The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: June, 2010

Editing another Edwards story

This week, The Daily Beast website unleashed an update on the saga of John Edwards, the disgraced North Carolina senator whose marriage and political fortunes evaporated amid an extramarital affair. Unfortunately, the reporting sheds little light and is, to quote George Costanza in “Seinfeld,” a story about nothing.

The Daily Beast is certainly not the first media outlet to publish a gossipy Edwards story based on anonymous sources, and it won’t be the last. Even The New York Times has fallen victim to that temptation.

Still, a discerning editor could have read a draft of this one and told the reporter, Diane Dimond, that she needed to go back out and do some more reporting. That’s what editors do, after all.

Even if the site decided to publish what she filed, some story editing is necessary. Here are some places to start regarding geography:

  • The story mentions that Edwards lives “around the Research Triangle of North Carolina.” To most of us who live here, it’s either the Triangle or Research Triangle Park. They aren’t the same thing.
  • The story says Edwards has moved out of his Chapel Hill mansion and lives in the “nearby Hillsborough neighborhood.” Hillsborough is a town, not a neighborhood, and one with a proud history.
  • The story says that Edwards’ scorned wife, Elizabeth, is considering a move to “the neighborhood known as Meadowmont, euphemistically called Wisteria Lane, where all the women are blond, perfect hostesses and drive late model Volvos.” I live here and have never heard the Meadowmont development referred to that way, and Google hasn’t either. As Stepford wives? Maybe. But not as “Desperate Housewives.”
  • The story asserts that John Edwards was drinking white wine and hitting on attractive women at either the Saratoga Grill or Sarasota Grill, but it can’t decide on the spelling. It’s probably the former.

There’s also the matter of the writing, which is frequently wretched in its excess. Here’s an example of that wordiness:

Among Hunter’s demands: That Young give up all profits from both his bestselling book, The Politician, and the movie adaptation — a deal represented by hotshot Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel and in partnership with acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin of No Country for Old Men fame.

“Hotshot” is sensationalist hyperbole, and “of [TV show/movie/book] fame” is a cliché. And that sentence is simply too long.

The National Enquirer famously used anonymous sources to expose Edwards’ affair and downfall. Is it possible that other, supposedly legitimate media are now willing to follow its lead of shady ethics and sensationalism to report on his travails? Let’s hope not.

Thanks to Fiona Morgan and others on Facebook for pointing out the story and its myriad problems.

The news from Ocracoke

I just returned from spending several days with my son on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We enjoyed a stay at Ocracoke, a self-described “village” at the southern end of the island of the same name.

Ocracoke has a year-round population of less than 1,000 people. You have to take a ferry to get there, which is part of the charm of the place.

I had last been to Ocracoke in 1994. Then, the primary news source was The Virginian-Pilot, published about 170 miles away in Norfolk, Va. No other daily newspaper was available, not even the ubiquitous USA Today. The house we stayed in did not have a television. Internet access was very limited, and cell phones were used to talk to people, not to text or check e-mail.

Returning to Ocracoke 16 years later, I was curious about how I would get news about the area and the mainland. What would the media landscape look like now? Here are some observations:

  • The Virginian-Pilot is still the only daily newspaper on the island. One copy was available each day in the breakfast room of our hotel, and we were encouraged to share it with our fellow guests.
  • A desktop computer in the breakfast room was very popular. A hotel guest used it to catch up on the news about tornadoes in her hometown in Minnesota. A teenager used it to check Facebook as he talked to a friend on his cell phone.
  • AT&T has no service on the island, so my iPhone was useless except when I was able to use the hotel’s free wifi.
  • Teenage girls sat on the beach, sending text messages to their friends. I guess they had Verizon.
  • At a small grocery store, a man bought a pack of cigarettes and a copy of The Coastland Times, a tri-weekly newspaper for the region. It has no website to speak of.
  • The Ocracoke Observer is a monthly newspaper that seems to be aimed at tourists more than locals. It also has a minimal presence online.
  • Cable TV is available throughout the village, in the hotel, rental houses and bars. The World Cup was on everywhere; cable news was nowhere to be seen.

Overall, news was more widely available on Ocracoke than it was in 1994. Still, the island’s relative isolation makes it more difficult to keep up with events than in so-called civilization. A visit there was a nice vacation from information overload.

Yet, as we returned to the Triangle, I switched the car radio from satellite to terrestrial to listen to WUNC-FM. As the theme music from “All Things Considered” came from the speakers, my son said: “It sounds like we are home.”

Indeed we were.

A slideshow with nothing to show

Roger Ebert, film critic and prolific Twitterer, recently criticized The Huffington Post’s use of slideshows this way: “Dear HuffPost: Slideshows are a cheap trick to force more hits. I refuse to play.”

The Huffington Post is certainly not the only site to use weak slideshows to generate clicks. But it does seem to do more than its share of meaningless ones.

Here’s my example of a bad slideshow from HuffPo. The news, as stated in the headline, is a list of “states with the fewest college degree holders.”

After a bit of introductory text, the reader is then invited to click through 13 slides with a Flickr image from each state and the percentage of people who live there who have a college degree, presumably of the four-year variety. (To save you time, I will tell you that Arkansas came in first, or last, depending on how you look at it.)

The choice of images in the slides is curious. For Mississippi, we get a view of a lovely wooded area. For Georgia, we are offered a street scene of Atlanta, including the historic Fox Theater.

The question, of course, is why these images? Why present this information this way? Is it the best way to convey this news, such as it is, to the reader?

The answer to the last question is no. This isn’t a visual story, so the slideshow format is ill-suited to the news. In other words, there’s nothing to see here.

So what would work better? A simple list would. Or, if you are feeling a little bit interactive, you could do what the Chronicle of Higher Education did and present this information as a map that allows the reader to roll over each state and see the percentage of the college-educated population of each one.

