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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

Hard re-set

19 Mar

You see what we have to put up with?

This story’s set very densely, so all I wanted to do was split one paragraph (highlighted) to create a bit of air and improve the column breaks later on. But as soon as I did that, Adobe Paragraph Composer, of its own accord, generated an extra line in the next paragraph. In the next paragraph! Not only that, but it did it just by turning a single word.

What’s going on? Adobe says:

When you use the Paragraph Composer, InDesign composes a line while considering the impact on the other lines in the paragraph, to set the best overall arrangement of the paragraph. As you change type in a given line, previous and subsequent lines in the same paragraph may break differently, making the overall paragraph appear more evenly spaced.

Right: but that’s in the same paragraph. All that happened to the subsequent paragraph is that it moved a line further down the column. And yet it automatically recomposed itself? Why?

There’s some grumbling about Paragraph Composer at the Tribune because of its occasional habit of making a par one line longer, rather than shorter, when you cut a word out of it. But I’ve never seen it do this. It’s almost as though there were a phantom Article Composer controlling the overall density of the piece based on the user’s cues. But if there is, it’s not a documented feature. And really, life’s busy enough without your editing software making the stories longer too.

The first sub-editors ever to appear in song

10 Jul

Clinic: IPC Sub-editors Dictate Our Youth (Domino Records, 1997)


This is what youth sounds like: rebellion against corporate media, cultural authority, metropolitan savants … and the people who check their spelling.

There are, as we know, a couple of sub-editors in films, but who ever thought any would feature in a pop song? And not just any sub-editors, but the copy desk at IPC – the fallen British magazine titan that used to own Melody Maker and New Musical Express when they were both at the height of their powers.

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, these were the papers in which famous writers were blooded and famous faces promoted; where punk and the New Romantics took flight and Blur fought Oasis for supremacy. You can see why a spiky young provincial band might rebel at so much glamour and hauteur being projected at them from London. But what’s so enchanting is the thought that it was the sub-editors – not Robert Elms, not Julie Burchill, not Chrissie Hynde – who were actually making this happen: making and breaking acts, gatekeeping impassively in Ray-Bans while the pop stars came and went.

It’s not as though MM or NME were particularly subs’ papers: alongside the epoch-making rock portraiture on the covers, the headlines tended to be very factual (WAKEMAN REJOINS YES) or straight quotes from the stars (“MUMFORD AND SONS: ‘OUR NEW SOUND WILL FREAK PEOPLE OUT!’). I think we all suspect that the truth was different: that in fact subs on music papers are rumpled figures, somewhat older than their colleagues, going round saying things like “You haven’t filled in the name of the band here … What? Oh, they’re called the xx?”

It’s not a very high-profile song – this blog was only put on to it by colleague Iain in the newsroom. And disappointingly, insofar as anyone can make them out, the lyrics appear to have nothing to do with journalism, but sound like a bleak portrayal of family strife, perhaps inspired by life in Clinic’s native Liverpool in the 1990s.

But still, we made it into the title. And it’s inspiring to think that an indie band once thought we were cool and aloof enough to put in a song.

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.