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.

Chronic town

Cary, N.C., is a suburb of Raleigh. It’s known for its tough zoning regulations and its appearances on “best places to live” rankings in magazines. The old joke is that Cary stands for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.”

Cary has a population of more than 100,000. To many of us, that would make Cary a city. North Carolina law, however, allows a municipality to call itself whatever it likes. (Hello, Village of Charlotte!)

Despite its size, Cary prefers to be a “town,” with the official flag flying that label proudly. Some of its residents are buying into that idea, and one man successfully pushed for the replacement of 50 road signs so drivers cross the “town limits” rather than the “city limits” when entering Cary.

At $2,000, that’s a fairly pricey edit.

Fact and opinion

William Kristol had to know he would be under a microscope when he accepted a columnist position at The New York Times late last year. As a well-known advocate of the Iraq war and other Republican causes, Kristol has formidable political opponents. Those opponents were shocked and angered that Kristol would be given a weekly column on the Times op-ed page. They wanted him fired before he had written a word, and their complaints prompted a response from the public editor at the Times.

Given that, you would think that Kristol would be particularly careful to get his facts straight in his pieces for the Times. Columns, after all, require solid facts to support their arguments. Errors of fact expose columnists to attack and damage their credibility. Editors can ensure that columnists meet the requirements of this part of the job. As an editor at The Weekly Standard magazine, Kristol should understand that.

So far, Kristol has stumbled on the facts. His first column had an attribution blunder. The latest mistake in Kristol’s work on the op-ed page should give editors pause about the quality of his work. The subject of his most recent column is Barack Obama’s church and the pastor’s comments about the war and other political issues. Kristol alleges that Obama was in attendance when particularly controversial remarks were made from the pulpit. Yet, as noted here, Obama was not there that day in July 2007.

To its credit, the Times has quickly added this note from Kristol to the top of the online version of the column:

In this column, I cite a report that Sen. Obama had attended services at Trinity Church on July 22, 2007. The Obama camapaign [sic] has provided information showing that Sen. Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.

This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough because the error is still in the column. It’s an assertion that is central to Kristol’s argument, not just a piece of trivia. That part of the column needs editing as well, which is easy enough to do online.

Additionally, the column needs a rewrite for the wire services. Many newspapers run Times columnists a day or two after their works appear in the Times. It’s possible some newspapers will run the Kristol column as is, which will spread the error.

UPDATE: Keith Olbermann of MSNBC has named himself one of his nightly “Worst Persons In the World” for a goof related to the Kristol column. Earlier in the week, Olbermann had singled out Times executive editor Bill Keller for the Worst Person “honor” for not firing Kristol. Alas, Keller plays no role in the editorial pages and has no say on the hiring and firing of op-ed columnists. (Related post here.)

Here comes the sun

With National Grammar Day behind us, it’s time for Sunshine Week. That is when journalists, librarians and others remind us of the importance of open government.

Access to council meetings and public documents is to government reporters what punctuation is to copy editors. Some of us are more passionate about certain elements of our profession. As journalists, we understand that each is important in its own way.

For more about Sunshine Week, check out the official site, this Editor & Publisher story and this graphic from The News & Observer.