Tag Archives: newsroom life

The Lada of success

31 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and this one:

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

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

O Capt, my Capt

16 Feb

Captain Sir Tom Moore? Sir Captain Tom Moore? Not everybody got it the right way round when the Burma veteran and beloved fundraising champion died earlier this month, but on our subs’ desk we were wrestling with a different question. Should we be abbreviating his rank?

The style guide editor emails:

There’s been a divide on this in terms of whether to abbreviate the Captain to Capt, as per the military ranks section of the style guide. That section refers to how to describe serving officers, but in Moore’s case he was retired, and had actually been promoted to honorary colonel last year. Captain Tom was the nickname by which he was known so shortening to Capt Tom seems a bit jarring. 

I understand shortening to Capt might be useful for tight furniture, but doesn’t seem necessary generally. The case seems similar to other examples where a rank has become part of a nickname or refers to a fictional character – we wouldn’t write Capt Beefheart, Col Tom Parker or ground control to Maj Tom.

Accordingly, the style guide now reads:

That seems fairly comprehensive: I don’t think even the Telegraph’s style guide addresses that last issue.

But the good thing about working at a broadsheet is that you never have to stop making distinctions. The deputy production editor replies:

In fact, he had no right to be called Capt Moore [the abbreviated form] anyway. You have to be a Major or above to retain your title in retirement (in the army; a naval captain is a higher rank, so can be retained). https://www.debretts.com/expertise/forms-of-address/professions/the-armed-forces/

Even at a left-leaning, republican-curious publication such as the Tribune, an appeal to Debrett’s like this glows with prestige. (And it can also help with some of those baffling ranks. L/CoH? No, me neither, but it’s “Lance-Corporal of the Horse”, in the Household Division.) Now the only question is: what to do about Adm Ackbar?

On air

2 Feb

A liquid nitrogen tank has ruptured in a Georgia meat plant and six people are dead, from a grim combination of freeze-burns, or suffocation, or both. However, the Tribune’s hasty first report tells readers, in the time-honoured phrase, that “the leak was contained and not airborne”. That sounds reassuring, until a technologist friend messages to say: “Really? In that case it was probably the fact that they cooled the factory to -196C that caused the problems.”

Liquid nitrogen is liquid under pressure, but vaporises at just above -200C, so when it leaks it instantly boils. At ambient temperatures it’s always a gas, and therefore always airborne. In addition to its dangerous capacity to freeze whatever it touches, in a confined space it can also displace all the breathable air and cause asphyxiation. As my technologist friend put it, “in the event that you do have a nitrogen spill, the last thing you want to do is contain it”. The best thing to do is to vent it into the outside air – which is already 78% nitrogen, after all – at which point the suffocation danger evaporates. The less contained nitrogen is, the less dangerous it is.

In the shock of the event, the media wasn’t the only institution that seemed confused about this. The phrase “contained and not airborne” appears to have originated with county education officials, per AP, who kept children indoors at a nearby school – even though, of course, the air inside was already heavy with nitrogen, as all air is everywhere. The authorities also closed the road outside the plant, out in the open air, for over half a mile in each direction.

Why? Because that’s what you do. That’s the natural instinct when, lacking technical insight, you hear of a fatal gas leak. Stay indoors, contain, evacuate. Those are also the kind of questions reporters reflexively ask at press conferences. Has the gas escaped? Is there a cloud drifting over the city? You need a certain level of scientific knowledge to appreciate that a substance can be dangerous without being poisonous and that, if so, the measures to deal with it may be significantly different to those for dealing with toxins.

In a building full of arts graduates, which is essentially what a newspaper is, there may be a dozen people who can dissect a party conference speech, but often not one with reliable knowledge of the fifth most abundant element on Earth. An arts graduate myself, I email the news desk, hesitantly explaining what’s just been explained to me. We decide to delete that line from the story and await developments. Eventually, one of the wire services has the bright idea of calling the experts for comment, and receives the following response:

That explanation finds its way into the Tribune report and everyone else’s (even though in some cases the quote from the school board is also retained). The story is clarified. But it has revealed, once again, a blind spot in the reporting process.

As journalists, we rely on ourselves for political, sporting and cultural analysis, but are almost completely dependent on outside sources in scientific matters. What we have instead is a reservoir of layperson’s assumptions, apparently similar precedents – and, sometimes, cliches – that we draw upon at the first confused press conferences after a disaster.

The Tribune has tried to address this shortcoming in the past. We have had teams of scientists visit us to try to explain what successful new medical trials do, and don’t, signify, and how they should be reported. But perhaps the most useful resource for a hard-pressed former English student is knowledgeable STM friends who are not shy of getting in touch when, say, a basic arithmetical error appears on the website. If you are a mathematician or a scientist and you know a sub-editor, don’t be afraid to call if you’ve noticed something wrong. I promise we’ll be grateful.

On the night shift

12 May

Just one more quote from Roy Shaw’s book How Newspapers Work, because I can’t resist. This time it’s his cinematic depiction of the waning hours of the night shift:

Outside the main news room the specialist writers’ rooms are in darkness. Among the series of teleprinters one machine remains switched on, still occasionally bursting into life as the tail-end of the night’s news comes through. One copy taker broods in a lonely pool of light around his typewriter, waiting for the very last of late night stories from staff reporters or local correspondents. One reporter, isolated among rows of deserted desks, waits to see if that very late story – if there is one this night – requires any attention from him.

