful for tight furniture, but doesn’t seem necessary generally. The case seems similar to other examples where a rank has become part of a nickname or refers to a fictional character – we wouldn’t write Capt Beefheart, Col Tom Parker or ground control to Maj Tom.

Accordingly, the style guide now reads:

That seems fairly comprehensive: I don’t think even the Telegraph’s style guide addresses that last issue.

But the good thing about working at a broadsheet is that you never have to stop making distinctions. The deputy production editor replies:

In fact, he had no right to be called Capt Moore [the abbreviated form] anyway. You have to be a Major or above to retain your title in retirement (in the army; a naval captain is a higher rank, so can be retained).

Even at a left-leaning, republican-curious publication such as the Tribune, an appeal to Debrett’s like this glows with prestige. (And it can also help with some of those baffling ranks. L/CoH? No, me neither, but it’s “Lance-Corporal of the Horse”, in the Household Division.) Now the only question is: what to do about Adm Ackbar?

On air

2 Feb

A liquid nitrogen tank has ruptured in a Georgia meat plant and six people are dead, from a grim combination of freeze-burns, or suffocation, or both. However, the Tribune’s hasty first report tells readers, in the time-honoured phrase, that “the leak was contained and not airborne”. That sounds reassuring, until a technologist friend messages to say: “Really? In that case it was probably the fact that they cooled the factory to -196C that caused the problems.”

Liquid nitrogen is liquid under pressure, but vaporises at just above -200C, so when it leaks it instantly boils. At ambient temperatures it’s always a gas, and therefore always airborne. In addition to its dangerous capacity to freeze whatever it touches, in a confined space it can also displace all the breathable air and cause asphyxiation. As my technologist friend put it, “in the event that you do have a nitrogen spill, the last thing you want to do is contain it”. The best thing to do is to vent it into the outside air – which is already 78% nitrogen, after all – at which point the suffocation danger evaporates. The less contained nitrogen is, the less dangerous it is.

In the shock of the event, the media wasn’t the only institution that seemed confused about this. The phrase “contained and not airborne” appears to have originated with county education officials, per AP, who kept children indoors at a nearby school – even though, of course, the air inside was already heavy with nitrogen, as all air is everywhere. The authorities also closed the road outside the plant, out in the open air, for over half a mile in each direction.

Why? Because that’s what you do. That’s the natural instinct when, lacking technical insight, you hear of a fatal gas leak. Stay indoors, contain, evacuate. Those are also the kind of questions reporters reflexively ask at press conferences. Has the gas escaped? Is there a cloud drifting over the city? You need a certain level of scientific knowledge to appreciate that a substance can be dangerous without being poisonous and that, if so, the measures to deal with it may be significantly different to those for dealing with toxins.

In a building full of arts graduates, which is essentially what a newspaper is, there may be a dozen people who can dissect a party conference speech, but often not one with reliable knowledge of the fifth most abundant element on Earth. An arts graduate myself, I email the news desk, hesitantly explaining what’s just been explained to me. We decide to delete that line from the story and await developments. Eventually, one of the wire services has the bright idea of calling the experts for comment, and receives the following response:

That explanation finds its way into the Tribune report and everyone else’s (even though in some cases the quote from the school board is also retained). The story is clarified. But it has revealed, once again, a blind spot in the reporting process.

As journalists, we rely on ourselves for political, sporting and cultural analysis, but are almost completely dependent on outside sources in scientific matters. What we have instead is a reservoir of layperson’s assumptions, apparently similar precedents – and, sometimes, cliches – that we draw upon at the first confused press conferences after a disaster.

The Tribune has tried to address this shortcoming in the past. We have had teams of scientists visit us to try to explain what successful new medical trials do, and don’t, signify, and how they should be reported. But perhaps the most useful resource for a hard-pressed former English student is knowledgeable STM friends who are not shy of getting in touch when, say, a basic arithmetical error appears on the website. If you are a mathematician or a scientist and you know a sub-editor, don’t be afraid to call if you’ve noticed something wrong. I promise we’ll be grateful.

Just a copy-desk man

1 Sep

© Vintage Classics, 2008

Leaving aside the works of Franz Kafka, there can’t be many novels with more downbeat openings than Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

In its sober opening chapter, we discover that the girls’ mother, Pookie, is a woman with aspirations whose “eyes remain bewildered”, and that their father is – yes – a copy editor. And it is he we meet straight away, when they travel down to see him at work at the New York Sun.

