The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: newspaper design

Q&A with Kristin McKnight, copy editor and page designer at International NYT

Kristin McKnight is a copy editor and page designer at The International New York Times, a newspaper previously known as the International Herald Tribune. She has also worked at the Chicago Tribune and the Irish Independent. In this interview, conducted by email, McKnight talks about her job and her newspaper’s name change as well as what it’s like to be an American journalist living abroad.

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

A. I work as a copy editor and designer based out of the Hong Kong office. I fill a variety of shifts, and so my start time can vary from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A typical day on the layout shift is either being assigned to design finance or news. If you’re assigned news, you’re also in charge of designing Page One (PDF) and making editorial decisions on skyboxes, photos and refers. You also keep track of page flow throughout the night. We have two designers to design the first edition, with another two designers on staggered shifts to tweak layout for later deadlines.

A typical day on the copy desk is usually being assigned stories from either news or finance and occasionally some features or sports copy. Any story that has already run in the New York or Paris editions receives a quick read, and new material is gone over with a fine-tooth comb by both the rim editor and slot. After a page is finished, it is printed by the designer and then proofed in its entirety by another copy editor.

Later shifts in the day involve doing a combination of copy editing, tweaking and copying pages and updating our news app.

Kristin McKnight and other staff members of The International New York Times bring in the paper's new name with some celebratory cake.

Kristin McKnight, center, and other staff members of The International New York Times bring in the paper’s new name with some celebratory cake. (Photo courtesy of Kristin McKnight)

Q. The International Herald Tribune is now The International New York Times. What is behind the change, and how has it affected what you do?

A. The name change was a move to strengthen and consolidate the brand of The New York Times and bring it to an international audience.

We were all sad, of course, for The International Herald Tribune’s name to change because it was a great paper and had been for a long time. But what we’ve come to find is that it is still the same great paper, just under a different name.

Not much content-wise has really changed besides our style guide being updated to match New York’s. The only real shift is that there is now a stronger focus on digital production.

We recently started copy editing posts for our new Sinosphere and India Ink blogs, and we all received iPad minis the week of the name change. We also gained a printing deal with The Japan Times, which caused the deadlines for our first edition to move up by an hour and a half. Our first edition’s deadline is now at 6:30 p.m., rather early for a newspaper, and our last is at 11:45 p.m.

Q. What is it like being an American journalist living in Hong Kong?

A. The great thing about being an expatriate and a journalist in Hong Kong is that the news media scene is small here. I’ve been able to make contacts in large publications like The Wall Street Journal, Time, CNN, etc., which would have been much harder to do in the U.S.

There’s a club where everyone gathers mainly for journalists called The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and stepping inside makes you feel as if you’ve just been transported to a 1940s Hong Kong. The Asian American Journalists Association is also active, and it holds a conference here every year.

Overall, Hong Kong is a great place to live; the city is safe and is a perfect jumping off point to travel around Asia. I get a lot more vacation living abroad than I ever would working in the States, and I think that keeps journalists here and adds to a high quality of life.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008. What skills you learned there are you using, and what new ones have you picked up since then?

A. One of the most important skills I learned at the journalism school was to be trained in more than one area. My focus was visual communication, and I was able to take classes in copy editing, graphic design, multimedia and infographics.

One of the managing editors at the Chicago Tribune, where I used to work, once said to me that it was very rare to find a job candidate that was skilled in the three main areas of newspaper production: copy editing, page layout and graphics. He said that a candidate who was skilled in two of those areas would be beneficial for the company, but a candidate that was skilled in all three areas would stand above.

I have definitely found this advice to be true. Though getting any job is a combination of luck and hard work, my training at UNC gave me a solid foundation to be a competitive job candidate.

A skill that I have learned since leaving school is not to be afraid to take calculated risks and to be resilient when it comes to your career.

After I graduated from college in 2008, I backpacked in Europe for the summer and made the decision to move to Ireland. Everyone told me I would fail miserably and not be able to find a job, but it had always been my dream to live abroad. I knew I had to try.

