Guest post: When newspapers get a bat cave

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the ninth of these guest posts. Dominic Ruiz-Esparza is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. He says that after four years at the university, he still can’t find anything to beat a sunny afternoon with a good book. His plans include a book on masculine nonsense and a summer in Spain.

In comic books, superheroes occasionally united to fight evil. They came up with snappy names like the Justice League and made a headquarters, which inspired millions of tree forts and table forts and garage forts across the world.

In Texas, four newspapers recently decided to do something similar.

The Caller-Times will now be the regional copy editing and design center for the four guardian-watchdogs. Though the four will pool employees to run the center in Corpus Christi, it’s hard to believe that everyone will keep their jobs through this.

It makes more sense when you learn that the four papers are owned by the same company, Scripps. The Justice League didn’t put anyone out of work, so far as I know, but it would be embarrassing to be the fifth Green Lantern to show up on Monday.

This shows the ruthless beauty of a merger. It’s also an experiment in removing editing and design from the newsroom.

The Chicago Tribune fantasized in January about such a world. What’s at stake is only the credibility that journalism schools tell students is non-negotiable. But in Chicago, double-checking is kind of, maybe, sort of a good idea.

So how important is credibility? Which superheroes do we really need to save Sally and Jimmy? What exactly does the Flash do anyway? And how can we get Superman to update his blog on time?

Guest post: Editing of Obama photo raises questions

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the third of these guest posts. Tori Hamby, a UNC-Chapel Hill junior majoring in journalism and English, aspires to go to law school and one day work as a legal consultant for a print publication or cable network news channel. In the meantime, one of her lesser goals is to watch every episode of “Friends” on DVD, in chronological order, before she graduates.

Photo manipulation has been a frequently debated issue in the editing world. While it is blatantly unethical to manipulate photos with the intention of deception (i.e., editing a photo so that it incorrectly portrays or represents the depicted event), editing a photo for aesthetic reasons lends itself to greater discussion.

The Poynter Institute reported that at least two publications edited a photo, taken by Chuck Kennedy of McClatchy-Tribune news service at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, by adding pixels to extend the portion of the sky that was originally pictured. It appeared that the editors’ intentions were to add more pixels so that a headline could be written over the sky, thus taking a more creative approach toward the layout.

By itself, this photo edit seemed quite harmless. Any reasonable reader would assume that the sky extends beyond the photo, so adding a few pixels should not be a big deal, right?

While this may be true, this is dangerous habit for editors to slip into. In its photo guideline policy, The Charlotte Observer states that “backgrounds cannot be eliminated ‘burned down’ or aggressively toned under any circumstances.” The Tampa Tribune’s photo policy states that “readers deserve accuracy and honesty, whether viewing an image or reading words. Their eyes may deceive them, but the newspaper should not.”

This seemingly harmless editorial decision received attention and criticism from The Poynter Institute because photos are one of the key elements of journalism. Non-manipulated photos offer a glimpse into an event that the reader was unlikely able to attend or witness. Photos increase the reader’s trust in the accuracy of the story, while adding color and detail that is not thoroughly expressed in copy.

Like copy, the slightest tweaks to the facts can damage a publication’s credibility. A reporter does not edit a single word in a direct quote because such an edit distorts the truth. The change of a single word essentially turns the direct quote into a lie. The same philosophy should be applied toward photography. The Washington Post states that “photography has become trusted as a virtual record of an event. We must never betray that trust.”

As journalists, we are expected to bring the public a full, unbiased account of the truth. Although tweaking an image may create a prettier front page or photo spread, these should come second to truthfulness and accuracy.

Guest post: Future of news design is behind the times

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the second of these guest posts. Phillip Crook, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism, aspires to three life goals: to work in arts journalism, to live in Paris and to amass a notable sweater collection.

Whether you’re breezing through the pages of a newspaper or settling in for a thorough read, your experience is governed by a carefully refined set of rules; hierarchy, readability, modular organization — all familiar elements in the production of the foldable, transportable, clip-friendly newspaper we know and (although, in decreasing numbers) love.

But, thanks to the digital age, this thing of beauty has an ugly fraternal twin.

Newspaper Web site design sacrifices many of the aesthetic conventions of its print sibling on the alter of unlimited space. The efficient communication style of print papers works within the confines and consistency of a single page. But online, that same content enjoys the freedom of an endless capacity for extended coverage and additional visual elements … often to the content’s detriment.

