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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.

Worth a thousand words

18 Apr

You can almost see the brushstrokes:

When you’re adding a picture to a news story for the web, of course you have to write a caption. But you will also be asked to create some “alt text” – a brief, embedded description of the photograph that is invisible under normal circumstances, but may appear if you hover your pointer over it in the browser. By far alt text’s most useful function is that it can be read out loud by a screen reader – a piece of software that translates a web page into the spoken word for visually impaired computer users.

That means, of course, that you probably can’t just cut and paste the caption you’ve just written: this is no place for snark or commentary. If the photo is of the Alabama lacrosse team celebrating after breaking an 0-for-7 start, your caption may say “Tide: off the schneid”, but the alt text needs to say “Alabama lacrosse team players celebrating”.

And if that’s true for photographs, it’s equally true for cartoons. What’s being portrayed may be a little more, er, unusual, but that doesn’t alter the nature of the task: you still have to provide a faithful verbal description of what the illustration shows. Have confidence, and the muscular metaphors of the political cartoonist will come to life in the mind’s eye almost as surely as if they were looking at the original watercolour.

You could practically display them in a gallery:

 

Five headlines that mean you might be working for a broadsheet and not BuzzFeed

13 Oct

Number four made me lol!

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OK, maybe “lol” is an overstatement. And that’s the trouble: BuzzFeed has hired a lot of ex-broadsheet reporters to make a determined run at hard news, and putting a “serious” feed alongside the usual gif-heavy listicles seems to be working. This could be a problem we in the old media need to respond to. I’m just not sure we’ve got the, er, range of material at the moment.

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Of all the innovations that new media is credited with making, what BuzzFeed is doing now might be the most fundamental. For as long as there have been newspapers, there have been tabloids and broadsheets. But I’m not aware of any media outlet that has tried being a broadsheet and a tabloid at the same time, and most certainly not on the same page.

This goes far beyond the “funnies” in American newspapers or the “and finally … ” items on TV news, carefully left to the end of the run. This is side-by-side gravity and irreverence at the top of the homepage. And it might be a transitional phase, but it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed as just another straight news source with none of its trademark “buzz”; it’s very possible that this is the final concept. In which case, I’m not sure we old-media types have anything to counter it with, unless the non-farm labour statistics are particularly upbeat over the next few months.

Newspapers have followed new media onto the web, into the blogosphere and across Facebook and Twitter, and done very well at it. But this looks like one path that we can’t go down at all.

The anglophone hotline

14 Sep

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Up at the top of the Guardian’s US website last week, everything seemed normal. There was the 9/11 anniversary, James Clapper, the shootings in Colorado, a police killing in LA, the Republican race; and foreign news from Syria, Hungary and Japan. Oh, and one item of British news too. But not about the British prime minister; nor even about the leader of the opposition, little though that person is generally known in the States: about a politician who at that point had never held any kind of frontbench job, or even won the election he was standing in. Corbynmania hasn’t just come to Britain: it’s cracked America too.

Why might this have happened? A look further down the US homepage, at the “most popular” listings, gives us a bit of a clue.

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The Guardian’s national homepages, for Britain, Australia and the US, are carefully editionalised, but the top ten most popular rankings, as we have discovered before, remain global lists, blindly counting all the clicks with no distinction made as to where they came from. So while Guardian US readers scanning the top stories get a familiar choice of topics, those wanting to find out what’s hot on the site today are presented with very different choices: Labour; Labour; American TV; Labour; European refugees; Labour; football; cricket; a UK reality show; and an acutely British scandal about two barristers having a row.

American readers might find, at best, three out of 10 of those stories familiar. But the priorities of Guardian readers as a whole are obvious from the list, even if you don’t recognise any of the names: Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership election are hot. The US website is an American publication, certainly, but a Guardian publication too: a balance needs to be struck between local stories and “Guardian stories”. So Jeremy makes the front page, with a concise explanation in the headline of where’s he’s from and why he’s news.

You might think this was a simple case of a British newspaper unavoidably exporting British news values as it expands overseas – of a one-way cultural transfer. But there seems to be something more going on than that, because look what was top of the American site this morning:

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Tony Abbott, the suddenly-now-deposed Australian prime minister, has made it to America too, and not just as a piece of “other news”. He’s the US splash – a splash about a man who runs a country of 23 million people, 10,000 miles away.

