Tag Archives: anglophone news

British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?

 

*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc

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Cootamundra to the world

20 Sep

BONUS UPDATE: The very day after we were discussing Rebel Wilson and the Australian dollar exchange rate, this appears on the UK homepage of the Daily Mail! Man from Cootamundra (where?) discovers crashed ute (what?) on the Olympic Highway (where?) and, with great courage, pulls him to safety. Now he’s all over the web front page of Britain’s best-selling mid-market tabloid without a hint to international readers about where the drama took place (which is, of course, Australia).

If you need footnotes: Cootamundra is a town of about 5,500 in New South Wales; the Olympic Highway is a country road in the southern part of the state, so named because it formed part of the route of the torch for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics; and a ute, that most distinctively Australian of vehicles, is a light pickup truck based on a saloon car chassis (it’s short for “utility”). None of these explanations make it into the front-page standfirst for British readers, although on the article page itself, there is at least a description of Mr van Baast as an “Aussie hero” in the display type.

In fact, the story is written from such a defiantly local angle that one suspects even readers in other parts of Australia might be nonplussed: it’s not clear how familiar readers in Perth might be with the name of an inland rural highway through another state, even though viewers of Prime 7 News Wagga Wagga (which provided the dramatic pictures) would know at once.

But it also underlines the other emerging trend in the globalising digital news agenda: that, from celebrity photoshoots to fiery rescues, a story’s a story, wherever you are in the anglosphere.

Dollar general

19 Sep

This is a lot of money, but perhaps not quite as much as it seems.

Both the Mail and the Guardian are big in Australia, and so both were all over the story of Rebel Wilson’s bumper defamation victory. But neither of them seems to have cleared up one area of potential confusion for their international readerships. Four and a half million dollars here, of course, means four and a half million Australian dollars: but that’s not mentioned anywhere in the headlines or the copy, and in neither story is any sterling or US equivalent offered for comparison.

It’s not a huge point (the conversion rate is only A$1 – US$0.80), but it does reveal something about life on the digital frontier. As we have discussed before, the objective of the expanding anglophone media groups – like the Guardian and the Mail – is not just to do reporting from new territories, but to provide news for those territories. The point is not just to have a foreign bureau perpetually on the phone to London, but to have a semi-autonomous operation that in effect thinks of Australasian news (or US news) as domestic news. This means that there will often be stories deliberately commissioned about local matters for entirely local consumption – but with the crucial difference that they will be launched, willy-nilly, onto websites with global reach and presence.

We came across one such story a couple of years ago, where a report on failed Australian unemployment policies found its way onto the most-read stories list on every Guardian national homepage. Because it was written for a domestic audience, it understandably failed to mention it was talking about Australia anywhere in the headline, causing temporary bafflement among readers who couldn’t understand why UK joblessness had taken such a sudden turn for the worse.

That, of course, was an accident: as regular reader Jeff has previously observed, it’s the kind of thing that can be controlled by making the content management system more geo-sensitive, filtering the most-read stories list by location, and so on. Even for international news groups, local stories can be kept quite local if you want them to be.

But that doesn’t quite cover the issue with this story, because Rebel Wilson is more than just a figure of local interest. This is not a story that’s leaked across a CMS by accident: it’s news that’s wanted on every homepage in the organisation. Of course, Wilson is an Australian woman suing an Australian magazine in an Australian court. But she is also a globally recognised comedian whose career is followed all across the world. She lives in America, works in Hollywood and gets paid in US dollars: as a trans-national figure herself, there is legitimate room for doubt about which currency her settlement might be denominated in.

The great advantage of having newsrooms on three continents is that you are ideally placed to report on stories like these: the California bureau can cover the Hollywood angle, and the Australian bureau can put a correspondent in the courtroom, while your rivals have to rely on agency copy. The concomitant problem is that if you then produce your story in an Australian voice for an Australian audience, you risk confusing two-thirds of your global readers, all of whom expect you to be reporting in local terms to them too.

The upshot is that, if you don’t watch out, the most determinedly global news organisations in the world can start sounding just like the most parochial ones. All politics may be local, but not all news is.

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”?

Picture 77

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.