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Spruiking to the world

11 Jun

I know English-language news stories suffer from dialect problems when read outside their home country. I know that possibly the only solution for our rapidly globalising anglophone news sites is to “honour the author’s voice”* and hope overseas readers understand. And I know we’ve talked about this before. But strewth:

For those needing footnotes:

spruik (v) Australian archaic, slang to speak in public (used esp of a showman or salesman); to promote or publicise

doco (n) Australian informal short for documentary

And David Speers is a political journalist currently moving from Sky News to the less remunerative Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a move of some significance in Australian media circles since he “is famously paid a motza by Sky” (motza (n) also motsa, motser Australian informal a large sum of money, especially a gambling win).

Of course, this is an example of a piece produced by a global news organisation, in this case the Guardian, locally in Sydney for the local market. It has to be in Australian English or it would sound alien to its target audience. Even if you are outside Australia, however, you may well encounter it: it appears on the Guardian’s aggregator page for commentary, which (like its top 10 list) doesn’t differentiate between countries of origin. And although it may be possible to control who sees such stories using users’ geolocation data, no one yet – not the Mail or the Guardian, and often not the BBC – seems to be trying very hard to make that happen.

So, given that we may be encountering more antipodean English in the future, may I recommend a good reference source for unfamiliar phrases? The Australian National University’s Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms is full of helpful explanations if you should come across googs, nasho, pokies, firies** or somebody “shooting through like a Bondi tram”*** in your morning news report. I’m expecting to find it very helpful. Although you may not get to the point of having tickets on yourself, it should help you look less like a stunned mullet when the next barbecue stopper comes along.****

 

* This approach is followed punctiliously at the Tribune. I recently came across a piece that referred to Madonna’s notorious 1991 tour documentary as Madonna: Truth Or Dare. That was its title in the US, but in Britain and many other countries it was called In Bed With Madonna. I changed it for print, because the newspaper’s market is deemed to be the UK only. But what about the web, which is read globally? After a discussion, it was decided that, even though the film is American and Truth Or Dare is arguably its original title, because the article had been originated by the London culture desk, the author’s voice would prevail and In Bed With Madonna would win. Any article on the same subject written in the US, however, and reaching the same audience, would stick with the American title.

** Googs: eggs. Nasho: national military service. Pokies: slot machines, which in Australia often have a five-reel playing-card format that in effect deals you a poker hand. Firies: firefighters.

*** Departing in a hurry, in the manner of the now-defunct express tram to Bondi Beach, which would run non-stop (or “shoot through”) for part of its journey.

**** Having tickets on yourself: being full of oneself, feeling superior (origin unclear). Looking like a stunned mullet: being visibly disconcerted. Barbecue stopper: breaking news of such interest that it would even interrupt conversation at a barbecue. 

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Nice and accurate

2 Apr

“Completely bizarre Daily Mail article,” writes Neil Gaiman on Twitter, “possibly written by something not human, like an elk.”* And you can see what he means, although a competent elk would probably have made a better job of the first par/second par transition than this:

The article is, indeed, so odd that some people on Gaiman’s timeline wondered if it was written by a something like a bot (there’s only a ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ byline). “Also joining the 48-year-old was co-stars Michael Sheen and David Tennant.” (“Was”?) “Aisha fit right in with the Austin scene in a Rock & Roll T-shirt, blazer, jeans and dancer-like shoes.” (“Dancer-like”?) “The writer opted for a casual look in a black T-shirt and jeans, but attempted to dress up his ensemble with a blazer and dress shoes.” (“Attempted to”? Ouch.)

Then there’s the fact that the article describes the event as a premiere, when it was nothing of the kind: just a panel discussion. Then there’s the fact that it says the book was “co-written by Neil and the late Sir Terry in 1990” (Sir Terry who?) to “poke fun of” the Bible. Then there’s what Gaiman says is his favourite sentence in the piece: “Good Omens is based on a fictional book of the same name.” (Except that the article gives the title as “Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate”, which is longer than the title of the TV series and shorter than the full title of the book, “Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch”).

