The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: May, 2011

Newsrooms with a view

The news that McClatchy has sold The Miami Herald property didn’t come as a surprise. The site on Biscayne Bay had been on the market for a while. Now, a resort hotel will replace the Herald in a few years, and the newspaper’s operations will move, presumably to the suburbs.

I never worked at the Herald, but I walked by the building when the American Copy Editors Society held its annual conference in Miami in 2007. I noticed that the newsroom was in a scenic location, and I thought about how nice it would be to work there and look out on the water.

I’ve worked in four newsrooms during my professional career. None was in a location as scenic as the Herald’s. Here’s a look at each one:

Newspaper: News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Building style: Low-slung 1970s utilitarian.

View: Not much. Most of the main newsroom’s windows face away from any interesting architecture downtown and toward the employee parking lot.

Newspaper: The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Building style: Dreary 1950s modernist.

View: Minimal, although the reporters and editors on the business desk could see Nash Square, a small park that includes a statue of N&O publisher Josephus Daniels.

Newspaper: The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Building: Squat brick building with art-deco touches in the entry and lobby.

View: The third-floor newsroom offered a panoramic look at the Mississippi River. Even the Interstate 10 bridge looked lovely once the sun went down and the lights came on. Alas, the Advocate moved to suburbia in 2005, leasing space from disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Its building on the river was torn down.

Newspaper: Los Angeles Times

Building style: 1930s monumental (with its stunning Globe Lobby) melded with 1970s generic.

View: Varied. The best vistas were of the iconic City Hall as well as Walt Disney Concert Hall in the distance. Much of the main newsroom, however, overlooked office buildings, parking garages and vacant lots.

So I’ve never been as fortunate as the editors at the Herald. Now that I am teaching, I enjoy coming to work on the charming campus at UNC-Chapel Hill. My classroom, however, is a windowless space, and here’s what I see from my office at Carroll Hall, home of the journalism school:

It’s not much, but this summer, I’ll get to move down the hall and enjoy a classic collegiate view of historic buildings, brick walkways and shade trees.

Finally, an office with a view: I’m looking forward to it.

Style should be an open book

A recent article on the Poynter Institute’s website took on the question of style, as in AP, Chicago, etc. I was interviewed for the story, and my viewpoint is that style depends on audience.

What surprised me most in the article was the anecdote in the lead. Apparently, somewhere out there, a journalism professor is requiring students to transcribe the AP Stylebook by hand. The intent of the assignment is to get students to memorize every entry in the stylebook.

The approach in my editing class is the opposite. Every assignment is open book — as in open stylebook, both AP and the stylebook of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. The objective is to get students accustomed to using stylebooks, figuring out how they are organized and applying the entries to news stories.

My students and I also spend time discussing how a stylebook is different from a dictionary and how some editors use stylebooks other than AP. We also do an exercise in which we resolve unsettled style questions.

My intent with these discussions and exercises is to help students see that style is often subjective. It changes with the times and with the audience.

Memorizing a stylebook seems like a pointless task. That’s particularly true with the AP Stylebook, which issues a new edition every year.

Besides, a newsroom is always open book. Why shouldn’t a classroom be? A managing editor never takes stylebooks away from the staff and demands that writers and editors work from memory.

The latest version of the AP Stylebook, by the way, includes 16 pages on food names and definitions, including “sashimi” and “ghee.” Rather than transcribing that section, perhaps students could eat their way through it. Yum!

Newsroom nicknames of note

Newsrooms are known for their unusual characters and peculiar personalities, not unlike those on “The Office” in its glory years.

The most prominent of those journalists get colorful nicknames. Sometimes these monikers are used more often than the person’s actual name.

Here are my favorites from my years at two North Carolina newspapers, the News & Record in Greensboro and The News & Observer in Raleigh, as well as a few others contributed by people on Twitter:

  • Bricks
  • Scuz
  • Beast
  • Jelly
  • Flames
  • Toot
  • Juice
  • Copy Slut
  • Libel Girl
  • Gonzo
  • Midnight

Q&A with Kathy Blackwell of the Austin American-Statesman

Kathy Blackwell is executive features editor at the Austin American-Statesman. Her career includes work as a copy editor at newspapers in Greensboro, N.C., and Orlando, Fla. In this interview, conducted by email, Blackwell discusses her job, changes in features coverage and the emerging role of social media in journalism.

