Tag Archives: newsroom life

The Second Sub-editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

23 Jan

Image: 20th Century Fox

The copy chief hands him the file with the typed copy in it, and the man sitting at the desk takes out his pen. The newsroom is dark, the clock is ticking, and the most important and sensitive story he will ever edit has arrived – like all important and sensitive stories – right on deadline. He looks up at his manager, the two men alone in the office at an epochal moment for journalism and America. “You’ve got half an hour,” says his manager gruffly.

For years, only one copy editor had ever appeared as a character in a feature film: Lou the front-page sub in Ron Howard’s 1994 comedy The Paper.* But now there are two, because in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, the focus is almost as much on newspaper production as it is on newspaper editing and reporting.

The story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers – the leaked documents that destroyed the credibility of the war in Vietnam – is a subject worthy of what my boss at the Tribune refers to as “late-period Spielberg”: those recent films of his that tell huge American stories magisterially, at a medium pace and with limpid period detail. The ethical struggle between the first amendment and the security state is an eternal theme, taken up in several movies. But for someone like me who started their career in the Quark XPress era, it’s the recreation of a 1970s newsroom that’s really mesmerising.

There are enormous ties, and early colour TVs, and people in the background flicking through galleys with a familiar look of rising concern on their faces (is there a page missing here, or is this actually what was filed?). There are linotype machines filmed in fascinating close-up, real slugs coming out and being loaded into formes, famous headlines shown reversed in metal. There is also – and this is the thing I most regret never having seen – a pneumatic-tube messenger system for sending copy to the composing room in metal cylinders.

And there is also a copy editor. Only one, again, as in The Paper (although, to be fair, he and the copy chief had probably stayed behind specially). And he barely speaks, except to ask for a messenger tube. But you can tell he’s a copy editor, because the first thing he does, with the presses trembling, his proprietor under pressure and the reputations of four presidents hanging in the balance, is calmly cross out the first sentence of the story.

Then as now, sometimes the most important cut is the one you make in the first paragraph.  I like to think it said something like “Bombings and deception and McNamara, oh my!”. But it was probably something more like: “It’s official …”.

 

* To be absolutely accurate, as readers have pointed out previously, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed is also, notionally, a copy editor: but as she (a) appears to have an office to herself and (b) gets sent out on a whim to off-diary feature assignments, you would be forgiven for mistaking her for a columnist.

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The 100-word headline

11 Oct

You’ve been around, and you’ve seen some things. You’ve seen the New York Times write four different heds for the same story and stack them all at the top of its front page; you’ve seen the Sun cause so much offence with a single word on the front that it pulled apart its page one and re-made it that same night. But I promise you’ve ever seen anything like this. Ladies and gentlemen: the 100-word headline.

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If you’re scoring at home it’s a 4/40/8 + 3/40/2 + 2/40/6 + 3/40/4. Twenty decks in all, with a yellow first line for a kicker. And it’s the biggest feature in the paper this week, so try to make it sing.

Still, I suppose at least there isn’t a standfirst.

Double exposure

27 Sep

I wish Agence France-Presse would stop doing this, because it’s perilously easy to make a mistake:

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It’s an unusual name, you think, but a resonant one: puts you slightly in mind of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia. Unfamiliar though “Alhalbiameer” may be, it has a strangely correct ring to it – a patronymic, maybe? An unfamiliar theophoric name? Except of course, it’s nothing of the sort: AFP, as is its unvarying practice, has repeated Ameer Alhalbi’s name twice without a break in the middle. And that’s the kind of thing that can easily get transcribed from the credit across onto the page when you’re in a hurry:

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It happens with other AFP snappers with non-anglophone names too: Aref (Karimiaref) Karimi, Mandel (Nganmandel) Ngan, Louai (Besharalouai) Beshara and Ilyas (Akenginilyas) Akengin have all made it into publication.

Very obvious once it’s pointed out, of course, and very embarrassing when it happens. But in a world with naming conventions as diverse as Burma’s and Spain’s, it’s not entirely surprising that a striking-looking ‘middle name’ might sometimes slip through. As we have discussed before, pictures and captions have a shorter route into publication, and pass under fewer eyes, than anything else on the website or in the paper.

Fortunately, because it’s the Tribune’s practice to put photography credits on the end of the caption, this is the kind of thing one is prompted to notice in print – if only because there’s so little space in a standard two-column caption that your heart sinks when you see a long name. But come on, AFP: we’re working at speed here. Everyone understands why you’d want to repeat names for clarity, but at least put a space between them. Give us a break.

Snap judgments

6 Jan

The web production editor writes:

A reader has pointed out that generally when a Greek place name begins with Skala eg Skala Kalloni on Lesbos, the skala part means “harbour” or “landing place for boats” and it is used to distinguish it from a nearby inland town of the same name (minus the “skala”) eg Kalloni on Lesbos.

As such, please avoid just using the name Skala to refer to a town because it is nonsensical (unless, of course, that is its only name).

