Wednesday, 14 March 2012

26. Avoid putting banalities in your stories (ie a budget is a budget not a “pot of cash”). They make copy look amateurish.

When I started editing a local newspaper I wanted to make a few changes - actually, I wanted to change everything.

Which isn't quite as bold as it sounds. The paper once a thriving weekly in a beautiful market town was losing ten per cent of its sales year-on-year.

If you are not prepared for change you are part of the problem.

It occurred to me that one of the issues was we were not writing for readers. Which isn't quite as daft as it sounds. People who read newspapers still read. They don't flit from article to article reading the first few...hey! come back here,

So they want something that will inform and entertain them.

What they don't want is a collection of cliches and hackneyed phrases clumped together in a 350 word page lead - tied to together with some quotes from a local councillor.

I was trying to explain this to the worst offender, a junior reporter, who "agreed" with everything I said and then did her own thing again and again....and again and again and again....

And again...and again...and again and again (ok that's enough of that).

A big part of the problem is the language we use. Sometimes you get the impression local newspaper editors hate words (see left - quite why it can't have even a few paragraphs on the front is beyond me.

Especially when even the "downmarket" Daily Star manages to fit a few precious words on the front of its pages.)

But back to my point I was left with a problem. The copy was moribund at best but what could I tell her? They weren't cliches exactly. I explained the problem to a friend, a retired English professor, giving some examples: "Ah! he said" (he was dramatic that way) "you mean banalities."

And indeed they are. Council spending comes out of budgets - it is a perfectly acceptable and understandable word. They do not have "pots of money" like some old grandmother who keeps her savings in a jar. It's a bloody budget. Two examples of how stories sound amateurish:

COUNCILS in Dorset have warned there is not enough money in the pot to repair the county’s damaged roads.

And the second:

But while the district council insists the cost of the ‘jolly’ was allocated in the budget, the authority claims there is no money left in the pot to spend on toilets.

Actually the second example simply doesn't need the "left in the pot" at all - it doesn't add anything except banality.

It's not even being used as a pun.

As always it's not difficult to find examples when you start looking. Take this 

Homes in Havering boss Sheila Belgrave has been suspended from office – but the borough’s top brass are refusing to say why!

Simply dreadful on so many different levels.

The "borough's top brass"? I mean really? What's wrong with "her managers"? or "housing chiefs" or "councillors" or "senior officers" or "the local authority".

The trouble with using banalities like this is that you are removing any gravitas from the story. This is potentially a rather serious matter but the use of "top brass" and that exclamation mark bring it down to the language of the Beano (a future blog will deal with the usage of exclamation marks).

There have been plenty of other examples all pet hates of friends and former colleagues - many of whom are respected national newspaper journalists.

What about "slammed" as in "Councillors last night slammed protesters.."? It's not so much that it should never ever be used but use it and them sparingly.

Another is "floral tributes" or "flowers" or "bouquets" or wreathes" as they are more commonly known to everyone outside of local newspapers.

I'm sure you have other examples. Please feel free to get in touch because I'd like top include them. Thanks.

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