A lesson in the stormy weather

One of the nearly 2,500 houses damaged or destroyed by a tornado that hit neighborhoods of Raleigh, N.C., on April 16. (Photo courtesy of Abby Nardo)

Ten days ago, a wave of tornadoes hit North Carolina. At least 23 people died.

The Saturday afternoon storm swept through Raleigh, where I live. My son and I saw heavy rain and hail, but no tornado. We live on the west side of town, and our house never lost power.

The center of Raleigh and points north and east took a much harder hit. Numerous trees were toppled, and homes were destroyed. Shaw University closed for the rest of the semester. Utilities were out for days. People, including children, died.

Despite that ferocity of the storm, many people in the city seemed oblivious to the situation. That prompted a friend to post a note on Facebook:

There was a natural disaster here two days ago. It might not have affected you directly, but this is your city. For those of us who were directly affected or close enough to see a lot of the damage, we’re a little shellshocked. Please do us a favor and let us know that you are aware of what happened. We’re having a little trouble when it seems like many of you didn’t notice or don’t care just because it’s not your home, car, or street. We know you don’t mean to be callous, so if you could just give us a sign…

It was a similar story in Sanford, a town about 4o miles southwest of Raleigh. A tornado there on April 16 destroyed a Lowe’s home improvement store and numerous homes. The Sanford Herald used Twitter to cover the aftermath of the storm, lowered the paywall on its website and published a special print edition — all laudable efforts.

To allow for more room for coverage of the tornado, the paper didn’t run the TV grid in the Sunday newspaper. That decision, according to editor Billy Liggett, prompted a complaint from a reader who wanted to know where the TV listings were. When Liggett told her that they’d been deleted to get in more news about the storm, the reader replied: “Well, the tornado didn’t hit my house.”

So why the disconnect? Are people that short-sighted or uncaring? Or is it because of the nature of tornadoes?

As this interactive map in The News & Observer shows, a tornado’s path is narrow. A hurricane’s path, in contrast, is wide and affects more people more broadly.

So what can newspapers and other media do the next time a tornado hits? Think about intensely local a tornado is, and cover those places with that same intensity, but also with compassion. In addition, help readers and viewers on the edge of the twister understand its terrible impact.

That’s what the “community” in “community journalism” is all about.

See more photos by Abby Nardo in this album on Facebook.

Student guest post: Knowing what you’re editing

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Kate Sievers is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history. She edits for BoUNCe, a comedic magazine on campus, and she enjoys helping out friends who require a freelance editor. When she’s not scouring eBay for deals, she is adventuring around the Triangle.

As the semester ends and paper due dates approach, I find my schedule revolving around proofreading half a dozen papers. However, these papers are not for my classes. They are for my less than grammatically and stylistically inclined friends.

I am more than happy to read through the papers because I cannot resist helping out a friend in need, nor can I resist the thrill of the hunt for errors. The only hiccup that occurs when I am proofreading is that my friends have a wide array of majors — from business to biology to anthropology.

Copy editors find it useful to know a little about the subject they are editing. Advance knowledge can by helpful in extremely technical writing that includes industry-specific jargon. Sometimes, an error is only able to be caught because the reader has inside knowledge of the subject.

For example, when I was looking over my friend’s biology paper on genetics, she interchanged the words “meiosis” and “mitosis” (meiosis is the type of cell division that produces reproductive cells, and mitosis is the type of cell division that makes a perfect copy of a cell). Those words mean very different things and would be a big error if used incorrectly.

In this case, I had prior knowledge because of a course I had taken the previous semester. If I had not known what those words meant, I would have completely missed the error, and I would have had one sad friend when she got her paper back.

In some cases, knowing little about a subject actually improves editing. Without firsthand knowledge, you are not supplying your own information to fill in the gaps of information in a confusing paper.

My friend who is a business major wrote a paper on entrepreneurship. Her sentence structure made it difficult for me to discern her explanations of the different types of entrepreneurs. As it turned out, she had written the paper in a rush, and even she did not know what her sentences meant. So with a little tweaking, her paper was much more coherent.

Copy editing can rely on the luck of the draw when it comes to subject matter. One day you can be reading through an article on bowling and the next it could be about political unrest. If you know something about the subject, that knowledge can be quite helpful in catching errors. But do not despair if you are not familiar with something, because you can easily see if an article makes sense in its organization and structure.

And if all else fails, ask someone who knows about the subject for help.

Q&A with Betsy O’Donovan, editorial page editor at the Herald-Sun

Betsy O’Donovan is the editorial page editor at The Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham, N.C. Except for a five-year diversion to work at ESPN Outdoors, she has built her career at community newspapers in in North Carolina, Alabama and Idaho, and she has worked as a reporter, copy editor, copy desk chief and city editor. In this interview, conducted by email, O’Donovan talks about her job at the Herald-Sun, social media and the future of editorial pages. 

