Who, what, why, when, wherever

7 Dec

For a second, I thought we’d done it – I thought we’d found the first anglosphere news story that gives you no clue whatsoever about where it happened.

Comedian Celeste Barber, nationality unspecified, has made fun of influencer Adelina Lazarova, nationality unspecified, in a parody video following a storm over Barber’s mocking of model Emily Ratajkowski, nationality unspecified. And where did all this happen? That remains unspecified.

Lazarova was being mocked for backflipping out of a convertible Lamborghini in high heels on social media, and Ratajkowski was being teased over a seductive bikini videoclip, so the real answer to the question “where did this happen” is, of course, “on the internet”. Nonetheless, we have a Russian-born, Emirates-based influencer doing gymnastics (in New York, as it happens) and a British-born American model famous for her globetrotting, and finally we seem to be floating free in the borderless kingdom of online news …

Except that there are still one or two clues to bring us back to earth. That “copping” in the headline: that’s redolent of a certain southern-hemisphere flavour of English. And further down, it is reported that Barber is about to tour Australia. Why would that be of interest to anyone except people living in … ah, yes. A closer squint at the byline, in Mail Online’s pale, self-effacing font, confirms it: “By Caleb Taylor for Daily Mail Australia”. The reason that Barber’s location isn’t stated in the piece is not because it doesn’t matter any more – “hey, a story’s a story!” – but because she doesn’t need to be identified to an Australian audience. This is a case of the Mail trying to sound Australian, not trying to sound stateless.

But still, with regard to the Five W’s of reporting, this is the first anglosphere news piece I’ve seen that doesn’t make any explicit effort to answer the question “where?”. Indeed, if there hadn’t been a passing reference to Lazarova’s showing-off taking place in the US, there wouldn’t have been a geographical locator anywhere in the text. And, you might argue, in cases like this there doesn’t need to be: if the news (OK, “news”) happens on Instagram, then it happens everywhere at once. The mainstream media is hesitantly becoming stateless, expanding into markets bounded only by language, but social media doesn’t even have that constraint: you can sign up to all three protagonists’ accounts in a home-country native version of the app wherever you are. The only thing that may hold you back after that is the captions to Lazarova’s selfies, which are frequently in Cyrillic.

Credible edibles

23 Nov

Regular reader Steve has spotted this in Charles County, Maryland, where a potentially alarming incident involving some schoolchildren seems to have lost something in translation on the website of WTOP-FM, Washington’s top news radio station.

If you’re as hardened and streetwise as, er, a sub-editor, you may know that “edibles” in this sense is starting to mean “way of consuming marijuana orally rather than by smoking”: it refers to the modern equivalent of cannabis brownies and so on. If not, you may be more than slightly puzzled as to what all the fuss is about.

That definition hasn’t made it into Collins, the Tribune’s house dictionary, yet, but it is now on Merriam-Webster Online. Even the dictionary, however, may not be able to help us with this paragraph:

You sense the first sentence may be missing some key words before “contained”. But I’m not sure what kind of garble has taken place in the second one. It’s positively alarmist: as Steve says, does this mean inedible candy is probably safer?

Thankfully, everyone seems to be all right:

(Hang, on I thought you said earlier they’d definitely eaten some?) But if the principal’s letter to parents went out with anything like that muddle over “edible candy” in it, who knows what the queues might now be like outside the county’s sweetshops.

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?

Slightly missing links

26 Oct

The trouble with hyperlinks is that, even though they don’t mean to, they add emphasis. They are, after all, in a different colour to the rest of the text, and often underlined. They stand out. Which means you need a bit of an ear for the rhythms of a sentence when you put them in:

“Why at the end of it” stops a little short of the end, as it were, as does the link to the obscure … provision. And although “Dominic Cummings claimed” is fine, “said Johnson told” unfortunately avoids highlighting either of the two salient parts of the sentence: Ian Paisley Junior and the idea of the story.

These are just infelicities of emphasis rather than meaning – rather like the Express’s erstwhile habit of putting sudden capitals in the WRONG place. Occasionally, though, an off-target hyperlink can create more peculiar effects, like this:

Here, even though you’re supposed to overlook these links, it throws you. Semantically, the verb phrase that begins “bring prosecutions for killings” finishes at “to an end”. But the emphatic red text stops three words early and encourages you to think the phrase has come to an end as well. So for a moment you think the government is planning to start bringing Troubles prosecutions again, not stop them.