After about two months of applying to jobs, I wound up landing a position at one of Ireland’s leading newspapers, The Irish Independent, as a graphic artist and copy editor. It was this international experience, in turn, that made me stand out when I was applying for a job at The Chicago Tribune and later at The International Herald Tribune.

Read Kristin McKnight’s blog and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Charles Apple goes solo

Since 2010, my friend and former colleague Charles Apple has written a popular blog on the website of the American Copy Editors Society. Now Charles is leaving ACES and taking his insights to a new site under his own name.

Charles explains his reasoning in full in this introductory post, but basically, it sounds like he is ready to be a solo artist. He will still touch on familiar themes about editing and design. I am certain that Charles will continue to be a must-read on those topics and on journalism generally.

Thank you, Charles, for your work with ACES. Best wishes on your new venture.

Q&A with Alberto Cairo, author of ‘The Functional Art’

Alberto Cairo is the author of “The Functional Art,” a new book about infographics and visual journalism. He has extensive experience in the newsroom and in the classroom. In this interview, conducted by email, Cairo talks about the principles of infographics and data visualization, and how writers and editors can contribute to their creation.

Q. What do you hope to achieve by writing this book?

A. “The Functional Art” is a book for designers and journalists mainly, although it can be useful for anyone who has to create charts, maps, diagrams and explanatory illustrations, even if he or she doesn’t have any experience in the field.

It is not a book about software, but about principles that can guide the effective design of graphics. And it is not written in a textbook-style, but as an essay. My main goal with it is to offer a comprehensive framework to understand all kinds of visual displays of information based on the idea that information graphics are, above all, tools for understanding.

I started writing the book years ago, when I taught infographics and visualization at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. When I tried to put together a list of readings for my students, I realized that there was not a single book that summarized the foundations of the discipline.

I also wrote it because journalists and designers sometimes get lost in the growing bibliography coming from related areas, such as statistic representation, cartography, scientific visualization, interaction design, etc. They don’t really know where they should get started or what are the common guiding principles and practices all those disciplines have in common.

Q. What role do writers and editors play in the creation of effective infographics?

A. Infographics and visualizations are a mix of copy and visuals (graphs, maps, diagrams). You cannot have a good graphic based on nicely designed visuals alone. You need good copy, organization, a solid structure, a clear focus, etc. That’s what writers and, above all, editors, can and should provide at first. But there’s more.

I usually say that an infographic should not be the product of a designer working alone with the occasional input from a reporter and an editor. That’s what happens in many newsrooms: writers work in their computers, and send some info to designers, who take care of the visuals.

That’s the wrong approach. A good infographic is always the product of teamwork. Editors and writers must get heavily involved in the information graphics in their newsrooms, sit with designers, sketch ideas out, do storyboards. Infographics are not about using software, and they are not just about illustration, charting, mapping or art.

The key skill to have to do infographics is not drawing, but schematizing ideas, stories, and concepts. Obviously, if you do know how to draw, that can help, but it is not mandatory.

That’s why I believe that anybody can learn to design information graphics to a certain level. And my experience has taught me that editors and writers are particularly good at it, even if they are a bit hesitant at first when I introduce them to charts and maps in my courses.

The reason many of those folks are so good (even if they don’t trust their own potential because, you know, they have been educated as “word people” in j-school) is that they are used to devise narrative structures based on raw information. They are used to extract meaning from data and from sources. They know how to create hierarchies. They spot what is important and what is background info.

All those skills lie at the core of infographics and visualizations. I can teach you the rest: a bit of graphic design and interactive design, how to use the software (Illustrator, Excel, even programming), what graphic shapes are appropriate depending on the data and the story, etc.

Q. We’re hearing and reading a lot about data visualization in journalism. You argue in the book that data visualization and infographics complement each other. How so?

A. An infographic is a tightly edited visual presentation of information. It is equivalent to a news story: a reporter gathers information, processes it, organizes it, makes sense of it, cuts out whatever is not relevant for the story and presents the results to the audience.

