SubScribe: March 2016 Google+

Sunday 20 March 2016

The North begins in Norfolk and Northamptonshire

North-South divide
The yellow line shows the North-South divide in Timesland.
"Northern" villages and their latitudes are in purple, southern ones in red

Where does the North begin? Sheffield? Nottingham? Watford Gap?
Not if you write for The Times. 

Over the past few days a series of puffs for "the best place to live" have turned up on Facebook. Friday's Bricks and Mortar supplement focused on the best market towns, but earlier in the week the website looked at "the 20 best villages in the south" and "the 20 best northern villages".
If you want to live in a chocolate box constantly harassed by people peeking through your windows in search of a hazelnut praline or if you have a hankering to rub shoulders with a D-lister in the pub, then these are as good a guide as any.
But where they really excel is as an example of vacuous metropolitan journalism on the cheap. 

According to this, the Midlands don't exist and the North starts around latitude 52, just above the Cotswolds. It apparently encompasses everything from South Wales and East Anglia to the Shetlands.
It includes the villages of West Runton and Burnham Market in Norfolk, Colwall and the Hanleys in Hereford and Worcester, Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire, and Bournville in Birmingham. 

Grantchester near Cambridge is, however, in the South - even though at 52.17 it is marginally further north than the Hanleys and Colwall.
Others narrowly missing being cast off with the grim crew Up North include Great Tew in Oxfordshire (51.96), Bledlow in Buckinghamshire (51.7) and Boxford, Suffolk (52.03). 

It's absurd, of course. It shows a lack of geographical knowledge and a Londoncentric mindset. 

Geography aside, what are the plus points for the featured villages?

Top of the pops is Pittenweem in Fife, which has "craft boutiques, a smart chocolate cafe and the obligatory fish and chip shop". Cartmel in Cumbria (3rd) is the birthplace of sticky toffee pudding and has a Michelin-star restaurant. Plockton in the Highlands (6th) was the location for The Wicker Man and has a post office and an award-winnning gastropub. Burnham Market (8th) is known as Chelsea-on-Sea, has chic boutiques, a beauty spa in the pub and is home to Johnny Depp (maybe), Bill Bryson, Amanda Holden and John Hurt. The Red Lion in Yardley Hastings (18th) holds quiz nights.
Well you don't find those everywhere. 
And what's "best of all" about Bournville (12th)? "It's only 12 minutes from Birmingham New Street and conveniently situated between the M5 and M42."
So you can escape back to civilisation, ie a city.

Back in the real world of the South, top billing goes to the Sibfords in Oxfordshire, which is less than an hour from London by train, has the best doctor's surgery in the county, and independent schools close to hand. Tisbury in Wiltshire, which comes in second, is "popular with senior army officers who can leave their families while they're away". What?
Further down the league come villages that are home to Valerie Singleton, Harry Enfield, the Stig and Mel C and some that were used as film locations. Most have pubs, some have fetes. It's quite extraordinary.

Goodness knows what the point is of all this. The Sunday Times's property supplement has today published part two of its "best places to live" feature, so maybe it's supposed to tie in with that. But the ST - which awarded its crown to Winchester - did at least go into some detail and even explain its methodology and criteria. The Times's stuff is a sub-local paper googlefest written by a ubiquitous freelancer. 

But every cloud...
In picking the same old, same old pretty pretty villages, the real hidden gems remain hidden. Which is probably just the way the people who live there like it.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Roll up for the shrinking splash steeplechase

(Please scroll down for daily updates)


It's Cheltenham Festival week, so SubScribe is sponsoring a steeplechase.
The winner will be the paper that squeezes the news hardest to give maximum space to encouraging people who probably can't afford it to invest what little money they have on horses that probably won't win.
There are five entrants so far and they will have to go some to match the Daily Express's Grand National record last year, when it beat the Daily Star by a short head in managing to do away with the news altogether.

