The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: March, 2009

Bono writes a headline

Bono is back in journalism mode on the new U2 album, “No Line on the Horizon.” The singer, who has been moonlighting as an editor and op-ed columnist in recent years, opens the track “Cedars of Lebanon” this way:

Yesterday I spent asleep
Woke up in my clothes in a dirty heap
Spent the night trying to make a deadline
Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline

Indeed, one of the roles of the copy editor is to turn complicated stories into simple headlines. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as Bono has apparently realized. He’s got the lifestyle of a journalist down, though.

Hear the song here.

Would you pay to comment on a news site?

Time magazine caused a lot of conversation earlier this year with its cover story on newspapers. The article argued for micropayments, sort of an iTunes model in which readers would pay a small amount to read a news story. The proposal has been met with skepticism, however, and Time itself has yet to adopt it.

Perhaps charging a small amount to read a news story or opinion piece won’t work. But what about the comments on those news stories? Should news sites ask people to pay a little for that privilege?

John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., floated the idea earlier this month, taking note of a story that drew more than 3,000 comments from readers. Imagine if each had paid a few pennies to do so. In a followup e-mail, Robinson elaborated on his post.

“As a practical matter, I doubt that charging to post a comment would raise much money. It is hard for me to believe that many of the commenters on my blog feel their opinions are so important for me and other blog followers to read that they would pay to voice them,” Robinson wrote. He suggested that some big-time blogs could try this but didn’t think it was a good idea.

I asked some editors at prominent newspaper Web sites what they thought of the “pay to comment” concept. Here are their responses, sent by Facebook e-mail:

Eric Frederick, managing editor at The News & Observer’s site: “All online media are looking for new ways to raise revenue, and micropayments definitely are an option. But if we ever charged a small usage fee, I feel sure that it would be for exclusive content and not for something so basic as participating in dialogue about current events. Public discourse is too important to be treated as a revenue source. It should be free.”

Andrew Nystrom, senior producer for social media at the Web site of the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t think it will fly, at least for the vast majority of existing sites and publications. There are too many widely read venues where people can comment for free. Evolving platform openess/interconnectedness and user-powered comment rating/filtering systems will only increase the profile of these free, user-friendly commentary outlets.”

Ju-Don Roberts, managing editor for the Washington Post’s site: “I think the real issue is that there are no incentives for people to pay for this kind of discourse. There are too many forums in which readers can freely exchange ideas and debate each other or the merits of our report. Charging a premium on such discourse will only serve to drive them off our sites and onto others where no such prohibitions exist.”

Alas, it seems there’s little enthusiasm for this idea. We’ll have to look elsewhere to make online journalism economically viable, either penny by penny or some other way.

Guest post: When newspapers get a bat cave

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 ninth of these guest posts. Dominic Ruiz-Esparza is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. He says that after four years at the university, he still can’t find anything to beat a sunny afternoon with a good book. His plans include a book on masculine nonsense and a summer in Spain.

In comic books, superheroes occasionally united to fight evil. They came up with snappy names like the Justice League and made a headquarters, which inspired millions of tree forts and table forts and garage forts across the world.

In Texas, four newspapers recently decided to do something similar.

The Caller-Times will now be the regional copy editing and design center for the four guardian-watchdogs. Though the four will pool employees to run the center in Corpus Christi, it’s hard to believe that everyone will keep their jobs through this.

It makes more sense when you learn that the four papers are owned by the same company, Scripps. The Justice League didn’t put anyone out of work, so far as I know, but it would be embarrassing to be the fifth Green Lantern to show up on Monday.

This shows the ruthless beauty of a merger. It’s also an experiment in removing editing and design from the newsroom.

The Chicago Tribune fantasized in January about such a world. What’s at stake is only the credibility that journalism schools tell students is non-negotiable. But in Chicago, double-checking is kind of, maybe, sort of a good idea.

So how important is credibility? Which superheroes do we really need to save Sally and Jimmy? What exactly does the Flash do anyway? And how can we get Superman to update his blog on time?

Interesting reading

  • Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe, on the misunderstood and maligned passive voice.
  • Cartoonist V.C. Rogers of The Independent Weekly, on the shrinking page sizes of daily newspapers.

Solons mull grammar, word choices

North Carolina’s lawmakers are spending part of this legislative session on wordy matters, as documented in the Under the Dome blog.

  • First, the Dome tells us in a series of posts about how legislators use titles of bills to make them more politically palatable. That’s why we have the North Carolina Racial Justice Act and the School Violence Prevention Act, among others.
  • Second, we have news of a bill that would ensure that legislation is gender-neutral — the generic “he” would be “he or she.” The issue came up earlier this year when the state’s governor, Beverly Perdue, was described as “he” in an education bill.

Perhaps it’s time that the General Assembly write a stylebook to handle these matters. That’s what newspapers, magazines and book publishers do. The legislators are welcome to start with this one.

UPDATE: The posts on the Dome blog have been compiled and rewritten into a front-page story in The News & Observer.

New York Times memo discusses blogging

John Robinson, my friend and former colleague at the News & Record in Greensboro, recently used his Twitter feed to share a link to a New York Times memo.

The focus of the memo is blogging at the NYT. Here are some highlights:

  • The standards of writing and editing between news stories and blogs have “subtle differences.”
  • Contractions and slang are more acceptable in blog posts than news stories.
  • A post that argues for a point of view must offer facts that support that argument.
  • Headlines shouldn’t take sides.
  • Comments should be moderated but not edited.
  • No snark.

