The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: August, 2007

Declaration of principles

Tenure-track faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill undergo a third-year review to see how things are going. As a part of that process this year, I have been asked to write a statement on teaching that describes what I do in my editing classes and why I do it. Here’s a draft of that statement. Comments are welcome.

STATEMENT ON TEACHING

As a member of the “practice track” faculty, I strive to create a professional environment in the classroom. This means making the classroom as much of a newsroom as possible. I serve as a managing editor or slot editor, overseeing students’ work, coaching them and providing feedback in a timely fashion. I believe that this approach prepares students for the internships and jobs ahead of them.

The classes I teach are skills courses: News Writing, News Editing and Advanced Editing. They require students to think critically and analytically, to verify information, and to edit and write clearly and effectively in a variety of forms — all under deadline pressure. They are among the most challenging courses in our curriculum, but students who work hard find them to be rewarding.

USING THE TOOLS

I allow students to use every resource available in a newsroom: stylebooks, textbooks, dictionaries and the Web. I never take these away except when required to do so by the School (e.g., the spelling and grammar test) or for midterm and final examinations. I believe it’s more important for students to master how to use the stylebook (and to appreciate the reason for it) than to memorize it.

All the courses I teach are in a computer lab, a setting that creates opportunities for plenty of hands-on work but also obstacles for students who are unfamiliar with software used in newsrooms. The editing courses in particular are heavy on software instruction as the students learn InDesign, InCopy and other computer skills. As they do so, I let them know that mastering the technology itself is not the objective of the course. The key is to understand that the software is a tool to communication. Indeed, the names and methods of computer software are likely to change several times during these students’ careers, but the skills and principles of writing and editing will remain constant.

WORKING TOGETHER

I on occasion allow students to work in pairs or in small teams, again to mirror the newsroom experience. In the professional world, little work is done solo; collaboration is essential. Even the reporting and writing of a story includes guidance by editors and input from fellow reporters and copy editors. By allowing students to work together, they learn how to interact with others on a project, to brainstorm to give and take, and to compromise to create a more effective story, critique or page design. This technique is especially realistic and effective in Advanced Editing, where the class functions as a copy desk, with assigned roles that change from class meeting to class meeting.

UNDERSTANDING ETHICS

I weave an ethical component into all the classes that I teach. Given the Jayson Blair scandal and other issues in the media, I believe it is vital to our curriculum. In the News Writing class, we discuss the problems of plagiarism and fabrication, and we watch the movie “Shattered Glass,” about disgraced reporter Stephen Glass. We discuss the need to quote accurately and to fact-check information.

In my editing courses, we discuss the ethical ramifications of word choices (“illegal alien” or “undocumented worker”?) and photo selection as part of the editors’ job. In my Advanced Editing class, these issues became reality when editors detected an example of plagiarism in a story written by a fellow student. Although it was a difficult moment for all involved, the student editors said that overall it was a positive experience because it was similar to situations that they had read and talked about in other classes but never went through themselves.

BREAKING NEW GROUND

I have worked hard to bring in new ideas and trends from the profession into my teaching. One element I have introduced is writing and editing of alternative story forms. Story structures such as Q&A formats, checklists and “chunky text” have become more common in print and, to some extent, online. Some job descriptions now ask for proficiency in this area, and my students will be prepared for this requirement.

In my News Writing course, I have students report and write a recurring story (holiday shopping, tax time, etc.) in an alternative story format. In my editing course, I give them an existing story in traditional form and ask them to recast and design it into an alternative format. Interestingly, students in both classes list these as among their favorite assignments of the semester.

I also worked with my colleague Jock Lauterer to form a partnership between his Community Journalism course and my Advanced Editing course. His students were the reporters and photographers for The Carrboro Commons. The result was what we think could represent the future of the newspaper: a highly local news site with a print corollary, available for .pdf download at the leisure of the reader. The collaboration also resulted in a paper that Lauterer and I will present to the National Newspaper Association annual convention in September 2007.

CONCLUSION and OUTLOOK

Overall, students respond well to my approach to teaching, as reflected in teaching evaluations. They enjoy the courses, often more than they imagined that they would. My scores are especially high in areas such enthusiasm, clarity and preparedness. Most of the negative comments — issues regarding length of class meetings, credit hours and School-administered tests — are outside my control.

One valid area of criticism involves the editing class. A few students have said that the class is excellent for those who want to go into print journalism, but not so much for those seeking careers at Web sites. I am working this semester to bring in more online elements, specifically how to write headlines for news Web sites, and I plan to make it more clear what editing skills are shared by print and online journalists and which are different. I am actively seeking an “internship” at a newspaper Web site for summer 2008 so I can get hands-on experience that I can then bring back to the classroom. In addition, I will work with colleagues to revise News Writing to incorporate discussion and assignments for online media.

