The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: April, 2010

Guest post: When you can’t find the right (bleeping) words

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Landon Wallace is a junior majoring in journalism with a concentration in editing and graphic design. He is minoring in German and spent a semester in Berlin. His career goal is to be a tennis columnist for

Writer’s note: Some links contain unedited profane language.

In an interview for a UNC-Chapel Hill reporting class last semester, I found a perfect source for a story on the not-so-interesting beat of nontraditional schools. A well-respected, influential man in Durham gave me an hour-long interview, complete with his true feelings about the N.C. General Assembly after it voted to cut some funding to charter schools. At one point he said, “I think the Senate is filled with a bunch of f—— idiots.”

I was living a young reporter’s dream. That quote carried that story, and I thought it might actually create a wave of controversy in the community. (The story was never actually published, and thus it didn’t even cause a ripple, but that’s not the point.) I still remember the excitement I had from getting a solid quote with profanity, because I thought that it took my story to another level.

However, as I have transitioned to classes that focus more on the editing side of journalism, I lost the excitement for expletives. The Associated Press Stylebook instructs to leave out profanity except from direct quotes, and even in those cases, there must be a compelling reason to use it. If profanity is used, every letter after the first should be hyphenated (as shown in the quote in the first paragraph of this post).

But with the advent of online media, many news organizations have not followed the style set forth by the AP. One example is when Vice President Joe Biden’s slip-up about health-care reform from last month. A Washington Post blog favored the “[expletive]” route, and The New York Times decided to use ellipses, but the NBC video attached to the NYT article uses correct AP style.

But the issue with profanity isn’t just about the continuity set forth by major news organizations — it is about whether to use the profanity at all. The United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper admitted in 2008 that cursing in its stories has significantly risen over the past decade. With this rise probably consistent with many online news organizations in the United States, editors now have even more difficult jobs; they must carefully weigh the newsworthiness of the quote with the integrity of the organization and the possible negative reaction from the audience.

Speaking with students and professors in the j-school here for the past week, the overall consensus here is that editors must put the audience before the shock value of profanity. One student said that although profane language might gain some attention online, it will probably offend many more in print, especially because the average age of the newspaper reader is growing older.

It’s a battle, the student said, because as young people, we want to make the world more progressive, but we can’t lose the patrons of news organizations in doing so.

How to help the next generation of editors

The education fund of the American Copy Editors Society is dedicated to helping college students who are interested in careers as editors. This year, ACES gave a total of $6,500 to five students and helped pay for their travel to the national conference in Philadelphia.

Here’s how you can help the fund:

  • Attend the national conference and participate in the silent auction, which brought in more than $3,000 this year, including the $10 I spent on a Times-Picayune T-shirt.
  • Buy a Talk Wordy To Me mug or shirt. Thanks to copy editor/blogger Brian White for giving profits of these items to the fund.
  • Use Goodsearch, a search engine that gives some money to the charity of your choice every time you look for something online. Designate “American Copy Editors Society Education Fund” as your charity.
  • Download a form and donate to the fund directly. Your gift is tax deductible.

Thank you for your support.

Guest post: How to pack facts and flair into online headlines

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Maggie Tobias is a journalism senior about to graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill  and into the real world to pursue a career in health-related journalism. She loves writing about health, reading about health, bein’ healthy, running, watching Spanish movies, cooking healthy foods and singing rap songs at the top of her lungs. She is a member of the American Copy Editors Society, an avid reader of The New York Times, Women’s Health and many novels. Occasionally, she likes cooking unhealthy things, eating unhealthy things and watching “Glee.”

During the recent American Copy Editors Society national conference in Philadelphia, I attended a seminar called “Surviving the Switch to Online Editing.” This topic isn’t something new to me. Journalists get told every day that their writing isn’t direct enough or fast enough for the new world of Internet and iPads. The speaker, Paula Devlin of the Times-Picayune, gave us the rundown of different ways to increase traffic and readership for our news websites, but she also talked about the difference between headlines in print and online.

