My dad has been a journalist for years. He has written for papers, run his own newspapers, magazine, radio programs and still writes when he has something to say. He is actively political and writes because that’s how he gets his message across. I studied politics, twice, but don’t always have something say. .
On a car journey years ago he was telling me about a young journalist who had written an article about which began: ‘God sat on his throne and smiled at the beauty of the day’ or something similar. ‘Quick’ said his editor, ‘get me a quote from God’.
His point was the same one as Terry McDermott notes in his article ‘A Thousand Cuts’ about the difference between reporting and blogging. McDermott’s word ‘slumbered’, used to describe two political candidates in a meeting, was changed to ‘lumbered’. He was asked if they actually slept through it. The reply was no, that it was meant figuratively, not literally. “We don’t use figurative language here” he was told.
The ‘here’ in the previous paragraph refers to a newspaper and while I have never worked at one, I grew up with many a journalistic word of warning and was raised to ensure that every glance I took, at a piece of writing, was a critical one. I once categorically refused to allow someone to use the phrase ‘manicured lawn’ in a piece they were writing. The word manicure refers specifically to taking care of the hand from the Latin word ‘manus‘ (as in manual, in terms of labour, not an instruction manual), I told them.
Another of my dad’s favourites was the discussion on what is news. Dog bites man is not news but man bites dog… now there you have a story. A common journalistic cliche in any language but one turned on its head in Terry Pratchett‘s book The Truth. The first newspaper in Ankh Morpork is the subject of this tale and the former Western Daily Press journalist manages to turn the cliche into something all the more witty and self-referential. Half way through the book, and probably only a month or so after I was adamant about manicuring the lawn, I saw that he went and used the same phrase. Who was in the wrong?
I started writing this post as I was catching up on last week’s FT Weekend and had just read an article by Chris Giles on George Osborne’s trip to China. The headline is ‘China takes an interest in Osborne’s reading list‘, the emphasised part is ‘Countries with high budget deficits must show the world they can deal with those deficits’. My favourite bit is the Chinese vice premier telling Osborne of his love for Jane Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. “The Treasury could not confirm last night which were the chancellor’s favourites, nor whether he had read them.” It was a smile of a moment in an otherwise straight report on a visit. FT house style and everything.
McDermott’s article contrasted blogging and reporting and it’s a much agonised distinction on both sides of the writing medium (professional and not). The point may be that, while the medium is the focus of the argument, the conversation will fail to die down. When you have nothing to say then the way you write may be the only thing left to talk about.
As my sister reminds me now and then, Ephemeral Digest is a blog, and I can write what I want. I am privileged to not have to worry about what constitutes news and what makes an article. Now and then I do worry about it but a funny moment in a broadsheet reminds me that there’s always a balance out there.
My dad’s advice wasn’t just a way of discussing writing. He was trying to tell me how to best get my message across. My ambition is to find more ways to do that so I’ll happily stumble along and be creative when necessary. Until grass grows hands, however, I won’t be manicuring any lawns. That’s a promise.