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The front page that never died

3 Sep

What can you tell from these front pages, just by looking? They’re very design-conscious, with that vertical masthead; socially left-leaning, judging from the columnists in the skybox; highbrow, judging by the news stories, in a broadsheet-turned-tabloid way. Oh, and none of them are real.

In March 2016, the Independent’s owners gave up producing a print newspaper altogether and went online-only. But ever since, they have produced a facsimile front page, entirely for distribution online, in the style of their last ever edition. Look closer and you notice that there is no issue number or price in the masthead. In real life, the bylines, captions and body text would be disproportionately big, like a large-print book; but that improves their legibility on screen, which is the only place they will be ever be read.

Whether Independent Print Ltd (still so named) wants to produce something that sums up the day better than any online news format yet can, or whether it just doesn’t want to give up its chance to set the agenda on What The Papers Say, it remains as wedded to its old-media traditions as it can still afford to be. It may have had to give up printing a newspaper, but it hasn’t given up having a front page.

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Fit to print

20 Aug

If I was surprised to see the New York Times’s notorious splash about Trump and the El Paso shootings two weeks ago, it was as nothing to my surprise when I learned that Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, sometimes doesn’t read the front page of his own newspaper (or at least has “gotten casual” about when he does so). He would have been as startled as anyone, then, when he saw the first-edition headline TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM above a story about a presidential speech, just a day after Trump had explicitly linked the issue of gun control to immigration reform in the wake of a racist mass shooting targeting Mexicans.

A tweet by the polling analyst Nate Silver drew the front page to Twitter’s attention, and a furore erupted. Baquet subsequently told the Columbia Journalism Review that, had he seen it, he would have “recognised this was a bad headline even before we got killed on social media”, and he ordered the second edition to be amended. (He honourably deflected blame away from his staff, saying “we tied the poor print hub’s arm behind its back because [the headline count] was too small”. Nonetheless, the new headline, ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS, although far from giving a complete picture, communicated much more scepticism across the same measure.)

But this is not a post about the attitude of the New York Times organisation to its print publication, or about the credulous tone of that original headline. What was also interesting about the whole uproar was that, in the era of online news, so many people seemed to feel that a print front page still mattered.

That story about Trump’s speech began its life, as so many newspaper stories now do, on the internet. According to the Wayback Machine, it first went live, with the apparently unproblematic headline TRUMP CONDEMNS WHITE SUPREMACY BUT DOESN’T PROPOSE GUN LAWS, the previous day, hours before the front page was prepared. The average number of unique visitors to the New York Times website is about 90 million a month, or 3 million per day; the daily print circulation is about 490,000. In other words, these days, the internet version of a story will vastly outstrip the newspaper one in terms of audience size. Newspapers are now also painfully late to the party, repeating much of what has been circulating online and on rolling news the previous day. In the modern news industry, the internet rules for immediacy, reach and relevance.

Why is it, then, that a print front page – surfacing belatedly in the evening and not on sale until the next day – still makes people so angry? (And it did make them angry: the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it as the kind of “cowardice” that aided “white supremacy”; the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke described it as “unbelievable”; and his rival Cory Booker told the paper that “lives depended” on it doing better.)  Of course the headline was wrong – or not so much wrong as disturbingly ingenuous, in an angry and polarised moment. But would a poorly phrased Facebook post or tweet promoting the web story, which might easily reach 490,000 people, have provoked so much outrage?

The reason, I think, is because print front pages still do something that no other forms of news distribution can do: they definitively encapsulate the news that took place on a given day. News site homepages don’t work in days – they are in a state of minute-by-minute flux as news breaks, features go live and editors change their minds about priorities. TV bulletins don’t either: there is one every few hours, each sometimes very different from the other as the news cycle changes throughout the day.

We have previously discussed how print front pages offer the opportunity for the kind of rhetorical flourish that web headlines, constrained by the need to optimise for search, do not. But print has this other role to play as well: to act, in the old-fashioned term, as “the paper of record”. There is no single definitive version of the New York Times’s web homepage for August 5, 2019: but there is a definitive Page 1. And that is what will be referred to by historians and appear in future illustrated news features – not because print is best, but because it is the only format, still, that parcels up news by the day rather than the hour. That’s why it still matters, and why politicians, readers and the Times’s own journalists still fight so hard to put the record straight.

POIGNANT!

30 Apr

Did you see that? It was really POIGNANT! A quiet moment of NUANCE! It’s not all SHOUTING!

As a broadsheet sub-editor, I sometimes yearn to capitalise a word, tabloid style (ideally in red letters, underlined, and set slightly at an angle to the rest of the headline). It’s the most compact way, for example, of indicating an admission has been made after previous denials during a scandal (Disgraced cabinet minister DID make 3am phone call). But in the sober world of the quality press, we can’t: we have to tail off at the end and mumble something like “despite previous claims to contrary”.

