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Notice of interruption to service

28 Mar

When this blog reached its five-year anniversary in 2018, I wrote a summary of the conclusions it had reached so far, and I vaguely thought at the time that, should it run for another five years, that might be a good time for a pause. Now we’ve reached that point – Ten Minutes Past Deadline is 10 years old this week! – and it does seem to be the moment to take stock.

Looking back at the five-year anniversary post, I discover that the blog still essentially agrees with itself in its attitude to the importance of editing, the complexities of online news as it expands into the anglosphere, and the nuanced importance of the role of formal English. The standard of mathematics in newsrooms has not improved over the past five years, and the corrections columns remain as embarrassing to people in our profession as ever. In fact, this is the problem: the blog has settled, as blogs tend to do, into a series of themes, and for a while now has been incrementally exploring them, rather than breaking new ground. It is, perhaps, getting a little repetitive.

So it’s time for some major mental engineering work: tracks of thought will need to be pulled up, sleepers will need to be replaced and some much-needed intellectual ballast laid down. Ten Minutes Past Deadline is not closing – blogs never really close – but the pace of updates will be slower, and motivated more by new thoughts, when they come along, rather than the rehearsal of old ones. Hopefully the work will result, like the replacement escalators at South Kensington, in a less juddery experience for customers, and hopefully will not take as long as that project seemed to.

And, as was the case five years ago, I remain always grateful for the blog’s readers. The visits, the engagement, the comments and the retweets are what make blogging worthwhile, and the content here has always been greatly enhanced by the contributions of others. I hope that we will be back soon with more. Until then, tickets remain valid via all reasonable routes and we would like to apologise for any inconvenience this may cause to your journey.


Slightly Fawlty

14 Feb

Woe betide the editor who moves the crossword: this is an axiom you will hear repeated in the corridors of power at every British newspaper. Decades ago, the Tribune reprinted the entire leaked text of a speech by Khrushchev denouncing Stalinism; as well as being one of the most highbrow scoops in history, it also took up literally half the paper, displacing ads and other stories left and right. We asked the Tribune’s current editor whether he would consider doing the same today. He responded: “Can you imagine what the readers would say? ‘Where’s the quick crossword?'”

It is also a tense moment if there’s ever a mistake in a crossword clue, and I cringe in sympathy every time one appears in the corrections column. Puzzlers are a vocal and demanding clientele. But when this one appeared last week, I honestly couldn’t work out what was wrong:

Did you get the answer? I did, or I thought I did: the same for both clues. But do you see the reason for the correction? I could only assume it must have been a “tone” thing. Some objection to invoking Mrs Fawlty because of the resonance of Basil’s “yes, dear” disparagements? An unpalatable resonance of 70s sexism as entertainment? But no, it’s more simple and practical than that. It’s because, even though they derive from the same word, Sybil, as in Fawlty or Thorndike, is spelled Sybil, and sibyl, as in female Roman oracle, is spelled sibyl. The problem isn’t political correctness: it’s because spelling 18 across as the name makes it impossible to get 14 down (“Disgusting” (4 letters); answer: “icky”).

Sibyl, then, joins the (I like to think short) list of words I’m not quite sure how to spell. Bill Bryson tells the story that he got his job on the Times subs’ desk in London by correctly betting his interviewer that he was the only one in the building who could confidently spell “Cincinnati”. At one time, I couldn’t spell it either, but I’m there now, after diligent memorisation (one n, two n’s, one t). I can hope to do better in future this time too, if not actually prophesy it.

Also, googling round the subject seems to suggest that puzzle errors are not as rare as one might suppose. In 2006, the high-profile crossword editor of the New York Times, Will Shortz, published a list of all the mistakes that had appeared on his watch to that point (he started in 1993 and is still in the job today). Some of them are simple factual errors, but some of them are just the kind of semi-concealed mistakes that any sub-editor would be proud to spot. These two are my favourites:

Full list here. (I also enjoyed the tubular/cylindrical nit-pick, but that clue about the Uzi would be impossibly vague even if it were correct.)

Bars to understanding

9 Nov

What’s going on with this graph in the Mail?

It says “Tory poll lead falls after standards row”, but it seems to show the Tories pulling well ahead of their hated rivals, the Tories, while Labour loses ground inexorably to the Labour party of last week.

Squinting at the small print, we discover that the lighter coloured bars represent the current polling, and the darker bars the previous week’s results. However, the later figures have been placed to the left of the earlier ones, not the right, in reverse chronological order – a methodology applied equally to all parties, but one which, visually, gives the opposite impression to what’s intended. It looks like a picture of continued blue success and red failure.

Similarly, what does this graph, from March, suggest to you is happening?

