The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: March, 2011

Are the reports of blogging’s death greatly exaggerated?

The New York Times reported earlier this year that blogging is on the decline. The headline put it this way: “Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter.”

The story surprised me because I still regularly read my favorite blogs about editing and writing. In addition, this blog is getting more visits than ever.

Indeed, this month has been the busiest yet since I started The Editor’s Desk nearly five years ago. I have no idea, however, how other blogs are doing, so I can speak only for myself.

Here’s a chart that shows the hits that this blog has received for the past year. Each horizontal line represents 1,000 hits. As you can see, traffic has been robust this year, with nearly 4,000 hits this month. That’s the most ever:

That said, I have changed the way that I blog because of the rise of social media. I no longer post collections of interesting links each week. Twitter is better for that. And another blog that a friend and I collaborated on has withered because we can use Facebook to share our thoughts about music, movies and other topics.

Readers come to this blog in numerous ways, including social media. In that way, I see Twitter and Facebook as complementary to blogs, not antithetical.

However you got to this post and others, I thank you for visiting. I appreciate your interest and your comments. I promise to keep blogging as long as you keep reading, and I hope that my favorite bloggers will do the same.

Student guest post: College sportswriters shouldn’t abuse Twitter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Jonathan Jones is the sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He’s written for several news outlets including SI.com, the SportsBusiness Journal and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. You can also find him on Twitter.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, if you’re Retweeted by a basketball player, you’re almost famous.

Tar Heel basketball players have a certain pull that folks who aren’t from here may not understand. These players have always had a cult following, but now you can actually quantify it with the help of Twitter followers.

Sports journalists have always had to walk the line of being friends or fans of the team and doing their job. For student sports journalists, a lot of times that line is even tougher to walk. It’s for that reason that I draw the line at tweeting at those athletes.

There’s a stigma attached to student sports journalists nearly everywhere. And in almost every case it’s warranted. The writer says “we” or fist-pumps after every made basket or even wears a team T-shirt underneath the button-up.

These students aren’t just a few bad apples — they all fell from one of the many bad apple trees. It makes it tough for the student journalists who are writing the facts, who don’t use “we” and don’t fist-pump to get any respect among their fellow media workroom friends.

Twitter has shown the world an easier way to share content, and I believe every journalist should have an account. For a student journalist like me, having a UNC basketball player Retweet my story would mean at least 10,000 more people have been exposed to my writing. But at what cost?

No reputable news outlet Tweets at collegiate athletes. In the eyes of those reputable newspapers, if I were to Tweet at an athlete, it would signal a poor attempt at a fanboy who somehow got credentialed to get his work out to people.

I feel my writing is good and fair. I write at a reputable paper (never mind it’s a college paper; it recently won a general excellence award from the N.C. Press Association) that doesn’t need to pull stunts like Tweeting at athletes to get its great content to readers.

We student journalists deal with the stereotype every game, and it takes asking tough questions in news conferences, making deadline and writing fair and accurate stories to overcome the stigma.

Tweeting at athletes may get my stories read, but I lose the respect of the professionals in the process.

Q&A with Mark Follman of MediaBugs

Mark Follman is associate director of MediaBugs, a website aimed at correcting errors in the news media by acting as a moderator between readers and journalists. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Follman discusses the site, its objectives and issues of accuracy in online media.

Q. What is the objective of MediaBugs, and how will the site help “fix the news”?

A. Our primary objective with MediaBugs is to help improve the feedback loop between the public and newsrooms, both for alerting newsrooms to factual errors and for tracking corrections. With many news sites, the status quo on both counts is remarkably poor, as revealed in our recently published national study of corrections practices.

What constitutes a factual error in the news isn’t always clear-cut, of course — so an additional goal with MediaBugs is to create a useful public record of discussions around apparent errors. That way, even when there isn’t agreement or a clear resolution to an error report the public can still see how the discussion played out and decide what conclusion to draw.

Whether or not news organizations use the MediaBugs platform, we also want to encourage news sites everywhere to make good corrections practices a priority. That’s the idea behind the Report an Error Alliance — http://reportanerror.org/ — an offshoot project of MediaBugs with which we created an easy-to-use “report an error” button.

Ultimately, we hope that MediaBugs proves equally useful to newsrooms (often strapped for resources) and the public (often skeptical that news coverage is accurate) by serving as a quality forum focused on improving news accuracy.