If I had capitalisation privileges, though, I’d be more sparing with them than they seem to be at the Express:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is quite a lot of shouting, about almost everything: so much so that it interrupts the rhythm of the sentences and starts producing unexpected effects. It’s hard, for example, to read “we HAD one already” in anything other than a New York accent, and ‘NO’ SIX TIMES had Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling if You Want Me) stuck in my head for hours.

By contrast, the Daily Mail can demonstrate a fine ear for when to add emphasis, and an awareness of stressed and unstressed syllables that might satisfy even Giles Coren.

Even at the Mail, though, standards are slipping. In the headline below, although  “LET” is the word that’s most newsworthy, it’s not where the emphasis falls in the phrase. For musicality, it should really be “… let rivals Aston Villa SCORE”.

And that capitalised “NOT” in the second part of the hed is neither stressed nor necessary. I’d have gone for no emphasis, a dash after “injured” and changed “but” to “and”.

However, as I say, working in what Kelvin Mackenzie calls the “unpopular press”, I never get the chance to make these decisions. The only time anything like this has ever arisen at the Tribune was when our former news editor, who is mixed-race, wrote a piece in the week Obama was first elected with the headline “Now I can be proud of what I really am: black AND white”.

After a discussion, we went with italics rather than capitals. It felt more broadsheet.

Who is this speaking?

7 Jan

This must be a big story, because the Telegraph has forgotten the claim quotes on the splash again:

And this isn’t the first time it’s happened. That was in 2015, when readers suddenly found themselves being addressed with unfamiliar directness on the day of the general election:

In both cases, a startling imperative headline sits above a straight, completely unexceptionable news story. And although the big type appears to come straight from the pulpit, what follows below makes clear that these are – of course! – just third-party opinions: the words of a “former immigration chief” in the first case and a now-former prime minister in the second. The attribution has unaccountably gone missing from the headline, but it’s right there in the standfirst.

It’s just that, in a respectable publication, one might reasonably hope to find attribution in the headline as well. Perhaps you might not want to waste a line on “…PM urges” or “says expert”, but you could always, for instance, put the entire headline in quotes?

Some newspapers don’t like to have quotation marks in headlines. But the Telegraph isn’t notably one of them, and there are some in the story right next to the migration splash. Did the quote marks get left off by mistake? But this has happened twice now, and both times on supposedly nation-in-crisis subjects that resonate strongly with Telegraph readers.

Nor is this explicitly a front-page editorial; it’s more transgressive than that. When you see “The Sun says…” or “Opinion …” as a strap on page 1, you’re forewarned as to the tone of the headline that follows. Without it, you’re not. Reading a splash, you’re expecting facts and fair dealing, and an opinion headline above a news story catches you off guard. As a rhetorical technique, it has the peculiar effect of breaking the journalistic fourth wall: as though the Telegraph were saying “we normally play the game of attribution and balance, but you know how the world works and so do we, and this is serious.”

It only happens for a moment: then the mask of impartiality is replaced in the standfirst. But the shock of having glimpsed the real face of the newspaper, or seen the limits of journalists’ patience with the niceties of their trade, lingers. This is particularly so in the case of the general election: on the same day as that front page appeared, the newspaper emailed every one of its subscribers openly urging them to vote Conservative.

It’s not that the Telegraph has contrived to put a pundit they agree with on the front page: many papers do that. It’s that they appear to have allowed him to write the headline as well. And yes, not everybody likes claim quotes: but strange things start happening when they disappear.

Time-travelling bongs

16 Oct

Ah, the perils of writing ahead:

Picture 188

It’s 18.38 on Thursday 4 October, and PA has just published a short news story about Big Ben. Silenced since the start of the year, the great bell is to be test-sounded by a jury-rigged hammer system, set up so that it may later ring out for Remembrance Day and the new year.

When will this happen? “On Thursday”. What time? “Between 8 and 10pm”. Anything else? Yes, there’s a quote from an MP, “who was in parliament to hear the rare chimes”.

What, at 18.38? What did they do, reverberate back though time?

For some time, when specifying the time element for web news, it has become customary not to say “today”, “yesterday”, “tomorrow” or “last night”, but instead to simply state the day of the week on which an event took place. So an online news story, accessible around the world as it is, will simply say “Thursday” even when it means “today”.*

However, when writing for print, it frequently happens that significant events are due to occur between the copy deadline the previous evening and the appearance of the newspaper the following day. In such cases, what one is supposed to do is write in a cascade of conditionals and future perfects: “It is expected that the vote will have taken place by the early hours of this morning, by which point some senators are likely to have been detained in the capitol for more than 24 hours.” However, it has sometimes been the case that – how to put this? – certain events get anticipated, and written about as though they have already happened, hours ahead of schedule.

