“Being John Malkovich” then and now

malkovich-ad

Returning recently from a visit to Hong Kong, I had 15 hours on a plane to read, to sleep and to watch in-flight movies on a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me.

One of the viewing options was “Being John Malkovich,” in which a sad-sack puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) discovers a mysterious portal into the head of the titular character. Craig teams up with his office crush, Maxine (Catherine Keener), to turn journeys into Malkovich’s mind into a business venture. But there are unexpected consequences.

Released in 1999, “Being John Malkovich” holds up very well as an examination of identity. But some scenes seemed outdated in the era of an increasingly digital media. Here are some parts of the movie that struck me as in need of an update:

  • Then: Craig and Maxine place an advertisement in a print newspaper, inviting people to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes for $200. Now: Craig and Maxine post the ad on Craigslist (natch).
  • Then: Craig calls his wife from a pay phone to say he will be late home from work. Now: Craig texts his wife to say he will be late home from work.
  • Then: Craig takes a surreptitious phone call in his bedroom from Maxine. Now: Craig texts Maxine while hiding in his bathroom.
  • Then: In the first scene in which we see the world through the eyes of Malkovich, he reads a print edition of The Wall Street Journal. Now: We first see Malkovich scrolling through his Facebook feed.
  • Then: Malkovich looks at a print catalog and orders towels over the phone, questioning the customer service representative about differences between products. Now: Malkovich orders towels on Amazon, reviewing customer feedback to guide his decision.
  • Then: People line up to be Malkovich, bringing in big money to Craig and Maxine. Now: People find ways around the Malkovich paywall, denying Craig and Maxine the profits that they expected. Their startup is a bust.

Student guest post: Writing headlines for smartphones

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Ashton Sommerville is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and women’s and gender studies. She plans to take a year off after graduation before pursuing a career in media law, excited to explore and follow the ever-changing mass media landscape. She enjoys coffee, reading and managing her wedding and pop culture blog kissingthecooke.wordpress.com.

Are smartphone-friendly headlines our next step? In the age of new media, many journalism students, like myself, face curriculums that focus less on traditional legacy media and more on how to grow as writers and editors who are producing creative content for an impatient and often fickle audience.

Media consumers in coming generations are proving to be less loyal to brands than generations past and more loyal to convenience, usability and brevity. The Internet has produced a level of media competition unlike any other platform in recent history. With so many options available to users, publications are challenged with being the best, the most interesting, and more importantly, the first.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, part of our copy-editing education involves practice with writing headlines for a number of mediums including print, Web and Twitter. But is that enough? Have we already fallen behind?

In January 2012, a Tumblr account popped up aptly titled Bad Headlines — a collection of publication blunders, the culprits ranging from BBC to The Associated Press. One thing many of the posts have in common is that they are screen shots from the bloggers’ smartphones, and the primary gaffe for each is a headline too long to be communicated via push notification.

Just as bumping headlines can cause confusion for print readers, headlines cut off in awkward places can make for very humorous and unintentional story twists. “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado socialite” becomes “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado.” “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run for president” turns into “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run.” The loss of just a few words completely changes the implications of the headline.

While it’s probably safe to say that most readers are wise enough to catch on, the situation remains that credible, revered media companies are being made the subject of a running online joke. So what can editors and educators do to combat this new social media challenge? I suggest two things:

  • Increase the educational focus on the five-second spot: Although the move to writing for an alert, involved Twitter audience is a challenge still being faced by media professionals, 140 characters is still a luxury when fighting for the public’s attention. Add smartphone-friendly headline creation into the curriculum, and encourage your students to prioritize clarity and succinctness when writing for online media that will be pushed to users on their cellphones.
  • Develop a character limit to act as a standard for the newsroom. Do some research and decide where the cutoff is that separates newsworthy from a good laugh. If there is a noun-verb construction in your headline that can’t afford to be separated, include it early to prevent an unfortunate misunderstanding. Create a procedure, and stick to it.