For better slideshows, try these sites:

Editors at these sites are matching images and words well to convey information to readers. Their slideshows tell a story.

For further reading on effective slideshows, check out this post by Mindy McAdams at her excellent blog, Teaching Online Journalism.

Colbert and commas

A friend posted this clip from “The Colbert Report” on Facebook the other day. In it, the titular host offers a fierce defense of the Oxford comma.

That’s the comma that sometimes shows up in lists of three or more items. It’s also known as the serial comma.

The topic of punctuation came up on the Comedy Central show because Colbert was interviewing the band Vampire Weekend. One of the band’s songs is called “Oxford Comma.”

As a copy editor with a journalistic education and background, I don’t use the Oxford comma. To me, the American flag is red, white and blue.

But if I were to take a job that used, say, the Chicago Manual of Style, I would use the serial comma. Then, the American flag would be red, white, and blue.

The comments on my friend’s Facebook posting included some people arguing that the Oxford comma is a matter of right or wrong. Others never knew there was a debate.

In my editing course, I tell my students that they may need to use the serial comma in their term papers in English classes, but not in their journalism assignments.

I’d say it’s a matter of style, similar to whether names of blogs should be italicized. Just pick a style and use it, along with common sense.

Colbert, by the way, cites “The Elements of Style” to make his case for this comma. I wonder if he’s aware of the criticism that book has taken in recent years.

Guest post: 10 tips on getting a job in journalism

Jessica Stringer recently graduated from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. While at UNC, she worked as an assistant city editor for The Daily Tar Heel and the editorial director for Rival magazine. She has also blogged at Her Campus. Despite her dedication to the Tar Heel basketball team, Stringer has returned home to the Washington, D.C., area to job hunt and begin her career in journalism.

A few Saturdays ago, I woke up early, took the Metro and attended the National Press Club’s 2nd Annual Journalism Boot Camp. The theme of the day was “surviving and thriving in a changing industry.” After sitting through panels and small classes, I walked away inspired and armed with plenty of insight. Here are the 10 most important things I learned at the conference:

1. Have an online presence.

The first group of panelists suggested that employers are using Google to find out more about potential employees and their social media skills. They are checking not only if you use Twitter, but also who you follow and what kinds of topics you are posting about. Recently, in an interview with someone at NPR, my friend was asked “Are you on Facebook and Twitter?” before she was even questioned about her reporting skills.

2. Buy and own your own domain.

Everyone at the conference emphasized just how important it was to have your own website. Call it “johnsmith.com” or “jsmith-journalist.com” but make sure it has your name in the address. Even if you don’t use the domain right away, register for your namesake before some reality star or a teenage hacker with a similar name does.

3. Use that domain to build a portfolio.

Once you’ve got a domain, you should start simple and use it to show off your work. Don’t try to put every single piece you’ve ever written or designed on the site — this is the place for your best work. Mark Young, the former website editor for Media General’s Washington Bureau, recommended WordPress and Weebly for building a portfolio.

4. Need to learn new software or a skill fast? Try Lynda.

I think I was the only person in the room who did not nod my head in agreement when one of the panelists mentioned Lynda. I had to slyly search for “Lynda” on my BlackBerry under the table and discovered it is a website with online tutorials for learning software. I was impressed that I could learn Flash, Dreamweaver and Final Cut Pro all without leaving my room.

5. Blog!

You should start a blog now even if you only use it in the short term. Panelists said blogs were a great way for employers to hear your distinct voice, so remember to include a link to your blogs on your website. Give yourself a project or narrow focus like summer movies, your eBay finds or your preparation for your first marathon, and it will be easier to stay motivated.

6. The platform is less important than the work you do.

Beth Frerking, assistant managing editor at Politico, said good writing stands out above all else. It is OK if you write on your own personal blog or for a community newspaper and not The New York Times. Despite the changes in the industry, the values of reporting have not changed, and both deep reporting and thoughtful analysis are important.

7. Practice your freelancing skills.

Andrea Stone, senior Washington correspondent at AOL, predicts that many people are going to have to turn to freelancing to sustain their careers. Stone says that AOL is also looking for writers who have access or have extensive Rolodexes of sources. Stay in touch with your sources if possible and learn how to pitch to different publications.

8. Watch the ones who are doing local journalism well.

What publications will be around in the next decade? The Bay Citizen, Honolulu Civil Beat, Oakland Local and Windy Citizen were just a few examples of local journalism that the panelists thought were doing great work. Andrea Stone at AOL also promoted Patch, an AOL-owned hyper-local platform, that is hiring local editors. I’m partial to The Carrboro Commons, a news site run by Jock Lauterer and his Community Journalism class at UNC-Chapel Hill (along with help from Andy Bechtel’s Advanced Editing course).

9. Mobile news is the future.

During the last decade, newspapers and magazines acquired separate online staffs that use search engine optimization for headlines and were no longer limited in story length. With the growing number of iPhones and BlackBerrys, the future is mobile news. Applications that allow users to receive personalized news are becoming more popular as an increasing number of people rely on their phones.

10. Be positive.

The conference ended on a positive note for the future of journalism. Ultimately, there will always be a need for good writing and well-edited stories. Do whatever it takes to get (and keep) your foot in the door. Network, eat lunch with colleagues and mentors (even if you are not actively job searching) and increase traffic on your blog.

If you have a trip to D.C. planned for this summer, take a look at the National Press Club’s calendar, because there’s probably a worthwhile event planned. I had a great time mixing with seasoned journalists and listening to their career advice.

Now I just have to decide whether it is worth it for an aspiring journalist like me to be become a member of the NPC. I’d appreciate any advice left below in the comments.

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