At its least harmful, this practice comes in the form of the spurious “last night”; “The Conservative party was in turmoil last night” leading a story filed at five to five in the afternoon. But this example is worse: here, an event that is likely but not certain is written about as though it had definitively occurred some hours before, a throwback to the worst practices of print – made even more conspicuous by the jarring change of tense from the start of the story, which is written, web-style, in anticipation of the moment.

This is the kind of thing sub-editors can head off firmly when they see it; but in this case the whole thing went up live on the Daily Mail’s apparently unedited wire feed, where it can’t have inspired much confidence in journalism among those who read it closely.

 

*This is still slightly confusing for middle-aged journalists: when this same PA copy came through to be used as a brief for print, members of Tribune staff stared at it blankly for almost a minute before realising it would need to be rewritten in the past tense for Friday’s paper

Netflix elliptical

12 Jun

A few words. A glimpse into the heart of conflict. But there’s no space here for specifics.

And that’s the trouble when you’re browsing through Netflix. The way the screen is laid out, there’s only the briefest space to grab your attention when you happen across an interesting film/TV series/documentary. In about 20 words, it’s got to try to engage you, so the summaries are strong on emotion: anger, vengeance, honour, fear, justice, family, love. But they do tend to be a bit vague.

You notice this particularly if you read them shorn of their accompanying title and image. Take this one, for example

It’s so non-specific as to be almost featureless. Could it be The Tempest? Yes. The Count of Monte Cristo? Easily. (In fact, it’s Deadpool.) Similarly, this description of tough action thriller Close Range

could serve quite well as a plot summary for The Code of the Woosters.

If you’re a journalist who has to get your headline through an audience team before it can go up on the web, you see immediately what’s missing here: keywords. What the homepage links need is some SEO. And that’s what they get, eventually, on the more detailed summary page you get if you follow the link. So, none the wiser as to what Close Range might be about, but eager to find out, you click to discover a second sentence, only slightly longer, containing everything to put you in the picture:

Ex-soldier/kidnapped niece/crooked sheriff/drug cartel. Got it. And that’s only 24 words (admittedly with two compounds) compared to the first summary’s 19.

Similarly, this

becomes a lot clearer when some detail is added,

not least the key information that it’s a kidnapping/imprisonment drama set in Thailand.

The more you look, the more you start to think that journalism skills are slightly more transferable to other spheres than is often  believed. It wouldn’t be difficult, for a sub trained to spot a news angle and move it to the top of the article, to fix these. I wonder if Netflix would ever employ any editors? Facebook does, sort of, although not for this.

A man with a remote. The glimmer of an idea. This time, anything could happen.

The 18th type of headline

29 May

One edition of the New York Post, two page leads that give pause for thought for anyone who, a week earlier, might have ambitiously been attempting to compile a taxonomy of headlines:

The back-page headline is of a recognisable type: the question is, which type? The Post is understandably jubilant about the Mets’ series triumph over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that doesn’t fully explain what it means by SWEEP SNAKES. As the team that lost all three games on their visit to New York, it wasn’t the Snakes that were doing the sweeping, as the headline implies: the Snakes were the ones being swept.

So this could be one of two things. It could just be another unparseable tabloid pun (headline type 12): aspects of the story jammed together to create a homophonous phrase without too much attention paid to syntax. But the presence of a verb and an object along with the obvious absence of the subject, especially in an American publication, also entices one to think that it might be a flying verb (headline type 14): that the intended sentence is in fact METS SWEEP SNAKES.

In the UK, the Sun also comes up with headlines very like this – ones that make more grammatical sense if you assume the subject is implied – but there’s no tradition of flying-verb constructions in Britain and the assumption in those cases has to be just that sense has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the joke.

That would certainly seem to be the case on the Post’s front page headline too, at least for the part in big type: there is not much actual grammatical sense to be found in the phrase WEED MY LIPS. But the preamble above, “De Blasio to NYPD”, recalls a famous American headline from days gone by, still regularly reproduced today, that is harder to categorise:

The original appeared in New York in 1975, when President Ford made a speech declining to approve federal assistance to the near-bankrupt city authorities, to the fury of the Daily News. As the New York Times remembers, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD was originally notorious for its perceived lack of fairness – was it really accurate to summarise the president’s words in such a belligerent way? Ford himself blamed it for his losing New York, and by extension the presidency, to Jimmy Carter in the following year’s election, even though by that stage he had relented and loaned the city money. But as a form, its rhetorical efficiency is so obvious that it has outlived its controversial origins and become a reliable construction in its own right.

It’s not quite a voice-of-the-author (headline type 5) because it attempts to speak in the voice of the protagonist, rather than the writer. And it’s not quite an annotated quote (headline type 4) because the intent is clearly to editorialise the message rather than simply reproduce it. It therefore qualifies, I think, as an 18th type of headline, and the list will be updated accordingly. (A scant two weeks after being published. Still, I did say it was hubristic).