The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Tag: newsrooms

Full metal edit

I recently invested about $9 a month in Netflix Wii. By putting a DVD into the videogame system and connecting online, I can watch hundreds of Nexflix movies on demand. Many of the movies are older releases, but that’s OK.

One movie I watched again recently was “Full Metal Jacket.” I had remembered the Stanley Kubrick movie mostly for its first half, which depicts Marines going through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., during the Vietnam War.

What I had forgotten was that Joker, a Marine portrayed by Matthew Modine, is assigned to work for Stars and Stripes. Using profanity, the drill sergeant makes fun of this Marine, but he replies: “Sir, I wrote for my high school newspaper, sir!”

Particularly interesting is a scene a few minutes later. Now in Vietnam, Joker attends a news meeting with an editor named Lockhart who asks his reporters and photographers what they are working on.

Lockhart also reads some copy aloud and critiques his reporters’ writing. He offers the following style tips:

  • “Diplomats in Dungarees — Marine engineers lend a helping hand rebuilding Dong Phuc villages.” Chili, if we move Vietnamese, they are evacuees. If they come to us to be evacuated, they are refugees.
  • “N.V.A. Soldier Deserts After Reading Pamphlets — A young North Vietnamese Army regular, who realized his side could not win the war, deserted from his unit after reading Open Arms program pamphlets.” That’s good, Dave. But why say North Vietnamese Army regular? Is there an irregular? How about North Vietnamese Army soldier?
  • “Not While We’re Eating — N.V.A. learn Marines on a search and destroy mission don’t like to be interrupted while eating chow.” Search and destroy. Uh, we have a new directive from MAF on this. In the future, in place of “search and destroy,” substitute the phrase “sweep and clear.” Got it?

It’s an interesting and amusing glimpse into the generation of jargon. Terminology that masks meaning is not limited to the military, of course. It’s abundant in politics as well.

The scene is also an interesting glimpse into the film making of Kubrick. His movies showed that he cared about the words as much as the visuals. Kubrick was also famous for his meticulous nature.

Yes, Stanley Kubrick would have been a good copy editor, although he had trouble on occasion making deadline. But he did OK as a film maker too.

Guest post: Why copy editors still matter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of these posts. Kammie Daniels is a senior News Editorial major who plans to graduate this May. She has worked at The Daily Tar Heel as an Arts Desk staff writer and also as a reporter with UNC’s news broadcast Carolina Week.

With all the layoffs, consolidation and other depressing things going on in the newspaper industry, I think we are all forgetting how important copy editors really are.

Up to this point in my education, I have never thought to include the title of “copy editor” to my list of practiced skills. Yes, a semester here and there of editing courses has fairly broadened my knowledge of the profession. However, it has taken until now to have the opportunity to truly practice and more importantly, appreciate, the art of accomplished copy editing.

Day to day, I witness the hard work and talent my fellow classmates offer when editing another’s copy. And although I have never worked with a professional copy editor, through this new experience I can say they strike me as having the most under-appreciated job in the newsroom.

In the face of the “print is dead” belief, no newsroom group has been more affected than copy editors. According to a 2009 survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, more papers have reported cutting copy editors than photographers, assignment reporters, or graphic artists. Shrinking newsrooms could justify these cuts if content quantity followed in suit. However, this survey continues to explain that while staff is shrinking, the average number of stories being published is actually increasing. So this means we have more headlines and content to be edited and an insufficient copy desk — that is a problem.

Another publication that has recently made (perhaps un-copy edited) headlines for targeting copy editors is the Star Tribune in Minnesota. Of the 27 staffers that were cut from the paper, 18 were from copy desk positions.

As newsrooms are shrinking all together, it seems the popular belief that copy editors should be the first to get the boot. New York Times writer Lawrence Downes even goes so far as to say “if newspaper copy editors vanish from the earth, no one is going to notice.”

Ouch.

Whether it is motivation by the dollar or one’s indifferent ignorance, copy editors are no longer getting the recognition they deserve. Today’s copy editors are multitaskers who design, choose stories and configure them online — all in addition to the customary duties of content editing and writing headlines. When a newspaper like the Tribune loses a copy editor, it is in turn losing valuable expertise in every one of these areas.

Singer/songwriter Christopher Ave wrote “Copy Editor’s Lament (The Layoff Song)” to comment on the newspaper industry’s woes and to celebrate copy editors. Like Ave, I wish to argue this same point. Of course, the public does care about headlines and correct grammar. They just don’t really know it. Through my writing — once copy edited, of course — my message will hopefully be clear: Copy editors DO still matter.

To China and back

china-newsroom

My visit to China is done, and although I’ve adapted once again to Eastern Daylight Time, I’m still thinking about my experience half a world away.

My colleague Laura Ruel and I spent about a week working with journalists of the China.org news site. The English-language site has a staff of about 30 people, including a few Americans.

