The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Q&A with Bret McCormick, sports editor at the The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)

Bret McCormick is sports editor at The Herald newspaper in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He previously worked in a similar role at the State Port Pilot, a weekly newspaper in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, McCormick discusses the challenges and rewards of covering college and prep sports.

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

A. I cover 13 high schools and NCAA Division I Winthrop University for The Herald (of Rock Hill), most of it by myself with the help of a few stringers. My typical workday depends on the season, whether it’s football, basketball or spring sports, or even summer.

My hours and schedule vary greatly, which is one of the things I like about the job. But the inconsistent schedule can be annoying to significant others.

Q. You are essentially a one-person sports department. How do you juggle your tasks and time?

A. Organization and forward thinking are paramount for me as a one-man shop. I usually have four or five stories up in the air at the same time, at various stages of completion. It can be overwhelming without organization, so I try to stay on top of things with lots of lists and copious amounts of calendar entries in my phone. I have to be very careful with my phone! I’d be ruined without it.

I also have a couple of freelancers who are of great help and an older guy named Sam Copeland who works about 20 hours a week during the school year as a clerk. He puts together schedules and takes scores at night from coaches that call or email. I’d be ruined without him too.

Q. Rock Hill is both SEC and ACC territory. What challenges does that create for the Herald?

A. That creates a lot of challenges, primarily because of the rivalry between South Carolina and Clemson. I get accused of bias on a weekly basis, which is funny because I’m a Charlotte alum and have never liked either of those schools. I make a lot of effort, along with the layout people in Charlotte, to budget USC and Clemson stories as evenly as possible.

Q. Rock Hill is also known for producing remarkable football players such as Jadeveon Clowney. What’s it like covering preps there, given that tradition?

A. As tiring and overwhelming as the job is sometimes, Friday night high school football is a joy. The quality is excellent, the fervor is there and it’s the best aspect of covering sports in Rock Hill.

Eleven players from, or with ties to, York County are in the NFL at the moment, so everybody is always hunting for the next big thing. It’s one reason people here also take youth football and middle school football seriously.

The Clowney stuff this past spring with the NFL draft was also tiring, but still astonishing for a city of 60,000 like Rock Hill. City pride was maxed out that week.

Q. Sports journalism continues to be a popular career goal. What advice do you have for college students who want to go into the field?

A. Get started! Not everyone can be Wright Thompson or Frank Deford or Bill Simmons within a year or two.

Young people need to start local and work their way up. If they can get paid at the start, great, but don’t let that be a deterrent from opportunities in the early years of a career.

I was a stringer for The Charlotte Observer while in college at Charlotte, and relationships I established there have helped me get both of the two jobs I’ve had in the industry, while the experience gave me the education I never got formally from a j-school. I made $50 (three cases of beer) per game, but it was the other stuff that was more valuable in the long run.

Follow Bret McCormick on Twitter.

Writing and editing with Weird Al

“Weird Al” Yankovic is back. The song parodist who lampooned Michael Jackson and “Star Wars” back in the day has a new album called “Mandatory Fun.” Each day this week, Yankovic is posting a music video from the album on his website.

Two of the songs from “Mandatory Fun” share a “wordy” theme. “Mission Statement” takes aim at those jargon-filled declarations from corporations, government and academia. “Word Crimes” offers advice on grammar, word choice and punctuation, all to the tune of “Blurred Lines.”

“Word Crimes” has generated chatter on Twitter among writers, editors, linguists and lexicographers. Here is a sampling:

  • I think ACES has found its new theme song.
  • “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” is fun but reinforces stereotype of editors as cranks who need to get a life.
  • I always take peeves as a sign that the person truly cares about language. Which is a start.

I see some truth in each of these statements. As an editor, I like grammar and have my own peeves, but I’m also more flexible on matters of language than I used to be. And I don’t edit personal email that I receive, as Al apparently does. Calling a lapse in grammar or bending of a style rule a “word crime” makes me uncomfortable, as does the song’s mildly scolding tone.