To be fair, Web editions undertake functions that print papers do not, such as navigating the entire paper from a single page, embedding links and offering space for reader comments. However, the lesson Web design has yet to learn is that throwing so much content at a reader’s eye at once simply causes sensory overload. Online editions may offer the convenience of information at the click of a mouse, but a messy and confusing Web page doesn’t compel loyal readership.

Clutter kills: The Chicago Sun-Times main page is dominated by an oppressive band of ads spanning the top third of the site. Adding to the visual chaos, the vast majority of news content is presented here on a non-hierarchical grid, which confuses visitors about where to find important information.

Emphasize individuality: While less overbearing to navigate than the previous example, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s site makes a weak visual statement by creating too much white space and by not asserting the paper’s personality. Few visual elements on this page speak to an Atlanta audience or even do much to identify site as a major news source.

The right balance: The Los Angeles Times is a good example of where cohesive, simplistic design meets the right amount personality. Ads don’t obstruct the header, varying headline type size creates a clear news hierarchy, and the paper’s professional but approachable personality comes across to readers.

Logical layout: Like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times site is easy to navigate. Both papers use a sidebar of navigation, directing a reader to the paper’s different sections and categories of interest. Placing the menu to the left of the page as opposed to a horizontal band beneath the header allows readers to quickly scan the menu in list format.

It is essential to recognize that newspaper Web site design must negotiate a complex web of functions. But the attributes of effective, stimulating traditional print design shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of jamming as much content on a screen as possible. The print layout we see today is the product of decades of helpful modification. If it’s true that online news will make the print edition obsolete, Web presentation would be well served to look to its print companion in becoming a more streamlined information conduit.

Extreme reverse publishing

Ben Terrett, a British graphic designer, recently teamed up with a friend for an interesting project in that blends print and online media. They assembled blog posts, Twitter messages and other content that their friends had put online, and they made it into a newspaper. Yes, on paper.

The result is Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet 2008. This unusual newspaper contains no advertising and has a “circulation” of 1,000.

Terrett’s detailed account of how the publication came together is heavy on the design angle, and he discloses that none of the content was edited. It’s still an interesting experiment in reverse publishing. Perhaps the project is also another testament to the keepsake value of print — Terrett even includes celebratory video of his newspaper rolling off the presses.

Q&A: How the N&O edits opinion pages

My interview with Burgetta Wheeler, conducted by e-mail, offers a look at the editing that goes into the editorial and op-ed pages of The News & Observer. Wheeler is the letters editor and page designer for those pages. In her two decades at the Raleigh paper, Wheeler has also served as copy desk chief and assistant editor for Q, the paper’s Sunday perspective section that folded last year.

Q. Describe your role and responsibilities at The News & Observer.

A. I’m the letters editor, the page designer, the copy editor, the blog birther, the online thinker and producer and the nugget finder. I occasionally also write an editorial.

As the letters editor, I read all of the letters that arrive by e-mail, fax, mail and hand delivery — more than 16,000 this year through Nov. 30. If that sounds like an overwhelming number, it is. We have room to print only about 280 letters a month. In 2008, we also have put almost 800 letters online-only, first just on the opinion Web site and then on the blog starting Oct. 1. So the blog has created even more letter work for me.

From this gush of letters, I pluck which ones to edit and put into the basket to run. Occasionally, a runnable letter just dies from old age before I can get it into the paper. As the page designer, I package the letters (and find and place any applicable art) in the available space on the editorial page each day (and in Sunday Forum each week). I also find any nuggets we put at the top of the page (Worth Noting, Your Comments, etc.). I occasionally am called upon to find art and “design” the actual editorial space.

On the Other Opinion page, I take the columns and Points of View that the op-ed editor has chosen, read them, brainstorm art ideas with myself, find the art, then massage the page the best I can to what I hope is maximum appeal. I like to try to have at least one other entry point for each item other than the main headline. I write all of the headlines and copy edit the local pieces. I proof both pages.

And because every cutback at the paper in the past year has some ripple effect, part of page designing now also involves trying to image my own art a lot of the time. I also create art sometimes. And because we also cut out the archivers in news research, designers have to copy each page and save it in a multi-step process. And because we no longer give newspapers to schools and offer the paper to them online-only, designers also have to follow the pages along in an online e-edition system and approve them as .pdfs at some point.

