The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: July, 2010

Back to the future of editing with News21

For the second consecutive summer, I had the opportunity to work with talented students at UNC-Chapel Hill on Powering A Nation, a website about energy and the environment. The site, which officially launched today, is part of the News21 project.

As one of several faculty coaches, I advised the project’s editing team on issues of work flow, story editing, word choice and headlines. It was a pleasure to work with this group in our newsroom.

It’s important to note that members of the editing team, led by Mike Ehrlich, also served as reporters. As reporters wrapped up their stories, they were sometimes drafted for other duties, including help with editing. Everyone did a bit of everything, including video and social media.

The idea behind News21 is to serve as an incubator for multimedia journalism, where students can chart a course for the future of news. My work with the students this summer reinforced my belief that editing will play a significant role in that future.

Guest post: Reconsidering the word “retard”

Earlier this week, a friend of mine used the word “retard” in its slang form in one of his status updates on Facebook. I recoiled when I read it, and my first thought was to unfriend him. Instead, I decided to call him out on it. Maybe rather harshly.

So why does that word make me recoil? Because I believe it validates and encourages our shameful responses to and treatment of people with intellectual disabilities.

As I commented to my friend, I believe people with intellectual disabilities are the most marginalized group of people in our society. Our society does not respectfully value people with intellectual disabilities. We may feel good about donating to campaigns for local agencies, but that is quite different than respectfully valuing people. We do a poor job of viewing people with intellectual disabilities as peers, as fully human. We may pity, we may feel inspired, but these are patronizing responses and far different from feeling respect and connection. People with intellectual disabilities are among the most disrespected, unvalued people in our society and as a group face much more discrimination than any other group.

We still lock people with intellectual disabilities up for the crime of having an intellectual disability. We know that we can provide the supports and services they need to live in their communities, typically at less cost than institutions, but we still lock them up. Think about that. We know how to provide supports in the community. We know how to build capacity to live more independently. But as a society we choose not to do this. We choose to spend more money to remove people from our communities.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in L.C. v. Olmstead that essentially said that states had to provide community-based services, as opposed to institutionalized services, for people with disabilities who were “ready” to live in their communities. Of course, all people are ready to live in communities, given the appropriate services and supports. Eleven years later, we still wait in most states for that decision to have an impact on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. We have appointed committees and task forces and councils, but we still have people locked up in institutions.

People with intellectual disabilities are at extreme risk for being sexually abused. Research suggests that nearly half of females with intellectual disabilities will be sexually abused 10 or more times during their lives. Ten or more times! Think about that statistic for a moment. Think about what allowing repeated sexual abuse says about how we view people with intellectual disabilities.

Abuse of people with intellectual disabilities is not viewed the same as abuse of other people. In the last couple of years in Texas, there have been multiple instances of staff at institutions for people with intellectual disabilities abusing and arranging, cheering on and in some cases betting on fights between women with intellectual disabilities. In many of these cases, women were seriously injured.

While it seems that this should lead to criminal charges, it does not always. The Department of Family and Protective Services was quiet on much of this. It took the press to shine a light on it and get the legislature involved. I would bet my house that Texas is not the only state where abuse is ignored by the agencies charged with protecting people.

We are slow to prosecute people who abuse people with intellectual disabilities, people who are often caretakers and service providers. There are fairly recent cases of “mercy” killings, sometimes parents killing children, which are not prosecuted. Is caring for a child with a significant disability difficult and stressful and something none of us can imagine if we have not been there? Yes. Does that excuse abuse or murder? No.

I hope none of you can look in the mirror and say, “I can condone murdering children because they have disabilities.” How can we possibly argue that we value people with intellectual disabilities if we are so hesitant to prosecute their abuse and murder?

These are the most horrific issues. There are other issues. The acceptance of subpar education. The common belief that educational dollars are wasted on people with intellectual disabilities. The underfunded and recently decimated funding for services for people with intellectual disabilities. The underemployment. The inadequate health care. The social isolation. The poverty.

And I believe that when someone uses the words “retard” or “retarded,” he or she, whether intentionally or not, condones this marginalization. The words used as slang make light of the daily atrocities committed against people with intellectual disabilities, as well as the day to day struggles people might face in making their ways in their communities.

These are not just words. They are hurtful. They are insensitive. And they have power to perpetuate our shameful treatment of people with intellectual disabilities.

Can you commit to not using them again?

