Tag Archives: anglophone news

Will likely stoush Thursday

10 Jan

This week on Words That Look to Have a Bright Future in Global Anglophone News:

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“Stoush” (AUSTRALIAN/NZ informal, verb hit; fight with; noun a brawl or other fight) is a new one on me, but not on the Tribune: our Sydney newsroom has used it hundreds of times since opening four years ago. It’s another example, remarked upon before in this blog, of how newspapers with multiple newsrooms end up speaking multiple dialects of English under the same masthead: a phenomenon that is proving difficult for style guides to control.

This is all, of course, completely unintentional: the globalisation of newsroom English happens not through any assertion of national identity, but because, in their country of origin, striking words sound entirely unremarkable. Colourful local expressions are not colourful in their own environment; it takes a stranger – such as a voracious news consumer from another country – to remark on their peculiarity.

Here in London, for example, it is surprising to learn that “gone missing”, a phrase any UK journalist would use without thinking, is a pungent and unfamiliar Britishism to American ears. Equally, I am sure, the Tribune’s New York office little suspects that standard Stateside journalese like this

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sounds as alien to Britons as “stoush” does to everyone in the northern hemisphere.

Except of course that, given the exposure that internet news affords, who knows what the mysterious action of language change might make familiar? Although the employment of days of the week as adjectives, and the term “ouster” to mean “dismissal”, still sound very foreign to British ears, the use of “likely” where a British-English speaker would only say “probably” seems to be becoming distinctly more common.

The Collins Dictionary still takes a disapproving line on this for its core audience:

Likely as an adverb is preceded by another, intensifying adverb, as in “it will very likely rain” or “it will most likely rain”. Its use without an intensifier, as in “it will likely rain” is regarded as unacceptable by most users of British English, though it is common in colloquial US English.

But it seems that events may be outpacing that advice. The phrase appears hundreds of times, perhaps predictably, on the Daily Mail’s multinational home page, and even the briefest of Google searches for “will likely” on BBC News reveals well over a dozen uses of it in the organisation’s own voice over the last two years, including entirely domestic stories on constituency boundaries in Islington and the future of the BBC licence fee.

It has even started appearing, remarkably, in the business pages of the Daily Telegraph, perhaps subconsciously influenced by the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who has begun incorporating it into his briefings.

There is, by contrast, not a single instance of “ouster” in BBC news output so far. But, intriguingly, there are two for “stoush” already.

 

The new normalcy

2 Feb

We’ve got a newsroom in New York run by an Australian, a newsroom in Sydney run by a Briton and an editor-in-chief who’s been in charge of all three offices (UK, US, Australia). But the Tribune’s style guide is still edited from London and views the world from an essentially British-English point of view.

Or at least it did: but maybe that’s starting to change. The last hardback edition of the Tribune’s style guide (still available in some good bookshops) was published in 2010. But the online version, which is what we use in the office, has been continually updated over the last five-plus years. And as the paper has spread around the world over the past four years, you can clearly see that it is beginning to pull the style guide out towards it.

For example, in 2010 the hardback edition simply said:

aeroplane not airplane

Now, in 2016, the website says:

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Six years ago, all that was necessary in this entry was to clarify a distinction over capitalisation:

Aborigines, Aboriginal uppercase (uc) when referring to native Australians

aborigines, aboriginal lowercase (lc) when referring to indigenous populations

Now, after two years of producing news in Sydney, it says this:

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And so it goes on. Then:

A&E accident and emergency

Now:

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Then:

telephone numbers should be hyphenated after three or four-figure area codes, but not  five-figure area codes: 020-3353 2000, 0161-832 7200; 01892 456789, 01227 123456; treat mobile phone numbers as having five-figure area codes: 07911 654321

Now:

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And several entirely new entries have appeared in the online version to cover British usages that we never previously suspected were unfamiliar:

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The Tribune’s international expansion programme is happening very much by design rather than by accident. And, as we have previously discussed, it was never likely, or even desirable, that projects deliberately intended to function as native news organisations in different countries could stick rigidly to British style abroad. The paper’s faint institutional distaste for Americanisms, and its genuine unfamiliarity with Australian idiom, were quickly driven out once actual Americans and Australians began using the same document. A style guide changes with time, but it also changes with geography, it seems; not by moving with history, but simply by moving abroad.

And, when it does, what you end up with is something that’s bigger and more nuanced than it was before, fuller than ever of distinctions and exceptions and special cases. That doesn’t mean chaos, or that there are suddenly three right answers to every question: but it does need an especially sensitive ear for audience, writer and tone to make the right choice. And who better than a sub-editor for a task like that?

Surely he means baseball?

