The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: November, 2008

In memoriam: Weta Ray Clark

The News & Observer mourns the loss of Weta Ray Clark, a former section editor and reporter at the paper. Weta died Saturday of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was 44.

Weta’s journalism career included work as a copy editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday. She came to the N&O as editor of the Home and Garden section.

My thoughts are with Weta’s family and colleagues at this sad time.

UPDATE: Pam Nelson, a copy editor for the N&O features section, shares her memories of Weta.

Which one and that one

Fellow editing blogger Craig Lancaster at Watch Yer Language recently took note of a column by James Kilpatrick. The topic of the column was “that” versus “which.” The didactic Kilpatrick expresses his disdain for “which.”

I liked Craig’s measured response to Kilpatrick, in which he diagnosed a blend of tact and grammar in working with writers who struggle with this problem. I also like this advice on “which” from After Deadline, a blog by a deputy news editor at The New York Times.

Kilpatrick is wrong to throw out “which” altogether. After all, it’s not that complicated to determine which is correct.

If ‘The Office’ turned into ‘The Newsroom’

“The Office” has global appeal, even though most of us have never worked for “a regional paper and office supply distributor,” as the fictional company Dunder Mifflin describes itself. The petty politics, misguided management and odd personalities depicted on the show ring true at any kind of company or business.

Newsrooms are offices, and they are similar to the one portrayed in “The Office.” Many newsrooms are laid out like the office on the show, with the staff clustered in groups of desks and management peering out from glassed-in offices. Indeed, as I watch the U.S. version of “The Office” every week, I occasionally have flashbacks to my newsroom experiences. Others have made the same connection.

So what would the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin look like if it suddenly gave up office supplies and took up journalism? Here’s a possible newsroom reorganization for The Dunder Mifflin Times.

Managing editor: Michael Scott (also serves as business editor and movie critic)

Assistant (to the) managing editor: Dwight Schrute (serves as wire editor, sports editor and city editor)

Features editor: Kelly Kapoor (also in charge of Facebook page and Twitter feed)

Web editor: Ryan Howard

Reporters: Andy Bernard, Karen Filippelli, Jim Halpert, Stanley Hudson

Copy editors: Creed Bratton (desk chief), Oscar Nunez, Kevin Malone

Clerk for obits and sports agate: Mose Schrute

News research/party planning: Phyllis Lapin, Angela Martin

Photos/multimedia: Meredith Palmer

Graphics/page designer: Pam Beesly

Executive editor: Jan Levinson

Publisher: David Wallace

Pressroom foreman: Darryl Philbin

Human resources: Toby Flenderson

Interesting reading

  • Michelle McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center, on the copy desk’s online role at The Wichita Eagle.
  • John Moe and Michael Raphael of Weekend America, on the need to edit Axl Rose.

A fire in the tunnel


A recent letter to the editor in The News & Observer discussed an incident at N.C. State University. Four students painted racist messages about Barack Obama in the Free Expression Tunnel on campus, setting off a debate over the limits of the First Amendment.

Here’s what the “nut graf” of the letter says:

I cherish the First Amendment as much as anyone and more than many. But in some cases, speech can and does equal shouting fire in a crowded theater. In those cases, institutional restraints may be justified.

Actually, the Constitution protects the right of someone who yells fire in a crowded theater, provided that there is indeed a fire. That’s the distinction the Supreme Court made in 1919. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.

The key word here is “falsely.” Yes, the word is often dropped when people quote Holmes. But it’s an important distinction and a piece of legal history that should be quoted accurately.

More on the “fire” analogy and the case behind it here.

Google, Life and newspapers through the years

Google and Life magazine have joined forces to create an archive of millions of photographs. Many of these images, some taken as early as the 1860s, have never been published.

The search seems to rely heavily on the cutline content. Here are a few of my favorite photos involving newspapers:

  • The newsroom at a student newspaper at Yale University. (1942)
  • Newsday publisher Alicia Patterson reading her paper in the back of a limousine. (1958)
  • The editor of the Kansas City Star looking at a story with someone who may be a copy editor. (1954)
  • Subway riders in New York “deprived” of news during a newspaper strike. (1958)
  • Gandhi reading a newspaper. (1946)

Coverage that counts


The “by the numbers” story form is sometimes criticized for divorcing those numbers from their context. This is indeed a hazard of this technique, but the key is recognizing that hazard, not dumping the “by the numbers” idea altogether.

This example from the Web site of the Los Angeles Times shows us how to this well. The “by the numbers” box on the homepage shows the vital statistics related to the recent wildfires in Southern California. It is a story that is both important and incremental. The box summarizes the story well, and having it online rather than in print allows for frequent updating. It’s another piece of the story along with the slideshow, the news story and the opinion piece. One thing that could be improved is the color; the grey numbers are a little hard to read.

So yes, be careful with those numbers-based textboxes. Don’t make the numbers BIG in the design when they don’t need to be, and make sure the reader can connect the numbers to their larger meaning. But don’t count out the “by the numbers” idea when the content works.

More advice on story forms collected here.

Andy Rooney, slot editor

rooney1You may have seen Andy Rooney’s take on the fate of newspapers that was broadcast Sunday. You can watch it or read it here.

It’s not the first time that the cantankerous commentator has used his time on “60 Minutes” to talk about newspapers. In this video, he reviews headlines that he thinks need to be rewritten. As you might expect, Rooney would make for a difficult slot man.

Another example of Charlotte creep

“Charlotte creep,” as first noted here and again here, is the unfortunate result of the common ownership of the Raleigh and Charlotte newspapers. As the Observer and The News & Observer share stories and join forces in some areas of their coverage, the two papers must figure out how to balance this cost-cutting, cooperative effort against the needs of their readers.

It isn’t always working. An Observer article about Facebook and some Charlotte-area teachers appeared on page 2B of the N&O on Saturday, several days after this “news” happened. (More on the merits of the story itself at Headsup: The Blog.) Here is the story’s lead:

A Thomasboro Elementary teacher faces firing for posting derogatory comments about students on Facebook, while four other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers have been disciplined for posts involving “poor judgment and bad taste,” spokeswoman Nora Carr said Tuesday.

The lead may be OK in Charlotte — but in Raleigh, not so much. Readers in the Triangle are unlikely to have knowledge of specific schools 150 miles away in Mecklenburg County. The reference to Thomasboro Elementary makes as much sense to Raleigh readers as a mention of Fred Olds Elementary would be to Charlotte readers. Let’s edit that lead for a Triangle audience:

An elementary school teacher may be fired for posting derogatory comments about students on Facebook, and four other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers have been disciplined for posts involving “poor judgment and bad taste,” the school system said.

The specific schools can be mentioned deeper in the story. The time element works better later so the story isn’t so obviously stale, and the name of the spokeswoman doesn’t need to be in the lead either.

The song remains the same: If the sharing of content between the Charlotte and Raleigh papers is here to stay, careful editing — from story selection to word choice — will be essential to ensure that each paper maintains its identity.

ACES gets ready for 2009 national conference

Preparations are under way for the 2009 national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. It will take place April 30-May 2 in Minneapolis.

The theme for the conference is “Editing for the Future.” Get more information here.

See you in the Twin Cities!


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