The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: April, 2009

Wish you were here


This blog will be quiet this week as I give and grade final exams. Then I head off to Minneapolis for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

If you can’t join us at the conference, follow the fun at the ACES site and on Twitter.

Guest post: With locations, be specific

UNC-Chapel Hill 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 13th (and last) of these guest posts. Stephanie Yera of Coral Springs, Fla., is a senior majoring in journalism and peace, war and defense with a minor in Mandarin. Her favorite extracurricular activities are traveling, meeting people, browsing grammar Web sites and eating Cuban food.

Whether it’s Southern California, northern France, Central America or New York’s Upper West Side, compass directions and geographical regions play an important role in setting the stage for a story. It is the copy editor’s responsibility to make sure locations are stated correctly and as informatively as possible. Copy editors must consider the effects different presentations of locations can have on the content of the stories they’re working on. Chicago’s South Side may be a part of the Midwest, but the two locations connote two very distinct images in a reader’s mind.

International news stories are particularly susceptible to a lack of specificity. Reports about the “East Asian” global market are published constantly, we hear people talk about “Africa” all the time and see stories about the “Middle East” in our newspapers every day. Without a greater emphasis on specificity, it’s difficult to make sense of it all. Copy editors should encourage reporters and one another to be more specific about story locations whenever possible.

Some stories, however, do not lend themselves to specificity, and in those instances, a copy editor should be very careful to avoid the tempting pitfalls of generalizations and blanket geopolitics — in particular, the still perpetuated notion of “Western” and “Eastern” worlds. Volumes of books and publications delve into the histories and studies of the significance of these terms, but even without the consideration of their layered meanings, it should be obvious to copy editors that they simply do not work as appropriate localities in news stories. The Western world is an ideological one, not a physical one, as is the “Muslim world” of the “East.”

Yet news stories continually refer to them as if they were concrete entities.

One news report published by The Associated Press about the 2009 U.N. racism conference reads, “Israel is not mentioned anywhere in the declaration prepared for the current meeting, which seeks to avoid any offense but has angered many in the Muslim world for its failure to point the finger directly at the Jewish state for its treatment of Palestinians.” What is meant by the Muslim world in this context? Is it necessarily referring to the Muslim populations of the Middle East? Are the Muslim-majority regions of Northern Africa and Southeast Asia included? Is it referring to all the Muslims of the world collectively in a manner akin to that of the Roman Catholic Church?

In reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements at the conference, the report also reads, “The walkout came after Ahmadinejad accused Western nations of complicity in violence against Palestinians surrounding the foundation of Israel.” If Western nations are those found in the Western Hemisphere, are the nations of Central America and South America included, or does the Western world only extend as far south as the Florida Keys? Does the Western world encompass all of Europe or just Western Europe?

Another news report in The New York Times about controversial statements made by Hong Kong native actor Jackie Chan reads, “The Communist Party has long argued that the people of China are ill suited for Western-style democracy.” If there is such a thing as “Western-style democracy,” it’s hardly uniform throughout “the West.” Again, the blanket term of “Western” seems to be referring only to a few nations — if not just one nation — in the Western Hemisphere, so why not simply get more specific and eliminate ambiguity entirely?

Of course, the targeted readership of these stories can probably make educated assumptions about which particular nations comprise the Muslim and Western worlds, and many readers likely do not question the terms. But it should be a goal of copy editors to rid publications of such ambiguities and generalizations. An American readership will likely assume Western-style democracy refers to American democracy, so why not go with it? The report in The New York Times could have more accurately read, “The Communist Party has long argued that the people of China are ill-suited for democracy in the style of the U.S.”

Even if it seems obvious that the Western world refers to the nations of North America and Western Europe in most contexts, make it explicit for your readers anyway, and whenever possible, get more specific. A little research and probing are part of the job description, after all. Perhaps, in time, we will successfully wean ourselves from such easy generalizations and blanket geopolitics.

Memorable headline: The Filth and the Fury!

Copy editors at newspapers spend a great deal of time and energy on writing headlines. And for good reason — headlines attract attention, and some live on decades after they are written. This is the third in a series of posts on memorable headlines.

filthandfury THE HEADLINE:
The Filth and The Fury!


THE STORY: In December 1976, members of the punk rock band the Sex Pistols were interviewed on a British television show. They insulted the host, Bill Grundy, and used foul language, leading offended viewers to complain. (Watch it here or read a transcript.)

ITS SIGNIFICANCE: As one of punk’s pioneering bands, the Sex Pistols thrived on shock and outrage — and publicity. This story’s prominent play on the front page and its headline played directly into that plan. The Daily Mirror furthered the band’s outrageous image, which was cultivated by manager Malcolm McLaren.

“The Filth and the Fury” was later used as the title of Sex Pistols documentary released in 2000. The Pistols used another newspaper headline, “Filthy Lucre,” as the name for their 1996 reunion tour. The cover of the inevitable live album from that tour consisted of a montage of newspaper headlines about the band, a fitting choice.

