The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: May, 2010

SHOCK: HuffPo’s headlines need help


The headlines at The Huffington Post are like those in a New York tabloid. They’re often eye-catching and sensational. There’s a generous use of ALLCAPS and the “SHOCK:” start.

HuffPo’s headlines are often misleading and overreaching. Even those who share the site’s liberal politics have noted this tendency to bait and switch. The headlines are also riddled with cliches.

This one about Rand Paul illustrates these problems. Here’s why:

  • First, “15 minutes” is a tired reference. Even Andy Warhol said he was sick of it.
  • Second, the headline is deceptive. My reading of it was that Mitch McConnell wanted Paul off the ballot, gone and forgotten as a footnote in political history. But the story itself indicates that McConnell simply wants Paul to focus more on campaigning in Kentucky and less on appearances in the national media.

HuffPo has experimented with crowdsourcing headlines. It’s an interesting idea. Maybe the readers could have come up with a better one than this one.

What I edit and what I don’t

This Tweet from Overheard in the Newsroom made me smile and cringe at the same. I smiled because it’s funny. I cringed because it feeds into a stereotype about copy editors.

I don’t edit e-mails from my friends, family and students. I don’t edit status updates on Facebook. I don’t edit Tweets (although some people do). I don’t edit comments on news stories (though some errors are admittedly amusing). And I don’t edit spoken conversation.

I do edit news stories, blog posts on news sites, cover letters, menus, speeches and billboards — anything that’s professionally produced and set into type in print, online or on screen. Even so, I don’t insist that these things adhere to Associated Press style. Style is a choice, not a commandment.

So for those of you with friends and family who work as editors: Relax. It’s OK.

Most of us won’t judge you for a typo in an e-mail or chat session online. If you don’t use the subjunctive mood correctly the next time we talk on the phone, I won’t stop the conversation to point that out.

We all make mistakes sometimes; I’ve made some doozies. That’s why we have copy editors to help us communicate better in professional settings for specific audiences. We want to help, not nag, and we’ll do so with tact and understanding, not mockery.

Got it? So give us a call, send us a text message or drop us a line by email. We’ll chat.

A week without Facebook

I started teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005, and on the first day of class that fall, I asked the students about their favorite news sources. Several mentioned The New York Times (online, not in print), ESPN and The Daily Tar Heel.

One told me emphatically: “Facebook.” I responded that I had read about Facebook, but I wasn’t on it yet. The student’s response: “Mr. Bechtel, you have to be on Facebook!”

Of course, I am now, along with more than 400 million other users. And yes, it is one of my news sources. I use Facebook not only to keep up with what my friends are doing, but also to see what they are sharing there, especially news stories that they have seen that I have overlooked.

I recently took a Facebook hiatus. Annoyed by news about Facebook’s slippery policy on privacy and by the hacking of my account by spammers, I decided to take a break. I’d had enough.

Being away from Facebook was more difficult than I expected. I missed my friends, both old and new. I missed knowing what they were talking about. I admit that I cheated on my pledge once, to look up an e-mail address for a former student to let her know about a job opportunity.

During my week away, I realized that leaving Facebook would not improve my privacy online. Let’s face it: There is no privacy online.

For example, the content of my Gmail account is regularly mined so Google can offer advertising related to what my friends and I are talking about:

  • Discussion of a recent canoe trip led to ads for kayaks.
  • A friend and I had a jokey exchange about Grecian Formula, and now Gmail wants to sell me hair dye.

That’s because Google is a company interested in making money. And Facebook is not a public good; it’s a business.

I’m back on Facebook and will keep using Gmail. I like Twitter too. They’re all convenient and free.

I’ll also do what I can on Facebook (and elsewhere online) to guard my privacy. I urge you to do the same — stay connected, but stay cautious.

Short people are just the same as you and I

National Public Radio does a nice job with a fun story on its Web site today. The topic is short people and a book about them called “Short: Walking Tall When You Are Not Tall At All.”

NPR uses a simple list to summarize the book and a well-edited slideshow to review some of the famous short people in politics, music and movies. The result is a pithy, perfect package of words and images. Apparently, the Internet agrees, as this is the most popular story of the moment on NPR’s site.

My only edit: The story should make it clear that Randy Newman was being ironic when he wrote and sang “Short People.”