Debbie Shelden is a faculty member in the College of Education at Illinois State University. This guest post originally appeared as a note on Facebook.

Q&A with Julie Wildhaber, Yahoo! editor

Julie Wildhaber is one of the creators of The Yahoo! Style Guide. She trains writers and editors for Yahoo! and manages the Central Editorial copy desk. She has been editing online since 1996. In this interview, conducted by email, Wildhaber talks about the style guide and the differences between editing for print and online. Note: This post attempts to conform to Yahoo! style.

Q. Why is Yahoo! releasing a stylebook?

A. Because the Web needed a style guide. (That, or we wanted to bang our heads on our desks for two years while we developed the book.)

Excellent reference works abound, and we on the “Yahoo! Style Guide” team have used everything from AP to “Wired Style” to blogs. Generally, though, we found that guidance about Web issues like user interfaces and search-engine optimization targets an audience of Web developers, marketers, or designers rather than writers, while style guides and writing books often ignore online concerns.

We had a 200-page internal style guide, which also didn’t include everything we had learned in the past 15 years about writing for the Web, so we thought, why not create a guide that everyone can use?

Q. How is the Yahoo! guide different from the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style?

A. We’re all about the Web, and our book is both style guide and writing manual. Chicago and AP are terrific, and we still consult them, but they’re built for print publishing. They don’t tell you how to write a Web-friendly headline, why you might want to use a double hyphen (–) rather than an em dash, how to bold or italicize text in HTML, or why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act changes copyright liability for certain sites.

When you write for the Web, you have to think about the complete experience: how people find your page, how they read and navigate the site, how text will look in a Web browser or on a cell phone or in email, and so on. You wouldn’t think that reading is all that different online, but it is: Electronic displays are harder on the eyes than paper, so people read more slowly on screens and skim the page before they commit to clicking a link or delving more deeply into the copy. Also, some of your site visitors may be blind and scanning a page through a screen reader, and some may speak English as a second language and have trouble with slang or jargon.

Speaking of word choice, those punning and clever headlines that we copy editors love to write for newspapers just don’t fly online. Think about how you use search engines: You probably don’t dig through 10 pages’ worth of results; more likely you click the first link that looks relevant, spend a few seconds scanning the page, and go back to search if you don’t see what you’re looking for.

Your time is precious, and the Web offers so many options that you can be fickle. So, headlines need to grab readers immediately by including keywords, by being clear and literal, and by explaining the story. They should also make sense if they stand alone, because a headline may appear in search results, mobile browsers, news feeds, blocks of related links, and other places where readers won’t see the rest of the story.

Q. How did the Yahoo! editors decide on the preferred spellings in the guide’s word list? For example, you like email, not e-mail.

A. Yes, and people have been sending questions about why we treat “email” and other words the way we do. The copy editor’s first line of defense is the house style sheet and preferred dictionary. But of course no dictionary or guide can keep up with all the new words, not to mention all the proper names, and references disagree about treatment. “Email” is a good example, so let’s look at some of the things you might consider in making a style decision:

  • Dictionaries. Look up both “email” and “e-mail” on a site like OneLook that searches multiple dictionaries at once. Most dictionaries hyphenate.
  • Other style guides and publications. AP hyphenates, which means that most news outlets use “e-mail,” and so does the “Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications” (2004). I believe “Wired Style” was the first style guide to close up “email,” and many technology publications and companies have followed, including Apple, InfoWorld, All Things Digital, and, more curiously, The Wall Street Journal.
  • Trademarks and company treatment. If the word is a proprietary name, check how the owner spells it. Companies are often inconsistent, however, so look for a copyright line at the bottom of the page, information about trademarks, an “about us” section, or a press release. Email isn’t a proper name, so we can move on.
  • Industry standards. Are you writing for or about a specialized field? If so, is there an organization that sets standards or terminology? For example, if you’re writing for psychologists, you would consult the APA (American Psychological Association) manual; and if you were debating whether to hyphenate “Wi-Fi,” you might consider how the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which sets networking standards, treats the word. “Email,” however, is not a specialized term.
  • Search-engine optimization. Plug your terms into a search engine to see (1) which is more popular–look for the total number of results under the search box (Google, Bing) or in the left column (Yahoo!)–and (2) which sites are more relevant to your site or topic. The results for “email” and “e-mail” are pretty similar in quantity and type, though I notice that in the top 10 results, the sites that hyphenate are Wikipedia, Hotmail, and news stories. The top two sites, sans hyphen, are Gmail and Yahoo! Mail.
  • Language trends. Is the word evolving, or are there trends in the way people are using or treating it? In the case of “email,” we see that search results are evenly split between hyphenated and closed, but a few years ago, you would have seen more results for “e-mail.” Also, common compound words in English tend to evolve from open (“electronic mail,” “on line”) to hyphenates (“e-mail,” “on-line”) to closed (“email,” “online”). Recently, AP decided to close up “website,” for instance.
  • Audience and voice. Are you writing for a specific or general audience? Will your readers think the term is difficult and unnecessary jargon, or will they think you’re out of touch if you don’t use the term or if you go against the way specialists treat it? As the search results showed, people use both “email” and “e-mail.” The trend among many Web and technology publications is to lose the hyphen, and we think dictionaries and other style guides will eventually adopt “email,” too. Readers may find that treatment a little fashion-forward, but we’re Yahoo!, Web pioneers, and “email” is appropriate to our voice.