One or two sub-editors sit among the night’s debris of scrawled-on and discarded copy paper, and page plans and tattered copies of earlier editions, rummaged through, studied and left scattered. They wait now for any attention that a late story may demand from them, buoyed up, perhaps, by the romantic notion that they may be the heroes of the night, seizing upon the great, late story and magnificently scooping their rivals with a dramatic, final change of page.

Sadly, in fact, the lot of all these “late stop” men is one of tedium followed eventually, at around four or five in the morning, by the releasing thought that whatever news comes now will be too late for that day’s paper.

That was how it was, I am sure, at a well-ordered paper produced in hot metal. On an InDesign paper, though – particularly one with a culture of revisiting pages and an endlessly excitable editor – there was altogether a lot more going on.

In the old days on the Tribune night shift, you could send four pages at 8pm for second edition, 12 pages at 10pm for third, another 12 for fourth at midnight, and then another four, if you wanted them, for the fifth at 1am. Thirty-two possible plate changes in total, and we used to use them all.

We would take over straight after the first edition had gone to press at 6pm (or, frankly, some time later). The day shift would go home, the crossover day/night workers would go for a break, the night production editor and her deputy would go into the late conference, and if you were on the 6pm-2am graveyard shift, you would be briefly left alone in the newsroom, the deserted bridge of a ship, earnestly hoping that the phone wouldn’t ring. (If it did, you would have no choice but to answer it with a crisp “Newsroom”, and then, in all probability, interrupt conference to explain in front of senior management that, eg, the front page had been sent without the barcode.)

If you were already in conference, by contrast, the editor would be flicking through the proofs in a random order with an increasing sense of restlessness, issuing a string of instructions about redesigns, story moves and page swops that you could barely scribble down fast enough. Emerging slightly dazed, with usually less than an hour to second edition, you would then have to triage the corrections for speed of completion, prioritising either the most egregious errors or the easiest ones to fix, to fill your three page slots for 8pm (the fourth being taken by the front page, which has to be sent for every edition even if it hasn’t changed).

As the crossovers returned from their breaks and the newsroom filled up again, you would push more changes out into the subs’ queue to be done in edition-time order (marked “8pm”, “10pm”, “12 or later”). Then would come the most difficult part of the evening; organising the “linked pages” of corrections.

For instance, imagine that the editor wants to make the whole of page two into a “turn page” for the splash, to give more space for the text overspilling from the front page, because new developments emerged as the first edition was going to press. To create that space, he wants to remove the turn of the other front-page story, currently at the bottom of page two, and put that on page seven, where it is vaguely thematically relevant. To make space on seven, the story in the last column will be moved to a similar sized slot on page 11, and the story currently in that slot on page 11 will be moved to page three, where it will function as a companion piece, crushed down into a short text box.

That’s a fair amount of work: re-editing the splash, re-cutting the other front-page story into a different shape, a light trim for the page seven story in its new slot, a redesign for pages two and three, and a heavy cut for the story moving from page 11. But the most significant thing about it is that none of those things can happen unless all the others happen at the same time. You can’t, say, take in the new splash with its longer turn on page two, send those two pages for third edition and then do the rest later, because the other front-page story will lose its turn and end in the middle of a sentence on page one. If you change page two and set up the new turn on page seven as well, that problem is solved, but then the story bumped off page seven will disappear for third edition readers and reappear for fourth edition readers  – hardly a satisfactory solution. And ideally, it would be best to get the updated splash on the page as soon as possible – but you have five linked pages in the run and only four slots available for 8pm. So in conference, heart sinking slightly, you scribble  1→2→7→11→3 on the top of your notepad and brace yourself for a busy third edition.

Then imagine that there is more than one run of linked pages to do that night (there often was). Or imagine that, say, the other story on the crucial page seven is also being refiled and will need a new picture, but might not be ready until close to the 10pm deadline, or might miss it altogether. Or imagine (thankfully, this is slightly before my time) that several of the linked pages in the run are in colour, but you’re only allowed a limited number of colour plate changes per edition.

It was non-stop. The hours used to fly by. After the 10pm edition, with some of the work for midnight already done, there would be time to tackle the office picnic of French bread, cheeses and salami, laid out on an empty desk. Then we would be back for another 16 plate changes – this time without the crossovers, whose shifts had come to an end. I would go home between 1am and 2am – not as bad as for Shaw’s “late stops” – fall asleep around 3:30, then wake up in late morning to the local dance station’s ambient techno show, designed to soothe people surfacing after a Saturday night on the town. It was oddly appropriate, because the night shift used to feel similarly exhausting and eventful: like clubbing, but without the euphoria.

It’s all changed now. The Tribune’s night shift was heavily reduced years ago, when cost-saving measures came in, and has been further cut back for logistical reasons during the epidemic. If there was ever a chance to sit in an Edward Hopper pool of light, waiting for the teletype machine to start clattering, it’s probably gone. And I’m grateful to have been on the day shift now these many years. But I still sometimes miss the feeling of walking into the newsroom as others are walking out, the quiet falling and the sun setting, and waiting to be handed the baton.

La Traviata and violence

24 Dec

Sondheim and gin bars. Peter Pan and air pollution. Artemis and boardgames. LA TRAVIATA AND VIOLENCE!

This is our world. This is the broadsheet chiaroscuro of the Tribune’s early pages list, waiting for us on our desks when we arrive on press day. This is what they want! (Or at least, sales are declining more slowly than they were.)

Let’s hope for more of the same next year, though with more bright skies than dark. Happy Christmas, everyone.

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.

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.

picture-135

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:

picture-31

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:

picture-35 picture-36

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:

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 23.01.53

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?