The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: March, 2012

Reactions to the new News & Observer

The News & Observer launched a redesign this week, making the biggest changes in its look and content since a renovation in 1993. The newspaper’s editor, John Drescher, explains the changes in this column.

Readers famously hate change, even though publications have always needed to update their form and content on occasion. Would anyone expect today’s newspapers to look like these?

As a former N&O editor, I have a special interest in what the Raleigh paper does. But here, I will offer my reaction as a reader. (Yes, I still get a daily newspaper delivered every day!)

WHAT I LIKE

  • Display elements are easier to read. The typeface for captions, for example, is a real improvement.
  • The switch to a five-column grid makes the standard column width wider, again aiding readability.
  • Briefs columns such as the one on 3A are easier on the eye, and the paper seems better organized overall.

WHAT I’M STILL THINKING OVER

  • I’m not sure what to make of the “what’s online” feature on 2A. A list of Twitter trends and collection of local hashtags are best seen on Twitter, not in print. But a few of the selected reader comments and Tweets have been amusing. My favorite: “Who did the redesign for @newsobserver? Don Draper?”
  • The reduction in the comics pages doesn’t bother me, but that is an area in which print is still best. And the N&O has been dodgy about which comics were cut, though this call for reaction lists them.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

  • The new nameplate is a throwback to the N&O before the 1993 redesign. It’s unclear what’s gained by going back to the past, and the new look is not as bold and distinctive as the old one.
  • The smaller page size is not any easier to handle; I could pick up the paper and flip the pages just fine before the change. It’s time for publishers of newspapers and magazines to stop telling readers that reduced page sizes are better for them. Smaller page sizes are a cost-cutting measure, not a matter of convenience.

For more on the N&O redesign, take a look at this post from Charles Apple’s blog.

Student guest post: The Man Repeller kicks it up a notch

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Stephanie Kelly is a senior journalism and political science major with a minor in French language.  She is from Charlotte and blogged for a fashion designer in New York City last summer.

Bloglovin’, an aggregator site that organizes the most recent posts from members’ favorite blogs in one place, awarded their coveted “Blogger of the Year” distinction to Leandra Medine of ManRepeller.com at a ceremony on Feb. 12.

Medine deserved it. She founded The Man Repeller blog on the belief that women should dress in a way that makes them happy, not simply to attract men.  And while Medine writes about clothes in a tones ranging from overwhelmingly reverent to hilariously sarcastic to shamelessly personal, her underlying message is celebrated for liberating women from dressing according the constraints of what men consider “sexy.” Her funny, edgy, pushing-the-limits-of-acceptable style has won over casual fashion fans and seasoned industry insiders alike, making her the coolest thing to hit the scene since the parachute pant.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Medine has built up an empire that sprung from her blog. She created and copyrighted the term “arm party” to describe what happens when one piles bracelets upon bracelets on one’s wrist.  She teamed up with Gryphon, a high-end fashion line, to create a jacket named for her.  She partnered with the jewelry designers behind the Dannijo brand to create her own capsule collection of accessories with a sense of humor.  Even Del Toro, a company that sells distinctive slipper-shoes, wanted her on its side. The result? In the words of The Man Repeller, “clicky-clicky.”

Having fashion-blogged myself, both independently (you don’t want the link, I promise) and professionally, I have to give the girl credit. It takes a lot to satisfy the fashion world, and the fashion world won’t hesitate to eat you alive if you stop giving them what they want.

In fact, on the eve of the Bloglovin’ Awards, Medine — The Man Repeller herself — did the unthinkable and got engaged.

As you might be able to imagine, chaos ensued. Some fans were happy for Medine, but many others felt cheated, claiming that Medine had built her reputation on repelling men, not attracting them, and certainly not marrying them. The backlash was so vicious that Medine was forced to remove what was allegedly a happy, somewhat mushy post announcing her engagement and replace it with a disclaimer in her defense. Medine wrote:

Yes, I’m consummating my relationship. But it’s not like you stopped celebrating Christmas when your parents told you they were Santa Claus or like I refused to continue taking science classes at my Jewish day school when evolution tried to disprove everything I’d previously learned, so the Man Repeller finding a man that says [expletive] like “I love that skirt over pant thing you do,” and “if you wear those shoes I won’t hang out with you, just kidding, I will, but please don’t wear them,” shouldn’t really change all that much. Despite a gimmicky title, this is in fact a fashion blog. New finger party addition or not, I will never stop subscribing to a school of self.

