The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: story editing

Student guest post: How copy editing taught me to be a better writer

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Bailey Holman is a senior from Wilmington, N.C., who is majoring in journalism with a minor in creative writing.

I’m a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill (reporting track), but the truth is, news is not really what I’m into. I’m a creative-writing nerd.

Fiction, memoir, poetry — you name it, I want to read it and write it. I’m hoping to have a career as a novelist, or at least write novels on the side, but because creative writing isn’t a major at North Carolina, I settled into the journalism school. The journalism program is great, but I was frustrated. For four years I carried around the notion that creative writing and newswriting belong to two different worlds, and I was unable to shake the feeling that I’m wasting my time. It took an advanced copy-editing class to smack some sense into me.

Let me backtrack a little. I’ve loved every creative writing course that I’ve taken at this school, but I was struggling with one aspect of my writing: I was being too wordy.

Some writers sneer at the sentiment that wordiness is sin; of course we’re going to be wordy — words are our job. But some words, some sentences, are better left out. One of my creative writing professors, novelist Marianne Gingher, kept urging me to strike words and phrases from my stories that weren’t necessary, that didn’t add anything. It’s stronger without, she said.

I tried, but I couldn’t grasp it. My natural inclination was to explain everything in excruciating detail. Enter JOMC457 (Advanced Editing) and Rene J. Cappon.

In Andy Bechtel’s editing class, we are editing articles for wordiness and repetition almost daily, and outside of class, we’re reading Rene Cappon’s “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing.” Cappon says that bloated language is all around us; too many writers succumb to the “fatal lure of wordiness” and repetition – “the grossest form of wordiness.” His thought is that the skill of writing lies not in the initial gush of words, but in the sifting of them.

Cappon also implores that writers and editors show instead of tell. Why tell your reader outright that something is dramatic? Just give them the particulars and they’ll supply their own adjectives, he says.

With the words of Gingher ringing in my head – Don’t Spoonfeed Us! – I had my eureka moment. Or, more accurately, my eureka semester. I finally got it: concise is powerful. Cutting adjectives does not always mean a sacrifice of information or imagery.

While it’s true that copy editors often make deletions for reasons of space or to ensure that the average reader will understand, sometimes it is simply because wordiness and repetition can bog the reader down and cloud meaning. In this editing class, I’m becoming less reluctant to yield my proverbial red pen, slashing what’s not needed, and in my creative writing endeavors, I’m finding it easier to be concise. Alas, I’ve found the antacid to my writer’s bloating!

Now, I’m not saying that descriptive, poetic language doesn’t have its place in creative writing. It does. What I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be used all the time. A writer must find a balance. As the saying goes, less is sometimes more. Mark Twain put  it well: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean that utterly, but kill the most of them — then the rest will be valuable.”

Even as a self-professed language nerd, I sometimes find myself reading an author, and all I can think is: What are you trying to say? I want to go back and read over a sentence because I love it, not because I have to wade back through its excesses trying to find its meaning.

When Jim Roberts from The New York Times came to speak to our class earlier in the semester, he told us that it’s not only our writing that can be strengthened by an understanding of editing, but our speech as well. He’s noticed that a background in editing makes individuals more verbally concise and clear, a benefit he says is sometimes underappreciated.

So, out of fear of repeating myself, I’ll stop here, ending with an expression of gratitude for the field of copy editing, which helped me to see that I was being a moron. I haven’t been wasting my time. Writing and editing the news does not float in a realm separate from creative writing.

Instead, they can bleed together to strengthen my grasp of language. And teach me not to write sentences like: They mingle and overlap, blurring and bleeding together, swirling like dyes in an aqueous solution, until I’ve reached a higher level of consciousness and fully realized for the first time that one can really, truly help the other and vice versa. Did you get all that?

To hear the thoughts of a few other writers and copy editors on the necessity of concise writing and editing, check out:

Q&A with R.L. Bynum, editor and proofreader at AICPA

R.L. Bynum is a former newspaper editor who now works at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Durham, N.C. Before joining AICPA in 2010, Bynum was a copy editor and page designer at the Daily Press newspaper in Virginia, and he also worked in sports departments at several newspapers in North Carolina, including the Herald-Sun in Durham. In this interview, conducted by email, Bynum discusses his job, the transition from newspapers and his use of social media.

Q. Describe your job with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. What do you do on a typical day?

A. I proofread all material produced by the Graphic Design team at the AICPA. That includes all sorts of publications such as annual reports, white papers, brochures, conference programs, conference signs and application kits. Some of these can be as small as 2 or 3 pages and others can be 30 or 40 pages.

I copy edit all manuscripts before they go to the designer, proof the PDFs before they go to the clients and review any client changes before they go to the designer. I also proof/copy edit dues letters and various other sorts of small jobs.

I’m the only proofreader on a team that includes a copy writer and five designers. There is a freelance proofreader who helps with certain jobs and when the work load is excessive.