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

A. I can never say my title with a straight face  — it’s executive features editor, which essentially means that I’m a department head. I oversee the features staff of 17 reporters and four assigning editors, the daily Life section, the Austin360 entertainment tabloid, Statesman Homes and the books content that appears Sunday in Insight & Books — and the corresponding content that appears on our news and entertainment sites.

I also plan and edit Glossy magazine, a high-end niche publication that comes out nine times a year and is delivered to 50,000 subscribers. I report to the managing editor and executive editor.

I haven’t had a typical workday since 2006, quite honestly. I never know what to expect when I come in to the office — or, I should say, when I wake up and plug in to my email, Twitter and Facebook. It took me a while to realize that a highly structured approach to the day can be more of a detriment than an asset, but once I did, this flexible approach really made a difference in my ability to change gears and be able to react to whatever the day or night brings.

Having said that, though, structure is still important. The Life section is a pre-print, and the production desk has shrunk dramatically from when I first took this job in late 2004, so planning is essential, details crucial. It’s really a balancing act — the more you have a grip on things you can control, the better off you’ll be when things you can’t control arise.

I read the paper before I come to work (if I wait to read it at my desk, it will never happen), and I also check the home pages for our news site (statesman.com, where some of my lifestyle material appears) and our entertainment site (austin360.com, where the majority of my content appears). I also take a quick look at Twitter and Facebook feeds to get an idea of what people are talking about.

My days revolve around meetings and emails. I try to deal with them efficiently and get them out of the way so that I can get on to the editing and planning parts of my job.

Every morning I attend the 10 a.m. news meeting, where all the department heads discuss what did/didn’t work in that day’s paper, go over what’s online on the major area news sites and what’s doing well on ours, and then go over what each department is planning for the next day. We have another news meeting at 3:30 focusing on just the next day’s paper, going over updates and changes. I or one of my assigning editors does a daily “standup” meeting at the page designer’s desk around 10:45 to go over our Life sections for the next two days and see what we’re missing, what isn’t working, that kind of thing.

I meet with my assigning editors, the photo editor and the online and production heads on Mondays and Fridays to go over my story budget for the next three weeks. The department heads also meet every Tuesday to discuss the next few weeks and weekends, focusing especially on Sundays.

As for emails, I typically get between 300 and 400 a day during the week. They come from staffers, readers, PR people, bands looking for stories, freelancers looking for work, almost everything you can think of. If I don’t deal with them quickly, they can easily take over. This doesn’t include the reaching out that happens on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve tried to train people to communicate with me directly via email. I would say I spend a total of about two hours on email.

Ideally, the rest of the day would be spent doing a combination of looking at all of our copy for the next few days’ worth of sections and any big stories that are in, talking to reporters or editors about what they’re working on, going over the story budget to make sure we don’t have any holes and that photos and online components are being thought of, monitoring the dozens of blogs and other content we do for online (as well as what other news outlets are doing) to make sure we’re not missing print opportunities and trying to maintain a presence on Twitter. I also try to spend some time on the magazine, either editing or planning.

The rest of the time can be spent dealing with personnel issues, meeting with marketing to discuss event opportunities and meeting with members of the community. I try to accept invitations to events when I can, whether it’s lunch with an arts leader or a fundraiser for the film festival. Social media is more effective when you’re actually social.

Q. Your background is rooted in editing more than reporting. How does that affect the way you do your job?

A. I was a copy editor and page designer from 1991 to 1999, when I became a section editor and writer for the Orlando Sentinel. Then I came to Austin as a business copy editor and page designer but didn’t do that for long. The editors here knew my interest in features, so they moved me over to features as the wire editor, which I did for about a year until becoming copy chief, which didn’t really excite me.

I was eager to be more on the content editing and planning side of things, which was encouraged by the Statesman management. They came up with the idea to put me in a reporting role so that I would be better prepared to become an assigning editor. So I became the suburban schools reporter for the metro desk, and I loved it. I learned so much doing that and can’t imagine doing my current role without that experience.

When an assigning editing job opened up in Features, I filled that slot and then became features editor just a few months later when the editor was promoted to the new role of AME for online. Because I’ve held all those roles, I think I have a really clear understanding of what it takes to put out the paper and produce great stories and packages.

Q. Austin has a lot going on culturally. How does the American-Statesman decide what to focus on?

A. It can be overwhelming, that’s for certain. We try to focus on local stories, which isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds.