But this is Weird Al. It’s all in good fun. His song uses a slinky beat and clever lyrics to share a lot of solid tips for writers and editors. If “Word Crimes” helps someone remember the difference between its and it’s, then I am willing to smile and sing along.

UPDATE: More reaction on “Word Crimes” from Grammar Girl and ACES blogger Pam Nelson.

A story that’s set in agate and unfolds in a box

This weekend, I plan to attend a baseball-themed “block party” in Durham, North Carolina. The event is pegged to the upcoming all-star game between the International League and the Pacific League.

One of the bands performing at the event is The Baseball Project, which includes two members of R.E.M. Their latest album includes an ode to the box score, as printed in the sports sections of newspapers. Some sample lyrics:

  • “For a half hour every day, let the box scores have their way.”
  • “I don’t need a website recap or highlights on ESPN.”
  • “The box score tells the whole truth. That’s the way it was designed.”
  • “And when the last newspaper goes, we’ll just read ‘em on our phones.”

I too have been a reader of box scores since I was a child. The story of a game is in there as much as it is in traditional story text. That goes for sports besides baseball.

So I figure I will sing along to “Box Scores” on Saturday, assuming The Baseball Project performs it at the party. If you cannot be there, you can read the lyrics to the song and listen to it on YouTube.


Q&A with Jane Mackay, freelance editor

Jane Mackay is a freelance editor whose clients include academic journals and book publishers. She lives in Sonoma County, California. In this interview, conducted by email, Mackay discusses how she established herself as a freelancer, what it’s like to work with writers whose primary language is other than English, and her thoughts on the Oxford comma.

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

A. Nothing like leading off with the most difficult question! Because my workload swells and shrinks, the ebb and flow of my workweek varies greatly.

Taking a broad view, the typical workweek incorporates a healthy combination of work-work (the type that directly earns me money), office-type work (answering emails; participating in discussions and answering questions on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook; organizing files on my computer; etc.), and physical activity. I tend to work in bursts of 2–4 hours interspersed with physical activity (yoga, running, hiking), playing music (I play drums), or other activity that’s not too mentally taxing (e.g., running errands); I find that keeps both my brain and body fresh and working well.

Consequently, my workday flows from when I get up to mid-evening, seven days a week, on an as-needed basis. I have a routine, but not a set schedule — one of the main reasons I became a freelancer was to have control over how I spent my time.

Q. How did you get into freelance editing? What obstacles did you face in establishing yourself in a crowded field?

A. Ignorance is a great asset. I didn’t know I was entering a crowded field when I embarked on this venture; I just knew I wanted to get paid for doing what came naturally to me.

It sounds strange to me now, but until I began a master’s in journalism at the age of 36, it hadn’t occurred to me that people got paid for correcting grammatical mistakes and smoothing syntax and doing all the other things copy editors do to fine-tune other people’s writing — or that it was something I could get paid for doing. At Northeastern University, where I was studying, I was made writing coach for the journalism department; it was in the course of doing that work (which largely consisted of working with undergraduates on their written assignments) that I realized I had found my vocation.

After the summer semester, I took a hiatus from studying and ran a Craigslist ad letting the whole of the Boston region know that I was available to edit their writing. After a week or two, I got my first client, for whom I copy edited a 600-page semi-autobiographical novel. It was quite an entry into the field!

Establishing myself was not too difficult, perhaps partly because it was pre-Recession and because at first I was feeling my way, not leaping into the deep end with both feet; I still had other sources of income. I also knew I had a lot to learn (about style guides, for example!) and wanted to keep the pressure on myself light until I felt truly competent.

The bigger obstacle has been maintaining a steady workload. Like many people who work solo with words on a page, I’m an introvert; marketing and self-promotion are two aggressive alien creatures it has taken me a long time and much effort to understand and make peace with. I’m kind of getting a handle on them now! I am fortunate in that I’ve been doing this for long enough now that a fair amount of my workload comes from referrals and repeat clients.