The caption on the agency photo on page 6 today referred to refugees arriving at the village of Skala on Lesbos. This was all the information provided by the agency so if we can’t verify the full name of the village it is better to avoid using it altogether if we can. (Emphasis added)

Mistakes in photographers’ caption information are a problem. They bypass the experienced eyes of the writer of the article; even when a photographer accompanies a reporter on the job, the reporter rarely sees the pics and almost never the caption details. They also often bypass the commissioning desk: news editors will try to familiarise themselves with their picture options when briefing the page designer, but not in every case; no one consults the head of foreign news on every downpage cutout or mugshot. And at the Tribune, with the amount of news being edited and published online every day, sub-editors have direct access to the photo library to select their own pictures, so many photographs launched on to the web even bypass the picture desk.

The result is that photographs and their captions have a shorter route into publication than any other piece of content except the Sudoku puzzle. In a fact-checking process that runs from reporter to news desk to sub to revise sub to (if you’re lucky) proofreader, the caption skips the first two stages altogether and, on the web, gets published after the third one, to be revised later on.

That explains why newspaper captions can tend to echo the present-tense descriptive style peculiar to agency photo information (“a man is seen waving …”) and their all-too-familiar verb choices (“celebrates”, “gestures” etc); captions get less polishing than other parts of the body text. It also explains why so much classic corrections-column material arises from how photographs are treated in the production process.

But when the error originates with the agency, what little protection there is against error disappears. If, as in the uncomfortable case of this Guardian correction, a reputable photo agency sends out a picture of a private individual who has been thrust into the news, and it turns out to be the wrong person, it’s basically uncheckable:

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Just as a sub-editor can be the single point of failure on picture choice and caption-writing, the photo agency is the single point of failure on veracity. Very few people except those acquainted with the individual in the news will know it’s a mistake, and not many of them are likely to be in the newsroom, so the first person to hear about it will probably be the readers’ editor. In the Guardian case, there was also internal miscommunication over a recall from the photo agency, but in any situation where there is a significant delay between release and retraction, the picture will be all over the web, and in Google’s caches, long before remedial action can be taken.

Many things have to fall into line for a mistake in raw copy to get all the way through to print: a misapprehension by the reporter, a fumbled effort at clarification from the desk, a sub who lets through an ambiguous paragraph, a revise sub in a hurry on deadline. But a mistake over an online photograph can happen, as it were, in a flash.

Fame at last

27 Oct
© 1994 Universal Pictures

© 1994 Universal Pictures

It’s a Hollywood movie about journalists, and it’s got everything you’d hope for: caffeinated news editors, sweaty reporters, babble, hubbub, clattering keys. But also, in the background, is a different, less familiar, sound: the voice of The Only Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film**.

In this scene from The Paper, directed by Ron Howard, it’s gone 6pm on a busy news day at the slightly hapless New York Sun. Metro editor Henry (Michael Keaton) is still chasing down a hot story about a double murder in Brooklyn as a possible new splash. But over in the corner, Lou the layout sub (Geoffrey Owens) is worried about what’s currently on page one: a legally tricky headline about the driver of a crashed subway train.

LOU: Henry, do you really want to run ‘SMASHED’ as the wood on the subway?

HENRY: (distracted) Errrrr … whatever fits. (Moving away to the reporters’ desks) I don’t care.

LOU: (calling after him) The thing is, it implies that he was drunk while he was driving a train. He could have got drunk afterwards.

ANNA: (walking past LOU’s desk) You’re accurate and ethical, and I want you out of this building.

(The camera follows HENRY as he is swept away by reporters clamouring for his attention, leaving LOU staring at the headline. Then a bright idea presents itself)

LOU: (calling faintly across the room) Hey Hen, I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark, what do you think?

(HENRY, intently watching a TV report on the murders, doesn’t reply)

LOU: (walking over) Henry: I’ve got ‘SMASHED?’ with a question mark. What do you think?

HENRY: (still distracted) Not gonna matter.

(JANET, HENRY’s secretary, comes over.)

HENRY: Did McDougall call in?

JANET: No.

HENRY: No message at all from McDougall?

JANET: I have no motive for lying, Henry.

LOU: (persisting heroically) I tell you what, Henry, I’ll make a proof of ‘SMASHED?” with a question mark and I’ll show it to you.

HENRY (barely listening): I’m going down to composing, I’ll check it out there.

(A few minutes later, in the composing room)

LOU: What do you think?

HENRY: I hate it.

Now that – that – is the sub-editing experience. Hollywood, as we’ve observed before, understands the emotional journeys of other kinds of journalists well: reporters’ doggedness rewarded, editors’ courage vindicated, whistleblowers’ satisfaction when the truth comes out. The Paper doesn’t get subbing entirely right: there seems to be only two copy editors in a large building heaving with reporters, PAs and management, whereas in any real newsroom production staff are likely to form the largest discrete group. But the idea of agonising over a headline that gets heedlessly swept off the page two hours later aches with verisimilitude. And no other film has ever managed to capture the signature sub-editorial emotion quite so well – that nervous realisation that you’re the only person, in an office of 200 people, who’s noticed something’s wrong.