So that’s why we decided, at least a decade ago, to close up “email.” On a personal note, I would say that “e-mail” looks old-fashioned to me, like “on-line.” Yes, we all know that the word derives from “electronic mail,” and the hyphen stands in for deleted letters, but who says “electronic mail” anymore? Is there any danger someone would misread “email”? I think not.

By the way, you can download the Yahoo! word list if you want to use it as a basis for your own. We have more guidelines about creating an in-house guide in Chapter 19 of the book.

Q. The Web has such a tremendous range of content, even in the area of news. What do you see as the future of style guides as the news media continue to fragment and specialize? In other words, can one style fit all?

A. In a word, no. I don’t know any copy editors who have just one book on their desk; we have a full shelf and triangulate multiple points of reference to zero in on the style that will work for our publication and our audience. And that, in my opinion, is how it should be: Language changes constantly, and the style decision that worked yesterday may not work next week. You have to keep doing your homework and updating your word list.

As for fragmentation and specialization, that’s why we focus on principles rather than platforms in our book. We don’t talk about how to tweet or how to write blurbs for YouTube; we talk about how to write good, concise, Web-friendly headlines that will work everywhere, and how to use captions and tags to make your content more findable and accessible, no matter which service you’re using. The platforms will change, but the principles are universally valid.

If you’ve flipped through the book or the website, you may have noticed that ours is not the most prescriptivist style guide. We have three rough categories of guidance: rules, best practices, and options.

Rules include things like subject-verb agreement, which most if not all grammarians would agree on. Best practices include using double hyphens instead of em dashes and straight quotes instead of curly quotes. Hyphens and straight quotes can be rendered by any software, whereas some browsers or text-based email may choke on special characters and display a weird symbol or a snippet of code instead. But we also show you how to code special characters in HTML, if you want to use them.

Finally, we have options for issues like capitalization, where title style and sentence style are equally fine for the Web–both are readable and searchable. We explain the rules for each and say to be consistent. We left flexibility in certain areas because we want to tell editors what generally works best online, but also let them decide what’s best for their site and their audience specifically.

Q. Some editors grumble about the exclamation mark in your name. Care to comment?

A. Sure! (Stet that exclamation point, Andy.) We editors are trained to be skeptical of exclamation marks and rightly so: They’re overused and tend to be a lazy writer’s crutch, propping up wispy sentences that should stand on strong verbs and intriguing adjectives. For Yahoo!, though, the mark’s not just a bit of punctuation; it’s part of our identity, our brand, and our voice.

Fun is one of our company values, and it’s one of the reasons readers like our sites and, I hope, will like the book, too–what other style guide helps you invent a stupid band name while teaching you a little HTML? (That’s Chapter 16.) Style-wise, we treat the exclamation point like a letter–other punctuation goes after it.

Naturally, companies and copy editors have different priorities. Companies have to promote their brands and protect their trademarks. Copy editors prioritize readability and consistency, among a hundred other worries.

My rule of thumb is to follow the company’s spelling for its name and its products, as you would for any other proper names, but to set your own house style for capitalization and punctuation. For instance, our style lowercases the “i” in “iPhone,” except when it’s the first word in a sentence; then we cap the “I” for readability.

I remember when “WALL-E” came out, and editors were going nuts trying to figure out what to do with the title. Pixar was spelling it with an interpunct before the “E,” one of those special characters that won’t work everywhere.