I have to be honest: When I first found out The Man Repeller was engaged, I wasn’t mad exactly, but I felt deceived.  I couldn’t place my finger on why; I knew it was unreasonable to expect Medine to divulge details of her personal life on her wildly famous and widely read blog.

But after reading the above post, I realized that the root of the problem (and the explanation for the outrage of some fans) was purely a product of her exceptional ability to write and relate to people.  Medine’s fans were mad because they felt they knew her so well — from her blog persona alone — that they should have been informed about the man in The Man Repeller’s life.

And this is why I completely support Bloglovin’s decision to declare Medine “Blogger of the Year.” She came out of the conflict with her reputation for unbelievable talent intact. But she also successfully defined the incredibly significant boundary between blog and blogger that had been left unexplored, not because it wasn’t important, but because no one had elevated blogging to the level that Medine has taken it.

Student guest post: How copy editing taught me to be a better writer

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Bailey Holman is a senior from Wilmington, N.C., who is majoring in journalism with a minor in creative writing.

I’m a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill (reporting track), but the truth is, news is not really what I’m into. I’m a creative-writing nerd.

Fiction, memoir, poetry — you name it, I want to read it and write it. I’m hoping to have a career as a novelist, or at least write novels on the side, but because creative writing isn’t a major at North Carolina, I settled into the journalism school. The journalism program is great, but I was frustrated. For four years I carried around the notion that creative writing and newswriting belong to two different worlds, and I was unable to shake the feeling that I’m wasting my time. It took an advanced copy-editing class to smack some sense into me.

Let me backtrack a little. I’ve loved every creative writing course that I’ve taken at this school, but I was struggling with one aspect of my writing: I was being too wordy.

Some writers sneer at the sentiment that wordiness is sin; of course we’re going to be wordy — words are our job. But some words, some sentences, are better left out. One of my creative writing professors, novelist Marianne Gingher, kept urging me to strike words and phrases from my stories that weren’t necessary, that didn’t add anything. It’s stronger without, she said.

I tried, but I couldn’t grasp it. My natural inclination was to explain everything in excruciating detail. Enter JOMC457 (Advanced Editing) and Rene J. Cappon.

In Andy Bechtel’s editing class, we are editing articles for wordiness and repetition almost daily, and outside of class, we’re reading Rene Cappon’s “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing.” Cappon says that bloated language is all around us; too many writers succumb to the “fatal lure of wordiness” and repetition – “the grossest form of wordiness.” His thought is that the skill of writing lies not in the initial gush of words, but in the sifting of them.

Cappon also implores that writers and editors show instead of tell. Why tell your reader outright that something is dramatic? Just give them the particulars and they’ll supply their own adjectives, he says.

With the words of Gingher ringing in my head – Don’t Spoonfeed Us! – I had my eureka moment. Or, more accurately, my eureka semester. I finally got it: concise is powerful. Cutting adjectives does not always mean a sacrifice of information or imagery.

While it’s true that copy editors often make deletions for reasons of space or to ensure that the average reader will understand, sometimes it is simply because wordiness and repetition can bog the reader down and cloud meaning. In this editing class, I’m becoming less reluctant to yield my proverbial red pen, slashing what’s not needed, and in my creative writing endeavors, I’m finding it easier to be concise. Alas, I’ve found the antacid to my writer’s bloating!

Now, I’m not saying that descriptive, poetic language doesn’t have its place in creative writing. It does. What I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be used all the time. A writer must find a balance. As the saying goes, less is sometimes more. Mark Twain put  it well: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean that utterly, but kill the most of them — then the rest will be valuable.”

Even as a self-professed language nerd, I sometimes find myself reading an author, and all I can think is: What are you trying to say? I want to go back and read over a sentence because I love it, not because I have to wade back through its excesses trying to find its meaning.

When Jim Roberts from The New York Times came to speak to our class earlier in the semester, he told us that it’s not only our writing that can be strengthened by an understanding of editing, but our speech as well. He’s noticed that a background in editing makes individuals more verbally concise and clear, a benefit he says is sometimes underappreciated.

So, out of fear of repeating myself, I’ll stop here, ending with an expression of gratitude for the field of copy editing, which helped me to see that I was being a moron. I haven’t been wasting my time. Writing and editing the news does not float in a realm separate from creative writing.

Instead, they can bleed together to strengthen my grasp of language. And teach me not to write sentences like: They mingle and overlap, blurring and bleeding together, swirling like dyes in an aqueous solution, until I’ve reached a higher level of consciousness and fully realized for the first time that one can really, truly help the other and vice versa. Did you get all that?

