The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: September, 2009

That joke isn’t funny anymore

brief-pearlBriefs columns have long been a fixture of newspapers. They give editors a handy way to collect and compile tidbits of information that may not merit an entire story.

Briefs are especially useful now in the age of shrinking page sizes and diminishing news hole, but that’s not easy because of cutbacks and consolidation. Plus, the brief still has to tell a full story, even in just a few paragraphs.

That’s why this item from a recent News & Observer sports page doesn’t work. The story is about a basketball coach regretting a joke about the Ku Klux Klan, but the brief has been cut too much for it to make sense. Where’s the punchline?

You’ll have to look online to find it.

Remembering William Safire

William Safire, former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, has died. He was 79.

Safire was famous for many achievements, winning a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for columns critical of the Carter administration. He wrote numerous books, including several about writing.

Editors and writers remember him as the author of the On Language column in the NYT for 30 years. Some of that work is among in this collection on the Times site, and a topics page there is devoted to him.

Safire also contributed these phrases to our political language:

  • Calling critics of the Vietnam War “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
  • Calling Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar.”

That and other details are included in the well-written Safire obit on the NYT site. It ends on a grammatical note — a suitable send-off for a man who loved language.

A few thoughts on National Punctuation Day

On the occasion of National Punctuation Day, I offer a few tips on the use of this part of our language:

  • Commas have many uses, but they are especially handy in making sure compound sentences don’t run on and on.
  • I’m fine with semicolons; they can be useful on occasion.
  • Ellipses can … wonder what … left out. Use … sparingly.
  • You get one exclamation mark per year. Use it wisely!
  • The period is powerful. The end.

This mic wins again

I’ve written before about an exercise in my editing course in which students settle a few style points. It’s that time of the semester again, and here’s what the classes contemplated and decided this week:

First-year student vs. freshman: The majority went with “freshman” as the preferred term, though a few made a case for the gender-neutral “first-year.” (The latter is what the university likes.)

Global warming vs. climate change: This got an “it depends” response, depending on what the story was about. (It’s one that we dealt with earlier this year as part of the News21 project.)

Mike vs. mic: For the third consecutive semester, students unanimously went with “mic” as a short form for microphone. The reasons given were similar to those in prior semesters — it sounds more contemporary, and it’s what used in the recording industry.

This exercise lives in the gray areas of editing, and to college students “mike vs. mic” is a black-and-white issue. Because it is apparently not contentious enough, I am considering dropping it after this semester.

Are the fans of “mike” ready to talk me into keeping it?

An appetite for anonymity

The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on its front page Sunday about John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who ran for president in 2004 and 2008. The topic of the NYT story is Edwards’ extramarital affair and a grand jury investigation into whether payments to Edwards’ mistress broke the law.

The legitimate media have had a hard time dealing with the Edwards affair. After the National Enquirer first reported Edwards’ relationship with Rielle Hunter, the News & Observer chased the story but could never confirm it. (Edwards eventually admitted to the affair in a “Nightline” interview.)

The problem was sourcing. Few people want to speak on the record about sensitive matters like a senator’s affair, and that means using anonymous sources. As noted here, the Raleigh newspaper, among others, has been reluctant to use such sources. The Enquirer is not. And unlike the Enquirer, the N&O and other legitimate American media will not pay sources for information.

The NYT cites anonymous sources more frequently than the N&O does. That practice has drawn the attention of the newspaper’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, who summed up the dilemma this way:

Accepting a source’s demand for anonymity is sometimes essential to getting critical information, but editors and reporters at The Times tell me that they understand how overuse of unnamed sources can damage credibility.

The front-page story on Edwards has sources speaking on the record, but it also has several quoted anonymously. Here’s how they are described:

  • associates
  • friends and other associates
  • one family friend, who like others spoke about the situation on the condition of anonymity, pointing to the complicated and delicate nature of the issue
  • lawyers involved in the case
  • people familiar with the grand jury investigation
  • people familiar with Ms. Hunter

Perhaps the story of the downfall of a former presidential candidate merits the use of such sources. The fact that a grand jury is involved certainly makes this news.