The title was also in all caps, and you couldn’t tell whether it was an acronym unless you had seen the movie. “WALL-E” is an acronym, as it happens, but lots of other company and product names are capitalized or even all-lowercase for marketing reasons, and you should choose a treatment that’s right for your readers.

Full metal edit

I recently invested about $9 a month in Netflix Wii. By putting a DVD into the videogame system and connecting online, I can watch hundreds of Nexflix movies on demand. Many of the movies are older releases, but that’s OK.

One movie I watched again recently was “Full Metal Jacket.” I had remembered the Stanley Kubrick movie mostly for its first half, which depicts Marines going through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., during the Vietnam War.

What I had forgotten was that Joker, a Marine portrayed by Matthew Modine, is assigned to work for Stars and Stripes. Using profanity, the drill sergeant makes fun of this Marine, but he replies: “Sir, I wrote for my high school newspaper, sir!”

Particularly interesting is a scene a few minutes later. Now in Vietnam, Joker attends a news meeting with an editor named Lockhart who asks his reporters and photographers what they are working on.

Lockhart also reads some copy aloud and critiques his reporters’ writing. He offers the following style tips:

  • “Diplomats in Dungarees — Marine engineers lend a helping hand rebuilding Dong Phuc villages.” Chili, if we move Vietnamese, they are evacuees. If they come to us to be evacuated, they are refugees.
  • “N.V.A. Soldier Deserts After Reading Pamphlets — A young North Vietnamese Army regular, who realized his side could not win the war, deserted from his unit after reading Open Arms program pamphlets.” That’s good, Dave. But why say North Vietnamese Army regular? Is there an irregular? How about North Vietnamese Army soldier?
  • “Not While We’re Eating — N.V.A. learn Marines on a search and destroy mission don’t like to be interrupted while eating chow.” Search and destroy. Uh, we have a new directive from MAF on this. In the future, in place of “search and destroy,” substitute the phrase “sweep and clear.” Got it?

It’s an interesting and amusing glimpse into the generation of jargon. Terminology that masks meaning is not limited to the military, of course. It’s abundant in politics as well.

The scene is also an interesting glimpse into the film making of Kubrick. His movies showed that he cared about the words as much as the visuals. Kubrick was also famous for his meticulous nature.

Yes, Stanley Kubrick would have been a good copy editor, although he had trouble on occasion making deadline. But he did OK as a film maker too.

Q&A with Kristen Douglas, freelance copy editor

Kristen Douglas is a freelance writer and editor in Durham, N.C., who recently embarked on a career change into journalism. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Douglas talks about this transition and the challenges of working in online media.

Q. You’ve worked in education and mental health. Why the change to editing and writing?

A. Working in the mental health field was kind of a natural evolution for me, having grown up around mentally ill people. My stepmother owns a 32-bed facility for mentally ill adults, and I grew up in that environment. Teaching has also always been a love of mine, and I taught special education on temporary certification for a few years, as well as teaching in a welfare to work program in the midwest. In the meantime, though, I’ve always loved writing, and have written articles here or there over the years for local newspapers and other publications.

Even working in the mental health and education fields, I spent a lot of time writing and editing. I developed curriculum for a welfare to work teaching program, edited marketing materials and found that as my work in mental health gravitated more away from direct care of clients and into administrative roles, I was constantly being asked to look over progress notes, teach staff members how to write them professionally, develop and lead workshops that concentrated on writing treatment plans and other medical record documents, and edit documentation that was turned in.

I was one of many layoffs in the mental health agency I worked for in January 2010. I’d already been reading professional blogs on writing or copy editing online content, and I decided to use those skills I had always been using in the mental health and education fields to transfer to an entirely new career in writing online content rather than trying to find a lower-paying job in the floundering North Carolina mental health field.

I applied to several content-producing sites as a writer, and was hired to a few, but Demand Media seemed to fit my abilities well, and I like their work platform, so I predominantly write articles for their sites, which include Livestrong.com, eHow, trails.com, golflink, cracked.com and travel sections for several national newspapers.

After a few weeks of writing, I was invited by Demand Media to take two very stringent copy editor tests.  They don’t normally do this with new writers, but they liked the experience I’d already had editing in my former positions, and they liked my writing. I now spend about 70 percent of my time copy editing other articles for Demand and the rest of the time writing.