It can get fairly busy, but there is nothing approaching the deadline pressure that was routine during my years in newspapers. At a newspaper, a rush could mean turning around a breaking story in minutes. On my team, a rush job may mean that it needs to be done in two days.

Q. Before this job, you worked in newspapers for more than 20 years. What has that transition been like?

A. While there usually are more hours to my workweek (most weeks at least 45), the distribution of those hours is a pleasant change. I definitely don’t miss working nights, weekends (although I do occasionally have work to do on a weekend) and holidays.

Working 8 a.m. to around 5:30 p.m. gives me a lot more time with my family as well. I had the entire week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day for the first time in 29 years. The pace of work is quite different, but it was an easy adjustment.

There’s no doubt that I miss many aspects of working at a newspaper and the rush of working the desk when news is breaking. I miss being a journalist. The job security certainly makes up for that, and it’s nice not bracing for the next round of layoffs. There were six in five years that I survived before finally being laid off by the Tribune newspaper in Newport News, Va., along with nearly all desk people.

When I accepted the job at the AICPA, I canceled an interview with a Mid-Atlantic Gannett newspaper for a copy editing job that would have paid better. I had just been laid off and was very paranoid about joining another chain, particularly that one. A few months later, I found out that the person who would have interviewed me had been laid off.

Q. You are critic of sports media, including the News & Observer’s sports section and ESPN. What do you see as their shortcomings and areas for improvement?

A. On the surface, it probably appears that my criticism of the N&O and other newspapers is directed at the copy editors and designers. But I’m really more upset with the newspaper executives who seem to think that that fewer, younger desk people with double the workload can produce quality newspapers. It obviously can only cause problems, and we’re seeing that many days in the pages of the N&O, particularly in sports.

Combining two bad ideas — universal desks and regional desks — produces bad results. Certainly the copy editors and designers could produce cleaner sections, but mistakes are bound to happen when you’re putting out multiple newspapers every night.

The content, for the most part, is good. It’s just the packaging that often is irritating. The way to fix it is to have more copy editors and a more experienced desk, but we know that McClatchy isn’t going to do that. Even if it did that, it wouldn’t reclaim all of the institutional knowledge that was let go.

A lot of little mistakes frequently happen that shouldn’t. Stories routinely are jumped in the middle of a word (which is very irritating for readers). I’ve seen scoreboard pages in which the sport header is at the BOTTOM of one column, which obviously is a brutal break.

The N&O is far from the only media outlet that makes silly mistakes. I tweet examples from NBC News and ESPN on a fairly regular basis.

Mistakes happen, and I certainly made my share over the years working at newspapers. But there definitely seem to be many more in the N&O since it lost the Raleigh copy desk.

Q. You describe yourself as a “reformed newspaper man.” Any advice for those going through a similar change?

A. Experienced newspaper people, particularly those with a mixture of reporting and desk experience, have skills that are marketable outside of newspapers. It’s not easy to find those jobs, but they are out there.

Networking really is more productive in that pursuit than checking job listings. My advice is to work your professional network as much as possible as you try to find the opening that helps you escape from insanity that the newspaper business has become.

Follow R.L. Bynum on Twitter and check out his blog.

Q&A with Kathy Blackwell of the Austin American-Statesman

Kathy Blackwell is executive features editor at the Austin American-Statesman. Her career includes work as a copy editor at newspapers in Greensboro, N.C., and Orlando, Fla. In this interview, conducted by email, Blackwell discusses her job, changes in features coverage and the emerging role of social media in journalism.

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

A. I can never say my title with a straight face  — it’s executive features editor, which essentially means that I’m a department head. I oversee the features staff of 17 reporters and four assigning editors, the daily Life section, the Austin360 entertainment tabloid, Statesman Homes and the books content that appears Sunday in Insight & Books — and the corresponding content that appears on our news and entertainment sites.

I also plan and edit Glossy magazine, a high-end niche publication that comes out nine times a year and is delivered to 50,000 subscribers. I report to the managing editor and executive editor.

I haven’t had a typical workday since 2006, quite honestly. I never know what to expect when I come in to the office — or, I should say, when I wake up and plug in to my email, Twitter and Facebook. It took me a while to realize that a highly structured approach to the day can be more of a detriment than an asset, but once I did, this flexible approach really made a difference in my ability to change gears and be able to react to whatever the day or night brings.

Having said that, though, structure is still important. The Life section is a pre-print, and the production desk has shrunk dramatically from when I first took this job in late 2004, so planning is essential, details crucial. It’s really a balancing act — the more you have a grip on things you can control, the better off you’ll be when things you can’t control arise.

I read the paper before I come to work (if I wait to read it at my desk, it will never happen), and I also check the home pages for our news site (statesman.com, where some of my lifestyle material appears) and our entertainment site (austin360.com, where the majority of my content appears). I also take a quick look at Twitter and Facebook feeds to get an idea of what people are talking about.

My days revolve around meetings and emails. I try to deal with them efficiently and get them out of the way so that I can get on to the editing and planning parts of my job.

