Do it in (house) style

The Online Journalism Review carried a post yesterday on how journalists, especially those entering the profession, would be better advised to learn search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques than the AP stylebook.

The AP stylebook is not that well known in Europe but to American journalism students and educators it has been required reading for years. Any American hack could cross a continent to another newspaper but remain consistent in their use of language. In Ireland and the UK, there has always been a bit more variation – in some cases you cannot cross a newsroom and remain consistent.

I have always been a fan of stylebooks. From the outside, they are a window on a newspaper’s character – for example, the Telegraph’s stylebook tells you how to correctly refer to the eldest son of an earl. It’s information I never needed in the Irish Examiner but we had enough inconsistency in style to prompt me to write my own guide. It has yet to be adopted – some people are less incensed by using about/around interchangeably than I am.

From the inside, stylebooks can be a vital training tool in enshrining an identity and improving quality control. You haven’t seen passion for words until you’ve seen a great sub argue why the naming convention for Royal Navy vessels should remain different to that for Royal Navy bases (he lost – both now take HMS).

The joy of a good stylebook was always in the arguing for exceptions, the behind-the-scenes ridicule attracted by archaisms such as the Irish Times’s rendering of first and second World War (in the knowledge that as a third may be on the way, it would be a bit premature to award them a cap).

Some people do actually get into journalism through a love of language. While SEO is undoubtedly an essential part of modern digital journalism, if you place more priority and garner more joy in making text readable by a machine than by a human, then you’re not a journalist – you’re a computer programmer.

If you believe that only Icelanders can go berserk, only Malays can run amok and only arms can be akimbo, then read on:

Telegraph Media Group stylebook

Simon Heffer’s Style Notes

Guardian Style Guide

The Times (of London) Style and Usage Guide

BBC style guide [PDF]

Economist Style Guide

Reuters Handbook of Journalism

And finally, before they start paying  journalists based on hits, go learn SEO.


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