As the media landscape continues to morph and grow, it will be our job as creators and editors to do our best to keep up. Stay alert, stay brief and don’t forget who you’re writing for.

Q&A with Monica Monzingo of Macys.com

Monica Monzingo is a copy editor for Macys.com, a position she has held since 2012. She previously worked in the magazine industry as a freelancer. In this interview, conducted by email, Monzingo discusses her job and how editing for a department stores is different from editing for a news organization.

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

A. I copy edit a wide variety of creative assets for macys.com, including homepages, emails, gift guides, social media and navigation copy (the links on the top and left-hand side of the site). Also, most of the brands we sell create their own content for their landing pages on macys.com, so I’m responsible for proofreading those too. While copyediting and watching for consistency in style and brand voice, I’m also making sure the copy complies with our legal guidelines.

On a typical day, I might review the desktop and mobile versions of the new prom sitelet, read through the exclusions copy for an upcoming Super Saturday sale, and copyedit a buying guide about cutlery.

Q. You previously worked as a freelance editor for magazines such as US Weekly. How is editing for Macys.com different from your magazine editing?

A. At a magazine, you’re selling the journalism — the content is the commodity. But in retail, you’re selling the clothes, furniture, etc., so your relationship with the reader is slightly different. We want the reader to engage with our content, just like a magazine, but we also want to motivate them to go a step further and BUY what’s featured in the content.

We have a lot of the same conversations about truth and clarity that editors at a magazine have, but the response we want from our reader is a bit different so our approach to writing and editing is a bit different too. Have we given them all the information they need so that they’ll buy that new bathing suit, knowing it’s perfect for their body type? Are our financing terms clear enough that they’ll feel comfortable buying a big-ticket item like an engagement ring or a new sofa?

Q. You recently attended the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. What did you learn there, and what drew you to ACES?

A. I learned about Google’s new algorithm and how we can update our SEO strategy to align with its new priorities. I learned that editing is a left-brain activity while computer work is a right-brain activity, and that’s why it’s always good to review things on a printout instead of just on screen. And I went to a session about writing headlines and have tons of tips the writers here at macys.com can use when writing email subject lines.

ACES is a fantastic community of super-smart, super-friendly folks who share a passion for editing, and it was so inspiring to get to spend a few days nerding out about style guides and grammar. I was originally drawn to ACES as a learning resource, which it certainly is, but the most rewarding thing has been finding a community of like-minded editors.

Q. What advice do you have for students seeking jobs and internships in editing for a company like Macy’s?

A. I’d recommend learning about what’s going on in the industry. I’m a big fan of the National Retail Federation’s SmartBrief, a daily email digest of the industry’s top stories.

You can also learn a lot just by paying more attention to what’s going on when you’re shopping on your favorite website or in your favorite store. Develop an ear for brand voice and learn how to both describe and write in different voices. And as a copy editor, a huge thing to practice is how to give feedback in a clear but kind way.

Student guest post: CNN’s sensational coverage of Flight 370

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Jasmin Singh is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill with a major in reporting, focusing on medical and science writing and minors in biology and chemistry. She is a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel and the health and science correspondent for Carolina Week. Besides pursuing a career in science journalism, she aspires to be a full-time physician in the Eastern North Carolina region.

As a reporter for the school’s paper, I was told to keep it simple and not to exaggerate. I came to love the simplicity of the newspaper and online news – I don’t have to dig around or read a huge anecdote before I get to the point of the story.

But when I was writing stories for a broadcast journalism course, I was in shock. I’m talking about sensationalism.

Sensationalizing the news isn’t new. We can think of yellow journalism used in the late 1800s, where reporters used misleading headlines, dramatic quotes and scary pictures to draw their readers in.

Nowadays, newspapers work away from this form, trying to present the most honest, factual stories possible. One of the few places in print that we still see this sensationalism is in tabloids. But there is another medium that uses it far too often.

TV news loves to sensationalize. But if we do so in print, our editors are quick to calm it down. Is this a double standard? Take for example CNN’s online coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner.

