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Joining us in the studio …

15 Feb

It’s strange when the BBC does it, and now that ITV seems to be doing it too, it’s equally strange:

Like the BBC’s, the articles on the ITV News website are unbylined, and, like the BBC’s, ITV’s correspondents are sometimes quoted in them almost as though they were a source – an outside expert whose views have been sought – rather than a colleague of the person writing the article.

The rhetorical effect of this can be peculiar and, when it first came to the blog’s notice six years ago, it was hard to work out why it was happening. Such is the BBC’s mania for impartiality, the quoting of its own employees in the third person made it seem as though it wanted to be distanced from them, as it might from a contentious politician. A disclaimer like the one that accompanies links to Twitter – “the BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites” – seemed to hover over the quoted correspondents too.

For instance, in 2015, the anonymous author of a BBC article about a lawsuit by Rihanna wrote:

“The BBC’s legal correspondent Clive Coleman said this was the first reported English case of a celebrity claimant successfully relying on passing off to claim compensation for the unauthorised use of their personal image.”

Right: but was it or wasn’t it the first? Is there some doubt about this assertion? If one’s own legal correspondent says so, shouldn’t that be enough to report it ex cathedra? Passages like these have the effect of turning the spotlight away from the brand-name reporter and on to the mysterious online author. If Coleman is not entirely to be trusted, as this distancing suggests, who is actually speaking for the BBC? Is it the person writing the article?

However, in the ITV piece, the effect is slightly different. When this author says:

“Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana, who has spoken to sources in Whitehall, has the following explanation of what is happening with Ms Gray’s report”

the tone is not cautionary or distancing, but something rather more familiar: it’s introductory, the sound of one person handing over to another. In other words, it’s the sound of TV news.

The whole format of television current affairs is predicated on journalists asking other journalists what’s going on. “Alex is one of the few reporters still in Kandahar, and she joins us on on the line now. Alex, what can you tell us?” This, perhaps, is why this phenomenon is common on broadcasters’ news sites, but never seen elsewhere.

Newspaper hacks have their byline at the top of their work, but TV news correspondents have always needed someone else to introduce them. So the voice of the unbylined author that can seem so baffling to newspaper readers may not be the incorporeal conscience of the BBC: perhaps it’s just the voice of a facilitator in the middle, or a ringmaster introducing the acts. Perhaps It’s really the voice of a newsreader, but translated from the studio to the page?

In this remarkable dispatch

4 Jan

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

1. CHOOSE ADJECTIVE2. ADD NOUN
exhilaratingexposé
causticmemoir
rollickingrevelation
plangentessay
dazzlingattack
excoriatingcritique
luminoustour d’horizon
devastatingdispatch
grippingaccount
hilariousriposte
pulsatingsurvey
Hogarthianrebuttal
revelatoryconspectus
sparkling
fiercely intelligent
vivid
shattering
remarkable
frank

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’.”

The limits of SEO

20 Jul

Do you remember Mohammed Emwazi? Maybe it doesn’t ring a bell. Do you remember “Jihadi John”, though? Emwazi, it seems, was much better known by his Isis sobriquet than his real name: a basic analysis on Google reveals 103,000 hits for the latter versus 403,000 for the former.

But we didn’t call him that at the Tribune. The foreign desk asked us not to. Perhaps a mention somewhere in the copy to clarify that Emwazi was indeed known by that nickname, but never in the headline or at the top of the story. The desk didn’t want to “trivialise a serious situation”, or add tabloid pizzazz to the torture and beheading of hostages. So we didn’t. We’d have got more clicks if we had, but we stopped.

The same applies to the “QAnon Shaman”, the “Yorkshire Ripper” and several others. “It means we sometimes take a hit on search,” the web production editor writes, “but we do it so as not to make light of the individuals and their motives/actions”.