Q&A with Morgan Siem, social media strategist

Morgan Siem is the social media strategist at Media Two, an interactive advertising agency that specializes in the strategic planning, buying and design of digital media. Siem is a 2009 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Siem talks about her job and how newspapers could better use social media.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. As the social media strategist at Media Two, I have a role that’s being redefined every day by a rapidly evolving industry. I work with clients (businesses and organizations) to help them effectively use social media tools.

Depending on the client, this could range anywhere from monitoring the online conversation about their brand, to providing customer service through Twitter, demonstrating thought leadership through a blog, generating buzz through contests, building a community through Facebook and so much more.

I do my best to stay on top of industry trends so that I know the latest (and greatest) goings on with Facebook, Twitter, Google, location-based apps, mobile devices, blogging tools, etc. I use that knowledge to brainstorm new ways for my clients to engage their audience members online.

Q. You were a student in the news-editorial sequence at UNC-Chapel Hill. How has that news background affected your work for a firm that focuses on advertising and marketing?

A. My news-ed background from UNC-Chapel Hill has helped me tremendously in my work at Media Two.

First and foremost, social media is about interactions and relationships, and without the ability to communicate properly, it can be very difficult to gain the trust and respect that many brands seek when interacting with their customers online. Just because many social media interactions sound casual does not mean that they can be unprofessional or grammatically incorrect.

Furthermore, the news-ed track taught me to be concise. This has helped me with Twitter (which only allows you 140 characters to get to your point) and with blogging (which tends to have a readership with a short attention span).

Beyond social media, I have used my news-ed background to edit all of the material we produce at Media Two, from the copy for a new-business pitch to the copy for a website redesign. It’s even come in handy for writing ad copy for banner ads.

Q. You recently blogged about corporate identity versus personal identity on Twitter. How do you think that applies to newspapers?

A. The question of corporate identity versus personal identity extends beyond Twitter and relates directly to the newspaper industry.

Each reporter and editor brings a personal identity to the newspaper. The newspaper can decide to either embrace those personal identities, thus taking advantage of their followings, or regulate the online personal identities of reporters in an attempt to control and protect the brand.

You can tell I’m biased, but that’s because, according to my understanding, many readers follow a given paper because they feel an affinity for a specific reporter and/or columnist. Why not promote the personal brands of willing reporters and reap the benefits?

Q. A lot of students would like to have a job like yours. What advice do you have for someone seeking an internship or job in social media?

A. If you want a job in social media, then walk the walk. It’s the kind of thing that you can do on your own, whether you have a job or not, so you’d better be able to show that you live and breathe (and love) social media before applying for a full-time position doing it.

If you have an internship, take initiative. Don’t wait for someone to assign a project to you. Rather, initiate a project of your own and show your boss why and how it’s building the brand, generating revenue, etc. Be a self-starter.

If you don’t have a job or internship yet, get in front of the people with whom you’d like to work. Attend networking events. Attend meetups and tweetups. Shake hands, make eye contact and follow up with people.

With so many social media avenues to choose from, there is no excuse for letting an in-person connection end there. Ask questions! You’re not expected to know how to run the business, but you should demonstrate your interest to learn.

Finally, fine-tune your personal brand online. Use Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and a blog (just examples) to define your personal brand. What does your online presence say about you to a potential employer?

Use some channels to highlight your accomplishments and show thought leadership while building relationships. As for other channels (ahem, Facebook), think PRIVACY, privacy, privacy. There are some things that are not everyone’s business, so don’t let them be.

UPDATE: In February 2012, Siem moved to publishing company Lulu, where is social media manager.

Covering the Greek crisis

The financial crisis in Greece has led to the predictable references in the media to Grecian Formula and Greek dramas. But this clever cover and headline from The Economist caught my eye this week.

I wasn’t the only one who was attracted to this cover, a riff on the movie poster to the movie “Apocalypse Now.” This week, I observed a girl in line at Whole Foods who was attracted by this cover. The girl, who looked to be about 14, picked the magazine from the rack and stared at the cover for a good 15 seconds. She then flipped through the magazine for a minute or two before placing it back on the rack, unpurchased.

I didn’t buy the magazine either, but I read the story online.

