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28 Feb

It appears even Glenda is having a bit of trouble with her subeditors this week:

But it’s hard to decide which is more unlikely: that a mere member of the copy desk would criticise the work of one of Fleet Street’s brightest stars, or that a subeditor – who, as a group, shall we say, tend to be a little older than their colleagues – wouldn’t understand a reference to a 1970s film (really, any 1970s film).

Columnists are not, as a rule, inclined to have production functionaries overrule their jeux d’esprits; they are more lightly edited than any other writer, because the quality of their prose is what’s earned them the job, for gawd’s sake???! There is a presumptive hands-off rule for several star writers at the Tribune (not one that I agree with – it is this blog’s position that everyone should be edited, sensitively, and that silly mistakes just spoil a joke), and in any case it would be for the columnist, not the subeditor, to decide what references were culturally salient.

Given the international decline in copy desks, one might be tempted to say that there are no millennial subeditors anyway. That would not be true at the Tribune, which still proudly invests in subs and as a result has a desk that ranges in age by almost 50 years – ideal, in theory, for catching almost any generation-specific error that might elude a colleague. It’s just that the younger ones have the good sense, by and large, to work on the website, in social media and in video – channels that may still offer them employment into the future – and leave a group of increasingly grizzled Gen X-ers to grow old with the paper.

However, that didn’t stop this headline appearing on the website:

A cultural reference to The Life of Brian? Hard to believe a boomer didn’t write that: you’d need to be in your 60s (NOTE: or not – see comments) to have seen that the first time round at the cinema. Maybe Glenda is right: maybe 1970s films are a universal frame of reference that speak to all generations, in which case I’m in prime position to capitalise.

Or has this reference just sailed over the heads of most of our younger online audience, because it’s just too “old”? I don’t if know I feel lucky, or whether I’ve got a bad feeling about this.


I’m a believer

22 Nov

Don’t you think it looks just like them? What, you don’t?

In an embarrassing incident in the Tribune’s news section recently, this picture was sent through by the picture desk to illustrate a story about Monkees memorabilia, went to the sub, who didn’t notice anything wrong, then into revise for me, who didn’t notice anything wrong, then to the production editor and duty editor, who didn’t notice anything wrong, then to the newsstand, whereupon almost everybody immediately pointed out that – yes – those aren’t actually the Monkees.

This always happens on large pictures on page three, doesn’t it? Never to little ones in the Nibs. Anyway, these are the four lead actors in Daydream Believer: The Monkees Story, a now little-seen and modestly rated biopic that came out in 2000.

I can’t even claim to have not looked at the picture. I was totally fooled by Davy Jones (George Stanchev), thought Michael Nesmith (Jeff Geddis)’s body language looked convincing, then stared at LB Fisher on the right of the group and thought “wow, Peter Tork looks young”. Not a trace of doubt in my mind. (In my defence, even Variety, while not very taken with the film, was reportedly impressed with the “close replicas of the original Davy, Mike, Micky and Peter”.)

Admittedly, once the inquest has begun, you immediately notice that Dolenz (Aaron Lohr) is perhaps a little less of a lookalike than the others. Also, there’s a distinctly modern-looking car in the background of the picture. Also, if you’re going to get seriously forensic about it, that shop in the background appears to be a branch of the convenience chain Rabba, which operates almost entirely in Ontario. (Although no reason, I guess, why the “prefab four” – as I discover they were wittily known – shouldn’t have been in Canada in the 1960s).

The BBC once broadcast footage of Bob Dylan that turned out to be of a Bob Dylan impersonator. I used to think that might have been because the person who chose the footage was one or even two generations younger than the fans who would notice. But I watched The Monkees myself when I was growing up, for heaven’s sake. All together now, as this blog has said many times, not least to itself: captions have a shorter path into print than any other component on a page.

All sorts of things can go wrong. The agency caption might be ambiguous. The agency caption might be wrong. The agency caption might be right, but nobody has read it closely enough. The revise sub is probably the last person who will read it closely before the readers do. So when you’re revising them, you can’t just be a believer. You’ve got to see their faces.