10 Nov

“Crickets”? What do you mean, “crickets”?

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This dropped into the subs’ queue, complete with question marks added by a baffled production editor, last week. It’s part of a piece about US presidential hopeful Ben Carson, written by a high-profile Capitol Hill commentator who regularly weighs in for the paper, so the OED probably wasn’t going to be the first place to look for an answer.

In fact, none of the heavyweight dictionaries, not even the American ones, record this usage. It’s only properly covered in the Urban Dictionary, which offers this nicely phrased explanation –

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– and, in the process, makes it clear that the writer has got the metaphor slightly wrong. “Crickets” would not be heard from his faith-based supporters; in fact, it is the absence of comment on the part of those supporters that allows the crickets, who have been chirping throughout, to be heard.

So the figure of speech will need to be repaired. But that’s not the end of the questions that this piece throws up. In one of the multitudinous permutations of author, subject, commissioning desk, production desk and audience now possible in a multinational news organisation, this piece was written by an American, about America, in response to a request from the UK, and handed to subs in the London newsroom to produce.

Its intended home was the UK Sunday print edition of the paper, but of course it will be going up on the web to a global audience, some of whom will understand “crickets” and some not. So do you fix the metaphor, but leave it unexplained? Take it out and replace it with a British metaphor? Take it out and replace it with something neutral?

Of all the potential pitfalls like this that lie in wait for the globalised newsroom, many are negotiated with great success. Australasian reality stars make their debut to showbiz fans in Berkshire without adverse comment. Local news stories sneak onto global most-viewed lists and engage a far wider audience than they were ever intended for. Live blogs on major incidents are handed over from bureau to bureau to bureau, Sydney to London to New York, in a race to stay ahead of sunset and keep the news alive. Home news stories with no international pretensions can take themselves around the world without assistance and survive; strangely, the ones that struggle – the only ones that really cause trouble – are those written in one country specifically for consumption in another.

What used to be a staple of foreign-desk reporting – the what’s-happening-in-Washington dispatch written by an American for Britons – is becoming almost impossible to edit, because you become trapped between its intended print audience (British English speakers who want a primer) and its likely audience on the web (American readers with an appetite for Beltway news who may already follow that author). Add more newsrooms across the anglosphere and the problems multiply. Do readers feel more alienated by exotic localisms such as “white-anting”* or “bodega”**, or by having something they already know explained to them like novices? Because you can’t edit to please them both.

This time, we decided to remove “crickets” altogether and replace it with a simple reference to silence. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to remove a metaphor from the copy of a brand-name columnist, but it’s equally uncomfortable to wave through something that provokes open bafflement in your own newsroom.

It’s still not clear what the solution is to this problem; it’s a coin toss every time. But it’s possible that it might solve itself: given how well unmediated news seems to travel these days, the whole genre of letter-from-abroad explainers might soon become a thing of the past.

 

* (Austr) Metaphorically, to undermine or hollow out an organisation or movement; to destroy something from the inside, in the manner of a white ant or termite.

** (US, particularly New York) A local food and wine store, especially if of Puerto Rican ownership; a cornershop

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.

Hear me rort

26 Mar

I’m sorry, a what?

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A couple of months ago, we were tripping over a story on the Guardian’s most-read list that gave no clue that it was about Australia until about two paragraphs into the body text. Not much danger of that happening this time: whatever a “rort” is, it brings you up short before you’ve even clicked on the link.

And it turns out that this is a Guardian Australia story too: a “rort” is Australian slang for a “dodge” or a “scam”. As Google puts it:

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Collins suggests that it’s a back-formation from the adjective “rorty” (“boisterous, high-spirited”), which I have come across in the northern hemisphere before (specifically in car magazines); this is a first for me with the noun, though.

It sticks out on a long way on a British web front page, but this is the same phenomenon we encountered last time with regard to multi-newsroom operations. This may have sneaked through the content management system into another hemisphere, but it’s an Australian story for an Australian audience about Australian tax affairs: of course it should be written in Australian English.

Language and locality questions aren’t always as simple as that, though. What if this were an Australia-bureau story ordered by and for the US newsdesk about a presidential visit to Canberra? What if it had been a Super Bowl preview from the New York sports editor, produced in the US but written as a primer for viewers in Britain? Or what if – as with an article I worked on last week – it were a feature by a UK-born but US-based writer about a major American corporation, commissioned by the London desk to brief a British audience, but still with half an eye on readers in the States?

The feature was about Starbucks’s controversial RaceTogether campaign – its attempt to stimulate conversations on the subject of race relations between baristas and customers at the counter. In the end, the idea was seriously rethought less than a week after it started, but not before one of our feature writers was sent out to canvass opinions in the district of Brooklyn where Starbucks’s founder, Howard Schultz, grew up. And one of the people he spoke to lived in – well, that was the problem.

