Toyota on the front page

My friend and former colleague, John Robinson, visited my editing class yesterday afternoon. He’s the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro.

The topic of his talk was the front page — specifically, what is a front-page story for a newspaper in Greensboro in 2010? It’s a topic that Robinson discusses on occasion on his blog and on Twitter.

Robinson asked the students in the class to go to a news Web site of their choice and tell him what the top story was at the moment. CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and several other sites had the story about a congressional hearing into the Toyota recall as the big news. The outliers were the Huffington Post (an Afghanistan story) and WRAL and The News & Observer sites, which both were leading with news about turmoil on the Wake County school board.

Robinson told the students that the chances of the Toyota story appearing on the News & Record’s front page as virtually nil. The story was out there on TV and online all day — what could the Greensboro paper do with it that readers didn’t already know?

The News & Record considers itself a local newspaper. And indeed, its front page this morning is all about Greensboro. Toyota is mentioned in a promo at the bottom of the page, with a story on A6.

Was that the right call?

Guest post: The state of the Woods union

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of these posts. John Dougherty of Goldsboro, N.C., is a senior in the news-ed sequence with a second major in environmental studies. He was on the Daily Tar Heel’s sports desk as a copy editor and writer once
upon a time. Last year, he worked as a media relations intern for the Carolina Hurricanes. He is currently working in the exciting field of new media, editing multimedia college sports text message alerts. Next year, he will be attending law school (not sure where yet).

I might not be Lou Gehrig, but I consider myself fairly lucky.

Thanks to the fortunate arrangement of Tiger Woods’ rehab schedule, the world’s most famous golfer and one the wealthiest athletes in sports history decided to speak publicly Friday for the first time since his November car accident. Of all days, Woods just so happened to pick the day I write my guest blog post.

His fellow golfers on the PGA tour and one of his largest former sponsors, Accenture, weren’t too pleased with the statement coinciding with round 3 of that weekend’s tournament. Well, tough.

My procrastination has paid off. You, my reader, should count your lucky stars as well. Rather than a grueling 8-paragraph post dissecting the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” I have the opportunity to discuss 21st century America’s favorite topics: celebrity strife and extramarital affairs!

Personally, I was excited about the prospect of Tiger finally making his feelings public (through a medium other than his personal Web site). It was on my mind going to bed last night and one of the first things I thought of once I woke up … right. So naturally I had to figure out where and when this statement would be televised.

Not a hard task I discovered. Within a matter a seconds of turning on ESPN, the scrolling ticker informed me I’d have to wait until 11 a.m.

As the morning progressed, I stayed turned to ESPN. I figured to catch the recap of last night’s Lakers/Celtics game. Maybe an update on the U.S. Olympic efforts. And if I was lucky, even hear mention of baseball’s spring training.

Obviously all those unimportant stories were being covered on ESPN 8 (The Ocho). Segment after segment, the broadcasters covered every trivial and insignificant detail of a speech they’d yet to hear. From how long the statement would last, to whether Tiger should cry and if his wife would be in attendance. I was a bit surprised the Disney executives didn’t invite George Stephanopoulos onto the morning “Sportscenter” to weigh in.

When Tiger’s moment of truth arrived, I gave a quick glance to see what else might be on, assuming whatever portion of the population didn’t tune in to ESPN was missing out. Shockingly, or probably not, I found missing out wasn’t really an option. Every major network had preempted their morning programming to cover Eldrick. Talk about the presidential treatment.

It’s not my intention to analyze Tiger’s words, though plenty can be said about them. And plenty was.
From ABC and CNN to ESPN, TMZ and even across the pond at BBC, the afternoon became another episode of (excuse my lack of originality) “Tigergate.”

Obviously, there is some news value in the first public statement by a desperately private public figure. My astonishment is in the amount of attention that was laid upon a 15-minute prepared address, in which Woods didn’t exactly shock the world.

His most aggressive and controversial statements came in relation to the constant hounding he and his family receive on a daily basis. What we weren’t surprised by was his admission to cheating on his wife or treatment at a rehab facility. The reason these things didn’t shock us? Consult the beginning of this paragraph.

I don’t condone Tiger’s hypocritical request for absolute privacy while gaining fistfuls of endorsement cash as a public name, but it is worrisome that the entire Western world’s news cycle shuts down for 15 minutes while an athlete admits to infidelity.

Eventually the Tiger storm will pass, and one day he might even go back to playing golf. The court of public opinion will inevitably give a verdict and life will move on. But until we’re all swept up in the frenzy of the next “___ gate” it might be worthwhile to re-examine America’s news judgment.

Until then, I’m going back to exploring ESPN.com for that Lakers score. It’ll probably be posted just next to Kobe’s opinion on Tiger.

Guest post: The challenge of writing headlines

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of these posts. Mike Gianotti is a senior majoring in journalism (news-ed sequence) at UNC-Chapel Hill. When he is off campus, he lives in Sanford, N.C. He has an A.A. degree from Wake Technical Community College, and he has a copy-editing internship at the The News & Observer in Raleigh this semester. He has also worked at The Daily Tar Heel for four semesters (two on the Online Desk and two on the Editorial Board).