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

A. I get paid to wander around and ask questions and tell people what I think about the answers. If that doesn’t sound like the best job in the world to you, you are a crazy person — but it also makes you one of the few people I can trust not to push me down a set of stairs and climb over me on your way to the editorial desk. (Another reason why this job is great: At some point, I could work a “Showgirls” reference into an editorial. I’m saving it for election season.)

I don’t have a “typical” day, which is one of the things I love about daily journalism. But there are some predictable rhythms:

Mondays are tough because I cover for our night metro editor, which means I come in at 2 p.m. and have about three hours in which to finish Tuesday’s editorial, call letter-writers to confirm letters, edit the next day’s columns and lay out our pages.

Basically, my goal on Tuesday and Wednesday is to cram as many new, timely (or, as the kids on Twitter say, “trending”) ideas into my head as possible. So I read other writers from a wide field (and not necessarily news-oriented sources), catch up on memos from public policy shops, pester our reporters with questions, call people to invite them to speak to our editorial board, and solicit and read submissions for guest columns.

I spend the rest of the week tapping into those ideas; by Friday, I don’t have time to add more input, I just have to focus on pure output through the weekend — writing and designing.

By early afternoon Tuesday, I’ve mapped out the next week of editorials and am on the phone and researching for the next day. This is a great job for information hounds. (On the editorial desk, and as the writer of the paper’s official views, my fear of factual errors has expanded to include a dread of seeming stupid or ignorant. It’s inevitable that I will argue the wrong side of an argument at some point, but I don’t want it to be for lack of effort.)

Once the thing is written, I fire it around to my editorial board and get their consent or feedback. Then it’s a flurry of page design and proofreading before the pages go to the press room at 6 or 7 p.m.

After that, I make another cup of tea and do the chores: Pulling “Doonesbury” and editorial cartoons, proofreading letters and calling letter-writers, calling or emailing to get interviews set up for the rest of the week’s editorials, pulling reports I’m going to need to read — basically trying to get ahead before the week attacks in force. Usually with limited success.

Q. How is writing and editing editorials different from news?

A. News writing is education. Editorial writing directs education toward action.

But I think the mechanics are fundamentally the same. A good editorial should be based on rigorous reporting. Editorialists should cultivate sources, sift information, do all the things reporters do — it’s not a job for the lazy.

I don’t like smack-you-around editorials. As a reader, I want to consider the facts and hear a course of action, so that’s what I try to write. It’s easy and sometimes fun to splash ink at idiots and their notions. The challenge is to resist that urge and do something productive with the page.

And it should be fun! (As should good newswriting, but sometimes deadlines and the inverted pyramid — what do I need to know now — gets in the way of practicing journalism-as-fun, both for the reader and the writer.)

This week, I was writing about the state’s regulation of payday lenders, the guys who can charge up to 54 percent of the amount of a loan for interest and fees. That’s a terrible deal that almost inevitably shoves people into a debt spiral, but the lenders want the General Assembly to lift that cap.

But that’s a little bit of a yawner to explain in depth. So I reached out and grabbed “The Merchant of Venice” – do you know it? The lender Shylock agrees to lend Antonio 3,000 ducats, but Antonio must pay it back within three months. If Antonio is late on the repayment, Shylock is allowed to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio’s torso (“nearest his heart”), using only a very sharp knife.

In many news stories, you couldn’t get away with name-checking “The Merchant of Venice,” let alone explaining it in comparison to the state’s Consumer Finance Act. But I think editorials ought to use the feature writing tool kit. A lot of our subject matter is important, but dry. Using feature-writing techniques — unexpected comparisons, illustrative language, creative ledes — help our readers connect with complicated, serious subjects.

Q. You’re active on Twitter. How can editorial writers and editors use social media to its full potential?

A. For an information junkie, Twitter is kind of a mainline of dope. The two hashtags that I absolutely must follow are #ncga, for the General Assembly, and #DurhamNC. There’s no way I can write about, or even track, all of the things that are blowing up my feed. But I am a magpie, so I collect as much as I can from a couple of targeted areas and then hang onto them while I go about my other work.

But that’s the consumption end. And, OK, I will sigh and then let’s talk about the contribution end of things. I’m ambivalent about it for a couple of reasons.

First, I think social media is great for marketing. Second, I think it’s terrible for journalists and newspapers if they use it as just another dispensary for free content that doesn’t capture revenue. (I hate to sound ungenerous, but I also really like to be able to feed my dog.)

Right now, we’re in this weird, suspended state of trying to build a big audience, and the thinking across the industry seems to be that, once we have the audience, we will figure out how to turn them into dollars. So far, the biggest success story has been Arianna Huffington, who sold her audience to AOL. So now she has dollars and AOL has a big audience, and they’re going to have to figure out how to make that pay.