The expatriate reporter, who now writes largely in American English, called it “public housing”. British readers won’t quite be sure what that is – they’ll almost know, but not quite. In the days before the Tribune had an internationally ambitious website, I would have changed this immediately to “housing estate”. But I’m aware that that term isn’t really used in the US, where a more usual synonym would be “housing project”.

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So: what to do? Change it, for the British readers for whom the piece was commissioned? Leave it, for the American readers who may ultimately make up the bulk of the article’s readership?

In stories written in, by and for one country, these choices are easy. Even for articles written in one newsroom at the request of another, they aren’t too difficult, as long as it’s the bureau that ordered the piece that then takes responsibility for editing it. But what about stories written for more than one audience?

And it’s not simply a matter of word choice: the audience you have in mind will also dictate the news angle, presentation, tone and style the article ends up with. It will determine which bits of background or explanation you feel confident to cut and which must be left in.

Imagine, let’s say, a funny-photo story in which the US president takes the prime minister to a baseball game, and the photo shows the entire White House entourage leaping to its feet to cheer a triple play while the PM, the only one still seated in the photo, looks bemused. If you’re writing it up for the UK edition, you’re going to need to explain why a triple play is so rare; but a beginner’s explanation would alienate American readers. Even if you choose to skirt around it for the UK edition and just call it “a spectacular play on the field”, US readers are going to be curious about what the play was.

In the earliest days of the Tribune’s international operations, the flow of overnight stories from Australia was so novel that many of them found their way onto the UK front page, until it was gently pointed out that British readers might be seeing slightly too much of Tony Abbott in the morning. With websites as a whole, that’s easy to fix: you can just serve a different homepage to visitors depending on location, and curate their content accordingly.

But you can’t do that with an article: one piece of text is all you get, visible all across the internet. And, linguistically speaking, there’s no neutral ground: you have to pick sides. Maybe that explains the Guardian’s advertising banner for its expanded Major League Soccer coverage this season: “Follow our MLS stories. Soccer or football, whatever you choose to call it.”

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Dateline unknown

3 Jan

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Coming up next on global anglophone news: ‘Welfare-to-work programs have failed to reduce unemployment‘.

It was the top article on the business site a few days ago, which was interesting – a slightly wonkish policy analysis doing better than more immediate stories about the collapse of a big parcels firm at Christmas. For readers interested in UK politics, it looked intriguing. The issue has been quiet in Britain of late – it’s been a while since the Labour party’s New Deal or even the coalition’s Work Programme were in the headlines. What’s it about?

Welfare-to-work programs promoted by successive governments have had no impact on unemployment as they fail to take into account the changing labour market, researchers have found.

Well, this looks like bad news for Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary. But why is it coming up now? The headline unemployment rate is falling at the moment.

The Australian National University (ANU) research, reported in the Australian on Friday, shows that the proportion of unemployed men aged between 25 and 54 has not changed in almost 15 years, staying at 9-10%.

Ah. Right. This is about Australia.

The first hint you get that this is an antipodean story is here, in the second paragraph of the body text. Nothing alerts you to its provenance before that. The five-most-read counter is a global one that aggregates all Guardian content blindly. The headline and standfirst lack any regional identifiers, and there is no dateline after the byline. And why would there be? The story was, from an Australian point of view, produced by a home reporter about a national report on a domestic topic. You would no more put a dateline on it than you would on a metro-desk story about the city council. Like many articles in the rapidly coalescing global news industry, its international success – or at least its performance relative to stories on two other continents – has taken it rather by surprise.

With British news organisations expanding abroad in the hope of becoming trusted sources of news inside other countries, there are going to be a lot more stories like these: local pieces written in-country as a way of establishing credentials with a local audience, but available globally (and administered, at least for part of the day, from thousands of miles away).

Websites are becoming electronically editionalised to compensate – so much so that some auto-detect your location and make it quite hard to change. But the news editors themselves move back and forth between the offices, taking their old interests out to the satellites and bringing newly learned agendas back to London. And three-newsroom operations throw off so much material that apparently it can’t help but leak across the boundaries – unknown Australian models starring in Britain’s sidebar of shame, Hollywood weddings with dress sizes incompletely altered for UK consumption, or, as here, some parts of a very large website still blind to the technological segregation in other parts.

Perhaps the really alert British reader would have seen that “program” was spelt without its last two letters and realised something was up. But I’ve read so much mid-Atlantic and up-from-Down-Under news that I’m honestly starting not to notice.