The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: October, 2006

Wheel watchers

The “Wheel of Fortune” crew came through town this weekend in a contestant search. My wife and I took our 6-year-old son, who is a big “Wheel” fan, to the mall to try out. Maybe we’d be lucky.

My wife is the puzzle master in our household. Each Sunday, everyone in our house has to be quiet during the Will Shortz segment on NPR, and she needs her sudoku time. And she’s great at “Wheel.” Vowels? She doesn’t need to buy any stinkin’ vowels. She’d be a great contestant on the show.

I’m OK at such things, but not stellar. So naturally, I was the one who ended up on the “Wheel” stage Sunday. Here’s how the game works when it goes on the road:

  • About 500 “Wheel” hopefuls line up in a vacant department store and fill out forms that pose the usual questions, plus one asking “what makes you interesting?”
  • The forms are pulled from a bin five at time, and those five people take the stage.
  • A fake Pat Sajak and fake Vanna White run the game.
  • The fake Sajak asks contestants about themselves: name, occupation and what makes them interesting.
  • The game begins.
  • Contestants don’t spin the wheel. They just call out letters, including vowels. The first contestant to get the puzzle wins, and the game is over.
  • All five contestants get some swag as they step off the stage: items such as “Wheel” T-shirts and glossy photos of Sajak and White.
  • Five more lucky people get their chance.

My name was called in the fourth round of contestants. I wasn’t nervous about being on stage or being interviewed. But I was nervous about disclosing my occupation. Earlier, the audience had booed when a woman said she was an office manager for “some lawyers.” And another was hissed when she said she was a fan of Duke University athletics. How would this crowd, with lots of Wolfpack red in evidence, react to a professor from UNC, not to mention a former member of the dreaded mainstream media?

I got lucky again. When the fake Sajak asked me what I did for a living, I replied: “I
am a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.” The audience roared in approval. I roared back: “Yeah!” (The fake Sajak had been encouraging us to be as enthusiastic as possible.) For my interests, I told our host that I liked playing tennis with my son and listening to ’80s music. I got lucky one more time: The fake Sajak didn’t ask me to sing or dance, as he had done with other contestants. My performance of “Careless Whisper” may have turned the audience against me, after all.

The game itself took less time than the interviews. I only got to call one letter (T), and I didn’t win the puzzle. My luck had run out. The answer, by the way, was Research Triangle Park, as many of the puzzles had a local flavor.

If the “Wheel” people liked my performance, I will get a call within four weeks to return to the mall for more realistic simulation of the game, and from there, to a taping in California. It would be fun if that happened, but if not, that’s fine too. It was a thrill to get a chance to play — and to know that 500 people will cheer for an editing professor.

Debatable headlines

This column from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism poses an interesting question: Why won’t newspapers say who won a debate between candidates?

Having written my share of headlines describing candidates sparring, clashing and duking it out, I understand the problem. Writing those, I wondered whether I was really telling readers anything. Most debate headlines don’t offer a judgment on who won. They rarely say anything, but hey, they’re fair.

In some cases, it’s clear who the debate winner was. For example, John Kerry beat President Bush in their first debate in 2004. It took a few days for most of the media to say that, however. In other debates, the outcome isn’t so clear, as in later debates between those two.

Regardless of winners and losers, debates rarely match the hype that they generate. Maybe we’ll see this headline package someday:

SPARKS DON’T FLY
Candidates dance but land few blows; bout ruled no decision

College papers collected

College Front Page is a site that is similar to the Newseum’s collection of daily newspapers. The collegiate version is not updated as often, but it still shows a range of talent, skill and approaches to design and headline writing. And you can see and download not only front pages, but also sports and features.

It’s also fun to read through the list of participating newspapers, many of which have unusual names. Here are some I like:

  • The Arbiter (Boise State)
  • The Daily Barometer (Oregon State)
  • The Flat Hat (William & Mary)
  • The Daily Targum (Rutgers)
  • The Vanderbilt Hustler
  • The Gargoyle (Flagler)
  • Purdue Exponent
  • The Justice (Brandeis)

Death on wheels?