For example, Tony Bennett isn’t from Austin, but when he comes to perform here, then it’s local. So another way to look at is that we put the priority on copy that only we can really do, so we’re getting away from having the staff do what you can call commodity copy: reviews of movies without local connections or strong local interest, stories about television shows or musicians without local connections. For that, we ignore or use wire.

We rely on blogs and listings in our entertainment tab and on our daily Best Bets page in the Life section to at least mention the events and news that we feel our readers need to know about. Beyond that, we look for subjects that either make for good stories or are a way to shed light on our way of life here.

We also want to help advance the discussion of issues that are important, whether it be about the need for a film incubator or whether South by Southwest is too big for our town (it’s not, by the way). We want to be reflective of the community — it’s the capital, a college town, a music town, a tech town, a foodie town and a movies town, but we also have a lot of readers in the suburbs who could care less about what’s happening on 6th Street but do want to know about the rodeo or the family fair at the Wildflower Center.

Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that we now compete with dozens of niche online publications who are eager to tell Austinites about music, food trailers, arts exhibits, local film news, etc. For years, our biggest challenge was that we had a modest staff covering large swaths of A&E, which meant that a reporter would be both a critic and a reporter. If the criticism wasn’t favorable, it would sometimes cost us a source. This has become less of a problem as we’ve gotten away from criticism and into what we call authoritative reporting, which works really well in the blogosphere.

Q. We’ve seen tremendous changes in the media in the past few years. What does the transition to digital news mean for features coverage?

A. I’m really lucky to be at the Statesman. When I came here in 2000, I was surprised to see that we didn’t have a big digital staff like the one I had left behind in Orlando. Instead, it was a small operation that relied on the newsroom for content.

This ended up being really smart, because the newsroom has always felt a part of the website (unlike in Orlando, where it was basically a separate universe), and most of the staff can barely remember a time when online wasn’t part of their daily routine. So when we did develop production desks for the news and entertainment sites, the reporters and editors were already on board. They didn’t need to be sold on the value of getting their stories up quickly.

We’ve been winning national and state awards for our sites for years now. The majority of my staff is also very tech-savvy; in fact, personal tech reporter Omar Gallaga has been doing NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for three years. He and food writer Addie Broyles quickly jumped on to Twitter (which really got its start at SXSW here a few years ago), so by the time the majority of Twitter users got into their groove, Addie, Omar and other staffers had several thousand followers.

One of our online staffers ended up creating his role as our social media editor, which was essential to our success with using social media to drive traffic. Almost all of the features writers are actively engaged in our community now because of social media and public appearances, and that leads to better, more informed stories.

With our niche competition, we’re driven to stay on top of the important areas and be first to break news, whether it’s an announcement of a new restaurant or the lineup of a music festival. However, what sets us apart is our credibility and our trustworthiness. We’ve seen many others lose sight of that in their drive to be the first. After a while, savvy online readers pick up on who’s going to get it right versus who’s just trying to get traffic.

Follow Kathy Blackwell on Twitter.

William Tecumseh Sherman, media critic

While working on this tongue-in-cheek post earlier this week, I ran across a few quotes from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman about newspapers.

Apparently, the Civil War commander who famously (or infamously, depending on your viewpoint) marched across the South was not a fan of the press. Here are the quotes attributed to Sherman:

  • “I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are.”
  • “If I had my choice, I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from hell before breakfast.”
  • “I think I understand what military fame is — to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.”

Read more of Sherman’s colorful quotes on other topics here.

Patch’s march across the South

Patch, the nascent effort of AOL to cover local news, is apparently on the move across the South.

Having already set up in the Atlanta area and in the D.C. suburbs of Virginia, Patch is now hiring in the Carolinas. Here’s the “work from home” editor job in a nutshell:

Run a local news site — reporting, writing, taking pictures and video; finding, assigning and editing freelancers and local columnists, and connecting with the community to attract user-generated content.

In this push, Patch is targeting the three major metro areas of South Carolina: Charleston, Columbia and Greenville. In each place, the sites focus on suburban markets. For example, the Patch websites in Mauldin and Easley will be competing with The Greenville News.

In North Carolina, the lone Patch job is in Fayetteville. That’s the largest city on its list of jobs in the Carolinas, and the job listing recognizes the presence of Fort Bragg. Candidates must “be able to quickly grasp the interests, rhythms and identity of a military community.”

Patch’s move into this region comes at a time when newspapers here are struggling for revenue and cutting staff. The Fayetteville Observer, for example, is building a paywall on its website.