They are excited by the prospect: “Anyone could be a flashy, irresponsible reporter or a steady drudge of a rewrite man; but the man who wrote the headlines!” However, although Mr Grimes may be a hero to his daughters, he isn’t one to himself.

As they walked out across City Hall Park in the spring sunshine he held them both by the hand …

“City Hall doesn’t look like much, does it?” Walter Grimes said. “But see that big building there, through the trees? The dark red one? That’s the World – was, I should say; it folded last year. Greatest daily newspaper in America.”

“Well, but the Sun’s the best now, right?” Sarah said.

“Oh no, honey; the Sun isn’t really much of a paper.”

“It isn’t? Why?” Sarah looked worried.

“Oh , it’s kind of reactionary.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means very, very conservative, very Republican.”

“Aren’t we Republicans?”

“I guess your mother is, baby. I’m not.”


He had two drinks before lunch, ordering ginger ale for the girls; then, when they were tucking in to their chicken à la king and mashed potatoes, Emily spoke for the first time since they’d left the office. “Daddy, if you don’t like the Sun, why do you work there?”

His long face, which both girls considered handsome, looked tired. “Because I need a job, little rabbit,” he said. “Jobs are getting hard to find. Oh, I suppose if I were very talented, I might move on, but I’m just – you know – I’m only a copy-desk man.”

This is what one might call the Andrew Marr view of sub-editors: people with a “sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness”, inclined to moroseness and bound to their desks. It’s hard to avoid thinking that Walter’s profession might have been chosen to fit the whole mood of the novel: out on the rim, unfulfilled, looking on at the successful. So near and yet so far: the story of two nearly girls with a nearly man for a father.

But we know that isn’t true, don’t we? We know that sub-editors are the kind of people who can’t help but write 11 off-colour headlines for one story about a burger-chain sex scandal. The kind of people who pursue front-page running jokes that haunt public figures long after they’ve retired. Or the kind of people who put inflammatory words in other people’s mouths (CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?) without ever giving them the right of reply. However profound one’s concerns about the ethics of such behaviour, it’s hardly the work of the defeated or the marginalised. Sub-editors, especially tabloid ones, are instigators. Not infrequently, we’re the ones causing all the trouble.

The Third (Actually, First) Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

9 Jun

‘There’s bound to be a big replate for second edition’. (IMDB/BFI)

The street shimmers. A man trudges towards the camera through an apocalyptic glow, bathed in sweat. A tannoy announces there are “nineteen minutes before countdown” to a scorched, empty city. It looks like Doomsday, but all is not lost: because the man is a journalist, and he’s on his way to the newsroom.

And so begins The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Val Guest’s 1961 film with an exploitation-movie title that in fact manages to be a nuclear thriller, ecological parable and gritty love story all at once. And, almost above all, a film about newspapers.

It stars Edward Judd as washed-up reporter Pete Stenning, Leo McKern as grouchy science editor Bill Maguire, and Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, a government press officer who knows a secret. The two male characters work at the Daily Express, whose newsroom was exactingly recreated at Shepperton Studios for the film. And although the story concerns America, Russia and the disastrous coincidence of two H-bomb tests, nearly everything that unfolds is viewed from the inside of a newsroom or a bar.

Scene after scene is heavy with the presence of midcentury Fleet Street. Billboards proclaiming disaster are displayed on Evening Standard vans. The wall of a lido where Stenning and Craig, his new girlfriend, meet is covered with a huge advert for the News of the World. The newsroom is led by a commanding Arthur Christiansen-type figure, played by … Arthur Christiansen himself, who was also the film’s technical adviser.  It is a disaster movie, certainly, but it’s about the end of the world in the same oblique way that All The President’s Men is about Nixon.

And the hacks themselves are also very real. Messengers and copyboys are chaffed and ordered about. The troubled Stenning sulks and slacks off, and is confronted about it unsparingly by colleagues (“If you borrow my car for lunch, why bother to hurry back at six-thirty?”). When he gets a sniff of the climate-disaster story, he shows little compunction in forcing Craig, who works at the Air Ministry, to act as his source, exposing her to the fate of a whistleblower. The film was somewhat scandalous in 1961 for its frank love scene, but you suspect it got its X certificate not because of all the sex, but because of all the journalism.