Grand National fronts April 2015

The Star, however, set a record of its own with the shortest splash heading of all time.

Monday front pages

As the runners entered the paddock on Monday, the Star was showing the class you'd expect of the favourite. There was just a single line for Cheltenham, but it had marked rivals' cards in a huge self-promotion at the top jeering at the Sun, Mirror and New Day. The splash had already been reduced to less than a third of the page - and even then it found room for a naked couple "romping".
The Mirror and Sun barely tried with conventional puffs at the top, while the Express kept its powder dry pretending the festival didn't exist.

Tuesday front pages

Approaching the starting gate on Tuesday, the Star was still in mocking mood, and it was already focusing on the prize. A free £10 bet, a free 12-page pullout and a Paddy Power ad meant the splash was reduced to 14.5% of the front. 
The Sun, Mirror and Express all gave half of their pages to their lead stories, The Express sandwiched its report on old age (with obligatory picture of Her Majesty) between its pullout/free bet promo and the same Paddy Power ad as its sister.
The Mirror had a bigger pullout, but was offering readers only £5 to squander. The Sun didn't seem to have its heart in it, with a smaller puff for a £1 bet and no supplement.

Telegraph Tuesday

The Telegraph turned up with a big picture of horses taking their early morning exercise and a solid Coral ad, but no one sees the paper as a real contender.
Betting update: Daily Star 1/5, Sun 2/1, Express 7/4, Mirror 5/1, Mail 25/1, Telegraph and Times 100/1, Guardian 200/1, Independent 500/1.

Cheltenham papers, 16-03-16

And they're off!

The Sun and Star came storming out of the stalls on Wednesday as the race finally got underway.

The Sun produced some surprise tactics with its unsavoury lead story which meant that, with its 16-page supplement and the promise of a £1 bet, Cheltenham occupied more than 90% of the front - but the splash was still a proper size.

Hot favourite the Star also found a lead "story" at the festival that allowed it to use a picture of a woman's breasts. At 17.5% of the front page, the splash was bigger than Tuesday's, but there was still no room for anything other than the racing and self-promotion on the front. The day's special offers were a 12-page pullout and a £2 bet, with a Paddy Power ad completing the package.

Making an unexpected early showing was rank outsider the Independent, with a Ruby Walsh picture that took up nearly half the front and reduced the Syrian splash to just 17% of the front - making it the smallest of the day. Tipsters remained doubtful, however, that the Indie could last the course on this its last outing before it is put out to pasture (aka sent to the knacker's yard) at the end of the month.

Lurking behind the front-runners, the Mirror had ground to make up with its splash marginally bigger than its Cheltenham puff - a £5 bet and 12-page supplement.

The Express meanwhile called up its royal horsewoman Zara Tindall to bolster its £2 bet and "essential" pullout, but it was clearly pacing itself. Watch out for big ads to push it towards the front as the race progresses.

Telegraph and Mail 16-03-16

The Telegraph was already depending on advertisers to keep it in the race, with another Coral ad taking up a fifth of the front. SubScribe particularly likes the bit in yellow that says "When the fun stops STOP".

The Express's festival guide was "essential". The Mail, showing a desultory interest in the chase, dawdled out of the starting gates with a banner offering an eight-page pullout which was, of course, superb. Tennis and hypocrisy are far more to the paper's taste than racing -  unless the Queen happens to be watching the horses.

As the runners approach the scary Budget fence, there could be quite a shake-up among the leaders come Thursday before the final Gold Cup straight on Friday.

