The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Tag: story forms

From North Carolina to South America

In late 2001, when I was wire editor at The News & Observer, I proposed (or pitched, as we called it) a story about Argentina’s financial crisis for the front page. It was a hard sell, because I had to make the case for why it mattered to readers in North Carolina.

The story ended up at the bottom of the page, and then inside the newspaper from then on. Argentina’s problems, which included rioting and looting, faded from the North American media as the situation got better.

Nearly 10 years later, journalism students at UNC-Chapel Hill and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina have collaborated on a multimedia website called What Now, Argentina. Using a variety of story forms and graphics, the site documents daily life in the the capital, Buenos Aires, and it explains the origins of the 2001 crisis. It does all of that in English and Spanish.

We’ve come a long way from a 25-paragraph wire story, photo and headline. I encourage you to take a look.

Short people are just the same as you and I

National Public Radio does a nice job with a fun story on its Web site today. The topic is short people and a book about them called “Short: Walking Tall When You Are Not Tall At All.”

NPR uses a simple list to summarize the book and a well-edited slideshow to review some of the famous short people in politics, music and movies. The result is a pithy, perfect package of words and images. Apparently, the Internet agrees, as this is the most popular story of the moment on NPR’s site.

My only edit: The story should make it clear that Randy Newman was being ironic when he wrote and sang “Short People.”

Editing and explaining the news

Editing encompasses more than just fixing errors of style, spelling and grammar in news stories. Editing to explain concepts to readers is also important.

The editing of two recent stories shows a need for further explanation. Let’s take a look:

THE STORY: Greece’s debt crisis.

WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING: Why this is happening and why it matters.

HOW WE CAN EXPLAIN: A Q&A is a great way to explain this sort of complicated story. That’s what the BBC did. The Beeb also takes on the “why it matters” issue in this sidebar.

THE STORY: A fatal shooting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING: The role of academic tenure as a possible motivation for the killings.

HOW WE CAN EXPLAIN: A textbox explaining the tenure process would be helpful. Why does tenure exist, and how does a professor get it? As noted here, it’s a tricky system that readers may not understand.

Both of these news events require a greater level of explanation than they’ve received in most stories. Good editors recognize that requirement and use it as an opportunity to explain and illuminate a topic for their readers.

UPDATE: The Associated Press tries to shed some light on tenure in a story that appeared on the front page of The News & Observer.

Guest post: Telling the story without text

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Brecken Branstrator is a senior journalism major from Greensboro, N.C. Her passion is magazines, and she is an editorial intern at the Carolina Alumni Review.

When you first see a huge block of text, do you get excited and dive right into it, or are you wishing that it was shorter or broken into chunks with illustrations to go with it? You’re probably thinking the latter. That’s where alternative story formats come in. As we have been learning in class, some things just work better in illustrations.

As the same-sex marriage debate has grows, especially as California’s Proposition 8 heads for the Supreme Court, many media sites are using alternative story formats to report the issue and follow its progression. Instead of trying to write convoluted stories with many numbers or states, a number of them are creating interactive maps or slideshows of pictures. They present the issue in a visual way that allows the reader to consume the information faster and retain more.

NPR has a great example of this, with a map that not only shows the status of each state on the issue but also a feature that allows the viewer to hover over the state to see details about past legislation. This is the kind of alternative story format that readers are attracted to and appreciate because they can get the facts fast. CNN also displays the story in a very similar way.

But GOOD magazine took another route when it created an innovative flow chart that outlines the arguments for and against same-sex marriage. This chart would look good in both print and online, and actively involves the reader as they become invested in following the lines of the illustration. Its off-the-beaten-path methods are what newspapers should strive to create to attract readers to a story and enhance the text.

These sites are great examples of how alternative story formats can enhance the text of a story and how all options should be explored. An issue that progresses over a long period of time, like the same-sex marriage debate, can only be explained in text for so long before the readers get bored. So when developing a story, designers and editors should always be thinking of a different way to tell it.

Two takes on the Edwards scandal

How does traditional newswriting differ from blogging? It’s not always clear cut, because some bloggers write in the same straight-ahead style as The Associated Press. Others have attitude.