Flight 370 was a trending topic on CNN’s homepage since it first disappeared March 8. At first, CNN reported hard facts, or stories about the passengers, following what many other news organizations were doing at the time.

But as the search continued, CNN brought in analysts to talk about theories and potential flight paths  – even though the Malaysian government hadn’t released any new information at the time. And as CNN’s March 22 headline read, “When facts are few, imaginations run wild.”

And wild they were. Headlines changed every hour on CNN’s homepage, each one leading to a new theory, like those of terrorism, pilot suicide or hijacking. But no new information was being used for these stories – it was the same few facts being repeated, or twisted to create a new theory.

Is there a reason that CNN can do this while other news sources can’t? Is it because CNN is a large broadcast, 24/7-news network, or because it has the power and name to do so? I don’t know, but it could be a mix of the two. But when a smaller organization came out with their theory, CNN was quick to turn it down.

Wired magazine published an article (originally published on Google Plus) presenting a very simple and realistic theory that the plane tried to land at a nearby airport. The article was written by a former airline pilot with over 20 years of flight experience.

However, CNN’s analysts quickly turned down the pilot’s theory, saying it wasn’t possible – probably because CNN analysts had other theories: The pilots could be terrorists or the plane was hijacked.

On March 24, the Malaysian government released information stating the flight was officially lost in the Indian Ocean. The final transcript of the conversation between the pilots and flight control were released on April 1. And again, CNN continued to post updated stories by its analysts using this small amount of information. The latest headline as of 8:32 p.m. April 3, “Flight 370: Search to resume with high-tech help, hopes for breakthrough.”

So how can we avoid these sensationalized headlines and news stories? Beth Winegarner of The Poynter Institute wrote a list of five simple things we can do to make sure our stories are clean and still draw in readers.

Stick to facts: When we have a fact and it is confirmed, use it. News stories should be filled with facts. When we hear about breaking news, we need to make sure it is accurate and is supported by evidence. If we don’t have the evidence or the facts to support a claim, we shouldn’t publish it.

Be careful with identifications: This is important for a story regarding a crime. If we have information about a potential suspect, we must make sure that we identify the right person. Is it John A. Smith or John R. Smith? The middle name, age, height and even race can destroy your credibility if you misidentify a suspect.

Be a skeptic: This would be a useful tip for CNN. Winegarner said we should be skeptical of experts. Nobody knows everything, so we shouldn’t trust everything they say, especially if our credibility is on the line. Seek out counterarguments and other outside experts who have no affiliation to the story or the organization.

Give details. A lot of them: Our readers want to know everything that is going on, so if we have the details, use them. Details help develop the story and also create a mental picture of what is going on, which can help make the story easier to understand. Using details also strengthens your credibility because you are giving your readers every fact available, leaving no room for questions.

Write a good story: If you have all the facts, outside sources, use caution and include a lot of details, the story will write itself, with no need to sensationalize.

I think that’s what reporting is all about. Delivering the facts in the most basic, honest way possible. If we sensationalize it, do we really have a story to tell?

 

#FollowFriday for Carol Folt

UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Carol Folt, joined Twitter earlier this week. Here’s her first post there:

I’m glad that Folt is a part of the conversation on Twitter. Her profile there indicates that the account is intended as the voice of the Office of the Chancellor, so some Tweets will be written by staff members. Posts by Folt herself will  include a “–CLF” signature.

Fair enough. Folt certainly has plenty to do besides checking on Twitter and posting there frequently. I hope, though, that we will see “–CLF” frequently.

Now, allow me to offer some Twitter advice to my boss, the chancellor: Who you follow is a big part of Twitter. At the moment, your “follows” are dominated by institutional accounts at the departmental level and higher. You can certainly learn a lot about what is happening on campus by following the Twitter feeds of various units.

But individuals on Twitter are often more interesting and informative than “official” accounts. They can offer personality, insight and humor that can, at least at times, be lacking in those departmental Twitter feeds. For example, you are following the UNC Admissions Office. It uses Twitter smartly, but for a more personal look at how that office works, follow Melissa Kotacka too.