Q. You do much of your work with Demand Media. What is your typical workday like?

A. Being a night owl, I typically don’t get started with work until about 9 or 10 a.m., though I can flex my hours any way I’d like. Sometimes you’ll find me working at 1 a.m. if I’ve taken a break during the day to go hiking or grocery shopping.

I log into my “workdesk” at Demand and first check to see if I have any article re-writes that I need to repair. Normally my written articles are approved the first time through, but even a content editor can miss something in her own writing on occasion.

I then check to see if any articles I’ve copy edited and sent back for re-writes have returned, and I complete their edits. Once those things are out of the way, I begin choosing new articles to edit.  Demand’s writing work platform allows me to choose up to 10 article titles to write to at a time, from thousands of titles.  When copy/content editing, I see a list of 10 articles out of the thousands that need editing, choose one that looks interesting (and that I hope is well-written), and begin editing.

I check references first, before doing any editing, to make sure they’re listed properly and to skim through and make sure the content is not simply paraphrased or plagiarizing other content. Demand Media insists upon its articles containing original and innovative content, so making sure I’m a good “gatekeeper” and not allowing shoddy work or work that is just a re-hash of something else out there is my most important job as an editor.

If the references check out and the content is original and the article doesn’t need a re-write for structure, I’ll go back to line edit the article. I never line edit until I’ve checked to make sure the article isn’t going back to the writer; it takes time, and the writer might change the article enough I’ll have to line edit again.

Once editing for content, sending back for re-writes, and copy editing is done, I will either approve or reject an article. I’ve only had to reject a few outright, because I tend to become “the teacher” when sending an article back for a re-write, and I want to help the writer learn to write well for Demand Media content. I probably spend way too much time with this, because it cuts in on my bottom line pay (I’m paid per article by Demand).

Q. You don’t have a journalism degree or other formal training as an editor. What is it like to learn things as you go?

A. I’ve had to brush up on my AP style, for one. I was a bit nervous at first, because while I have many years of experience writing and editing, it has all been within the education and mental health fields.

Learning to write a “how to” article on laying self-adhesive linoleum or a “list” article on Frisbee golf courses in Washington state has been a learning experience, but it’s interesting. I’ve always gotten bored doing the same things over and over in traditional jobs, so the variety in writing and editing online content just seems to fit.

It’s the same on the copy/content editing end. I was nervous at first that I would not catch those things that needed fixing in articles that I was editing. I still worry once in a while that I’ll miss a glaring grammatical issue or allow something through that isn’t up to Demand Media quality, but I’m becoming more confident. My first performance review helped with my confidence. While I had let a few obvious errors through (like those infernal serial commas that AP style disallows), I was also told that I was doing a great job “gatekeeping” to make sure only quality content makes it through.

I still get nervous about learning to edit online content, because once it’s out there, it’s there for anyone to see. I want to make sure what I edit or write is high quality, because my name is attached to the writing — nobody can see who edited an article, but I still feel that I’m attached to the content I’ve edited in some way and don’t want it to be shoddy work.

I’m having fun, though. I was experiencing a lot of burnout in my mental health position, and I’m loving this career change. It’s hard work, and I have to pay my own taxes (and I don’t get paid vacations or sick days), but I’m much happier in my work.

Q. What advice do you have for people seeking work as a freelance editor and writer?

First, look at the experience you already have. Some people think that because they’ve worked in a particular field, they don’t have any experience writing or editing.  Check to see if you have more experience than you once thought, either through former careers or internships.

Study blogs that talk about freelance writing or editing. Avoid the blogs that are trying to sell you something and concentrate on those that seem to be just giving information. If you’re wanting to write in the online world, learn about search engine optimization and keyword phrasing.

Most of these media outlets aren’t just providing articles, they’re selling something, even if it’s just a click on an ad that appears around the article. Online content writing isn’t at all the same as writing editorials or other pieces for newspapers and magazines. You have to focus more on drawing people to your article using key phrases in your writing without making the article feel awkward.

I think I “lucked in” to the editing world. Most copy/content editors for Demand Media and other outlets have journalism degrees and have worked for years in newspaper or magazine editing. I’m one of the few who has been hired without that specific degree or newspaper editing experience, and it’s only because I had so much experience editing within my field.

Even that wouldn’t have gotten me the job, though. I got the offer to test to be a copy editor because I’m a good writer. I learned AP style, I learned to write in the “voice” that Demand Media and its outlets require by reading articles at Livestrong, eHow and the rest. I learned to check my ego at the door and write in the style that was asked of me.