To hear the thoughts of a few other writers and copy editors on the necessity of concise writing and editing, check out:

Q&A with Daggum Roy

Daggum Roy is the fictional Twitter persona of Roy Williams, head coach of the men’s basketball team at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Daggum Roy discusses the way he and his team use social media and the way the media cover Tar Heels basketball.

Q. Why is Daggum Roy on Twitter? What do you hope to achieve there?

A. Roy is on Twitter by accidental stumblin’ into. And because of bein’ smitted by the folksy speakin’, the ‘daggums’ and the ‘daggerns’, I reckon, and the fact I don’t use any ‘at gotdamn language.

Achieve?  Hope to achieve comedy, I ‘spose, and a glimpse inta what Roy really wonts to say.

Q. Players such as point guard Kendall Marshall and the walk-on players known as Blue Steel are on Twitter as well. What is your policy on the team’s use of social media?

A. On the what? Cotdamnit, told them boys The Twitter is For Growed Adults! Not for a buncha smart-alerc kids wantin’ a-talk about the ‘wheels up’ and the ‘takern a gotdern nap today’ type crap.

Now, the Blue Steel walk-on types, that’s different. Thar on the thar so won’t misplace ‘em. And Wander and I can hunt ‘em if thar not back by the 9:00 Blue Steel lights-out or if I need a fresh Co-Cola, pronta.

Q. Last fall, you asked reporters from broadcast and print media this question: “You guys like it when all the Internet people beat you on a story?” What is your view of the media’s coverage of Tar Heels basketball as well as sports generally?

A. What is ma view of the know-er-all media’s coverage of ma ballsquad? Well, we’re about 3 weeks away from some uppita nat’l feller with hot breakern’ news of NC2A rule-breakin’ that was prob’la already reported to NC2A and’s a non-story, but sells them papers on Final Four Eve. The timing. Got dern.

Overall, media does pretta ‘far job a reportin’ the truth, save a few agendars here or there, and with the puttin’ up with these cranka Jimma Calhouns types. Sports reporters tend to get a little soapboxery sometimes, why I prefer a more realistic, Gary Parrish type.

Q. It’s possible that you may not be the real Roy Williams. Do you care to give us any hints as to who you really are?

A. Well, that wouldern’t been any fun, now, would it?

For more about Daggum Roy, check out his website.

Student guest post: Can editors and aggregators coexist?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Emily Evans is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in English and journalism (reporting). She was the copy desk co-editor at The Daily Tar Heel for three semesters, and she has interned both on the CNN Wire desk and at People magazine.

“Aggregation” is a big buzzword in the journalism industry these days. And whether praising it as good way to personalize news or criticizing it as a good way to replace humans with machines, everyone seems to have an opinion about it.

But what exactly does “aggregation” mean? Does it require editing — or replace it? And is it really the downfall of news as we know it?

The term “aggregation” can be difficult to pin down. It is frequently used to describe everything from human efforts to gather the best of what’s freely available online into one place to computer programs trawling the Internet for any headline that contains a few good keywords.

In the broadest sense, and for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll define aggregation as a newsgathering technique that compiles information — quotes, facts, pictures, even entire stories — from various sources, almost always online, and brings them together to create a new whole. This might be a website featuring headline links with related subject matter, like The Drudge Report, which gathers top political headlines. By linking to the original stories, sites like this provide clear attribution.

Aggregation can also refer to sites like The Huffington Post that purport to create and summarize original stories based on others floating around the web. This second type tends to be much more contentious: Humor website The Onion even once described the Huffington Post as possessing an “aggregation turbine.”

The Huffington Post has, ironically, made headlines of its own due to complaints it aggregates too much, and it has sparked much debate regarding the ethics and practice of aggregation. New York Times magazine writer Bill Keller unleashed an attack on The Huffington Post, claiming its content was nothing but “celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications.” This, of course, prompted a retaliation from Arianna Huffington herself, who cited the Columbia Journalism Review’s praise of the site’s work in defense of the journalists she employs.

Clearly, even at the top levels of the journalism industry, there’s disagreement about aggregation, but equally clear is the fact that it’s not going away. Even the Washington Post has gotten into the game with its Trove service that aims to personalize news for each reader. Its free Social Reader app lets users see which stories their Facebook friends have read. And a company called News.me just launched an aggregating app meant to corral users’ news interests and social networking into a streamlined, personalized feed.