The space stakes (space devoted to Cheltenham and puffs)

Daily Star 100%, The Sun 93%, Independent 83%,  Mirror 37.5%, Express 32%, Mail 30%, Telegraph 20%

Cheltenham front pages

The Star soared over the Budget jump without any change of pace, landing with another 17.5% splash, and the Mirror gained ground by increasing the puff and cutting the splash to just half the page. It also added value to the promo, supplementing the free 12-page pullout and £5 bet with "all the silks, all the tips, all the form". 
The Sun slipped back, unable to resist the opportunity of putting a woman in a bathing costume on the front alongside the Chancellor. The Express also lost ground without a "filly" to hand. It was also probably distracted by the anti-Europe twigs sticking out of the Budget fence.

mail cheltenham puffs

The Mail, still failing to show any form, went from offering a "superb" pullout to a "brilliant" pull-out, complete with new hyphen. It clearly wasn't focusing properly. The Express's supplement remained "essential".
The Telegraph maintained its pace thanks to the Coral ad, but, as many had feared, the Independent was a faller. 
With just the Gold Cup straight to go, the Star seems to be cruising home.

In the end it was a two-horse race with the Sun well beaten into third by the fast-finishing Mirror. But no one could touch the Star, which passed the post with a well-below-its-best 13% splash. The Mirror, improving on the home straight, came in at 35%. 
Disappointed punters pointed to the bigger headline and smiling Cameron and Osborne pictures, which cost the Mirror dear, but the Star was unmatched in all areas, squeezing in a heading, subhead, Wayne Rooney photograph and a pair of flags and 33 words of text. The Mirror indulged in twice as many words.
The Sun was distracted at the last by the lottery, yet still managed to achieve a page on which 91% of the available space was devoted to promoting the joys of gambling.

mail and express puffs

In the competition for the most space devoted to Cheltenham - the equivalent, perhaps, of the best turned-out horse - the Mail put on a late burst to eclipse the Express, and almost match the Star. The Desmond stable runners both produced bigger puffs but squandered space on attacking rivals.

The Mail also ran past the Telegraph, which tried its best with a combination of ad and puff to reach 27%.  The i came out of nowhere to trot up to the finishing post in seventh with a cheeky little Victoria Pendelton puff that completely ignored the Gold Cup.
i Cheltenham puff

Gold Cup day space stakes results: 
Daily Mirror 52%
The Sun 38%
Daily Star 34%
Daily Mail 33%
Daily Telegraph 27%
Daily Express 17.5%
i 4%

The race may be over, but what's the betting that even Shrinking Splash non-runners will show their colours in the winners' enclosure tomorrow?

Ah yes, betting.
In case you hadn't realised, that's what this is all about. Sport is one thing, but all these acres of newsprint aren't being filled with sport. They're being used to promote gambling. 
Imagine these levels of front-page space given over to booze offers. Gambling is every bit as addictive as alcohol and has an equally devastating effect on families. 
Who could put it better than the Star in the run-up to last year's Grand National? And even then, without a hint of irony, it put a little lottery story on the left to up the ante. 

star betting

We've got all this to come next month. I can hardly wait.

Monday 14 March 2016

It's a journalist's job to smell a rat

original facebook post

At 7 o'clock last Thursday evening a man called Tony Smith posted a photograph of his friend James Green on Facebook. Green was holding a litter picker, which in turn held what looked like the world's biggest rat.

The picture was shared hundreds of times and turned up in my own timeline at 10 the next morning, courtesy of my daughter, along with the message: "More mutant rats for you to write about".
From the moment I saw it, I was in no doubt about what would make the Daily Star splash the next morning. Giant rats and killer spiders are staples for the Star when Big Brother is off air and no one is being bullied in the jungle.

daily star splash

Sure enough, there it was on Saturday, presented with a totally straight face and without a smidgen of doubt:

"A giant rat the size of a child has been snared by a gas worker. Now there are fears the mutant super rodents could soon overrun Britain. Full story, page 5

daily star page 5

There we were told:

"A massive super-rat  'bigger than a child' has been snared by a terrified worker amid fears they are taking over Britain.
"Gas engineer Tony Smith, 46, said he came across the four-foot rodent and grabbed it as another pest scarpered away.
"He then got his pal to pose up with the beast before warning the public about the huge vermin. The mutant rat, which weighed about 25lbs and lived on fried chicken, was spotted dead in a bush near a children's playground.
"Tony snapped a picture of the beast held by electrician pal James Green, 46. He said the creature, nicknamed Ratty, was the same length as a four-year-old boy.
"He added: 'I've got a cat and a Jack Russell and it was bigger than both of those put together. It would kill a cat....'"
Later in the story "one worker, who did not want to be named" told the paper:
"The council do not want people to know about these rats because they are worried it will scare everyone. But people need to know.
"It scared the life out of me. I didn't sleep a wink last night after seeing it. They are huge and scary."
We are then reminded of a previous rat scare from last month and experts are quoted saying that poison-resistant rodents have been on the increase.

So there we have it. 
These chaps found a rat, gave it a name and worked out its height, weight and diet.They were concerned for the public, but didn't think to take the "beast" to the council's pest control department or anyone in authority. They just took a picture and dumped it in a bin. 

Its all nonsense, of course. But the Star would never pass up a story like this. It has form:
daily star rats

Only spiders excite the paper more:
daily star spiders

...although going to the seaside has recently become more perilous:

daily star seaside

Now we've had our fun, let's set the Star aside and look at the rest of our media.

mutant rat tweets

The BBC, London Evening Standard, Mail online and Sky News all followed up that Facebook post on Friday with tweets and web reports. Hackney Council tweeted its response, including photographs of one of its staff with a soft toy to show how forced perspective can make something look bigger than it really is. The BBC's online Newsbeat page rubbished the picture from the word go, with a Liverpool university professor pointing out that you couldn't pick up something weighing 25lbs with a litter picker. 

forced perspective

Other people tweeted examples of forced perspective and a scientist at UCL called Oliver O'Brien showed his workings to back up his calculation that the rat was probably about 2ft long (still pretty monstrous).

mail and guardian online

Newspaper websites were making hay, but gradually a note of scepticism crept into the coverage. Mail online announced that this was an African pouched rat (which the BBC's professor says averages about 1.5kg - a tenth of the weight the Star reported). Someone else said it was Norwegian 
The Guardian ran a piece about how to fake a giant rat and the unreliability of internet pictures. 
Even the Independent, preparing for its new digital life, joined in.

independent online

The Mirror went from accepting the story at face value to contemplating that the picture might have been a hoax, finishing with a reader poll asking "is this really a giant rat?" -  to which 72% of respondents voted No.

mirror online

What larks! This is what the internet is all about: daft quizzes, pictures of cats and selfies - even of rats.
But it is not what newspapers should be about. 
By the time papers went to press on Friday night, the story should have died a natural death (for everyone but the Star). 
But no. There it was in the Mail, Express and Telegraph, too. 
The Express reported the find as unquestionable fact:

daily express page 15

"As rats go, this is a revolting supersize example.
"The creature, which weighed more than 25lb, was found dead next to a children's playground in Hackney Downs, east London..."

daily telegraph page 8

The Telegraph described it as a "terrifying rodent" and quoted Exmoor Zoo experts as saying it might be an escaped grasscutter or cane rat.
"These are bred for their meat, which is a delicacy, and sold illegally in London markets." 
It concedes in the final par, however, that "social media sceptics" had said that the forced perspective "trick" made the rat seem bigger.

daily mail page 43

The Mail put the story right at the back of the book, and while it stuck with the Gambian pouched rat theory, this print version gave more prominence to the forced perspective scepticism.

Neither the Sun nor the Mirror was fooled:

Sun page 11

"This image of a '4ft' rat went viral yesterday - but experts reckoned a camera trick made it look twice its size," reported the Sun.
"Workmen claimed to have found the 25lb rodent by a playground. It was said to be the length of an eight-year-old boy [I thought the workmen had said four-year-old, but never mind] and was touted as Britain's biggest."
Claimed. Said to be. Touted as. The quote marks round 4ft. Oh yes, the language says, we absolutely believe these guys.