Read the entire .pdf memo here. Here’s another NYT memo on blogs, this one from 2005.

Not much new in this newsroom plan

The Financial Times is apparently revamping the way it publishes news in print and online. The British newspaper will focus on “creation, crafting and completion.”

But is this approach new to newsrooms? Not really, at least by American standards. For example:

Reporters will use a ‘right first time’ approach to their stories. Most newsrooms already expect that stories are in solid shape when they are filed. Some require that reporters pencil-check all facts in stories. Yet copy editors still find and repair errors that were overlooked by reporters — that fresh set of eyes makes a difference.

Reporters will include hyperlinks in their stories. This varies from site to site, but many reporters are already doing this. At the Los Angeles Times, for example, reporters include links in their blog posts. Links in stories are typically done by Web editors, however.

Reporters will write suggested headlines for their stories. This has been done off and on in U.S. newsrooms for years. The practice has two purposes: to help a copy editor write the actual headline and to help the reporter make sure the story has a clear focus. Of course, some copy editors ignored the suggested headlines, and some reporters forgot to provide them.

“News integrators” will work closely with reporters to ensure that all of this gets done. This sounds like a copy editor with a new name. For decades, we’ve been working with our reporting colleagues to make sure that news is published on time and at the highest quality. Of course, being renamed a “news integrator” is far better than being outsourced or laid off.

It will be interesting to see how this reorganization plays out. But on its face, it doesn’t seem like a radical change in workflow.

Guest post: Web headlines should tell, not ask

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 eighth of these guest posts. Caroline McMillan is a senior journalism major and the world’s biggest fan of “The Office.” She loves John Steinbeck, hates comma splices and wants to meet Roy Williams before she graduates. If you have any suggestions – better yet, connections – don’t hesitate to contact her at cbmcmill@email.unc.edu.

Last summer, a good friend of mine e-mailed me a link to the Web site of a student magazine headquartered eight miles down Tobacco Road. All in good fun, the subject line of her e-mail read, “Can [insert publication here] Write a Headline That’s Not a Question?” Amused, I clicked on the link to find that nine of the 11 top stories had headlines had been formatted as questions.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for the interrogative in the Web headline-writing business. But morphing a compelling subject-verb-object headline into a question doesn’t make it more profound. In fact, the interrogative can often weaken it by pulling the readers’ eyes from the active verb to the glaring punctuation mark.

For example, take this headline that appeared on the above Web site: “Why even bother playing football?” The short article discusses Duke University’s new football coach, David Cutcliffe, and how he hopes to turn the program around. In this instance, the question contradicts the article’s premise and adds unnecessary ambiguity. The reader could think the article is an anti-football sports’ column or a profile of a player — too much room for misinterpretation.

Consider this replacement headline: “New football coach energizes players and deflated program.” Less ambiguous and more informative, this headline answers questions without posing them itself.

In our increasingly Web-oriented news cycle, readers need headlines that are clear and concise, ones that disclose as much information as possible. Without dropheads and the aesthetics of print, Web headlines cannot afford ambiguity. But here are some instances where question headlines are appropriate:

1. Voicing a question that’s prevalent among readers. Readers find headlines like this one accessible and endearing. Similarly, The News & Observer’s site recently ran a story with this headline: “Without Ty, will Tyler set records today?” This was the question of the ACC Tournament, one that even UNC men’s basketball coach, Roy Williams, hadn’t fully answered. Here, it works.

2. Posing a question that is rhetorical and snappy. While I’d prefer a more detailed headline in this case, the question format works just fine. It echoes the exasperation of the readers.

3. Answering the question in the headline. In this case, readers know that if the question applies to them, the article does, as well. The Charlotte Observer uses these headlines well, directing readers to various on-site databases.

In my first collegiate English class, my professor deducted points from one of my essays because of my prolific use of “seems,” and “perhaps.” Below my paper grade he wrote: “If you’re not sure about it, your reader won’t be either.”

When belabored or used inappropriately, headlines written as questions are the “seems to be” of the journalistic realm. Just as an essay’s thesis should be explored in the body of the paper, every time we journalists pose a question, we should answer it to the best of our ability. That’s the nature of our art: anticipating the readers’ needs, knowing which questions they will ask.

So here’s the bottom line: Be judicious. Before posing a question Web-style, justify it. Isn’t it better to state things are better stated?

Interesting reading

  • Ryan Teague Beckwith of Under the Dome, on a corny cliche that’s popping up a lot in North Carolina’s state government.
  • Jann Nyffeler of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, on the value of the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.
  • Caulton Tudor of The News & Observer, on some fun names in the NCAA Tournament, including Chief Kickingstallionsims of Alabama State.

When copy editors become reporters

Can copy editors be reporters? Or is the copy desk the fate of the feckless writer?

This interview with Steve Foster, managing editor of the fledgling In Denver Times, includes these thoughts on the matter:

The group we’re starting with didn’t come on board because of their specialties. They came on board because they all believed in creating something, and everyone’s willing to try something new to make that a reality. There’s a large group of people who are traditionally identified as copy editors. In this new world, they’re not just editing copy. They’re also reporting stories, and that is a key component for this.

In my newsroom days, I saw copy editors become reporters, and I saw that move go the other way too. It usually worked out OK.

This project will ask journalists to do both, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in Denver and elsewhere.

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