This isn’t just a British news organisation bringing British news to America: this is a British news organisation bringing Australian news to America. This is a cross-fertilisation of agendas that goes far beyond London Calling or the BBC World Service. Tony Abbott’s name is in lights on all three Guardian websites. He’s become the lead story on Anglosphere News.

Yes, managers, editors, and news brains – as they travel from country to country, setting up newsrooms, recruiting staff, instilling culture – bring their home sensibility to their new nation’s reporting. They do change the news. But, at the same time, the news changes them. Once you have experienced firsthand the excitement of an Australian “leadership spill”  – a political party’s out-of-the-blue uprising against its own leader or prime minister – it stays with you. Then, when you have moved on to your next country, and you hear of another one, your news sense – broadened by travel, fine-tuned by personal experience – is awakened again. You pollinate your new office with the excitement you remember from your old one. The insularity that would once have stopped you running the story has gone: only the journalist’s enthusiasm remains. Within six hours of the story of the spill breaking, Tony Abbott was out and Malcolm Turnbull was in: a national leader democratically challenged and toppled in 350 minutes from start to finish. How can that not be news?

As I write, the live blog on Abbott’s downfall is up to second place on the Guardian’s global popularity list, but Australia has been wide awake and clicking all day. How did it play overnight in Dallas-Fort Worth? We can’t tell. But it’s early in the US. Heat maps on news websites show that people visiting a newspaper’s homepage click on the lead article more than anything else on the site; if we think it’s news, it seems, loyal readers are prepared to take a look at it. And some stories really do deserve a wider audience.

The web is where the work is

17 Aug

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John McIntyre writes:

Today, I have to tell you, working as a print-only copy editor is not a job with a future. A tremendous amount of content goes online, and it must be produced, formatted, and, yes, edited. If you can’t or won’t master these skills, the paper will find someone who will. This situation is exactly parallel to the introduction of editing for print on computers thirty years ago.

He’s right. There is concern in some places that the function of the website – hitherto, perhaps, an adjunct to an established newspaper – is starting to encroach on the production of the main event: printed pages. That’s certainly what’s happened here at the Tribune. Where once the uploaders meekly fished into a pool of print stories and put a few of them on a website as an experiment, now the whole day is arranged for the production of rolling live news online, and the print newsdesk is the one unobtrusively harvesting stories for the paper that have already been published for hours.

That sounds depressing: but it isn’t. In fact, it’s good news. The success of internet news is far from the worst thing that could have happened to copy editors.

Twelve years ago, before it was clear that newspaper websites were going to work, news publishers’ proposals for survival revolved around taking costs out of the print operation. There was a distinct prospect – which has become a grim reality in many places – of print subs being bypassed altogether for a model in which reporters typed straight onto pages drawn up by designers, and either wrote their own headlines or wrote headlines for each other. Redundancy has beckoned for thousands of subs, particularly in the US and the British local press.

Now, the economics of newspapering are far from being solved, and the gaps in some balance sheets are as bad as they ever were. But the spectacular audience success of news websites has presented some copy-desk managers with an even more pressing problem: suddenly, there’s just so much work to do.

Why? On a typical print paper, a designer takes care of the pictures, worries about where the adverts sit in relation to the editorial, and talks to the graphics desk, while the sub just takes care of the text. The visual work and the textual work are divided. But on the web, there is no designer for the article – or, to look at it another way, the webpage – that you are working on. Yes, the basic web layout will be a template: but you, the copy sub, are now the one flicking through the photo library, navigating round the downpage pop-up ads and wrestling with the embed codes for the bar chart, before you ever get to the headline and the text. On the web, you are the editor, the picture editor and the designer.

This transfer of emphasis from print to web has had another consequence too. When the paper was the flagship, all the management attention and agonising – over photoshoots, headlines, word counts, look and feel – was directed to the print pages. This was the period when the web was seen as being cheap and easy, quick and dirty – a headline, some text and maybe a pic semi-automatically ported into cyberspace. But now, as the website itself becomes the calling card of a news organisation, that attention is getting focused online. We have started to see the emergence of elaborate internet-only showpieces like the New York Times’s “Snowfall” or the Guardian’s “Carbon Bombs” – productions as intricate and labour-intensive as the most impressive double-page graphic. The management at the Tribune has now explicitly asked for more production time to be taken over web stories, to furnish them with extra pictures and other display items.