That really is key. I have edited so many articles that might have been well written if the writer was submitting the work to a literary magazine or to a newspaper as an editorial, but that isn’t the “voice” that Demand Media is looking for.

Whatever company you write for, you need to learn the voice of that particular company and lose your ego about what type of writer you think you are, or find an outlet that better fits your style.  For example, I was hired by WiseGeek.com early on, but I found that I really didn’t like writing in the encyclopedic format they were looking for, so I very politely thanked them for allowing me to write with them and bowed out.

This isn’t easy – I’m still struggling to find my niche and make enough money to live well on while building my experience to a level that might get me editing or writing work elsewhere. My dream would be to work as an editor in a fiction publishing house, but jobs like that don’t come easily, so I’m content building experience for now.

Follow Kristen Douglas on Twitter and read some of her articles on eHow.com.

It’s almost time for breakfast

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national convention in Denver next month. The breakfast is free and open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or simply likes to hang around editing professors — and that should be pretty much everyone.

Deborah Gump, who teaches editing at Middle Tennessee State University, is the main organizer of the breakfast, and I’m serving as her co-host. An RSVP is required.

The event’s agenda is simple, yet fundamental to journalism that matters: the future of editing and editing education. Since the beginning of the breakfasts, we’ve invited journalists to help guide our discussion by sharing their views from the trenches. This year, we have:

  • Damon Cain, managing editor for presentation and design at The Denver Post. He oversees the news copy desk as part of his job at the Post, and he is active in the Society for News Design, which will hold its conference in Denver in September. Cain was previously director of news design at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He has also worked as an editor and reporter at community newspapers in Iowa. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa.
  • Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, and she has frequently led sessions at ACES conferences. She is news editor at the Daily Herald in Chicago, the third largest paper in Illinois. As leader of ACES, Schmedding hopes to build on the already healthy relationship between the newsroom and academia. Schmedding has an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and recently completed a master’s in media management at Mizzou.

A highlight of the breakfasts has been the Teaching Idea Exchange, which shares your best teaching ideas and strategies. Like last year, I’m handling the exchange. Share your best teaching idea or tip by sending 200 words or less about it to me at andy.bechtel@gmail.com. The deadline is Monday, July 26. We’ll call on you to talk about your idea and how and why it works, so be ready to discuss it briefly. We’ll compile the best ones into a handout too.

Oh, one more thing: Once again, we owe our coffee bagels and pastries this year to Rich Holden, executive director of the Dow Jones News Fund. The craft of editing owes much to him, and we do as well.

WANT TO GO?

The Breakfast of Editing Champions will take place on Friday, Aug. 6, at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. It begins at 8:15 a.m. Bagles and coffee will be provided. To attend, RSVP by e-mail to gumpdl@gmail.com by Monday, July 26. We hope to see you there!

Q&A with Tyler Dukes of N.C. State student media

Tyler Dukes is the production assistant for student media at N.C. State University in Raleigh. Prior to taking this job this summer, Dukes was a Web producer for cable news station News 14 Carolina. He also has experience in print media as editor of his college paper, Technician, and as a Dow Jones editing intern at The Wall Street Journal. He is also a freelance writer who specializes in science and technology. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Dukes talks about his return to his alma mater, his editing experience and the outlook for student media.

Q. Describe your new job. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m responsible for training, advising and assisting college journalists at N.C. State in the production of print and online media. That most often means the staff at the Technician, but it also includes reporters and editors at the Agromeck yearbook and the Nubian Message, the university’s cultural weekly.

I started over the summer, when the Technician switches from daily to weekly production, but I’m already getting a sense that there won’t be a typical day at Student Media. I essentially work for the students, and their needs change day to day. In the last two weeks, I’ve done everything from helping brainstorm coverage ideas and working one-on-one with reporters on stories to teaching AP style and good design principles.

Once class starts in the fall, my schedule will become a little more routine — but not by much. I’ll be here at night while students are working hands-on with the next day’s edition. I’m also committed to getting them out of the deadline environment for an hour or so each week to work on honing their skills, whether it’s with me or other local media professionals and Technician alumni.

It’s important to point out that my role is to support students and empower them to make their own decisions, because the content of these publications is determined solely by the student editors. My most important job is to make sure this staff learns from their successes as well as their failures.

Q. In 2007, you were a Dow Jones editing intern at The Wall Street Journal. How has your experience as a copy editor affected your workday as well as your overall career?

