The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: January, 2009

Smartly edited story forms

asf-xgr1A recent NewsU Webinar built on what’s already known about alternative story forms: They attract readers and help them retain information. A successful ASF is, as the Webinar’s presenters emphasized, “smartly edited.”

This page from The News & Observer is an example of an alternative approach that works. (Try this .pdf for a better view.) The news is the return of state lawmakers for their next session. The event is cyclical, and it contains many themes and sub-plots. It also has the potential to be deadly dull.

In days gone by, a newspaper would have its political reporter write a 30-inch roundup (or “curtain raiser”) with a 10-inch sidebar. A copy editor would edit it and write a headline like this:

Solons
to mull
budget

That doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. Newspapers have to become smarter to help their readers be better informed. This package of stories, complete with a list and plenty of chunky text, does that. Readers can learn a lot about the General Assembly thanks to these smartly edited (and sharply designed) story forms.

Do copy editors play an important role in creating story forms? Of course. And here’s one that needs another edit.

Wikipedia may edit itself

Michael Scott, the blowhard boss on the U.S. version of “The Office,” has this to say about Wikipedia:

Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information.

Alas, that may be changing soon, as reported by the BBC:

Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, is proposing a system of flagged revisions, which would mean any changes made by a new or unknown user would have to be approved by one of the site’s editors, before the changes were published.

Some will dislike this change. But it’s obvious to many of us that Wikipedia is too open to mischief and ignorance, most recently in the false reports on the “deaths” of Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd.

For more on the Wikipedia debate, be sure to check out this series of recent posts at You Don’t Say.

Interesting reading

  • Jeff Bailey of BusinessJournalism.org on the importance of headlines and cutlines in the age of smaller copy desks.
  • Wendy Parker of Ink-Drained Kvetch on the need for copy editors and reporters to have a Plan B in their careers, as discussed at the regional conference of the American Copy Editors Society.
  • John Ryan of the Redding Record Searchlight, on the difference between copy editors and proofreaders, and why we need more of the former.

Guest post: Sometimes, headline puns are no fun

Students in my Advanced Editing course will be contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the first of these guest posts. Shanae Auguste is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior who is double-majoring in journalism and sociology. She says she “has a passion for all things sports-related.”

Headline puns do have the ability to work decently, but oftentimes … they do not. Some can be lame and downright tasteless. And lately, the journalism world has begun to frown upon the device like a red-headed stepchild. After seeing nine headline puns in one edition of his paper, an editor at the San Antonio Express-News even went as far as permanently banning their use altogether.

So why are puns in headlines usually not the answer? In my opinion, they make a newspaper appear trashy and on the verge of “tabloid-ism” (I’m guessing that’s not really a word, is it?). Headlines don’t have to be cute, trendy and hip. Funny is acceptable at times, but I’d rather see a hard-hitting and concise one than an “Oh, how clever” one.

Don’t get me wrong; some do work, but I’ve seen more failures than successes. For example, the now outdated “Barack the vote” headline I saw in every paper back in September (and on bumper stickers) was fine at the time. Others, like “Burning ring of fire destroys Johnny Cash’s home,” however, are not fine. It seems these days that the larger metropolitan papers are leaning toward the pun, while great papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times hardly ever use them. Perhaps this could be a reason why the latter papers are two of the most respected?

Believe it or not, there are ways to write great headlines without causing wry laughs and eye-rolling. Here are a few quick tips:

  • A headline is like a first date: The first impression needs to be a good impression. The best, if at all possible. Forget the puns and trying to be funny; focus on basics like keeping headlines in present tense and using the active voice.
  • Try to include subjects and verbs in the headlines. Having the reader insinuate what the subject of the headline is leads to unnecessary confusion
  • Use short, simple words. Don’t confuse the reader with jargon and such
  • Be specific. Be, be specific! Most of the time, general words make for boring headlines.

The urge to use puns in headlines often emerges when writing headlines for online stories. Although people who read stories online aren’t necessarily paying money for the content, it is still the headline writer’s responsibility to sell the story. It’s difficult to do that when using pun heds, as they don’t really contain good search engine keywords. Good keywords = good chance of appearing high on an RSS news feed.

Headlines are meant to summarize a story and to capture a potential reader’s interest. The latter can be done safely without the use of snazzy phrases, inside jokes and double entendres. Instead of evoking groans because of a headline and having potential readers bypass your story, take the time to actually write an arresting and conventional headline sans the puns.

Why we should give a flip about cutlines

flip-cutline

My 8-year-old son is a devoted reader of the sports section. His favorite part is the agate page, which is where all the real news is. Those box scores, poll listings and transactions tell some interesting stories.

But he also reads the headlines and cutlines, occasionally asking questions about what he sees. This photo and cutline, published earlier this week in The News & Observer, gave him pause. Our breakfast conversation went like this:

Son: What is this guy doing?

Dad: I’m not sure. What does it say he is doing?

Son: He’s celebrating.

Dad: Hmmm. That’s not really helpful, is it?

Son: No.

Apparently, this celebratory flip is something that NASCAR driver Carl Edwards is known for. You could even say it was a cliche and that running a photo of him doing it isn’t necessary or informative. But hey, it was new to one reader — and a young one at that.

That takes us to the cutline. “Celebrate” is a throwaway verb in sports cutlines. As documented by fellow blogger and editing professor Fred Vultee, the word is used far too often in these situations. Here’s what Vultee says bothers him about “celebrate” cutlines:

My big reason is a cousin of the gesture/point/react thing. Cutlines shouldn’t tell people stuff they can see; cutlines need to tell people what they can’t see. You can see that the photo subject is pumping his fist or leaping skyward or running up the court and shouting, but you can’t see that he just hit the game-tying home run, or scored his fourth touchdown, or extended his winning streak, or whatever. So I always prefer to let the image speak for itself and use the text to complement the other display type.

