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Worth a thousand words

18 Apr

You can almost see the brushstrokes:

When you’re adding a picture to a news story for the web, of course you have to write a caption. But you will also be asked to create some “alt text” – a brief, embedded description of the photograph that is invisible under normal circumstances, but may appear if you hover your pointer over it in the browser. By far alt text’s most useful function is that it can be read out loud by a screen reader – a piece of software that translates a web page into the spoken word for visually impaired computer users.

That means, of course, that you probably can’t just cut and paste the caption you’ve just written: this is no place for snark or commentary. If the photo is of the Alabama lacrosse team celebrating after breaking an 0-for-7 start, your caption may say “Tide: off the schneid”, but the alt text needs to say “Alabama lacrosse team players celebrating”.

And if that’s true for photographs, it’s equally true for cartoons. What’s being portrayed may be a little more, er, unusual, but that doesn’t alter the nature of the task: you still have to provide a faithful verbal description of what the illustration shows. Have confidence, and the muscular metaphors of the political cartoonist will come to life in the mind’s eye almost as surely as if they were looking at the original watercolour.

You could practically display them in a gallery:

 

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The space between the facts

6 Dec

If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a marble, it is said, then the electrons in the widest orbit around it would be a football field away. There’s “a large volume all around it that’s mostly empty space”, according to Professor Stephen Ekker of the Mayo Clinic. That emptiness is not irrelevant: it is an essential part of the atom’s nature, the “sphere” (to use the Bohr model as a metaphor) in which interactions take place that distinguish it from other elements. To collapse that space is only possible under the most extreme conditions, and, when it happens, brings about a complete change of state.

The other phenomenon of which this is true, of course, is the feature article. Here too, the air, the space around the nucleus is the important thing: the colour, the atmosphere, the writing, rather than the tiny fact in the centre. But here too, under sufficient pressure – for example, say, if a 600-word feature were unaccountably reassigned to become a 55-word picture caption* – an implosion can occur that similarly creates a material of an entirely different and unlovely type: news.

Under such extreme conditions, of course, the last 500 words of the feature are swept away at once, leaving only the first two paragraphs intact, somewhere within which the central news item is located. Here are those paragraphs in their original form:

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Then the remorseless crushing begins, in which atoms of news, underlined in red, are compressed until no space remains between them:

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picture-40mod

And eventually, you end up with this:

picture-41clean

The opening passage, shorn of any entertainment value, has been reduced in size by more than 60%, from 91 words to 34. A diaphanous stellar ornament been replaced with a neutron star: dense, grim, unsparkling, and emitting bursts of information on a set frequency. But at least there’s space for the photo credit now.

 

*Seriously, this actually happened

The 100-word headline

11 Oct

You’ve been around, and you’ve seen some things. You’ve seen the New York Times write four different heds for the same story and stack them all at the top of its front page; you’ve seen the Sun cause so much offence with a single word on the front that it pulled apart its page one and re-made it that same night. But I promise you’ve ever seen anything like this. Ladies and gentlemen: the 100-word headline.

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If you’re scoring at home it’s a 4/40/8 + 3/40/2 + 2/40/6 + 3/40/4. Twenty decks in all, with a yellow first line for a kicker. And it’s the biggest feature in the paper this week, so try to make it sing.

Still, I suppose at least there isn’t a standfirst.

Double exposure

27 Sep

I wish Agence France-Presse would stop doing this, because it’s perilously easy to make a mistake:

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It’s an unusual name, you think, but a resonant one: puts you slightly in mind of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia. Unfamiliar though “Alhalbiameer” may be, it has a strangely correct ring to it – a patronymic, maybe? An unfamiliar theophoric name? Except of course, it’s nothing of the sort: AFP, as is its unvarying practice, has repeated Ameer Alhalbi’s name twice without a break in the middle. And that’s the kind of thing that can easily get transcribed from the credit across onto the page when you’re in a hurry:

picture-35 picture-36

It happens with other AFP snappers with non-anglophone names too: Aref (Karimiaref) Karimi, Mandel (Nganmandel) Ngan, Louai (Besharalouai) Beshara and Ilyas (Akenginilyas) Akengin have all made it into publication.

Very obvious once it’s pointed out, of course, and very embarrassing when it happens. But in a world with naming conventions as diverse as Burma’s and Spain’s, it’s not entirely surprising that a striking-looking ‘middle name’ might sometimes slip through. As we have discussed before, pictures and captions have a shorter route into publication, and pass under fewer eyes, than anything else on the website or in the paper.

Fortunately, because it’s the Tribune’s practice to put photography credits on the end of the caption, this is the kind of thing one is prompted to notice in print – if only because there’s so little space in a standard two-column caption that your heart sinks when you see a long name. But come on, AFP: we’re working at speed here. Everyone understands why you’d want to repeat names for clarity, but at least put a space between them. Give us a break.