These changes are a natural reflection and necessity of my idea of classroom as newsroom. As the newsroom changes, so does the classroom. My goal is to keep pace with that change (and stay a step ahead) and to continue to prepare students for the work, and lives, ahead of them.

Advantage: copy editor

It’s gratifying when a student in my editing class detects an error in the professional media, especially this early in the semester. Here’s the example from ESPN.com that someone brought to my attention:
Novak Djokovic’s last name is misspelled in the first paragraph; it’s correct in the second. Sure, it’s not an easy name to spell, but when it appears in successive, similarly structured paragraphs, the difference stands out. It’s up to an editor to notice.

Interesting reads

  • An editor for a community paper in Georgia begs readers to use AP style when submitting announcements, guest columns and other items. (Good luck!)
  • The editor of the Tribune Star in Terre Haute, Ind., assures readers that print is here to stay despite the paper’s expanding efforts on the Web.

The wrong word?

You may have read about the latest discussion regarding the “cleansing” of quotes in news stories. The incident in that case happened at The Washington Post, and it involved Redskins player Clinton Portis. (Here’s a good recap if you missed it.)

Along comes another quote in possible need of repair, this one from The New York Times. President Bush is speaking about Alberto Gonzales, his departing attorney general. The direct quote, already awkward, becomes especially pained at the end:

What is “proof of wrong”? He likely meant “proof of wrongdoing.” Would those who suggest repairing direct quotes get out their tools for this one?

UPDATE: Fellow blogger John McIntyre of the Baltimore paper weighs in on the issue. His post includes the Sun’s policy on quotes.

Think tiny

This paragraph from a recent News & Observer story about crime statistics illustrates the problem with Web addresses in print. Many of them are cumbersome.

Pity the poor readers who see this story, clip it out and bring it to their computer to find out what crimes have been reported in their neighborhoods. What are the odds that they will type the address correctly?

Here’s one solution to the problem: Use TinyURL. This site will create a pithy “nickname” for a long Web address. Simply copy and paste the unwieldy URL into Tiny URL, and it instantly does the work for you at no cost.

Here’s what it came up with for the URL you see in the clip above:

http://tinyurl.com/ysa9cq

This address may not be as memorable as CNN.com, but it’s more useful to readers who want to type it into their Web browsers. And it takes up less space in print and doesn’t break oddly from line to line.

Says who

Chip Scanlan at Poynter Institute offers a good examination of “said” vs. “says” in attribution. Among the experts he consults is Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society.

Proud to be a fact checker

It’s easy to think that Lee Greenwood’s famous song is called “I’m Proud To Be An American.” It’s the tune’s signature line and the reason why politicians like it.

The song’s real title is “God Bless the U.S.A.” (Watch the video here.) Under the Dome, a column of political tidbits in The News & Observer, didn’t get this right in the print edition, but the blog version makes the change — and makes note of the update.

I’ll leave it to fans of the genre to decide whether Greenwood is a “country crooner.”

News from the newsrooms

I love being in a newsroom. Although it looks like any other office these days, the newsroom is still a special place of energy, dedication and (on occasion) intrigue.

One of the highlights of my summer was spending a few days in the newsroom at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., to work with the staff on alternative story forms. In the summer of 2006, I was fortunate enough to get to visit the newsroom of The New York Times. And being in a newsroom is part of the reason that I am angling for an “internship” in online news for the summer of 2008.

New newsrooms are making news this summer. The magazine Fast Company has a spiffy one, as does The New York Times, although the latter move has also drawn criticism. And Ifra has built “newsrooms for the future” at the University of South Carolina and in Darmstadt, Germany.

These efforts are aimed at professional journalism. Now the changes are reaching the college level. As part of a major remake of the campus at Duke University, the campus paper, The Chronicle, has the opportunity to get a new home that can help the paper cover the campus in more effective and powerful ways. The effort is called the Next Newsroom Project. Here’s what Chris O’Brien, a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News and a Duke alumnus, says about the project:

We’re just beginning our work to research and design the ideal newsroom for the next 50 years of journalism. We’re excited about the potential to create something that will have a tremendous impact not only for the community at Duke, but hopefully for the future of journalism.

The Next Newsroom project is looking for help and advice. Check out this site to learn more. Maybe even some Tar Heels will get involved. I hope we at least get a tour from our Blue Devil friends when it’s all done.

Interesting reads

  • Ted Vaden, public editor of The News & Observer, on readers’ criticism of headlines, starting with “The day I got shot in Durham.”
  • Jean Folkerts, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, on how journalism’s past may point to its future.

In search of the lost cord

My colleague Bill Cloud passes along this error in word choice: “Chord” should be “cord.” The paragraph you see here is from The News & Observer, but it also appears in the original version from The Los Angeles Times.

It’s a good example of the need to edit wire copy — and why it’s not a good idea to let wire stories flow unedited onto news Web sites, as is the practice at many newspapers these days.

(Other catches by Cloud here and here.)

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