The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: July, 2009

Editing for the future with News21

unc-news21

I’ve spent part of my summer working with 12 talented students at UNC-Chapel Hill on Powering A Nation, a Web site that looks at the intersection of energy and demographics. The site, which debuted Friday, is part of the News21 project.

As one of several faculty coaches, I advised the project’s editing team on issues of work flow, story editing, alternative story forms, word choice and headlines. It was a pleasure to work with this group in our newsroom.

It’s important to note that members of the editing team also served as reporters. As reporters wrapped up their stories, they were sometimes drafted for other duties, including help with editing. As you can see on the site’s “making of” blog, everyone did a bit of everything.

The idea behind News21 is to serve as an incubator for multimedia journalism, where students can chart a course for the future of news. My time with the students this summer reinforced my belief that editing will play a significant role in that future.

ACES board launches blog

It’s a difficult time for the editing profession. Copy desks at newspapers are being decimated by layoffs, and more errors are getting into print and online. The cost of journalistic quality is a topic of conversation.

It’s also an important time for the American Copy Editors Society. The organization is working hard to remind publishers of the importance of editing and all that job entails, from checking facts to promoting stories on Twitter.

ACES is interested in working with journalists who seek editing skills even though their job title isn’t “copy editor.” The organization is also looking to reach out to copy editors in fields besides newspapers.

To those ends, the Executive Committee of ACES has launched a blog to better communicate the organization’s direction. In the blog’s initial post, ACES President Chris Wienandt put it this way:

We’re determined to better engage you — in what’s happening in the organization, in copy editing, in companies and institutions around the country where copy editing is happening. This blog, we hope, will become a conversation between ACES’ members and its board.

As a board member, I am one of the contributors to the new blog. I hope you will visit there and offer your comments. We’re here to serve you and the editing profession that we love.

None of us understands this word — or understand it

A front-page story in The New York Times on Sunday included this sentence:

Somehow, none of the Marines were hit in the secondary ambush.

I got stuck on “none.” I expected “was” to follow, as in “not one Marine was hit.”

Whether “none” is followed with a singular or plural verb is a matter of debate. Some people in high places think that it’s always singular, but is that so?

Here’s what the AP Stylebook advises:

It usually means no single one. When used in this sense, it always takes singular verbs and nouns: None of the seats was in its right place. Use a plural verb only if the sense is no two or no amount: None of the consultants agree on the same approach.

In other words, it depends. One solution to this problem is to dodge the issue and rewrite the sentence:

Somehow, no Marines were hit in the secondary ambush.

Can we all agree on that?

Time’s up for this phrase

John McIntyre, blogger at You Don’t Say, recently listed leads to avoid. Pam Robinson at Words at Work offered a collection of “not alone” sentences.

I’d like to add another to the list of worn-out phrases: references to “15 minutes of fame.” Andy Warhol’s famous statement, uttered in 1968, lives on even though the artist himself has been dead for more than 20 years.

Here are some recent examples:

  • Susan Boyle’s 15 minutes of fame aren’t over! (Irish Central headline)
  • Tweeters melt away after 15 minutes of fame (Times Online headline)
  • For some, even 15 minutes would be too long (USA Today headline)
  • Everyone is getting their own 15 dizzy minutes, but now it comes mostly with a full-frontal paparazzi assault. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports column)
  • Andy Warhol was spot on: 15 minutes is just right. After that they start to visibly deflate. (The Guardian story)
  • The thought of making a killing while she was still in her Andy Warhol “15 minutes” was too much for her and Todd to pass up. (Talking Points Memo blog post)
  • If it’s true, as Andy Warhol suggested, that we’ll all have 15 minutes of fame, I’ve got 13 minutes left. (The Polk County Democrat column)

Warhol himself became bored with the phrase. Imagine how readers feel. Let’s retire “15 minutes of fame,” and let Andy rest in peace.

Flattery in the filter

Creative Commons image

WordPress has a powerful spam filter, which makes life a little easier for those of us who blog here. Not much junk gets through into the comments area.

I went through the spam filter earlier this week and found myself chuckling at some of the specimens. They share a flair for flattery, often expressed in unpolished English.

Here are some of my favorites, with links to assorted goods and services removed:

  • Interesting material, where such topics do you find? I will often go.
  • I just wanted to make a statement on the contribution of this community here. It’s simply great. I wanted to give a little something back myself. There is a site that has been extraordinary helpful to myself and some associates of mine…
  • I found editdesk.wordpress.com very informative. The article is professionally written and I feel like the author knows the subject very well. editdesk.wordpress.com keep it that way.
  • Thanks for all the good work webmaster.