A. One of the great things about working for The Wall Street Journal as a copy editor is that it wasn’t a typical internship. The day you walk in, they treat you like you’re a part of the desk. You’re expected to work — and work hard — and those high expectations in that kind of environment really push you to perform.

Spending 10 weeks checking every fact and figure in the stories I edited made me a better writer, and not just from a grammatical standpoint. I’m more skeptical. More detail-oriented. I have a better understanding of how precious credibility is and how easy mistakes can undermine it.

The job also taught me the most important role of a good editor — to be an advocate for the audience. I’m always struck by how easy it is to forget that when you’re bogged down in daily production. I try to take that concept with me, and I really hope to drive that point home as I’m advising students.

Plus, I was in the newsroom the summer when News Corp. chased down and finally secured a deal to purchase the Journal. The issue announcing the decision was actually published on my last day. So I attribute much of my awareness about the changing media landscape to getting owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Q. The Technician newspaper had a difficult spring semester, with the suspension of the editor and talk of the paper shutting down. What is its outlook now?

A. I think the outlook is good. There was never any serious talk of the Technician shutting down, but I think what the students learned from last semester’s turmoil is how much support the paper really has from the N.C. State community, local media professionals and its alumni network.

We certainly have plenty of challenges coming into the fall. This is a young staff for the most part. They will benefit from more experience and training. We also have to work really hard at recruitment and retention to build our staff back up. But these are recurring problems here and at other student media operations, so the big difference this year is a just matter of scale.

The important thing is that we have student leaders in place. Now it’s time for me and other members of the professional staff to do everything we can to help them succeed.

Q. Student media are different from their media counterparts in audience and purpose, yet they face some of the same struggles for readership and advertising revenue. What do you see as the future of student media at N.C. State and on other campuses?

A. Student media has a unique advantage over other news organizations. Nowhere else will you find a more homogeneous audience — 30,000 well-educated 18-to-25-year-olds with substantial financial investments in N.C. State (tuition). The staff is part of that audience. They go to class with readers, drink in the same bars and face similar life challenges. By those virtues alone, no news organization is better equipped to create relevant, valuable content that will inform and entertain (and sell advertising on it).

Granted, student media faces other challenges like inexperience and rapid turnover, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun, right?

Our challenge is to ensure that student media, here and at other universities, is fulfilling its role as a learning lab for journalism. Innovation should start here, in a nimble organization with a constant resupply of fresh, tech-savvy talent, instead of trickling down from professional outlets.

If we can’t adapt to the way our audience is consuming our content and understand what content our audience wants and needs to consume, no one can.

To learn more about Tyler Dukes, read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

Advertisements as news are damaging our credibility

My friend and former colleague Charles Apple is blogging today about a disastrous decision by the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper sold a section front and inside pages to an amusement park, and it dressed up an advertisement for a renovated ride to look like news.

Advertisements masquerading as news are not new. Usually, full-page newspaper ads that have news-like headlines about duct mites, the gold market and golf balls are easy to detect. These ads often use typefaces that are different from the actual news stories and headlines. They’re often so ugly that they stand out as what they are: ads for questionable products and services.

This four-page spread in the LAT is harder to decipher as an ad. Yes, there is a red label saying “ADVERTISEMENT,” but that disclaimer is much smaller than the other display type. And the fake page uses the actual section header and folio.

Copy editors, of course, could easily spot this as a fradulent news. For one thing, the fake pages use upstyle headlines, capitalizing every word. The current LAT style for headlines is either downstyle or all-caps.

More telling to copy editors is the choice of words in the fake headline. Any copy editor knows that something can’t be “partially destroyed.” As the AP Stylebook advises, to destroy something is “to do away with something completely.”

Yet, these are subtle clues that could be overlooked by everyday readers. I imagine that many L.A. readers thought this was a real event being reported, edited and presented by a reputable newspaper. It doesn’t help that an actual fire hit this amusement park in 2008, a story that was covered extensively by the LAT in print and online.

This is a sad moment for the Los Angeles Times, a paper I’ve worked for and still respect. I understand the difficult decisions that newspapers must make to make money. Yet, if the LAT and other newspapers continue to do this sort of thing, they risk not only damaging their integrity, but destroying it.

UPDATE: The newspaper’s readers representative, Deirdre Edgar, says many readers complained. Said one: “Trying to make an ad, especially one that discusses devastation, look like real news is horrible.”

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