Since aggregation is so nebulous and hard to define, it’s difficult to get everyone to agree on a common set of standards to govern its use and practice. That means that it’s difficult to find answers to many questions it raises, like how much borrowing from a story is too much.

Even media law has yet to catch up to aggregation: Is it OK to take an entire story if the original author is credited? What if the new story takes away the original author’s pageviews, thus depriving them of revenue for their work? What about aggregating done entirely by machine — is that even ethical?

I think that there is a place for aggregation in the journalism of today. But in order for it to be effective and accurate, it needs to be treated just like any other type of story.

Human aggregators need to be editors in the truest sense — curators of the words, pictures or even tweets they combine to craft a narrative, or the links they select for a news website. I think there are many great opportunities for multimedia aggregation stories — sites like Storify, which allows users of all types (from readers to media outlets) to search the web and social media for anything they’d like and create a story out of it, are great examples.

But care must be taken; it is just as easy to take a quote out of context from someone’s Twitter feed or Facebook timeline as it might be to misquote them, and the same goes for fact errors, both of which can be nearly impossible to correct when a story has traveled far and wide across the Internet — even perhaps re-aggregated. In an ideal world, aggregated stories and sites would involve a collaboration between seasoned reporters, editors and graphic designers, just as a front-page package would, to ensure accuracy and strength in storytelling.

As far as computer-based aggregators go, there is something to be said for the benefit of personalized news, and there’s certainly a market for it. So long as it is done in a way that credits (and drives traffic to) stories’ original authors, and so long as readers are clearly informed that a computer is doing the compiling, they’re OK in my mind.

But I don’t think they’re the future of news — or even the future of the majority of aggregation. Aggregation has some great possibilities to eliminate redundancies, expand creativity, encourage collaboration and offer a broader worldview.

Aggregation at its core is not so different than traditional reporting or from using wire services to compile a story. In order for traditional media outlets to “keep up with the times” and take advantage of technology, it makes a lot of sense as one more tool in the journalistic tool kit. It just requires a great editor.

Debunking a headline myth

The Buzzfeed site has posted a list of “25 Stupid Newspaper Headlines,” including this one that is supposedly from The News & Observer: “17 REMAIN DEAD IN MORGUE SHOOTING SPREE.”

I believe this is an altered image and that the headline in question never appeared in the Raleigh newspaper. Here’s why:

  • The story text is blurry, perhaps intentionally.
  • The story text has problems with indents and justifications that are inconsistent with the actual N&O.
  • The typeface for the headline is not one that’s been used by the N&O for all-caps headlines.
  • As the centerpiece lead, this story would almost certainly have a photograph or other imagery rather than a simple headline and text. This is a gray page that wouldn’t be published in real life.
  • A Newsbank search finds only three N&O headlines with the word “morgue” in them from 2000-2006, and none matches this one.
  • I worked at the N&O from 1992-1997 and 2001-2005. I don’t recall this front page or this headline, and I think that I would have.

The upshot? Don’t believe everything you see in such lists. Besides, with plenty of real headlines to choose from, there’s no need to use fake ones to get a chuckle.

So where did the fake N&O page come from? A Facebook friend points to the Brunching Shuttlecocks, a defunct comedy website, as the source of this image. If you happen to know more, please add a comment on this post.

UPDATE: This PDF of the front page of the N&O from Sept. 7, 2001, appears to be the one that was altered. Note the differences in the actual centerpiece.

FURTHER UPDATE

In December 2012, Lore Sjoberg contacted me via Twitter, saying that he had written this headline. Sjoberg, a humor writer for Wired magazine, then agreed to answer a few questions via email about the altered N&O page:

Q. Where was the mock headline originally published, and in what context?

A. The image was originally created by me and published on The Brunching Shuttlecocks, the humor site I edited and co-created, in 2001. It was  part of a series I called “Untitled,” which were just random image jokes: http://brunching.com/untitled-datearchive.html

Q. How did you pick the Raleigh paper to use for this joke?

A. I was living in Durham at the time, and the paper was around the house. Sorry, The News & Observer!

Q. Has it surprised you that the headline has been passed around as real and for as long as it has?

A. Yes and no. I’m not surprised it’s been passed around, but I am surprised it became as popular, so to speak, as it did. I didn’t realize  it until today when I clicked on a link to the Freakonomics site that I realized it had any currency. I do have to say I’m a little starstruck that George Takei posted it, even if he did so under a false understanding.

Thanks to the Park Library for assistance with this post. 

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