You’re welcome.

An open letter to Madoff on the front page

A front-page story in The News & Observer last week set off an unusual exchange of letters to the editor.

The news was the arrival of financier Bernard Madoff at a federal prison in Butner, N.C. The letters weren’t about Madoff so much as the tone and approach of the story, which was written as a letter to Madoff with tips on how to get used to his new home. Some readers cheered; others jeered.

Here’s a look at how the story came together from two N&O journalists and the reaction to it from two of my colleagues at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill:

MANDY LOCKE, reporter

THE BACK STORY: “I wish I could take more credit for the approach, but it was actually Steve Merelman (1A editor) who asked me to take this approach. The story of Madoff arriving had little news value. We’d already heard and learned much about Madoff’s misdeeds, so this was a story, quite simply, about him coming to North Carolina. There was much intrigue about Butner in general, and the facility was in our backyard. Ignoring his arrival altogether was never an option. … The story took a surprising  amount of reporting. There’s much I didn’t know about Butner.”

READER REACTION: “Some readers LOVED it. I’ve gotten about a dozen e-mails and calls praising the ingenuity and thanking me for making them laugh. About a half-dozen readers shook their fingers and said our approach was sophomoric and unnecessary.”

THE AFTERMATH: “We’ll never please every reader with every story. I like to think of  the newspaper as a buffet. You take some stories and pass on others. As things are getting more desperate in newspapers, I think we’re more willing to try new things. This approach most certainly was.”

STEVE MERELMAN, front-page editor

THE BACK STORY: “We had originally planned an alternative story form. But after giving the news that Madoff had come to Butner, I couldn’t see what we might say that could be interesting. I’ve read the “Hey, here’s what that prison’s like” story before, and I didn’t think that breaking it up into bits and pieces would improve it much. So I suggested that Mandy give it a spin by pitching the ASF right at Madoff, sort of a user’s guide to Butner. Mandy came up with the letter idea on her own. We kept the headline pretty straight and let that and the picture carry the news and serve as a serious counterpoint to Mandy’s article.”

READER REACTION: “I expected that some people wouldn’t like it. They have certain expectations of how a newspaper should sound, and this contradicted those expectations. I’m glad they take us and our responsibility seriously. I also expected that some people would find it refreshing, and they did. We tried to keep the tone a little impertinent but not cruel, and to make sure that it fulfilled all the usual requirements of a news story — who, what, where … and whatever the other Ws are.”

AFTERMATH: “Mainly, I was pleased that lots of people read the piece. I’m not in favor of provocation for provocation’s sake, but a newspaper that isn’t read has got real problems.”

REACTION FROM THE J-SCHOOL

Phil Meyer, author of “The Vanishing Newspaper” and retired journalism professor: “When I read it, I thought the writer cared more about showing off than giving the news. It’s not ‘interesting writing’ that will save newspapers; it’s interesting facts. And that takes work. This story puts the reader to a lot of trouble with not enough new information or insight to justify the effort.”

Chris Roush, journalism professor and blogger at Talking Biz News: “I’m OK with it. Not the biggest fan of such stories. I think they’re better as columns.”

MY TAKE

Newspapers must experiment to survive. Now is not the time to be timid. Not all of the experiments will succeed, but that’s the point of trying something different.

This particular story needed something beyond the typical inverted pyramid approach. That kind of story was available online almost as soon as Madoff arrived at the prison. For the next day’s print newspaper, editors and reporters have to deliver something that readers haven’t seen yet.

This story, gimmick and all, did that. It’s more about Butner than Madoff, but for the Raleigh paper, that’s the local angle.

Was this approach to this story risky? Yes. But it fit the medium and the moment.

UPDATE: The links on this post have been broken because of a resdesign of the N&O site. Apologies for the inconvenience.

Q&A with Tim Lynch on the teaching of copy editing

Tim Lynch is the senior media communications coordinator in the public affairs office at Cal Poly Pomona. Before changing careers this spring, he was the senior copy chief for the foreign and national desks at the Los Angeles Times, where he worked for nearly 20 years. He is the 2006 recipient of the Robinson Prize from the American Copy Editors Society.

Lynch is working on his master’s thesis at the University of Southern California and hopes to submit it — and graduate — this fall. He has taught copy editing at USC and Chapman University, and he has served as newspaper adviser at Cal Poly Pomona.

In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Lynch discusses his research into how editing is taught at five U.S. universities.

