The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: June, 2008

Interesting reading

  • Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report, on how searching for “gay” and replacing with “homosexual” can lead to trouble.
  • T.J. Sullivan of L.A. Observed, on how the copy editors in India who will benefit from U.S. outsourcing have some editing to do at home first.
  • The Associated Press, on how the latest edition of the AP Stylebook is significantly different this time around.

Learn about alternative story forms — for free

My course on alternative story forms for NewsU, the e-learning program of The Poynter Institute, officially launches this week. “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Creating Alternative Story Forms” will help you learn how to tell stories in different and interesting ways.

The course, intended for reporters and editors, will take you no more than two hours to complete. And it’s free.

Here’s an outline of what you’ll get to do there:

  • Get an introduction into what alternative story forms are.
  • Understand how ASFs make readers smarter, as shown in EyeTrack research.
  • Learn how to root out textboxes and other content that’s hiding in conventional text.
  • Match the news to the right form.
  • Remix an inverted pyramid story into a different form.
  • Share your work with others.

Thanks to the NewsU crew — especially Howard Finberg, Casey Frechette and Vicki Krueger — for supporting the idea for this course and making it a reality.

More on McClatchy and the N&O

Analysis and reaction is still coming in a week after the news that The News & Observer is trimming its newsroom staff as part of a larger McClatchy cutback. The merger of some coverage between the N&O and Charlotte Observer is drawing some especially interesting commentary.

Here’s a sampling of what they are saying:


McClatchy executive Howard Weaver outlines the future: “We have to tailor this 151-year old company differently to operate profitably and respond efficiently in the new arena.”


John Drescher, executive editor, sees hope in growing readership, combining print and online: “We’ve worked for several years to meet your needs in print and online. Our readership data show our reach is greater than ever.”

Ted Vaden, public editor, strikes a somber tone: “It is a sad time for the newspaper and for the people here who will see long-time colleagues leave.”


Doug Fisher, journalism instructor at the University of South Carolina, offers insight into what the Charlotte-Raleigh collaboration means for coverage of state government: “The digital age seems to be giving us a barbell shape for news — the big national stuff on one end, the hyperlocal stuff on the other, and in-between? But in between is where the state capitals lie.”

John Zhu, a former staffer at The Herald-Sun in Durham, criticizes the N&O’s outsourcing of leadership in the sports department to Charlotte: “The two papers are about 2.5 hours apart, but the focuses of their coverage are much farther apart.”


Fans sound off in comments on a blog from a Raleigh sports-talk station: “Pretty soon they’ll merge with all the papers for one USA Today type of paper called NC Today.”

UPDATE: Vaden offers more reader reaction (as well as a correction regarding the number of copy editors let go) at the end of this column.

The words of George Carlin

Comedian George Carlin has died at age 71. He was known for his profane style of comedy, epitomized by his “seven dirty words.” (Yes, you can read them on Wikipedia even if you can’t say them on TV.)

Carlin was also keenly interested in the meaning of words. This quote illustrated that as he listed the ingredients of his work:

Those three things which wax and wane in importance are English language and wordplay; secondly, mundane, everyday observational comedy — dogs, cats and all that stuff; and thirdly, sociopolitical attitude comedy.

You can see a bit of that first aspect of Carlin’s work in this clip on YouTube. It appears to be from the mid-1980s, and yes, it includes some dirty words.

Pam Nelson’s blog is on the move

You may be familiar with Pam Nelson, an ace copy editor at The News & Observer, and her blog, Triangle Grammar Guide. If not, you should be.

Either way, you’ll need a new address to follow Pam’s posts and quizzes. It’s changed as part of a blog overhaul at the N&O site. You can now find Pam at:

Interesting reading (Humor edition)

We could use a laugh. Here are two three places to get one:

  • Jane Black of The Washington Post, on her desire to edit restaurant menus.
  • “Joanne Cohen” of The Onion, on her desire to edit the Great American Novel.
  • Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, on how he won’t miss copy editors … or will he?

Dark day in Raleigh

As an alumnus of The News & Observer, I was distressed — but not surprised — to hear that the paper would lose 70 people, including 16 in the newsroom. The N&O announcement is part of job cuts across the McClatchy chain.

The Raleigh paper has yet to say publicly which 16 people in the newsroom are among those losing their jobs. They are “known unknowns,” as someone once said. The Web staff and the news copy desk apparently survived intact, although sports lost a copy editor.

The lack of detail is puzzling. It seems imperative for a newspaper to tell its readers which journalists will no longer be providing news in the community. As my colleague Leroy Towns suggested recently, transparency is essential, especially in this day and age. Yet, judging from this story at, the N&O will be reluctant to explain who is being let go, leaving readers to figure out whose bylines have vanished.

Equally disheartening is the indication that local news coverage will suffer. That’s a bit difficult to decipher from the story about the cuts, but here is a sentence that says a lot:

The N&O will begin producing only two daily editions: one for the Triangle and one for the rest of its circulation area.

In other words, Chapel Hill and Durham will no longer have a separate edition of the N&O, resulting in a “one size fits all” local coverage across the Triangle. That’s unfortunate and ironic, given the increasing emphasis on local news.

Only a dozen years ago, the N&O was vigorously competing with the Durham paper for readers there. That seems like an eon now.

UPDATE: John Drescher, executive editor of the N&O, told me in an e-mail that he has no plans to publicly announce who was let go. Also, a previous version of this post said no copy editors were laid off; one sports copy editor is affected.

Reporting from inside Myanmar

While we editors discuss whether to call the place Burma and Myanmar, an American reporter takes us inside the closed country, which was recently hit by a deadly cyclone. It’s a compelling read, told from the first person.

The waiting is the hardest part

The writing conventions of the Web find their way into mainstream news stories, for better or worse. For example, this New York Times story deploys the “wait for it” device:

CSX is, of course, one of the largest railroad companies in the nation. And given all the hubbub, you’d imagine the hedge fund was based in the Middle East. But the hedge fund is — wait for it — based in London.

I have never understood why readers should “wait for it.” It’s a feeble way to build drama or surprise into a story, and it’s become a cliche. Go ahead and deliver the information.

Others share my “wait for it” irritation.

Interesting reading

  • Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0, on how newspapers still don’t get the Web, as shown through The Washington Post’s coverage of a weather story.
  • Neil Hallows of the BBC on how some writers prefer the typewriter over the computer.
  • BoingBoing, on how a spoof of Google puts a happier spin on the news — a new definition of search engine optimization.

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