Of course, you work it out in the end. But we’re supposed to be saving readers as much work as possible, so, along with colliding English-language news agendas and launching without revising, this is another thing old print lags have to get used to. In the old days, we would never underline anything at all; now we do it by accident.

Subs – please check

12 Oct

HMS Ambush on sea trials. © Crown copyright 2012

*

“We have been regularly referring to the value of the Aus-French submarine deal as $90bn,” writes an astute member of the Tribune’s night shift to colleagues. “But this is 90bn AUSTRALIAN dollars, not US dollars.”

That is an excellent point. “This makes sense for an Australian audience but is confusing for everyone else. Lots of writers and subs are referring back to Aus pieces for their info and copying this sum into stories for a US, UK and global audience. Non-Australia folk: please be on the alert for this (and for similar Australian stories of global import). Australia folk: if a story is very much global, would you consider using the notation A$? Anyway, something for discussion.”

It certainly is something for discussion: this blog has wrestled for years with the problems of anglophone news organisations trying to bestride the globe while remaining part of a national dialogue. The Aukus submarines deal, agreed between Australia, the UK and the US, looks like a perfect anglosphere news story – after all, these are the three countries where forward-looking British papers such as the Tribune now have newsrooms. But although that means the coverage has been panoramic, the small but essential details are proving as troublesome as ever.

Some newsdesks did fall into the trap. Eastern Eye converted the “$90bn” that France stands to lose from the cancellation of its own submarine deal with Australia into “£66bn”:

But that is the sterling equivalent of 90 billion US dollars, not Australian; the correct figure for A$ is about £48bn.

The Tribune does not appear to have gone that far, but by saying “$90bn” in several pieces without context we may have been giving the impression – it’s easily done – that we were speaking of the world’s reserve currency when we were not. And in this article in the Mail, focusing on the Biden angle and with a US political writer leading the bylines,

the $90bn figure also stands unqualified.*

Interestingly, the same article gives comparative costings of various submarine types further down,

and those figures are not in US dollars either. A Virginia-class boat seems to cost about US$3.4bn (which is about A$4.5bn) and a new HMS Astute would set you back about £1.4bn-£1.6bn, which is not as much as $2.6bn in US currency. It would seem that the costs in this US-focused article are being given consistently in Australian dollars, but without ever saying so.

Why would you not specify? Perhaps because, as we have discussed so often, journalists at the Tribune and similar organisations are often encouraged not to. Our purpose in expanding across the anglosphere is to provide local coverage in underserved markets, to bed in as a homegrown news source. So we write in different flavours of English depending on which continent we’re on, and speak of weights and measures as locals would. In which case, as the night sub’s email suggests, adopting international terminology for a national currency is something that very much needs to be “considered” before it is enforced. Too much globalist perspective, too much wire-service neutrality, betrays you as an outsider.

This causes a slight problem when local stories meant for one country’s consumption become visible on another country’s homepage. But it causes even greater problems when the three jurisdictions you cover collide in the same global story. Because then, whose worldview wins?

*“Advanced” warning – I know, I know.

Workin’ for MTA

14 Sep

Somebody else seems to be as intrigued by New York subway signs as this blog is:

It does make a good poem, probably entitled “Z”:

To Jamaica Center

Weekday afternoons.

Express to Myrtle Avenue,

PM rush,

Skip-stop

***

Other times,

All stops

But for a public information notice, it is, as we have had occasion to discuss before, a bit short of words. And this time we’re dealing with the kind of comprehension-bending complexity that only the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can produce. If you find the semi-fast service to Amersham a bit confusing, get a load of this, and imagine trying to put it on a sign:


“The J operates at all times while the Z, operating internally as its rush-hour variant, runs with six trips in each peak direction on weekdays; both services run through the entirety of the BMT Archer Avenue and Jamaica lines, via the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Nassau Street Line between Jamaica Center–Parsons/Archer in Jamaica, Queens, and Broad Street in Lower Manhattan. When the Z operates, the two services form a skip-stop pair between Sutphin Boulevard–JFK and Myrtle Avenue-Broadway. In addition during rush hours and middays in the peak direction, they run express in Brooklyn between Myrtle Avenue-Broadway and Marcy Avenue, bypassing three stations. At all other times, only the J operates, serving every station on its entire route. (per Wikipedia)

So, what we have is:

• a platform from which two services run along the same line, the Z train and the J train

and

• the Z train is an express that misses out stops, and the J train is a “local” that stops at all stations. Fine.