I spent a lot of time this year getting our opinion blog designed and launched. I’m not the master of the blog, really, but as its mother, I try to make sure at least one thing gets updated each day. Sometimes it’s just the quote on the side; sometimes it’s the cartoons. So I do have the responsibility for what’s down the left side, what online letters there are and any cartoon roundups that are posted.

I also attend the editorial board meeting each day, at which the editorial writers discuss what they’re going to write about. I try to think about graphic or art elements that will enhance the editorials or ways to include the Web, either in what we can refer to or what we might put online ourselves. Given all of my other duties, this doesn’t get as much of my brainpower as maybe it should.

As a member of the editorial board, I did vote on several endorsements in 2008. Part of my role is to be a different voice in the meetings each day, to maybe add another perspective to what gets written by the three editorial writers, who are all older men. I have written five or six editorials since I started this job in March 2007 and would write more if I had the time. I also compile the Notable Numbers that appear on the Editorial page each Saturday.

Occasionally, I even eat lunch.

Q. How is editing opinion and analysis different from editing “regular” news? What about similarities?

A. It’s probably more similar than different. You’re still editing for grammar and style and punctuation. You still don’t want the reader to strain to understand. I do allow more tortured language in letters than I might in stories because I do want letter-writers to have as many of their own words as possible. In opinion pieces, you’re still looking for holes and failures of logic as you would be in a news story.

Even when I was assistant editor of the Q section, I was editing opinion every week — frequently opinions from those in academia. And that was very much like editing reporters, in that the ease of it completely depended upon the writer. Some professors were extremely offended if you wanted to change a word, and others were extremely thankful if you could make the gobbledygook they wrote more readable.

Q. You also blog at The Opinion Shop on the N&O’s Web site. What is that experience like?

A. I just wish I had more time to be thoughtful about what we’re doing. Right now, I’m just basically throwing nuggets out there, hoping to start conversations. The experience, for me, is somewhat nerve-racking because, as a copy editor for two decades, I’m not really used to having my name out there. But I don’t care if someone takes shots at everything I say. That’s what makes it dynamic.

With the blog, I want to be able to extend the reach and import of what we already do on our Editorial page and our Other Opinion page and with the letters we run and the Points of View we accept. There’s a miasma of opinion out there these days, and in the daily paper we’re able to offer readers a thoughtful, digested and edited package of what’s relevant.

Part of what a newspaper gets criticized for is a lack of personality, so the hope is that the blog will allow us to offer readers a less institutional face. Or two. Or five.

Q. People are worried about the future of newspapers, including copy editing. What changes do you see for our field?

A. As newspapers try to get by with fewer and fewer employees, there are going to be fewer journalists who can get by with mastering one skill. When I started at The N&O in 1987, we had a universal desk from which copy editors edited and designed pages. The desk split eventually into a copy desk and a design desk.

Now, at The N&O anyway, the trend seems to be to explore having people again who can do both. I guess it would be more accurate to say that we’re exploring ways to get the most bang for the buck from everybody. You’ve got reporters taking pictures and audio and video and posting online. You’ve got editors writing stories. All sorts of people are blogging. Maybe I don’t have a good view from my particular chair where I’m doing about 30 things at once myself, but I don’t see a world ahead in which “copy editor” is an eternal job title.

Like anything else, though, it depends on the standards of quality a newspaper wants to set, what its priorities are. As long as a newspaper makes quality a priority, a good copy editor will be worth her weight in gold.

Not to mention a good headline writer. What good is all of the time and energy and expertise a newspaper puts into its newsgathering and writing if readers skim over the final product? A good headline will always be critical, which is true even online. You want people to click on it.

Monitor to go weekly but stay newspaper-y

The venerable Christian Science Monitor has announced that it will scale back its print operations, going from five days a week to one. It will increase its Web presence and offer a daily “electronic” edition as a .pdf.

The newspaper apparently tested a glossy, magazine-like approach, but it didn’t go over well. Says the editor: “Our readers wanted something that felt a little more newspaper-y.”

Go here to see what the weekly edition will look like.

UPDATE: Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute tells us more about the Monitor’s plans and what they may mean for other newspapers.