The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

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.

I remember Calif.

The Associated Press recently announced a significant change in its style on abbreviations for U.S. states. The change takes effect today (May 1).

For decades, the AP Stylebook called for editors and writers to abbreviate state names when they accompanied the names of towns and cities. Example: “She drove from Macon, Ga., to Roanoke, Va., in seven hours.”

There were exceptions, of course. Some cities were deemed significant enough to stand alone. Some state names were so short that they were never abbreviated.

The new style recommends spelling out all state names in story text and, when possible, in headlines. So we’d edit the earlier example like this: “She drove from Macon, Georgia, to Roanoke, Virginia, in seven hours.” But the abbreviations will remain in datelines, captions and lists.

Not everyone is on board with the change, which AP says reflects a more global view of editing. The McClatchy-Tribune wire service said it would ignore the new style, as did McClatchy’s Washington bureau. Gerri Berendzen, a copy editor at the Herald-Whig in Illinois, said on Twitter that newspaper would also keep the old style.

As the writer and editor for this blog, I use AP style, so I will go along with this change. Of course, you are free to do otherwise, and I will respect your choice. After all, stylebooks are made up of suggestions, not commandments.

So no more Mo. A fond farewell to Fla. I’ll remember you, Calif. We’ll see less of each other from now on.

Student guest post: Competing with evolving language

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Stephanie Zimmerman is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in music and journalism.

It is an editor’s job to make writing accessible to readers. The writing must be clear, factually accurate and stylistically and grammatically consistent. But how much emphasis should editors really place on grammatical and stylistic consistency in the age of the Internet?

Look on any social media site, and you’ll probably find an abundance of grammatical errors. Some errors, of course, cannot be overlooked because they obscure the meaning of a sentence. However, there are many common mistakes people make that do little to obscure meaning.

For example, an error that people often make unknowingly is the distinction between quantities: number vs. amount, less vs. fewer and over vs. more than. People using “number” and “amount” interchangeably is one of my peeves, but the distinction really doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence to make it unrecognizable (which is probably why people so often confuse the use of those words).

“Number” is used to describe a definitive quantity that could, theoretically, be counted: “The number of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.” But if you were to replace the word “number” with “amount” in that sentence, it would make just as much sense to the reader: “The amount of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.”

Why do we continue to make the distinction in our writing? Well, that’s the rule, obviously. But isn’t our goal as editors to make things understandable for the reader? If the reader can understand the sentence just as easily, why bother changing it?

Part of the reason is consistency. It is important to have a style to follow so as not to confuse or turn off readers. For example, some stylebooks allow the serial comma, while others forbid it unless the clarity of the sentence is at stake. Each is acceptable practice, but using the serial comma inconsistently seems unprofessional to readers and looks like an editorial mistake.

From a linguistics standpoint, people often argue that all forms of the English language are appropriate if they make sense to the reader. They also cite language change as a reason to not worry so much about distinctions that people often ignore. Michaela Neeley, a linguistics student at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that since language is constantly evolving, sticking to outdated rules that most people overlook causes writers and editors to be behind the rest of the population with language rules and practices.

It is true that stylebooks and even dictionaries sometimes take a while to catch up with the rest of society. The online Merriam Webster dictionary still uses a hyphen in the word “e-mail,” but language has changed so that it is more common to see the word without the hyphen today.

So where do editors stand on the issue? Where should the line be drawn between outdated, old-fashioned grammar rules and incorrect usage that is becoming incorporated into the mainstream English vocabulary? Is it OK to be grammatically incorrect as long as it doesn’t affect readers’ ability to understand what you are saying?

Grammatical distinctions exist for a reason. Even if readers understand what you’re saying, inconsistency looks unprofessional, and even if they know what you’re trying to say, some readers may be put off when you use what they were taught was the incorrect use of words such as “number” and “amount.”

However, stylebooks are beginning to eliminate some of the distinctions I mentioned earlier. In the newest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, it is now acceptable to use the word “over” when referring to quantity.

As far as when style and grammar changes should occur, I think it is better to proceed with caution. It would help publications to know their audiences in order to better gauge when to make stylistic changes, but being behind the times stylistically is usually better than being hasty to jump on language changes that may not yet be accepted by the majority of readers.

Writing well online: a Mashable example

On occasion, I hear someone ask: What makes for a good news story in digital media? As I read this Mashable article on my smartphone over the weekend, I thought that this example helped answer that question.

The story is about Airbnb, a service that allows people to rent out their homes and apartments to visitors. That business model is under scrutiny in New York and other states.

I was faintly aware of Airbnb, but after reading this story, I felt much more knowledgeable on the topic. That’s because the story is written and edited in a way that anticipates the reader’s questions. It does so head-on, like so:

airbnb

The story is written in an inviting, conversational tone. Sentences are short and to the point. The story is free of typos and other errors, giving it greater credibility. Links are used as footnotes to allow the reader to click and learn more.

There’s still room for improvement, however. The captions for the photos state the obvious, and the use of stock art at the top of the story doesn’t contribute much to the story.

