“The editorial equivalent of clubbing a baby seal to death”

South China Morning Post

The best part of waking up is hilariously bad writing under your cup

That is how one commenter aptly describes this brutal deconstruction of a column by Tammy Tam, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post. Keep in mind as you read it that the SCMP is the most prestigious English-language newspaper in Asia:

It was while I was in the thick of deciphering the intended meaning of Tam words and rewriting them into coherent utterances that I gained a sense of Tam’s ineptitude as a writer: whatever Tam had applied herself to in the past, toiling at the keyboard – so necessary a part of any writer’s growth – wasn’t one of them. So, just as some people think any able-bodied person can lift her leg and “dance”, Tam probably approached column-writing assuming any literate person can string sentences together and “write.” […]

How did someone with Tam’s shoddy English got herself installed as the chief editor of an English-language paper in a cosmopolitan city? In recent years, Beijing has made many moves to curtail the freedom of expression in Hong Kong; Tam’s appointment can be understood as just one of such measures. And from Beijing’s point of view, the need to have a loyalist helm the SCMP is so pressing that the optics of Tam dancing like Dean’s sister in the paper every week is of negligible importance.

Tam’s column is really, really bad. The critique of it, on the other hand, is a delightful act of editorial cruelty.

While we’re on the topic, here’s China’s state media lecturing Canada about journalistic ethics:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Saturday that he had “asked for and accepted John McCallum’s resignation as Canada’s Ambassador to China,” after McCallum told the Toronto Star Friday that “if (the US) drops the extradition request, that would be great for Canada.” Joanna Chiu, assistant managing editor of StarMetro Vancouver, directly triggered the resignation after making McCallum’s words public. On Twitter, Chiu described how she got the exclusive interview with McCallum and showed off her scoop. But Chiu’s behavior made her look like a paparazzo instead of a serious journalist. It’s not hard to imagine the serious consequences if such important news is reported in a “paparazzi” way. […]

Canada’s current public opinion won’t help the country resolve [Huawei CFO] Meng’s case reasonably. Some Canadian media and reporters, especially Joanna Chiu, have played an irresponsible role. They are pushing the Trudeau administration further into a dilemma, leaving Ottawa no choice but to stand against Beijing. This is not what a professional journalist would do.

The Trudeau government must properly deal with China-Canada relations, or it should be prepared for Beijing’s further retaliation.

Mediacide

The job market for wordsmiths appears to be taking a turn for the worse. From Mike Rosenberg of the Seattle Times:

Mike Rosenberg @ByRosenberg

Media cuts in last 2 weeks
*BuzzFeed: 15% of staff laid off (215 people)
*McClatchy (Miami Herald, KC Star, etc): 10% of staff offered buyouts
*Gannett newspaper chain: 400 layoffs
*Verizon (HuffPost, TechCrunch, etc): 7% laid off (800 people)
*Vice laying off 10% (250 people)

11:06 AM – 1 Feb 2019

(That’s over 1,665 people.)

Mike Rosenberg @ByRosenberg

These journalism cuts come despite record readership at a lot of places – but the digital ad money goes mostly to Google and Facebook and is so puny it can’t support news orgs. That’s why you see paywalls everywhere now – subscriptions are the only sustainable revenue source

Here’s a good overview of what’s going on that gives a more nuanced picture than the usual explanations that lay all the blame on Google and Facebook.

Short words are better than long words

 

George Orwell typing typewriter

Every writer (of any kind) really needs to read George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Therein you will find at least 40% of what you ever need to know about the principles of good writing, especially nonfiction writing.

Orwell’s rules of thumb are timeless and they include:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Winston Churchill, who also knew a thing or two about good writing, is quoted as saying:

Broadly speaking, short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.

In a similar vein, Orwell advised:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Fortunately for him, Orwell lived before the time of hideous corporate jargon and marketing buzzwords, such as “client-centric,” “leverage,” “touchpoint,” and “redundancy offer.” None of those linguistic travesties would survive the Orwellian pruning shears.

There is also the annoying phenomenon of hijacking perfectly good words and phrases for other purposes. For example, I heard the term “fire drill” a lot when working in corporate America. Apparently, it refers to a situation where you need to drop everything and work overtime to prevent a colossal f*ck-up from escalating into a DEFCON 1 emergency. I didn’t know this at first, so I thought people were talking about literal fire drills, which as you can imagine was confusing.

Americans also have a bad habit of misusing nouns as verbs, like “impact,” and misusing verbs as nouns, like “build.” Perhaps the most awful example of this is the use of the verb “ask” as a noun, as in: “That’s a big ask.” No, that’s a big request. There is no such thing as “an ask.” The English language is fluid but that doesn’t entitle you to communicate like you were raised by wolves.