“Hey, Mike, why don’t you take another crack at that headline?”

I hear it at least once a week from my internship supervisor, Leland Senn at The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Headlines are my Achilles’ heel.

No matter how easy a story is to edit, I almost always struggle with the headline. Sometimes the space I have is too short; other times it’s too long. Other times, I’ll get a good headline in only to realize that I need to write a sub-headline that I don’t feel is needed. At times, I’ve spent as much time writing headlines as I have editing the stories they’re for.

But I finally got some good advice, and I think I’ve got the solution. Stephen Merelman, the paper’s page 1A editor, noticed I was struggling and gave me some help. “Read your headline out loud,” he said. “If you sound like a tool when you read it, try writing it again.”

It was then I realized that I was trying to make each headline sound like one for some country-shaping event. I needed to relax, and I did. It helped.

Good headline writing takes time and experience. Thinking outside the box is mandatory in order to learn quickly. That sounds clichéd (if everyone could think outside the box at will, we’d be colonizing other galaxies by now), but it’s not as hard as it seems.

For example, my headline for this year’s Krispy Kreme Challenge read: “Racers finish Krispy Kreme run.” It was gaudy and clunky, and not entirely accurate (they weren’t racing, just running), but what was worse was I couldn’t think of anything else. I looked online the next day and found the story on the paper’s Web site. It sported the headline “6,000 people make doughnut run.”

Short, sweet and to the point. I’m sure there was some white space left in the headline box, but this business is about conveying information in the best way possible. It succeeded more than I did to that extent.

Headlines are about finding synonyms. Krispy Kreme becomes doughnut. Hollywood Video becomes video store. Rockstar Energy + Recovery Energy Supplement (with 3 percent lemon juice!) becomes energy drink. (Still with 3 percent lemon juice!)

It’s less about which words mean the same thing and more about what the words in question are. If I’m having a problem with a word in a headline, I now try to categorize it and use a broader, shorter term. It might not be specific, but it’s more or less the same thing. And while it’s not the solution to every headline problem, it’s enough to get out of a few jams until the experience kicks in.

So if you’re having headline problems, here’s my advice: Take a deep breath and relax. First, check to see if there are any obvious synonyms, such as “run” instead of “sprint.” Then, instead of looking sideways for synonyms, look upward to the broader category that encompasses the word.

If nothing else, it will expand your thinking. And that’s always a good thing.

Editing and explaining the news

Editing encompasses more than just fixing errors of style, spelling and grammar in news stories. Editing to explain concepts to readers is also important.

The editing of two recent stories shows a need for further explanation. Let’s take a look:

THE STORY: Greece’s debt crisis.

WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING: Why this is happening and why it matters.

HOW WE CAN EXPLAIN: A Q&A is a great way to explain this sort of complicated story. That’s what the BBC did. The Beeb also takes on the “why it matters” issue in this sidebar.

THE STORY: A fatal shooting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING: The role of academic tenure as a possible motivation for the killings.

HOW WE CAN EXPLAIN: A textbox explaining the tenure process would be helpful. Why does tenure exist, and how does a professor get it? As noted here, it’s a tricky system that readers may not understand.

Both of these news events require a greater level of explanation than they’ve received in most stories. Good editors recognize that requirement and use it as an opportunity to explain and illuminate a topic for their readers.

UPDATE: The Associated Press tries to shed some light on tenure in a story that appeared on the front page of The News & Observer.

Guest post: Why copy editors still matter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of these posts. Kammie Daniels is a senior News Editorial major who plans to graduate this May. She has worked at The Daily Tar Heel as an Arts Desk staff writer and also as a reporter with UNC’s news broadcast Carolina Week.

With all the layoffs, consolidation and other depressing things going on in the newspaper industry, I think we are all forgetting how important copy editors really are.

Up to this point in my education, I have never thought to include the title of “copy editor” to my list of practiced skills. Yes, a semester here and there of editing courses has fairly broadened my knowledge of the profession. However, it has taken until now to have the opportunity to truly practice and more importantly, appreciate, the art of accomplished copy editing.

Day to day, I witness the hard work and talent my fellow classmates offer when editing another’s copy. And although I have never worked with a professional copy editor, through this new experience I can say they strike me as having the most under-appreciated job in the newsroom.

In the face of the “print is dead” belief, no newsroom group has been more affected than copy editors. According to a 2009 survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, more papers have reported cutting copy editors than photographers, assignment reporters, or graphic artists. Shrinking newsrooms could justify these cuts if content quantity followed in suit. However, this survey continues to explain that while staff is shrinking, the average number of stories being published is actually increasing. So this means we have more headlines and content to be edited and an insufficient copy desk — that is a problem.

