The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: November, 2012

The Mideast and the media

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the news again, and with it, criticism of the media’s coverage.

Letters to the editor in The News & Observer claimed bias against Palestinians and against Israel. Readers of The New York Times were irritated by photo placement and wording of a caption. And Jon Stewart mocked a “winners and losers” approach to the situation in Gaza.

All of this sounds familiar. As wire editor at the N&O from 2001 to 2005, I heard similar complaints from readers when the Mideast was in the news, especially on the front page. I met on separate occasions from media watchdog groups in the Raleigh area: one saying our coverage was biased toward Israel, the other saying we were biased toward the Palestinians.

The lazy response is to say if both sides are complaining, then your coverage must be right down the middle. That is a cop-out. The reality is no coverage of any issue is perfect. Listening to constructive criticism from readers can be helpful.

My response to critics of what we published and why went like this: Follow our coverage for a longer period than a day or a week. If you look at it on a broad spectrum, you’ll see that we are doing our best to provide a fair view of the region based on the resources (mostly wire services) that we have. That’s all we can do.

Top 10 names of rivalry games

It’s the time of year for college football rivalries. Some of these matchups have colorful and unusual nicknames.

Today, for example, Clemson and N.C. State will play in the Textile Bowl. Last week, Notre Dame defeated Boston College in the Holy War. Here are my other favorite names for rivalry games, listed countdown-style:

10. The Apple Cup (Washington vs. Washington State)

9. Backyard Brawl (West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh)

8. Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn)

7. The Border War (Kansas vs. Missouri)

6. Bayou Classic (Grambling vs. Southern)

5. Bedlam Series (Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State)

4. Battle for the Iron Skillet (Southern Methodist vs. Texas Christian)

3. Egg Bowl (Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State)

2.  The Big Game (Cal vs. Stanford)

1. World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (Florida vs. Georgia)

For more about these games and an extensive list, check out this Wikipedia entry.

Q&A with Ness Shortley, editor of the News of Orange County

Ness Clarke Shortley is the editor of the News of Orange County, a weekly newspaper in Hillsborough, N.C. She previously worked as a copy editor and reporter at The Free Press in Kinston, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Shortley discusses her job duties and the outlook for community journalism in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. Since News of Orange is a weekly, I don’t have a schedule that stays the same day to day. But each week remains more or less the same with Tuesday usually being the craziest day. My weeks go Wednesday to Tuesday since the paper comes out Wednesday.

We have a fairly tiny editorial staff — it’s mainly just me and a staff writer — so I wear multiple hats. I write, edit, take pictures, lay out and proof pages: If it’s done at a newspaper and it’s not advertising related, I do it.

Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are interview, transcription and writing days. I tend to slog through the insane number of emails I get mostly on those days, too.

Wednesday is great for planning the next week’s paper. The general manager and I meet with my reporter weekly for a budget meeting, and there we’ll talk about what we’ve got going for the week editorially, what advertising — and, therefore, our page count — looks like, and any upcoming special sections that require editorial input either with content or layout.

Over the weekend at home, I edit any photos (in CMYK, greyscale and for the web) or video I took that week and finish writing anything I didn’t get done on Friday. I usually rough edit whatever community submissions I got the week before over the weekend as well.

On Monday, I put together a TMC called the Northern Orange Xtra that gets delivered to residents of the northern part of the county. Our community calendar, one staff-written story and one staff-taken piece of art go into that.

Every other week, I attend the meetings of the Orange County Board of Education, since my beat includes the county school system. I usually put together the community calendar — we call it Word on the Street — and make final edits on community submissions, editorial page content and my reporter’s stories. I tend to write my column on Monday since that type of writing is so different from what I normally do. If I had a board meeting, I transcribe any quotes I didn’t get down accurately and create a rough outline for the story I’ll write the next day.

Tuesday’s production day; I get in early and tend to stay late. I’ll do final edits on any of my reporter’s stories that hadn’t already been edited. I lay out the front and any jumps and the church/social, sports, schools and town/county pages. Erin, my reporter, handles the opinion pages and crime reports.

After laying out pages, we proof them, make corrections, doublecheck to see we didn’t introduce new errors into copy while making corrections and then send them to the press up in Virginia. Before we leave, we set some up some of the Web content for the next day, and I upload the eEdition. We also put out a monthly tab in Durham, so on the third Wednesday of the month, we put that together.

Q. How does headline writing and copy editing work at your paper?

A. Erin and I write our own suggested headlines when we write our stories. Of course, once we get into laying out the pages, the suggested head may not work. It could be too long or too short for the space; it might break in an awkward place, or we might honestly just think of something better. We try not to get too cute with our headlines, and I just don’t like puns, so we try to avoid those, as well.