Print headlines have the luxury of being vague at times, as readers spend more time reading a newspaper than a website. But writers for online publications need to learn how to write headlines that get to the point and entice the reader, Devlin stressed in her presentation.

I argue that it’s possible to do all this and still keep a sense of humor in headlines. My generation is especially well-suited for this task. We’re already primed from years of texting to produce pithy, factual, funny content.

Devlin gave examples of rewritten print headlines.  Here’s my take on that.

Example 1:

Print headline: “Not by bulbs alone”

Why it’s wrong: This is a headline from The Carrboro Citizen for a story on Lou Ann and David Brower, a Chapel Hill couple who created a lavish garden in the woods around their house. This headline is lovely for print, but in an online version, I doubt a reader would think twice about clicking on the story.  It lacks proper names and buzzwords, there’s no sense of place and it relies on a biblical reference that many young people might not understand.

Suggested online version: “Chapel Hill couple takes gardening into the woods”

Comments: It’s not a riot to read, but I was able to add a place, people and a sense of what they’re doing. Some people might catch the shout-out to Steven Sondheim at the end. At least he’s more current than the Gospel writers.

Example 2

Print headline: “Talking trash at the Shore: Plastic, butts, underwear”

Why it’s wrong: This quirky headline from a Philadelphia Daily News story on pollution at New Jersey beaches might be unique, but it’s also misleading. I had no idea what the story was really about until I read the actual text. For all I knew, they could have been discussing the way beaches are overrun with rednecks and trailer trash. In addition, which “butt” are they referring to? What “Shore” do they mean? All in all, I think this was an awkward headline.

Suggested online version: “Jersey Shore’s trash collection eclectic and … dangerous?”

Comments: My version adds a location for those of us who don’t automatically assume “Jersey” when we see “Shore.” I wasn’t able to put in details about the trash, but by using the word “trash” instead of “plastic, butts, underwear,” I was able to clear up confusion about what those words were meant to suggest. Another element that the headline didn’t capture was the environmental hazard of this beach trash. If space permitted, I think the ending of my headline would intrigue people but give a good idea of what the article was about.

Example 3:

Print headline: “Cheek to Cheek (And Tongue-in-Cheek)”

Why it’s wrong: A first glance at this headline from The New York Times would leave anyone but the most perceptive musical theater lover at a complete loss for what the subject of the story is. “Cheek to Cheek” is a reference to Irving Berlin’s jazzy standard of the same name. But the number of online readers who know the song, much less who Irving Berlin is, must be pretty small. The story is actually a review of the latest season of “Dancing with the Stars,” whose line-up includes Pamela Anderson and soap opera actor Aiden Turner.

Suggested online version: “Pamela Anderson and others give dancing a whirl on ‘Stars’ this season”

Comments: Sure, it’s not quite as dry and witty as the Times version, but I think my headline gets to the point quicker and tells you more about the story’s contents.  Most people who’d want to read a story about this TV show would be attracted by buzzwords like the show’s name or a celebrity’s name. Also, TV lovers have reportedly lower attention spans. Even though my headline is longer, it takes less time to figure out than the questionable Times quip.

Guest post: Use some discretion next time, Gizmodo

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. David Riedell is a junior journalism major from Raleigh, N.C. He has worked on The Daily Tar Heel’s University desk for two years.

Everything with an Apple logo on it is white hot. When the first iPhone was released, people waited in line for hours to get their hands on the cool new gadget. The same thing happened a few weeks ago when the iPad came out. Nowadays, if you don’t have at least one iPod, you’re weird.

So of course it would be big news when Gizmodo paid someone $5,000 for “Apple’s Next iPhone” after it was left on a bar stool by an Apple employee who graduated from North Carolina State University in 2006. Apple’s security, as viewed by the tech-news world, is on par with Big Brother’s thought police: intimidating, sneaky and very tight-lipped.

Of course, Gizmodo’s editors would want exclusivity with the device. Of course they would want to pick it apart and let the public know what’s new. But did they really have to release the name of the poor, unfortunate Apple employee who left it at the bar?