Every morning I attend the 10 a.m. news meeting, where all the department heads discuss what did/didn’t work in that day’s paper, go over what’s online on the major area news sites and what’s doing well on ours, and then go over what each department is planning for the next day. We have another news meeting at 3:30 focusing on just the next day’s paper, going over updates and changes. I or one of my assigning editors does a daily “standup” meeting at the page designer’s desk around 10:45 to go over our Life sections for the next two days and see what we’re missing, what isn’t working, that kind of thing.

I meet with my assigning editors, the photo editor and the online and production heads on Mondays and Fridays to go over my story budget for the next three weeks. The department heads also meet every Tuesday to discuss the next few weeks and weekends, focusing especially on Sundays.

As for emails, I typically get between 300 and 400 a day during the week. They come from staffers, readers, PR people, bands looking for stories, freelancers looking for work, almost everything you can think of. If I don’t deal with them quickly, they can easily take over. This doesn’t include the reaching out that happens on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve tried to train people to communicate with me directly via email. I would say I spend a total of about two hours on email.

Ideally, the rest of the day would be spent doing a combination of looking at all of our copy for the next few days’ worth of sections and any big stories that are in, talking to reporters or editors about what they’re working on, going over the story budget to make sure we don’t have any holes and that photos and online components are being thought of, monitoring the dozens of blogs and other content we do for online (as well as what other news outlets are doing) to make sure we’re not missing print opportunities and trying to maintain a presence on Twitter. I also try to spend some time on the magazine, either editing or planning.

The rest of the time can be spent dealing with personnel issues, meeting with marketing to discuss event opportunities and meeting with members of the community. I try to accept invitations to events when I can, whether it’s lunch with an arts leader or a fundraiser for the film festival. Social media is more effective when you’re actually social.

Q. Your background is rooted in editing more than reporting. How does that affect the way you do your job?

A. I was a copy editor and page designer from 1991 to 1999, when I became a section editor and writer for the Orlando Sentinel. Then I came to Austin as a business copy editor and page designer but didn’t do that for long. The editors here knew my interest in features, so they moved me over to features as the wire editor, which I did for about a year until becoming copy chief, which didn’t really excite me.

I was eager to be more on the content editing and planning side of things, which was encouraged by the Statesman management. They came up with the idea to put me in a reporting role so that I would be better prepared to become an assigning editor. So I became the suburban schools reporter for the metro desk, and I loved it. I learned so much doing that and can’t imagine doing my current role without that experience.

When an assigning editing job opened up in Features, I filled that slot and then became features editor just a few months later when the editor was promoted to the new role of AME for online. Because I’ve held all those roles, I think I have a really clear understanding of what it takes to put out the paper and produce great stories and packages.

Q. Austin has a lot going on culturally. How does the American-Statesman decide what to focus on?

A. It can be overwhelming, that’s for certain. We try to focus on local stories, which isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds.

For example, Tony Bennett isn’t from Austin, but when he comes to perform here, then it’s local. So another way to look at is that we put the priority on copy that only we can really do, so we’re getting away from having the staff do what you can call commodity copy: reviews of movies without local connections or strong local interest, stories about television shows or musicians without local connections. For that, we ignore or use wire.

We rely on blogs and listings in our entertainment tab and on our daily Best Bets page in the Life section to at least mention the events and news that we feel our readers need to know about. Beyond that, we look for subjects that either make for good stories or are a way to shed light on our way of life here.

We also want to help advance the discussion of issues that are important, whether it be about the need for a film incubator or whether South by Southwest is too big for our town (it’s not, by the way). We want to be reflective of the community — it’s the capital, a college town, a music town, a tech town, a foodie town and a movies town, but we also have a lot of readers in the suburbs who could care less about what’s happening on 6th Street but do want to know about the rodeo or the family fair at the Wildflower Center.

Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that we now compete with dozens of niche online publications who are eager to tell Austinites about music, food trailers, arts exhibits, local film news, etc. For years, our biggest challenge was that we had a modest staff covering large swaths of A&E, which meant that a reporter would be both a critic and a reporter. If the criticism wasn’t favorable, it would sometimes cost us a source. This has become less of a problem as we’ve gotten away from criticism and into what we call authoritative reporting, which works really well in the blogosphere.

Q. We’ve seen tremendous changes in the media in the past few years. What does the transition to digital news mean for features coverage?

A. I’m really lucky to be at the Statesman. When I came here in 2000, I was surprised to see that we didn’t have a big digital staff like the one I had left behind in Orlando. Instead, it was a small operation that relied on the newsroom for content.

This ended up being really smart, because the newsroom has always felt a part of the website (unlike in Orlando, where it was basically a separate universe), and most of the staff can barely remember a time when online wasn’t part of their daily routine. So when we did develop production desks for the news and entertainment sites, the reporters and editors were already on board. They didn’t need to be sold on the value of getting their stories up quickly.