Despite those shortcomings, Mashable’s story communicates information and context quickly. It’s an example of effective writing and editing for digital and mobile media, and one I will likely use in class next semester.

Student guest post: Does anyone care about grammar anymore?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Maddison Wood is a junior journalism major specializing in editing and graphic design with a minor in drama. She is an assistant on the copy desk at The Daily Tar Heel, and she works in the properties department for PlayMakers Repertory Company.

I love grammar. I always have. People tend to be a little confused when I list my passions and include grammar in my top five. However, something has happened recently that has made me question everything I believe about grammar.

I became heavily involved in social media. I started to notice that almost nobody adheres to any sort of grammatical style in this setting. I even felt slightly out of place using proper capitalization, spelling and punctuation in posts on my blog. So what has happened? Where did all the “grammar Nazis” (I actually prefer the term “grammar hammer”) go? More importantly, is grammar becoming obsolete?

As for the last question: no. Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, but from what I have personally experienced, there are times when grammar is thrown out the window, and there are times when grammar is vital.

For instance, people who are chatting online with one another do not have time or need for grammar. You can get your point across to your friends without writing perfectly, and abbreviations make life a whole lot easier. Furthermore, character restrictions (I’m talking to you, Twitter) have forced us to invent ways to shorten our thoughts by any means necessary.

Secondly, bad grammar can be used as a sarcastic joke or as an emphasis to what you’re conveying. I find that an excellent way to show excitement is to usE A MIX Of CAPS AND lowERCAsE AND;LKJ PRETENDA LIKE YOU’RE JUAST;KL LSAMMING THE K EYBOARD A;LKFJAF. (Or maybe I just come across as insane.) These methods of typing poorly to serve a purpose catch on and become popular trends on social media sites, but it is up to the person doing the typing to determine when poor grammar is appropriate and when it isn’t. The same people who run blogs on Tumblr with seemingly no grammatical skills whatsoever also write fan fiction that is judged harshly by readers if the grammar is poor. Therefore, it seems people on social media are expected to know grammar well enough to know when to adhere to all the rules and when not to.

That being said, it is becoming a common fear that grammar is “on the verge of extinction.” Students are beginning to use lingo and slang in essays despite teachers’ pleas for proper grammar. If generations to come lose the ability to distinguish between professional writing and Internet slang, how will they ever be taken seriously as adults?

For instance, an email to a potential employer could be a make-or-break first impression that you probably want to know the difference between “your” and “you’re” for before writing. In this social media-crazed society, not only does proper grammar need to be taught at a young age, but the circumstances in which proper grammar is important need also be taught.

I’m not going to lie: I use poor grammar and abbreviations sometimes. I think grammar trends on social media reflect a subculture of a generation that is just as connected to friends who live across the world as they are to friends at school. It is a language all on its own that is meant to be understood by people who have a good enough grasp on grammar to know when and how to break the rules.

Grammar is great. You should care about grammar. But the Internet culture of purposeful slang is not the place to pick your grammar battle.

Student guest post: ethics and photojournalism

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Kathryn Trogdon is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is majoring in journalism and specializing in editing and graphic design. She is a senior writer for The Daily Tar Heel, loves politics and hopes to go into communications for the NHL.

Where’s the truth in photo editing?

Less than a week after the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, old photos of the incident are resurfacing in newspapers and on television. While this horrible day should be remembered, it brings up an issue raised after the attack about the ethics of photo editing.

Within minutes of the attack, images were appearing on television and online. Many of these photos were shocking, showing missing limbs and a lot of blood. But some media outlets chose to shield their audience from these disturbing images by cropping or editing them.

For example, The New York Daily News ran an edited version of a gory photo to erase a victim’s leg wound. Many editors and photographers criticized this choice, including Orange County Register editor Charles Apple, who wrote in his blog: “Looks to me like somebody did a little doctoring of that photo to remove a bit of gore. If you can’t stomach the gore, don’t run the photo. Period.”

According to the National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics, “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.” While being sensitive to your audience and the victims of an attack should be a consideration, at what point do journalists and editors cross the line with photo editing?

On a less sensitive issue, since Barack Obama won the presidency, he has been a figure in several altered photos, including on the covers of The Economist and Time magazine.

The Economist’s cover was a photo of Obama after the BP oil spill in 2010. The cover was titled “The damage beyond the spill,” and some readers interpreted this to mean the damage to the president’s reputation.

In the image, Obama is standing on the beach looking at the ground unhappily and alone with an oil rig in the background. However, it was later revealed that the original photo included two advisers who had been cropped out. The story launched a media frenzy, but the magazine’s editors failed to comment at the time.

Emma Duncan, the deputy editor of The Economist, later said, “We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes … it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes … it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.”

Even if they didn’t intend to, did The Economist mislead its readers? And did it hurt their credibility?

So when is it acceptable to crop or edit photos? When it doesn’t change the meaning of a photo? When it is a graphic image? When it is clear to the audience the image has been edited? Or is editing a photo never acceptable?

While it is ultimately up to the editors of a news organization, I never want to look at a photo in a newspaper or magazine and have to wonder what part of the image is true.

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