Agreed. Cutlines should avoid the obvious. They should connect the image to the story. At the same time, they should explain the less than obvious. That’s the case here. The way the photo is composed, it’s not readily apparent what Edwards is doing — jumping off the roof of his car? From the car door? From a trampoline? Or perhaps he was dropped head-first from a crane?

The cutline does not tell us. This video from YouTube does, however.

Editing and the oath

On a busy news day, a stumble of words during the inauguration of Barack Obama was relegated to a sidebar. Chief Justice John Roberts and the new president were not on the same page, making the historic moment a mildly awkward one as well.

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post includes an editing angle in his reaction to the situation. The New York Times, meanwhile, offers a bit of history.

The glitch will go from sidebar in the newspaper to a footnote in the history books, and of course, it will live forever on YouTube.

UPDATE: Obama and Roberts did a do-over oath a day after the inauguration, inspiring this editorial cartoon.

Q&A: Why the N&O is publishing an afternoon edition

My interview with Dan Barkin, conducted by e-mail, offers a look at The News & Observer’s decision to publish a special afternoon edition after Barack Obama is sworn in as president. Barkin is a senior editor at the Raleigh paper who also writes columns on occasion.

Q. Why is the N&O publishing an afternoon edition on Inauguration Day?

A. We’re publishing an afternoon edition because we think that there will be demand for it as a keepsake. There will be lots of gatherings around the Triangle where people will be watching the inaugural activities, and we will be distributing to these sites. We will also be distributing at selected single-copy locations.

Q. What can readers expect to see in this edition?

A. We hope they will see the first images coming out of the inaugural, plus a story and highlights of Obama’s speech. If AP moves the speech in advance, we may be able to get the whole speech.

Q. How will the afternoon edition be coordinated with coverage on the N&O Web site?

A. The coverage on the Web site will be substantially more than we can get in the extra. We will be doing a live video feed of the speech, live blogging from the inaugural and continuously updating photo galleries throughout the afternoon and evening, as well as updating stories and reporting on any actions that Obama takes on his first day, such as executive orders.

Q. Can readers expect to see more afternoon editions on special occasions?

A. The last afternoon edition that we published was on 9/11. Typically, it has to be that level of event or an event that would produce an edition people would want to save. So I think this will be rare.

UPDATE: See some of the afternoon editions from several newpapers, including the N&O, at Visual Editors.

Please buy a newspaper on Feb. 2

newsracks

A Facebook friend recently invited me to join a cause called National Buy A Newspaper Day. It’s set for Monday, Feb. 2.

The effort’s bare-bones site says this is necessary to show support for local coverage:

Unlike radio which has become dominated by opinion or TV news which only looks for the 30 second soundbite, the local newspaper digs deep every day to get you, the reader, the full story on what’s happening in your town. The newspaper is heavily focused on local news. It keeps you informed about events in your town and keeps local government in line.

It was easy for me to accept this request, because I get a newspaper delivered to my home seven days a week. Perhaps I will buy a copy of another newspaper on this day. I’m sure I will read a few online too, but that doesn’t count.

I have a couple of concerns, however:

  • First, what about international news? Washington? Sports? Opinion and analysis? These are also part of the reason I buy a newspaper, not just for local coverage. (I also like the comics.)
  • Second, Monday is not a good day to pick for this event. The Monday paper tends to be the thinnest edition of the week — not a great way to showcase what a newspaper has to offer.

Despite these quibbles, I will support National Buy A Newspaper Day, and I encourage you to do the same.

Extreme reverse publishing

Ben Terrett, a British graphic designer, recently teamed up with a friend for an interesting project in that blends print and online media. They assembled blog posts, Twitter messages and other content that their friends had put online, and they made it into a newspaper. Yes, on paper.

The result is Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet 2008. This unusual newspaper contains no advertising and has a “circulation” of 1,000.

Terrett’s detailed account of how the publication came together is heavy on the design angle, and he discloses that none of the content was edited. It’s still an interesting experiment in reverse publishing. Perhaps the project is also another testament to the keepsake value of print — Terrett even includes celebratory video of his newspaper rolling off the presses.

Schadenfreude and Lisa Simpson

A fresh post at After Deadline, a New York Times blog, discusses the newspaper’s frequent use of “schadenfreude.” The word appeared 43 times in the NYT in 2008, a record.

After Deadline suggests that the rise in “schadenfreude” is related to the play “Avenue Q,” which has a song of that name. My reference point, however, is an old “Simpsons” episode called “When Flanders Failed.” (These days, it would be called “Flanders Fail.”)

In the relevant scene, Homer is reveling in the apparent demise of the Leftorium, a store operated by his hated neighbor, Ned Flanders. Homer’s daughter Lisa isn’t happy with him. Here’s that dialog:

Lisa: Dad, do you know what schadenfreude is?

Homer: No, I do not know what shaden-frawde is. Please tell me, because I’m dying to know.

Lisa: It’s a German term for “shameful joy,” taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

Homer: Oh, come on, Lisa. I’m just glad to see him fall flat on his butt. He’s usually all happy and comfortable, and surrounded by loved ones, and it makes me feel. … What’s the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?

Lisa: Sour grapes.

Homer: Boy, those Germans have a word for everything.

Thanks, Lisa, for the vocabulary lesson. It’s stuck with me all these years. Perhaps it had the same effect on reporters and editors at The New York Times.

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