The story, according to Gizmodo, is that a customer at the Gourmet Haus Staudt, a German beer garden in Redwood City, Calif., found an iPhone on a bar stool. After no one else at the bar claimed it, he opened up the phone’s Facebook application trying to find out who the owner was, so that he could return it later.

However, the next morning the phone was dead, presumably erased by a remote wipe. After examining it more closely, he realized that there was a fake case around the phone’s new, flatter design, to make it look like a regular iPhone. After failing to reach the phone’s owner at Apple, he ended up selling it to Gizmodo.

Once Gizmodo’s editors got their hands on it, they published an article with plenty of pictures detailing how it is different than the current iPhone. Then they published another article about how it came into their possession, complete with pictures, Facebook screencaps and Twitter updates of the Apple engineer who left it behind.

It seems that the public has accepted that Gizmodo’s new iPhone is the real deal, but there has been debate as to whether this was a humongous mistake by a hapless employee or just a publicity stunt from Apple. We don’t know if Apple meant for us to find it or if it was left by accident, but one thing’s for sure: If it was an accident, that Apple employee is in for a world of trouble.

Gizmodo, there was no reason to shove this guy’s name and picture into the spotlight at every opportunity. Assuming he left it by mistake, he’ll have an extremely tough time finding another job after he is (most likely) fired from Apple for unveiling this product early. He left his phone at a bar, an honest mistake that anyone could make, and you made it possible for Apple to publicly crucify him.

Wish you were here

This blog will be quiet for the rest of the week. I will be in Philadelphia for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

If you can’t be there, follow the fun on the Web and on Twitter.

Q&A with Amy Goldstein, editor at

Amy Goldstein has been an associate editor on the copy desk at since February 2008. Before moving to central Connecticut, she completed a master’s degree in journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in linguistics at CUNY Queens College. She has interned at the Detroit Free Press, McClatchy-Tribune News Service and News 12 Long Island. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Goldstein offers a glimpse of what it’s like to be an editor at the ESPN site.

Q. Describe your job at ESPN. What is your typical workday like?

A. I edit 12 to 15 stories, blogs and photo galleries each day and am the copy desk editor who backreads subject page tops that are sent via e-mail. I also often assign priorities to stories in our queue system based on what’s expected to be featured prominently on our front page or on section pages. When time allows, I slot stories and coordinate copy desk reads of entire index pages.

We have a copy desk and a news desk, and the copy desk is responsible for editing features, columns, power rankings and other staff-generated items, while the news desk mostly edits headline news stories and game recaps. Most copy deskers work during the day rather than at night because the stories we edit generally come to us during normal business hours. Stories’ lengths vary significantly, as do their subject matter — I might edit a feature about an NFL player, then a Q-and-A with the creator of a sports video game, then a live blog about a poker event.

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?

A. You were expecting it to be working against the clock, weren’t you? Well, not quite. If a story needs to be published right away (for example, right after the Masters tournament) it is, and then we’ll backread it as soon as possible. If it doesn’t, we’ll be expected to turn the story around within a reasonable amount of time, but there’s usually no rush.

ESPN is a reporter-driven environment, and that’s what enables our best writers to develop a distinct voice that is recognized on a national level. Our writers have a lot of editors — a story might be edited by two or three people before it reaches the copy desk — and we’re charged with maintaining our writers’ voices while making sure they don’t cross the line on sensitive topics. With so many hands on deck, sometimes it’s hard to appease everyone. My biggest challenge is deciding which battles to pick and how best to compromise.

Q. You have worked for print and online media. What are the biggest differences between them? What about similarities?

A. My work online might be a little less creative than what I did for print media, but that’s really a function of the workflow here. I typically don’t write headlines or cutlines or select photos, but section editors (who do all those things) ask me for headline and blurb suggestions several times a day. We also have two layers of headlines for most of our stories — the index page display text, which aims to get the reader to click on a story (and often has tight head counts, just like in print media!), and the headline on top of the story, which is often a summary type of head because the reader already was engaged enough to click through to that point.

