House style… just a waste of time?

This post was originally written in 2013 and has been updated.

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, in a journalism context, they are called sub-editors (or subs). They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful.

That’s because much of the text disseminated by the world’s media passes before their eyes and gets fixed, or changed, or mutilated, or left alone. They correct grammar and spelling, they rewrite clumsy phrases, they cut copy to fit an allocated space and in most publications they write headlines. So far, so familiar – most people who read newspapers or news websites or magazines are aware that such people exist and have a vague idea of what they do.
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Simple HTML for content creators

No one becomes a journalist or a writer because they are interesting in coding.*

And yet, here we all are producing content for websites – which means that the text we produce will inevitably be underpinned by code.

For all the everyday things that we do to text for the web, the underlying language is something called HTML (or hypertext mark-up language).
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Facts, opinions and the Jacques Pauw affair

In 2018, I wrote an impassioned article about “the Sunday Times issue”, which took a long look at how trust is earned and maintained in journalism.

That article looked at the traditional ways in which accuracy is maintained in the journalism production process, and supported the call for an inquiry into how a major South African newspaper got things spectacularly wrong.

That inquiry is now finished, and the South African National Editors’ Forum has issued the report.

This week, I had intended to look at what that report said about journalism in South Africa. But something else has happened: the Jacques Pauw affair.

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If there is only one thing a journalist does, it should be this…

Note: This post was written in April 2018. It has been slightly updated.

When I was growing up, there were clear divisions in the world. In apartheid South Africa there was the big divide between black and white. On the white side of that line, though, there was another division – between English-speakers and Afrikaans-speakers. And one of the consequences of that division was inevitable, at least on my side of the fence: school children hated learning the “other” language. Afrikaans lessons were dreaded and derided, exams and tests were got through as best we could.

And then came Mrs Visser, the high school teacher who made Afrikaans cool. She was thin, edgy and glamorously dressed (and given to smoking in the corridor whenever she could). She was passionate about Afrikaans and an inspired teacher. Suddenly I was reading stormy Afrikaans romances, and ploughing my way through Raka (an epic poem by NP Van Wyk Louw), newly in love with a beautiful language.

And that reading paid off – I managed an A in Afrikaans in my matric exams.

I often think of Mrs Visser when I am training young journalists. She understood one of the fundamental building blocks of learning another language: that you have to read as much as you can in that language. That, of course, goes hand in hand with hearing that language and immersing yourself in the spoken word.
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Simple SEO for journalists

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is not part of a journalist’s traditional skill set.

In fact, there are probably some journalists who don’t know what it is. And those that do know what it is probably think it has to do with the dark arts of marketing.

They would be right – there’s a lot of marketing thinking in SEO. But there are also good reasons for journalists to establish a nodding acquaintance with some basic SEO techniques. Stories written by journalists (or bloggers, or marketers) live online, and you want people to be able to find them – if only for reasons of ego.
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