I was impressed with the dedication and skills of the China.org staff. It’s a different sort of journalism — run by and controlled by the government, created in an environment where Facebook, Twitter and most blogs are blocked. Yet, the staff there is doing much of what their Western counterparts do: trying to figure out the best to get the news to readers, in both form and content, while on constant deadline pressure.

I was asked to speak to the staff on several topics:

  • Story editing
  • Headline writing
  • Caption writing
  • Alternative story forms

I covered each of those topics in workshop sessions at the China.org offices. Each went well, and with each session, the staff grew more comfortable asking questions and offering comments.

On my final day in Beijing, I worked with staff members one on one in the newsroom. This was the most rewarding part of the week because I got to help people with the stories, captions and other content that they were working on at that moment. I also got a surprising compliment from one editor: “Thank you for your help. And I would like to say that you are very handsome.”

Thanks to everyone at the site for their hospitality, and special thanks to Celine Chen for organizing the trip, showing us the city and and allowing us to bring a little bit of U.S. journalism to China.

Q&A with Stephanie Beck, producer at WRAL

Stephanie Beck is the 6 p.m. news producer at TV station WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. Beck, who once aspired to be a features writer for a newspaper or magazine, started at the station in the mid 1990s as videotape editor. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Beck discusses her job as producer (which includes story editing) and WRAL’s online presence.

Q. What does the 6 p.m. news producer do on a typical day?

My day starts before I even get to work. I wake up with my alarm set to WUNC and peruse the online newspapers and my e-mail over my morning coffee.

When I get to work, it all starts with a morning editorial meeting at 9 a.m. There, producers for each show (5:00, 5:30, and 6:00 p.m.) and management put their heads together to assess what’s breaking, what’s news, what needs to be covered, what can be done another day and what everyone is talking about. We talk with the reporters about their pitches and discuss the stories until crews are assigned. Then we parcel out the stories to the shows across the 90 minutes of news so that viewers don’t feel they’re watching the same thing over and over again.

After the meeting, I jump into the day. I represent our station on a conference call of CBS affiliates in the state, trading stories and story ideas. I help write last-minute stories for the noon newscast.

I start working with reporters to design graphics to go with the stories reporters are working on for my 6 p.m. newscast. For example, maps to show viewers where smaller towns are in the area; interactive graphics to go in and around the stories on state government and economics and government spending; any way I can think of to make stories visually interesting to give them a slight boost and keep viewers’ attention. Then I sit down with graphic artists to make these ideas come alive on the screen.

This is also the time frame where I start looking for statistics, tidbits, previous stories and other items to put these stories in context and let viewers know why the stories we have chosen today will impact them and their daily lives. Oh, and did I mention that I try to start writing the show at this point?

At 1:45, there’s an afternoon editorial meeting. At this point, I have to justify every story in my rundown, from the 15-second copy story to the reporter’s package. I inform the same group of managers and producers what each crew has in terms of sound and video to make sure the packages fit the mold we were looking for.

After this meeting, it’s crunch time. Writing, re-writing and looking for stories through the afternoon until it’s complete, along with creating my own basic graphics. Usually, I try to finish the first write by 5 p.m.  That gives editors time to work on the video and me time to go back through and re-write and re-read my work.

At 5:55 p.m., I’m in the control room – after all that work, I’m not about to turn the reins over to anyone else if I can help it. Sitting in the producer’s chair means timing the show, communicating with live shots, and all around keeping the wheels on the train.

If breaking news strikes, it’s my job to get the director and the anchors on the same page to execute it as cleanly as possible. If things go as planned, it’s a slow day, and a rare day!

At 6:27:55 we dip to black and have a post-show meeting to talk about what went right and what went wrong that day.  Conversations ensue, and I’m done with my day between 6:45 and 7:00pm.

Q. How big of a role do writing and editing play in your job?

A. Writing is my job. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact in all that description that as a producer, it’s my job to choose stories and to write them in an easily understood fashion.

I am the person who condenses a Supreme Court ruling to a 30-second story or who sums up a murder case in 20 seconds. Doing so takes practice, distance from the story, and more practice.

Being concise is indeed an art form, and if you don’t believe it, just try this: Grab your local newspaper and pick a story. Try summarizing it in three to four simple sentences that are factually correct and don’t leave the reader forced to make assumptions. It becomes hard to decide what needs to be left out and what needs to stay.

Newspapers have the luxury of space. Broadcast does not, but we still have the duty to tell the story correctly and the need to tell it in an interesting fashion so that our audience stays with us.

That is where editing comes into my job. Rather than typical copy editing, I edit the story when I make decisions regarding what details go in and what details stay out. I do need to be familiar with AP style, especially for on-screen graphics, but the writing of the story itself is more conversational in style so that it fits the anchor’s delivery and personal style.

Q. You’re active on Twitter and other social media. What is WRAL’s strategy
there?

A. WRAL’s strategy across the board is to be the news outlet people seek out when they’re in search of information. Weather, news, breaking news, traffic — you name it, we want to build the trust and name recognition with the public that we are where they go. Period.