In the opening scenes in the newsroom, as a flash comes in and a shocked desk realises what’s happened, we see a detailed recreation of a post-deadline panic. The news editor dials the switchboard: “Head Printer, fast!” Maguire reappears. “Give me a quick 50 words across three columns. You’ve got five minutes. I’ll write the headline.” The head printer picks up the phone. “Smudge: slip edition coming down in five minutes at most, so get a bloody move on!” (“Don’t we always?”).

Cut to the composing room, where the head printer calls out “front page lead reset!” and dials the press manager to tell him there’s a newsflash. (“OK George. Know what it is? Well as long as they haven’t made beer illegal!”). The press manager goes to the press foreman, and against the din of the machines, raises his index finger and makes an upward gesture, meaning “lift page 1”. Then he goes to the delivery manager to warn him “there’s bound to be a big replate for second edition”. (“Someone up there hates me! All right, I’ll warn them”). He dials the loading bay, where the first edition is being gathered and baled (and where we see Stenning, stumbling in after another lost afternoon, and follow him back up to the newsroom).

‘Why is he trying to alter my heading?’ (BFI)

It’s three minutes of tense Fleet Street life, a vivid glimpse behind the scenes – except that, as you might have noticed, it doesn’t appear to involve sub-editors. The news editor talks straight to the typesetters, writes the headline, and even organises the photographs (“Jock! Find me the biggest mushroom in the file!”). It’s possible that a busy news editor might take on the task of writing a stop-press headline, for speed, but in real life there would be upwards of a dozen subs around who could do it for him.

Fear not, though: in such an exactingly recreated newsroom, sub-editors are indeed present – pre-dating both their appearance in The Paper (1994) and The Post (2017). Earlier in the evening, we saw Maguire – who appears to be the kind of reporter who likes writing his own headlines – kicking up a fuss about changes to his feature on thrombosis. “But why’s he trying to alter my heading?”, he complains to a mild-looking middle-aged man, whose patient demeanour marks him out as a member of the copy desk. “Is he trying to make a job for himself?”

“Bill,” the man replies (with justification), “you can’t print a feature on thrombosis and call it YOU TOO CAN BE THE DEATH OF THE PARTY.”

And when the early copies of the first edition eventually arrive upstairs, Maguire is seen holding one aloft in disgust. “Eight hundred grisly words on thrombosis and look what they do to me: STUBBORN MEN AND THE KILLER THEY COURT. What kind of an impact heading is that? I might as well be working on the Police Gazette!”

I quite like it myself. But anyway, it didn’t matter: the whole thing got pulled for the second edition because the Earth had been blown off its axis.

Hat-tip to Theresa Pitt at Horny Handed Subs of Toil, who recommended the film to the group.

On the night shift

12 May

Just one more quote from Roy Shaw’s book How Newspapers Work, because I can’t resist. This time it’s his cinematic depiction of the waning hours of the night shift:

Outside the main news room the specialist writers’ rooms are in darkness. Among the series of teleprinters one machine remains switched on, still occasionally bursting into life as the tail-end of the night’s news comes through. One copy taker broods in a lonely pool of light around his typewriter, waiting for the very last of late night stories from staff reporters or local correspondents. One reporter, isolated among rows of deserted desks, waits to see if that very late story – if there is one this night – requires any attention from him.

One or two sub-editors sit among the night’s debris of scrawled-on and discarded copy paper, and page plans and tattered copies of earlier editions, rummaged through, studied and left scattered. They wait now for any attention that a late story may demand from them, buoyed up, perhaps, by the romantic notion that they may be the heroes of the night, seizing upon the great, late story and magnificently scooping their rivals with a dramatic, final change of page.

Sadly, in fact, the lot of all these “late stop” men is one of tedium followed eventually, at around four or five in the morning, by the releasing thought that whatever news comes now will be too late for that day’s paper.

That was how it was, I am sure, at a well-ordered paper produced in hot metal. On an InDesign paper, though – particularly one with a culture of revisiting pages and an endlessly excitable editor – there was altogether a lot more going on.