This headline from a news aggregator (where else?) is ambiguous. Is the death penalty on tour?

No, but Florida is executing someone named Danny Rolling. Most readers, especially outside the state, do not know his name, however, especially for headline purposes. And his last name conveys another meaning altogether, so even if it is recognized by the audience, why create confusion with this sort of headline?

More on problems with news aggregators here.

Death by subjunctive mood


The clever people at The Onion are offering this coffee mug among the Onion-related items for sale on its site. The message may be morbid, but at least it uses the subjunctive mood correctly. Here’s more on verbs and moods.

New look in L.A.

The Los Angeles Times has redesigned, bringing in all-caps headlines and other devices to the front page, among other changes. It seems pretty tame as these things go.

Still, some readers don’t like the new look and reorganization. Their comments include the inevitable comparisons to USA Today. That always seems to happen when any newspaper has a redesign, doesn’t it?

The evolving language of war

The word choices regarding the Iraq war are fascinating. Here are the latest developments:

  • The White House is turning away from “stay the course” as its mantra. The Washington Post takes a deeper look in this analysis.
  • NPR examines whether Iraq is in a civil war, and if so, what that means. Listen here.

Sunday night football

John Bunting is on the way out as football coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. The news itself wasn’t surprising, but the timing of the announcement was: 8:45 p.m. Sunday. That required hustle by reporters, editors and page designers on a night that is often quiet.

It also gave a chance for print media to break a story, which doesn’t happen that often these days. About two-thirds of the students in my editing class said they got the Bunting news this morning from the campus paper, not from the Web or ESPN.

Here’s how notable papers in the state played the story:

1A story: The News & Observer, The Herald-Sun, the Winston-Salem Journal, The Daily Tar Heel.
1A promo: The Charlotte Observer, the News & Record

Sample headline: BUNTING BAGGED (Daily Tar Heel)

UPDATE: Here’s the inside story on how the N&O dealt with the late-breaking news. Planning and teamwork were key — just like in football.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Melanie Sill, executive editor at the N&O, defends the front-page play for the story in response to comments such as these.

Apostrophe’s where they shouldn’t be

The its/it’s mistakes affect us all, from the “Mom and Pop” dry cleaners to the big-box retailer. Mom and Pop also have trouble with “we are” as a contraction, and they don’t get to Starbucks often. The purveyor of the hazelnut latte does not have an apostrophe in its name.

When words and images collide

Photos and stories need to complement each other. That’s sounds simple enough, but it doesn’t always happen in print or online.

This example from the North Raleigh News illustrates how this can go wrong. The story is about regulations that require restaurants that get hooked up to city water to get grease traps. Those that fail to comply are subject to the “crackdown” mentioned in the headline. (That word choice isn’t the best, and “costs” in the drophead is mildly confusing because it can be read as either a noun or verb.)

The photo is from a restaurant that had to deal with the regulations, and it shows a birthday celebration. Its festive tone is a mismatch with the story’s content, and it clashes with the headline. The drophead implies that the restaurant in the photo is one of the ones that’s been shut down. The photo doesn’t connect the reader to the central message of the story: Some restaurants are having a hard time complying with these regulations.

So what to do? Here are some options:

  • Ask the photo desk for another photo.
  • Bust the photo.
  • Write the cutline to tie the package together. This can feel contrived, but at least give it a try.
  • Rewrite the headlines to better link the image to the story.

Some editors want people in the photo to also be in the story. That’s great when that happens, and for some stories, it is necessary. It isn’t always a requirement, however. We don’t have to be too literal, and it’s OK if the “photo takes you too a different place,” as a photo editor once told me. Just don’t take us too far away from the story we’re trying to tell.

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