The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: September, 2008

Bumstead/Marmaduke 2008

The News & Observer is asking its readers to let the paper know what they’d like to see on the comics pages. It’s the second such vote in less than a year, and people are taking notice of how the four-part ballot is set up.

This comics election also comes shortly after Ted Vaden, the public editor at the paper, suggested that “Mallard Fillmore” should be dropped from the comics lineup. (“Doonesbury” runs on the op-ed page.) The ballot includes a question about strips with a strong political angle.

I asked Debra Boyette, the paper’s features editor (and a top-notch copy editor) about the latest election. Here are her e-mail responses:
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Q. Why is the N&O doing a comics vote again?

A. In January, we added additional space for comics. Rather than just choosing three strips, we decided to give some of the new strips that are being introduced tryouts. About every four weeks, we put in three new strips and ask readers to give up their feedback. We’re winding up the guest-strip program now and are taking readers’ comments into consideration as we decide on the strips that will make up our final lineup.

Q. The “Doonesbury” and “Mallard” comics are paired on the ballot. Readers can’t pick one and drop the other. Is that by design?

A. Readers can vote for “Mallard” as one of their 12 favorites, and “Doonesbury” isn’t on the ballot because the newsroom doesn’t have any control over it. We hear from readers fairly regularly that they don’t think “Mallard” belongs on the comics pages, that it’s too political to go there. Many of them also put “Mallard” and “Doonesbury” in the same category — as political strips. We want to get feedback from a wider range of readers as to where they think political strips should go or whether they should even be in the paper.
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You can vote in the N&O poll here, and read related posts here and here. I only wish I could write in “Garfield Minus Garfield.”

UPDATE: John Drescher, executive editor at the paper, announces that “Mallard” will stay where it is.

Split the ticket

When writing multiple-line headlines, should copy editors consider how they break from line to line?

Awkward “splits” used to be something to avoid, though some editors have said that the readers don’t notice the difference. Editors writing headlines for the Web don’t seem to worry about this as much their print counterparts.

This print example splits the adjective (“hot”) and the noun it modifies (“topic”). That’s a no-no, according to this tip sheet on headline writing. Does the top line of this headline create a false impression about the story’s content, at least for a moment?

Interesting reading

  • Jamie Gold of the Los Angeles Times, on the newspaper’s corrections policy and errors in print vs. online.
  • Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times, on the media’s word choices regarding the financial woes on Wall Street and throughout the country.

Stith says goodbye to N&O

Veteran reporter Pat Stith is retiring from The News & Observer. The news comes as a relief to politicians across North Carolina, but readers will miss his investigative skills.

Copy editors may appreciate Stith’s attention to detail, as described in the story announcing his departure. Any journalist would benefit from Stith’s reporting tips, as he discusses here.

Farewell, Pat. You will be missed.

UPDATE: John Robinson at the Greensboro paper remembers Stith’s role as a mentor.

Sorry, Mike: The students pick mic

Each semester, I have my editing classes settle a few style questions. This exercise helps students understand that style isn’t stagnant and that they can have a role in shaping style choices in the classroom now and in the newsroom later.

Here’s how it works:

  • We discuss a memo that I wrote when I was a wire editor at The News & Observer. The paper’s managing editor requested the memo after questioning why wire stories in the paper referred to “Myanmar” while the BBC called the same country “Burma.” (More on that here.)
  • I ask the students to break into groups of four to resolve several style quandaries. These change from semester to semester, depending on recent news events. Examples have included Mumbai vs. Bombay and refugee vs. evacuee.
  • Each group of students conducts research on the meanings, uses and histories of terms. They look at what other publications do and what guidelines in the AP stylebook may be applicable.
  • Each group offers its recommendations. The class as a whole discusses them until we come to an agreement. We then use the students’ style recommendations on assignments for the rest of the semester.

This time, I picked two serious style quandaries and one I hoped would be on the lighter side. Here they are and the students’ recommendations:

Freshman vs. first-year student. “Freshman” prevailed, though a few students preferred “first-year student.” A sports-minded student noted that “first-year student” would be awkward when writing about athletes who redshirt.