As I hinted at above, there generally aren’t deadlines at, so I find working online to be less stressful than working in print. I try to finish a story as fast as I can, but I almost always have plenty of time to make it as good as it should be. At the same time, there’s little downtime during our workday. We always have something to do because our writers and section editors produce so much content each day.

As for similarities, the reality is that both print and online media work to tell similar or identical stories. A story published online might be longer, but the general rules of keeping a reader engaged still apply.

Q. Many college students would love to have a job like yours. What career advice do you have for them?

A. Persistence was key for me in landing this job. A number of things had to fall perfectly into place for me to end up here, but if I hadn’t kept calling my boss during a seven-month period, I wouldn’t be at ESPN. In addition, knowing what you really want in a job helps you sell yourself, and internships help you refine what path you want your career to take.

In graduate school, I had several opportunities to learn Web programs, and I’m thankful for that because although’s publishing system is proprietary, I learned how to tell a story using interactive media. I share that knowledge with my colleagues whenever I think it might be useful. I suggest that college students take advantage of the opportunity to learn new programs — it’s fun and rewarding when you finish a project, even a quick photo gallery produced with Soundslides.

Guest post: Observer misses the point on Duke’s fourth title

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jacob Swiger will graduate from UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May and has accepted a position as a technical writer. Jacob has interned for the Independent Weekly as a sports writer and editor.

The UNC-Chapel Hill media members are taking over the state’s newspapers.

At least that’s what Duke fans want to believe after seeing the difference between the front page of The Charlotte Observer the morning after Duke University won the NCAA tournament game compared with last year when Roy Williams won his second title:

I even found this gem on a Duke basketball message board:  “Charlotte, in general, has turned into the UNC self-licking ice cream cone.”

Although I don’t think many could argue the large presence of UNC-CH journalism graduates spread throughout the state, I do think there is a better explanation for what the Observer did.

John Robinson, the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, blogged about the difference in his paper’s front pages and the Observer’s from a year ago.

Robinson explains that advertisers view a UNC win as a much bigger than a Duke win, which is the main reason why the paper might choose to scale down the prevalence on the front page from a year ago.

My problem is this: What kind of message is the drastic difference sending to the Observer’s readers, especially those who want to celebrate Duke’s championship?

Of course, it depends on the location of the newspaper. I would expect, however, a North Carolina paper to have a decent front page story on the game. Greensboro is not exactly Durham’s second home, but the News & Record did a better job of handling this year’s paper than the Observer did.  As Robinson mentions in his blog post, the News & Record ran a five-column picture this year and a six-column photo last year.  Robinson justifies this due to a more important local story this year compared with last year.

That’s perfectly reasonable.

As for the Observer, I would argue that Duke’s championship was a much more interesting story than UNC’s championship considering the Tar Heels were expected to win the entire season. By only placing a small banner at the top of the paper, the Observer contradicts its treatment of last year’s front page.

Why not replace the Toyota story? Or the pollen story? Or the Tiger story? For that matter, why is the West Virginia mine story buried at the bottom of the page?

As anyone who builds newspaper pages will say and as Robinson told my editing class recently, designing front pages is not a science. It’s very easy for someone outside of the newsroom to be critical, and I respect the difficulty of preparing the front page, especially for those who are professionals. Furthermore, I am confident the Observer took the time to consider the ramifications of its front page based on solid news judgment, but I sincerely believe it missed an opportunity to be loyal to its true cause and lost more than it could gain.

Guest post: How to fool readers on April Fools’ Day

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jamie Richardson is a senior journalism major in the news-editorial sequence. She has served on The Daily Tar Heel’s university desk and as a sports writing intern for the Durham Bulls baseball team. She will attend Campbell Law School in August.

On April 1, several college newspapers were littered with fake April Fools’ Day stories that fooled and entertained their readers. But the methods in which these newspapers presented their pranks question what is acceptable.

Many college newspapers don’t depend on revenue and are not corporately owned, and they have more leeway in their decision-making. Literally fooling readers hurts any newspaper’s credibility, but it’s also important for college newspapers not to take themselves too seriously all the time. It’s undeniably difficult for college newspapers to walk the line between what is funny and what is inappropriate for publication.