The latest news in the rise and fall of John Edwards offers some insight into blogging versus straight news. The story is about a new book by a former Edwards aide who helped the presidental candidate cover up an extramarital affair. Here’s how the AP starts its story, which is written in the inverted pyramid form:

A former aide to John Edwards says in a new book that the two-time presidential candidate told him he thought about leaving his wife but also cited his love for her as a reason to keep details of an affair hidden.

On the blog side of things, here’s how Gawker did it:

Someone finally read John Edwards aide Andrew Young’s forthcoming tell-all, putting a cherry on top of months of crazy Edwards rumors. He’s a wellspring of scandal — but is it all John’s fault?

The Gawker item is a “truth squad” alternative story form that attempts to figure out who’s to blame for Edwards’ various problems. Yes, it is full of snark.

See the difference? For somewhere in between, take a look at this item in Under the Dome, the News & Observer’s blog about North Carolina politics.

Image via Creative Commons

Bound for Beijing

This blog will be quiet for much of October because I am going to Beijing for part of the month. I will be training journalists at an English language news site on topics such as headlines, captions and alternative story forms.

This trip is part of UNC’s ongoing relationship with this site. Here’s how it works:

  • In the spring, two Chinese journalists come to Chapel Hill for a semester and sit in on courses of their choice. They often select News Editing as one of those courses.
  • In the summer, two UNC undergraduates work in Beijing as summer interns at the site.
  • On occasion, faculty members travel to China for a week or two to lead workshop sessions. Previous visits led to the site’s recent redesign.

I’m excited about this opportunity and look forward to sharing my experiences when I am Stateside again. I hope to be able to offer updates on Twitter as things go along.

Thanks for reading, and see you later in the month.

Editing for the future with News21


I’ve spent part of my summer working with 12 talented students at UNC-Chapel Hill on Powering A Nation, a Web site that looks at the intersection of energy and demographics. The site, which debuted Friday, is part of the News21 project.

As one of several faculty coaches, I advised the project’s editing team on issues of work flow, story editing, alternative story forms, word choice and headlines. It was a pleasure to work with this group in our newsroom.

It’s important to note that members of the editing team also served as reporters. As reporters wrapped up their stories, they were sometimes drafted for other duties, including help with editing. As you can see on the site’s “making of” blog, everyone did a bit of everything.

The idea behind News21 is to serve as an incubator for multimedia journalism, where students can chart a course for the future of news. My time with the students this summer reinforced my belief that editing will play a significant role in that future.

An open letter to Madoff on the front page

A front-page story in The News & Observer last week set off an unusual exchange of letters to the editor.

The news was the arrival of financier Bernard Madoff at a federal prison in Butner, N.C. The letters weren’t about Madoff so much as the tone and approach of the story, which was written as a letter to Madoff with tips on how to get used to his new home. Some readers cheered; others jeered.

Here’s a look at how the story came together from two N&O journalists and the reaction to it from two of my colleagues at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill:

MANDY LOCKE, reporter

THE BACK STORY: “I wish I could take more credit for the approach, but it was actually Steve Merelman (1A editor) who asked me to take this approach. The story of Madoff arriving had little news value. We’d already heard and learned much about Madoff’s misdeeds, so this was a story, quite simply, about him coming to North Carolina. There was much intrigue about Butner in general, and the facility was in our backyard. Ignoring his arrival altogether was never an option. … The story took a surprising  amount of reporting. There’s much I didn’t know about Butner.”

READER REACTION: “Some readers LOVED it. I’ve gotten about a dozen e-mails and calls praising the ingenuity and thanking me for making them laugh. About a half-dozen readers shook their fingers and said our approach was sophomoric and unnecessary.”

THE AFTERMATH: “We’ll never please every reader with every story. I like to think of  the newspaper as a buffet. You take some stories and pass on others. As things are getting more desperate in newspapers, I think we’re more willing to try new things. This approach most certainly was.”

STEVE MERELMAN, front-page editor

THE BACK STORY: “We had originally planned an alternative story form. But after giving the news that Madoff had come to Butner, I couldn’t see what we might say that could be interesting. I’ve read the “Hey, here’s what that prison’s like” story before, and I didn’t think that breaking it up into bits and pieces would improve it much. So I suggested that Mandy give it a spin by pitching the ASF right at Madoff, sort of a user’s guide to Butner. Mandy came up with the letter idea on her own. We kept the headline pretty straight and let that and the picture carry the news and serve as a serious counterpoint to Mandy’s article.”

