The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: February, 2009

Interesting reading

  • Chris O’Brien of the Next Newsroom Project, on some reasons to be optimistic about journalism in these difficult times.
  • Michael Cavna of the Comic Riffs blog, on the risks that editors run when they rely on reader “polls” about the comics pages.
  • Rachel Abramowitz of the Los Angeles Times, on the “movie speak” of Hollywood sets.

No static at all


Just as my American eyes have become accustomed to “PM” as a short form for prime minister, along comes this headline from an AFP story. The way you see it here is the way it was presented on Yahoo earlier this week.

I still see “FM” as a reference to radio, not a foreign minister, so I stumbled on this headline. What do others think?

Q&A: Editing in the corporate world

Chris Hoerter is a copy editor at SAS, a software company based in Cary, N.C. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Hoerter discusses what editing is like in the corporate world.

Q. Describe your job. What it is it like to edit at a software company?

A. Like newspaper editing, the turnaround time is fast — less than a day for most jobs. Most days we also get a few rush jobs that require immediate action.

The documents we’re looking at are relatively short — 75 percent of what we get consists of marketing e-mails, Web pages, signs and short mailers. Medium-length pieces make up most of the rest, things like press releases, success stories and magazine articles. And then every few days we’ll get something massive, like a 4,000-word white paper.

Paradoxically, we have to really take our time with short, prominent jobs, such as large trade show signs. A mistake on one of these is easy to see and makes us look especially unprofessional.

We’re also the front line for trademark enforcement, and make sure that dozens of trademarks and product names are used correctly.

Q. The business world has lots of jargon. How do you balance the urge of writers to use jargon with an editor’s urge to translate that into everday English?

A. It depends a great deal on the audience. Because SAS markets software to many different industries, writers and editors have to put themselves in a lot of different shoes. In general, we encourage plain English by working with our writers to identify unnecessary jargon, much of which we capture in an online style guide.

Other times we work with the writer to identify possible jargon and come up with alternatives. This often requires some research.

Q. You come from a background in creative writing. How has that influenced your editing?

A. It’s been challenging in some ways and helpful in others. I don’t think of myself as a naturally detail-oriented person, so I’ve had to approach copy editing in a very mindful way.

For example, I look at most pieces three times. First, I read from beginning to end. Next, I bump up the text size to 150 percent and read backwards, paragraph by paragraph. Last, I review all my edits, making sure that there’s a good reason for each one.

I feel my creative writing background pays off most when I’m working with our copy writers and graphic designers, who are wonderfully creative people. I feel like I can identify with what they’re trying to achieve, and I get a lot of satisfaction from suggesting a different way to write something that improves the delivery.

Q. Some copy editors for newspapers and magazines may look into getting a job like yours. What advice would you have for them?

A. The next best thing to knowing the person who is making the hiring decision is knowing the company. Do your homework. Read the collateral, check out the Web site, and think about it from an editing perspective. What is the company doing well? What kinds of mistakes is it making? How could you help?

And I wouldn’t be scared off if you’re not seeing official corporate editing positions. I’m lucky to work at a company that values consistent, professional business communications. But judging from what I see elsewhere, many companies don’t choose to make that effort — or they make it inconsistently.

If you think there’s a need and you’ve got something to offer, you may have a strong case for a creating a new position or at least getting some freelance work. And that’s a situation that’s good for everybody.

The return of mic

Faithful readers of this blog will recall a post last fall that discussed a style exercise in my editing course. Students work in small groups to make a few style rulings that we then use for the rest of the semester.

The decision that drew several comments was about the short form for “microphone.” Should it be “mic” or “mike”? The students last fall unanimously picked “mic.” Some were unaware that “mike” was even an option.

I decided to try this one again, and once again, all of the students in two sections of the course went with “mic.” The groups were more divided on “freshman” vs. “first-year student,” though they leaned toward the latter. “Athletic director” vs. “athletics director” drew an even split.

The reasons they gave for “mic” were similar to those offered by students before. It’s what you see on signs for “open mic night.” There’s no “k” in microphone. “Mic” is more contemporary.