A few weeks ago on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, a member revealed that his publication asks subs to allow “mens”, no apostrophe, in certain circumstances for search engine optimisation, because Google fails to return as many results if you type it correctly as “men’s”. There was consternation, as you might expect, and some doubt as to whether it was in fact necessary, but it illustrated the kind of discussion that we normally have about SEO. Who’s top of the search results? How can we get more traffic? Are we doing the right thing? It’s much rarer, but perhaps more revealing about your organisation, to consider the things you won’t say even when Google wants you to.

With us, the reasons vary. Our coverage of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses scandal is probably being hampered by our disinclination to say “subpostmasters” or “subpostmistresses”; we won’t use one without the other for reasons of inclusivity, but using both makes headlines unfeasibly long. We are going with “post office operators”, which is probably not what people are typing into their search engines. We insist on “register office” – the correct term – not “registry office”, even though Google Ngrams suggests that the latter has almost always been more popular than the former (and produces significantly more hits in search). And we say Brexiter, not Brexiteer – despite a two-to-one swing against it on Google – simply out of a determination, as strong today as ever, “not to make them sound like jolly pirates”.

‘I’ve got a great idea …’

6 Jul

…let’s do a mock-up of Harry Kane as Michael Caine for the front page! The Euro 2020 quarter-final’s in Rome, so it’s “The Italian Job”, get it? (OK, so The Italian Job was set in Turin, but close enough.)

However, there are deep undercurrents of British popular culture swirling here. Ostensibly, the visual references are indeed to the evergreen heist film – there are the England flags, the patriotic Minis and so on. But the “Harry” of Kane’s name, as well as his lugubrious expression and black-framed glasses, point to a character in a different film altogether – the laconic spy Harry Palmer in one of Caine’s early breakthroughs, The Ipcress File. Charlie Croker, the cheery criminal he plays in The Italian Job, hardly wears glasses at all. And the instantly familiar phrase on which the headline is based – “My name … is Michael Caine” – doesn’t come from a film at all, but from a song. It was a hit for Madness in 1984, with a voiceover by the great man himself, and a video that, again, draws on an Ipcress-ish aesthetic.

All of this probably got processed completely subconsciously by readers: you have to stop yourself to notice that you’re looking at a portmanteau joke comprising two cinematic genres and a pop lyric. And it also happens too quickly for you to remember that The Italian Job ends with the plucky Brits teetering on the brink of disaster and the prize slipping out of their reach. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen on Saturday.

Ever the optimist

30 Mar

It could have been worse. Your giant container ship may have got humiliatingly jammed across the Suez canal, displaying your company name in huge letters to the world as it wrecks global trade, but at least it’s got a nice name. Ever Given. Whoever it was at Evergreen Marine Corp who decided on that poetic prefix – many of the company’s ships are called the Ever Something – may have done their employer a bit of a favour.

Ever given, never withheld. It’s enigmatic enough to work as the name of a deserted starship in an epic videogame; its hint at romantic surrender also makes it a possibility for Mills & Boon. It has the same non-specific but appealing aesthetic as the title of the film The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That bears almost no literal relevance to the thriller it belongs to, but it works superbly nonetheless – as it would for almost anything, from a romantic comedy to a baffling 90s arthouse pic in which nothing happens.

Evergreen’s naming policy has produced other winners too. Ever Lambent is a phrase Keats might have written. The Ever Gentle sounds immediately disarming. The resonance of “always” or “forever” is vague, but intriguing. Many people are predisposed to like the sea anyway; just as Nato reporting names add excitement to a military aviation story, you do wonder if a good ship name helps, just a little, to take the edge off negative coverage when something goes wrong.

Is that fanciful? Well, consider what might have happened if Prince Jefri of Brunei had got into difficulties in his custom-built superyacht, the Tits, or how Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions foundered after a dalliance with a woman on the good ship Monkey Business. And perhaps Evergreen itself has also dodged a bullet: it’s easy to imagine the po-faced excoriations of multilateralism that would have ensued if this had happened to the Ever Liberal. And think how unbearable Twitter might have been if the vessel that had got wedged in the entrance to a narrow passage had been the Ever Uranus.