Q. What types of errors do you see and get tips about? Are any themes emerging?

A. We’ve seen a pretty broad range. We focus on the substantive errors. At one point we queried our community of users, project advisers and others to see if we should even bother including typos and misspellings in the project; the consensus was that we should sidestep the small technical stuff — which can legitimately be fixed without notice, we think — and instead focus on errors that affect meaning and public understanding. That’s not to say that misspelling someone’s name never matters: There are such cases, as we detailed here: http://mediabugs.org/blog/2010/05/25/the-wall-street-journal-cavalier-about-corrections/.

Some of the most interesting mediabugs we’ve seen to date have been a matter of overreaching — news reporting that, under scrutiny, was not supported by facts. One case involved Wall Street Journal coverage of a potential shakeup at the Obama White House: http://mediabugs.org/blog/2010/11/10/wall-street-journal-obama/

Another involved controversial LA Weekly coverage of the terrible sexual assault in Cairo on CBS News reporter Lara Logan, for which LA Weekly eventually issued a correction notice.

Q. Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, and other critics say that cutbacks on copy editing are leading to more errors getting into print. What are your thoughts on the role of editing?

A. Well, hah, I guess that as a former news editor I’m a bit biased on this one — but actually, I can say that I value the role of the editor equally from a writer’s perspective. I know that the vast majority of my work as a writer has been stronger for having worked with a great editor.

In terms of news accuracy, the checks and balances provided by good editing are important for obvious reasons. (Although sometimes editors make errors in that process, and I appreciate when corrections specify that.) I don’t know if any studies have been published yet about the issue, but it seems pretty certain that all the editorial cutbacks in recent years probably have given rise to even more errors, both in print and online. The hyper-metabolism of online news probably doesn’t help.

Q. Thanks to online media, we have more information than ever before. But how can we trust what we read, see and hear?

A. I think there’s no doubt that the speed and proliferation of online information have created a crisis of confidence in this regard. Smart media consumers know to vet what they see and read — but increasingly that’s a more daunting, more exhausting chore. When big news institutions are being bamboozled by videos from James O’Keefe or citing unverified material from Facebook or Twitter, or are getting fooled by fake websites, it makes it even harder to know what’s authentic out there.

In fact, I think we are entering a boom market, of sorts, for transparency. More than ever people recognize the need for trusted sources and tools that help verify news and information online.

With the MediaBugs project we sometimes get accused of operating with a certain level of idealism, and I think we are indeed guilty of that in some ways! But while news accuracy and transparency may not be the most glamorous things to work on in journalism, I think they will become increasingly valuable in the public eye. It’s certainly a very interesting time to be working on these issues.

Follow Mark Follman and MediaBugs on Twitter.

Student guest post: The importance of online editing

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Laura Hoxworth is a senior studying reporting and French at UNC-Chapel Hill. She loves traveling, everything to do with language, and occasionally playing the ukulele. Follow her on Twitter or check out her blog at http://curelesscuriosity.wordpress.com.

Copy editing is a thankless job. When it’s done well, it’s invisible – and, as follows, it’s one of those jobs that readers only notice if it’s done badly. And according to new research, they will notice.

In a presentation given at the American Copy Editors Society conference in Phoenix, Wayne State University Assistant Professor Fred Vultee showed that readers have an idea of what a good news story looks like and will notice significant grammar errors or confusing organization.

The problem is, with the rise of blogging, citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle, online editing often gets shoved out of the way by a pressing emphasis on speed. But according to this research, while readers might rarely finish a good article and exclaim, “Wow, that was some fantastic editing,” they will notice bad (or nonexistent) editing. And that will come back to haunt you.

This seems to go against the newer trend of speed over accuracy. But I would argue that solid editing is even more important when it comes to the Internet. Here’s why: With such an abundance of information and a wide spectrum of credible and not-so-credible sources online, significant errors in online stories (particularly at a website without a well-known print edition) are more likely to affect readers’ perceptions of the website’s credibility in general.

Catching an error in print is less of a big deal because the reader knows, on some level, that establishing a print publication takes time, people, money and a certain amount of credibility. Websites can be thrown together by anyone. Catching an error online is more likely to make the reader doubt the website’s credibility, and turning to another news source takes just the click of a mouse.

This research is an interesting addition to the debate on the evolving state of journalism, but I think it’s good evidence that we can’t sacrifice copy editing for speed, especially online.

There’s also the bigger picture. We need to remember the purpose of those things we editors hold close to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, organization, etc. It’s all for the sake of clarity. As Vultee noted, no one is going to blacklist a publication (or a blog) for a misplaced modifier. But the goal of copy editing is to get the point across in the most clear and effective way.