We’ve been winning national and state awards for our sites for years now. The majority of my staff is also very tech-savvy; in fact, personal tech reporter Omar Gallaga has been doing NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for three years. He and food writer Addie Broyles quickly jumped on to Twitter (which really got its start at SXSW here a few years ago), so by the time the majority of Twitter users got into their groove, Addie, Omar and other staffers had several thousand followers.

One of our online staffers ended up creating his role as our social media editor, which was essential to our success with using social media to drive traffic. Almost all of the features writers are actively engaged in our community now because of social media and public appearances, and that leads to better, more informed stories.

With our niche competition, we’re driven to stay on top of the important areas and be first to break news, whether it’s an announcement of a new restaurant or the lineup of a music festival. However, what sets us apart is our credibility and our trustworthiness. We’ve seen many others lose sight of that in their drive to be the first. After a while, savvy online readers pick up on who’s going to get it right versus who’s just trying to get traffic.

Follow Kathy Blackwell on Twitter.

Patch’s march across the South

Patch, the nascent effort of AOL to cover local news, is apparently on the move across the South.

Having already set up in the Atlanta area and in the D.C. suburbs of Virginia, Patch is now hiring in the Carolinas. Here’s the “work from home” editor job in a nutshell:

Run a local news site — reporting, writing, taking pictures and video; finding, assigning and editing freelancers and local columnists, and connecting with the community to attract user-generated content.

In this push, Patch is targeting the three major metro areas of South Carolina: Charleston, Columbia and Greenville. In each place, the sites focus on suburban markets. For example, the Patch websites in Mauldin and Easley will be competing with The Greenville News.

In North Carolina, the lone Patch job is in Fayetteville. That’s the largest city on its list of jobs in the Carolinas, and the job listing recognizes the presence of Fort Bragg. Candidates must “be able to quickly grasp the interests, rhythms and identity of a military community.”

Patch’s move into this region comes at a time when newspapers here are struggling for revenue and cutting staff. The Fayetteville Observer, for example, is building a paywall on its website.

Last week, The News & Observer of Raleigh announced that it would cut 20 positions, including 11 in the newsroom. A week later, The Charlotte Observer laid off 26 people, including four in the newsroom. The Raleigh and Charlotte newspapers are owned by McClatchy, which also runs the newspapers in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, among others in South Carolina.

Those decisions come as both states deal with unemployment rates that are higher than the national average. In short, the Carolinas and their media are vulnerable.

Looking at the map at the Patch homepage reminded me of another map, that of William Tecumseh Sherman’s march across the South during the Civil War. Patch’s path doesn’t follow Sherman’s precisely, but it’s similar.

I only hope that Patch doesn’t do to the local media what the general said he’d do and did: “I would make this war as severe as possible and show no symptoms of tiring ’til the South begs for mercy.”

Student guest post: Writers, editors can get along

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the tenth of those posts. Sarah Morayati is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior finishing her degree in journalism with a concentration in editing and graphic design. She’s worked as both a writer and copy editor at various points – no conflicts.

It’s downright unsettling how many people are surprised when I tell them I consider myself both a writer and an editor. You’d think the two roles would go together. One creates words; one refines words. Just about any other two professions, randomly chosen, would have less in common.

Perhaps it’s the adversarial relationship writers and editors are supposed to have. We’ve all heard writers complain about those anonymous bullies who barge in and change their beloved words.

Mind you, it goes both ways. What editor hasn’t griped, even just once, about a particularly troublesome piece of writing — or the writer who produced it?

Or perhaps it’s rooted in stereotype. We see writers as untamed auteurs and artists; editors, by contrast, are detail-minded technicians. They’re almost irreconcilable images — one’s mind soars wide, one burrows deep.

For whatever reason, people ask questions, but it shouldn’t be so surprising. I’ve never found either writing or editing to come into conflict with the other. In fact, they’re complementary. Being a better writer helps you be a better editor, and vice versa.

The first is just common sense. When you know how something’s stitched together, you know where the seams are to take it apart.

As a reporter, you develop habits and experience. You know how stories are built, and once you write enough, you know what they generally look like.

You learn the parlance of press releases (“leading” and “solution” are up there, it turns out and the places where you tend to resort to jargon. You learn what conditions writers work under — when they rush, when they spend more time on their work. You learn which facts get triple-checked and which tend to be added in at the last minute. All this can be learned while editing, of course, but there’s no substitute for doing it yourself.

It works much the same way from the other side. As an editor, you read enough stories every night to know what works and what doesn’t.

Every day, you learn more writearounds, more lazy transitions, more prose flourishes that distract from holes in stories. You learn where corrections tend to happen and the errors you find yourself fixing most often. After enough of this scrutiny, you’ll start seeing the same in your own writing, and you’ll be able to self-edit much more thoroughly.

A couple of writers I admire do a certain exercise at least once a year: go through their prose and pick out their bad habits – clichés they resort to, words they overuse, etc. It’s much easier to do this as an editor, when you know what to look for.