And yet, when you look at the numerous photographs that accompany the article – in the best Mail tradition, eight of them in an article that barely musters 275 words – you do sense the presence of human intervention. Understandably in the circumstances, somebody has cut and pasted sentences wholesale from the text into the captions and prefaced them with the kind of slightly desperate, added-value kickers (“Plot thickens”, “Men of the hour”) familiar to any sub-editor who has ever had to pull together a picture story based on no information.

At least, I assume no bot yet devised is capable of noticing the non-rhyming alliteration of “Dapper Draper”, knowing where the boundary is between “casual” and “smart”, or creating that air of teeth-gritted conscientiousness as yet another photo of the same two people gets inserted into the end of the piece, requiring yet another caption. But who knows? If the alarming AI text generator GPT2 can imitate a columnist, it can presumably learn to think like a sub-editor. (Although if it has, why didn’t it call them the “O-men of the hour”? I mean, come on!)

*As noticed and passed on by Ten Minutes Past Deadline’s ever-alert Memphis office

The cowboy and the president

5 Mar

Social media is changing journalism fast. Old news can be made fresh when something nearly 50 years old goes viral. Allegations of criminality can be sourced to a single user with a pseudonymous Twitter handle. We are becoming used to the idea that sources may be anonymous even to the journalists citing them. But, even in this complicated age, what are we supposed to make of this?

“An account parodying the late Richard Nixon”? What is the reader supposed to understand from that? Is this tweet meant to be:

  • Written in Nixon’s persona as a satire on the Nixonian worldview? (Although it doesn’t sound particularly like him.)
  • Written in Nixon’s persona, but meant as imagined serious commentary from an acquaintance and contemporary of Wayne’s?
  • Written by whoever is behind the parody account in their own voice, having dropped the presidential mask (which is what it sounds most like)?

In other words, is this tweet intended to say something about Wayne, or something about Nixon? And is anyone at the Mail going to help the reader navigate through the layers of meaning to find out which?

Further down in the same article, another tweet is quoted from “Twitter user” Jonathan Pie.

Jonathan Pie is the alter ego of the British comedian Tom Walker – a fictional, ranting TV news reporter who has become a cult YouTube favourite and has sometimes been mistaken for a real journalist (including, almost, once, at the Tribune). “Twitter user” hardly seems to cover the complexities of that CV. Is the reader absolutely sure who he is? Is the Mail?

Never wrong for long

19 Feb

… sorry, what?

It seems clear what’s happened. Someone at the Daily Mail has been alerted to a developing situation at the ITV studios and burst out of their office shouting “Phil and Holly’s chef hasn’t shown up, so the king and queen of daytime TV are winging it live in the kitchen! GET SOMETHING UP ABOUT IT NOW!” And the breaking news desk, leaping into action, and probably assisted by a further helpful visit from management (“IS THAT UP YET?”), has pulled a story together and got it live on the site. The first take went up at 12.24pm, while that day’s edition of This Morning was still on air, which is good going. The trouble is, it does need a bit of a polish:

An economist?

What’s she going to do, advise them to diversify out of euro-dominated debt and purchase more equity exposure?

But this is the web, not print, and where a hastily published story goes, the revise desk can follow. Nothing’s set in (or on a) stone; everything can be fixed. About an hour later, a repair crew arrives and the opening paragraph is refettled:

The new lede is also followed by a proper nut graf:

and a clearer third par:

But not everything has been fixed, alas, as is frequently the case with publish-now-edit-later stories. “Ensure Holly and Phil incase they hurt themselves” remains extant, although further down the text than before. The economist is still the economist, even though ITV’s official video of the incident shows Schofield immediately correcting himself to say home economist. And the hastily constructed elegant variation – “blonde mother of three”, “golden-haired co-presenter” – looks like it’s now baked into the story for good.

That’s the trouble with “back-revising”, as it is known at the Tribune. In theory, you can go back to polish things up, but there’s never quite time to do it properly, so the first take all too often ends up as the final take. However much attention a published story might need, there’s always something else that hasn’t gone live yet, about which the desk is now shouting just as loudly.

Overexposed

24 Jul

Quick, over to the online picture library to get the news angle on this photo:

An undated handout picture

Right

made available by the press service

Yes

of the civic chamber of the Russian Federation

Right

on chamber’s official website

OK

shows the ‘Right To Bear Weapons’ Public Organisation’s Board Chairman Maria Butina

the … what? Right

attending a rally to demand expansion of citizens’ rights

Right

in a Russian city

Right

In Russia.

Got it.

Maria Butina, 29, was arrested in the United States on suspicion of being engaged in conspiracy against the US and acting as an unregistered Russian agent.

Ah! I thought she looked familiar.

If copy-editors seem impatient for a piece of text to get to the point, there’s a reason. Although all journalists wrestle with the problem of time – the deadline – subs are the only ones who have to confront the problem of space. Everyone understands, of course, that there are only a set number of pages per day, but, from the reporter who’s been told “aim for 900” to the designer who’s been promised “the pictures will look good big”, that awareness is theoretical. It’s only when the reporter has filed 975 words and the designer likes the pictures so much that she’s shaved the length down to 850 that the problem becomes concrete: at which point the copy desk is left to sort it out.

Captions on a single-column picture may only be three or four words long: as short as the shortest headlines. And although all the information – source, provenance, location, copyright – included in a photo agency’s filing is important for the newsroom and needs to be recorded, there’s never space to include it.

Or at least, there isn’t in print. There’s no pressure on space on the web, though, which means some news websites – such as USA Today – can pipe the whole lot through automatically for customers to read every last word. This blog has previously worried about the fact that captions have a shorter route to publication than any other part of a newspaper, but nothing’s quite as direct as this:

You would think that, if you’re going to lead off with the provider of the photo rather than the subject of it, you could skip having to write a full photo credit too. But at least someone took out “in a Russian city in Russia”.

More anon

20 Feb

This blog has always had an eye for an odd correction, and this one certainly seems a bit odd:

As we were discussing last time, social media, and the anonymity it affords, is starting to have a noticeable influence on the tone of traditional journalism. One aspect of this is that news is starting to sound slightly less serious, as substantial stories are sourced from revelations published by Twitter users with silly names. But in another respect, the prevalence of pseudonyms on web platforms – including, in most cases, news organisations’ own sites – means that news is also becoming more profoundly anonymous.

Of course, this is hardly a new concept for journalism: some of the biggest stories ever broken have relied on unidentified informants, from Deep Throat to the person who sold MPs’ expenses data to the Telegraph. But in cases like those, although the reader did not know who the source was, the reporter did: and the organisation always had some opportunity to weigh up its informant’s bona fides. In the old days, anonymous sourcing worked because of an implicit assurance offered by the newspaper: we cannot name this person, but you can trust them because we trust them.

The crucial difference between then and now is that, in the case of an online commenter or social media user, it is not always possible to offer that assurance. Indeed, it is likely in many cases that nobody in the news organisation – not the journalists, and probably not even the website administrator – really knows who they’re dealing with. Typically, to log in to a newspaper website and make a comment, you need only give a name (not necessarily your own), an email address (not necessarily one that identifies you), and a date of birth, which hardly narrows things down. Everything you need to join the debate can be arranged from scratch in five minutes without ever making a personal revelation. This is no vox pop conducted on the street, when a reporter stops you and asks you how to spell your name. In this new, deeper anonymity, whether below the line or on social media, your identity is well protected even from the journalist who is quoting you.

Of course, this article was only the Guardian’s “Comments of the Day” roundup, not a major investigation. And of course, many arguments have been advanced about the benefits of anonymity in online forums – the speech tends to be freer and the focus stays for longer on the ideas, rather than the people propounding them. And of course, it’s not factually correct to say LearningIsLife said something when he or she didn’t. But still, the sense of strangeness doesn’t entirely dissipate.

Sometimes, assigning the wrong quotation to the wrong person does make a big difference to understanding, as in this example:

But the correction of attribution between upwthitimustput and LearningIsLife is something that could only really matter to the contributors, not the readers. The audience can hardly be any the wiser as to the authority of the comment, or more informed about its antecedents, if both the contributors concerned are anonymous. And it’s even slightly difficult to understand what’s in it for the commenters themselves: if you’ve opted for anonymity, what does it matter if someone gets your alias wrong?

Behold the front page

13 Jun

Andrew Marr and guests wrestle with the Sundays. Photograph: BBC

Print sales are falling, digital audiences are booming and social media appears to be deciding the outcome of world events by algorithm, but every Sunday Andrew Marr, Sophy Ridge et al still spend 15 minutes shuffling double-page spreads and holding up torn sheets of newsprint to the camera.

The TV press review, even today, remains a staple of broadcast news, and not just on Sundays. Every evening and again every morning, on at least two television channels (not to mention radio), every newspaper is pored over and filleted by a panel of guests. As news websites have grown in influence, you now sometimes see a digital journalist invited to join in, and an occasional iPad lying among the broadsheets: but not all the time, and never at the expense of any of the print front pages.

Why is that? Is it because legacy media organisations look to other legacy media organisations, and are slow to recognise new trends? Perhaps: that’s certainly what Jim Waterson, BuzzFeed UK’s political editor, believes. Is it because newspapers, untrammelled by the fairness and balance rules that Ofcom enforce on British broadcasters, can say the things, or launch the campaigns, that Sky and the BBC cannot? Yes, partly: but digital news sites are as free to be partisan as Fleet Street. The biggest reason, I think,  for the continued pre-eminence of newspapers in public life is because print front pages have an advantage no other form of media has: rhetoric.

When you are writing headlines for the internet, you have to consider how your article will be disseminated. Newspapers are found in newsagents; to a large extent, digital news stories are found on Google. Only about 30% of readers of web news come through a new organisation’s homepage: all the rest come from search engines or social-media referral. This means that digital news has to show up well on Google, which in turn means that digital news headlines must undergo what’s called “search-engine optimisation” (SEO).

What does that mean? It means that the headline must be written bearing in mind the likely terms a reader might type into Google to find it. Most online readers are not looking on your homepage for the stories they want: they are searching blind, using obvious terms, in a competitive field of news sites who all want their clicks. So, if you have an interview with Barack Obama then somewhere, somehow, the headline has to say BARACK OBAMA. If you’re covering the north London derby, somewhere the headline has to say ARSENAL V TOTTENHAM. If you don’t do that, your piece will come far down on the list of results on Google, and Googlers are not noted for their habit of carefully reading pages of results before clicking.

The disadvantage of this, of course, is that it cramps your headline-writing style. Consider the current upheavals in Westminster. It is still possible to write SEO headlines in the distinctive voice of your organisation:  “I’m sick of the Left claiming that Jeremy Corbyn won the election” (Telegraph); “Queen’s speech is DELAYED as May tears up her manifesto to strike a deal with Ian Paisley’s DUP that will ditch new grammar schools and cuts for pensioners but KEEP the target to cut immigration” (Daily Mail); “It Looks Like No One Has Won The UK General Election. WTF Happens Now?” (BuzzFeed). But compare those digital headlines with what’s been appearing on the front pages in the past few days:

These are the kind of phrases – the kind of rhetoric – that cut through. Some of them are old jokes; some of them are new ones; some of them are idioms that may come to encapsulate the crisis (just as the Telegraph’s headline, “In office, but not in power”, resurrects the most memorable of the many assaults made on John Major by his own colleagues in the 1990s). All of them communicate with brief and shattering frankness. And all of them would be SEO disasters: none of those phrases would lead you to a list of search results about the election, and, conversely, nobody typing in “Theresa May hung parliament” or similar into Google would ever find them. Nonetheless, on display at the supermarket, or on the TV, they deliver an instant punch that a five-deck web headline can’t match.

But of course news websites have front pages – or homepages – too. Not all your readers go there, but the ones that do don’t need help from Google to find you. And because you’re free from SEO constraints, there’s more scope for rhetoric: you could almost treat them as though they were newsprint.

Which is exactly, it seems, what BuzzFeed has started doing:

These headlines are short, zingy, SEO-free and – unlike a search on a blank Google homepage – surrounded by photos and furniture that reinforce their message. Although digital, they’re an example of the old journalism, rather than the new. And they’re just the kind of thing that would look good on an iPad at the paper review.