Mirror page 23

The Mirror report was similarly laden with scepticism - and ghastly puns:
"At furs sight some may agree with sparky James Green that the dead rat he's dangling is an astonishing 4ft long...bigger than a child.
"But experts and a local council have branded it an unlikely tail..."
It quotes a professor from Greenwich who describes it as a "fine large specimen of Norway rat", and discounts the African theory. Another professor insists that it is a pouched rat, which are so big "they are often kept on a lead".

star online

By Saturday, even the Star was having doubts and its website was asking whether the Hackney rat was from Africa or from a false perspective. It at least gave us a photograph of a genuine pouched rat being held by a human being whose hands appear to be about the same size.
For that is the giveaway in the Hackney photograph: Green's right hand is twice the size of his left.

Even a 2ft rat would be a monster, so it's not surprising that it caught the men's attention or even that they photographed it. You can't blame Green for holding it at arm's length and the men  may not have realised quite how big it would appear in the picture. Or maybe they did and they thought they'd have a little joke on Facebook. They probably didn't expect it to become a national phenomenon. 

Facebook and Twitter are awash with pictures that have been doctored or aren't what they seem, but it is not the job of the Press to reprint them. We all know that newspapers are in trouble, but trying to emulate social media is not the solution. 
The argument that this is a "talker" - a story that people will discuss in the pub - doesn't wash. The papers who ran this ended up looking gullible or cruel - turning a couple of ordinary blokes who shared a picture with internet friends into hoaxers and fakers.
Just because a few hundred people share a post or comment on it, doesn't mean it should be lifted and presented as "news", especially if all you can offer the reader is speculation.
Yes, the papers all showed the photograph to professors and "experts" to try to find a cloak of respectability, but not one went back to the source of the story to ask the two questions that mattered:
Were you having a laugh? 
And, if not, why didn't you take the rat to the council instead of throwing it in the bin?

But to do so might have produced unwanted facts that would ruin the story. So no one did.
The fact that the Daily Mail put its report as far back as page 43 tells us all we need to know about this tale: it's fine online, but it's not worth the paper it's printed on.

This is a rat

Tuesday 1 March 2016

March front pages

Thursday 31 March
front pages 31-03-16

Wednesday 30 March
front pages 30-03-16

Tuesday 29 March
Front pages 29-03-16

Monday 28 March
front pages 28-03-16

Sunday 27 March
front pages 27-03-16
The Independent has now stopped publishing its print editions, but it is producing a digital front page, and so long as it continues to do so, it will continue to feature here.

Saturday 26 March
front pages 26-03-16

Friday 25 March
front pages 25-03-16

Thursday 24 March
front pages 24-03-16

Wednesday 23 March
front pages 23-03-16

Tuesday 22 March
front pages 22-03-16

Monday 21 March
front pages 21-03-16

Sunday 20 March
front pages 20-03-16

Saturday 19 March

front pages 19-03-16

Friday 18 March
front pages 18-03-16

Thursday 17 March
front pages 17-03-16

Wednesday 16 March
front pages 16-03-16

Tuesday 15 March
front pages 15-03-16

Monday 14 March
front pages 14-03-16

Sunday 13 March
front pages 13-03-16

Saturday 12 March
front pages 12-03-16

Friday 11 March
front pages 11-03-16

Thursday 10 March
front pages 10-03-16

Wednesday 9 March
front pages 09-03-16

Tuesday 8 March
front pages 08-03-16

Monday 7 March
front pages 07-03-16

Sunday 6 March
front pags 06-03-16

Saturday 5 March
front pages 05-03-16

Friday 4 March
front pages 04-03-16

Thursday 3 March
front pages 03-03-16

Wednesday 2 March
front pages 02-03-16

Tuesday 1 March
front pages 01-03-16
For all last month's front pages, please click here