Ground Zero vs. ground zero, in reference to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York. This was a pretty even split across two sections of the class. Some groups said that the World Trade Center area was a unique place that deserved a capitalized term. Others said that wasn’t fair to similar places, that there are other “grounds zero.”

Mike vs. mic, as a short form for “microphone.” This, to my surprise, was the slam dunk. Not one student took up for “mike.” Some hadn’t realized that the word could be used that way. Many said they were influenced by campus fliers and other advertising for “open mic nights.” A few others said “mike” looked like a person’s name, a viewpoint I took in this post. For both sections of the editing course, we adopted “mic” as an acceptable short form for “microphone,” should that come up again this semester.

And every day, the paperboy brings more

Poor Richard Wright. The Pink Floyd keyboardist, who died earlier this week at the age of 65, deserves better.

In life, Wright labored in the shadow of band leaders Syd Barrett and, later, Roger Waters. Despite significant contributions during Pink Floyd’s glory years of the 1970s, Wright was ousted from the band by the increasingly imperious Waters. Given that, it’s a tribute to Wright that he participated in the Floyd reunion at the Live 8 concert in 2005.

In death, Wright continues to get little respect. The Associated Press, as seen here, got the details of the band’s history wrong. “Atom Heart Mother” and “Echoes” were recorded and released before “Dark Side of the Moon,” not afterward. A bit of fact checking could have prevented that error — yet another example of the need to edit wire stories. Even worse is the headline from The Huffington Post. “Pink Floyd guy” is flippant and disrespectful. It’s also not great for search engine opitimization — “Richard Wright” was the top search term on Google Trends when news of Wright’s death hit the Web.

For a proper sendoff as Wright goes to the great gig in the sky, try this appreciation at NPR’s site and this post at David Menconi’s blog, On the Beat.

Places to go for grammar

This blog is about editing, which includes grammar. But it’s not a grammar blog.

Some readers find their way here looking for grammar tips. They will find some here and there, but such posts are infrequent.

If you are here for grammar and only grammar, allow me to point you in some helpful directions. The New York Times has an excellent topics page about grammar. Grammarphobia, led by “Woe Is I” author Patricia O’Conner, is also a great resource.

If you are looking for grammar exercises, here are some sites to visit:

  • Triangle Grammar Guide by copy editor Pam Nelson includes fun, five-question grammar quizzes. Here’s the full collection of those.
  • Newsroom 101 has exercises on topics such as subject-verb agreement and dangling modifiers.
  • The American Copy Editors Society site has a few grammar quizzes in this trove of tests.
  • NewsU offers “Cleaning Your Copy,” a course by copy editor Vicki Krueger. This one is the “Dark Side of the Moon” of NewsU — it has been on the “Hot Courses” list for as long as I can remember.

All of these sites are free. Enjoy!

Recognizing great catches by copy editors

You sometimes hear copy editors say: “If you could only see the things we do catch, you would understand how a few errors still slip into publication.” Readers, of course, never see what was corrected at the last minute. They only read what ends up in print or online.

This column by John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., offers some examples of good catches. Copy editors there stopped a variety of errors of spelling and fact, including the dreaded “pubic/public” glitch.
The column’s headline is “In appreciation of copy editors.” The copy editors at the News & Record most certainly appreciate Robinson’s kind words.

You can see other mistakes caught by copy editors at Why Editing Matters.

Interesting reading (and listening)

  • Kathy English of The Toronto Star, on the shared responsibility between writers and editors on issues of style, spelling and grammar.
  • Grey Blackwell of The News & Observer, on his animated cartoons for the paper’s site. (An audio interview.)

Anniversary of the 9/12 front pages

Today is the seventh anniversary of the front pages that covered the Sept. 11 attacks. The Freedom Forum has an archive of these pages. They make for interesting browsing.

The one here is from The News & Observer. (Click on the image for a better view.) The best story on the page is in the left-hand column. It’s a wire story, told as a narrative, that gives an inside view of what it was like to be on the plane that hit the Pentagon. It was an exclusive story from The Washington Post.

The other stories (a roundup from the wires on the day’s events and another about local reaction) are less compelling because similar stories were on television and the Web throughout the day of the attacks. Neither story told readers much beyond what they already knew.

That’s something to consider if such news happens again.

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