Tag Archives: news agendas

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.

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 Christiansen Method

21 Jul

‘I did not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals’: Christiansen on screen. (BFI)

Thinking further about Arthur Christiansen’s wooden yet commanding presence in The Day The Earth Caught Fire reminded me of a thought that frequently occurs to this blog: that journalists are only famous to other journalists, and even then not always for long.

He was editor of the Daily Express from 1933 to 1957, hailed as one of the great press innovators and a genius of presentation, but I wonder how many people in Britain today remember who he is. I had only barely heard of him until I saw him on screen, and even at the Tribune he is never mentioned as a guiding light in the way that others such as CP Scott and Harold Evans are. (Of course that may be because the Tribune is a broadsheet that only looks up to broadsheet figures; I’m sure he is venerated to this day at the Express).

In his glowing but not uncritical account of Christiansen in How Journalism Works (1964), Roy Nash writes:

Time may well prove him to have been the greatest of all creators of the commercially successful popular newspaper image. Night after night, for nearly a quarter of a century, he designed an ingeniously eye-catching paper so compelling in appearance that it had to be read … He and his work almost totally dominated Fleet Street, conditioned and moulded its life, and only now are the rivals of his Daily Express trying to free themselves from his powerful influence.

But, Nash adds, his drive to “capture the reader’s interest … and lead it along by the hand” had unforeseen consequences:

Reporting in the Christiansen manner called for great skill in writing and especially in sub-editing. Sub-editing was, in fact, for the first time raised to a high professional level. But the technique had its dangerous traps into which the unwary fell. The logical step in trying to present every story in a totally simplified fashion was to assume that most news was, inherently, composed of simple black and white elements …

This led to something that Christiansen had neither intended nor wanted; a return to embroidered reporting. News tended, in the Fleet Street phrase, to be “hardened”. Events that were compounded of the indecisive greys and off-whites of news were turned into apparently clear-cut blacks and whites. Selected aspects of many of the highly complex problems that Britain faced immediately after the war were reduced to ludicrous levels and treated with alarming irresponsibility.

The Express was still broadsheet-sized at the time Christiansen edited it, but what Nash is describing here sounds like, in effect, the birth of the modern tabloid: a combination of vividness, exaggeration and jumping to conclusions that one associates more these days with the likes of Paul Dacre and Kelvin MacKenzie.

As editor, Christiansen used to write a daily bulletin to his staff, and the former Express journalist Geoffrey Mather has collected many of the most engaging quotes from them on his website. They’re fascinating. And they do, as Nash suggests, hint at a journalist of a somewhat different type to Dacre and MacKenzie: one constantly struggling, not always successfully, to reconcile the instinct to excite with the desire to be high-minded. (At one stage, for example, he writes: “Watch out for loaded stories. There is a tendency for reporters to write copy which, sentence for sentence, seems innocuous, but which adds up in detail to the dangerous business of creating a prejudicial atmosphere.” Well, quite.)

Some of his observations are resonant aphorisms for modern journalists that might stand alongside words from Scott or Evans. Some of them are rather less so: dated quibbles about grammar or now-baffling social niceties. And many of them involve discussions of people and scandals that are now – like the journalists who wrote about them – almost completely forgotten:

Yesterday in a story about a broken romance we referred to the the girl’s occupation as that of bottler in a lemonade factory. We used to have a rule that we did not refer to the occupations of people in lowly stations when romance or broken romance was involved. It is a good rule and should be revived. (3 March 1953)

In the early editions at any rate there were too many stories about things and not enough stories about people. Significant news predominated – and while that is fine, you will never get people to digest significant news if there is nothing else on the diet sheet. Contrast is the heart and soul of a newspaper. (Even the Manchester Guardian, on a day pregnant with heavy news, found space on its front page to say that goats are to be replaced by sheep on the Malayan rubber estates.) (17 March 1953)