April Fools’ Day stories should exaggerate an issue; the humor should obviously remind readers of this lighthearted holiday of sorts. Most readers don’t enjoy being fooled, and when readers unintentionally fall for a fake story, they complain. Writers and editors should ensure that if a story (even an exaggerated one) is taken literally, it does not make a believable accusation against any person or organization. Complaints also happen when a paper uses an individual, company or organization by name, especially when newspapers aim to cover these subjects objectively every day.

An effective example of foolery is the April 1 edition of The Daily Free Press at Boston University. Although not featured on the paper’s Web site, this edition was a Harry Potter-themed issue titled “The Daily Free Prophet.” This is a perfect example of exaggeration that immediately makes readers aware they are not reading real news.

The Daily Gazette of Swarthmore College also took part in April Fools’ Day appropriately with its article “Swarthmore admits five Na’vi for Class of 2014.” The headline immediately clues in the reader to the story’s falsity (props to the copy editors) before they even begin reading the story.

Santa Clara University’s weekly publication, The Santa Clara, successfully fooled some readers, and it was not well received. Its entire front page contained fake articles announcing the return of football to the university (which was discontinued in 1993 because of budget cuts), the abolishment of same-sex roommate requirements and the banning of skateboards on campus. There was no direct mention of April Fools’ Day on the front page, but when readers turned to the second page, they saw that stories “may lack accuracy in honor of April Fools’ Day.” This front page was formatted and designed to look real, and although the author of the fictional football story was Ferris Bueller, some readers were caught off guard and complained.

The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill approached its readers differently, with a gag not as obvious as some others, and published a fake editorial on the back page. And just in case readers didn’t get the joke upon reading it, the editorial concluded with “Editor’s Note: April Fools. This one is fake, in case you didn’t guess. The others are real, though!” This joke addressed the reader directly to avoid misinterpretation, didn’t mention any individuals by name, and effectively exaggerated an issue with just a hint of humor.

Mad Libs on the op-ed page

My favorite word game as a child was Mad Libs. I still remember filling in the blanks with nouns, adjectives and adverbs to create crazy stories.

This column in The News & Observer gave me a flashback to those times. The writer argues that President Barack Obama is an ideologue who will stop at nothing to win politically. It could have easily been written from the opposite point of view by changing a few key words. Here’s the lead:

Congress has passed Barrack [sic] Obama’s signature issue — health care reform. After a year of stops and starts, imposed deadlines and rancorous debate, President Obama and his allies will have prevailed.

Let’s go back to the fall of 2002 and rewrite this lead, with a wink at Mad Libs:

Congress has passed George W. Bush’s signature issue — authorization to go war with Iraq. After a year of stops and starts, imposed deadlines and rancorous debate, President Bush and his allies will have prevailed.

The op-ed piece goes on:

Conservatives and Republicans who underestimate Obama do so at their own electoral peril. Unlike Carter, Obama is a true believer, who understands that transforming policy translates into votes and a citizenry that is more reliant on the federal government.

Here’s the Mad Libs version:

Liberals and Democrats who underestimate Bush do so at their own electoral peril. Unlike his father, Bush is a true believer who understands that transforming policy translates into votes and a citizenry that is more reliant on the federal government.

And later:

To compete and to win in 2010 Republicans and conservatives must outline and define what Obama has in store for this nation. And that is the remaking of the nation as we have known it from its inception. We cannot count on a bad economy to propel us to a majority, or outrage over the health care bill.

The Mad Libs version:

To compete and to win in 2004, Democrats and progressives must outline and define what Bush has in store for this nation. And that is the remaking of the nation as we have known it from its inception. We cannot count on a bad economy to propel us to a majority, or outrage over the Iraq war.

And so on. The problem with such columns is that they state the obvious: Politicians play to win; their opponents underestimate them, etc.

If an op-ed piece can so easily get the Mad Libs treatment, it probably isn’t worth publishing.


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