Copy editing is a multi-stage process here. Since Erin and I write everything and edit everything, we want to make sure we read it multiple times to give ourselves a better chance of catching errors. I tend to read content silently and then out loud for style, content and flow. Then, I read it backward sentence by sentence word by word to try to catch typos and grammatical errors.

After the pages have been put together, we proof hard copies of them. I also have our office manager and general manager look over them just to get extra eyeballs on the pages. Then, Erin and I make corrections.

We print out proofs again and go over our edits again to make sure we didn’t miss anything and to ensure we didn’t introduce new errors. We also doublecheck headlines, cutlines, dates, page names and numbers, and jumps.

Q. You are active on Twitter, and your newspaper has a Facebook page. What are your goals on social media?

A. I think social media is a great place to reach out to the community in a way that’s more informal than what’s allowed in the paper. When I became the editor, I made a concerted effort to be more accessible to people, and it’s a philosophy Erin has embraced as well.

Through News of Orange’s Twitter feed and Facebook page, we can engage with readers and post content that wouldn’t make it into the paper. If we’re at, say, the fifth-grade musical production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at Pathways Elementary School, we can tweet a picture or short video to let people know. It gives the community the chance to see what we’re doing, see that we’re out there taking pictures of their kids or covering meetings or just doing our jobs.

When I worked at a daily, there was a conscious push for reporters to remain apart from the people we covered. That ivory tower approach to journalism doesn’t work at a community paper. When people talk to me about the News of Orange, they tell me what they like and dislike about their paper. They feel ownership, and they care about what makes it into its pages.

I made a decision awhile back to allow community members to friend me on Facebook and to unlock my Twitter feed for the same reason. It’s made me feel like a member of the community I cover instead of an outsider.

I’ve had people tell me they have found me more approachable as a result of some of the things I’ve posted. Sure, it means I have to be careful what I put out there. I don’t post anything political or controversial, and I watch what people post on my wall, but I think it’s a fair trade. I’ve been lucky enough to connect with some fantastic people through social media and engage with a more tech-savvy segment of our readership.

There are, of course, pitfalls for newspapers and reporters using social media, but I don’t think not being out there is an option anymore. People expect us to be there, so we muddle through as best we can.

Q. These are tough times for newspapers. In our area, the Carrboro Citizen recently ceased publication, and layoffs have hit newspapers in Durham and Raleigh in recent years. What is the outlook for community newspapers like yours?

A. When I first started at News of Orange back in 2008, the media landscape here was fairly diverse. At school board meetings, there were reporters from the Durham and Raleigh dailies, local radio and TV stations, and even student journalists from The Daily Tar Heel. Now, it’s just me. It’s the same at Hillsborough Town Council meetings. That’s a trend that’s played out in all coverage areas.

I think that’s a strength of community newspapers in general and News of Orange in particular; you can’t find most of what’s in our pages anywhere else. As other newspapers have pulled back, we’ve tried to increase our coverage — though that can be tough to balance with financial considerations; most people don’t seem to understand that the number of pages we get each week is dictated by advertising, not by content.

Even so, we put out our first-ever mass mailing in April, which weighed in at 32 pages (a normal paper for us averages 14 pages); we’ve increased the number of editorially supported special sections on everything from high school sports previews to health and wellness; we took our sports coverage from essentially nothing to having a healthy section every week.

The expanded sports coverage isn’t just the big name sports —football, basketball, wrestling, baseball — but everything. It allows us to get the names and faces of lots of kids in paper each week, and people have really responded to it.

Community newspapers have a place in this changing media landscape; News of Orange certainly does as well. The people who read community papers deserve the same quality product that metro readers get. The editorial department at NOC — such that it is — tries to deliver that every week.

The caption and the cliché

Photo captions count, but we often treat them as an afterthought when we write them. That can lead to errors, confusion or cliché.

It’s the last pitfall that caught my attention recently when I ran across numerous references in captions to people being “all smiles.” It’s a tired phrase that usually states the obvious. Here are some other phrases to avoid in captions:

  • Celebrates.
  • Looks on.
  • Pictured/seen here.
  • Gestures.
  • Shares a laugh/shares a moment.

If you are writing a caption (or a cutline, if you are old school) and catch yourself using one of these phrases, consider a rewrite. Remember that a caption needs to do two things — describe the image and connect it to the story. Using tired phrases impedes that mission.