Many, many stories in the Daily Express today are of violent character. Maybe a leavening of more “thoughtful” news is necessary. I do not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals, for example. We should always seek to balance so-called shock tactics with an appeal to the thoughtful reader. (8 August 1952)

All my journalistic thinking is based on making the news so inviting to people that they read involuntarily news which normally would not interest them. That is why I rejoice when headlines such as “Four Mr Europes woo Miss Britain” are written on a story from the Strasbourg conference. It is the hope that such novel presentation will at least open the door. (27 November 1951)

With the arrival of June weather we should try to make the paper suit the optimism of the masses. Never forget that the Daily Express is noted for its tonic effect. And while on this subject, it might be well to restate the three-fold rule for our paper:

1. Never set the police on anybody.
2. Never cry down the pleasures of the people.
3. Remember our own habits and frailties when disposed to be critical of others. (4 June 1951)

I get queasy about salacious reporting. All the papers are going in for it, and in the case of the Indian doctor it was quite shocking for a family man to have to read so much detail. Surely we can take a decision to print as little salacious matter as is necessary to prove the case for the prosecution or the defence – and no more. A typical example last week was the phrase in the doctor case that there was “intimacy in a car on two occasions on the back seat”. It is the phrase “on the back seat” which leaves little to the imagination. (5 March 1951)

It is the journalistic fashion to concentrate on the first paragraphs of stories. I believe in that. But I believe just as emphatically in the perfection of the last paragraph. (5 February 1953)

Many more here.

 

 

Batwoman or bane?

14 Apr

REVEALED! Shady Chinese lab was performing experiments on BATS! REVEALED! Heroic Chinese lab sequenced virus genome and was GAGGED! Oh no, hang on, they’re the same institution! Aaaaah!

It’s hard to know what to make of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the Mail on Sunday’s coverage this weekend, especially when these two stories are right next to each other on the homepage at time of writing (and, indeed, appended to each other as footnotes). Are the staff disgusting Frankensteins playing fast and loose with nature, or courageous boffins trying to save the world?

In the scary story:

The Chinese laboratory at the center of scrutiny over a potential coronavirus leak has been using U.S. government money to carry out research on bats from the caves which scientists believe are the original source of the deadly outbreak.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan which were funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government …

The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 – and doing so with American money – has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source.

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

The $37million Wuhan Institute of Virology, the most advanced laboratory of its type on the Chinese mainland, is based twenty miles from the now infamous wildlife market that was thought to be the location of the original transfer of the virus from animals to humans.

According to documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday, scientists there experimented on bats as part of a project funded by the US National Institutes of Health, which continues to licence the Wuhan laboratory to receive American money for experiments. …

The news that COVID-19 bats were under research there means that a leak from the Wuhan laboratory can no longer be completely ruled out …

American biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey, said that while the evidence suggests COVID-19 was not created in one of the Wuhan laboratories, it could easily have escaped from there while it was being analyzed.

Prof Ebright said he has seen evidence that scientists at the Centre for Disease Control and the Institute of Virology studied the viruses with only ‘level 2’ security – rather than the recommended level 4 – which ‘provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers’.

In the heartwarming story:

… Shi Zhengli [is] known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries.

The virologist was called back to her highsecurity laboratory in Wuhan at the end of last year after a mysterious new respiratory condition in the city was identified as a novel coronavirus – and within three days she completed its gene sequencing …

Shi is a specialist in emerging diseases and has earned global acclaim for work investigating links between bats and coronaviruses, aided by expeditions to collect samples and swabs in the fetid cave networks of southern China.

She was a key part of the team that traced SARS to horseshoe bats through civets, a cat-like creature often eaten in China …

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, based ten miles from the wildlife market blamed as the source of Covid-19, developed a £30million high-security laboratory after the SARS outbreak with French assistance.

It was the first laboratory in China with P4 status – denoting highest global biosafety levels – and contains the largest virus bank in Asia.