In the old days on the Tribune night shift, you could send four pages at 8pm for second edition, 12 pages at 10pm for third, another 12 for fourth at midnight, and then another four, if you wanted them, for the fifth at 1am. Thirty-two possible plate changes in total, and we used to use them all.

We would take over straight after the first edition had gone to press at 6pm (or, frankly, some time later). The day shift would go home, the crossover day/night workers would go for a break, the night production editor and her deputy would go into the late conference, and if you were on the 6pm-2am graveyard shift, you would be briefly left alone in the newsroom, the deserted bridge of a ship, earnestly hoping that the phone wouldn’t ring. (If it did, you would have no choice but to answer it with a crisp “Newsroom”, and then, in all probability, interrupt conference to explain in front of senior management that, eg, the front page had been sent without the barcode.)

If you were already in conference, by contrast, the editor would be flicking through the proofs in a random order with an increasing sense of restlessness, issuing a string of instructions about redesigns, story moves and page swops that you could barely scribble down fast enough. Emerging slightly dazed, with usually less than an hour to second edition, you would then have to triage the corrections for speed of completion, prioritising either the most egregious errors or the easiest ones to fix, to fill your three page slots for 8pm (the fourth being taken by the front page, which has to be sent for every edition even if it hasn’t changed).

As the crossovers returned from their breaks and the newsroom filled up again, you would push more changes out into the subs’ queue to be done in edition-time order (marked “8pm”, “10pm”, “12 or later”). Then would come the most difficult part of the evening; organising the “linked pages” of corrections.

For instance, imagine that the editor wants to make the whole of page two into a “turn page” for the splash, to give more space for the text overspilling from the front page, because new developments emerged as the first edition was going to press. To create that space, he wants to remove the turn of the other front-page story, currently at the bottom of page two, and put that on page seven, where it is vaguely thematically relevant. To make space on seven, the story in the last column will be moved to a similar sized slot on page 11, and the story currently in that slot on page 11 will be moved to page three, where it will function as a companion piece, crushed down into a short text box.

That’s a fair amount of work: re-editing the splash, re-cutting the other front-page story into a different shape, a light trim for the page seven story in its new slot, a redesign for pages two and three, and a heavy cut for the story moving from page 11. But the most significant thing about it is that none of those things can happen unless all the others happen at the same time. You can’t, say, take in the new splash with its longer turn on page two, send those two pages for third edition and then do the rest later, because the other front-page story will lose its turn and end in the middle of a sentence on page one. If you change page two and set up the new turn on page seven as well, that problem is solved, but then the story bumped off page seven will disappear for third edition readers and reappear for fourth edition readers  – hardly a satisfactory solution. And ideally, it would be best to get the updated splash on the page as soon as possible – but you have five linked pages in the run and only four slots available for 8pm. So in conference, heart sinking slightly, you scribble  1→2→7→11→3 on the top of your notepad and brace yourself for a busy third edition.

Then imagine that there is more than one run of linked pages to do that night (there often was). Or imagine that, say, the other story on the crucial page seven is also being refiled and will need a new picture, but might not be ready until close to the 10pm deadline, or might miss it altogether. Or imagine (thankfully, this is slightly before my time) that several of the linked pages in the run are in colour, but you’re only allowed a limited number of colour plate changes per edition.

It was non-stop. The hours used to fly by. After the 10pm edition, with some of the work for midnight already done, there would be time to tackle the office picnic of French bread, cheeses and salami, laid out on an empty desk. Then we would be back for another 16 plate changes – this time without the crossovers, whose shifts had come to an end. I would go home between 1am and 2am – not as bad as for Shaw’s “late stops” – fall asleep around 3:30, then wake up in late morning to the local dance station’s ambient techno show, designed to soothe people surfacing after a Saturday night on the town. It was oddly appropriate, because the night shift used to feel similarly exhausting and eventful: like clubbing, but without the euphoria.

It’s all changed now. The Tribune’s night shift was heavily reduced years ago, when cost-saving measures came in, and has been further cut back for logistical reasons during the epidemic. If there was ever a chance to sit in an Edward Hopper pool of light, waiting for the teletype machine to start clattering, it’s probably gone. And I’m grateful to have been on the day shift now these many years. But I still sometimes miss the feeling of walking into the newsroom as others are walking out, the quiet falling and the sun setting, and waiting to be handed the baton.