Confused observers


What is it about North Carolina and newspaper names that confuses the national media? This example, from this story at The Hill, mashes up the identities of the state’s two largest papers, a common error.

Sure, they both have “observer” in their names, and both are owned by McClatchy. A cynical person may blame the confusion on the merger of the papers’ sports, state government and features departments, a cost-cutting decision that’s led to layoffs.

Truth be told, it has become harder to tell the papers apart. Things were more interesting when they were competitors, journalistically if not financially.

Yet it seems unlikely that the likes of MSNBC, Politico and The Hill are following the machinations of McClatchy that closely. You have to be here to see it happen day to day.

So, here’s what the national media need to know: The Charlotte Observer is in Charlotte. The News & Observer is in Raleigh. They are separate cities and newspapers, at least for now. And Charlotte isn’t Charleston.

UPDATES: John Robinson of the News & Record shares similar tales about the Greensboro paper, and Under the Dome offers a guide to D.C. journalists covering North Carolina.

(Hat tip: RTB.)

Interesting reading

  • John Drescher of The News & Observer, on how the paper is more popular than the president — and how it will soon have ads on the front page.
  • Connie Coyne of The Salt Lake Tribune, on reader complaints about biased headlines.
  • David Denby of The New Yorker, on a possible business model for newspaper Web sites.

Guest post: Saving journalism one copy editor at a time

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 12th of these guest posts. Elizabeth Templin is a second-year master’s student and Roy H. Park Fellow from Charlotte, N.C. She has focused on news writing, editing and multimedia during graduate school. She hopes that she will find ways to save journalism in a new job.

Newspapers have been in the news a lot lately. In case you haven’t heard, newspapers across the country are having a hard time staying financially afloat. Publishers are taking steps like laying off staff, creating online-only editions and outsourcing copy desks. With all these changes, it’s a good time to think about the future of copy editing and ask what role copy editors play in saving journalism.

Even though the future of journalism is uncertain, there are a few things copy editors can do to help out.

1. Copy editors can play a huge role in attracting readers to newspaper Web sites.

Newspapers have got to find ways to make Web sites generate more income, and one way to do that is by increasing readership, which is measured in page views or the number of pages visited by individual readers. Copy editors can help bring readers to Web sites by writing great headlines and story blurbs.

Copy editors writing headlines for the Web should go beyond writing the clear, catchy headlines that appear in print editions. Online headlines should be noun-heavy so that when the average reader is searching for information, such as “Obama puppy,” on a search engine like Google, they are directed to the newspaper’s Web site.

Copy editors should also make sure that headlines make sense out of context – away from the accompanying text, pictures and cutlines – since a reader might first encounter a lone headline on a search engine or RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed.

Once a headline has drawn a reader to the newspaper’s Web site, a well-written story blurb can help turn one page view into many more. Similar to drop heads, story blurbs are one or two sentences below the headline that give readers a sense of what the story is about. Good story blurbs are timely, highlight key information and provide details that pique reader interest.

2. Copy editors can look for ways to present content in alternative story forms.

In print editions, alternative story forms tend to be more engaging to readers than blocks of text. For Web sites, alternative story forms can take engagement to the next level by creating opportunities for reader interactivity, like clicking on a map, viewing a slideshow or taking a quiz.

3. Copy editors can allow reporters to break the rules of journalism in blogs.

More reporters are using blogs to instantly update news stories and communicate with readers. While making sure that a newspaper’s blogs are accurate and free of embarrassing errors is important, overlooking some journalism rules is OK.

4. Do what copy editors do best.

Copy editors play a big part in guarding newspapers’ credibility by ensuring that published content is accurate and error-free. In doing this, copy editors ensure that newspapers earn readers’ trust and offer readers something your average blogger may not: reliable, fact-checked content.

These are just a few ideas. What else can copy editors do to save journalism?

Only two weeks until ACES meets in Minneapolis

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society is just two weeks away. We’ll meet in Minneapolis from April 30 to May 2.

If you haven’t registered yet, you still can for the bargain rate of $175. That gives you access to sessions on topics such as editing for online, using Twitter, going into teaching and writing better cutlines.

You also get to witness the editing smackdown between Bill Walsh of The Washington Post and Merrill Perlman, formerly of The New York Times. That alone will be worth the price of admission.

I hope to see you there.

Memorable headlines: Dewey defeats Truman

dewey-defeats-truman1Copy editors at newspapers spend a great deal of time and energy on writing headlines. And for good reason — headlines attract attention, and some live on decades after they are written. This is the second in a series of posts on memorable headlines.

THE HEADLINE: Dewey defeats Truman

THE NEWSPAPER: Chicago Tribune

THE STORY: Thomas Dewey was favored to defeat Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. Truman, however, pulled off the win to secure re-election. He famously flaunted the paper with the inaccurate headline, a photo that is itself as memorable as the headline.