But the use of anonymous sources can open the door to abuse of the privilege. That happens in this sentence about Edwards and his wife:

But a few months ago, when the couple showed up for dinner at a Chapel Hill restaurant, diners averted their eyes and stared at their plates, according to a person who was there.

This sentence adds little, if anything, to the story. It has the tone of gossip and hardly seems like news that’s fit to print. It would have been wise for an editor to question its inclusion — and to hit the “delete” key.

Q&A with Eric Frederick, managing editor of the N&O site

Eric Frederick is the managing editor of the Web site of The News & Observer. Before taking that job, he had worked for more than 20 years on the print side at the Raleigh paper, including stints as sports editor and front-page editor. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Frederick discusses his job, how online content is edited and the site’s redesign.

Q. Describe your job. What does the managing editor at newsobserver.com do on a typical day?

A. A little of everything. We have a very small staff and a pretty complex site that is, of course, always live. (I tell people that if our Web site were the White House, I’d work all day in the Oval Office, but I’d wake up at 3 a.m. to grab a broom and go sweep off the North Portico or run the security booth.) There really is no typical day.

Put simply, and ideally, I oversee the news on newsobserver.com. But some days, I’m barely acquainted with the news that’s going up, so I’m lucky to have a talented team.

At any given time, I could be working on a future project, planning online coverage of a sports season or election or other big event, listening to a scanner, assigning a reporter (or sometimes reporting a story myself), sitting in a meeting, testing a new technology, coordinating with McClatchy Interactive and other papers in our chain on a news presentation or a technical issue (which I usually try to punt), editing and posting stories, rewriting headlines or story summaries, rearranging the sports pages, changing promotion on the site, moderating reader comments, checking site traffic for daily or hourly trends, updating our social media pages on Twitter and Facebook, helping readers with problems or just listening to them, handling the online coverage of sports events, dealing with vendors, assigning repair or development tasks to programmers (every day there’s something), setting up e-mail news alerts, listening to staffers’ ideas and refining them, updating coverage budgets, selecting and sending stories to Web aggregators, or documenting and communicating changes in procedures (they are frequent).

Many days I spend the predawn hours sitting in an empty newsroom getting the site ready before people wake up. It’s never boring; I’ll say that.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work for content on the site?

A. In the morning, most of the prominent stories on the site were edited and headlined for print by the nightside copy desk. Only one online producer is on duty, and that person spends about four hours just getting the site ready, so he doesn’t do a lot of additional editing, but there are numerous changes that do need to be made.

Print headlines often don’t work on the Web because they’re labels or because they’re only clear in the context of a print page, so they must be rewritten. The body of a story written for print often doesn’t make sense online either because it’s produced in pieces that, again, make sense in a print context but are inscrutable online. So the producer does have to do some essential editing.

As we post new stories during the day, the assigning editor in the newsroom will sometimes give a story a quick edit before passing it to the online team, but often, stories come straight from reporters. The online producer on duty does whatever editing he has time to do and writes the headlines.

During a typical day, we’ll post about 50 new stories. Hundreds of wire stories also are added to the site each day, but most of them are not edited at all by my team (except for an occasional headline revision on a prominent story).

In short, there is no traditional rim/slot structure, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, with only one person on duty, that’s impossible, especially since that person is occupied with many other tasks. The second is that speed is essential online, and that means the normal newsroom editing chain isn’t in play.

Q. Why is The N&O redesigning its site, and what are some of the big differences between the new site and the old one?

A. Our site had outgrown its design and was collapsing under its own weight. It had nearly 3,000 “sections” that offered some kind of content, and the search didn’t work as well as it should, so things were hard to find.

We were offering a lot of great news and multimedia and interactive content, but most people didn’t know it was there. We figured we owed our readers something easier to use, and we needed to upgrade the site’s functions — better search, better photo display, better video player, etc.

Biggest differences? Readers can customize their home page with a news grid that will automatically display the categories of news that users choose. The home page also offers, at the top, a visual menu of our featured stories that can be set to automatically scroll through those stories, or can be operated manually to give the user more control or a more leisurely pace.

The site search is a lot better and incorporates more of our content, including blogs, so we hope people will use it a lot more. The overall design is much simpler, easier to navigate. Navigation menus are horizontal rather than vertical, which makes them much easier to use. Photos display bigger.

