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The perils of using journalist jargon outside the newsroom

Columns 2023-02-01, 10:11pm

Jehangir Hussain

Jehangir Hussain

‘In writing corrections and corresponding directly with readers journalists usually avoid industry jargon.’

As the new year started, a correction appeared below a story on the Guardian’s website that left some readers baffled and amused. It read: “This article was amended on 3 January 2023. The original furniture said the fireworks display was on Christmas Eve.”

“Oh, please do put a correction beneath this correction,” wrote one reader, “Unless you actually have a talking armoire in the Guardian offices.”

Another message, headed, “Please correct today’s fab Grauniad bloomer!”, went on to guess at what was meant: “‘Furniture’, should read, I surmise, ‘feature’.”

Actually, no. “Furniture” was exactly what was meant by the journalist who added that footnote, since it is a term (fully “page furniture”) used to describe the various elements on a print or web page, such as headlines and picture captions, apart from the article text and photos. Whether the word ought to have appeared is another matter. In writing corrections and corresponding directly with readers we usually avoid industry jargon. We also aim to be more precise. Accordingly, the footnote was revised to say: “The original subheading said the fireworks display was on Christmas Eve.”

Clarity does nonetheless mean readers are deprived of some colourful vernacular, and for those who would enjoy greater familiarity with it, here is a bit more.

Individual items of furniture have their own names. The explanatory text below a headline – described in that footnote as a subheading – is typically referred to between journalists as a “standfirst”. Or it is in the UK, at least. Naturally there are differences between nations and news organisations in the English-speaking world, so in Australia, for example, I’m told it is more commonly called the “write-off” (aka “woff”) or teaser, while in North America it is more likely to be the “deck”. On that side of the Atlantic, the caption below a picture also becomes a “cutline”.

Other bits of furniture include the dateline, which says where a journalist is reporting from – historically with the date of dispatch, eg “Buenos Aires, 1 March”; the pull quote, which is a quote extracted from an article and displayed prominently in the layout; and the crosshead, a short heading between paragraphs that breaks up a long piece. Fear not, there’s one coming below.

But “furniture”, although well used, is not known in all newsrooms, and one is curious to know whence and when it arrived. Tony Harcup enshrined the term in 2014 in his comprehensive A Dictionary of Journalism, and it is certainly referenced as though established in media books from the mid-1990s. Some earlier sources I have seen suggest it had been a phrase used for non-text elements of page design, such as rules and symbols, but no doubt someone with a long memory will set me straight.

Harold Evans’ five-volume Manual of English, Typography and Layout, published in 1972, has an extensive glossary that makes no mention of page furniture. Instead, it has an entry for “furniture” with quite a different meaning back then: it was the little pieces of wood or metal used to fill in blank spaces between the type in the days of hot metal printing.

Some language from a bygone age happily endures: the term “off-stone”, the time at which newspaper pages go to print, is still in daily use here and derives from the large stone (later steel) surface on which pages were once made up.

I am grateful to a number of journalists who responded enthusiastically when I sought help with this column (any mistakes are of course mine alone), and was especially taken with being introduced to “dinkus”, an Australian news industry term for the small photo of an article’s author, which in other places is known as a headshot or byline picture. (More generally a dinkus is a small ornamentation, usually three asterisks, that break up sections of a book chapter, article or other written text.)

In the UK, the first paragraph of a story is generally called the “intro”, while in the US and Canada in particular it is usually the “lead” or “lede”. Both give rise to expressions used on occasions when the most significant detail is lurking lower down the story: that is called “burying the lede” or a “dropped intro”. Either can be applied quite usefully outside newsrooms, I find.

But multiple terms for the same thing are not always helpful. The unbylined (no name attached) article that gives the opinion of the newspaper can be called an editorial, leader, leading article or leader column, and we have used all four terms in the Guardian’s corrections column. For consistency – and because it appears to be the most familiar internationally – we will from now on use only “editorial”.

As a postscript, it  was fascinated to read Evans’ glossary to find, just below “furniture”, an entry for “FYI”. He explained “for your information” was a wire service abbreviation. It had never occurred to me that this initialism, familiar from text messages and work emails, had its origins in news reporting. With help from archivists at Associated Press (AP) and Reuters, and a willing executive at the UPI news agency, I have been on its trail.

The earliest reference was found in a 1915 cutting from the Salt Lake Telegram newspaper, where a business journalist dropped “FYI” into an article, then explained its meaning to readers, adding: “It’s just a little thing that saves space on a telegraph message”. (In those days telegraph companies charged by the word.) But he complained it “jolted” him when he first saw it, and that it was not “in the book”.

The book may have been Philips Telegraphic Code,first published in 1879 to assist the rapid transmission of press reports from wire services to client newspapers. Francesca Pitaro, archivist at AP, kindly checked the 1914 edition and found no mention. Did the abbreviation arrive only in 1915, or did it spring independently?