It’s been suggested from time to time that aspiring reporters should spend time on the copy desk or vice versa. Logistically, it might be a disaster — try asking someone who works reporter’s hours to take a four-to-midnight  shift — but theoretically it’s quite sound.

Writers and editors share a common goal, after all: to produce the best prose possible. The skills it takes to do that are applicable on either side.

Why you should go to the ACES conference

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place March 17-19 at Arizona State University.

Editors from newspapers, magazines, academia, government and the corporate world are invited to attend. Everyone is welcome.

Here are some reasons you should be there:

  • If you’re old school, you can brush up on your skills on grammar and proofreading.
  • If you’re new school, you can learn about blogs, wikis, video and social media.
  • Either way, sessions will include hands-on training to help you be the best editor you can be.
  • Phoenix is a nice — and warm — place to visit to escape the winter doldrums of the East Coast and Midwest.
  • You’ll have access to free, reliable Wi-Fi on the ASU campus — no fees!
  • Registration rates are the same as last year and less expensive than many other journalism conferences.
  • You can bid on fun items like these at the silent auction, with proceeds going to scholarships for students interested in careers in editing.
  • Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, will be the keynote speaker at the Friday night banquet.
  • We’ll have plenty of fun and fellowship (and networking, if that is your thing), from the Thursday night kickoff through the Saturday night social.

Still not sure? Need more reasons? See for yourself why the ACES conference is a great event.

I hope to see you there.

May I quote you on that?

Journalists love a good quote from a source. Used well, those words can add details to the story and elicit emotions in the reader. They also add credibility because readers can see sources speaking in their own words.

Accurately quoting a source isn’t a simple task, however. People speak faster than reporters can take notes. Sources go off on tangents and speak in incomplete sentences. Tape recorders and flip cameras can help, but deadline pressure presents challenges too.

Perhaps that’s what happened with recent coverage of a college football game between UNC and N.C. State. The Wolfpack prevailed over the Tar Heels in a contest that included a failed two-point conversion that would have tied the game.

My colleague Bill Cloud detected two renderings of a post-game quote from UNC quarterback T.J. Yates. Here’s how The News & Observer quoted him:

The rival Herald-Sun in Durham also covered the game. It quoted Yates this way:

I believe that each newspaper was making a good-faith effort to quote Yates accurately. The differences here are not significant; the meaning of what Yates said is intact in each one.

Yet, these two versions of the quote illustrate the challenge of quoting a source and including those exact words in a story in context. Different people can hear different things, or they can record them differently.

Ambrose Bierce put it this way in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Quoting is the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” I hope that I am quoting him accurately.

Q&A with Kevin Davis, editor of Bull City Rising

Kevin Davis is editor of Bull City Rising, a news blog that covers Durham, N.C., which is also known as the Bull City. Davis, a former writer and editor and technology columnist for The Harvard Crimson, works as a university administrator and lives in the Trinity Park neighborhood of Durham. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Davis talks about writing and editing at the blog, and about the media landscape in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. What is the job of editor like at Bull City Rising?

A. As with many “hyperlocal” sites and publications, I’m the owner (via Bull City New Media LLC), main writer and editor of other readers’ submission — plus interlocutor between two outsourced ad placement companies and sponsors, plus the first-line of troubleshooting if the site doesn’t work. And I have to remember to renew the PO Box once a year, too, and to get those LLC annual reports filed.

Tongue out of cheek, this is nothing new for folks at many community news  sites — or for any startup small business. In my case, BCR’s a quasi-hobby, quasi-commercial enterprise I pursue in my spare time outside of a full-time job as a university administrator. BCR takes up the mornings, evenings and many weekends.

Of late, I’ve been doing more editing of others, with three correspondents/freelancers on board or getting started; one covers general news, politics, neighborhood issues and other items of interest; a second is focused on entrepreneurship and startups, a big area of interest in Durham right now; and a third is just now starting and will focus on K-12 education.

On a typical morning, I’ll wake up and peruse the local papers and a Durham-centric RSS feed I’ve built over the years to look for stories worth aggregating into the “fishwrap,” a list of links to key news stories of the day. I’ll typically then write or finish editing one or two other stories that get set for scheduled/timed posting during the day. Evenings are for writing or, in some cases, attending public meetings to get the news for  the next day.

Apart from writing, much of my time is spent playing traffic-cop for local stories coming in from readers, PR professionals, municipal PIOs and the like. I would love to see a study comparing the number of former News & Observer and other pro-jo’s in full-time PR to the number of actual professional  journalists left in newsrooms; based on the well-crafted, attractive prose arriving in my inbox each day that isn’t in my newspaper, I’m afraid we’ve gotten the balance wrong, though few of our newly minted PR pros chose those careers voluntarily.

My biggest weakness is time, especially when demands in the real work or,  of late, with an aging parent have squeezed out what time usually goes to the site.

Q. How does story editing, caption writing and headline writing work at the blog?

A. Bloggers have the freedom to ignore the column inch; a post can run 300 words or 3,000 words depending on the inclination of the writer and the subject matter. I’ve found my readership will stick with longer, more analytical posts with significant original research, but that the temptation to be sloppy and over-wordy for stories that don’t deserve that treatment is too easy.