The other aspect of establishing myself has been finding my niche(s), which is something that has developed over time. I have three main niches: academic work; fiction and nonfiction book manuscripts (I typically work directly with authors); and business communications and other documents. The one I’m most strongly established in is the academic editing niche, with a sub-specialty of working with authors not native in the English language.

Which leads conveniently to question three.… ;-)

Q. Among other tasks, you edit an academic journal that’s largely written by authors who do not speak English as a primary language. What is it like to work with those writers?

A. I really enjoy that work. A fellow editor put it perfectly the other day: “An intense enjoyment of solving communication puzzles” is a key asset in editing writing by non-native English speakers.

In my work for the journals (I now also edit a second journal that publishes authors for whom English is not the primary language), I don’t work directly with the authors. But in the course of doing this for several years, some authors have become private clients, and I particularly enjoy working directly with them. It’s tremendously satisfying to bat a sentence or phrase or paragraph back and forth with questions and explanations and alternate wordings until both of us understand exactly what the author is trying to express and we have a sentence or phrase or paragraph that’s clear and accurate.

In both cases (the journal work and the private work), it’s particularly satisfying and fulfilling to know that I’m helping these really intelligent people who have done a huge amount of research and other work to clearly and accurately describe their studies and explain their findings. When editing research papers I am always mindful that accuracy is paramount, not only for the authors, but also for other researchers who will draw on these studies in their own research. There are occasional “hair-pulling” moments, of course, as with anything, but seeing the paper published in a well-regarded journal and receiving the author’s appreciation more than compensate.

Q. You are proficient in both Chicago and Associated Press style. Care to weigh in on the debate over the Oxford comma?

A. Because clarity and accuracy are my watchwords and there is less likelihood of misunderstanding or miscommunication with the Oxford (aka “serial”) comma, I prefer to use it.

But I have no quibble with not using it if that’s stipulated by the prevailing style guide or it’s the author’s preference. In those cases, if its absence could easily lead to confusion or misunderstanding in a particular situation, I will either put it in or recommend the use of it, depending on how much leeway I have.

Mapped out

Last night, The News & Observer shared the latest about Arthur, a tropical storm that may soon brush the North Carolina coast. The Raleigh newspaper’s Tweet included this map.


As you may have already noticed, the labels for North Carolina and South Carolina are switched. South Carolina is highlighted, but for Raleigh readers, North Carolina should be. Also, Kentucky is marked as the United States.

The N&O’s Twitter followers quickly pointed out the error, some more politely than others. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the error and said it was working to repair the bad map.

carolinas-goodmapIn this morning’s print edition, the map is right. The Carolinas are appropriately labeled, and Kentucky is no longer a separate country.

The Web version of the story has the correct version of the map, but it apparently had the one with the errors posted for a while. You can tell by the reader comments, but the story doesn’t have a correction or acknowledge the earlier error.

I asked Craig Silverman of Regret The Error what the newspaper should do when a map is right in print but wrong online. His answer: Include a correction online, but don’t worry about mentioning it in print.

I agree. The N&O did the right thing by responding on Twitter, though I wish it had Tweeted a corrected map. A correction on the story page on its website is also necessary. A simple “an earlier version of this map …” would do.

We all make mistakes. It’s what humans do.

Careful editing can prevent many, but not all, errors from being published. When mistakes happen, it’s best to come clean, acknowledge the errors and set the record straight. On occasion, a dose of humor can help.

UPDATE: As Arthur passed through North Carolina, broadcasters had similar problems with geography, as seen here and here.

Coming soon: a new and improved course on alternative story forms

In 2008, I worked with the good people at Poynter’s NewsU to create a course on alternative story forms. In 2014, we are working together again, this time on a new version of that course.