Photograph: kees torn via Wikipedia

East-west relations

16 Mar

On the Tube a few months ago, I saw this:

I was familiar with the poem, an ecological updating of Brecht’s Alles Wandelt Sich, but I had only ever seen it printed in book format, with one verse below the other. When you read it like that, understanding comes slowly: you only grasp the parallelism of the construction bit by bit as you progress down the page. But here, your eye is tracking from left to right naturally: as it overruns slightly at the end of the line, it can’t help but glimpse what is to come. As you see in your peripheral vision the same words as you’ve just read, you start to understand what’s going to happen before it happens, and the genius of Brecht’s original conception becomes clear sooner: all the same phrases, but arranged in two different orders to create two contrasting emotions.

And that same design strategy – of using the eye’s movement from east to west as well as from north to south – is one of the few remaining areas where print holds an advantage over digital. The problem with web news articles, as my boss the production editor is fond of saying, is that once you’ve clicked through to them from the homepage, they all look the same: the most explosive splash and the most routine weather story are identically formatted, with the same size of headline, same size of standfirst, same shape of picture at the top and same livery colours (unless you’re really pushing the boat out for a campaign, in which case the last of these might change).

More importantly, the experience of reading them is an isolated and purely vertical one – once you have left the homepage, you are simply scrolling down through a column of text, with nothing to catch the eye on either side: no larger headline to the left, no smaller text box to the right to draw you across or place what you’re reading in the context of other developments.

And even the homepage itself – cluttered as it is with dozens of unrelated stories – can’t hope to achieve the same depth of visual rhetoric as a good double-page spread can. Take this example from the New York Times’s travel section:

The front page hints at what is to come, by starting two separate stories in adjacent columns and turning them both to the spread, but it is the side-by-side display of the spread itself, as with Herbert’s poem, that really tells the story. The photos may vary but the layouts are, essentially, identical: same size main picture, identically formatted smaller picture grouping, headlines that mirror each other. As you look from left to right, the message seems clear before you’ve read a word of the text – that Vegas on $1,000 a day and Vegas on $250 a day are different, but also essentially the same.

At the Tribune, where the sub-editor formats articles for web as well as print, I would have no idea how to reproduce that effect for the online reader – they would either have to be two individual stories, separate from each other as web articles always are, or attached to each other in a fundamentally vertical way, with the second story following the first. It would take a special web design project to get them to sit side by side like this, and even an interactive presentation of some kind would still encounter the problem that faces all online publishing: that the space north to south is infinite, but the space east to west is severely constrained by the size of the reader’s screen.

The east-west effect is so powerful, in fact, that it can operate even when the designer doesn’t want it to, and lead to unintended consequences, like this:

As @jcodfishpie, who tweeted the clipping out almost 10 years ago, observes, Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself.

That hint of print

24 Nov

“Sometimes,” says Andrew Marr, halfway through the Sunday paper review, “the best front pages are the ones online.” And he turns to an image of the tabloid Independent.

But of course, as we have previously discussed, the modern Independent front page is a curious thing. It is online, in the sense that it only exists virtually: the paper stopped printing in 2016. But in appearance, concept and execution, it relies on the language of print. It exists almost exclusively to be included in “what the papers say” roundups, where the visual rhetoric of the front page still has greater impact than a web article called up on an iPad. It is not a native digital format: the Independent’s true front page these days is its homepage, which looks very similar to other digital news fronts, and suffers from the same problem of being updated too often and too quickly to ever serve as a snapshot of a calendar day.

Another curious thing about it is that it still looks the same as it did when the paper stopped printing in 2016 – still with a visually dramatic single story next to the distinctive vertical masthead. In fact, that look dates all the way back to 2013; since that time, for instance, the Financial Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all been redesigned. Will the Independent’s digital front page ever be redesigned as well? Or will it have to stay as it is, fossilised by the necessity of reminding viewers of the time when it was a newspaper too?

Don’t touch that tweet

27 Oct

Can you name the president who transmitted this communique (lightly edited for tone and redundancy)?

Never threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few have suffered. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious.