BUT

• The Z train only runs in rush hour, on weekdays, and it only runs in the peak flow direction (ie into Manhattan in the mornings, out of Manhattan in the evenings)

AND

• When the Z train is running, it affects the J train’s schedule: the J train then misses out some (but not all) of the stations that the Z train stops at, and ceases to be a true “local”. They become a “skip-stop pair” (try saying that three times quickly).

FURTHERMORE

• There are three stations that neither the J or the Z stop at, but only during weekday rush hour, and only in the peak direction. At other times the J train will stop there.

So, to return to the sign: this is Essex Street station in lower Manhattan, and trains from this platform are heading to Jamaica Center in Queens, ie, out of Manhattan. This platform is therefore not affected by the Z train in the mornings, but is affected by it in the evenings (the “PM rush”), when the skip-stop comes into operation. Essex Street station also comes just before the three stations that get missed out altogether in rush hour, so trains from here are “express” (ie almost non-stop) as far as Myrtle Avenue station in Brooklyn on weekday afternoons (but only afternoons).

So after an hour’s research, you can start to see what they mean. I still think there’s a problem with the sign, though: for one thing, the Z bullet at the start makes you think that everything that follows applies only to the Z train. In fact, crucially, the J train becomes a skip-stop train too. But the second sentence gives the impression that you can always rely on the good old J to stop everywhere (which you can’t), or maybe that Z trains run in the peak and J trains in the off-peak (which isn’t the whole story either).

Can we do any better with the wording? Last time, we had some success in inserting a few existential clauses, but that won’t cut it this time. Get me rewrite.

Judging by the length of the longest line, I reckon you could get 125 or so characters on the sign if you fill all three decks. Maybe it could say something like this?

Z J to Jamaica Center. Both trains express to Myrtle Ave wkday afternoons and skip stops in PM rush. J all stops other times

At least I think that’s what it means. Input and commentary from people who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about would be very welcome.

And with that bit of wish-fulfilment out of the way – no New York for me this year, what with the global emergency and all – TMPD is off for its late summer break. See you when the leaves are falling faster.

The Lada of success

31 Aug

Along with the headlines we dream of one day writing (my ambition is to get “Crema vs. Crema” on a group test of espresso machines), I’m sure I’m not the only sub-editor to fantasise about making a stunning save on deadline – a last-minute intervention that prevents a disastrous error getting into print, and shows off one’s combination of erudition and alertness. One of those cool foreign-desk moments, pulling an earbud out of one ear to shout over to the desk: “My Pashto’s pretty rusty, but it sounds like the Mullah’s saying ‘retreat’, not ‘surrender’.” Except that, when my moment finally arrived, I didn’t get to say anything as cool as that. Instead I had to go up to the back bench, and, within earshot of most of senior management, mumble “excuse me, I think this is a Moskvich”.

The occasion was a colour feature about Havana and the struggle of its taxi drivers and mechanics to keep their old Lada cars on the road. Vivid, atmospheric, rich in castroismo, it was very Tribune. The trouble was, alongside the enthusing about the Lada’s Italian heritage and classic 1960s lines was the picture above. “A Lada car on the streets of Havana Centro” the caption says, but as someone who spent far too much of their childhood reading The Observer’s Book of Automobiles, I wasn’t so sure.

The picture editor gave me one of those picture-desk stares. “I don’t really know a lot about cars,” he said. “It says it’s a Lada.” “Ah yes, but if you look here below the rear window pillar, there’s a cabin air vent, whereas on a Lada …” “Yes, OK, if you say so.” I returned to the back bench. “Yes, I think we’d better change the pic. You see if you look at this feature here above the rear wheel…” “Yes, OK, can you just make sure it’s right? Thanks.” I returned to the subs’ desk in dorkish pride, looked round at my colleagues, thought about explaining what had happened, and decided to spare them.

(However, for those interested … If you look at the picture above and compare it with this fine machine belonging to the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, which really is a Lada,

you will notice that the blue car has a small vent on the side of the body, above the rear wheel, whereas the police car doesn’t; instead it has a similar vent actually mounted on the rear cabin pillar.

Then, when you start looking properly, you can see the blue car has a curved crease, or wing line, running the whole length of its side, culminating in a vestigial tailfin, whereas the Lada does not. Also (he continued), although the blue car has lost its lights and badges, you can see that the radiator grille is a different shape and that the indicators, if they were still there, would be in a completely different position. (Could it be one of the very earliest Ladas, you’re asking? Ah, but they had round headlights. These ones, or what’s left of them, are clearly rectangular.) I’m confident that the blue car is in fact a Moskvich 2140 – a model, as we know, developed out of the classic Moskvich 412 – built in the USSR from the 1970s until the end of the Cold War.)