“Ask,” by the way, is an exception to Orwell’s rule about using short words instead of long ones. In this case, the better and more correct word is longer. So the rules should be seen as general guidelines rather than ironclad dogma.

Likewise, there are many cases where it is justified to sprinkle longer or “fancier” synonyms throughout the text in order to create variety and avoid monotony. For example, rather than use the verb “fired” seven times in an article – as in the company fired him – I might substitute the words “dismissed” or “sacked” or “gave him the pink slip” for some of those usages. Remember, though, that readability is the key. I would tend to use the shorter word first, and move on to longer or more elaborate synonyms only later and only if I felt that repeating the original word would be too boring.

The above exceptions to the rule would be my only quibble with this article in Lifehacker, which is otherwise quite correct, IMHO:

So sometimes we write stuff that we’d never say aloud. We use a complicated or “smart-sounding” word when a simpler word would work better. New York Times editor Dan Saltzstein listed some great examples on Twitter. They pop up in news media, but also in “business speak.” If you’re trying to write effectively, watch out for these:

Dear editors:
Closed > shuttered
Restaurant > eatery
Begin > commence
Open > launch
Use > utilize
(What am I missing?)
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) December 23, 2018

There are many more useful examples in the article, so it’s worth checking out.

Arigato (2018 edition)

Thank you for coming our presure

Thanks to all of you who follow this humble blog. I appreciate your interest and hope you find The Greg Zone™ sufficiently edifying and amusing that you keep coming back for more. If you really like it, please consider signing up to receive a daily email update so you don’t miss out on the latest sardonic hot takes and worrying ruminations from our crack team of professional reality-curators. It’ll go well with your morning coffee.

You may have noticed that I’ve been ramping up my posting frequency in recent months, with the aim (not always achieved) of updating the blog at least once a day. We’re now up to more than 400 posts in total. Based on Google Analytics and WordPress data of dubious reliability, here are some of the most popular items I’ve posted over the last couple of years:

Enjoy, and see you in 2019!

The definition of literary failure

It can’t get much worse than this:

We spoke about a scene at the end of the film, when Dovlatov has had yet another story rejected and has failed even at conformism, unable to produce a minimally suitable poem for a trade publication for Soviet oil workers.

Ouch!

Sergei Dovlatov was a Russian author who was unable to publish in the Soviet Union and only achieved recognition after emigrating to the US in 1979. Here’s a trailer for the movie that the article is talking about:

Being an unpublishable writer in the Soviet Union:

In “Dovlatov,” German, Jr., presents that feeling of trauma with a tinge of romance—the poetry readings in cramped living rooms, the accumulation and discarding of both lovers and vodka bottles with equal listlessness, the long, uneventful, repetitive days with nothing to do but debate art and literature—a black hole that sucks up one’s energy and best years.

Russia says Browder associates donated $400,000 (not $400M) to Clinton campaign

Putin said at yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki that business associates of Bill Browder “have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

I was struck by that shocking claim, which The New York Times tried but was unable to verify.

Well, now it appears that either Putin misspoke, or his statement was mistranslated. The actual alleged figure is $400,000, according to the Russian Prosecutor General. Here’s the story in Russian. Since I cannot read Russian, below is an except of the story after being run through Google Translate. I can’t find any references to this story in English:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference on Monday after talks with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki that Browder’s business partners illegally earned more than $ 1.5 billion in Russia and sent $ 400 million to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

“Later, the president asked us to correct his reservation, which he made yesterday, not 400 million, but 400,000, but that’s quite a huge sum,” the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

You read it here first in English.

UPDATE: Correction, you read it here second. Looks like I missed this English-language report by TASS:

The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is ready to send a request for the questioning of staffers of US intelligence services and public officers within the framework of a criminal case against Hermitage Capital founder William Browder, prosecutors’ spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told a briefing on Tuesday.

“Within the framework of a probe into a criminal case against William Browder and his criminal group, we are ready to send another request to the US competent agencies for a possibility to question these staffers of US special services, some other public officers of the US and a number of entrepreneurs in order to later charge them with the crimes committed by Browder,” Kurennoy said.

Browder has transferred $400,000 to accounts of the US Democratic Party, Kurennoy said.

“Browder’s criminal group funneled $1.5 billion from Russia into tax havens. Of this sum, at least $400 million was transferred to the Democratic Party’s accounts. Afterwards, our president asked us to correct the sum for $400,000 from $400 million,” Kurennoi said.