Certainly the quality of my site suffers from the lack of an independent, separate editor — particularly for my own stories, which unlike those of my freelancers and correspondents don’t get an independent set of reviewer eyes. And frankly, as with anyone else in the business of reporting events, news and views,  timetables and deadlines can lead to mistakes. If I’m pressed on time and run with a story without taking the time to double-check core assumptions, data and links, I’ll almost invariably screw something up.

There’s not an easy answer to that, though. Some of the latest research I’ve read on hyperlocal media throws shadows on the concept of the  university- or NFP-trained community newsroom, with dozens of volunteers providing reportage and a few professionals editing and culling in the middle. The challenge being reported in those startups is that all the journalism training in the world is great, but “citizen journalists” (a term I have issues with) in that model aren’t highly committed and tend to wander away or quit or burn out quickly. It takes a mix of passion, love for the subject matter and OCD to stick with a hyperlocal site, and that comes when you’re invested as the publisher too often.

Hyperlocal/citizen media or what have you shouldn’t replace professional, paid journalism. In communities where it does so only accidentally, and hopefully temporarily, we need to find a way to make those ventures sustainable, with enough extra eyes to provide that independent editing hand, for instance, or a true editorial-advertising firewall.

Headline writing is much more fun in blogs than in my collegiate newspaper days. The temptation for overwrought headlines is always there, though for  sites like mine that send headlines to Twitter, that service’s 140-character limit — less room for bit.ly links to the story, less room for “RT @bullcity” messages you  hope others will prepend — make for tighter text. On the other hand, the ability to write excerpts from posts that appear in RSS feeds and via Facebook gives the opportunity for a little  more flexibility and creativity, especially in trying to encourage deeper reading.

Q. You’re on Twitter and Facebook. How important is social media to what you do?

A. Ironically, I use Twitter and Facebook intensively more because readers seem to expect it and because different readers come in through different channels — regular visitors, RSS subscribers, Twitter, Facebook, search and links. Personally, despite being on the cusp between GenX and the millennials, I don’t feel like a digital-native when it comes to social media, but I am astounded at the power of those platforms to magnify and augment a story’s reach.

Not that I consider them to be a replacement for longer-form work, of course. And I do think we sometimes conflate their use as a source for vox-populi reactions to stories and raw information with the informed lens that journalistic writing should bring to a story. For me, I find them to be very important as a broadcast tool, but less useful as a sourcing tool.

In  fact, as a hyperlocalist, one challenge is that social media tends to connect people in lots of different organizing mechanisms, but place isn’t always one of them. Neighborhood e-mail listservs and message boards are still much better story sources than Facebook.

Q. The Triangle has a lot of media options — print, online and  broadcast. Where do Bull City Rising and similar blogs fit into that? And what changes do you anticipate?

At present, I see BCR as an outlet for stories that print outlets don’t cover or don’t see first. Print journalists are fewer in number, and I tend to suspect that spreading the same corpus of work over fewer reporters is deepening the bias toward press-release and public meeting-driven stories over enterprise journalism. There are exceptions, like the N&O’s fine investigative  work, but I tend to find that newspapers don’t seem to be able to sell more analytical, entrepreneurial work to their readers or  their publishers.

Not  that my site’s work always, or even often, reaches that mark, though I think there’s been times it has. But it’s a similar dynamic to that in place at the Indy: By being able to target certain key stories or areas of coverage for deeper work while  taking an aggregator strategy to commodity news, my ultimate goal over time is to help deepen the discourse on issues that really matter for Durham’s future.

Take crime news. I don’t publish stories on who’s been shot or horrible, yet easily sensationalized, events like a father’s murder of his child in rural northern Durham County a couple of weeks ago. Those stories are well-covered by print and broadcast, sometimes to the exclusion of other stories.

But I do want to look at issues of root-cause of crime, such as some of the papers coming out of Duke’s Urban Economics course each year, or at the lens of multi-year crime trends. At the end of the day, the latter kinds of stories help citizens be more informed about what we as a community need to be doing to improve public safety or to understand the reality of Durham crime versus regional stereotypes.

I think new media entrants like BCR will play a larger role in community newsgathering as traditional media channels face deeper economic pressures. That’s not to say BCR in its current, blog-esque, editorial voice-forward design would necessarily absorb a larger role per se — or, heaven forbid, that we see part-time citizen writers trying to supplant professional, paid journalism. Instead, I think websites can provide a much more sustainable model and channel for supporting full-time, paid newsgathering “without fear or favor,” as the saying goes, than can modes that have high fixed overhead costs.

Among hyperlocals, the entry of Patch into markets is quite interesting, especially since most sites like mine are immature in their advertising take currently. Patch is focused on the sub-75k population cities and is reported to bring in at least as many ad sales staff in a market as they do journalists. It’s a smart strategy: become a local hero to small communities by providing a dedicated journalist to your town, while building a regional sales staff that can (in my guess) eventually let you swoop into the major metro cores with a prebuilt metro market engine that can sell ads and hire local journalists.

