The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: March, 2008

Interesting reading (Future edition)

  • Brian Stelter of The New York Times, on the future of The Huffington Post, which plans to add sections on sports and books as part of its plan to be an “Internet newspaper.” (I’d also suggest more careful photo editing as noted here.)

Further comment

The clever site Boing Boing recently published a lengthy but worthwhile post on its comments policy. It’s presented in a helpful Q&A format; just about every question has been anticipated and answered.

Boing Boing moderates comments vigorously. Some are rejected. Others are published but “disemvowelled” — removed of their vowels for being lame.

I’ve allowed anonymous posting since I started this blog in 2006. That changes today. You’ll need to identify yourself. I’ve noticed that the more meaningful comments here and elsewhere online are those with names attached.

My hope is that this will create a more interesting discourse here and a sense of ownership and accountability among those who comment. Perhaps it will also eliminate spam, which has popped up on occasion in the comments.

For the time being, I’m not planning to moderate comments as other editing blogs do. But as Boing Boing notes, all comments policies are subject to change.

Thanks for visiting, and please leave a comment that adds to the conversation and tells us a little bit about who you are. You won’t be disemvowelled.

UPDATE: Some wonder whether this policy amounts to censorship, and if so, whether that’s a hypocritical stance coming from a journalist. Far from it.

A blogger is under the same obligation to publish a comment as a newspaper is to publish a letter to the editor. That is, no obligation. To put it another way, the First Amendment does not require HarperCollins to publish your manuscript for the Great American Novel.

Boing Boing gets the last word: “The people who write and edit Boing Boing have the right to have (or refuse to have) anything they want on their own Web site. If one of the things they don’t want is a comment that you have posted, they aren’t depriving you of your freedom of speech. You’re free to put that comment up on your own Web page.”

Under the Dome takes us behind the blog

Ryan Teague Beckwith, the primary reporter for The News & Observer’s Under the Dome blog, is doing some interesting work on BlueNC, a liberal blog that focuses on North Carolina issues.

Beckwith takes his questions straight to the source in “interviews” for all to see. On this post and comment thread, you can follow the give and take between Beckwith and numerous bloggers who contribute to BlueNC. Topics include “progressive” vs. “liberal,” the definition of “blogger” and BlueNC’s style of news judgment for its “front page.”

You can read the early returns of Beckwith’s reporting at the Dome blog, with a traditional “dead tree” profile to come later in The News & Observer.

UPDATE: That full profile is now in print and online. It’s a good example of how the information gathering and smaller pieces come together for a greater whole.

Campaign for a tobacco-free sports section

As the NCAA basketball tournament rolls on, I am seeing and hearing references to a place called Tobacco Road. Here are some recent examples:

  • Tobacco Road paves way for North Carolina’s championship bid ( headline)
  • He didn’t want to be the next blue chip recruit to end up on Tobacco Road. (The Daily Trojan)
  • RALEIGH, N.C. — Georgetown received the full Tobacco Road treatment here Sunday in its most shocking boot from March Madness in more than 20 years. (Washington Post)
  • Coach Bob McKillop’s white house across the street still was festooned with toilet paper, which has become a tradition whenever schools down on Tobacco Road win a big game. (Daily News, New York)

On television, announcers such as Jim Nantz of CBS speak of “Tobacco Road” in dramatic tones, assigning some sort of mythic stature to the proceedings on the basketball court. Perhaps that is a reflection of the name’s literary roots.

Tobacco is certainly a significant part of North Carolina’s history, but its influence in the state has been waning for years. Nowadays, it isn’t easy to find a place to smoke on the campus of the state’s flagship university.

Changing times aside, my main problem with “Tobacco Road” is that I have never heard it used in real life. In casual conversation, no one has ever asked me: “Did you see the game last night? That’s how it goes on Tobacco Road.” And believe me, the topic of “the game last night” comes up a lot.

When I asked students in my editing classes this week whether they used “Tobacco Road” in conversation, they gave me puzzled looks and said no. Yet the Wikipedia entry for “Tobacco Road” claims that the term “is often used” in discussions of sports at four North Carolina universities: UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest. But “often used” by whom?

My hunch is that “Tobacco Road” is to North Carolina what “Big Easy” is to New Orleans: a term used by unwitting visitors and lazy reporters. I therefore nominate it for the list of words (seen here and here) to avoid this tournament season.