What does that mean? As an experiment, below is a representative sample of articles, ranked in length order, from my last two news shifts on the Sunday edition of the paper. I timed how long it took me to edit them for print, then stopped the clock and restarted it to find out how much extra time was needed to prepare the same article for the web.

The old production system at the Tribune, which we still use for the Sunday edition, is ideally suited for this experiment, because it’s an integrated print-and-web system that prepares articles for both formats. (Production on the daily edition, by contrast, has now split onto two entirely separate platforms.) Working on a Sunday article naturally breaks itself into a two-stage, print-then-web process. You edit, cut the copy and write the furniture just as you would for a print-only paper, with the only proviso that any copy sacrificed for fit but otherwise decent is put into ‘web-only’ mode, cutting it from the paper but not from the internet.

Then, after you’ve finished the article for print, you

  1. Create a separate suite of web furniture (headline, standfirst, trail etc) based on your print furniture, rewritten as necessary to improve search-engine optimisation.
  2. Add a picture to the web article from the electronic photo library and write an Google-friendly caption.
  3. Find and embed further pictures in the body of the text (about one every 600 words or so) to break up long articles.
  4. Create a URL slug (the part of the web address that comes after the main site name, thus: http://www.thetribune.com/this-bit-is-the-slug), based on your headline.
  5. Add reference tags (usually seven or eight, selected from a large database) to the article so that it can be indexed by author, subject-matter and section on the website.
  6. Preview the webpage for appearance, and check your new furniture for widows and orphans (sometimes it takes two or three attempts to get it looking neat).
  7. Clear your search-engine optimisation efforts with the audience team, who will advise on what popular terms ought to be appearing in the headline.
  8. Launch the article.

Here’s what I found:

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The lengths of time spent print subbing vary as much as you might expect: from an hour and a half for a 1,400-word double-page spread with all the trimmings down to less than 10 minutes for a single-stick news story with a one-column headline.  But the time taken to web an article after subbing it varies much less: from half an hour for the big piece (most of it spent on picture research for the additional photos) down to 12 minute for the short story. There’s an irreducible minimum of work needed to get an article online, no matter how insignificant it is: you have to follow at least seven of the eight steps listed above every single time. In fact, as the table shows, at below the 500-word mark, the time needed to web an article starts to exceed the time needed to edit it traditionally. In other words, short news stories now take more than twice as long to prepare as they used to.

The editor-free, reporters-typing-onto-pages model, if it was ever going to work, might have worked in an impecunious non-digital era where to fill two text boxes was to finish the job. But that’s not how it is on the web. The web needs work: work that is too time-consuming and technical for a reporter to do. And that’s why copy desks that embrace the internet may actually be good news: because in cyberspace there’s more work to do, not less.

Lines below the line

2 Jun

They always tell journalists never read to read the comments, but sometimes it’s worth it. In between all the routine messages that get posted under news articles on the web – the rude, the facetious, the rambling, the diatribe on a different subject posted to the wrong piece by mistake – occasionally you find something fascinating.

Like this. It’s posted in the comments of a fine poem on climate change, “Doggerland”, written in the Guardian by Jo Bell. It’s from the author herself, and it’s not really a comment at all: in fact, apparently as the result of an oversight, it’s a very slightly different version of the same poem.

The published poem itself reads as follows:

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Bell’s message, posted quite soon after publication, is sent simply to address a technical problem. “Thanks for publishing my poem but the line breaks are wrong – it should look like this. Perhaps it does in print!”, she writes, and posts the poem again underneath as a guide.

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A Guardian editor responds quickly: “Sorry about that Jo. It’s been restored to the correct format now.” But neither of them appears to have noticed that the poem that Bell reposted was not quite the same one.

