The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: August, 2009

Memorable headlines: GOTCHA

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 sixth in a series of posts on memorable headlines.

Gotcha-headlineTHE HEADLINES: GOTCHA/Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser

THE PUBLICATION: The Sun

THE STORY: In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a war over the Falkland Islands. In the war’s deadliest moment, an Argentine ship, the General Belgrano, was sunk by the British navy, killing more than 300 people.

ITS SIGNIFICANCE: The “GOTCHA” headline is noteworthy for its pro-war point of view. The use of the first person (“our lads”) in the drophead makes it clear that the Sun was not a detached observer of the conflict, but a direct participant.

Roy Greenslade, a former editor at the tabloid paper, wrote in 2002 that the Sun’s leadership had promoted the idea of a British assault to retake the islands after they were seized by Argentina. Greenslade describes how jingoistic headlines played a role in that effort before and during the 74-day war. The newsroom became a war room, a fact epitomized by the “GOTCHA” headline.

Curiously, the Sun changed the headline between editions that day when the death toll became apparent. But “Did 1,200 Argies drown?” is not a significant part of British history. “GOTCHA” is. Indeed, that front page has become a museum piece in and of itself.

Q&A with Erica Beshears Perel, adviser to The Daily Tar Heel

Erica Beshears Perel, a former reporter at The Charlotte Observer, is newsroom adviser to The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Perel talks about her job, the paper’s new Web site and the changing role of copy editors at the DTH.

Q. What does the newsroom adviser to The Daily Tar Heel do on a typical day?

A. A little bit of everything, although I do not make editorial decisions. I provide daily feedback of the product in the form of a written critique of each newspaper. I praise the stories, photos, designs, etc., that I like while offering ways to improve the rest.

When I’m not critiquing, I’m working with editors and staffers, listening and giving advice when needed. I organize and provide training and enrichment opportunities, and serve as a writing coach and editing coach. I spent plenty of time this summer monitoring the new Web site, and right now, I’m busy with our massive recruitment season.

Q. The paper just launched a major overhaul of its Web site. What’s the idea behind the redesign?

A. Sara Gregory, managing editor for online, did a great job explaining the philosophy behind the new site here. But basically, we need a Web site that can grow with us, one that’s flexible, one that allows us to interact more with our readers.

Our previous site, hosted by the College Media Network, served us well, but we needed more flexibility to grow in terms of content and ad revenue. This one, while developed by professionals, should allow our student journalists tremendous freedom for experimenting, both with content and technology.

I’m personally excited by plans to publish more news as soon as our reporters nail it down, and by the tagging and topic pages that should help keep our readers informed.

Q. How is the role of the copy editor changing at the DTH, both in print and online?

A. Copy editors still perform a traditional function at The Daily Tar Heel, saving us from embarrassing errors and writing good headlines. But this year, they will be taking a more active role in the online publishing process.

They also plan to start writing more online headlines that differ from the ones that run in the print edition. Print edition headlines, constrained by space and dependent on other visual elements to make their point, often are hard-to-understand online headlines. A special online headline can be clearer and help the story pop up faster on search engines.

Q. Every weekday, thousands of students pick up a print copy of the DTH. Do you see a time when the paper is exclusively online?

A. I certainly don’t see that time in the foreseeable future. We say here at The Daily Tar Heel that young people read newsprint as long as it’s free, easy to pick up and full of relevant, interesting content. We work hard to satisfy all three components.

The DTH is an independent newspaper that gets all its revenue from advertising. And right now, the vast, vast majority of that advertising comes in print form.

The DTH is very lucky to have potential for growth on our site without harming the print product because we have a large audience outside our print circulation area. Alumni, parents and UNC sports fans everywhere can’t get the print edition, but they can really drive traffic to our site.

The third-person reference that trumps them all

From time to time on this blog, I’ve documented amusing third-person references in news stories.

Joe Biden, the vice president, has talked about being “the best Biden” he can be. Tom Tancredo, a presidential candidate in 2008, noted that his rivals were trying to “out-Tancredo” him. And Flavor Flav, the rapper turned reality TV star, worked in four such statements in one Entertainment Weekly profile.

Here comes the topper. Donald Trump, in this news item about the Miss Universe pageant, says this:

I think this is the most beautiful group of women I’ve ever seen. In the old days, you got what you got. Now, Trump picks them. It makes a big difference.

Indeed it does, Mr. Trump. Indeed it does.

What’s your style for blog titles?

A colleague at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication passed along the following e-mail earlier this week:

I have a goofy question, but I’ve been searching for a while and come up with no answer so I decided to consult the “journalism style guys” — that’s you. When writing the name of a blog, do you italicize it, like the name of a book, newspaper or magazine? Or is there another way of punctuating it?