The correct answer is that the Tories have moved out to 45% of the vote and Labour has fallen back to 32%. But is that what you initially “see”? The Tories look to be declining and Labour surging. Isn’t it more usual to place the later figures on the right, as the eye tracks naturally from left to right across the page? And don’t the wide gaps between the different parties encourage you to compare their performance against themselves, rather than the opposition? Also, the brighter blue seems to count as a “dark” colour, but the brighter red a “light” one: going just by what’s most eyecatching, don’t you end up comparing 39% with 35% in the first graph and 45% with 36% in the second, neither of which represents the correct gap?

This isn’t some effort to obfuscate unfavourable findings, or try some Lib Dem-style sharp practice with the visuals: the Mail has been angered by the Owen Paterson/sleaze debacle, and first graph appears under this uncompromising headline:

It just seems that they always do them this way. But in the absence of any visible x-axis, readers are naturally going to read it from left to right, because that’s how nearly all x-axes run in every other graph. Why flip it for this?

An exacting and perilous activity

28 Apr

“If reporters are the lifeblood of a newspaper, sub-editors may be said to be the main arteries,” writes W Roy Nash in his book How Newspapers Work (Pergamon, 1964) – by which of course he means that we are vital to a news organisation’s functioning, not that we steadily lose capacity and become hardened in middle age.

His book, which I came across quite by chance in Google Books, forms part of the Commonwealth and International Library, an educational series created by Pergamon (and therefore, yes, Robert Maxwell) in the early 1960s mainly for scientists, with the occasional arts subject thrown in to broaden horizons. And Nash, although a reporter (he was education correspondent for the Daily Mail), writes with sympathy about the “special sort of of craftsman*-cum-technician” sitting back in the office, and the symbiotic relationship between those out on a story and those eyeing the word count.

“For example,” he writes, “an industrial correspondent may be away from his office covering a trade union conference. As a specialist, absorbed in his particular field, he is closely interested in the events of the day and feels they warrant a fairly lengthy report.” Very delicately put. “All over the country, other reporters are doing the same sort of thing, applying their own personal yardsticks to the values of the stories they are writing.

“Back at the office the copy takers pound away at their typewriters as the industrial correspondent and his colleagues dictate their copy over the telephone. Gradually the total of words builds up … thousands upon thousands of words which will, in the course of a morning newspaper’s working night, be sufficient to fill a large-size novel. Clearly a newspaper has space only for a small amount of this gargantuan output, and so much must be discarded and much cut.”

Over to the subs’ desk, where, alas, the industrial correspondent’s work has fallen into the hands of the copy taster, who has passed it to Bill with the instruction: “Knock this down by a third and give it a K2 top across two.” Bill, “armed with a black soft-lead marking pencil”, sets to work with the clock ticking. “All sub-editors work at maximum pressure for each page of a newspaper must be ready for the printing presses at times laid down with all the exactitude of railway timetables – and far more rigidly adhered to.” Er, yes.

And so to the cut itself, “one of the most exacting and perilous of all sub-editorial activities”. Bill “must not transform himself into an editorial butcher, slashing away wildly with his pencil. Only rarely can a story be cut by drawing a line at the end of the first two-thirds of the copy and throwing the rest away.” Ahem. “So he must work his way through the copy with the utmost care, discarding a sentence here, reducing the length of a paragraph there.”

And then, with tremendous magnanimity for a reporter, Nash adds:

Of course, mistakes do occur from time to time as a result of sub-editorial cuts. Some ambiguity in the original copy may mislead the sub-editor or he may himself not appreciate the change of emphasis that will arise from a re-written sentence. He is working against the clock, and cannot sit indefinitely weighing up the pros and cons of his method of contraction. These are the really great hazards of newspaper work, and with the best will in the world they may be reduced to a minimum but they cannot be entirely eliminated. Reporters, correspondents and sub-editors are only human and not infallible machines.

Further on in the chapter, he has interesting things to say about another subject not often written about – the unspoken social contract between readers and journalists about what headlines mean.

Headlines today are an indispensable part of the clothing and style of a major daily. The telegraphic form of a modern headline is now acceptable because readers are accustomed to it and have learned to translate it at a glance … The U.S. show business journal, Variety, holds the record for extremes in telegraphic headlines but is apparently able to rely on the translating skill of its very specialised readership. Its most famous line read: HIX PIX NIX IN STIX. In translation it meant that comedy movies (“pix” for pictures) about rural characters (“hix” for hicks) were no box office attraction (“nix”) “in the sticks” (the rural areas themselves).

And, strikingly for a British book, flying verbs get a mention too:

US daily newspaper readers are now sufficiently schooled in headline-absorbing techniques to suffer no confusion even when nouns are omitted. They automatically supply the missing word for themselves. From the line RAID RICH VICE NEST they correctly infer that it is the police who do the raiding.