Pity and error

8 Nov

The Tribune has been running a headline competition in recent months, and with the self-effacing reticence that characterises our profession, I have been showing off shamelessly trying to win it. (Not entirely successfully: because you have to be nominated by your peers to get in, not all one’s efforts bear fruit. On one story about enfant terrible Jake Chapman’s first solo art exhibition without his sibling Dinos, I wrote the kicker “Art brother, where are you?” and sat back in proud expectation, only for it to pass through the revise queue without comment and vanish from sight.)

You would think such competitions would be the pinnacle of a sub-editor’s career – that success would be like winning an intra-office Oscar. But of course they aren’t: copy-editors are not naturally born to triumph. The yardstick that really measures our lives is a much more negative and sobering one: the corrections column.

Perhaps there are some of us who never feel the need to look at them, or read the daily email of shame from the readers’ editor, but on the Tribune’s business desk, the Production Editor and I are riveted to the corrections. They appear on our Visual Planner software on Friday afternoons in the Comment section, at which point work fairly soon stops and we click to view. Even before calling up the preview, you can see on the little page thumbnail how many corrections there are from the size of the box: just a few inches deep, with a reader’s letter underneath? Phew: not too many this week. Filling the whole depth of the column? Uh-oh.

Then we begin reading, nervous of seeing a subject or headline we recognise. “In our recipe for sourdough batons…” Nope. “Mussorgsky did not, as we stated last week…” Nope: Review section. “In our story on British technology startups …” Oh shit. Crushed again by a misconverted currency or even a reporter’s error that we could have discovered with a little more effort, we confess to each other our sins.

My own career low point occurred when an entire corrections columns ended up being filled with errors perpetrated in a piece I had edited. Written by a famously bohemian correspondent in New York about former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, it arrived from the desk very late and full of vaguenesses, writerly flourishes and unrebutted hearsay. Foolishly, given the hour, I thought to myself “I can save it!” and tried to fudge or cut as much as possible of the dubious stuff so as not to miss deadline. (MEMO: Never do this. No matter how late it is, if a piece is obviously undercooked and substandard, send it back and have a row with the desk. You can’t “save it”.) Brown rightly complained and it emerged that, in the chaos, I had even contrived to miscalculate her age.

None of our anxiety about corrections is relieved by the emerging phenomenon of what we might call Readers’ Editing as Performance. This blog has fulminated before about corrections columns that have fun picking apart the editorial cartoon or making erudite jokes about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s all great fun for the people who haven’t made the mistake: and when it isn’t really a mistake at all, even those jokey “corrections” still rankle. That’s why, despite the cock-up being as good as this one – because, you know, the irony – you can’t help feeling a pang for the person who missed it.

(h/t Joe McNally at Horny Handed Subs of Toil)

Corr values

15 Mar

Ceaseless vigilance, that’s our creed, as demonstrated by a colleague last week:

Key to screenshot:

Orian Lockhart Spelling of quoted person’s name offered by the writer

((CORR)) CORRECT mark from the writer. This spelling is CORRECT. No need to check this

Oriana Leckert Actual spelling of the quoted person’s name, as googled and corrected nonetheless by the sub-editor

Text in blue Deleted text

Text in yellow Text ready for publication

It’s enough to make you want a short holiday, rescheduled from last year as a result of Covid travel restrictions. Fortunately, that’s just what’s coming up! The blog will return, trundling its wheelie case back from the airport, next month: see you then.

In this remarkable dispatch

4 Jan

May I present: the Ten Minutes Past Deadline Self-Promotion Phrase Generator.

luminoustour d’horizon
fiercely intelligent

It was while we were discussing the headline “Celeste Barber mocks backflipping athlete in hilarious new post” a few weeks ago, apropos of another matter, that Picky, that acute observer of the editorial scene, asked: “How hilarious is it?”

That is a good question. The assertion of salience, or quality, is one of the most uncomfortable techniques of newspaper rhetoric that a sub-editor has to negotiate. When you claim it in relation to the work of a third party, as in that case, you come close to confronting the often circular process of news editing (Why are we running this? Because it’s hilarious! Who thinks it’s hilarious? Er, we do!). But the discomfort is at its most acute, or I find it so, when you have to puff up your organisation’s own work.