The first two verses are identical. But whereas the third verse in the published version begins:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading uplands sixty fathoms back; saw nettled deer tracks
pooling, inch by sodden inch, into a whaler’s channel

Bell’s posted version reads:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading high ground sixty fathoms down. He sickened for
the nettled deer track, brimmed into a whaler’s channel

They make for an interesting comparison. It seems a good choice to leave out ‘sickened’ in the published version. It’s an emotional word that tips the hand of the poem too early: the published version saves the surprise of Pilgrim’s conversion to the last verse. ‘Pooling, inch by inch’ is a good addition, providing a sense of the geological slowness of the sea’s rise, the sense that ‘time is water’. On the other hand, ‘sixty fathoms down’ in the posted version is much easier to understand that ‘sixty fathoms back’, which is an odd adverb to use for a measure of depth.

There are changes in the next verse too. The published version reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shift and shiver; saw the caverns filled, the railways rivered
and the Pennine mackerel flashing through lead mines

Whereas the one posted in the comments reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shiver; saw the caverns full and railways rivered
Pennine mackerel flashing through the lead mines

Here the rhythm of the posted version emphasises the internal rhyme, shiver/rivered, better than in the published one: the shorter 12- and 11-syllable lines in the former are 14 and 12 syllables in the latter.

It’s hard to pick a favourite between them: I’d almost prefer a hybrid version of the two. And the posted poem isn’t a perfect guide to the line breaks for the editor, of course, because some of them aren’t even the same lines.

On the assumption that no one at the newspaper would have dared to rewrite a poem, the question then becomes which one is the earlier version and which one the later – or, to put it another way: which is the work in progress and which is the poem?

Film editors

14 Apr

Another submission to IMDb, another response it would be fair to characterise as “robust”:

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We first encountered the robot editors of the Internet Movie Database last year, attempting to get an episode summary past its stern battery of automatic parsers. Recently, though, another artificial writing assistant, Grammarly, has come to prominence following a high-profile marketing campaign in which the company attempted to grammar-check EL James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey when the film of the book premiered. It ran James’s text and that of several famous historical authors through the system, and presented its findings in a lively press release.

Grammarly is a hugely ambitious undertaking: an algorithm that attempts to read and parse text like a human editor, and check spellings and punctuation in context. Unfortunately, the marketing push didn’t go as well as might have been hoped. As was widely observed, notably by Jonathon Owen at Arrant Pedantry, the worked examples contained several infelicities or mistakes, including some questionable overpunctuating and a suggestion that The Tempest be corrected to “We are such stuff on which dreams are made on“. As Arrant Pedantry concluded, many of the things Grammarly found in its press release weren’t errors and, where it intervened, “the suggested fixes always worsen the writing”.

The IMDb parser is a much less ambitious undertaking. It doesn’t work on free-form text or purport to “read”: instead, it controls inputs tightly by using step-by-step data entry. And yet somehow, it feels so much more like being edited.

Above all, it’s the tone. As ever, the rejection notice at the top is brisk but not wholly discouraging, like a copy editor intercepting a reporter with a question. Then there’s the fact-checking and the resultant queries, and the automatic corrections for house style (surname, first name), done without a song and dance. Then there’s the institutional memory and the ever-so-slight weariness that goes with it: there are 3,304 attributes like this already – are you sure you want to create a new one? Then there’s the encouragement not to touch the type: “If you don’t understand how the ordering should be formatted, please leave it blank.” And, as we saw last time, it enforces word counts ruthlessly and threatens to reassign material elsewhere if it’s not cut to fit.

Maybe Grammarly wouldn’t have stumbled over the cap ‘W’ in “Written” and asked for guidance; IMDb doesn’t do line-by-line context and only really spellchecks the proper nouns already in its database. But this is big-picture, organisational editing for accuracy and factual consistency. Rather than entering the murky, and often highly debatable, world of comma use and the passive voice, it just aims to get things cross-referred and reliable.

In fact, quite a lot of real editors’ work is like the kind of  “database editing” IMDb does. Is that how we normally spell it? Haven’t I read that paragraph somewhere else? Someone else has written a piece about this: what does that say? The parser may not be able to write a headline, but it can certainly keep control of a multi-contributor encyclopaedia.

Assertive,  detail-oriented, unbending about style, weary but polite – and, as we see from the “override” tickboxes, stoical about the possibility of being ignored: doesn’t that sound just like an editor? These robots are getting more lifelike by the day.