I’d never heard of Nash or the book, or seen it recommended. It’s more than 50 years old now, as well, and no one’s using marking pencils any more. But it’s still engaging, still relevant and, it appears, still on sale. I’ve already ordered my copy.


*Or craftswoman, of course. But this was written in the 1960s.

Hands where I can see ’em

26 Nov

I don’t think that’s a gesture, he’s just …

… but his arms are just folded…

… how can you even tell …

… oh , come on.

Ah the joys of websites (in this case the Bulgarian news agency BTA) where picture captions are piped straight through from the agency unedited. And photographers are usually so careful not to commit themselves to report things that can’t be seen.

Fair enough, those do look like gestures.

Chistmas cheer

23 Dec

The official card from everyone’s favourite liberal-left news source, circa 1980. Don’t worry, someone noticed: it never went out. (And even if it had, the night shift would have fixed it for second edition).

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Drop catch

7 Aug

Er … how’s that?

If you’re baffled by the headline, and perhaps reading “take drops” together, as I was, here’s some background. Earlier this summer, in the deciding match of the one-day cricket series between England and India, England captain Joe Root hit the winning runs, scoring a century as he did so, and then performed what appeared to be a rapper’s “mic drop” – the showy discarding of a microphone, with an air of finality, at the end of a show – with his bat.

Then, last week, in the first of the five-day Test matches between the two countries, Kohli ran out Root with a direct hit when Root was unwisely attempting a second run. Kohli then celebrated in a similar manner, only with an imaginary microphone, because he didn’t have a bat.

The TV cameras didn’t really pick it up, but more than one press photographer did, and the picture duly found its way onto several sports sections the next day, including the Guardian’s, with an “ooh, controversy!” angle to the copy, even though the players seemed very happy to play down the whole thing.

But if you’re going to make mic drops the back-page story, you need to be sure that your audience understand what they are. Readers of the culture section might well be familiar with a gesture that was popularised in rap battles and comedy clubs, but this is a headline for followers of the most traditional form of Britain’s most traditional game: the sport whose VIP spectators wait to be given permission to take their blazers off in 95-degree heat. If the first time they encounter a pop-culture term is broken up in the middle of a complicated headline, the learning (and comprehension) curve is going to be almost vertical.

If you do know what a mic drop is, it’s hard enough, because your eye jumps straight to “drops” after “mic” and ignores “take”; at first I thought they had left an entire rogue verb in the headline. It took me about 45 seconds to realise that (I think) you’re supposed to read “mic(k) take”, as in mickey-take. Of course, that would rely on you pronouncing “mic” phonetically and not as “mike”: but no one refers to them as “mick drops”. Moreover,  “drop” has become semantically detached from its noun phrase because it is now functioning both as the main verb of the sentence and as part of another idiom (to “drop <someone> in it”, ie to cause them trouble).

As a commentator might say about a big inswinger that misses all three stumps, this headline is “doing a bit too much”.  If “mic drop” needs quotes round it in your tweet, then it needs to be treated slightly more gently the first time it appears in print. (And let’s not even get into whether, for precisely this sort of reason, the abbreviation should be “mic” or “mike”).


Cut! Print!

24 Dec

The scene: Windsor Castle in the early 1960s, in the grip of a dramatised royal dispute about whether or not Prince Charles should go to chilly, remote Gordonstoun to toughen him up after primary school. At the height of the debate, the Duke of Edinburgh arrives at the castle in his elegant, powerful Lagonda (this isn’t just The Crown glamourising things for its Netflix audience: he really did have one).

Cut to: the aerodrome, where the Duke is going to use his own plane to fly Charles to Scotland (spoiler alert) for his first day at school. Father and son arrive to a media circus on the tarmac, flashbulbs popping, in the elegant, powerful Lagonda:

And then cut to: Gordonstoun, where the gates are swung open to welcome the Duke and Charles as they arrive in … er …  the elegant, powerful Lagonda, which would appear to have been either taken apart into very small pieces and loaded into the back of the plane, or have made the 550-mile journey from London to Scotland faster than the Duke of Edinburgh can fly. Never mind Santa’s sleigh: whichever royal aide caned it up the M1 at that speed needs to be given a job delivering presents.

I’ve always secretly fancied that, as a sub, I might be quite good at film continuity: keeping track of a timeline, checking for inconsistencies, remembering context, organising information: isn’t that what a copy desk does for a living? But in fact, I suspect, a continuity editor’s job is like editing an article by starting in the middle and being forced to read both forwards and backwards, only ever seeing one paragraph at a time, and relying only on your notes to remember which sentence comes after which. Makes deleting “’tis the season” and cutting down the Christmas gift guide to fit on half a page seem very easy by comparison.

So to editors of all types – from those rushing on set to remove a moustache from the male lead’s face to those with an excited political editor talking in one ear and an excited pre-press supervisor in the other – it’s time to say: happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s to another year of checking up on things.