Here are some other UNC people to consider following, starting with the journalism school:

@susking
@smalljones
@johnrobinson
@joebobhester
@winstonccavin
@rtburg
@JoSciarrino
@steven_king
@vekstra
@designmah
@RLLillis
@johnclark
@brandingofme
@kreissdaniel
@Stephanie Willen Brown
@UNCJschoolProbs

Others on or near campus:

@sczerwas
@lisachensvold
@EricaPerel
@ayse
@dsardia
@zeynep
@AndrewJPerrin
@UNCMemes
@DaggumRoy

This is just a start, of course. An ebb and flow to your follows is natural. Follow people who inform and entertain, who speak to your interests. Unfollow those who don’t. Twitter is a place to learn, share and have fun. Enjoy!

Student guest post: How coding is like copy editing

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Katie Marriner is an aspiring designer/developer who enjoys copy editing. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the Reese News Lab team.

There is a huge push nowadays for everyone to learn how to code – women, men, children, journalists, family pets. Technology plays a huge part in our lives today, so I agree that it is important we understand what we consume daily.

Coding may seem like a completely foreign concept to those who are not constantly exposed to it. I am a developer who enjoys copy editing, and I see the overlap in both fields. There are five “C”s of copy editing – be clear, be correct, be concise, be comprehensible, be consistent. These five “C”s can be applied to coding.

How does code work?

First, it is important to understand the basics of coding. Don’t worry: I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details because there are tons of resources out there where you can learn the basics. Codecademy is a great one.

HTML is the structure of a Web page. It is where headers, paragraphs, images and other content are placed on the page.

CSS styles the content. Classes and IDs in HTML are named so they can be identified in a CSS stylesheet. Below is how you would name a class called “main-header.”

This is a Header

In the CSS stylesheet, the format will be this:

.main-header {
font-color: blue;
}

The “.” indicates that it is a class you are referencing. Inside the “{}” is where you write all of your styling – change the font color, size, family. In this example, the color of the text would change to blue.

The following are the five “C”s of copy editing, according to Jodi Cleghorn’s post on Write Anything:

Correct

No errors. This will be the first indication that your code needs some refining.

This one is pretty simple. HTML is picky. Even if a “>” is missing at the end of a tag, the code will be incorrect and not run as it is intended. Code has strict syntax. Every ;, {}, and <> is necessary. And they have to be in the right place. It’s like misspelling a word in the English language – it’s always incorrect.

Clarity

The names of classes must be clear, and it must be understood what these classes do to someone who looks at the code for the first time. If you are naming a class for introductory paragraphs, use an intuitive name such as “intro-paragraph.”

HTML

This is an example of an introductory paragraph.

CSS

.intro-paragraph {
text-decoration: italic;
}

Concise

Refactoring is the process of editing existing code in order to prevent errors from occurring in the future, make the page load faster and make it easier to read. Refactoring code does not change the appearance of what it outputs, but it changes the ease at which it is processed by the browser.

When editing text when you don’t change the meaning of what you’re trying to say but you improve the understand of the text by being more concise. A simple example would be using the world “use” instead of “utilize.”

Comprehensible

GitHub is a great, free service that allows coders to contribute to other projects by building off of what others have done. If others are reading your code, it needs to be comprehensible and in a form that others will be able to understand just as it is important for others to easily read a news article.

Consistent

Use the same naming conventions. If a number is spelled out once, spell out every other number. If you use hyphens, use hyphens. If you use camelCase, use camelCase.

It’s not “wrong” if the names are not consistent because the code will run, but it is not easy to read. This relates to using a stylebook to keep consistency. In AP style, numbers under 10 are usually spelled out, but numbers greater than or equal to 10 are written numerically.

Copy editors edit to help readers better understand the author’s words. Editing code can do just the same thing for others who read your code and when code is revisited to make changes.