ITS SIGNIFICANCE: This is probably the most famous headline blunder in U.S. history. It’s a product of early deadlines, among other obstacles and miscues.

It’s still a part of today’s politics, as John McCain showed in October 2008. Whenever a candidate is ahead in the polls and appears to be a shoo-in, someone will bring up this headline as a warning not to call an election over before it’s really over.

The Truman headline is also a common point of reference in popular culture as the object of parodies on “The Simpsons” and in The Onion. It’s even been monetized.

Q&A with Lauren Purcell, deputy editor at Self magazine

Lauren Purcell is deputy editor at Self magazine. As one of two Purcell Sisters, she is also the co-author of “Cocktail Parties, Straight Up!” Although she learned her editing chops at UNC-Chapel Hill, Purcell is loyal to her undergraduate alma mater and always pulls for the Duke Blue Devils.

This Q&A, conducted by e-mail, takes a look at Purcell’s job and the tasks of editing at the magazine.

Q. Describe your job. What’s it like to be a deputy editor at Self?

This job is amazingly varied, which is part of what I love about it, but I’ll describe my main role. Magazines have what are loosely called assigning editors as well as top editors who provide another editing layer for the content the assigning eds produce. I act as the top editor for Self’s fitness, fashion and celebrity/entertainment coverage, as well as a front-of-book gazette-style section and various special sections and one-off projects. At various times in the past, I’ve overseen health, beauty and nutrition. (I’ve been here for quite a while, and switching things up every few years has helped me stay fresh.)

Q. You had some newspaper training and experience earlier in your career and in graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What are the differences between editing for newspapers and editing for magazines?

A. My newspaper experience was very brief and many years ago, and newspapers have, to my mind, increasingly employed what I think of as magazine-style strategies since then. But one major difference—and it’s one that makes editing magazines especially challenging and creative—is that the text and visuals are inextricably entwined on many magazine pages, as opposed to an image, drawing or chart serving simply as an illustration, as is more typical in newspapers. (For instance, at Self, we might conceive an entire story as a chart, rather than writing a story and then enhancing it with a chart.) The need for writer-editors to think visually, craft stories in an array of formats beyond straight narrative and collaborate with layout designers makes for a very rich editing experience.

Q. Many journalism students want to go into magazine editing. What advice do you have for someone trying to break into the business?

A. When I’m interviewing someone for an entry-level position, I want him or her to show me a passion for magazines. Apply for internships — sure, those at major national books are great, but having several gigs at smaller publications shows me just as much dedication. Write or edit for on-campus or local magazines. I want to know that you pursued every avenue to be involved with magazines on some level. And of course, read magazines voraciously and be able to talk about them with enthusiasm.

Q. The magazine industry, along with other segments of the media, has been hit with layoffs and cutbacks in recent months. What do you see as the future for magazines in print and online?

A. I’ve been hearing about the so-called “death of print” for years now, and yet, Self’s audience continues to grow both in print and online, and readers tell us they value both experiences. The increasing vitality of online efforts by magazines isn’t evidence that the print model isn’t working — to the contrary, it shows that we’re learning how much we can enrich both the pages in your hand and those on your computer screen by having them work together. I rarely edit a piece these days without making plans for what its presence online at can add for the reader — extra content, interactivity, mobile access, etc. Though the current climate feels very tough, from where I sit, magazines (not all, but many) have a bright future.

UPDATE: In December 2011, Purcell was named editor in chief of Everyday with Rachael Ray.

Guest post: Wikipedia — fact or fiction?

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 11th of these guest posts. Jessica Stringer is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill. She loves UNC for its journalism program and basketball team. She also loves traveling, movies and her semester abroad in London.

My roommate sat with her brow furrowed as she worked on a Wikipedia page for class. An hour after publishing, her edits were gone. Another user had just deleted a week’s worth of work.

Oh, Wikipedia. An online encyclopedia sounded like a good idea, but the site that professors warned us about is teeming with mistakes and bias.

It’s been three months since Wikipedia said it would consider restricting who could make edits to pages. The new system would allow only reliable users to make immediate changes. Other contributors’ changes would not be posted until a reliable, registered user had approved the change.

What’s the holdup?  The German Wikipedia has been using this system since May. Wikipedia needs to adopt the system soon to rid the site of ridiculous and untrue statements.

Adding in an extra layer of editing would eliminate biased and ignorant users who use Wikipedia as a sounding board. It would also protect honest users like my roommate who make researched and thoughtful changes.

Some argue that the German system is too labor-intensive and takes too long to update. Here’s a suggestion: Find some jobless journalists who already have the investigative skills and editing know-how and put them to work at Wikipedia.

Can’t wait for Wikipedia to get its editing act together? Switch to Citizendium, where experts write reliable and quality articles. Created by one of the founders of Wikipedia, the site is catching on and chock-full of information.

And to the vandals: Save the political views for message boards or dinnertime debate. Better yet, get a blog.


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