UPDATE: John Robinson of the News & Record kindly mentions this post and shares his “Tobacco Road” experience.

Funky headline

The comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” tries to find humor in the headlines this week. A “criminal” misspelling of a proper name in display type serves as the punchline. It’s unclear whether the story had the same error.

Interesting reading and essential viewing

  • Tony Dokoupil of Newsweek magazine, on how the phrase “thrown under the bus” has become unavoidable.
  • Ted Vaden, public editor at The News & Observer, on a sports headline that made some readers angry because it used the word “laugher.”
  • Chris O’Brien of The Next Newsroom Project, on an educational film (circa 1940) about newspaper journalism that has to be seen to be believed.

Mousse on the loose

My family enjoyed an Easter brunch at an Indian restaurant. The buffet included a dessert area, and one of the items there was an orange goo with this label:

Mango Moose

The restaurateur meant “mousse.” That is the word for a dessert — and for the foam that people put in their hair in the 1980s.

Mango Moose may not be a great name for a dish, but it’s perfect for a cartoon character.

The The, the Buckeyes, a hero and the future of history

Along comes word that The History Channel is getting a new name: History. The “H” logo will get a makeover to give it a more contemporary look. The changes are part of an effort to recast the channel’s image so it is no longer seen as the place for World War II documentaries and little else.

“Channel” is unwanted because it apparently signifies old media. The Internet doesn’t want channels. The reason that “the” is gone isn’t explained, but the humble article has a history of being added and deleted on occasion for various purposes.

Back in 1993, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “The Last Action Hero” became “Last Action Hero” shortly before its release. The thinking in Hollywood was that “the” wasn’t good for marketing the movie. “Last Action Hero” failed to meet box office expectations, however. Perhaps “Titanic” lacked “the” for the same reason; that title served not only as a label for the ship but also as an adjective for the massive production.

If “the” is not good for the movies, perhaps it beneficial in academia. Ohio State University seems to think so because it prefers to be known as The Ohio State University. This is most evident to the rest of America when an NFL lineup is introduced at the start of a game on television. As each player states his name and his college, the former Buckeyes almost always stress this point: “John Doe. Theee Ohio State University.” It does ensure that no one is confused by those other Ohio States.

Finally, there is The The, a British band whose heyday was in the 1980s. More recently, The The’s song “This Is The Day” was used in a candy commercial. (Listen here and see whether the tune sounds familiar.) The group’s name seems to be an inside joke on the naming conventions of rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately, the joke is now on The The, because the name isn’t friendly in the Google age of distinctive search terms.

What all of this back and forth about “the” means for The History Channel is unclear. As the Clash once said, the future is unwritten. Or was that Clash?

Al-Qaida: questions and corrections

What is al-Qaida?

That would be a good way to start a Q&A on the terrorist organization. Given recent confusion among politicians and reporters, we could use a good explainer on the status of the group, who’s in it, where they are and what their affiliations are.

These two clips from recent days illustrate the need for this sort of journalism:

  • Kyra Phillips of CNN, on a similar theme, with Gen. David Petraeus getting her back on point.

The Associated Press sheds some light on the al-Qaida situation in this “fact check” alternative story form, but it’s a topic worth more explanation to counter rhetoric and misstatements.

By the number

Many newspapers are taking note of the anniversary of the Iraq war. Such stories are tough to write, edit and present, but they can provide an opportunity to step back and assess what has happened and what is ahead.

The Winston-Salem Journal offers an Associated Press story on the anniversary accompanied by this timeline. That’s reasonable enough, but this bit of design experimentation isn’t. (Click on the image for a better view.)

Shaping the timeline into a numeral makes it difficult to read. Including the photos is OK, but the lines linking the images to events in the timeline make this more confusing. Readers should be able to scan a timeline to find items of interest to them; this one is difficult to scan because the type is cramped.

Beware of shaping text into numerals or objects. Sure, it may look cool when your design desk makes a story into the shape of a wine glass (a gimmick that’s been done enough to discard, by the way). But ask yourself: Does this design serve the content? Does it help the reader?

UPDATE: The New York Times takes the timeline concept and enhances it. This is the sort of thing that works well online — sometimes the Web really is better than print.


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