Indeed, if these students are the ones who will soon settle style questions in newsrooms, the future seems to be on the side of “mic.”

Guest post: Editing of Obama photo raises questions

Students in my Advanced Editing course are 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 third of these guest posts. Tori Hamby, a UNC-Chapel Hill junior majoring in journalism and English, aspires to go to law school and one day work as a legal consultant for a print publication or cable network news channel. In the meantime, one of her lesser goals is to watch every episode of “Friends” on DVD, in chronological order, before she graduates.

Photo manipulation has been a frequently debated issue in the editing world. While it is blatantly unethical to manipulate photos with the intention of deception (i.e., editing a photo so that it incorrectly portrays or represents the depicted event), editing a photo for aesthetic reasons lends itself to greater discussion.

The Poynter Institute reported that at least two publications edited a photo, taken by Chuck Kennedy of McClatchy-Tribune news service at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, by adding pixels to extend the portion of the sky that was originally pictured. It appeared that the editors’ intentions were to add more pixels so that a headline could be written over the sky, thus taking a more creative approach toward the layout.

By itself, this photo edit seemed quite harmless. Any reasonable reader would assume that the sky extends beyond the photo, so adding a few pixels should not be a big deal, right?

While this may be true, this is dangerous habit for editors to slip into. In its photo guideline policy, The Charlotte Observer states that “backgrounds cannot be eliminated ‘burned down’ or aggressively toned under any circumstances.” The Tampa Tribune’s photo policy states that “readers deserve accuracy and honesty, whether viewing an image or reading words. Their eyes may deceive them, but the newspaper should not.”

This seemingly harmless editorial decision received attention and criticism from The Poynter Institute because photos are one of the key elements of journalism. Non-manipulated photos offer a glimpse into an event that the reader was unlikely able to attend or witness. Photos increase the reader’s trust in the accuracy of the story, while adding color and detail that is not thoroughly expressed in copy.

Like copy, the slightest tweaks to the facts can damage a publication’s credibility. A reporter does not edit a single word in a direct quote because such an edit distorts the truth. The change of a single word essentially turns the direct quote into a lie. The same philosophy should be applied toward photography. The Washington Post states that “photography has become trusted as a virtual record of an event. We must never betray that trust.”

As journalists, we are expected to bring the public a full, unbiased account of the truth. Although tweaking an image may create a prettier front page or photo spread, these should come second to truthfulness and accuracy.

Want a pun in your headline? Sign this release first

Tempted to put a pun in that headline? You’ll have to sign something first.

Steve Merelman, front-page editor at The News & Observer, passes along this form (.pdf) that he wrote about pun headlines. It requires copy editors to meet a six-part test before their wordplay headline can be published.

More on pun headlines here.

UPDATE: Merelman now works at Bloomberg News, where he is still on pun patrol.

Interesting reading

  • Steven Petrow, former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, on the use of “gay” as a synonym for “stupid.”
  • Lolita Baldor of The Associated Press, on the apparent fade of the phrase “war on terror” in the Obama administration.
  • Alan McDermott of Universal Press Syndicate, on editing The Writer’s Art, the language column by the retiring James Kilpatrick.

Q&A with the editor of The Carrboro Citizen

The Carrboro Citizen, a weekly newspaper in North Carolina, debuted in early 2007 as a relentlessly local publication. The paper recently announced its intentions to widen its coverage into adjacent Chapel Hill and beyond. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, editor Kirk Ross discusses the paper’s plans.

Q. Why is the Citizen expanding its coverage of Chapel Hill and elsewhere outside of Carrboro?

A. Actually, we’ve been doing it for a long time. Early on, we found shared interests among readers from all over Orange and Chatham counties. A lot of people from elsewhere were picking up the paper when they were in Carrboro. Then we opened up several distribution locations in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill and papers really stared moving. So reader interest — that’s a big part of the reason.

The other is that most of the other papers — the Daily Tar Heel being the exception — are getting smaller and cutting staff. We think there is a need for more local coverage and that the community wants and deserves a full airing of ideas and issues.

The big leap was deciding to cover Chapel Hill government, the university and more of the doings of Chapel Hill. It was a natural move, but it happened a little faster than we thought it would.