The code-phrase at the Tribune is “remarkable dispatch”. When the editor wants attention drawn to the quality of one of the offerings, he makes an expansive gesture and says: “And the standfirst needs to be, you know, ‘in this remarkable dispatch, our foreign affairs editor’, etcetera.” We don’t have to use those exact words, but we are on notice that self-promotion will be required.

So we do it, but in an embarrassed, broadsheet way. Redtops, by contrast, although not ones to hide their lights under a bushel, do surprisingly little puffing-up of individual articles, beyond a terse “SUNSPORT EXCLUSIVE” above the byline. The real home of self-certified brilliance is the mid-market tabloid, by which of course I mean (mainly) the Mail. So for those like me who find their innate self-doubt gets in the way when having to write this sort of thing, Derry Street offers a masterclass.

For a start, very few things at the Mail are described as “coruscating”, which will come as a relief to style guide editors everywhere.* (In fact, the phrase “coruscating dispatch” seems to be a googlewhack – that is to say, a search for it on Google only returns one result anywhere on the internet.) Some things are “excoriating” and others “searing”, but fewer than you might expect. There is a scattering of “devastating critiques“, but what there is a lot of – an awful lot of – on Mail Online is “gripping dispatches“:

Perhaps that’s the way to do it: pick a phrase that works and stick with it. But which phrase? Well, why not try the all-in-one, mix-and-match Self-Promotion Phrase Generator, specially tailored for broadsheets? Pair any two and see how you get on, or keep it bookmarked for those occasions when what you’re editing isn’t really a “dispatch” (or – whisper it – all that remarkable).

*The Tribune’s style guide says the following: “Coruscating means sparkling, or emitting flashes of light; people seem to think, wrongly, that it means the same as excoriating, censuring severely, eg ‘a coruscating attack on Clegg’s advisers’.”

Happy Chriftmafs

21 Dec

The Tribune celebrated a birthday recently – not a milestone one, but still a pretty impressive number (it’s quite venerable, the Tribune). To celebrate, we reproduced an advert from its launch in the 1790s, and it’s striking how the stated mission then still resonates today, two centuries later.

Unbiaffed by Prejudice? Yef. Uninfluenced by Party? Abfolutely. Whofe Object is Truth, and the Diffemination of Every Species of Knowledge? How can you doubt it? (20 BEST POTATO RECIPES – FROM SAAG ALOO TO PERFECT CHIPS – FREE INSIDE!) Difpatched from London early on Sunday Morning? Give or take. (“Is there late football? I said is there late football? Well, that gives us at least 20 more minutes, doesn’t it? So we can we look for a better picture? We must have a better picture than this. Ask pics if they’re coming through yet. Look, it’s ‘news’. Some ‘news’ has happened and we’re a ‘newspaper’, so I was thinking we ought to try to get it in…”). Delivered in every Part of Great Britain with the utmoft Expedition? Well, see above. (“Whoever told you 7.20 for first wants shooting. We’ll have nothing for Scotland if you miss the trucks, and they may have to run long on the third at Manchester, in which case it’ll be fourth edition central London only and no slips, I don’t care if Elvis comes back to life, once the plate’s on that’s it, and we’ll have to talk about this on Tuesday because it’s SLIDING and we can’t HAVE IT.”)

Heaven knows what it must have been like trying to produce a national newspaper before there were railways, especially on the sabbath, and with the threat the mail coach might be waylaid by highwaymen just outside Finchley. Launching on 4 December, too – just in time to catch the Christmas advertising rush, although presumably they missed out an issue, as I can’t imagine that, three weeks after the inaugural paper, they published on Christmas Day. (This is one of the many unlooked-for benefits of working for a Sunday newspaper: every seven years, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday and, as all the newsagents are shut, you can have the whole of the previous week off.)

In fact, that’s going to happen next year: now there’s a cheery festive thought. On which note, may the blog take the opportunity to wish everyone an early happy Christmas, a freedom from all alphabetical viral variants and a lot more of what may conduce to the Happinefs of Society in the new year.

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.