Q&A with Scott Butterworth, editorial copy chief at The Washington Post

Scott Butterworth is editorial copy chief at The Washington Post. He has also worked as a night editor and copy chief of the newspaper’s Style section. In this Q&A, conducted by email, Butterworth talks about his job managing the Editorial copy desk at the Post.

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

A. I lead a team of seven multiplatform editors (the Post’s term for what used to be called copy editors) who deal solely with copy from the Editorial department. Collectively, we edit, fact-check, headline and publish some 50 articles daily, material that includes op-eds, columns, editorials, blog postings and letters to the editor.

We staff from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the day begins and ends with blog postings. Editorial has six blogs that are updated several times through the day. Letters to the editor are typically ready for editing by 9 a.m., op-eds and columns beginning at noon, and editorials at 5 p.m. We start laying out the editorial and op-ed newspaper pages at mid-afternoon and distribute proofs by 6:30 p.m. We typeset the pages around 7:30 p.m.

All of this material is published online as soon as it is ready, with one exception: Syndicated columns, which make up the majority of our op-ed pages, are generally embargoed from the Web until 8 p.m.

(Separate from the multiplatform crew, Editorial has a day online editor who triages the incoming copy, monitors what online audiences are gravitating toward and suggests what should be prioritized to address this appetite, and an online producer/editor. Together, they craft a plan for presenting and promoting our pieces.)

My day runs from noon to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday. I assign articles to the MPEs so that we wind up with neither backlogs nor editors twiddling their thumbs, I slot all stories headed into the paper (blog postings are not slotted), and I grab blog postings as I can.

I also handle longer-range duties: managing team members’ performance; looking ahead for opportunities our department should pursue and threats we should mind; and representing the desk in discussions throughout the department and the newsroom.

Q. How is editing opinion pieces different from editing news?

A. The gist of the job is the same: We are the reader’s surrogate. It is our job to untangle clunky or confusing sentences and to clarify what the writer intends to say. We also challenge the facts in each piece with the recurring question: How do you know that?

We follow the guidance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” Any good editorial or op-ed is, at its heart, an argument supported by facts. If the foundation proves less than sturdy, the opinion becomes rickety and unpersuasive. So it is in both our interest and the writer’s to ensure that the facts are as she describes them.

The twist in the job comes when the writer segues to her opinions. Our interest in plain speaking continues, but we must take care that, in clearing away brambles, we don’t cut away something more significant. So rather than rewrite first and ask later, as news desks may do on deadline, we raise questions with the writer (often proposing alternative language) and wait for a reply before taking out the shears.

We also aim to channel the writer when writing headlines. The goal is a headline that summarizes the article not only in a like spirit but also in such a way to entice even those who oppose this point of view to read it.

Q. How has the rise of digital media changed headline writing for opinion pieces?

A. It requires us to get to the point quickly — to be direct and descriptive — with our online heads. Often, nuance goes by the boards. Web audiences are hungry for smart, well-founded opinion and analysis, but they do gravitate toward starkly worded headlines, full of superlatives and usually beginning with one of the five W’s or the H.

That recipe can feel mighty limiting sometimes, especially when (for SEO purposes) you add a proper name to the front of the headline and you keep it all to less than 60 characters (at which point Google loses interest). So why do it this way? We don’t always, but we’ve found that resisting this formula creates a headwind in getting online attention.

We encourage our MPEs in writing Web heads to focus less on what happened and more on what it means. Where it makes sense, we also “steal” a writer’s lead or kicker — an approach that is bad manners in print but has proven particularly successful in attracting online aggregators such as the Drudge Report and RealClearPolitics.

Our content management system also allows us to write different headlines for different audiences. For example, we routinely write four heads for columns: one that aims primarily at Google search, one for Google News (whose spiders scrape differently than do main Google’s), one that goes out to social networks and our RSS feeds, and one for print. All four will be closely related, and one or two might be identical, but this way we have the ability to offer more directly what a given audience might want.

Q. In an increasingly digital world, what do you see as the role of opinion writing at large news organizations like the Post? What does the future hold for the syndicated columnist?

A. These are good questions, and they tie into those threats I mentioned earlier.

Opinion writing certainly faces the potential of being commoditized, as news reporting has been already. After all, “Opinions are like belly buttons: Everyone has one.”

Through blogs and social media, technology has lowered the bar to publish and draw attention to opinion pieces, in a manner similar to what we’ve already seen with YouTube. So now you can find an almost endless stream of commentary on any issue you might name. (Khoi Vinh makes an interesting argument for punditry’s vulnerability to disruption.)

The Post defends against this by relying on such differentiators as authority and reputation, which readers have shown they value when deciding where to click. (An analogy might be Tiffany’s vs. Internet jewelry sales.)