Q. How will the paper balance its growth with its original mission of being a paper focused on Carrboro?

A. The idea of having a paper focused on Carrboro (we were very religious about that in the beginning), was driven by the feeling that Carrboro has a lot going on, many serious issues to deal with and those need to be more fully reported.

I’d say the same goes for Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Pittsboro and so on. The boundary lines between the towns and even Orange and Chatham are blurred in so many areas — arts, music, literature — and there are a lot of shared philosophies and world views. Weaving that together and balancing constituencies is our weekly task. That said, we’ll never skip an aldermen meeting because it’s not sexy enough.

Q. You have a small staff where everyone does everything. How does editing and headline writing work at the Citizen?

Yep, we have a small shop and share a lot of responsibilities. Everybody proofs a bit. We try to use everyone’s strengths.

I’m a much better assignment editor and spirit guide than copy editor. So I do that, and Taylor Sisk does a lot of the nuts and bolts work on the copy. I do the majority of the headline writing, which I’ve always enjoyed. One of my goals for this year is to get more ahead of the process and slow the pace. That should allow for more of those flourishes that give a paper personality.

Q. The Citizen keeps growing even as many newspapers are struggling. What can a newspaper do to not just survive, but thrive?

A. You have to get back to the land. Many newspapers are too large, too layered and too distant from readers. More has to happen at ground level. We’re all going to have to get out more, work a lot harder, connect with more people and build trust.

To thrive, newspapers must be more collaborative with the communities they serve, more inclusive and open to new sources of content, and they have to absolutely own local government coverage.

Guest post: Future of news design is behind the times

Students in my Advanced Editing course are 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 second of these guest posts. Phillip Crook, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism, aspires to three life goals: to work in arts journalism, to live in Paris and to amass a notable sweater collection.

Whether you’re breezing through the pages of a newspaper or settling in for a thorough read, your experience is governed by a carefully refined set of rules; hierarchy, readability, modular organization — all familiar elements in the production of the foldable, transportable, clip-friendly newspaper we know and (although, in decreasing numbers) love.

But, thanks to the digital age, this thing of beauty has an ugly fraternal twin.

Newspaper Web site design sacrifices many of the aesthetic conventions of its print sibling on the alter of unlimited space. The efficient communication style of print papers works within the confines and consistency of a single page. But online, that same content enjoys the freedom of an endless capacity for extended coverage and additional visual elements … often to the content’s detriment.

To be fair, Web editions undertake functions that print papers do not, such as navigating the entire paper from a single page, embedding links and offering space for reader comments. However, the lesson Web design has yet to learn is that throwing so much content at a reader’s eye at once simply causes sensory overload. Online editions may offer the convenience of information at the click of a mouse, but a messy and confusing Web page doesn’t compel loyal readership.

Clutter kills: The Chicago Sun-Times main page is dominated by an oppressive band of ads spanning the top third of the site. Adding to the visual chaos, the vast majority of news content is presented here on a non-hierarchical grid, which confuses visitors about where to find important information.

Emphasize individuality: While less overbearing to navigate than the previous example, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s site makes a weak visual statement by creating too much white space and by not asserting the paper’s personality. Few visual elements on this page speak to an Atlanta audience or even do much to identify site as a major news source.

The right balance: The Los Angeles Times is a good example of where cohesive, simplistic design meets the right amount personality. Ads don’t obstruct the header, varying headline type size creates a clear news hierarchy, and the paper’s professional but approachable personality comes across to readers.

Logical layout: Like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times site is easy to navigate. Both papers use a sidebar of navigation, directing a reader to the paper’s different sections and categories of interest. Placing the menu to the left of the page as opposed to a horizontal band beneath the header allows readers to quickly scan the menu in list format.

It is essential to recognize that newspaper Web site design must negotiate a complex web of functions. But the attributes of effective, stimulating traditional print design shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of jamming as much content on a screen as possible. The print layout we see today is the product of decades of helpful modification. If it’s true that online news will make the print edition obsolete, Web presentation would be well served to look to its print companion in becoming a more streamlined information conduit.


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