Sketch writing

5 Jul

You can tell when he’s finished by the sound of the hairdryer starting up. A couple of hours before deadline, looking up from his watercolour box and reference boards full of politicians’ faces, the Tribune’s cartoonist will put down his brushes and pick up the office dryer to blow-dry the paint on his cartoon before bringing it over. (No time to wait for it to dry, of course; this is a newspaper). Then, he’ll casually carry it across the office, colours glistening on the cartridge paper, and hand it to the production desk – a fragile, analogue piece of journalism in a digital world.

Before that moment, of course, ideas have been discussed, copy read in preview, and a detailed rough sketch has been presented. That’s when we on the subs’ desk swing in to action, checking captions, lettering, speech balloons and so on. Everything gets edited. No tiny detail escapes us. Especially not on the bewildering and unhappy subject of Britain’s departure from the EU, summed up by an ugly portmanteau word that now echoes, to our shame, around the world.

Here’s this week’s:

Brexitsketch

Yep, that looks fine.

 

Comment in chains

1 Mar

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What’s great about the internet is that there’s space for everyone. All views get an airing, even if it’s only in the comments below the line. This person thinks that Kanye is today’s Mozart: a minority opinion, perhaps, but one now proudly spoken. The voiceless have been given a voice.

Or perhaps not quite in this case, because this is my friend from California, trolling. He’s taking part in the “Daily Mail game”, in which competitors join in conversations in the comments under Mail articles and try to score as many downvotes (as awarded by fellow commenters) as possible for their remarks. As we can see, this one has scored a splendid 176 red negative votes, and, obviously a natural (“Honestly, we need closer ties with Europe!”), he’s already close to 5,000 down-arrows overall.

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And this, perhaps, is a hint as to why the tide appears to be turning against comments on new stories. In April 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times suspended reader comments on its site, and, as Wired recounts, over the intervening period almost a dozen notable news outlets have done something similar. In most cases, they have done it quietly, or partially, or temporarily, sometimes under the guise of technological upgrades to create “new commenting experiences”.

But now, since the start of the year, the Daily Telegraph has not only relaunched its website without a comments feature, but made it a point of public policy (“readers can continue to comment on and share articles through Telegraph Facebook pages, or via Twitter, in the usual way”). And, most strikingly of all, the Guardian – the paper that embraces the dictum of its most famous editor that “Comment is Free” – has announced a scaling back of its below-the-line facility that will see comments disabled automatically on race, immigration or Islam stories unless there are sufficient resources to provide the high level of moderation such subjects always require.

Comments under news stories have always created problems for their hosts: the lurking threat of libel or false rumour, the disingenuous astroturfing, the hate speech, the wandering off topic, the flippant bad taste over disasters. The rise of online engagement has led to the rise of what the Guardian’s former editor, Alan Rusbridger, has described as an entirely “new breed” of journalist – moderators – whose entire job is to control the risks commenters create. But until now, news organisations have stuck with them nonetheless, because of the one huge benefit they provide: audience.

People who just read a story click on it once. But if they comment on a story, they become involved. If someone replies to their comment, they click again to read and reply. If someone else comments, perhaps they reply to that. They check back in to see how the debate is progressing, or if the author has joined in, or how many recommendations their original comment has earned. Every time counts as a click, a visit; clicks and visits add up to an audience. And audience is what you use to sell digital advertising.

As print sales have declined and the internet has risen, newspapers’ strategy for survival has depended on this kind of audience – especially the loyal, core audience that comes back time and again. As hardcopy circulation declined and less money came in from print adverts, the reasoning went, digital readership would grow, and more money would come in from internet adverts. And digital readership did grow, smoothly – in the Tribune’s case, from 6 million to 7 million to 8 million a day. In fact, it’s still growing. But, as of last summer, the other half of the equation has failed: newspapers’ digital ad revenues have just collapsed.

The reasons for this are complex: some leading advertising figures are beginning to suspect that digital advertising is simply not being viewed, thanks to ad blockers, and are reluctant to spend. Many are turning towards the vast, data-rich, targetable audience that big social media sites can provide and away from newspapers’ much smaller, much more opaque readerships. (According to one set of statistics, the digital ad market grew by 30% year on year – but all but 1 percentage point of that went to Google and Facebook.) The future for newspapers was already looking tricky even while online revenues were going up. But, whatever the reasons, the unthinkable has now happened: there is now no growth in either print advertising or digital advertising.

Obviously, the consequences of this, if it continues, will be manifold, and the decisions to be taken difficult. But one conclusion seems inescapable: that the link between audience and revenue has been broken. And if that’s the case, then the risks papers run by publishing online comments suddenly seem much less worthwhile than they did before. Now a growing downside has to be managed – numbers of comments are still rising – while the upside has stagnated. And so one of the first things to happen in this new, underfunded future may be an extension of a trend that’s already becoming apparent: that comments will simply be turned off.*

 

 

*Not here though – comments are very much open, as always

 

Here’s looking at you

18 Jan

Version 2

This looks like the best picture choice for the spread. It’s striking, personable, colourful: there’s a sort of Kitchener-esque directness to it that engages the reader. It breaks the fourth wall. The only reason not to use it would be in the unlikely event of it somehow clashing with one of the adverts when the flatplanning software places them.

Let’s call them in now, just to be sure.

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Oh damn.