The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: July, 2008

When restaurant reviews are news

A recent New York Times story about the culinary scene in New Orleans is noteworthy for obvious reasons — but some subtle ones as well.

The readily apparent news of the story is the return of restaurant reviews in The Times-Picayune, the daily newspaper in the New Orleans area. Regular reviews were suspended in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster in 2005. The paper’s food critic, Brett Anderson, turned to straight-up reporting as New Orleans began its long recovery. Now, as a sign of the city’s rebuilding efforts, that writer has filed his first restaurant review. He’s back on that beat, and that return is the focus of the NYT story.

The less obvious component of the story is the primacy of The Times-Picayune in the city’s famed restaurant culture. Its reviews — and its authority — were missed. Did bloggers fill the gap? Not really. How about the alternative weekly in the area? Not so much. Here’s the key quote from a New Orleans chef:

“We cooks love to wake up on Friday mornings and open up The Times-Picayune and learn what other people are doing. The key thing is to stay competitive, and that’s where the role of the critic comes in.”

The brand name that is The Times-Picayune still gives the newspaper a prominent role in this aspect of the culture of New Orleans. Whether that name exists in print or online doesn’t matter. The Times-Picayune is the go-to place for restaurant criticism. That’s food for thought as newspapers consider how to “own” a story in an ever-increasing market of media.

Enjoy the review of Mr. B’s Bistro, and laissez les bons temps rouler!

Charlotte creep

The promised merger of some content between The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer is under way. The two North Carolina papers, once informal rivals but now both owned by McClatchy, are indeed joining forces and sharing stories. Here’s some evidence of how Charlotte is creeping into the Raleigh paper:

  • Earlier this month, the Observer’s Scott Fowler listed the top individual performances that he’s witnessed as a sports writer. The column, while entertaining, is localized to a fault. It’s littered with Charlotte references (a high school, the Bobcats and “the Charlotte swim community”) that would have little or no interest to readers in the Triangle (or Raleigh-Durham, if you must). The column also encourages readers to chime in on his paper’s Web site — not the site of the Raleigh paper.
  • Three of the four stories on page 4B of the N&O today are out of Charlotte. One is about the Charlotte area’s United Way campaign. Again, how is this relevant to a Triangle audience? Perhaps that space could instead be used to restore the recently truncated op-ed page in the Monday N&O.
  • A fluffy business story from the Observer refers to a CEO as “the wealthiest Carolinian on Forbes’ 2008 list.” The story appears on the N&O business page. The Charlotte paper has long used “Carolinian” in an effort to appeal to readers in nearby South Carolina; the word is rare in N&O copy because it has virtually no circulation south of the border. In addition, the CEO in the story, Jim Goodnight, lives in Cary, N.C., which is in the heart of the N&O’s circulation area.
  • Reporters from the Charlotte paper are now getting “staff writer” as part of their bylines when their stories run in the N&O. This story by Ken Tysiac, which ran on the N&O sports front today, is an example. Tysiac is fine reporter and accomplished author, but he is not an N&O reporter. His byline should read “The Charlotte Observer” when it appears in the Raleigh paper.

What does it all mean for readers? It’s hard to tell just yet. But it’s ironic that in the era of “hyper-local news” that North Carolina’s two largest newspapers seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Careful editing — from story selection to word choice — will be essential to ensure that each paper maintains its identity.

UPDATE: Three of the five stories on the N&O sports front Wednesday are by Charlotte reporters. Each is credited as a “staff writer.” Just one of the stories is by an actual N&O sportswriter; the other is a wire story from Newsday.

FURTHER UPDATE: Ted Vaden, public editor at the N&O, chimes in on his blog and explains the new byline policy.

Vacation — all I ever wanted

This blog will be on hiatus for the next week as I go on a family vacation.

Interesting reading

  • James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, on the decline of editorial cartoonists.
  • Paul Chaney of Practical eCommerce, on the hazards of editing your own blog.
  • Craig Silverman of Regret the Error, on his visit to the men’s room at the Newseum.

I kid you not

When R.E.M. sang “hey, kids” throughout “Drive,” listeners understood that Michael Stipe wasn’t addressing a group of baby goats. Similarly, the Indigo Girls were not saying they were scared of youthful livestock when they performed “Kid Fears.”

Yet, as reflected in this James Kilpatrick column, some still insist that “kids” should never be used as a synonym for children or young people. It’s all about goats.In one of his “court of peeves” pieces, Kilpatrick rules on a plea from readers who were “justifiably irked” with the use of “kids” in this Randy Cohen column in The New York Times Magazine. In his decision, Kilpatrick admits that several dictionaries recognize “kid” as a word meaning “child.” (The dictionary on my computer lists it as the first definition.) However, he waves off that evidence, siding with the readers: “Their motion will be emphatically granted.”

We need more testimony. I asked three copy editors what they thought of using “kid” this way in newspapers and news Web sites. Here are their answers:

Bill Cloud of UNC-Chapel Hill: I think “kid” is fine in casual uses. I wouldn’t change it in a column, for example, but would question its use in a crime story. We all talk about the wife, husband and kids.