Q&A with Karen Martwick, editor at Travel Portland

Karen Martwick is an editor at Travel Portland in Oregon. She’s also worked as a book editor and at Oregonlive.com. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Martwick talks about her job, working with freelancers and the role of non-newspaper editors in the American Copy Editors Society.

Q. Describe your job at Travel Portland. What is your typical day like?

Part of what I love about my job is that there isn’t really a typical day. My work varies depending on the time of year and the needs of the organization.

We produce two magazines a year: one for the leisure travel market and one for meeting and event planners. The production cycle for the visitors guide, our flagship publication, runs from August-March; the meeting planners guide has a shorter cycle, September-November. During production on these two pieces, my tasks include story development, writer assignment and direction, consulting on art and design, line and copy editing, and, finally, reviewing layouts and proofs.

In addition to the magazines, I do a lot of other editing and writing on a daily basis. This includes writing and editing e-mails (both long-form editorial newsletters and one-off invitations and announcements); other electronic copy (Twitter and Facebook posts, promotional home page touts, other Web pages); and print pieces (event programs, advertisements, displays, etc.).

I also develop additional publications (brochures, one-sheets) as dictated by departmental needs and budgets. These projects vary widely, from writing, editing and producing a brochure for the European leisure travel market to working with a freelance writer to create a brochure for the domestic lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) market.

My next print project is updating a public art brochure in partnership with the Portland area’s Regional Arts & Culture Council. I’m also in the midst of a full content overhaul of Travel Portland’s 200-page website.

Q. You often work with the writing of freelancers. What are some of the challenges of editing their work?

A. Working with freelancers poses a number of challenges. The first is obvious, but pervasive — a lot of professional writers just aren’t very good. I try to get references from editors who’ve seen the writers’ work before it went into print, but it still takes a certain amount of trial and error to find good freelancers.

The other challenges I face are getting freelancers to write in a voice that fits Travel Portland’s brand and identity, and making their writing relevant and accessible to the given audience. For instance, most of our writers are based in Portland, and I frequently must remind them that our readers don’t live here and won’t understand “insider” references to local landmarks or personalities. In terms of voice, most of our writers successfully produce copy that falls within our brand guidelines, but I sometimes need to offer guidance when copy sounds too promotional or stilted.

Q. You worked in news at OregonLive.com. What are some of the differences of editing there compared with your work now?

A. I became a producer at OregonLive.com right out of college and worked there for six years (1998-2004). My B.A. was in English, with a minor in professional writing. In other words, I wasn’t a journalist and didn’t exactly plan to work for a news organization. That said, I was really interested in the Internet and loved the idea of actually applying my degree and writing and editing on a daily basis.

Working at OregonLive.com, I honed my headline-writing skills through packaging stories and content for the home page and e-newsletters; did a lot of research, compiling online resources on Oregon nonprofits and elections; multitasked and worked on tight deadlines, producing three unique home pages per day; edited a wide variety of blogs; and even did some real, live reporting (high school dance and football championships). I also taught myself HTML and learned a lot about information architecture and user interface design.

In my current job, I still use a lot of those online editing skills, but I also get to work on longer-term print projects, which I really enjoy. Going from Web to print may seem like taking a step backward, but I’ve found my passion in working on magazines. I also love the variety of my work and love to help non-writers produce great copy. (A good bedside manner is indispensable.)

Q. You’re a member of the American Copy Editors Society. Where do you see the place of editors like yourself in an organization that got its start with a newspaper focus?

The 2009 ACES conference was my first experience with the organization, and I really didn’t know what to expect — I just knew that I craved interaction with other editors. I came away energized, filled with practical tips and new ideas, and feeling like I’d found my people. The editors I’ve met through ACES are all intelligent, inquisitive, engaged and hilarious — just like me, if I do say so myself!

While the day-to-day work of an editor on a magazine or at a nonprofit tourism organization (talk about niche), may be quite different from that of a newspaper copy editor, we all speak the same language. We are problem-solvers. We multitask like the dickens. We have opinions on the serial comma. We thrive on deadlines. And we are passionately committed to clear communication.

I am so thankful that ACES had the foresight to include non-newspaper editors in its fold. We all have a lot to learn from each other, and the productive and inspiring 2010 conference just underscored that fact for me.

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