But, while we sort that out, let’s talk about marketing on Twitter. The critical thing is that you have to have something to offer. (This goes back to my view of editorial writing, too — don’t just comment, produce!) If you’re going to “build your brand” (ugh, loathsome phrase), do it on a foundation of good work. If engaging with social media interferes with that work, let’s remember that social media is just a distribution platform. It can be managed artfully, but it is not the art itself.

The people I most like and admire on Twitter (and elsewhere) are the ones who provide me with unique content, whose comments are clever and enhance my understanding, and who understand what I’m seeking when I go to them. (All of which, by the way, is the consequence of their effort to “build a brand,” consciously or not.)

Two of our sports reporters, Steve Wiseman and Briana Gorman, do fantastic crowdsourcing, marketing and story promotion on Twitter. Their followers offer information because they feel connected to the reporters; the reporters drop tidbits of news and insight that don’t necessarily fit into the paper. It’s a pretty perfect use of the medium.

Q. The Internet is overflowing with opinion and analysis. Given that, what do you see as the future of the editorial page in print?

A. Well, as long as there is a print product, I expect to see an editorial page – but I have my questions about what it will look like.

Resource scarcity will continue to mean that fewer people are managing more tasks. That’s going to have a few consequences that aren’t hard to spot.

As I mentioned, I wear my metro editor hat one night a week and dig into local news. That’s one illustration of how the industry’s financial struggles have affected editorial departments: Editorialists at the last two papers where I’ve worked have moved out of their ivory tower and into a bunker with the rest of the newsroom.

Maybe I flatter myself that my paper handles my once-a-week foray into news with some aplomb and minimal fallout, but I think we’re just dipping our toes into these ethical waters. I’m lucky to be at a paper that’s large enough to afford the (relative) luxury of an editorialist. I wonder sometimes whether the full-time editorialist will go the way of the full-time obituary writer.

When that happens, I am afraid that the quality of editorial writing at newspapers will no longer exceed a lot of the free, semi-pro or amateur opinion writing on the Web. (And, let’s face it, there are a lot of talented amateurs out there, writing for HuffPo and not getting paid. The difference is time, in many cases.)

If there are no longer full-time editorialists, I think one thing that’s critical, and can’t come too soon, is a conversation about whether and how we will disclose who participates in opinion writing and how we use ethical, rather than physical, lines to divide editorial work from news.

UPDATE: O’Donovan is now a social media strategist at AIR, and she was a 2013 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

Student guest post: Hold alphabet soup, return wit to Twitter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Chris Moore is a sophomore journalism major from Cary, N.C. He writes on the sports desk of The Daily Tar Heel and can be seen being “taught how to Dougie” in Chapel Hill.

Twitter is great.

Ever since I created my Twitter account, I’ve become mildly obsessed. It amazes me how quickly news can break and thoughts can spread — all in 140 characters or less. But it’s just that, the 140-character limit, that makes the website fascinating, yet terribly frustrating at the same time.

I have seen Tweets that are truly great examples of creative writing. They feature entire thoughts and a well-made argument, all packed into little more than 25 words.

It’s exciting to me, as a writer, to see how some people are able to carefully navigate the English language and produce a coherent thought that is short and sweet. It’s fun. And in a way it is rekindling a lost art.

Shakespeare once penned, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” What he was saying is that the best way to deliver a point is through few carefully chosen words in which each one packs a punch.

But it’s rare to see that writing today. That’s the best thing about Twitter — it provides the perfect avenue to bring it back.

Yet that doesn’t happen. Instead, people find ways to cheat their words and drop their grammar in order to say more. We get “alphabet soup” Tweets with endless abbreviations and words without any vowels, like this one by a UNC-Chapel Hill student. That’s how we end up adding the likes of “OMG” and “LOL” to our dictionary. A lot of times we don’t even get a verb in our Tweets.

To me, this is a cop-out. It ruins the potential Twitter has to restore wittiness back into our lives.

So I challenge every Tweeter out there. Don’t skirt around the 140-character limit. Embrace the challenge. #WriteBetter.

Student guest post: The pros and cons of paywalls

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Rebecca Seawell is a senior international studies major and journalism minor. Other than working as assistant editor at reesenews.org, she enjoys globetrotting and springtime in Chapel Hill.

Online paywalls have always been controversial among readers and journalists in the industry. The recent implementation of The New York Times’ online paywall has attracted both skepticism and criticism from the blogosphere. While some news organizations, such as the The Augusta Chronicle, experienced relative success or even increased traffic after implementing a paywall, others suffered consequences such as losing readership. So what will this mean for the Times?

Some bloggers argue that the secret behind the Chronicle’s success was the use of a metered paywall. Through a metered paywall, readers can access a limited number of articles in an established time period before having to subscribe.