A lot has changed since 2008:

  • Digital news organizations have increased their use of alt story forms such as lists, games and FAQs.
  • People are using tablets such as the iPad to read online, and the old course’s Flash-based presentation doesn’t work in that environment.
  • Some of the examples of alternative story forms in the course have become stale in design and content.

The revised course will be in Drupal, not Flash. It will have new examples and updated exercises. It will have a “digital first” focus.

The course’s goal will be the same — to select and create the story form that best matches the news and information you want to convey to your readers.

We hope to publish the new course in September. In the meantime, if you have an example of an alternative story form that you think would work well as part of the course, please let me know.

Q&A with Tracy Moore, writer for Jezebel

Tracy Moore is a writer for the website Jezebel. She previously covered the music beat for the Nashville Scene in Tennessee. In this interview, conducted via email, Moore talks about writing and reporting in the world of snarky blogs.

Q. Describe your work with Jezebel. What is your typical workweek like?

A. Jezebel is a feminist-infused pop culture site, and most of what I write for them falls under that umbrella, from reaction pieces to current events coverage to explainers about trends.

I especially enjoy doing good old-fashioned rants about the little injustices in the world (and luckily, there are so many). In a week, I’ll usually pitch three “splash” pieces — these are longer essays featured more prominently on the site — and turn those around in a few hours, or spend more time if it’s a reported piece and I have to track down experts.

Q. How do you come up with ideas for posts? Do you have free rein, or do editors at the site influence your choice of topics?

A. I scour the Internet constantly in my downtime. I read what people are posting about on Twitter and Facebook. I read a lot of comments on stories to see what really sticks in the craws of readers.

And I am lucky in that I am easily irritated about the world, which means it’s very easy to find subjects to get worked up about. In my actual life in Los Angeles, I try to pay attention to whomever the most progressive- or New Age-seeming person in the room is, because that’s how you discover that everyone is going to energy healers these days or that Bulletproof coffee is a thing (both of which I’ve covered).

I have free rein to pitch anything that is broadly of interest, and while most of that is related to women or feminism, the editors also sometimes send along tips or make suggestions for breaking items they want covered. From there, we may shape the idea a little on the front end by hashing out the angle, and I go from there.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work for the site?

A. I write both and save it in the system, and then an editor gives it a once-over and finesses if necessary for maximum appeal. After reading the site for so long, I’ve got a decent sense of headlines in the viral world, but that’s always up for tweaking.

Q. You previously worked for the alt-weekly the Nashville Scene. What are the similarities and differences between writing for that publication and Jezebel?

A. The alt-weekly sensibility — reported stories that are either interesting or important, told by voice-y writers — is not so different for Jezebel or the other Gawker sites. One big, obvious difference is the lead time on stories and the turnaround.

The only thing I did in an hour for an alt-weekly was a blog post linking to a reported story — often I spent three weeks interviewing dozens of people for a 7,000-word cover story. Now I might write 1,500 words in a few hours and only interview myself.

While Gawker sites also do long-form journalism that sometimes takes months and travel to report, the bulk of the content is blogging opinion pieces or covering breaking news with an opinion. And of course the snark is dialed much higher.

Another huge difference is the way stories are valued via the medium. At the alt-weekly (I left in 2011) it took some time to convince the powers that be that the blog or Web version of the paper even mattered (and especially that in some cases it actually mattered more), so stories you would blog were often considered an afterthought, a way of technically giving coverage to something without deeming it premium enough content to appear in the hallowed pages of the dead-tree edition.

At Jezebel, whatever gets a lot of attention is a “good” story, whether that’s a story about wage discrimination or Kate Upton’s boobs. Cute baby animals are as essential to the site as think pieces on sexism, and that’s a refreshing change to the old alt-weekly days of (sometimes) having to convince an editor that a softer, fluffier story also had merit because it was a fun read, or silly or controversial. This is not so much the case now, as many alt-weeklies’ web presence is similar to the tone and style of Gawker and BuzzFeed, sites that set the bar for newspapers in this regard.

