The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: August, 2006

Language of layoffs

Radio Shack is cutting about 400 jobs, and the people who are being laid off got the bad news by e-mail. Here’s how the company phrased it, providing an interesting example of the language used in the business world:

“The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.”

Does a split make a difference?

Headline purists would recoil at this example from a newspaper Web site. The crime? A bad split from line to line. But do readers notice or care?

This advice, from a University of Missouri tip sheet, is typical:

“Don’t split nouns and modifiers or verb forms and prepositional phrases over two lines unless space is main consideration. Write “Faculty to vote (first line) on tenure policy” (second line).”

In this example, the headline would be more graceful if the “$1″ and the “million” were together on the same line. Separating them invites a split second of misinterpretation. Did he win a dollar?

In bad taste

Sign outside a restaurant near campus:

TODAY’S SPECIAL: Blackend chicken sandwhich


And that’s the word

Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central is getting kudos for coining two TV buzzwords this year. A group called Global Language Monitor points to these Colbert creations as among the biggies for 2006:

  • “Truthiness,” meaning “truth unencumbered by the facts.”
  • “Wikiality,” meaning “reality as determined by majority vote.”

Internships go digital

The prestigious Dow Jones editing program is going digital. Online editing will be among the opportunities for college students this year.

Internships at old-fashioned newspapers will still be available. Here are the details.

Put the message in the box

Textboxes — timelimes, glossaries, checklists, mini-biographies, etc. — are being used more and more by newspapers and magazines. Done well, these bite-size packages of information can give background or context to a story. They are especially handy when a “teachable moment” comes along.

That thought brings us to a Daily Tar Heel story about new professors on campus. These newbies are finding their way just like freshmen. Near the end of the story come these paragraphs on the tenure process:

Tenure-track faculty have a total of six years to earn tenure.

Assistant faculty members are reviewed internally by their individual departments after three years. If reappointed, a more encompassing review is conducted during their sixth year.

Those who earn tenure are promoted to the post of associate professor.

Yes, some editing is necessary. But the point here is this: Rather than bury this bit of information, why not pull it out of the story and reshape it into a textbox accompanying it? Many undergraduates are probably aware of tenure but aren’t sure how it works. Here’s a chance to explain that.

Something smells funny

The New York Times has named a perfume critic. Chandler Burr, an author and writer for magazines such as The Atlantic, will write a column called Scent Strip, which will include a four-star rating system.

A different route

The inverted pyramid form of newswriting, though still useful, is often tired. Here’s an example in a story about delays in a road project in Durham, N.C. This is the lead:

DURHAM — Durham residents looking forward to the long-anticipated completion of Durham’s Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway will have to wait just a little longer.

In addition to using “Durham” too often, the lead is a wordy tease. How much longer? The story gets around to answering that question three paragraphs later:

Officials said Monday the project should finally be complete by next month.

This pyramid isn’t inverted well. But rather than structuring this story that way, why not present it as a Q&A? Start with an introductory paragraph and then provide the answers to the questions that readers are asking:

  • Why is the road delayed?
  • How long has it taken to build?
  • When will it open?
  • Who’s doing the work?
  • How much will to cost?

A map would help, too.

Snakes on a page

How big is the hype for “Snakes on a Plane”? Here’s how:

For years, The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., has used page 2A on Saturdays to promote (or pimp, some would say) the Sunday paper. The “Coming Sunday” promos are made up of blurbs about stories from various sections, all designed to entice the reader to buy the paper the next day to read those stories. The promos nudge out the usual 2A fare of news about celebrities and entertainment.

Today, the N&O used that coveted space for its review of “Snakes on a Plane.” The movie was not screened in advance for critics (supposedly to keep the movie’s Internet buzz safe from the dreaded Mainstream Media). The N&O critic had to wait to see “Snakes” on Friday, and the Saturday features section was printed before he could turn in his review. That sent “Snakes” to 2A on Saturday and the “Coming Sunday” promos into oblivion.

But it doesn’t stop there. The review gets a mention on the N&O front page, complete with a caricature of Samuel L. Jackson obscuring the paper’s name.

Those are some powerful snakes.

UPDATE: Well, maybe not that powerful. The opening weekend’s box office for “Snakes” was weaker than expected.

Radical redesigns

Alan Jacobson of BrassTacks Design writes provocatively about how to sell more newspapers, focusing on big changes in layout and news judgment in Bakersfield, Calif., and Waterbury, Conn. He also likes Maxim magazine.


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