The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

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

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

A lot has changed since 2008:

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Tracy Moore, writer for Jezebel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Moore on Twitter and read her posts on Jezebel.

Let’s meet for breakfast in Montreal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: This year’s breakfast went very well. Thanks to Craig for a great talk; he has posted the slides from his presentation. Thanks also to Carrie Buchanan of John Carroll University for her verification rap. See everyone next year in San Francisco.

Keeping track of news from Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A slant on AP style

The most popular post on this blog is from 2009, getting a couple of dozen hits a day, mostly via search engines.

The topic: Should blog titles be italicized? My answer: “It depends.”

This week, Colleen Barry, a copy editor in Boston, asked a similar question on Twitter: “Hey editors, if you used an AP-based house style that italicizes book titles, would you italicize the names of court cases?”

My friend and former colleague Pam Nelson, an editor at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, responded: “The publications I work for use italics on cases.” I noted that I had italicized names of court rulings when writing for academic journals.

As a teenager, I read a lot of books and magazines about music and movies. These publications tended to use italics. I liked the look of the slanted type.

Rolling Stone, for example, used italics for names of albums and quotation marks for song titles. That was sometimes helpful to distinguish a song from an album. (Did you know that “Houses of the Holy” by Led Zeppelin is on Physical Graffiti and not Houses of the Holy?)

As I moved into a career in journalism, I gave up on my interest in italics because I worked for newspapers that used Associated Press style. The Associated Press Stylebook has never been big on italics, stating flatly: “AP does not italicize words in news stories.”

You may, of course, use a different stylebook or set your own style on italics. That’s what Colleen decided to do: “Got several yes votes on my italics question, and I do love flouting AP style, so italics it is.”

Fair enough. Better to flout it than to flaunt it.

A lesson above the fold

Worrying about what’s “above the fold” on a newspaper page seems antiquated in an age of digital media. But it still matters sometimes. Here’s an example.

The Sunday edition of The News & Observer included a section of news about the Raleigh area and the state as a whole. The story at the top of the page is about a job fair aimed at luring N.C. teachers to come to Houston, where they would be better paid. The story below that one is about a street festival in Cary.

Here’s how the full page appeared:

teachers-fullpage

My brunch companion, however, saw only the top half of the page, like so:

teachers-fold

Her reaction: “I thought those were the teachers in the picture. They sure seem happy with the idea of moving to Houston.”

That confusion is understandable — and easy to avoid. The page designer could put a kicker or even the main headline above the photo. That would create a more obvious visual divide between the stories. A thin line, as used on the N&O page, is too subtle to do that.

Vacation — all I ever wanted

This blog is on vacation. Thanks for reading, and see you in June.

Q&A with Jordan Rogers of Raleigh & Company

Jordan Rogers is co-creator and an editor of Raleigh & Company, a collaborative website that consists of the work of nearly 20 writers. In this interview, conducted by email, Rogers discusses the site’s mission and its position in the Triangle’s media landscape.

Q. What is the objective of Raleigh & Company? What do you hope to achieve?

A. There were a lot of us sportswriters or freelance writers in the Triangle area who were already running our own blogs or writing creatively on our own. At some point a few of us figured, why not do this together and get the spillover from each other’s readerships?

We want to tell great stories, talk about important topics and give creative and smart people a platform to reach those in the area who would like to hear from them.

Q. How are writers selected for the site? Are their posts edited by you or other editors?

A. It has started with a loose group of writers, and we’ll do a mixture of invitations and accepting requests. Anyone who wants to potentially contribute should absolutely contact us. Most of the currents are either a professional writer, in an interesting professional field, or simply were such good writers we couldn’t say no.

I’ve done a little over half of the editing so far. That’s usually a good idea early in the development of any site to keep things similar stylistically, but we’ll spread out more duties as we go along.

Q. You’re on Twitter. How does Raleigh & Company plan to use social media?

A. As our main source of traffic. We simply hope to give people great stuff to read. If they like it, they’ll share it. I don’t know what else to say.

Q. The Triangle region of North Carolina is a crowded media market online, with not only traditional media like The News & Observer and WRAL, but also blogs like the Raleigh Connoisseur. How does Raleigh & Company fit into that market, and how can it thrive here?

A. You’re right, there are fantastic media options in and around the Triangle. It’s almost overwhelming.

WRAL is a national leader in local news, and it’s hard to get away from their footprint. (And there’s a reason for that — they’re insanely good.) INDYWeek has been so successful in this area in a time when other print weeklies have failed nationally because the Triangle demands an alternative and smart source of great writing and they’ve delivered for decades. And although in Greensboro, Our State magazine has been making a strong online push on social media with some great content. WCHL is a staple in Orange County, the N&O does fantastic work, and I should just stop there because I would leave someone out and the band orchestra is starting to play.

But that is what a smart and educated populace is all about: options; different points of view and topics. We might do a long form look at recreational adult leagues in the Triangle, discuss whether a terrible comic book has value, or do some reporting on the homeless that no one else is willing to talk about.

We might send a sportswriter to cover a cooking contest (and he did a fantastic job, didn’t he?) or we might send a culinary writer to cover the dining options at a basketball game at PNC. The Internet allows us to do a lot of different things and we plan on taking full advantage of that.

But to your point, we’re interested in making interesting things, and if people like it, they’ll respond. I couldn’t be less worried about “competing” and I only hope RaleighCo can be a part of the great media in the area.

Making it easier to share the news

The Los Angeles Times launched a bold overhaul of its digital news offerings this week. In this interview, managing editor Jimmy Orr says that the primary objective of the redesign is to have readers spend more time with LAT content.

Orr also wants readers to share that content. To make that easier, story pages on the LAT now include “sharelines.” These are three pre-written headlines written for Twitter and Facebook. The reader can pick one and click it to share on social media. Here’s an example from the story about the redesign:

sharelines

News sites have offered a one-click sharing function before, of course. What’s different here is the sharelines are written with social media in mind.

Other sites I have seen in recent years grabbed the headline as the Tweet automatically. That can work sometimes, but the language of Twitter and Facebook can differ from SEO-oriented digital headlines. Tweets often have a more conversational tone as well as hashtags and other elements.

So who is writing the LAT sharelines? I asked Henry Fuhrmann, who oversees copy desks there, about that. (I worked with Henry in Los Angeles in the summer of 2008.) Sharelines are a shared responsibility, he says:

The task of writing sharelines is divided as follows: Reporters and assigning editors write them for blogs posts. Copy editors do the honors on articles that are prepared for print and then go online. Of course, as is typical here, the copy desk ends up filling in gaps, so when we encounter blog posts that lack sharelines, we’ll fill them in.

So add “shareline writing” to the repertoire of journalists, including editors. In my classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, I have my students write a Tweet for a news story as part of the final exam. Perhaps next semester, I will have them write three.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers