The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: April, 2009

Where in the world are the Somali pirates?

somalia-map1The Somali pirates make for an interesting story. Whenever they seize a ship, they make news, and copy editors get to use “pirates” in headlines.

Coverage of the most recent act of piracy has been interesting to observe too. The Huffington Post couldn’t resist using an “ARGHHH!” headline and file image of a pirate flag. Cable news offers each incremental development in the story as “breaking news.”

U.S. newspapers have been more restrained in their coverage. Yet they are missing some opportunities to provide the context that other media are overlooking. That sort of context is a strength of newspapers, in print and online.

First, this locator map from The Associated Press is as bare-bones as they come. The map needs to include an inset to tell us where in the world this is. Somalia, like South Ossetia, isn’t easy for most people to find on a globe. Beyond that bit of basic information, expanding the map to show shipping lanes and pirate strongholds might be helpful too.

Second, some explanation is needed with this story. We need a pirate primer, and a textbox is an ideal way to address questions that readers may have about this story. Here are some categories to use in setting up an alternative story form about the Somali pirates:

  • Who they are
  • What they want
  • How they operate
  • How they can be stopped
  • What’s next

And hey, maybe put the map into the textbox too, like this Q&A from the BBC does. And put it online. These are the things newspapers can do to set themselves apart from their competitors.

Watch Yer Language has a new home

One of my favorite editing blogs, Watch Yer Language, has moved. Craig Lancaster, blogger and copy desk chief for the Billings Gazette in Montana, says the change is part of an effort to bring the newspaper’s online efforts under one roof of social media.

Lancaster says that the blog will continue to be, as he describes it, “a clearinghouse for style and usage tips that emanate from my workaday life.” He’s also the author of two books, including the novel “Six-Hundred Hours of a Life.”

Tar Heels take championship, so fans take newspapers


The Daily Tar Heel, like most college papers, is free. Every weekday, anyone may pick up a copy in newsracks throughout the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and in downtown Chapel Hill.

That easy access to the news changes on certain occasions. Sometimes papers disappear in bunches because people don’t like what’s printed there. Other times, the papers disappear because people do like what’s printed there.

That’s what happened the day after the Tar Heels won the national championship in men’s basketball. The Daily Tar Heel planned for the possibility that a victory in the title game would make the newspaper a valuable piece of property. The paper published this advisory on its front page and online to let readers know how they could get a copy of the paper the day after the game and beyond. It included this warning to those who would take multiple copies:

The bulk removal of large numbers of copies in excess of what’s reasonable will be considered theft and will be dealt with as such. … In addition, if you have not purchased additional copies of the DTH, then we believe that selling free copies is an infringement of our copyright, and we will pursue all remedies available to us as we have successfully in the past.

That admonition, however, is not deterring some people from grabbing dozens of copies from boxes. Others, like the man in the photo above, are playing by the rules.

Either way, it seems that everyone wants a copy of this edition. That’s because on occasion, a printed newspaper has tremendous value as a keepsake (and as a resale item on eBay). People will do anything to get one — or more. (I confess to taking two copies of this edition of the DTH: one for my family and another for the silent auction at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.)

For more on the keepsake value of newspapers versus the interactivity of online, take a look at this post by my colleague Ryan Thornburg. And if you want to buy a copy of that historic issue of the DTH, try here.

UPDATE: General manager Kevin Schwartz writes about the day and the demand.

Memorable headlines: Ford to city: Drop dead

ford-dropdeadCopy 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 first in a series of posts on memorable headlines.

THE HEADLINE: Ford to city: Drop dead

THE NEWSPAPER: (New York) Daily News

THE STORY: In 1975, President Gerald Ford denied a request from New York City for a bailout. The city was struggling financially at the time and sought federal help.

ITS SIGNIFICANCE: This headline speaks to the power of the paraphrase. Ford didn’t use the words “drop dead,” but the headline writer summarized his position that way. The turn of words may have altered American politics; Ford said the “very unfair” headline cost him the 1976 election. Both Ford and the man who wrote the headline died a few years ago, but the “drop dead” phrasing continues to be a source of conversation and inspiration.

Guest post: Outsourcing hits the copy desk

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 10th of these guest posts. Katie Rumbaugh is a senior journalism major from Durham, N.C. Her parents brought her up a Duke fan, but she saw the error of her ways the moment she arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill four years ago. She enjoys writing and talking about politics, and she hopes to end up working in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, the Sun-Times Media Group, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times and 58 other newspapers, filed for bankruptcy. In case you weren’t aware, the outlook for print newspapers is pretty bleak these days.

Because of the Sun-Times claiming Chapter 11, you might have missed Gannett announcing on the same day that it is centralizing its news and sports copy desks into one regional desk to serve four of the six papers the company owns in New Jersey.

This comes in the wake of the four Texas papers, all owned by E.W. Scripps, consolidating their copy desks last week, as noted by my colleague, Dominic Ruiz-Esparza. At the four New Jersey papers, Gannett will eliminate all copy and sports desk management positions, replacing them with 16 regional editorships.

The problem in cases like these is that creating a satellite editing desk that serves multiple papers removes several degrees of accountability from the position of copy editor. Sure, an editor can call or e-mail a reporter for questions on a story, but successful copy editing requires a rapport between editors and writers. I imagine maintaining that rapport will be a lot more difficult when newspapers in East Brunswick, N.J., are outsourcing their copy editing to Neptune (the city, not the planet).

And copy editors working for a specific newspaper develop a certain level of expertise on the material they edit. Making a regional copy desk where editors handle stories from around the state dulls that specialization.

But if this trend continues — and in light of the economy and declining readership and ad sales, it likely will — maybe next we’ll outsource our copy editing overseas along with the information technology sector.

Interesting reading

  • Joe Grimm of Michigan State University and The Poynter Institute, on how to assemble a portfolio for online editing.
  • Rod Lurie, writer and producer of numerous TV shows and movies, on bloggers as “unchecked reporters” who lack editors.
  • Science blogger Bora Zivkovic, on the differences and similarities between newspapers and science.

The Guardian has fun on April Fools’ Day

Most newspapers aren’t very good at being funny. They don’t see the humor in some situations, or they are too shy to point it out. When they try to be funny, they often fall flat.

Everyone, including newspapers, wants to be funny on April Fools’ Day. But that parody of USA Today isn’t funny anymore. After all, it’s hard to be clever on April Fools’ Day when The Onion makes fun of the news and the form of journalism all year.

Well, someone got it right this time. The Guardian has a perfect April Fools’ story that’s told at the expense of itself and Twitter. Enjoy, and be sure to read the Twitter-ized archives at the end of the story.


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