Once again, we are in “it depends” territory. There is no right or wrong here, but it’s a good idea to consider how to handle names of blogs if they appear frequently in your writing.

The AP stylebook, which is what many of us “style guys” in the news business use, doesn’t offer specific guidance on what to do with blog titles.

Under “composition titles,” AP likes quotation marks around the names of movies, TV shows, songs, poems and most books. Exceptions include the Bible and reference works such as Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft.

AP doesn’t like quotation marks around names of newspapers and magazines, and it has never been fond of italics for anything. “AP does not italicize words in news stories,” the latest edition of the stylebook says.

To my eye, a blog shares more similarities with magazines and newspapers than it does with books or movies. I’d simply capitalize the name, like so: “Talking Points Memo was selected as the best blog of 2009.”

You are welcome, of course, to go with a style that may be more appropriate to your audience. For example, some music magazines put album titles in italics and names of individual songs in quote marks, a device that signals to the reader which is which.

As John McIntyre of You Don’t Say recently pointed out, AP is not the only style in town. The important thing to do is to select a style and then use it, along with common sense.

Q&A with Brian Russell of Carrboro Creative Coworking

Photo courtesy of Carrboro Creative Coworking

Brian Russell is the owner of Carrboro Creative Coworking in Carrboro, N.C. He also blogs at Yesh.com. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Russell discusses what coworking might mean for journalism.

Q. What is coworking? How is it different from going into a coffeehouse and working on a laptop?

A. Coworking is a movement of freelance workers who are joining together to share resources like office space, Internet access, etc. This movement is in the process of going mainstream. It’s poised to really influence how corporations of all size see work. Freelancers aren’t the only ones who will work this way.

Coworking spaces usually have a very professional atmosphere in contrast to coffeehouses. But they are often focused on the type of professionals that use them. For example, Carrboro Creative Coworking has a lot of freelance software engineers. We work hard and play hard together.

Q. What kinds of people are coworking? Are writers and editors trying it?

A. All kinds of people are coworking. Many of them are involved in Web development. But we have many journalists and writers at our space.

These folks really understand the value of community. It’s a natural fit for this type of professional.

Q. Newspapers have typically operated from a central newsroom with bureaus in surrounding communities. Now, many bureaus have closed because of financial pressures. How could newspapers use coworking to cover the news?

A. Newspapers could use coworking spaces as ad hoc gathering places to meet and create news. Journalists should be in the field covering the news and regenerating the news beats of old.

Coworking spaces are also greater community hubs. With a diverse group of people working in the same place, lead generation is amplified. Plus, coworking spaces are about sharing resources and are very cost effective.

Q. In addition to coworking, you have experience in Web development and citizen journalism. In your opinion, how can newspapers better use online media?

A. Journalists must be active participants in our physical and virtual, online communities. Online media is social. No more passive observation. This means reporting should be a two-way process.

The Clue Train Manifesto explains it this way: “A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter — and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

(Photo by BrianR.)

UPDATE: Carrboro Creative Coworking closed in autumn 2011. Russell now works as the chief webmaster for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Presenting your credentials with style

Joe Grimm, a longtime recruiter at the Detroit Free Press who now teaches at Michigan State, recently listed common errors of AP style that he sees on journalists’ resumes.

Capitalization and abbreviations were among the violations. As Grimm pointed out, these are errors by people who say they know AP style.

Certainly, as noted here and here, mistakes on a resume or a cover letter can weaken your chances for landing a job, especially in journalism. But are the intricacies of AP style needed? To use a picayune example, are we going to disqualify a job candidate for using “persuade” when AP calls for “convince”?

Because I first heard about Grimm’s list on Twitter, I decided to ask fellow journalists there about whether AP style is essential for a resume sent to a newsroom. Here are some replies, written in Twitter style:

Gerri Berendzen, copy editor at the Quincy Herald-Whig: “Should journalist’s resume follow AP style? While it hasn’t been a deal breaker for me, I notice it. You should know audience.”

Cathy Frail, news editor at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.: “Correct grammar is more important than style. Once got resume from designer with no caps at all. too much focus on appearance.”

Ginger Carter Miller, professor of mass communication at Georgia College & State University: “I say yes! And I teach it that way for all mscm students.”

Jim Santori, publisher of the Mankato Free Press: “Recent dilemma: Friend sought PR job w/JSchool wondered — use academia or AP style in resume, cover letter?”

My view is that it can’t hurt to use AP style when applying for a job at a place where you will have to use it. But you shouldn’t have to worry about job recruiters marking up resumes and cover letters with red pens. Editing tests (usually given as part of an interview) will see what you really know.