Not only that, but as I hunted for a replacement, it emerged that several other Cuban vehicles in the picture library were being wrongly advertised as Ladas, including this one, which is clearly another Moskvich,

and this one:

Good lord, man, that’s a Renault Dauphine.

But nonetheless, we were spoiled for choice with the images. A Lada with a hammer and sickle decal on its side. A Lada with its occupants waving the bandera nacional triumphantly from the windows. And the winner: a young couple kissing passionately between two parked Ladas in front of a sunlit mural of the revolution. Cuba can make anything look romantic.

Picture post

17 Aug

I’m not sure I’d ever make a photo editor, but if you lay out news pages you have to know which pictures you like and which you don’t, and for some reason I was struck by this one.

It’s a picture of Laura Kenny of the Great Britain cycling team by Alex Whitehead of SWPix. And it’s so well framed, with the Olympic rings up on the banking above her, that it looks almost like a portrait or an old-fashioned photoshoot: “Ride slowly around the track, and don’t look at the camera.”

But there’s a strangely charged quality to it that you can’t put your finger on, until you read the caption and realise that it was taken, not during a photocall, but shortly after a huge crash in the women’s omnium that took down half the field, including Kenny, and left two riders and an official unable to continue. Then the picture reformulates in front of your eyes: suddenly you see the faraway look in Kenny’s eyes that you had noticed without noticing, and realise that the only reason you can see her eyes at all is because the visor on her helmet was broken off in the impact. It’s not a picture of an Olympian fulfilling a media obligation, but of one trying to pull herself together.

As reinterpretations go, it’s not as disorientating as the critic Walter Pater’s famous suggestion that the Mona Lisa might be underwater (“in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”). But the meaning of the image is sufficiently hidden that it doesn’t make a good news photo. It need a caption to explain it, whereas there are any number of agency pictures of riders flying through the air that would tell the story on their own. News pics need to be a kind of search engine optimisation for the eyes: clear explanatory visuals to go with a clear explanatory headline. If you want to publish photographs that reveal their truth slowly, you probably need to get your art critic involved, as the Guardian did for several years.

All this is quite rarefied photographic air, of course: often the material you’re dealing with is, shall we say, less charismatic. Last week’s business section in the Tribune carried a full double-page spread on the rise of air source heat pumps. We sent out a photographer who has immortalised Malala Yousafzai and Leonard Cohen in stunning monochrome, and he still came back with a picture of a smiling couple standing next to a beige box. As the production editor, who was laying out the spread, grumbled, “even Robert Capa would struggle to make this one interesting”.

Weather outlook

3 Aug

Any of the Tribune’s three world-girdling newsrooms could have produced this alarming story on heat deaths:

Some stories are local, which is why we set up English-speaking operations in the US and Australia, but some stories are global, and the climate crisis affects everyone. In the end, it was Australia who wrote up the report for all three of us, and it duly found its way into the print subs’ queue for the newspaper in London.

Which was fine, except that, in this globally relevant story, the first person quoted …

was Australian, and the second person quoted …

… was Australian, and the next part of the story …

… concerned a study in which Australia had done notably badly (whereas the UK and the US had only done moderately badly), and the broadening out of the theme …

… took us into the kind of Australian domestic shorthand that I suspect may never have been encountered in the Tribune’s home news pages before.

It’s not hard to guess what the Australian Medical Association is, but the Hesta Super Fund is more recondite: a huge pension fund of a specifically Australian type called a “super fund” that once (but no longer) restricted its membership to employees in the health service. That explanation almost leaves UK readers none the wiser than the name: It’s sort of a “health body”, but not quite, and seems to be politically engaged in a way that no major pension fund in the UK ever is. In the end, I glossed it as something like “major health-focused pension fund”, but I’m not sure that enlightened many readers on the Tube.

We have come across this problem in a minor way before, when a developing international story gets handed off between newsrooms: the weights, measures and currencies start to fluctuate, and views change about what the reader can be assumed to know. But this is a slightly bigger problem. We don’t yet have reporters with a contact book big enough to provide region-specific quotes and examples for three different continents. Nor do we have the resources (usually) to write up a story three times in all three jurisdictions. So you end up with a story flavoured with the sources, agenda and analysis of one particular newsroom, and the other two have to make do with what’s supplied.

As we have discussed more than once, the UK’s anglophone news organisations are anxious to ensure Australian readers don’t feel their domestic news has been written by outsiders. But what we haven’t considered so far is the possibility that British readers might be getting that feeling instead.

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”.