Q. What inspired you to examine how editing is taught at journalism schools?

A. In the past year it became apparent that editors — those who were not “content producers” — were the most at risk in newsroom staff reductions. Copy editors in particular appeared to be in the crosshairs. (At the L.A. Times, my former employer, copy editors have borne roughly the same share of cuts as the rest of the newsroom, but a perusal of Romenesko showed that the situation was worse in many other newsrooms.)

If copy editing is to remain relevant, those entering the profession must arrive with a range of skills much broader than those of their predecessors. I was curious to see how some of the better journalism schools were doing at preparing the next generation, and my master’s adviser at USC gave me the opportunity to find out via directed research.

Q. How did you conduct the study?

A. This study certainly does not qualify as definitive, quantitative research. I consider it more of a serious glance at five universities’ copy editing classes. I chose four programs known for copy editing: Missouri, North Carolina, Central Florida and Penn State. I included USC because that’s where I was studying, and I thought my findings might be of at least marginal value there.

I began by analyzing copy editing syllabuses, focusing on first-semester courses. I also e-mailed several questions to the professors and a separate set of questions to some of the most respected copy editors in the profession. My study consisted of a content analysis of the syllabuses, buttressed by the observations and opinions of the professors and professionals.

My goal was not to see which program was best, but to see how class time was allocated and which skills were taught. I tried to steer clear of value judgments, and I didn’t directly compare the syllabuses. Based on that analysis, complementary reading and my experiences in the newsroom, I drafted a new syllabus (Word .doc) for the teaching of copy editing.

My primary objective, though, was to join in the conversation about the future of copy editing. It’s a conversation that all copy editors who value their career should weigh in on.

Q. What were your major findings?

A. I think my biggest takeaway from the research was just how much traditional copy editing anchors the classes. Style/grammar/punctuation, print headlines and news literacy remain staples. I had expected a manic move toward digital skills. Those new skills are being incorporated, of course, but not at the pace I had assumed going into the research. This is a bit of a generality; some professors were moving with dispatch.

Q. What surprised you the most about what you found?

A. I was surprised at how much the programs varied in the time they dedicate to the teaching of copy editing, from 310 minutes a week at North Carolina to 110 minutes a week at USC. A good teacher can do more in less time, of course, but in general, quantity equals quality in the classroom, at least based on my experience both as a teacher and student.

I was also surprised about the wording in some of the syllabuses, which still characterized copy editing as a much-in-demand career. Those syllabuses need tempering.

Q. What recommendations do you have for instructors who teach editing?

A. I think this is a time for experimentation. I’m not recommending that teachers blow up their syllabuses, but I think they need to find out what’s going on in newsrooms and they need to reflect that environment even more in their classes. I also think they need to gear their classes for “content producers” as well as editors.

Based on my experiences as a teacher, I know that most students in my class were not planning careers in copy editing. Instead, they were either meeting a curriculum requirement or were hoping to hone their skills by becoming better self-editors. My new syllabus, which I grant is nontraditional, takes this constituency into account.

Editing at AEJMC

The annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which will take place this year in Boston, brings together about 2,000 journalism professors and media professionals. Editing has a prominent place on this year’s agenda, notably in these three events:

The Future of Editing. An afternoon of sessions on Tuesday, Aug. 4, will look at the state of editing and where it’s going. Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society, will be among the panelists.

Great Ideas for Teachers. This annual contest is a great place to pick up some new teaching ideas. Some of this year’s 25 winners have an editing angle; they will be on display on the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Breakfast of Editing Champions. Faculty members and newsroom editors will get together at this session on Thursday, Aug. 6. We’ll swap teaching ideas and discuss what is happening in the field and what’s to come.

I’m playing a role in each of these events, and I hope to see you there.

Book review: “The Subversive Copy Editor”

The News & Observer has kindly published my review of “The Subversive Copy Editor,” a book by Carol Fisher Saller. Here’s the blurb-able part of the review:

Saller’s point of view is clearly that of an editor who works for an academic press. Yet her straightforward, sometimes witty, approach will benefit anyone who spends time writing or editing — something many of us do in the workplace every day.

Read the full review here, and visit the book’s official site.

Reuters puts stylebook (and more) online

The Reuters news service has put its Handbook of Journalism online for all to see. It includes what American editors would call a stylebook as well as general advice on reporting and editing.

Here are a few highlights:

On using Wikipedia: “Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries.

On covering cricket: “Correspondents should write a story at lunch (200 words) and update at tea.”

On listening to readers’ complaints: “As an underlying principle, remember throughout the process of dealing with complaints that attitude counts.”

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