Captions by computer? OK, but we still need human editors

Earlier this week, my colleague Ryan Thornburg retweeted this news from Google Research:

The post from Google describes the process of object detection, classification and labeling. The researchers include examples of effective computer-generated captions and others that fall short.

As an editor who has written many captions (and called them cutlines back in the day), I read the post with great interest. Could this lead to computers replacing editors?

Probably not. Even the best of these computer-generated captions states the obvious.

They don’t provide background and context. They don’t connect the image to a larger story. They don’t tell us what we cannot see. Effective captions, written by people, do all of those things in addition to describing the photograph.

Still, I appreciate the value of robo-captions on another level, if not for journalism. The Google scientists put it this way:

This kind of system could eventually help visually impaired people understand pictures, provide alternate text for images in parts of the world where mobile connections are slow, and make it easier for everyone to search on Google for images.

I’ll be curious to see how computer-generated captions evolve. For now, though, I view them as I view robo-articles: sometimes functional, but in need of human editors.

Q&A with Kinsey Lane Sullivan of TRUPOINT Partners

Kinsey Lane Sullivan is communications coordinator at TRUPOINT Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina. The company provides regulatory compliance solutions and consulting services, and it works with more than 450 financial institutions nationwide. In this interview, conducted by email, Sullivan discusses her job, her journalism training and her freelance interests.

Q. Describe your job at TRUPOINT Partners. What is your typical day like? 

A. Every day at TRUPOINT is different. In my book, that’s one of the benefits of working at a small and growing entrepreneurial business.

I’m the communications coordinator, and I lead the marketing initiatives. That being said, a typical day involves lots of collaboration. I work with almost everyone in our company at least once daily.

Generally speaking, I spend half of my time on inbound content strategy and the other half on outbound marketing strategy. Branding, advertising, writing, editing, design, analysis, audience research and even conferences planning are all part of the role.

Another aspect of my role that wouldn’t show up on a resumé is learning the industry. Regulatory compliance is a specialized field. It requires a lot of technical knowledge. Learning the nuances of compliance has been a critical part of my job, and one of the most interesting.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013. What skills that you learned there do you use in your job? What new skills have you picked up?

A. One of the greatest skills that studying journalism teaches you is to consume information in various formats, from biased sources, and then reframe that information in way that is informative, trustworthy and readable.

Almost everything I know about writing, editing and design I learned in the j-school. That includes InDesign from your class and editorial writing with Professor Brinson. I’ve also drawn heavily from lessons I learned in Professor O’Connor’s reporting class as I dissect government publications.

Almost everything I know about marketing and communication strategy I’ve learned on the job.

I studied reporting, and the wall between the editorial and advertising sides of journalism is substantial. I see that changing rapidly in the industry, but I didn’t have any exposure to promotional communication while I was in school.

Truth and clarity will always be central to effective communication, but so is knowing your audience. From that perspective, the editorial-advertising fusion is natural.

Q. You also have freelanced at Mic and elsewhere. What do you like to write about, and how do you go about pitching ideas for freelance pieces?

A. I love freelancing. I’ve been doing it since I was in the j-school and started submitting pieces from Professor Cole’s feature writing class to local publications. My first published piece was a front-page feature on beekeeping that was published in the Chapel Hill Herald-Sun in 2011. That experience got me hooked.

I’ve been focusing on digital media lately and am writing for two niche media platforms. The first is Mic, which is geared toward a politically engaged millennial audience. The second is HelloGiggles, which features positive stories with a feminist slant.

Art is my passion, so that’s what I cover most. I do research online, and when I find an artist or an event that is compelling, I pitch it! Cultivating good relationships with my editors has really helped me have the freedom to pitch whatever I want.

Without a specific connection to a platform, I’ve found it to be easier to pitch online. That being said, I wouldn’t be freelancing today if I hadn’t done the legwork to get in touch with friends of friends (of friends) who were already established in the field. It may be intimidating, but that networking is just what you have to do – and everyone is doing it.

Q. You’re succeeding in a competitive field. What advice do you have for journalism students who are pursuing internships and jobs?

A. The field is changing a lot. Be open to new experiences and opportunities, and be flexible. There are many opportunities for people who communicate well.

Also, leverage your resources! If you’re in school, there’s no excuse not to take advantage of the career services and the knowledge of your mentors. If you’re out of school, start having conversations with friends and family about where you want to go and who they may know.

Your path will almost certainly be unconventional, so embrace that. It’s a lot of fun!

Follow Kinsey Lane Sullivan on Twitter and contact her via her page.

Let’s answer readers’ questions about net neutrality

The debate over net neutrality on the Internet has burbled for several years, but it made big news Monday when President Obama weighed in on the topic.

Reaction on Twitter and on news sites was swift. At times, it revealed that many people are unclear on what net neutrality is and how it affects how they get information and entertainment online. Here’s a sampling of reader comments:

  • “Just wait until internet free speech is ‘regulated’ by government. And anyone who speaks up against government mysteriously has their internet disconnect and blogs erased.”
  • “This would give government full control to see every single thought we have in emails, in what we research, and our private conversations.”

Neither of those assertions is true, but net neutrality is hard to understand. (This clip from John Oliver’s HBO show is helpful in its comedic way.)

Most traditional publications wrote and edited the story about Obama’s announcement in the inverted pyramid form. Many of these stories (like this one) are presented in an entirely political context.

For a complicated topic like net neutrality, however, I would suggest a “frequently asked questions” format. Research has shown that readers retain more information when it’s presented in alternative ways.

This story from The Associated Press is a start. I’d like to see it fleshed out: who are the stakeholders? What do they stand to win or lose?