Editing in Hong Kong

University of Hong Kong

The hillside campus of the University of Hong Kong. (Wikimedia image by Baycrest)

Later this week, I will travel to the University of Hong Kong. I’ll spend a week there a guest lecturer.

My visit is part of an exchange program between HKU and UNC. Earlier this month, Kevin Sites of HKU spent a week in Chapel Hill, meeting with students and speaking on his experiences as a war correspondent.

The journalism program at HKU does not have a full course about editing, so I have been invited to talk about that topic. During my stay, I will meet with students and work with them on story editing, fact checking and headline writing, among other subjects.

It will be my second trip to this part of the world. In 2009, I spent a week in Beijing, working with journalists at an English-language news website. That was a rewarding trip, so I am looking forward to a similar stay in Hong Kong.

The bottom line: Editing is a global experience. I am grateful to play a role in it.

Student guest post: Spelling in pop culture is less than sensational

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Madeleine Loeb is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is majoring in editing and graphic design. She is from Tallahassee, Fla., but Washington, D.C. will be her next home so that she can pursue a creative career in advertising or sports.

The concept of sensational spelling has taken hold of popular culture, starring in advertisements, song titles and branding. Sensational spelling, the deliberate misspelling of a word for special effect, started being used throughout the 1960s and ’70s for mostly musical purposes to create an edgy way of representing an idea or feeling for their music. For example, Sly and the Family Stone used sensational spelling in many of their song titles to change things up a bit.

While this popular way of spelling started in the 1960s and was propelled by artists such as Prince, The Beatles and Ludacris, it has become more and more normal for current artists to incorporate sensational spelling into their work. Much like quick and easy texting language, titles like Britney Spears’ ‘Slave 4 U,’ Macklemore’s “Wing$: and Beyoncé’s “Freakum Dress” have completely stepped away from grammatically correct titles and look more toward fun and simple representations.

But the question still stands: Is it OK for artists to use sensational spelling more so than they use correct spelling? And where does Associated Press style extend into this new style?

I believe that artists’ use of sensational spelling is an attempt at connecting with their younger fan base or trying to look “cool.” But I feel that there needs to be some consistency or at least a set of guidelines when it comes to using sensational spelling.

In hoping to create some sort of structure to an artistic view of spelling and grammar, I have found that it seems that there are two ways to create a style that could be consistent throughout sensational spelling.

The first rule being, any word that is shortened, but could be spelled out to have the same meaning, should be spelled out. For example, “Slave 4 U” would simply become “Slave For You.” Similarly, Macklemore’s “Wing$” would just become “Wings.”

The second rule would be to allow misspellings of words if that word could be considered jargon or necessary to be spelled that way. For example, Beyoncé’s “Freakum Dress” — you’re not going to tell Beyoncé to name her song “Freak Them Dress,” or tell Sly and the Family Stone to change “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” to “Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself Again.” Making those changes would take away the magic of the title and creativity.

So therein lies the problem. How do you suggest this change without taking away creativity?

While I say these would be rules, it’s more of a hope and suggestion. Much like the AP style, it’s a set of guidelines, not edicts. While sensational spelling is outside of the journalistic realm of control, I can only hope that it sticks to the artistic representations and doesn’t soon become acceptable within the journalism community.

Viva ACES

This blog will be quiet this week as I finish grading midterms and teach classes.

I am also preparing to go to Las Vegas for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. I will be part of two sessions at this year’s gathering, which starts Thursday, March 20.

I’d love to see you at the conference, but if you can’t be there, you can follow the fun on Twitter with the hashtag #ACES2014. Viva Las Vegas, and viva ACES!

Q&A with Nate Johnson, weather forecaster at WRAL

Nate Johnson is a meteorologist and executive producer at WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. He has been with the TV station since 2007. In this interview, conducted by email, Johnson discusses his job, including how weather forecasters use social media, and where weather coverage fits into a world of digital/mobile news.

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

A. I often describe my role as similar to air traffic control. Pilots want to fly, and good ATC allows them to fly more safely and efficiently.