A visualization, on the other side, is a tool that a journalist or a designer develops for readers to explore a data set. A visualization doesn’t need to tell a particular story. Each reader will come out of the visualization with stories of his or her own. See, for instance, the interactive application that The New York Times developed about the 2010 Census data.

That’s a visualization, clearly, because it doesn’t really make any editorial point. This kind of project is also journalism, in my opinion, as it facilitates the access to relevant information, but it’s not an infographic per se.

That said, the distinction between infographics and visualization is not as clear as it seems. Take this graphic I made with a group of colleagues about how much Brazilian representatives spend on telephone usage every year.

You can easily argue that this is both an infographic and a visualization. On one side, it tells you the basics of the story. It highlights its most important points: Brazilian representatives spent a lot (in Brazilian terms) on telephone bills in the first eight months of 2011: more than $7 million (13 million reais). If you had to spend that amount of money calling a friend, you would be on the phone for 298 years, straight.

The graphic shows you the total and the ranking of the worst offenders. This is the “infographics” side of the story, what is usually considered traditional journalism: the headline, that is funny and striking (“298 years of conversation”), and the summary of the main data points.

But the graphic also includes a “visualization” side, which is that we let readers look for their own representatives, and filter by state and by party: on the big dot plot, you can look for particular candidates, click on each little circle to see how much each of them spent, and read the entire spreadsheet (click on “veja os dados completos”, which means “see all the data”). This is the “visualization” side of the graphic. So, in some sense, infographics and visualization are complementary.

Q. As people get news and information on mobile devices such as the iPad and smartphones, what does that mean for the future of infographics?

A. Designers and journalists will have to get smarter to present effective summaries of their data and stories and, second, to develop interfaces that let readers dig deeper into the information, in case they are interested.

A good infographic or visualization is like an onion: It should have several layers of information that readers can navigate. If you understand this principle, you will be able to apply it to any platform. Graphics on small screens have to find the balance between presenting short snippets and allowing depth.

Even if it doesn’t sound like an easy task, I am optimistic. I thing that tablets and smartphones are a new world to be explored, the same way that computer screens were the big thing more than a decade ago, when I started designing interactive graphics.

Learn more about Cairo’s book and follow him on Twitter.

Q&A with Brad Walters, features designer at Washington Post

Brad Walters is an art director and features designer at The Washington Post. He previously worked at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, S.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Walters talks about what it’s like to work at the Post and what’s in store for print designers in an increasingly digital media.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do in a typical workday?

A. In a nutshell, I get paid to draw all day! How cool is that? More specifically, I design and art-direct covers and inside pages for the weekly Health & Science and Local Living sections of the Post.

Part of the job is highly creative — conceptualizing graphics, brainstorming cover concepts from scratch — and part of it is technical and heavily deadline-driven. The features design team is a collaborative group, so we’re constantly bouncing ideas off one another and pitching in to help each other when it’s needed. I sometimes write for the paper as well, but that’s far less typical nowadays.

Q. Your career before The Washington Post included stops in Raleigh and Spartanburg. How is the Post different from the newspapers in those cities, and how does that affect what you do?

A. The biggest difference is that the Post, by virtue of its size, offers resources that smaller papers often can’t. For instance, I’m fortunate enough to have a modest freelance budget with which I can hire illustrators to produce original artwork for certain stories. It’s not something I can do all the time, but it’s a nice way to bring diverse voices and themes to our pages.

As in Raleigh and Spartanburg, the Post is highly focused on growing its local audience, more so now than ever. As Warren Buffett noted in his memo to his newspaper editors and publishers this past week, “newspapers that intensely cover their communities will have a good future.” Let’s hope he’s right.