 

** UPDATE: As reader Sluggh rightly points out in the comments, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed, although she spends nearly all her time in the film as an undercover reporter, is actually a copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that The Paper is the only time sub-editing is portrayed on screen. Unless someone knows different?

 

Is that finished yet?

6 Jul

 

Picture 85

Ah, the feature for page 30 is in. Thirteen hundred words of body text, headline, standfirst, pullquote, and a caption. No, wait, hang on – 44 captions.

And, just visible somewhere in the middle of the queue*, one sub-editor setting to work with a will.

Poor Robert. Wish him luck.

 

*Click to enlarge

When to delete Luhansk

17 Feb

 

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Friday afternoon, and an email comes in from our stringer in Ukraine, whose article has just gone live:

Hi guys,

I had sent an email earlier about the difference between Luhansk and Luhanske. Sorry for the confusion, but the place where I was today was Luhanske, not Luhansk as it says in the dateline right now.
Also, there is an error in the following graf; it should again be Luhanske, not Luhansk:

Burned-out trucks — some still smoking — lined the cratered highway from Artemivsk to Debaltseve, which remains in contention. Government soldiers who were trying to tow a damaged ambulance out of the partly ruined town of Luhanske admitted that anyone who went further down the highway toward Debaltseve would come under heavy fire from rebel small arms and artillery.

In this graf, however, it should be Luhansk, not Luhanske:

Two people were also killed and six wounded when a shell hit a packed cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk, a local official said, adding that other shells had struck elsewhere in the town.

In real life, there’s always some inconvenient homophone that would never be allowed to come up in fiction. Luhanske, where the stringer is, is 95 kilometres from Luhansk, right in the heart of the recent fighting around Debaltseve and one transliterated letter away from the much bigger rebel city, itself a scene of conflict in the struggle between east and west in Ukraine. And Luhansk also gives its name to the wider oblast, or province, that has declared itself a People’s Republic alongside Donetsk. (Luhanske itself is in Donetsk oblast, of course, not Luhansk oblast: that would be too easy.)

Saturday afternoon, right on deadline. The level of noise is increasing, the shouted instructions are coming faster and the production editor is handing round the international front page for a rapid press-read. The same stringer has filed a late update on the fighting from nearby Artemivsk, and it’s been hustled through the editing process and onto the page.

Although rebels have been able to virtually surround Debaltseve and pound it with rockets and artillery, the road connecting the city with Ukrainian forces in Artemivsk is not fully under either side’s control. Pro-Russia forces shelled the city 15 times and attempted to storm it early yesterday …

Yesterday a military ambulance delivered the body of a soldier killed in the village of Paschnya, which is in the no-man’s-land between Luhansk and Debaltseve, to the mortuary in Artemivsk.

Hang on. Luhansk. Is that … does he mean Luhansk? If he means the city, it’s miles away. Can there really be a no-man’s-land stretching 95 kilometres into another oblast?

Another hasty skim through the article, and there’s no sign of any reportage or sourcing from that far east: all the quotes and accounts come from forces and officials around Debaltseve. A quick check on Google Maps reveals that, yes, Debaltseve, Luhanske and Artemivsk are all close, linked by the E40 road; on the other hand, there’s absolutely no sign of a village called Paschnya anywhere. And the distraction is increased by the locator map on the page, right next to the paragraph in question: Debaltseve is marked, Donetsk is marked, and so is Luhansk, off to the east; but there’s no sign of Luhanske or Artemivsk. But then a check through the stored revisions of the article reveal that, inadvertently,  the ‘e’ was indeed deleted off “Luhanske” at an earlier stage.

The problem with journalism, or at least with newspapers, is that there’s never enough time to sort everything out properly. The fast read, panic over Luhansk, Googling and hasty conferring with a colleague has taken about two minutes. The best thing to do would be to reinstate the “e” in Luhanske, add a few lines to explain away confusion, recut the article to fit, and redraw the map at a slightly larger scale so that the town can be added to it (at its current scale, the blob for Luhanske would be right on top of the blob for Debaltseve).

But there isn’t time for that. All there’s time for is to reinstate the “e”, and, as a prophylactic against possible confusion, hurry over to the graphics desk and ask them to delete Luhansk, the city, off the map altogether, and reoutput it. There’s just enough time for it to auto-update on the page before it’s sent: at least it won’t look like a typo or lead readers astray.

Locator map

And then it was gone: the page was sent and ran like that for the first three editions. Looking back at it now, the single reference to Luhanske is a bit baffling without explanation, and, on the map, I see I completely overlooked that we’d referred to a nearby city as Horlivka in the text (which is correct Tribune style) and Gorlovka on the map (which is not).

But the stringer refiled after midnight, with a new top that explained clearly where Luhanske was: new quotes, new facts, rewritten all the way through. As the story acquired momentum through the night and into the next morning, the online version, updated regularly, was shared more than 500 times and drew more than 3,000 comments. The problems of the initial version were completely swept away.

It was just a first take; just a holding story for the early edition, before the ceasefire agreement took hold and the story really began. Some articles take a lot of effort and then only last for five hours. But you never know which ones will last and which ones will end up on the spike.

And if anyone finds Paschnya on the map, I’d be interested to know.