Another publication that has recently made (perhaps un-copy edited) headlines for targeting copy editors is the Star Tribune in Minnesota. Of the 27 staffers that were cut from the paper, 18 were from copy desk positions.

As newsrooms are shrinking all together, it seems the popular belief that copy editors should be the first to get the boot. New York Times writer Lawrence Downes even goes so far as to say “if newspaper copy editors vanish from the earth, no one is going to notice.”

Ouch.

Whether it is motivation by the dollar or one’s indifferent ignorance, copy editors are no longer getting the recognition they deserve. Today’s copy editors are multitaskers who design, choose stories and configure them online — all in addition to the customary duties of content editing and writing headlines. When a newspaper like the Tribune loses a copy editor, it is in turn losing valuable expertise in every one of these areas.

Singer/songwriter Christopher Ave wrote “Copy Editor’s Lament (The Layoff Song)” to comment on the newspaper industry’s woes and to celebrate copy editors. Like Ave, I wish to argue this same point. Of course, the public does care about headlines and correct grammar. They just don’t really know it. Through my writing — once copy edited, of course — my message will hopefully be clear: Copy editors DO still matter.

Using links as footnotes

Good columnists use facts to back up their opinions. Better ones tell you where they got those facts.

That’s why I like what Frank Rich does with his New York Times columns. Rich includes smartly selected links to show readers where his information comes from.

The most recent Rich column, on Sarah Palin, contains links to not only other New York Times content, but also stories at The Washington Post and McClatchy’s Washington bureau. That’s a smart move that makes Rich’s conclusions more believable.

Curiously, Rich is unusual among his NYT columnists in the prolific use of links as a sort of footnoting system. Ross Douthat has one link in his most recent column, and Nicholas Kristof has two. Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman, Gail Collins and David Brooks have none.

Linking is a simple way to build credibility into an op-ed piece. Why not use it?

Q&A with Deirdre Edgar, readers’ representative at the L.A. Times

Deirdre Edgar is the new readers’ representative at the Los Angeles Times. Edgar is a longtime copy editor and a member of the Executive Committee of the American Copy Editors Society. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Edgar discusses her job, common complaints from readers and how her editing background influences her new role.

Q. Describe your job. What does the readers’ representative do on a typical day?

The official mission of the readers’ representative’s office is to help uphold The Times’ standards on accuracy and fairness. I also see it as an explanatory role, explaining readers’ points of view to the newsroom and the newsroom’s thinking or decision-making to readers.

A lot of my day is spent on e-mail. Most reader questions, comments, complaints come in electronically. I read everything, then must decide whether complaints or calls for correction are warranted. The AME/copy desks, Henry Fuhrmann, is the paper’s standards editor, and as such, he is responsible for corrections. I forward a lot of things to him.

I also have a blog, the Readers’ Representative Journal at latimes.com/readers, which I try to post to daily. Some of my posts so far have addressed The Times’ coverage of Haiti and the Toyota recalls, a style change regarding the use of “today” as a time element and why “who dat” isn’t racist.

As part of my explanatory role, I’ve also started hosting online chats with readers. The first one featured reporter Joe Mozingo, who had just returned from covering the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

There’s a readers’ rep Twitter account, too, @LATreadersrep, although I haven’t done much with it yet. I want to monitor Twitter more, especially The Times’ main account, @latimes, because we get a lot of feedback there that very few people here ever see.

Q. What are some of the common questions and concerns you get?

Anything and everything! The paper made an error — factual or grammatical. The paper is biased — generally people say toward the left, but it surprises me how often people say a story takes the Republican side. A person wants an article taken off latimes.com because it’s old, embarrassing or they don’t like it (we generally don’t do that because the Web site is a record of a public journal). The reader didn’t get his paper, or there’s a billing problem — but those I forward.

And then last week The Times made changes to its crossword and comics pages as part of a reduction in page width, so that drew a flood of e-mails and calls. I’ve responded to each person who’s written to us about the changes. And thankfully the AME/design was able to change the layout of the crossword to address readers’ complaints.

Q. How does your editing background influence how you do your new job?

A. The goals are the same, being concerned about accuracy and fairness. But now I’m looking at stories after they’re published instead of before.

I was previously The Times’ national copy desk chief, and on that desk we still had the luxury of being able to fact-check stories. (I know that’s not the case elsewhere, or even on some other desks here.) I use those fact-checking skills now to research reader questions or items for the blog.

And when colleagues express sympathy that I have to answer reader complaints, I’ve been joking that I’m used to having a thankless job — I was a copy editor for 19 years.

Q. Many newspapers have eliminated positions like yours. Why does the Los Angeles Times consider the readers’ representative a job worth keeping in these difficult times?

A. The Times’ editor, Russ Stanton, made a big push to keep this position when my predecessor decided to step down after 10 years. He felt that, more than ever, now was not the time for the paper to turn its back on readers. I agree with that completely — and would even if I hadn’t been chosen to do this job.

Follow the Los Angeles Times readers’ representative on Twitter and read her blog.