Q. You’ve worked both as a copy editor and as a designer. Which role do you prefer, and which skills overlap?

A. The primary overlap is that I think both copy editors and designers serve as the gatekeepers and guardians of the interests of readers. In a more practical sense, it’s incredibly useful to be able to write spec headlines for display packages that stand at least a chance of making it into the paper. While everyone is encouraged to weigh in on all aspects of a story, the fact that I was a copy editor in a previous life makes me feel more comfortable doing so.

Q. You’re a print journalist in a media world that’s becoming increasingly digital. What do you see as the future of newspaper design?

If the news out of New Orleans and Alabama is any indication, I think there’s no question we’re moving toward an all-digital media world. Personally, I still read the dead-tree edition of the Post every day and have grown accustomed to how the print product organizes the news, and I think it’ll be a long while before we hit that tipping point where print can no longer wholly sustain itself.

The good news for visual journalists out there is that no matter what the medium – print, web, mobile – the need for smart, clear design and unique visual communication is only getting stronger as the media environment becomes more saturated. Print journalism may eventually die, but visual journalism – and journalism as a whole – is as important as it’s ever been.

Student guest post: Editing and design can be a harmonious pair

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Chelsea Pro is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. She works as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer at the Carolina Union Design Department.

It’s an age-old question, one that haunts every undergraduate across the globe: What do I major in?

How do I take my interests and passions and turn them into a career? How do I make my talents marketable and profitable? For me, the question was how to take a habit of doodling aimlessly on papers and turn it into a roof over my head and a pantry that, at the very least, contained some Ramen.

Graphic design had always interested me. It was something creative and artistic, but also provided more stable and predictable job opportunities than studio art. When I first researched the graphic design program at UNC, I was disappointed and confused. Why was it part of the journalism school? And why was it combined with editing, of all things?

But I went on with the program, hoping that my penchant for (politely) correcting other people’s grammar would be enough to keep me interested in the editing part of my studies. It took me awhile to realize that the two subjects were paired together for more than just convenience.

With the recent budget cuts and layoffs in the field of journalism, many media outlets have decided to combine editing and design into one position. UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is preparing its students for the possibility that a job may require both skill sets.

But it’s about more than the logistics of the job market. There’s a reason editing and graphic design work so well together.

It’s all in the details. Both editors and designers must have a keen eye for specifics. Picking up on the small things that count is an ability treasured in both fields, and one that can dictate either failure or success.

A misplaced apostrophe can be the end of your credibility as a reliable editor. Uneven kerning between the letters of a logo could make your design look sloppy and unprofessional. It’s this detail-oriented aspect of both fields that makes them great partners.

Editing and design also make a logical pairing because they rely heavily on one another. If you can think about design tricks while you’re editing, such as the use of alternative story forms, the result will be more cohesive and effective. Similarly, if you’re aware of grammar, punctuation and syntax, designing will be much easier. Instead of designing a logo and then realizing the emphasis should be on a different word, by having a background in editing, you’ll be able to see these important cues from the start.

So if you’re a designer, brush up on your knowledge of language and grammar. If you’re an editor, think about learning some basic design principles.

Like me, you might be surprised at how often you’ll be able to use both skills together.

Reactions to the new News & Observer

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

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

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

WHAT I LIKE

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

WHAT I’M STILL THINKING OVER

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

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

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

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

Debunking a headline myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

FURTHER UPDATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to the Park Library for assistance with this post. 

Life after -30-

Today is the first day that The News & Observer, my former employer, will be without a copy desk. No page designers will come to work in downtown Raleigh either. That work will be done at an editing/design hub in Charlotte.

The decision to remove editing and design from the Raleigh newsroom affected about 25 people, who had to choose between moving to Charlotte or losing their jobs. About a half-dozen people took the offer to move.

What of those who decided to stay? They’ll be looking for new jobs and new careers. That can be a daunting task, but there’s help out there.

Blogger and visual journalist Charles Apple has written this guide to journalists who are facing this transition. He covers everything from finding health care and dealing with depression.

Meanwhile, the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill is offering a free workshop on Sept. 23. It’s called “Life After -30-” and will include advice on recasting your resume, preparing for job interviews and using social media to look for work.