Last week, The News & Observer of Raleigh announced that it would cut 20 positions, including 11 in the newsroom. A week later, The Charlotte Observer laid off 26 people, including four in the newsroom. The Raleigh and Charlotte newspapers are owned by McClatchy, which also runs the newspapers in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, among others in South Carolina.

Those decisions come as both states deal with unemployment rates that are higher than the national average. In short, the Carolinas and their media are vulnerable.

Looking at the map at the Patch homepage reminded me of another map, that of William Tecumseh Sherman’s march across the South during the Civil War. Patch’s path doesn’t follow Sherman’s precisely, but it’s similar.

I only hope that Patch doesn’t do to the local media what the general said he’d do and did: “I would make this war as severe as possible and show no symptoms of tiring ’til the South begs for mercy.”

My favorite newspaper names in North Carolina

North Carolina has many colorful names: towns like Lizard Lick and Climax, and mountains like Wayah Bald and Clingmans Dome. And don’t forget Shit Britches Creek.

The state also has some unusual names for newspapers. Sure, we have the typical Newses, Observers and Records. But we also have some oddball names.

Here are my favorites, listed in no particular order and excluding student publications:

  • The Daily Reflector (Greenville)
  • The Carrboro Citizen
  • The Cherokee One Feather
  • The Denton Orator
  • The News-Argus (Goldsboro)
  • The Carolina Peacemaker (Greensboro)
  • High Point Enterprise
  • The News-Topic (Lenoir)
  • The Daily Southerner (Tarboro)
  • The Caswell Messenger (Yanceyville)
  • The Sylva Herald & Ruralite
  • The Robesonian (Lumberton)
  • The Highlander (Highlands)
  • The Yadkin Ripple (Yadkinville)

Of Obama and Osama

The dominant news story in the United States (and probably the world) for the past week has been the death of Osama bin Laden. The terrorist leader was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan early Monday.

Reporting on breaking news of this magnitude is difficult. The rush for information almost invariably leads to errors of different kinds. Here are some of those mistakes surrounding the Osama story:

  • Several U.S. senators claimed to have seen photos showing bin Laden after he was shot and killed. The photos were not authentic.
  • This quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” He never said that, but an American woman living in Japan did.
  • Numerous media organizations — including CNN, The Charlotte Observer and NPR — have mixed up Osama and Obama. I did it myself yesterday on Twitter, so I deleted that Tweet and admitted to my mistake there and on Facebook.

Each of these errors speaks to the need for editors, both formal and informal. Editors at news organizations should be careful to verify information, and readers should be vigilant and notify the media when they detect mistakes. Together, maybe we can get it right.

UPDATE: Errors in Osama infographics were frequent as well. An article on the Nieman site offers excellent advice in how to prevent that from happening again.

I am curious (Chicago)

As an American journalist, I have used the Associated Press Stylebook throughout my career. I’ve found it be a helpful resource on matters of grammar punctuation, word choice and other matters of usage.

I’ve used other stylebooks on occasion, too. When I was in graduate school writing a thesis on a media law topic, I used The Bluebook. More recently, I used the Los Angeles Times stylebook when I worked there during the summer of 2008.

I’ve suggested a “style smackdown” between AP editors and their counterparts from the Chicago Manual of Style at the 2012 ACES conference, which will take place in New Orleans. I’ve since revised that to a “style lovefest” in order to make such a session seem less adversarial. But the idea is the same: Get editors from several stylebooks together for a discussion about what they do and how they do it.

In the meantime, I am contemplating branching out in my style knowledge. Yes, I am style-curious.

I mentioned this weekend on Twitter that one of my goals for the summer is to try to learn Chicago style. Here are some of the reactions there:

  • OH, IS THAT ALL? Should only take a minute or two. (Recommend signing up for online access. Easy-peasy.)
  •  Give up now. The numbers section alone goes from 8.1-8.80.
  • At least it’s logical to ex-journos, unlike APA, where you don’t capitalize book or article titles.
  • It’s a little rough at first, but eventually you become bilingual. Then again, I was only fluent in Chicago 14.
  • CMS made easy: Yes to serial comma; no to spaces around em dashes.
  • Very cool!
My goal is not to become an expert in Chicago style or even fluent in it. I want to know enough to satisfy my curiosity — and so I can ask intelligent questions at a style lovefest, should one take place at the next ACES conference. Let’s hope that happens.
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