The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: November, 2007

Clearing up some misconceptions about journalism

Much of what you hear, see and read about journalism isn’t true. (That is ironic, isn’t it?) The erroneous information is often based on assumptions or leaps of logic. Or it’s just conjecture and opinion. Here are two examples I’ve run across in the past week:

MISCONCEPTION: Managing editors and executive editors at newspapers control the content of editorial pages. This idea comes at the end of this point-by-point analysis of a recent Q&A with John Drescher, the new executive editor at The News & Observer. The blogger wonders whether Drescher was asked about the editorial pages and whether he might change the direction of that “weak link” at the paper.

REALITY: Top newsroom editors at the N&O (and most papers like it) have no role in the editorial pages. News and editorial typically don’t mix, with interaction between staffers in those departments limited to pleasantries in the snack bar. Thus, asking the executive editor about the editorial page would be as useful as asking a university’s chemistry professor about the football team’s game plan. (Related post here.)

MISCONCEPTION: College students who major in journalism are deprived of a “real” education in the liberal arts and are wasting their time. This view exists among working journalists (such as this one) and others outside the field, including this poet.

REALITY: Majoring in journalism doesn’t mean a student takes only journalism courses. No more than a third of the courses that a journalism undergraduate takes will be in journalism. The idea is to not only teach undergraduate students the skills and concepts directly relevant to the field, but also to help them be well-rounded people versed in history, literature, mathematics (gasp!) and other areas. A journalism degree is not required to be a journalist, and it shouldn’t be. But it’s a good way to get there.

Sports desk illustrated

This four-minute video opens a window on the world of the sports desk at The Washington Post. As copy editors in most sports departments will tell you, every night is election night for them, and the Saturday shift is especially demanding.

Comics page from hell

The News & Observer is taking on the dreaded task of revamping its lineup on the comics pages. Readers can vote online or mail in a ballot printed in the features section.

I voted online, and my 7-year-old son filled out the paper ballot. It’s interesting to see his preferences — he likes Peanuts, which is still new to him, and he is still innocent enough to be charmed by Family Circus.

The accompanying article about the vote explains that the paper seeks a diverse “portfolio” of comics similar to a stock portfolio. Some comics are reliable, others risky. The key is to come up with a good mix. It’s a reasonable approach to a process that can never make everyone happy.

My silly side has a different approach: a comics page with the worst strips imaginable, collected in one place to irritate as many people as possible. There are varying levels of awful in these strips. Some are poorly drawn. Others are telling the same two jokes over and over again. Others are cloying or just downright annoying.

With apologies for the “from hell” cliche, here is my comics page from hell:

  • Andy Capp
  • Baby Blues
  • Barney Google and Snuffy Smith
  • Broom Hilda
  • B.C.
  • Cathy
  • Crankshaft
  • Dennis the Menace
  • Drabble
  • Garfield
  • Grin and Bear It
  • Hagar the Horrible
  • Heathcliff
  • Herman
  • Hi and Lois
  • Judge Parker
  • The Lockhorns
  • Marmaduke
  • Mallard Fillmore
  • Opus
  • Sally Forth
  • Tank McNamara
  • They’ll Do It Every Time
  • Ziggy

For further reading:

UPDATE: More on the N&O vote.

Interesting reads

  • Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne on his reading habits, the new New York Times building and the future of the media.
  • Josh Crutchmer, deputy presentation editor at the Omaha World-Herald, on alternative story forms, including a nifty .pdf handout.

The right approach to corrections

I’ve been enjoying a Reuters blog called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. (The serial comma is theirs, not mine.) The wire service reports and responds to reader complaints in a pithy fashion.

It’s a welcome approach that many U.S. publications could try. Too many newspapers fail to own up to their mistakes. When they do, they publish corrections that are often inscrutable, written so painfully to “not repeat the error” that the reader is left wondering what happened. (Here is an example.) Many blogs by ombudsmen and top editors deal with weighty topics such as identification of rape victims, allegations of bias, etc.

Reuters does the opposite. It operates in the world of the small stuff. In each post, the editors show what was wrong and quote the reader’s complaint. Then the editors respond, either acknowledging an error or defending the story. It’s simple but effective, and the blog format allows for faster responses than corrections in print, which typically run a few days after the original story.

For more about corrections, take a look at this column by Ted Vaden, the public editor at The News & Observer.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times has started a blog that looks to be similar to what Reuters does.

Shrunken dunk

Photojournalism online is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, news Web sites can offer multiple images with a story rather than just one or two in print. Slide shows can be storytelling vehicles that are independent of story text and enlivened with sound.

On the other hand, many photos lose their impact because they are too small. That’s the case here. In print, this photo of a UNC basketball player’s emphatic dunk is a powerful image, stretching across five columns of the page. On the Web next to this story, it loses its sense of drama because it measures about 2 inches by 1 inch on a typical computer screen. (More on the photo here.)

The problem isn’t this particular photo or this particular newspaper Web site. The problem is the medium itself and its limitations.

Interesting reads

  • Talking Points Memo on how media critics take a Time magazine article out of context in an attempt to show bias in favor of Hillary Clinton.

For richer, for poorer

Whenever a reporter (or columnist, as is the case here) decides to quote from a famous work to illustrate a point, it’s always a good idea to check that quote. That apparently didn’t happen here, and the paper has published this correction.

We can’t be expected to know the texts of the great works of literature. You don’t have to be a fan of “The Great Gatsby” to catch this error, however. The clue that something is amiss is in the column: the odd response from Hemingway. If Fitzgerald wrote what is printed here, the reaction from Hemingway doesn’t make sense. That mismatch could have set off an alarm in the mind of the editor who read this.

Here are some other things to check when they are quoted in stories:

  • Shakespeare
  • Songs
  • Movies
  • The Bible

With online resources at our fingertips, editors can track down these references most of the time. If not, we can ask the writer to doublecheck.

Boys will not always be boys

An article in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair tells the tale of college students in Kentucky who stole rare manuscripts from a university library. It’s a well-researched and well-written yarn. (It’s not available on the magazine’s Web site, but you can get the gist here.)

Unfortunately, the magazine refers to the four perpetrators as “boys.” All four were 18 or older at the time of the heist. In 2006, broadcast media did the same thing in the Duke lacrosse case, describing the players, since exonerated, as “the boys.” In such situations, the appropriate word would be “men.”

Just when do boys become men for purposes of news stories? The AP Stylebook offers this guidance under the “boy” entry:

Applicable until 18th birthday is reached. Use “man” or “young man” afterward.

The use of “boys” isn’t accurate when talking about the actions of young adults, and it casts a tone of “boys will be boys.”

Related post here.

An unsatisfying choice of words

The editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary have picked their word of the year: “locavore.” That’s someone who prefers locally grown food. (You can learn more about “locavorism” here and here.)

I am disappointed in this selection. “Tase,” which is a runner-up, is a better pick because people are actually using the word thanks to this incident. I have yet to see anyone use “locavore” in conversation or in a news story, although I have read about the “local food” trend.


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