Be first, be accurate, be informative, be investigative, be useful. It’s what we do in television news, our strategy for online presence at WRAL.com, and now they are the leading values we are taking with us into social media.

Q. WRAL’s history can be traced to the days of radio. It’s best known now as a TV news station and as a pioneer in HD broadcasting. With all of the changes in the media, is there a time ahead when WRAL will be online first and TV second?

A. One could say we’re nearly there. A few years ago, the phrase entered our vernacular that WRAL isn’t a television station with a Web site; we are an online news organization that includes a television station.

That’s not to say that TV news comes second, but to say that we are aware that television isn’t the only place that people get their news anymore, and we’re willing to meet them where they search.

If you read the Web site for your news, we’re there, with a number of features we do that are “web only.” There are plenty of content opportunities that stream live on the Web, sidebars that are placed on the Web to provide more context and interactive opportunities that television won’t allow. We stream our newscasts live on the Web for people who prefer to watch on their computers. We offer news updates for your mobile phone, in case you can’t make an appointment with a newscast.

A staff of online producers work hand in hand with reporters and producers to create a useful and informative Web presence. Our programmers wrote a WRAL app for the iPhone to keep you up to date on local news and weather.

If a conversation is happening on Twitter, we’re there. If it’s on Facebook, we’re there. As we proved with HD and the evolution of WRAL.com, we are very comfortable with the advances in technology, and I think we will continue to stay ahead of that curve.

Q&A with Brian Russell of Carrboro Creative Coworking

Photo courtesy of Carrboro Creative Coworking

Brian Russell is the owner of Carrboro Creative Coworking in Carrboro, N.C. He also blogs at Yesh.com. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Russell discusses what coworking might mean for journalism.

Q. What is coworking? How is it different from going into a coffeehouse and working on a laptop?

A. Coworking is a movement of freelance workers who are joining together to share resources like office space, Internet access, etc. This movement is in the process of going mainstream. It’s poised to really influence how corporations of all size see work. Freelancers aren’t the only ones who will work this way.

Coworking spaces usually have a very professional atmosphere in contrast to coffeehouses. But they are often focused on the type of professionals that use them. For example, Carrboro Creative Coworking has a lot of freelance software engineers. We work hard and play hard together.

Q. What kinds of people are coworking? Are writers and editors trying it?

A. All kinds of people are coworking. Many of them are involved in Web development. But we have many journalists and writers at our space.

These folks really understand the value of community. It’s a natural fit for this type of professional.

Q. Newspapers have typically operated from a central newsroom with bureaus in surrounding communities. Now, many bureaus have closed because of financial pressures. How could newspapers use coworking to cover the news?

A. Newspapers could use coworking spaces as ad hoc gathering places to meet and create news. Journalists should be in the field covering the news and regenerating the news beats of old.

Coworking spaces are also greater community hubs. With a diverse group of people working in the same place, lead generation is amplified. Plus, coworking spaces are about sharing resources and are very cost effective.

Q. In addition to coworking, you have experience in Web development and citizen journalism. In your opinion, how can newspapers better use online media?

A. Journalists must be active participants in our physical and virtual, online communities. Online media is social. No more passive observation. This means reporting should be a two-way process.

The Clue Train Manifesto explains it this way: “A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter — and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

(Photo by BrianR.)

UPDATE: Carrboro Creative Coworking closed in autumn 2011. Russell now works as the chief webmaster for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

If ‘The Office’ turned into ‘The Newsroom’

“The Office” has global appeal, even though most of us have never worked for “a regional paper and office supply distributor,” as the fictional company Dunder Mifflin describes itself. The petty politics, misguided management and odd personalities depicted on the show ring true at any kind of company or business.

Newsrooms are offices, and they are similar to the one portrayed in “The Office.” Many newsrooms are laid out like the office on the show, with the staff clustered in groups of desks and management peering out from glassed-in offices. Indeed, as I watch the U.S. version of “The Office” every week, I occasionally have flashbacks to my newsroom experiences. Others have made the same connection.

So what would the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin look like if it suddenly gave up office supplies and took up journalism? Here’s a possible newsroom reorganization for The Dunder Mifflin Times.

Managing editor: Michael Scott (also serves as business editor and movie critic)

Assistant (to the) managing editor: Dwight Schrute (serves as wire editor, sports editor and city editor)

Features editor: Kelly Kapoor (also in charge of Facebook page and Twitter feed)

Web editor: Ryan Howard

Reporters: Andy Bernard, Karen Filippelli, Jim Halpert, Stanley Hudson

Copy editors: Creed Bratton (desk chief), Oscar Nunez, Kevin Malone

Clerk for obits and sports agate: Mose Schrute

News research/party planning: Phyllis Lapin, Angela Martin

Photos/multimedia: Meredith Palmer

Graphics/page designer: Pam Beesly

Executive editor: Jan Levinson

Publisher: David Wallace

Pressroom foreman: Darryl Philbin

Human resources: Toby Flenderson

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