The question about academic jobs is more difficult. Faculty members in journalism schools use a mix of styles, including Chicago and Bluebook, in their academic writing.

In an academic situation, any style is fine in a job application as long there’s a sense of consistency to the materials. Just don’t misspell the name of the school or the dean.

Q&A with Carolyn Pione, editor turned communications director

Carolyn Pione, the former business editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer, is communications director at CincyTech, a public-private partnership that aims to attract high-tech jobs to that part of Ohio. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Pione talks about her transition from the newsroom into public relations.

Q. Describe your job. What does the communications director at CincyTech USA do on a typical day?

A. The last six months have been a learning curve. The first week I was here, some folks suggested we should have a booth at a local trade show, and it didn’t occur to me for several hours that I was the one who had to set that up. Finally I thought, “Oh, that’s MY job!”

Since I’ve been here, I’ve redesigned the Web site and created an e-mail newsletter, begun to produce our first annual report, garnered significant media coverage for our first two years of activity investing in high-tech startups, and worked on numerous communications and committees with the state of Ohio, which is one of our key funders. I’ve also done some community outreach and speaking engagements and worked to raise CincyTech’s profile in the region as an economic development group with an emphasis on growing the tech jobs here.

Q. How has your experience as a business editor at a newspaper helped you in your current job?

A. Well, it’s definitely been a career change. But as business editor, I had regular interaction with business owners, executives and business and civic leaders. I wrote a column that increased my visibility in the community, so I got a lot of correspondence from readers and businesspeople. Those contacts have been a wonderful asset as I launched into this new field. It was already sort of community relations/good will building, perhaps an unusual experience for a journalist.

Also, having a business perspective and some sense of how businesses think has helped me to transition to this culture, which is a nonprofit but with a for-profit fund we invest in companies and so very oriented around financing and market development. And of course having spent a career in journalism, I think I’ve been able to create pitches that have relevance for the local reporters, and I know what not to waste their time pitching. That insight is helpful.

Q. Earlier in your career, you worked as a copy editor at the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report. Do you still use those skills in this job? How?

A. Oh gosh, yes. On every level. I edit my boss’s correspondence, I edit my own copy (as best I can) before posting it on our Web site or sending it out to reporters. I have an eye for detail and an instinct for explaining things as simply as possible. I still rely on the news judgment and sense of urgency that every good copy editor carries with him or her. And on a deeper level — and I hope this never dulls — I have the copy editor’s tendency to question everything.

Q. Many journalists are looking to make a career move similar to yours. What advice do you have for them?

A. Yes, so many of my former colleagues at the Enquirer have been displaced in the last 12 months. Almost to a person, they were in a profession they loved with a passion because they felt it was crucial for the balance of a civil society. It’s hard to accept that you might have to find something else to do with your life.

So I guess my first advice would be to face the reality that you might be one who has to leave. Be proactive. Do you want to leave on their terms or your own?

Once you’re through anger and denial, I think the key is to figure out what you know and who you know. Start networking like crazy right now. Start getting the word out that you’re looking and make sure you have a good idea of what you want. Your contacts, neighbors, family, etc., won’t really understand your skills or what else you can do. You might not either. So figure that out and then get the word out.

Creating your own message, telling your own story, is the way to find a job.

What students can teach us about editing

I spent a few days in Boston this week at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I participated in these sessions, met with the good people from NewsU and saw some old friends.

My favorite session was a discussion on Tuesday afternoon about the future of editing instruction. I was on the panel with Rick Kenney of the University of Central Florida and Jill Van Wyke of Drake University. Two students who are Dow Jones editing internships at the Cape Cod Times were also on the panel, and their candid comments were the highlight of the day.

Susan Keith of Rutgers served as the moderator, and she posed this question to the students: What would you remove from the editing courses you took?

One of the students described spending a great deal of time hearing about the role of journalism in the Watergate scandal, a topic that came up in several courses. “After a while, we get it,” she said. The other student said that her editing professor still taught students how to hand-count headlines with pencil and paper. Both wished that they had gotten more experience with online editing and multimedia journalism.

Perhaps there is still some value to knowing that an uppercase W uses more space in a headline than a lowercase i. And yes, journalism students should know about Watergate, just as every American should.

But the students were right: Those who teach editing need to rethink how they use their time in the classroom. How do we best prepare students for not just the future, but for the present?

We professors on the panel offered some ideas about how that can be done, and you can see some of our suggestions in this .pdf handout. Tim Lynch, a former Los Angeles Times copy editor, has some ideas too.

We don’t have all the answers, but it’s obvious from the students on this panel that editing instructors must constantly revise what they teach. That’s something every faculty member on the panel and in that room learned on Tuesday.

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