READER REACTION: “I expected that some people wouldn’t like it. They have certain expectations of how a newspaper should sound, and this contradicted those expectations. I’m glad they take us and our responsibility seriously. I also expected that some people would find it refreshing, and they did. We tried to keep the tone a little impertinent but not cruel, and to make sure that it fulfilled all the usual requirements of a news story — who, what, where … and whatever the other Ws are.”

AFTERMATH: “Mainly, I was pleased that lots of people read the piece. I’m not in favor of provocation for provocation’s sake, but a newspaper that isn’t read has got real problems.”


Phil Meyer, author of “The Vanishing Newspaper” and retired journalism professor: “When I read it, I thought the writer cared more about showing off than giving the news. It’s not ‘interesting writing’ that will save newspapers; it’s interesting facts. And that takes work. This story puts the reader to a lot of trouble with not enough new information or insight to justify the effort.”

Chris Roush, journalism professor and blogger at Talking Biz News: “I’m OK with it. Not the biggest fan of such stories. I think they’re better as columns.”


Newspapers must experiment to survive. Now is not the time to be timid. Not all of the experiments will succeed, but that’s the point of trying something different.

This particular story needed something beyond the typical inverted pyramid approach. That kind of story was available online almost as soon as Madoff arrived at the prison. For the next day’s print newspaper, editors and reporters have to deliver something that readers haven’t seen yet.

This story, gimmick and all, did that. It’s more about Butner than Madoff, but for the Raleigh paper, that’s the local angle.

Was this approach to this story risky? Yes. But it fit the medium and the moment.

UPDATE: The links on this post have been broken because of a resdesign of the N&O site. Apologies for the inconvenience.

Copy editors are storytellers too

Pam Robinson at Words at Work has taken note of yet another article about the future of newspapers. This piece, posted on The Moderate Voice, mentions some ill-considered advice from an editor at a New Jersey newspaper:

Restructure the newsroom. Half of the journalists are involved in the “processing” of news — copy editing, writing captions, laying out pages — as opposed to the generation of journalism. Concentrate on journalism that matters. And focus on good writing. Tales well told.

Robinson smacks down this argument, pointing out the valuable rewriting and fact checking that copy editors do. (It’s a point also made in a widely discussed column by the Washington Post’s ombudsman.) Robinson also mentions the necessity of production — copy editors and page designers are the ones who put the pieces together for print media. If they don’t do that, who will?

I’d like to build on Robinson’s response and suggest that copy editors are journalists, or “storytellers.” Here’s how:

  • Copy editors write captions. Most photographs need explanation and detail that connect them to the text they go with. In standalone photos in print and in slideshows online, the captions and images must work together to tell a story. Either way, copy editors make that connection.
  • Copy editors are experts on story structures. That makes us essential in deciding what form best matches the stories we are trying to tell.
  • Copy editors write headlines, which both reflect the story text they accompany and tell stories on their own. Indeed, many headlines are just as memorable as the stories themselves, if not more so.

These are just three ways that copy editors are storytellers. We are journalists, just like the reporters, photographers and page designers in any newsroom. We believe in the importance of “tales well told” as much as our colleagues do.

In short, we generate plenty of journalism. Is that so hard to see?

Unasked questions about D-Day

The D-Day anniversary was front-page news in The News & Observer on Saturday. The centerpiece story in the Raleigh paper was a profile of a sailor who was there. He is now a retiree living in North Carolina.

As expected, the story weaves in the history of that day in 1944, when the Allies pushed into Nazi-occupied France. This background in the story, however, leaves out some crucial details.

For example, the story mentions Normandy, but never places those beaches in France. It’s risky to assume that readers know that. Another paragraph threatens to overwhelm readers with an avalanche of numbers.

All of this could have been better handled in a locator map and textbox, perhaps in a Q&A format. Here are some questions to answer:

  • What is D-Day? Why is it called that?
  • Where and when did it take place?
  • How many people fought on D-Day, and how many were killed and wounded?
  • What is its broader significance?

When newspapers remember D-Day next year, let’s hope they also remember to explain it to readers who need a primer on this important moment in history. Perhaps bookmarking this at the BBC site will serve as a reminder.


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