That kind of reporting and editing can advance the debate and minimize confusion about Internet policy. It may be impossible to eliminate political rhetoric on this issue, but it can at least serve as a counter to it.

A gluttonous gourmet

Homer Simpson, one of the great gourmands of popular culture.

Earlier this week, The Associated Press held a Twitter chat with guest editor J.M. Hirsch. The topic was food.

It was a fun series of tweets, and I learned, among other things, what “spatchcocking” is.

But this tweet gave me pause:


I understand that a gourmand is a glutton. But why can’t a gourmand also appreciate fine food, albeit to excess?

Some gourmands may prefer fast food and cheap beer, but others may enjoy fine wine and steak dinners at the fanciest restaurants. Either way, the gourmand is overindulging, perhaps to the point of obesity.

Is it possible for someone to be a gourmand and a gourmet? I believe so.

An example is R.W. Apple, a famous New York Times reporter. He took great pleasure in food and drink, and he had refined tastes. The headline for this Apple column on his favorite restaurants, published shortly after his death in 2006, originally called him a “global gourmand.” It was later changed to “global gourmet.”

The change was unneeded. In its obituary, the NYT mentions Apple’s “Falstaffian appetites” and “surplus pounds.”

To my eye, Apple was a gourmand and a gourmet. Either word would work. I hope that the AP Stylebook would agree.

Degrees of definition

The embellishment of resumes is all too common. On occasion, such exaggerations and fabrications have brought down football coaches and business leaders.

The issue has popped up during the election season in Wake County, North Carolina. Paul Coble, a former mayor of Raleigh and current member of the county’s Board of Commissioners, is seeking re-election. Coble says that he holds a degree as a Registered Health Underwriter, but a Raleigh blogger says that “degree” is the wrong word for what Coble earned. In response, Coble told The News & Observer that it was a matter of semantics.

As director of a certificate program at UNC-Chapel Hill, I took a particular interest in the dispute. The certificate in technology and communication is an online, three-course program. It is aimed at mid-career professionals who want to refresh their skills and pick up new ones.

The program is valuable, and those who complete it should include their participation on their resumes. But I would discourage anyone who completed it from calling it a “degree.” It should be listed on a resume as a “certificate.”

Some course credit obtained in the certificate program can lead to a master’s degree in digital media. That would require more coursework and a final project, however.

I’m not sure that Coble’s claim matters much to voters, but it is disingenuous. As of this writing, the RHU “degree” reference remains on his page on Wikipedia and on his campaign’s website. News organizations that list Coble’s credentials should edit accordingly.

Q&A with Brian Long of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs

Brian Long is director public affairs North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role, he oversees the department’s communication efforts, including the N.C. State Fair. He is a 1988 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Long talks about his job and what to expect at this year’s fair.

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

A. Unpredictable. It doesn’t matter what I’m planning to get done on any given day, there’s always the possibility that I’ll end up spending my day working on something entirely different.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a lot of service and regulatory responsibilities, so there’s always a possibility of some issue popping up. The unpredictability keeps my job from being boring, but some days can definitely be a challenge.

I usually start my day reviewing news stories related to agriculture or other topics the department has some connection to. I spend a good chunk of time editing news releases, speeches and blog posts written by the other members of the Public Affairs staff. I also do a bit of writing myself, though not as much as I would like because I find myself pulled into a good number of meetings.

Q. It’s almost time for the State Fair. How does your job change in the weeks leading up to this event? In the aftermath?

A. We begin working on the State Fair in the winter, developing a theme and working with the fair’s ad agency on a media plan and creative concepts. We do some publicity during the summer — announcing the theme, updating the website and publicizing the concert lineup and advance ticket sales, which usually start in early August.

We get more focused on the fair in September, planning what I call “events within the event.” Our staff is responsible for organizing a pre-fair media lunch, a press conference focused on safety, an opening ceremony and the annual State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame induction. We move our office from downtown to the fairgrounds a week before the fair opens.

Once the fair opens, our duties involve responding to media requests and helping reporters with story ideas, publicizing winners of livestock and cooking contests and taking photos of the fair. After the fair, we typically deal with any follow-up media requests regarding attendance and our overall impression of the fair, and we announce any remaining livestock show results.

And before we know it, we’re getting ready for the next year. I also should mention that even though we’re absorbed by the fair, we still have responsibilities for assisting the rest of the agriculture department with any communications needs.

Q. Each year, the fair has a theme. This year it’s “the October Original.” How do those themes come about?

A. Caffeine and sugar usually play a role in our theme development. We get together and brainstorm ideas based on the fair’s characteristics.

We strive for themes that create a certain mood or feel. For this year’s theme, we wanted to play up the fact that the fair is a unique North Carolina experience.

Q. Unfortunately, the fair is not just fun, food and games. Last year, an accident on a ride injured several people. This year, a concealed-carry group said it wants to bring guns to the fair, bringing a political debate to the event. How does your office handle these situations?

A. We believe in transparency and accuracy.

When the ride accident happened last year, we immediately began gathering as many known facts as possible so that we could hold a news briefing and put out a news release. The initial focus was on what happened, because we didn’t know when the investigation would determine why it happened. By providing accurate information as quickly as possible, we hope to guard against speculation and rumors.

When situations like this occur, the relationships we’ve built with news media over time are invaluable. We have a track record of being accessible and helpful to the media, and there is a mutual respect for our respective jobs.

Q. Social media must play a role in the fair nowadays. Any advice for those of us visiting on how and what to tweet and post to Instagram this year?

A. Because of the popularity of selfies, we are rebranding our photo-op spots as “selfie stations” this year. We also encourage visitors to post about their favorite things at the fair, whether it’s the food, the exhibits, the rides, the animals or the entertainment. Use #ncstatefair or #octoberoriginal (this year’s theme).