When headlines collapse

This ambiguous headline about trouble on the set of the latest Rob Schneider movie baffles Defamer, an L.A. gossip site:

Rob Schneider OK after movie set collapse

It’s the sort of double meaning that also hurts these headlines:

  • Commander relieved after gondola crash
  • Prostitutes appeal to pope
  • Judges appear more lenient on crack cocaine (an example from The Lower Case at Columbia Journalism Review)

If a headline conveys multiple meanings, you can bet on the readers to take it the wrong way.


From copy editor to features editor

The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., has named Thad Ogburn as features editor. He got his start at the N&O on the copy desk after a stint as a reporter in Jacksonville, N.C., and went on to lead the North Raleigh News edition and the paper’s education coverage. Thad was also a key player in the formative years of the American Copy Editors Society.

Congratulations to Thad. Not only is this a good move for the N&O, it’s also a heartening sign to copy editors who wonder whether there’s life beyond the desk.

Draco’s legacy

I dropped in on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show this week, hoping he would talk about his latest brush with the law. Instead, he was discussing flag burning and The New York Times — the standard fare. Limbaugh, however, did use one of my favorite words: draconian. Limbaugh used the adjective to describe a campaign-finance law in Vermont that placed limits on spending and contributions.

“Draconian,” as defined by my Dashboard dictionary, means “excessively harsh and severe.” The adjective is usually applied to “laws” and similar nouns. “Draconian” comes from Draco, a lawgiver of ancient Greece known for recommending tough, even cruel, penalties. (His work was revised significantly by Solon, the man whose name is to blame for modern headlines such as “Solons mull plan.”) Merriam-Webster mentions Draco in its definition: “of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him.”

Here are some “draconian” things in recent news stories:

  • The Kalamazoo Gazette in Michigan uses the word to describe fees assessed for driving offenses. The headline writer picked up on that idea: “Draconian fees make lawbreakers of the poor.”
  • A medical Web site in Australia uses the word to describe President Bush’s stand on stem-cell research.
  • A Turkish news service calls a plan to impose fees on demonstrations Draconian.

Because of its pejorative and highly subjective nature, “draconian” is a word to be used cautiously. In news stories, it may reflect a bias by the reporter or headline writer. What may be excessively harsh to one person may not be to another. In editorials and other opinion writing, it’s often the perfect word to use, however. It’s also a good one for everyday conversation, maybe because it’s simply fun to say.

US Weekly does a 180

US Weekly understands its audience: Do these readers want to know about Africa’s struggles with disease, poverty and neglect, as discussed by Angelina Jolie on “Anderson Cooper 360” last week? Of course not. Do they want to know about Brad and babies? Of course!

So the celebrity magazine condenses the interview down to its gossipy core. This editing job requires liberal use of the ellipsis, some brackets and a whole lot of chopping. The result removes any mention of the issues that Jolie wanted to talk about. The exclamation mark on the headline is the capper.

Carolina consolidation

With the McClatchy’s purchase of Knight Ridder a done deal, newspapers affected by the change are weighing in on what it means to them and their readers. Newsrooms have been wondering, too.

It’s particularly interesting in North Carolina and South Carolina (not North and South Carolina, as an editor at the Greensboro paper once told the copy desk). The region is dotted with KR and McClatchy papers. Here’s how some of them are covering the transition:

  • The Charlotte Observer says readers won’t see a significant difference. Its story quotes an op-ed columnist for the paper who’s worried that the deal will do nothing to eliminate what he sees as bias in news coverage. (Note: Registration may be required to read the Charlotte story and the accompanying column by its publisher.)
  • The News & Observer of Raleigh sees collaboration with Charlotte on specialty publications. The N&O story also touches on sharing coverage of sports and coordinating circulation along the coast.
  • The State newspaper in Columbia predicts an increase in regional stories. The story also mentions how the change will require changes to the design of front pages and newsracks, which sport the Knight Ridder logo.
  • The Web site of the Rock Hill Herald goes with this headline: “Carolina papers grow stronger.” The story quotes Bill Rogers of the S.C. Press Association, who says the biggest change will come in advertising, not news.

None of the stories mentions copy editors or page designers, leading one to believe that they won’t be consolidated out of a job.

To the letter

Ted Vaden, the public editor at The News & Observer, writes today on the editing of letters to the editor. The letter in question is one from Richard Burr, one of North Carolina’s two GOP senators. Burr was annoyed that the N&O editorial department had condensed his response to a recent N&O editorial on food-labeling legislation he’s sponsoring — so annoyed that he took out a full-page ad in the paper with his full letter.

Like most papers, the N&O limits the length of letters to the editor. In the interest of saving space and allowing as many voices into the letters columns as possible, the N&O puts a 200-word cap on letters. (It used to be 250 words until recently.) And like most papers, the note soliciting letters points out that letters will be edited, presumably for style, punctuation, grammar and other fundamental issues as well as for length. On occasion, the paper will publish longer letters, usually with a note that the 200-word limit has been waived to allow a fuller response from a person mentioned in a story or editorial.

The N&O word limit is typical. It’s fair to ask people to express their views quickly and coherently. (As sports radio host Jim Rome says: “Have a take. Don’t suck, or you will get run.”) Here’s what other papers allow:

  • The News & Record in Greensboro, like the N&O, has a 200-word limit. Unlike the N&O, it also posts the letters online in a format that allows others to comment, blog-style.
  • The Charlotte Observer’s limit is 150 words. Some of the letters are only a sentence or two.
  • The New York Times has a limit of 150 words. The paper offers its rationale and other tips to readers in this column.
  • The Washington Post doesn’t have a cap, but it does say that letters are “subject to abridgement.”

The editing of letters to the editor for space reasons is as necessary and inevitable as the editing of news stories. In the finite world of print, the numbers of words and paragraphs (among other elements) will not match the size of the page without some give and take.

In each case, thoughtful editors must take care to ensure that nothing vital to the meaning of the writing is lost. Editors who fail to do that open themselves to the possibility of accusations of chicanery.

That was the heart of Burr’s complaint, even though Vaden, the public editor, found no indication of bias. Perhaps a better option for the N&O in that situation would have been to reject the letter with an encouraging note to the senator to “revise and resubmit” within an agreed length, with the caveat that the paper still reserved the right to do some editing.

UPDATE: Nicole Stockdale of The Dallas Morning News continues the conversation on this topic at her blog, A Capital Idea.

Seeing double

Yes, that is the same story about the Lejeune Marine on facing pages in The News & Observer. How does this happen? Because of zoning: the reshuffling of news (and advertising) based on location, typically by county.

As stories bounce around between editions during the course of an evening of desk work, some get into the paper twice — or not at all. Such mistakes are probably baffling to readers, who assume that the newspaper is the same whether they buy it on the Outer Banks or in downtown Raleigh.