And probably the other major difference is that alt-weeklies were/are hyper-local, whereas at Jezebel, the location of a story is U.S.-centric but largely irrelevant. Covering national news is also something I’ve noticed alt-weeklies do more now.

Q. What advice do you have for students and other people looking to break into writing for the Web — and getting paid for it?

A. I think it’s not so different than it has been for years. Writing online is still a slog. There are more places than ever to do it, which is great, but the majority of job listings out there are not compensated at all or very poorly.

If it is at all possible, be willing to do it for popcorn long enough to show you’ve got the chops. There is real leverage in that.

It’s also important to know what you’re after — to build a byline? To land a magazine job? A book deal? Different sites offer different networks/cachet. And just like pitching old-school newspapers or magazines to freelance, know the site you’re trying to write for, the tone, the content. And make sure your voice aligns.

And finally, blogging for a living means being able to cover a wide range of subjects very quickly and reliably. So being a fast, accurate writer with a wide knowledge base is a must. Bonus points for having an endless reservoir of feisty opinions.

Follow Moore on Twitter and read her posts on Jezebel.

Let’s meet for breakfast in Montreal

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national conference in Montreal, on Friday, Aug. 8. I am the organizer and moderator of the event, which was started by the wonderful Deborah Gump of the University of South Carolina.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or just likes to hang out with editing professors.

This year, Craig Silverman of The Poynter Institute will be the breakfast’s featured speaker. Silverman, author of “Regret The Error,” will speak on the role of editors in ensuring verification of information and detecting and eliminating plagiarism and fabrication.

Another highlight of the breakfasts has been the Teaching Idea Exchange, in which we swap assignments and strategies. Jill Van Wyke of Drake University will again handle the exchange this year, so send your best teaching idea or tip to her at by Friday, Aug 1. Give her a few paragraphs on your idea and be ready to discuss it for a few minutes at the breakfast.

Coffee and tea will be provided. The breakfast is free, but please RSVP by using this simple online form. The deadline is Friday, Aug. 1.

Special thanks to the sponsors of this year’s breakfast:

  • American Copy Editors Society
  • The Dow Jones News Fund
  • Newspaper and Online News Division of AEJMC
  • Scholastic Journalism Division of AEJMC
  • Poynter’s News University

See you in Montreal!

Keeping track of news from Iraq

Looking at my Twitter feed today, I realized that I have lost track of what is happening in Iraq. I suspect many other Americans have as well.

The Tweets were alarming: The city of Mosul had fallen to a jihadist movement called ISIS. Tens of thousands of people fled the city, creating a massive traffic jam. U.S.-trained security forces apparently abandoned their posts. I clicked on links to news stories like this one, trying to catch up on the situation.

Many of the articles are written in a way that assumes knowledge of recent developments in Iraq, but I wonder how many readers have been following news from there closely. I haven’t since U.S. troops left in 2011.

Perhaps this a moment for news organizations to step back and provide a bigger picture of the situation in Iraq. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer during the Iraq war and its aftermath, we did that on occasion. A page designer, a news researcher and I used a checklist from the Pentagon to track the U.S.-led effort there.

We put it together as a full-page alternative story form, with a “by the numbers” on casualties and costs of the war. You can see PDFs of these pages here and here. (Thanks to Brooke Cain at the N&O for sharing these files.)

I’ll try to keep a closer eye on Iraq from now on. In doing so, I will look for story approaches that go beyond incremental developments and provide context and nuance.



Q&A with Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston, co-directors of The Irina Project

Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston are faculty members at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are also co-directors of The Irina Project, which examines media coverage of sex trafficking. In this interview, conducted by email, Friedman and Johnston discuss the project and offer guidance to reporters and editors covering this issue.