I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to clear the way for our other meteorologists to focus on forecasting the weather and sharing those forecasts across a wide range of outlets. WRAL Weather isn’t just on WRAL – it’s on Fox50, Mix 101.5 and 99.9 FM The Fan here in the Triangle; WILM-TV and Sunrise Broadcasting radio stations in Wilmington; and more than 75 radio stations statewide on the North Carolina News Network. And that’s before we mention WRAL.com and our range of news and weather apps as well as social media.

To that end, I serve as the weather point of contact for other departments inside the company as well as external partners. For example, if promotions wants approval on copy for a radio ad to TV spot, I will work with them to ensure it’s appropriate.

I develop new graphics, data tools and ways to tell the weather story, and I work with the companies that provide the graphic systems we use for TV and the data we use in our forecasts to ensure we have the latest and greatest. Finally, I backfill the frontline roles, both weather and traffic, when there is a need due to vacation, severe weather and the like.

It’s a fun gig, and as I joked last week as I was asked to do traffic for our evening newscasts at almost the last minute, there’s never a dull moment.

Q. We’ve seen a lot of wintry weather in North Carolina this year. How does extreme weather affect what you do?

A. In the moment, it means I do more of it – more coordination, more graphics, more filling in — including fitting more of that into normal hours as well as working extra hours.

Before an event, especially when we’re in stretches of quiet weather, my role includes planning for the next bout with extreme weather, be it wintry, severe or tropical. Afterward, I assess our performance on a number of fronts, including both meteorological accuracy and how well we communicated what we did and didn’t know.

What we’re learning in the weather world is that even a perfect forecast, if it’s communicated poorly, has little value. Beyond simply making “good TV,” we have to make sure we communicate the forecast well so people can make informed decisions about everything from shoes to safety.

Q. You’re active on Twitter. How are weather forecasters using social media to do their jobs?

A. A lot are using social to share their forecasts or promote sources for their forecasts. Many are also using it to hear from their followers about their weather, including snowfall totals and severe weather reports. The best are doing all of that as well as using social as a sounding board to understand how people are using their forecasts and whether they’ve been successful in communicating the forecast and maximizing the value for the forecast user.

One wrinkle that has appeared recently is the rise of social media sites providing weather forecasts, with an emphasis on high-impact events. They get a lot of shares and likes, and some use official-sounding terms like “watch” and “warning” but have no connection to the advisories issued by the National Weather Service. Many also say that theirs is the real deal and other outlets like the NWS or TV are either too conservative or not allowed to share how bad it will actually be.

Sometimes, there’s a grain of truth, and these forecasts — often for severe weather outbreaks or major winter storms — spread widely, causing a certain “freak out” factor. Unfortunately, many forecasters are having to spend valuable time countering these so-called forecasts and tempering expectations.

Q. Weather coverage has always been a part of news, but how is that changing with the rise of digital and mobile media? What do you see as the future of weather forecasting and reporting?

A. Like so much else, people aren’t coming to the evening newscast to find out the forecast. Many already have a sense of what upcoming weather will be, and if that is all we provide, people will stop watching. We need to continue providing the details but focus more on translating those details into impacts and explaining the uncertainty that’s involved.

Weather forecasts aren’t perfect, and part of the bad rap meteorologists have is because we aren’t very good at explaining the uncertainties that have been there all along. Sure, we might have a “20 percent chance of rain,” but what exactly does that mean? Where we can be more descriptive in a way that helps people plan their days, we must be.

And that becomes even more important when the potential impacts are bigger: As last week showed us, a difference of a single degree a mile up in the atmosphere might make the difference between a cold rain that’s no big deal or a crippling ice storm. That forecast worked out well, but it was well within our ability to forecast for that line to have been off by a county on either side.

We need to do a better job explaining the capabilities and limitations of weather forecasts. Smartphones are very good at giving you an icon and a number, but we have to be better at translating that into useful information.

Follow Nate Johnson on Twitter and read his blog posts on Digital Meteorologist.