La Traviata and violence

24 Dec

Sondheim and gin bars. Peter Pan and air pollution. Artemis and boardgames. LA TRAVIATA AND VIOLENCE!

This is our world. This is the broadsheet chiaroscuro of the Tribune’s early pages list, waiting for us on our desks when we arrive on press day. This is what they want! (Or at least, sales are declining more slowly than they were.)

Let’s hope for more of the same next year, though with more bright skies than dark. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Out and out

6 Aug

Oops, there’s a repeated word. This is why proofreading is so important, even close to deadline. Something always slips through.

Oh, wait, hang on: there’s a link.

Oh, wait, hang on: it’s a thing.

And it appears that “going out out” is only the mid-price option in a range of three:

To clarify: going out, tout court, is the simple dinner with mates: “think shiny fabric, a feather trim or, to really nod to the late 90s moment, a sequin cami and pair of wedge sandals”. Going out out “involves some preparation, an acceptance that best laid plans may go awry and a look that is both committed to the party without being too sensible” (in other words “go for something long and shimmery à la Bottega Veneta and whack a long-sleeved T-shirt underneath if you’re planning to go three parties deep”.) Going out out out – the big one is “a night out that may well turn into a lost weekend”, for which you will need “sequins, but with a polo neck underneath, sparkles, but on a low heel, hemlines below the knee and, the stealth secret weapon, sleeves”. (Not to mention, as the article wisely reminds us, a coat.)

It’s going to stay in, but I’m hyphenating it. It just looks like a mistake otherwise.

And to think I almost deleted it. I really am starting to get too old for this.


9 Jul

Business section masthead puff as submitted to the production editor:

Business section masthead puff as returned from the production editor:

This is why senior management gets the big bucks. Perhaps the image was intended to create the impression of a carefree summer spirit, shoes and shades thrown down any old how as the sound of the waves grows irresistible … ?

No, you’re right.

The ladder of others’ errors

28 May

I am reminded, as I periodically am, of Andrew Marr’s penetrating and double-edged tribute to sub-editors in his book My Trade, published in 2004:

The biggest division in journalism is between natural reporters and natural ‘subs’. It is a flesh and bone thing. The history of journalism is littered with awed accounts of men* who could tame torrents of sloppy, incoherent copy and turn them into clear, clean stories. It is a great talent and any writer who has been corrected by a great sub knows it. But it can come at a human cost. There’s a sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness to life’s natural subs, the result of clambering up and down a ladder of other people’s ignorance and errors. So much sloppy writing, third-rate thinking, self-indulgent prose and looming deadlines can sour your view of life forever … Subs are more inclined to be learned, to hold strong political and religious opinions, and to be either morose or ferocious; and they never get out of the office.

It’s not entirely complimentary, although given our total absence from some journalistic memoirs, it is at least nice to have been noticed. Some of it sounds like the natural incomprehension that the big-picture person (Marr, for those who don’t know him, was editing a national newspaper in his 30s and is now a top-line BBC broadcaster) feels towards the details person; it is not unknown for newsroom leaders to detect “a sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness” in those tasked with making their ambitious visions come true. And it is true that sub-editors are paid to worry for a living; in any discussion about recently released John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban”, the sub-editor will be the one saying “actually, shouldn’t it be Talib?”. But there is a difference between playing a defensive position, as a copy desk essentially does, and having a defensive personality: just ask Rio Ferdinand.

Furthermore, being a sub is not just trapping errors: it falls within our gift to write headlines, the most visible act of journalistic creativity and (as we like to joke with the Tribune’s reporters) the only part of the paper that anyone actually reads.

I wouldn’t count myself as morose and, though I might like to think otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not ferocious either. But it is probably true that moroseness is more prevalent among subs than it is reporters, where it would be a fatal handicap in a job that demands sociability. And correcting faulty copy is not as soul-destroying as Marr makes it sound. But as a description of sub-editing, “clambering up and down a ladder of other people’s errors” can hardly be bettered. And he’s certainly right about one thing: even on a day as sunny as this, we’re still stuck in the office.


*Sic. I think he’s looking at it from a long-term, historical perspective