But as the question has gone with university and non-profit citizen journalist efforts: Is the passion there for this to work?

Q&A with Kristen Douglas, freelance copy editor

Kristen Douglas is a freelance writer and editor in Durham, N.C., who recently embarked on a career change into journalism. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Douglas talks about this transition and the challenges of working in online media.

Q. You’ve worked in education and mental health. Why the change to editing and writing?

A. Working in the mental health field was kind of a natural evolution for me, having grown up around mentally ill people. My stepmother owns a 32-bed facility for mentally ill adults, and I grew up in that environment. Teaching has also always been a love of mine, and I taught special education on temporary certification for a few years, as well as teaching in a welfare to work program in the midwest. In the meantime, though, I’ve always loved writing, and have written articles here or there over the years for local newspapers and other publications.

Even working in the mental health and education fields, I spent a lot of time writing and editing. I developed curriculum for a welfare to work teaching program, edited marketing materials and found that as my work in mental health gravitated more away from direct care of clients and into administrative roles, I was constantly being asked to look over progress notes, teach staff members how to write them professionally, develop and lead workshops that concentrated on writing treatment plans and other medical record documents, and edit documentation that was turned in.

I was one of many layoffs in the mental health agency I worked for in January 2010. I’d already been reading professional blogs on writing or copy editing online content, and I decided to use those skills I had always been using in the mental health and education fields to transfer to an entirely new career in writing online content rather than trying to find a lower-paying job in the floundering North Carolina mental health field.

I applied to several content-producing sites as a writer, and was hired to a few, but Demand Media seemed to fit my abilities well, and I like their work platform, so I predominantly write articles for their sites, which include Livestrong.com, eHow, trails.com, golflink, cracked.com and travel sections for several national newspapers.

After a few weeks of writing, I was invited by Demand Media to take two very stringent copy editor tests.  They don’t normally do this with new writers, but they liked the experience I’d already had editing in my former positions, and they liked my writing. I now spend about 70 percent of my time copy editing other articles for Demand and the rest of the time writing.

Q. You do much of your work with Demand Media. What is your typical workday like?

A. Being a night owl, I typically don’t get started with work until about 9 or 10 a.m., though I can flex my hours any way I’d like. Sometimes you’ll find me working at 1 a.m. if I’ve taken a break during the day to go hiking or grocery shopping.

I log into my “workdesk” at Demand and first check to see if I have any article re-writes that I need to repair. Normally my written articles are approved the first time through, but even a content editor can miss something in her own writing on occasion.

I then check to see if any articles I’ve copy edited and sent back for re-writes have returned, and I complete their edits. Once those things are out of the way, I begin choosing new articles to edit.  Demand’s writing work platform allows me to choose up to 10 article titles to write to at a time, from thousands of titles.  When copy/content editing, I see a list of 10 articles out of the thousands that need editing, choose one that looks interesting (and that I hope is well-written), and begin editing.

I check references first, before doing any editing, to make sure they’re listed properly and to skim through and make sure the content is not simply paraphrased or plagiarizing other content. Demand Media insists upon its articles containing original and innovative content, so making sure I’m a good “gatekeeper” and not allowing shoddy work or work that is just a re-hash of something else out there is my most important job as an editor.

If the references check out and the content is original and the article doesn’t need a re-write for structure, I’ll go back to line edit the article. I never line edit until I’ve checked to make sure the article isn’t going back to the writer; it takes time, and the writer might change the article enough I’ll have to line edit again.

Once editing for content, sending back for re-writes, and copy editing is done, I will either approve or reject an article. I’ve only had to reject a few outright, because I tend to become “the teacher” when sending an article back for a re-write, and I want to help the writer learn to write well for Demand Media content. I probably spend way too much time with this, because it cuts in on my bottom line pay (I’m paid per article by Demand).

Q. You don’t have a journalism degree or other formal training as an editor. What is it like to learn things as you go?

A. I’ve had to brush up on my AP style, for one. I was a bit nervous at first, because while I have many years of experience writing and editing, it has all been within the education and mental health fields.

Learning to write a “how to” article on laying self-adhesive linoleum or a “list” article on Frisbee golf courses in Washington state has been a learning experience, but it’s interesting. I’ve always gotten bored doing the same things over and over in traditional jobs, so the variety in writing and editing online content just seems to fit.

It’s the same on the copy/content editing end. I was nervous at first that I would not catch those things that needed fixing in articles that I was editing. I still worry once in a while that I’ll miss a glaring grammatical issue or allow something through that isn’t up to Demand Media quality, but I’m becoming more confident. My first performance review helped with my confidence. While I had let a few obvious errors through (like those infernal serial commas that AP style disallows), I was also told that I was doing a great job “gatekeeping” to make sure only quality content makes it through.