Axios cites me

piece in Axios discussing a report on the precipitous decline of Chinese investment in the US in 2017, and what it means:

When Chinese investment in U.S. companies plunged by 83% last year, it was the result of Beijing’s crackdown on capital. But it also reflected a reckoning for four Chinese titans who Beijing cut down to size, according to new research. […]

  • But, but, but: When Ma looked at the individual investments, she saw that just four companies — what MacroPolo calls the Group of 4 — accounted for 61%, or $34 billion, of China’s entire 2016 investment.
  • The four: Anbang Insurance, HNA Group, Oceanwide Holdings and Wanda Group.
  • Absent those six deals, 2016 would have been just a tad higher than the three prior years, Ma writes.

Beijing noticed too: For years, Beijing has encouraged China’s companies to “go out” and invest around the world. But that’s not how the government viewed the Group of 4, which it proceeded to treat as something akin to traitors. […]

Oceanwide appears to be the exception. Just two weeks ago, it got final approval for yet another U.S. deal — a $3.8 billion takeover of Genworth Financial, an insurance company, reports Mingtiandi’s Greg Isaccson.

The article cited is “China Oceanwide Gets US Green Light for $3.8B Genworth Deal.”

Lu Zhiqiang Oceanwide

Oceanwide chairman Lu Zhiqiang is the only member of China’s outbound investment Gang of Four to escape Beijing’s regulatory wrath

Can confirm

…Or can I?

Journalists’ brains show a lower-than-average level of executive functioning, according to a new study, which means they have a below-average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking.

The study, led by Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, analysed 40 journalists from newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online platforms over seven months. The participants took part in tests related to their lifestyle, health, and behaviour.

It was launched in association with the London Press Club, and the objective was to determine how journalists can thrive under stress. It is not yet peer reviewed, and the sample size is small, so the results should not be taken necessarily as fact.

Each subject completed a blood test, wore a heart-rate monitor for three days, kept a food and drink diary for a week, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.

The results showed that journalists’ brains were operating at a lower level than the average population, particularly because of dehydration and the tendency of journalists to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine, and high-sugar foods.

😃😂

Compared with bankers, traders, or salespeople, journalists showed that they were more able to cope with pressure.

I found this curious, so I read the linked study for more detail. In fact, the study does not say this at all.

The results, however, showed that the journalists were on average no more physically stressed than the average person. The blood tests showed that their levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — were mostly normal.

“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” the study says.

Every occupation has its pros and cons…

Also of interest from the study (emphasis mine):

Silencing the Mind.

This behaviour refers to purposeful sessions to enhance focus and/or to allow thoughts without reacting, thereby preventing worrying about the future or regretting the past (i.e. the practice of mindfulness). Mindfulness promotes a relaxed physiological state at the level of the hypothalamus and amygdala and enhances the ability to focus and sustain attention at the level of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It promotes brain cell formation in the hippocampus and reduces the sensitivity of the amygdala, calming it down and promoting clarity of mind.

Low scores for silencing the mind indicates a lack of mindfulness practice amongst the surveyed population. This can manifest itself in reduced executive functioning, which corresponds to the result above. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens the folds of the pre-frontal cortex enhancing executive function.

Money talks, pageviews walk

A nice lesson about the advantages of quality vs. clickbait in journalism:

So far, Mike Rosenberg, a real estate reporter, is seeing that his in-depth and time-consuming work often drives more subscriptions than the work that took an hour but went viral, he said.

Last year, Rosenberg spent a lot of time on a story about how Amazon made Seattle the country’s biggest company town. It ran on the front page on Sunday and influenced 140 subscriptions, more than anything else he’s covered in his two years at the Times.

He also wrote a quick story last year about tiny apartments. It was the most-read story on the day it was published and got about 100,000 pageviews. It influenced about seven people to subscribe.

“The consensus is we’d rather have a story that had a smaller number of good readers who wind up subscribing than a viral story that a bunch of people in New York and Chicago read but will never come back to Seattle again.”

This isn’t really surprising when you think about it. There is, in general, a proportional relationship between the time/sweat that goes into a project, and the size of the ultimate payoff.

In the case of The Seattle Times, I would think that subscriptions are a more relevant measure of success than pageviews, as subscriptions equal money, while pageviews only indirectly generate money by luring more advertisers to the site. And clicks (like glory) are fleeting. As one Twitter user notes:

I could have said the same thing about blogging. The little viral posts that put a spike in your traffic don’t do much for long term growth. Controversy “for the hits” never pays off, & it’s annoying to be accused of that.

Virality is nice, but subscriptions pay the bills. And you can’t eat clicks for dinner.

Now having said that, I believe that viral articles are useful for branding purposes and to spice up the content of a site and provide some variety and relief to the reader. Viral articles are great, but they should be the seasoning rather than the main content.

That is, unless your business model is based on clickbait, in which case good luck.