Q. What is The Irina Project? What do you two hope to achieve?

A. The Irina Project, or TIP, combines scholarly research with community engagement.

The purpose of our work is to first, better understand the ways that sex trafficking is covered in news media and second, to illuminate and comment on news routines and lapses that may result in audience misunderstanding or apathy toward the crime of sex trafficking.

Our aim is to bring together with journalists a range of groups most knowledgeable about trafficking: survivors, health-care workers, social workers, law enforcement, for example, as a way to widen the range of sources and stories and otherwise improve the norms of coverage. We’re working now on a Web-based resource that will include access to experts (database of experts, multimedia clips/interviews), resources (news, legal information, statistics, legislation, publications, organizations); reporting tip sheets; and social networking (blog, Twitter, wiki). It will bring together journalists, data, and knowledgeable sources in an effort to increase awareness of and promote the responsible reporting of sex trafficking.

Q. What are some of the common problems you see in media coverage of sex trafficking? How can journalists better cover this topic?

A. In our 2008 study — the first systematic analysis of news coverage of sex trafficking — we found that trafficking was typically reported as breaking (crime) news with little or no context, and rarely included the voices of the trafficked. In subsequent studies, we found these same patterns in coverage. These patterns of coverage, we argue, lead to victim-blaming, misdirected resources and poor policy decisions that hurt individuals who are trafficked.

Trafficking is a complex topic, so it’s no surprise when journalists find it challenging. Some suggestions are to approach the story from a wider range of angles, such as public health and human rights; and to draw upon a bigger pool of sources, including those most closely involved with and profoundly affected by the issue.

Further complicating things is that statistical information on trafficking is often suspect given competing agendas, the limitations of data collection and the fact that sexual exploitation is historically an underreported crime.

Journalists must keep up with a mass of data generated by an increasing number of governmental and non-governmental sources, and they must find ways to mine the data in their communities to identify the stories and accurately report on this topic in a way that informs community-based conversations and policy decisions. To do this, they need knowledge of data sources, subject experts and contacts, as well as proficiency with the approaches and tools useful for identifying and analyzing trends and presenting clearly, without sensationalism, potentially complex data in trafficking stories.

Q. What guidelines on word choice would you offer for editors who are writing headlines, captions and tweets about this topic?

A. As is true when covering other forms of violence, editors working on stories about trafficking must be especially careful with language. To do otherwise not only risks misrepresenting the issue, but may jeopardize the safety and recovery of trafficking survivors. Here are just a few suggestions:

    • Never use the term “child prostitute.” The term implies that a child has made the choice to become involved in prostitution.
    • Take care not to conflate the terms “prostitution,” “trafficking,” and “sex work.” These are contested terms among distinct communities. If unsure of the differences, see the laws in your state and municipality, and consult expert sources.
    • Rather than “pimp,” which has been normalized and trivialized in popular culture, use “trafficker” to communicate the seriousness of the offense.
    • If a trafficking survivor is included in the story, follow his/her lead, e.g., whether he/she wants to be identified by name or photograph.
    • Avoid cliché images like women in chains, as it perpetuates stereotypes about trafficking.
    • Avoid picturing and identifying individuals arrested for prostitution.

Q. You two were recently selected for the Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars program at UNC. What are your plans for that program and for the project overall?

A. We’re thrilled to be part of the FES program, having admired so much of the work that’s come out of it already. Our research of trafficking will continue, but we want to find more ways to translate our research findings into practical applications for reporters.

We recognize the need to connect with a much wider range of communities—communities with which we are less familiar (in comparison to news organizations), which may be wary of the media (such as survivors), and/or whose aims might appear to be at odds with journalism. Our goal is to bring these communities together, united under a shared goal to raise awareness about sex trafficking and its consequences and to propose solutions.

And of course, as faculty at UNC become more dependent on external funding, we want to be more effective at identifying funding sources and writing successful applications. The FES will bring us together with experienced scholars who have struggled with similar concerns and developed strategies to address them.


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