Losing your job is a painful experience. There’s a mourning period. But there is also hope and renewal.

I am confident that my friends and former colleagues at the N&O will find fulfilling work that will allow them to use their journalistic skills. Even though the newspaper business is changing, the skills of gathering information, distilling it and presenting it are still valuable and always will be.

The star of the earthquake

The Eastern United States was surprised by an earthquake this week. The tremors started in Virginia and were felt hundreds of miles away, causing evacuations and general confusion.

Damage was minimal, but that didn’t stop newspapers in the region from making this the big story of the day. An earthquake in this part of the country has the news value of oddity, after all.

Several newspapers chose the same image of Susy Ward, a flabbergasted office worker in Washington, D.C. Here are variations on that theme:

Earthquake front pages

It’s the sort of photo that an editor loves: It has a regular person reacting to an unusual situation, and it has a bit of scene-setting. So Susy is a star for a day.

Not all newspapers went with that sort of presentation. Here are a couple of meta-centerpieces:

Front pages from East Coast quake

It’s a risky choice, even cheesy. If there had been fatalities, these newspapers wouldn’t have done this. But these front pages are serving the purpose of generating lots of talk on Twitter and Facebook.

Here’s what one friend said about the Star-Ledger: “It’s horrible, but I give them credit for trying to make people notice it. At least they’re trying something instead of standing around looking at each other while the paper dies a slow, painful death.”

UPDATE: For more front pages and analysis, check out this post on Charles Apple’s blog.

A tribute to N&O copy editors and page designers

Disastrous. Unbelievable. Shameful. Messed up. Breathtakingly bad. So sad.

These are just some of the adjectives used on Facebook and Twitter regarding McClatchy’s decision to shut down the copy desk and design desk at The News & Observer. That work will be done at an editing/design hub at The Charlotte Observer, which is also owned by McClatchy.

McClatchy is offering the N&O journalists a chance to keep their jobs, but they must move to Charlotte to do so. They have until July 1 to decide. So far, not many seem willing to uproot their lives and families to do that.

I spent the bulk of my newsroom career at the N&O, so this news hit me hard. I am sad for my former colleagues, and I worry about the quality of the newspaper that I still read every day. I am also angry that hard-working journalists must bear the brunt of McClatchy’s debt and business decisions.

N&O reporters, editors and designers (both past and present) have been expressing similar feelings on Facebook. Here’s a sampling of what’s being said there:

  • The News & Observer’s copy editors and designers are the most creative, smart, funny, reliable, kind and hard-working journalists you could ever hope to meet. They deserve better.
  • My heart’s with my editing and design friends left with the unenviable choice between job and community. And the work that is being sent isn’t merely “production.” It’s editing, design, news judgment, awareness of local community standards and interests. The chain doesn’t clearly understand that, or these positions would remain in Raleigh.
  • Well done, McClatchy. I hope you choke on your precious cost savings.
  • How can you have a newsroom without the excitement that rips through a copy desk when you’re getting out a paper with late-breaking news that’s important to people?
  • Another risky thing about having all the copy editing and page design for several newspapers in one place is that when a hurricane blows through and destroys the building or at least causes a lasting power outage, there is no desk in another location to pick up the work.
  • One good thing about this N&O nightside mess: When we have an inevitable get-together (picnic, anyone??), no one will have to take a raincheck because “someone has to put the paper out.”
  • I think I know how the people of Bến Tre felt.
  • Our desk will be lost in The Cloud; we’ll be lost in a fog. Readers and advertisers will feel the loss too.
  • It makes me sick to think that copy editing and page design are considered factory work, but I know that my colleagues and I are journalists and professionals.
  • That’s our heart and soul leaving.
  • Who’ll save my ass now?
I wish my friends at the N&O the best. I hope that they find fulfilling jobs where they can put their journalistic skills to good use.

I also look forward to a “going away” front page. If it’s anything like this one from 2009, that page will be one for the ages.

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