The site in general is more visually appealing. There’s a video tutorial on the site that explains a lot of this.

Q. The N&O is part of a crowded media market. How does the new site help the paper compete against WRAL.com and other news outlets?

A. Our site, frankly, is much deeper than our competitors’ sites. We offer more news, and far more contextual content, than other sites.

Our writing is better and more complete. Our reporting on important issues is far and away the best in this area; it really can’t be touched. I think even our best story videos are better than what the TV stations do.

I believe that readers intuitively know this, but it’s not always obvious when you look at our current site because it’s not presented as well as it should be, and it’s a little intimidating. I hope the redesign will make the richness of our content more obvious and more readily available, and that will make more people choose us as their primary news site.

Memorable headlines: I’M SORRY… SEND ME MONEY

huffpo-headline

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 seventh in a series of posts on memorable headlines.

THE HEADLINE: “I’M SORRY… SEND ME MONEY”

THE PUBLICATION: The Huffington Post

THE STORY: In September 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, caused a commotion when he shouted “you lie!” as President Barack Obama spoke to Congress. The fallout included an apology and a fund-raising effort by Wilson and his Democratic opponent in the 2010 election.

ITS SIGNIFICANCE: This headline is more noteworthy for how it was done than what it said. The Huffington Post put out a call on Twitter, inviting readers to submit ideas for headlines for this story. Anyone on Twitter could offer a suggestion by using the hashtag #headlinehelp.

The winning submission was a hit because it generated about 100,000 clicks, according to HuffPo co-founder Arianna Huffington. She said that the site will continue to try “crowdsourcing” headlines on occasion.

Many readers seemed to like this approach to headline writing. “This is a good idea,” read one comment. “The headlines need improvement. I’d rather have a little snark than an overdramatized eye-grabber anytime.”

At least a few professional editors, however, may prefer “outsourcing” as the name for this practice. “How much are they paying?” asked Patrick LaForge, director of copy desks at The New York Times. Yes, he used Twitter and the hashtag to ask that question, which has apparently gone unanswered.

Tennis nation and the cliché next door

The U.S. Open is in full swing, and one of the highlights has been the unexpected rise of Melanie Oudin, a 17-year-old who knocked off several higher-ranked players. It’s the kind of story that the media love.

That led a colleague to ask on Facebook:

Can a tennis fan explain to me why I keep hearing her referred to as “American-born Melanie Oudin”? What is the importance or significance of where she was born, e.g., they don’t say “Russian-born Maria Sharapova.”

I replied that tennis is an international game that brings out nationalistic feelings in some fans. Many of us who follow tennis cheer for their countrymen (although my favorite player of all time is Swedish-born Bjorn Borg). Curiously, that attitude manifests itself more in devotion to individual players than in the team-based Davis Cup, at least in the United States.

federer-flagTune in to the U.S. Open, and you will hear John McEnroe and brother Patrick bemoan the state of men’s tennis in America. Follow Wimbledon, and you will learn how the British yearn for one of their own to win that title. Fans of players wave the flag of the home country at matches.

As for “-born,” that could be a reference to the fact that some players were born in one country but now live in another. Sharapova, for example, has left her native Russia for the warmer climate of Bradenton, Fla.

It is indeed puzzling to see “born” attached to Oudin’s name. She was born in Georgia (the U.S. state, not the country) and still lives there. A simple “American” before her name will suffice.

And here’s a bit of advice to sports journalists and headline writers: “America’s sweetheart” and “girl next door” have already become shopworn ways to describe Oudin. Avoid these clichés.

Barack Obama on writing well

A speech by President Barack Obama to the nation’s schoolkids was scrutinized for a hidden agenda. Such “indoctrination” criticism prompted the Department of Education to edit a suggested lesson plan associated with the speech.

It turns out that the Obama’s address, delivered Tuesday, had nothing to do with health care, abortion or other hot-button issues. Instead, the president encouraged the students to take responsibility for their education and their lives. It was a message that even Newt Gingrich liked.

Obama also talked about careers, including journalism:

Maybe you could be a good writer — maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper — but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class.