We also have a built-in advantage: our location. We’re fortunate to be in a city where the battle of ideas is waged daily; if you’re interested in serious analysis of these issues, or in influencing the debate, The Post’s op-ed page (whether print or online) is an essential read.

This gives us a platform from which to suggest to thinkers and statesmen that they might want to write for The Post. This, in turn, gives us a leg up online in competing for readers, at least for that subset of readers that pays attention to the byline before clicking.

Column writing is underappreciated as a differentiator. If you asked a random passer-by to name a writer at The Washington Post, odds are you would hear George Will, Charles Krauthammer or Gene Robinson named, rather than one of our news reporters.

This stems in no small part from their television appearances rather than their written work, to be sure, but the invitation for those appearances rests on the authority of being a Post columnist, of implicitly being someone in the know. The Post benefits, too: Its reputation grows as the place to get more of such smart analysis.

So I’m very optimistic about the future of opinion writing at The Post and at the handful of other organizations that also see it as a core part of their business. It enables us to develop and maintain loyalty among our primary readership and, when Drudge lights the siren over a given piece, to expand our audience further.

I’m less certain about the future of syndication. The economic model still makes sense for client papers: It is cheaper for the Houston Chronicle to pay to run Kathleen Parker’s columns than to find and develop an in-house columnist for that space on the print op-ed page. And holding the rights for certain syndicated columns remains no less important in some markets than having certain comic strips.

As long as newspapers continue to provide op-ed pages, I see syndication playing a large role in filling that space. But I worry about how long that relationship will continue: Op-ed pages would seem to be an easy target for publishers looking to cut news hole further.

And the Internet has broken down the presumption of the syndication model for sponsoring papers: cultivating exclusivity through the sale of rights. Now you can read most syndicated columnists at a variety of web sites, so why should I go to The New York Times — where I have to pay money — to read Maureen Dowd?

I don’t know how this story ends, but there clearly is trouble on the horizon.

Follow Scott Butterworth on Twitter.

Jumping into the pool on Election Night

Here’s how I see the presidential election going tonight. Yes, I could be wrong.

Election Night on a newspaper’s copy desk is characterized by long waits for results from reporters and wire services, followed by a frenzy of editing and headline writing.

This year, I will spend Election Night elsewhere, getting results online and watching coverage on television. The morning after, I’ll look for my newspaper to tie it all together and tell me what it all means. It could even be a keepsake.

Free pizza for the newsroom was one of the traditions of Election Night in the newsrooms where I worked. An “election pool” was another one. Those of us who chose to participate predicted the outcome of various races. The winner claimed bragging rights of being politically astute, although luck may have been involved too.

I can’t join one of those newsroom pools tonight, but I will offer my predictions here. To be clear, this is who I think will win, not who should win. My voting preferences are between me and my ballot. And away we go:

FEDERAL RACES

President: Obama, with 303 electoral votes

Senate, Connecticut: Murphy

Senate, Florida: Nelson

Senate, Massachusetts: Warren

Senate, Missouri: McCaskill

Senate, Nebraska: Fischer

Senate, Virginia: Kaine

CONTROL OF CONGRESS

HOUSE: Republicans, 230-205

SENATE: Democrats, 53-47 (independents there usually caucus with Democrats)

N.C. RACES

Governor: McCrory

Lt. Governor: Coleman

Auditor: Wood

7th Congressional: McIntyre

8th Congressional: Hudson

13th Congressional: Holding

Keeping the editorial page local

When I read recently that the editorial page editor of The News & Observer is retiring after the 2012 election, I was nervous. What would happen next?

In recent years, the Raleigh newspaper and Charlotte Observer (both owned by McClatchy) have combined some areas of the two operations, including coverage of state government and sports. In 2011, the copy desk at the N&O was dissolved, with those tasks shifted to an editing/design hub in Charlotte.

So that’s why I was nervous: Would McClatchy outsource editorials and column writing to Charlotte as it it had done with editing and design? Would the N&O lose its local flavor in the editorial pages as it has on occasion on the news pages?

Thankfully, the answer is no. This week, my friend and former N&O colleague Burgetta Wheeler posted a note on Facebook that she will serve as associate editor of the editorial page. Ned Barnett, a city editor and former sports columnist at the N&O, will be the editorial page’s editor.

I worked with both of them in my time at the N&O. They are thoughtful, talented people who will excel as the leaders of the editorial pages. And they live here.

Congratulations to Ned and Burgetta. And thanks to McClatchy for keeping the editorial page local.

 

 

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