So while it’s important that websites stand by copy editing to avoid damaging their credibility, producing clean copy should be about more than whether readers will notice it or not. Maybe they don’t notice us (as they shouldn’t, if we’re doing our job well). Regardless, producing the best copy possible is a way of showing respect to our readers and demonstrating that our first priority is making sure they understand what’s going on.

And let’s be real: If we don’t have copy editors to look out for grammar and organization, who will?

Wish you were here

This blog will be quiet this week as I head to Phoenix for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. The program, as usual, is packed with interesting sessions.

I hope to see you there. If you can’t attend this year, follow the conference on the ACES 2011 blog and on Twitter. And I hope to see you in 2012, when we meet in New Orleans.

What’s OSU to you: Beavers, Buckeyes or Cowboys?

OSU mascots

I recently spent a day in Ohio at The Columbus Dispatch at the invitation of editors at the newspaper there. My visit was part of a week of training for the newsroom staff.

One of the topics we discussed was writing headlines for the newspaper’s website. The Dispatch has recently made it easier for copy editors to write separate headlines for the print and online editions.

To prepare for my visit, I looked at several issues of the newspapers and its website. I noticed that the Dispatch routinely uses “OSU” as a short form for Ohio State University in print and online.

I hadn’t thought to abbreviate the school in that way, though I can see how it would be helpful to do so in a one-column headline or similarly tight space in print. But what about Oklahoma State University or Oregon State University? Wouldn’t they be OSUs also?

It would make perfect sense to use those abbreviations in Stillwater or Corvallis, not just in Columbus. Readers in each place see that OSU as their OSU. As one person put it when I asked about this on Twitter:

OSU = Oregon State University … But then I live near Seattle and have friends in Oregon.

But what about online headlines, where audience is not defined by geography? Would sports fans outside of Ohio search for news about Ohio State football or basketball using “OSU”? Or would they try “Ohio State” or “Buckeyes”?

Google gives us mixed messages. On the Google homepage, typing in “OSU” offers us the Ohio State University website as the top item. (It probably helps that the university has “osu.edu” as its domain.)

But in Google News, the top “OSU” hit is a story about Oregon State baseball.  (The Beavers swept Hartford over the weekend.) Next are links to Ohio State basketball and Oklahoma State Cowboys basketball.

So what to do? I asked SEO/social media expert Erika Napoletano of Redhead Writing to point me in the right direction. She suggested that I use the keyword tool in Google AdWords. There, I found that “Ohio State” is searched on Google about twice as much as “OSU.” Perhaps that is our answer.

I’ve added further exploration of this part of Google to my to “to do” list for the summer. In the meantime, my overall advice on writing headlines for online media remains the same. Write for people first, then Google. Here’s a handout (PDF) that I use in class and other settings.

Of course, for some people, OSU may mean something completely different. As one Twitter friend wrote:

Ohio State University or some religious order I can’t think of right now. I remember seeing it after a nun’s name.

That would be the Order of Ursuline Sisters. Or, as that OSU’s sports teams might be called, the Fightin’ Nuns.

Student guest post: The evolution of chat-speak

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Julianne Hoell is a senior studying editing and graphic design at UNC-Chapel Hill. In her free time, she watches Carolina basketball and frequents her two Twitter accounts — @jcapel21 is her personal account, and @thatBiz features her Labrador friend Biscuit.

Americans are often insulted for knowing only one language. I, however, disagree.

I propose that American kids are not only fluent in English, but are also proficient in chat-speak. While they may be under-performing in every international ranking, an American child can put together an acronym faster than you can say “BRB.”

Each new form of communication has left its mark on chat-speak. AIM first brought “LOL,” perhaps the most famous chat-speak word, onto the scene. We have come a long way since then — because of the character limits on Twitter, users have perfected the art of shorthand communication. Such shorthand as @User, # and RT are more than abbreviations — they are summaries of entire statements.

People are now able to communicate their own ideas and share the ideas of others at lightning-fast speed. New acronyms surface every day, and old ones fall by the wayside. Ten years ago, I may have used “g2g” to indicate my departure. Now, I would only SMH at such immature chat-speak.

Just like a real language, chat-speak is evolving. Is this, however, a good thing, or are these acronyms polluting our language?