The president is right: Writing isn’t easy. Neither is editing. The earlier you get started trying them and the harder you work, the more likely you are to succeed.

Here are Obama’s other tips regarding writing and communication:

  • “Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published.”
  • “You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.”
  • “Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.”
  • “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.”

Read more about Obama’s interest in writing and editing in this Time article from 2008.

Q&A with Laura Leslie, WUNC reporter and blogger

Laura Leslie covers state government for WUNC radio, and she also blogs about that topic at Isaac Hunter’s Tavern. Leslie is the president of Capitolbeat, the national association of statehouse reporters and editors. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Leslie talks about her blog, her use of Twitter and the state of journalism.

Q. You’re a broadcaster and a blogger at WUNC. How do you balance those roles?

A. Broadcasting comes first. It’s our primary purpose, it reaches more people, and it’s what I get paid to do. The online work is sort of a labor of love.

I pushed for the blog for almost two years before my bosses agreed to let me try it as a volunteer effort — I don’t get credit for the time I spend working on it, and I’m still expected to produce just as much radio as people who don’t blog. But their attitude toward it has warmed some as it’s taken off. None of us, especially me, expected it would find such a big audience.

When I started writing it, I was thinking it could be sort of an extension of my notebook — I could just slap my radio scripts up there and build them out with the extra stuff there wasn’t time for on the air. But I learned pretty quickly that doesn’t work. It’s a different style of writing, aimed at a different audience, and it offers a much richer palette of storytelling tools – links, graphics, etc. — than radio does.

One surprising outcome is that the blog has helped me become a much stronger radio writer than I used to be. The best way to write for the radio is to write like you talk, in your own voice. That’s harder than it sounds. I think writing the Tavern has helped me develop that skill because that’s in my own voice, too.

Q. You’re also active on Twitter. What do you like about that format to “broadcast” the news?

A. I love its immediacy, of course, and its portability — I tweet from my phone at events or from my desktop at the legislature.

It also forces you to boil it down. When you’ve only got 140 characters to work with, you’ve really got to focus on what you want to get across. It’s like writing a good headline a dozen times a day.

When I live-tweet an event, I treat it like my notebook. When it’s over, I can go back and build radio stories or blog posts out of those nuggets of information.

I also love the way tags allow you to follow a range of people at different events in real time. At the legislature, if you follow #NCGA, you can see what’s going on in various committee rooms – it’s like being able to track six meetings at once. Plus, you get the benefit of multiple perspectives. When you’ve got lobbyists, lawmakers and reporters all tweeting about an event, you get a lot more information about what’s at stake and why it matters.

Q. For your blog, how do editing and headline writing work? Do you have someone read back on your posts?

A. I don’t get an edit before it goes live. In the beginning, that was because our platform wouldn’t allow for that. Now, it probably would, but we’ve just settled into doing it this way.

I write a post, I come up with a header of some kind, and I let my bosses know about it. They go back and look it over for typos or mistakes, sometimes a day later.

My most dependable editors are my readers. They’re quick to let me know when a link doesn’t work or I’ve misspelled something. I always say thank you when they do, and I mean it.

Q. What advice do you have to student journalists who want to go into the field nowadays?

A. Number one, learn every medium or platform you can, as early as you can, even if you’re not sure how or when you’ll ever use it. I can’t say that strongly enough.

Audio, video, blogging, Twitter — these are all tools for storytelling, and who doesn’t want a bigger toolbox? Even more importantly, get good at learning new media, because you’re going to be doing it on a regular basis as technology evolves.

I think the smartest way to think about our field these days is in terms of what we do, not how we do it. A journalist is a journalist, regardless of your mode of communication. We aren’t “print” or “broadcast” or “online” anymore. We’re doing it all.

That’s a change some older journalists have had a hard time accepting. You hear a lot of complaints: “Why should I have to do X? It’s taking time away from my reporting. ” No, it IS your reporting now.

We have better tools than ever to be smart, absorbing storytellers. The journalists who succeed will be the ones who focus on the potential of those tools, not the drawbacks.

UPDATE: In January 2011, Leslie took a job as a multimedia reporter at WRAL in Raleigh.

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