The NYTImes.com paywall, which launched March 28, limits readers to 20 articles per month (although the online community has already discovered several ways to get around this).

Earlier this week, Mashable released an analysis of two weeks of the new paywall. The data showed that the number of unique visitors to the site dropped between 5 and 10 percent after the paywall began. Page views also reflected a drop in traffic, the lowest being on the last day of the month.

While there is not enough data to have a conclusive analysis of how the paywall will ultimately affect online readership of the Times, reactions have been mixed. Some readers have complained about having to pay; others have said that they don’t mind paying for the quality journalism the news organization has to offer.

Personally, I don’t completely agree with either side in the paywall debate. Though I value the quality of journalism that the Times offers, I’m among those readers that may end up at The Washington Post or other top-notch news organizations, where I can get my news without being a subscriber.

So are paywalls weeding out the most dedicated readers and discouraging the rest? While having a metered paywall creates an opportunity for people to become loyal readers (rather than blocking access completely for non-subscribers), it creates a divide between casual and consistent readers.

That being said, if all news organizations decided to follow the Times’ lead and implement online paywalls, I would almost certainly choose to subscribe to the Times rather than elsewhere. Who knows? Maybe one day paywalls will be the norm.

One example where I feel paywalls work well is in sports coverage. Websites like Rivals.com and Scout.com have extra, premium scouting information available only to people who are willing to pay for it. In this type of situation, these organizations have access to information that usually isn’t available elsewhere. This exclusivity, combined with a high density of sports fanatics, creates a prime opportunity for a paywall.

As for the Times, only time will tell whether their model is successful. As one of the leading news organizations, it has the ability to lead the industry by example. Its success, or failure, could lead to the metered paywall system being adapted by others. What will determine the outcome will be whether or not people find their content worth the money.

Beat surrender

I had forgotten about Tiger Beat magazine until I saw this Tweet from editor Patrick LaForge of The New York Times: “Creator of Tiger Beat is dead at 87. http://t.co/JSxgjS0 #obits”

The NYT obituary on Charles Laufer is a fascinating look at how a publisher discovered an audience — adolescent girls — and appealed to it. The obit also serves as a detailed history of the magazine, offering much more information than this threadbare Wikipedia entry.

Under Laufer’s leadership, Tiger Beat used pictures of heartthrobs on glossy paper to attract those readers. His competitors used dull newsprint.

The magazine frequently used exclamation marks to hype its content. And it didn’t shy away from question headlines: “Shaun: A Junk Food Junkie?” and “Marie: Fighting With Donny?”

As a teenager, I despised Tiger Beat magazine. We boys mocked it when we saw it in the magazine racks of the local 7-11 convenience store. We were the anti-audience.

As an adult, I appreciate what Laufer was able to do. I also appreciate the nostalgia that female readers of my generation feel about the magazine. As one of my friends wrote on Facebook after hearing of Laufer’s death: “I think some of my allowance from 1979 is paying for his funeral.”

Even though its founder has died, the magazine lives on in print and, yes, online.

Student guest post: A new definition for love in the OED

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Alice Miller is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and is finishing her studies in journalism and art history. She is soaking up all aspects of her final spring in Chapel Hill including, but not limited to, frozen yogurt, friends and sunny afternoons in the Quad.

At the end of March, the Oxford English Dictionary released the newest additions and revisions to its 600,000-word database. Yet, not all of the new changes fit the traditional definition of “word” itself.

Some chat and text originated terms, such as LOL, OMG and FYI have infiltrated the pages, but those stand-ins for longer catch phrases do not compare with the most controversial addition.

♥.

Still looking for the word of which I am speaking? You didn’t miss it. The heart icon you probably skimmed over has officially been added to the OED. Often created by a less-than sign and number 3 (<3), the heart icon is a sign of chat culture transforming the English language as we know it.

With not much faith in American English traditions, ♥ was incorporated into the OED. What worries me most about this new addition is that it could foreshadow a trend toward icons representing words. While LOL is a stand-in for “laugh out loud,” everyone knows it, or can look it up and find its clear definition. But with ♥, what does it really mean? Love? Heart? Less than 3?

In 1993, the French Academy, the organization in France assigned to protect the authenticity and integrity of the French language, banned the usage of the word “email.” Rather than incorporating the American term into the French language like a few other phrases have been, they banned it all together and came up with a French replacement of “courriel.”

This example is one of the many times the French Academy has fought to keep American lingo from becoming a part of French language.

While the majority of French citizens still use “email,” I applaud the academy’s attempt to preserve the French language. I think this pride of language could be a trend we look up to the French for an example.

It may be faster to insert on small phone keyboards and help stay in a 140-character limit on Twitter, but I think it is troubling to think that ♥ is considered a word. We have 26 letters in the alphabet, with some that deserve some more usage, so let’s stick to letters and leave the icons out of the dictionary.