I still get nervous about learning to edit online content, because once it’s out there, it’s there for anyone to see. I want to make sure what I edit or write is high quality, because my name is attached to the writing — nobody can see who edited an article, but I still feel that I’m attached to the content I’ve edited in some way and don’t want it to be shoddy work.

I’m having fun, though. I was experiencing a lot of burnout in my mental health position, and I’m loving this career change. It’s hard work, and I have to pay my own taxes (and I don’t get paid vacations or sick days), but I’m much happier in my work.

Q. What advice do you have for people seeking work as a freelance editor and writer?

First, look at the experience you already have. Some people think that because they’ve worked in a particular field, they don’t have any experience writing or editing.  Check to see if you have more experience than you once thought, either through former careers or internships.

Study blogs that talk about freelance writing or editing. Avoid the blogs that are trying to sell you something and concentrate on those that seem to be just giving information. If you’re wanting to write in the online world, learn about search engine optimization and keyword phrasing.

Most of these media outlets aren’t just providing articles, they’re selling something, even if it’s just a click on an ad that appears around the article. Online content writing isn’t at all the same as writing editorials or other pieces for newspapers and magazines. You have to focus more on drawing people to your article using key phrases in your writing without making the article feel awkward.

I think I “lucked in” to the editing world. Most copy/content editors for Demand Media and other outlets have journalism degrees and have worked for years in newspaper or magazine editing. I’m one of the few who has been hired without that specific degree or newspaper editing experience, and it’s only because I had so much experience editing within my field.

Even that wouldn’t have gotten me the job, though. I got the offer to test to be a copy editor because I’m a good writer. I learned AP style, I learned to write in the “voice” that Demand Media and its outlets require by reading articles at Livestrong, eHow and the rest. I learned to check my ego at the door and write in the style that was asked of me.

That really is key. I have edited so many articles that might have been well written if the writer was submitting the work to a literary magazine or to a newspaper as an editorial, but that isn’t the “voice” that Demand Media is looking for.

Whatever company you write for, you need to learn the voice of that particular company and lose your ego about what type of writer you think you are, or find an outlet that better fits your style.  For example, I was hired by WiseGeek.com early on, but I found that I really didn’t like writing in the encyclopedic format they were looking for, so I very politely thanked them for allowing me to write with them and bowed out.

This isn’t easy – I’m still struggling to find my niche and make enough money to live well on while building my experience to a level that might get me editing or writing work elsewhere. My dream would be to work as an editor in a fiction publishing house, but jobs like that don’t come easily, so I’m content building experience for now.

Follow Kristen Douglas on Twitter and read some of her articles on eHow.com.

Editing another Edwards story

This week, The Daily Beast website unleashed an update on the saga of John Edwards, the disgraced North Carolina senator whose marriage and political fortunes evaporated amid an extramarital affair. Unfortunately, the reporting sheds little light and is, to quote George Costanza in “Seinfeld,” a story about nothing.

The Daily Beast is certainly not the first media outlet to publish a gossipy Edwards story based on anonymous sources, and it won’t be the last. Even The New York Times has fallen victim to that temptation.

Still, a discerning editor could have read a draft of this one and told the reporter, Diane Dimond, that she needed to go back out and do some more reporting. That’s what editors do, after all.

Even if the site decided to publish what she filed, some story editing is necessary. Here are some places to start regarding geography:

  • The story mentions that Edwards lives “around the Research Triangle of North Carolina.” To most of us who live here, it’s either the Triangle or Research Triangle Park. They aren’t the same thing.
  • The story says Edwards has moved out of his Chapel Hill mansion and lives in the “nearby Hillsborough neighborhood.” Hillsborough is a town, not a neighborhood, and one with a proud history.
  • The story says that Edwards’ scorned wife, Elizabeth, is considering a move to “the neighborhood known as Meadowmont, euphemistically called Wisteria Lane, where all the women are blond, perfect hostesses and drive late model Volvos.” I live here and have never heard the Meadowmont development referred to that way, and Google hasn’t either. As Stepford wives? Maybe. But not as “Desperate Housewives.”
  • The story asserts that John Edwards was drinking white wine and hitting on attractive women at either the Saratoga Grill or Sarasota Grill, but it can’t decide on the spelling. It’s probably the former.

There’s also the matter of the writing, which is frequently wretched in its excess. Here’s an example of that wordiness:

Among Hunter’s demands: That Young give up all profits from both his bestselling book, The Politician, and the movie adaptation — a deal represented by hotshot Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel and in partnership with acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin of No Country for Old Men fame.

“Hotshot” is sensationalist hyperbole, and “of [TV show/movie/book] fame” is a cliché. And that sentence is simply too long.

The National Enquirer famously used anonymous sources to expose Edwards’ affair and downfall. Is it possible that other, supposedly legitimate media are now willing to follow its lead of shady ethics and sensationalism to report on his travails? Let’s hope not.

Thanks to Fiona Morgan and others on Facebook for pointing out the story and its myriad problems.

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