Some researchers contend that the latter is the case. Professor Silvio Laccetti of the Stevens Institute of Technology suggested: “The errors then continue to be circulated and repeated by others until finally everyone on the Internet has become illiterate, replacing proper English with Internet slang.”

OK, but frequently used slang was making its way into our vocabulary and even into our dictionaries long before the Internet brought about chat-speak. Lack of proofreading for grammar mistakes, misspellings and punctuation errors are not a result of chat-speak, but rather a result of failing American schools.

The idea that everyone on the Internet will become illiterate due to acronyms not only verges on absurdity, but I would even suggest that these acronyms have the opposite effect. Chat-speak helps people send and receive information faster, and in the world we live in, fast is what matters most. (In other words, “ASAP” — which was first used by the U.S. military in the 1950s.)

What we are witnessing is the natural evolution of language, not a corruption of it. Words that first appear as slang may prove their utility over time, eventually becoming an official part of our language. Not all chat-speak will make it, but just like “FAQ,” “AKA” and “FYI,” the most useful ones will survive.

Student guest post: Why can’t Microsoft Word be smarter?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Tim Freer is a senior graphic design and editing major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He spends his hours writing, enjoying the company of friends, debating philosophical issues and in the near future (he hopes) traveling the world.

Microsoft Word is easily the most widely used word processor in America. It was what I grew up typing with, and I’m sure most of the people of my generation can relate to that.

Word has long boasted many useful tools for paper-writing, checking spelling and grammar and offering templates for users, along with much more (including long-standing problems that still have yet to be fixed). Especially given the recent technological surge, I can’t help but feel that Word should be a much smarter program than it is.

Considering the vast array of technological wonders we’ve accomplished in the last few years — touch screens, 3-D movies, video chat, video games that map your body movements and transfer them to the screen — you’d think that we would be able to formulate a program that can  provide useful grammatical insight while simultaneously allowing users to format a visually appealing page.

However, that reality remains elusive. At the most basic level, Word is often frustrating, even for a common user like me.  The faulty grammar check is one of the biggest turn-offs: Nothing is more annoying than writing a grammatically accurate sentence, only to see it underlined in squiggly green because Word misinterpreted a comma or an apostrophe.

As a writer, I have conditioned myself to know the difference between sound-alikes like ‘tail’ and ‘tale.’ “The boy stepped on the cat’s tale” is an obviously flawed sentence that Word could never see because its abilities are so limited. This is a very basic example, but it applies to countless other words and grammatical situations; eliminating these misunderstandings could be highly useful for practically everyone.

Grammar is just the start of it. In terms of layout, Word is also ages behind a program like Adobe InDesign, which allows for much easier placement and organization of pictures and text boxes. This makes Word’s on-spot placement and irritating text wrap seem clunky and outdated.

As far as I know, you cannot change the spacing in Word without the format of the entire document reverting back to its original size and font. Even if Word can do that through changing the default settings or doing some other complicated maneuver, the point is that these annoyances are a non-factor in InDesign. Indentations and bulleting are still problematic and inconsistent in Word as well.

Why Microsoft Word has fallen this far behind the technological curve is somewhat puzzling, because it clearly seems to be within our capabilities to improve it. Is it that far-fetched for a program like Word to be able to map word rhythms and patterns, analyze similar-sounding words and multiple meanings, and sniff out those little ‘tale-tail’ mishaps?  What if, similar to Word’s built-in spell check, thesaurus and dictionary, it had a pre-programmed AP style guide (or any other guide, for that matter) that could detect flaws accordingly and suggest changes?

I understand that more complex functions like these could have difficulty analyzing sentences as they are being written, but how much more complex is that, really, than the basic automatic grammar and spell check? Regardless, if the function were not automatic and instead initiated by the user for the sake of revision, that argument becomes more difficult to make.

Before I get ahead of myself, I must clear up one reservation I have with all of this. There is truly something to be said for people being able to formulate sentences themselves without seeking wisdom from a screen. A pampered society is a stupid society (and in this case, a potentially illiterate one). I certainly want my kids to be able to use proper grammar, to write and to spell on their own.

At the same time, at least at a professional level, the utility of a program with a built-in style guide or group of style guides would be undeniable. Though it may be less exciting to create a problem-free, all-encompassing word processor than it is to create a dazzlingly realistic video game, the former could quicken the transfer of news and information around the world considerably. It’s astounding to think of how much more efficient writing and editing news stories could be if newspaper staffs didn’t have to leaf through their AP style guides looking for guidelines that may or may not exist at all.

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