The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: November, 2006

Stealing and concealing the news

People who steal newspapers off of your front porch are pests. People who steal newspapers en masse to stop readers from getting the news are criminals.

That’s what appears to be happening today on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The Daily Tar Heel reports that about 10,000 papers were taken from newsracks in the wee hours Wednesday. The paper is printing more and redistributing them on campus today.

Meanwhile, the DTH Web site is unaffected. It includes an update about the thefts, and the front page is available in .pdf format. You can’t steal that.

UPDATE: Sigma Chi members admit that they are the ones who stole the papers.

More war in Iraq, but is it civil?

By now you have heard about the latest round of debate about whether the situation in Iraq is a “civil war” or something else. Here are two views:

Time, place and manner

Discussion of alternative story forms (timelines, Q&A material, checklists, etc.) almost always includes this question: “They must be great for the Web too, right?”

Sometimes, but not always. In fact, the print version of these forms often works better than its online counterpart. This timeline, a part of the News & Observer coverage of the firing of Wolfpack football coach Chuck Amato, is an example where something gets lost in the translation between media.

Because this is a long timeline, the photo desk and designers have decided to include some images to illustrate Amato’s tenure at N.C. State. (Rule of thumb: If you have more than six items in a timeline, add photos and graphics to break up the type.) This is somewhat effective, although the photos could have been better integrated into the timeline. As it is, the reader is still faced with lengthy stretches of text, perhaps too many.

Still, it works better than the online version. There, the timeline is almost all text. Even the bold lede-ins for each date have disappeared, which makes this version look like an unpolished Word document. An accompanying link directs readers to a slideshow presentation of the Amato images. By divorcing the text and the photos, the Web version becomes ponderous. Perhaps taking the print version and making it a .pdf would have been a better way to handle this.

In the contest between online and print, chalk one up for the newspaper.

A colleague passes on

Bob Stevenson, a professor at the UNC journalism school, has died. Here’s how Jean Folkerts, the dean, announced his passing:

The School and Journalism and Mass Communication has lost a dear friend, and our field has lost a renowned scholar. Robert L. Stevenson, a Kenan professor and a member of our faculty since 1975, suffered a heart attack and died Saturday afternoon.

The School will host a memorial service for Bob, and he will be buried in his native Wisconsin. Please watch our Web site for details.

I took Stevenson’s research methods class in the fall of 1991. The course helped me become more analytical in my editing, and thanks to him, I am able to easily detect faulty surveys and other bogus research.

Thank you, Bob.

Where the skies are so blue

Maybe it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fault that people mistake Birmingham for the capital of Alabama, as seen in this recent News & Observer article in the Business section. That band, after all, did famously sing in “Sweet Home Alabama” that “in Birmingham they love the governor.” But that doesn’t mean the governor works there.

For the record, Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. Frankfort (not Lexington or Louisville) is the capital of Kentucky, and the capital of Missouri is Jefferson City (not St. Louis). And Lynyrd Skynyrd was from Florida, not Alabama.

Deviated preverts?

Slate examines the New York Post’s apparent fascination with “perv” as a headline word. “Fiend” is also popular.

The examples mentioned in the Slate article don’t include the one I use in my editing class when discussing libel:

Vatican sacks six pervy N.Y. priests

Here’s the catch: Two of the priests were convicted of sex crimes; the others were punished by the Catholic Church for unknown reasons under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Yet the Post lumped them together as pervs.

Cuts in Winston-Salem, worries in Orlando

The film critic is among the five jobs cut from the Winston-Salem Journal’s newsroom, but copy editing was not directly affected. The paper’s managing editor discusses the cost-cutting move here. The comments to his post are worth a read, too.

In related news, the public editor at the Orlando Sentinel offers his take on the future of newspapers.

History lesson

The newspapers now known as The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer played a key role in fostering racial violence in Wilmington, N.C., more than 100 years ago.

Today, those papers published a 16-page special section explaining what happened then and how those events affected civil rights later on. The author is a Duke University researcher, with design and editing by the N&O staff. (It’s good to see a copy editor in the credits.) Because it’s set up like a short book, the tabloid-format section works best in printed form, but it’s also compelling online.

Something wild

A recent piece in Slate bemoaned the decline in the “bus plunge” wire story. These are the short items on bus crashes in places such as Nepal and Pakistan. These briefs (sometimes just a sentence) used to litter the pages of The New York Times (as seen here) and other U.S. newspapers. Here’s a recent example of the format from the BBC site:

Police in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh say 56 people have been killed after a passenger bus plunged into a lake near the city of Rewa.

The Slate article brought back memories of my first job as a copy editor. It was at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., in the days before Quark and InDesign. The copy desk edited stories, wrote heads and cuts, and laid out pages. The design desk did not exist, and the composing room was a hub of activity.

On the rim, our first duty of the day was to edit and write headlines for “wild briefs” — short wire stories that could be used as last-minute fillers if a “real” story came up short. These briefs were of the “bus plunge” variety, usually about some calamity in a distant land. Ferry sinkings in places such as Indonesia and India were also common material. Sometimes we would put together some “wild obits” in case they were needed to fill space on the obit page. We would write two or three headlines for each one to add to their utility to fill gaps on deadline.

The wild briefs would then be sent to the composing room and put on the board above each page. As deadline approached and that late local copy came in, the composing room would notch in the wild briefs in any remaining spaces, typically on jump pages. It was taboo for newsroom people to touch type, but we could offer guidance on which wild brief to use. This led tojuxtapositions: At the end of the jump on the story about the school board’s meeting, a reader would see that 16 people had been killed in a mudslide in Peru. Most of the wild briefs would be replaced with local cop briefs by the final edition, however.

Years later, I visited India, and my trip included several long-distance bus rides. The faraway stories of the wild briefs became an up-close reality. With every manner of vehicle on India’s poorly maintained roads, a bus ride can be a harrowing experience. It’s no wonder that these stories are so plentiful. I survived the journeys without incident, although I still have flashbacks to the moment when our bus was speeding through the foggy countryside in the dead of night.

When composing rooms died, so did wild briefs. Page designers can usually fill leftover spaces with quote blocks, subheads and other devices. Yet, as the Slate article points out, the “bus plunge” stories still have their fans. Sure, you can find them with Google News, or even visit this site, which tracks the latest bus plunges. But the random nature is gone.

Stay hungry

The Agriculture Department has decided that the word “hunger” is too vague to be used in its research. In its annual report on that topic, it includes a range of terms for that condition, with people with “very low food security” at the bottom. Says Mark Nord, the lead author of the report this year:

Lacking a widespread consensus on what the word ‘hunger’ should refer to, it’s difficult for research to shed meaningful light on it.

The shifting language earned Nord the coveted title of “Worst Person in the World” on “Countdown” on Thursday.


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