Kathleen Flynn of The New York Times: Since starting to work at The Times in 2005, I have become ever more conservative about word choice and grammar, even in my off hours, even when I am not really thinking about it consciously. You might say I drank the Kool-Aid, but that would be far too informal to say in print. So, yes, I would avoid “kids” to describe young human beings in all but the most informal written usage. But I also have to recognize that I am probably in the minority here, and there is really nothing wrong with the word.
Bill Walsh of The Washington Post: I wouldn’t write “6 Kids Killed in Fire,” but for more casual references there’s nothing wrong with the word. As I recall, I wrote in “Lapsing Into a Comma” that the kids-are-goats argument “belongs in the assisted-living facility.”
My ruling: After weighing this expert testimony and reading the magazine column in question, I dissent from the Kilpatrick court. Although ethics is a weighty topic, Cohen writes in an informal way, which is part of his appeal as a columnist. Additionally, we as editors should grant some leeway (but not carte blanche) to columnists.

Thus, in this case, “kids” is all right.

UPDATE: Cohen responds and elaborates in a comment to this post. Thank you, Randy.

No more weasel words at The Associated Press

Politico has an in-depth look at changes at the Washington bureau of The Associated Press. Under new leader Ron Fournier, the bureau is focusing on “accountability journalism.” The Politico article describes that like so:

Reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.

First-person pieces and more analytical writing are encouraged as well. Politico dutifully notes that not everyone likes the changes at the AP. Elsewhere, Talking Points Memo (among others) has been critical of the wire service’s recent coverage of the presidential campaign.

UPDATE: Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism discusses AP’s new direction in a first-person and analytical piece. A former AP man himself, Fisher beat my post on this news by a couple of hours.

On advice of counsel

This headline and lead gave me pause, as it probably did for many readers. The problem is in the verb: continue.

“To continue” and “continuance” in the legal sense are not the same as we use them in conversation. One legal glossary, for example, defines “continuance” this way:

Adjournment of the proceedings in a case from one day to another.

In news stories, the word usually means that a hearing or trial has been pushed back on the calendar. But what everyday word works best in place of this bit of legal jargon? With legal matters, it’s especially important that we are precise.

I asked a friend, a copy editor turned lawyer turning law librarian, for some advice. Here’s her response:
I’d go with “postponed” because “continuance” literally means you are moving the trial (or appearance or whatever) to a new definite date (the judge always picks the new date when granting the continuance). So “put off” might make it sound like something less definite — like the trial has been put off and we don’t know when or whether it will actually happen.

So ordered. More on continuances here.

Why be normal?

The News & Observer reporter who covers the Wake County schools has an active blog at the paper’s site. One recent post generated (as of this posting) 40 comments from readers.

Many of these comments, of course, are off topic or lengthy. Yet, buried deep among the chatter, comes a curious request from reader to reporter, with emphasis added:

Please report this in a normal article in the print version of the N&O also.

It’s interesting that this reader sees a reporter’s blog post this way — as less significant, if not “abnormal.” The request also indicates that the post would have greater weight on newsprint than on screen. It’s somehow less serious in the blog format — and of course, not as widely read as it would be in the print newspaper.

As producing print media becomes less profitable and reporting through blogs increases, readers can expect to see more news that appears only on the Web. Just when those posts will have the same impact as a story in the paper is unclear.

UPDATE: John Robinson at the News & Record offers his thoughts on this sort of request.

Inside outsourcing

You’ve likely heard about the outsourcing of newspaper editing to India. So who will be doing the work there?

The editors and designers at Mindworks Global Media, that’s who. BusinessWeek magazine takes us to the company’s headquarters outside New Delhi.

Summertime blues

“Summertime Blues” seems like an appropriate soundtrack for the newspaper business. Every which way we turn this summer, the answer seems to be: “No dice, son…” At least we are still raising a fuss and holler about why editing matters.

We’re seeing layoffs, reduced news hole and outsourcing. Many of my fellow bloggers have been writing eloquently on what is happening, and Pam Robinson at Words at Work has been especially vigilant on the outsourcing issue. And this piece at Poynter offers a look at what it all means for the future of the copy desk.

In addition, recent posts at an L.A. Times blog also speak to the situation at that paper and more broadly. Jamie Gold, the paper’s reader representative, recently posted the memo from the paper’s editor about impending layoffs and reduction in pages in the newspaper. That’s followed by another memo from the Web site’s executive editor discussing how the site has increased its readership and expanded its offerings. So yes, the L.A. Times, like most newspapers, has more readers now than it did 10 years ago thanks to the Web. But its finances do not reflect that.

This is our problem: People want news, but it’s no longer profitable to provide them with it. It’s enough to drive an editor to drink.

Fortunately, John McIntyre has arrived just in time to show us how to make a proper martini. Here’s some “Summertime Blues” to go with it:

UPDATE: Perhaps this Webinar at NewsU, set for July 16, will offer some hope.

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