It was this fact that sparked now discounted conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was man-made.

Shi, the laboratory’s deputy director, admits that when summoned back from a conference to investigate the new disease, she wondered at first if a coronavirus could have escaped from her unit.

She has warned about the danger of epidemics from bat-borne viruses. But she says she did not expect such an outbreak in Wuhan, in the centre of China, since her studies suggested subtropical areas in the south had the highest risk of such ‘zoonotic’ transmission to humans.

Shi told the respected science journal Scientific American last month of her relief when, having checked back through disposal records, none of the genome sequences matched their virus samples.

‘That really took a load off my mind. I had not slept a wink for days,’ she said. …

Shi has worked alongside many of the world’s top experts on infectious diseases. ‘She is a superb scientist and very nice person,’ said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, a high-security biocontainment centre in Texas.

‘She has been very open and collaborative for the decade I’ve worked with her.’

The fact that Shi’s superiors at the lab may have hushed up her conclusions is not contradicted by anything in the other story, and the wider narrative of Beijing’s bad faith in relation to the outbreak is not affected by either. But this seems to be essentially the same set of facts cooked two ways: one flavoured with angry, shoot-from-the-hip congressmen and conspiracy theories, the other with a personable heroine and glowing character references. An instructive reminder that journalism is not just about what you find out, but also who you then approach for comment.

Are you ready for some soccer?

17 Apr

Spotted on the Daily Mail, both on the UK homepage:

Blackburn Rovers’ Bradley Dack and his reality-star ex-girlfriend are bread and butter for the Mail’s British site, and you might argue that the son of Lance Armstrong is too: but for sure neither Bradley nor (one suspects) anyone else in League One has ever been a “preferred walk-on”*. Of course, that’s because the two men operate in entirely different sports: but last week Mail UK had them both playing “football”.

This blog is generally sanguine about the accidental merging of news agendas as media organisations spread out across the anglosphere. A story’s a story, even if confusions occasionally arise over different dress sizes or the fact that more than one country calls its currency the “dollar”. If articles leak across the content management system into other jurisdictions, as one has here, there’s often no harm: British readers are happy to critique an NBA player’s scatter cushions or admire a Jersey Shore star’s $5,000 dress.

But this word, you suspect, is going to be a sticking point. In the US, American football is just “football” and football is “soccer”. In Britain, “football” is the game sanctioned by the FA, and all other games with the same name are qualified geographically: American football, Australian rules football, even Rugby football. American readers might be disappointed to discover that a story about a troubled “football player” doesn’t involve the NFL, and in Britain there would be open revolt if UK news organisations routinely referred to the national game as “soccer”, even though the term is British in origin.

Imposing one style across all jurisdictions is out of the question here. So what to do? This appears to be another case where the sometimes unsatisfactory approach adopted by the Guardian on its transatlantic ventures – that of “honouring the author’s voice” – is the only one that’s going to work. As its former production editor in the US, Maraithe Thomas, explains:

We might be born of a British news organisation but we were here to report on the US and to carve out our own space as a fully American news outlet. But then were we going to change the English of veteran British journalists, who were reporting over here, into American English? That didn’t feel right. …

What we decided to do, as I did my best to explain to the Atlantic, was to honor the individual reporter’s voice. British English would of course be maintained throughout the Guardian newspaper, but online we would follow the reporter’s lead.

This approach does, of course, create many problems of its own, not least the one of leaving readers to work out which “football” a news organisation is talking about in any individual story. But not every Americanism or Britishism travels smoothly across the Atlantic: sometimes there’s serious cultural resistance. And when there is, whichever sport you’re talking about, it’s unwise to pick sides.

 

*That is, a college player not good enough to be granted a sports scholarship, but nonetheless likely to see playing time (as opposed to normal non-scholarship players, who frequently must hang on tooth and nail just to stay in the squad).

 

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.

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

Picture 26

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.