The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: April, 2008

Box out

As noted here awhile ago, copy editors can play a significant role in making alternative story forms better. One way we can do that is identifying possible textboxes and pulling them out of the gray text of stories. Here are two recent examples:

  • This News & Observer sports story on the departure of Johnny Dawkins to Stanford includes several paragraphs at the end about other Duke coaches who have left to become head coaches elsewhere. With the obligatory “meanwhile,” the section of the story feels tacked on, and its delivery is rushed and jumbled. It’s a perfect opportunity to break that information out as a separate item as part of the story package. Make it a grid-style textbox with each person’s name, destination and coaching record.
  • This Charlotte Observer news story attempts to tell the story of a possible burglary. It does so in a narrative style. (My fellow blogger FEV has a good critique of this here.) Near the end of the story, the writer introduces a detective with the Charlotte police who offers some tips on foiling such crimes. Then the story drops back into narrative mode. The bullet points should have been a clue: This is a textbox. Remove it from the story and make it a separate item. As is, the tips damage the flow of the “story” that the writer is trying to tell.
EyeTrack research has indicated that readers notice alternative story text and recall more information from it versus traditional text, whether it’s in print or online. Let’s help the reader and make that happen.

Interesting reading

  • Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, on the way The Associated Press covered an advertisement critical of John McCain.

Calling all midcareer copy editors

The Institute for Midcareer Copy Editors is back. If you would like to refresh your skills and pick up some new ones, this four-day gathering at UNC-Chapel Hill is for you.

The program, which begins July 13 and ends July 16, is open to 18 copy editors. Some costs (including lodging) are covered, but you must pay your own travel. The deadline for applying is May 9.
Topics will include online editing, alternative story forms and media ethics. Check out the institute’s site for more information and an application. Once there, you can also order one of Bill Cloud’s “Whip [Brackets] Now” buttons, a stylish accessory at the recent ACES conference.

War style

The federal government has put together a “stylebook” for terms related to war and terrorism. “Islamo-fascism” is not recommended, but “totalitarian” is. The Associated Press tells us more in this story.

For further reading, check out how National Public Radio analyzed the language of war in this series of articles in 2006.

UPDATE: David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, offers his view on this topic.

Fashion news

CNN is testing the idea of selling T-shirts with wacky headlines from its Web site. Check out the selection here.

Comments such as these show that not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea, and it seems odd to see a “serious” news site try to make money from the news of the weird and (occasionally) gruesome.

The Onion has been doing this sort of thing for some time, and it has extended the concept to the “make your own headline” magnet kit. Such merchandise is a natural for that site, but not so much for CNN.

UPDATE: A colleague chimes in: “No longer can headline writers really know how their words will break in different formats. For example, a line that fits on an XXL will not fit on an M.”

Voice coach

John Robinson, my friend and former colleague at the News & Record, has said that reporters’ blogs do not need editing in the same way as their stories in the print newspaper. Part of his argument is that copy editing will deaden the tone of newspaper blogs:

The best blogs have a unique voice, the voice of the blogger. Almost by definition, editing would quiet that.

That point of view came to mind again recently when a student stopped by my office. This student is one of five working at The News & Observer this semester, reporting for that newspaper’s Under the Dome blog.

Under the Dome is a long-running column of political tidbits, mostly about state government. The blog version recently celebrated its first birthday. In print and online, the Dome column has a mildly snarky tone and speaks of itself in the third person once in a while: “Dome has learned…”

I asked the student about his semester at the N&O. Here’s a reasonable recreation of that part of our conversation:

ME: How has your Dome experience been?

STUDENT: Good. I’ve really enjoyed it and learned a lot.

ME: Are your posts edited before they go online?

STUDENT: Yes. My posts are edited by the main reporter in charge of Dome.

ME: In what way?

STUDENT: The biggest thing was to put voice into the posts. He said my copy was a bit dry.

ME: So he reworked your writing to fit the tone of Dome?

STUDENT: Exactly. He really helped.

In this case at least, editing didn’t diminish the blog’s voice. It made it loud and clear.

Interesting reading

  • Nicole Stockdale of The Dallas Morning News, on planning and editing the newspaper’s Points section.
  • John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, on what advice from retired editors fails to tell us about the present and the future.
  • Celia Rivenbark of McClatchy Newspapers, on the phrase “it is what it is.” (Related discussions here and here.)

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions

With slideshows proliferating on news sites, I added them to my editing class this year.

This semester, students used Soundslides Plus to put together a slideshow about a recent news event. I gave them 10 images and a wire story about a tornado hitting Atlanta. I asked the students to choose the best six photos and to put them in an order that made sense to tell a story. The students used the cutline information from each Associated Press photo and tapped into the wire story to bridge gaps in the larger story.

The students seemed to enjoy this assignment, and it was interesting to see what photo sequences they came up with. They found it challenging to turn the images and words into a larger story. They were also surprised how much editing the AP cutlines needed.

To get ready for this assignment, we looked at several well-done slideshows from The Washington Post and other sites. I also wanted to show one that didn’t work so well. Too bad this one from Yahoo! came along too late in the semester. It wanders from the Northwest-Delta merger to Gloria Allred in seven slides.

For some tips about slideshows, check out this batch of posts from Mindy McAdams, who teaches at the University of Florida and blogs at Teaching Online Journalism.

UPDATE: My colleague Ryan Thornburg offers this possible explanation for the Yahoo slideshow: Photo galleries like this are created by a computer, based on keyword. In this case, “TSA” was the keyword. Thus, the shot of a mannequin wearing a nipple ring. Humans set up the keywords that create the galleries, and humans have the ability to re-order the photos once the gallery is generated.

Spelling is a snap

Students in my editing classes may submit errors that they find in the print media and get extra credit. I encourage such finds in newspapers, magazines and books. I accept other professionally produced writing, however.

Today, someone brought in a spelling mistake. That’s typical. The place where the error appeared was not: on a Snapple bottle cap. The cap reads as follows:

Real Fact #127

A humminbird’s heart beats 1,400 times a minute.

Get all the “Real Facts” at

The missing “g” is there on the Web version. I suppose it’s less expensive to fix that than to recall thousands of bottle caps.

Tax tips

On this April 15, let’s do our best to avoid these tired phrases:

  • A taxing day
  • Death and taxes
  • The taxman cometh

Best wishes to all of you filing your returns on deadline.


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