That’s right, of course: it was President Trump. Only he didn’t write it like that. He wrote it like this, on Twitter:

And the fact that he wrote it like that – shouting, emphatic, out of control – is as significant as the words themselves. If you were to intervene as above, by taking it out of caps (and tidying up the pleonasm), you would be editing back in a presidential register that the president either fails to understand or has chosen to abandon.

On social media, and on Twitter particularly, orthography tells a story and contains a subtext. It’s not just an anarchy in which the rules of formal English have lapsed: it’s that a different set of rules has partly supplanted them. That’s why – tempting though it is for older editors – you should never edit tweets.

Even we veterans can spot uppercase as signalling a register of speech: as Wired magazine says in an article about Trump’s tweet, it pre-dates the internet, and was one of the few typographical tools at hand in the earliest online chatgroups:

Philip Seargeant, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, says that the shouty all-caps convention really came into its own around the 80s and 90s, on early internet forums such as Usenet groups and bulletin boards. “The different ways of emphasising things were limited,” he explains. “Nowadays, we’ve got bold, italics, emoji, all sorts of things – in those days you had no opportunity for that.” You could put things in asterisks, space letters out to show you were being very deliberate in your speech, or use all-caps.

But what about its orthographical opposite – a tweet entirely in lowercase? In fact, that too carries a clear signal for the online-literate. On Twitter a couple of months ago, the videogames journalist Lucy O’Brien asked:

And the answers poured in, including this one from the Audible executive Maz Hamilton (citing mIRC, another internet chat system from the old days):

So the tone that’s being struck in all-lowercase is casual, often droll – the small voice at the back of the room – and not at all serious.

The millennial writer and humorist Joel Golby almost never uses capitals on Twitter, because almost all his tweets are ironic. For example, the absence of orthographical formality and the run-on sentence in this tweet

leads you to conclude – correctly – that he isn’t actually angry or ranting over the phone to the commissioning desk. But if you edit it into formal English, suddenly all the irony evaporates:

I went to the pub and it actually shut at 10pm. Column coming tomorrow: this is absolutely unacceptable.

Now it’s a notice of intent from a clarion of liberty at the Express.

Tweets look glaringly informal and unedited in formal, edited news writing. But that informality is often deliberate and coded, and created for a world in which formality is the exception, not the rule. (In fact, formality on social media can be so rare as to seem pointed: this is at the core of the neverending to-do about young people being offended by full stops). It may look awful (and that’s before we even consider the typos), but it was probably meant that way. Don’t edit it.

Stunning figure (of speech)

15 Sep

New on the Sidebar of Shame, amid the barely-there beachwear, implied-object verbs and discontinuous transitions: zeugma!

And while J-Lo is “teasing her hair and new music”, Lewis Burton almost gets there by “brazenly flaunting his second holiday”, although for the true effect, of course, he would need to have been brazenly flaunting his manly physique and second holiday.

But it’s early days, and  there’s every reason to think Mail Online will master this new classical figure of speech  – after all, look at its command of hyperbole and euphemism. So what’s next? Naomi Campbell covering her face and Vogue Australia? Kim Kardashian pouring herself into a swimsuit and her work?

Sous rapture

26 May

“Since the word is inaccurate it is struck through,” Heidegger wrote, “Since it is necessary, it remains visible.” And so was born the concept of sous rature (literally, “under erasure”) – the simultaneous printing and crossing-out of a word on the page to show that, while you have no alternative but to use it, it does not fully mean what you need it to mean.

The word Heidegger wrote and struck through was “Being”. The Deconstructionists loved the whole idea, of course, and merrily struck through many more on their way to discovering, over and over again, that the signifier was not the signified and the author was dead.  Now it looks like sous rature has broken out and is going to make some serious money at last, because it’s found its way into the self-help publishing market.

Except that – and this is the annoyingly vigilant editorial conscience at work again – if you state something is not a diet book, and then you cross that out … doesn’t that mean that it is a diet book? Or is the language of deconstruction – like the English language itself – capable of supporting more than one negative in a clause?