When restaurant reviews are news

A recent New York Times story about the culinary scene in New Orleans is noteworthy for obvious reasons — but some subtle ones as well.

The readily apparent news of the story is the return of restaurant reviews in The Times-Picayune, the daily newspaper in the New Orleans area. Regular reviews were suspended in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster in 2005. The paper’s food critic, Brett Anderson, turned to straight-up reporting as New Orleans began its long recovery. Now, as a sign of the city’s rebuilding efforts, that writer has filed his first restaurant review. He’s back on that beat, and that return is the focus of the NYT story.

The less obvious component of the story is the primacy of The Times-Picayune in the city’s famed restaurant culture. Its reviews — and its authority — were missed. Did bloggers fill the gap? Not really. How about the alternative weekly in the area? Not so much. Here’s the key quote from a New Orleans chef:

“We cooks love to wake up on Friday mornings and open up The Times-Picayune and learn what other people are doing. The key thing is to stay competitive, and that’s where the role of the critic comes in.”

The brand name that is The Times-Picayune still gives the newspaper a prominent role in this aspect of the culture of New Orleans. Whether that name exists in print or online doesn’t matter. The Times-Picayune is the go-to place for restaurant criticism. That’s food for thought as newspapers consider how to “own” a story in an ever-increasing market of media.

Enjoy the review of Mr. B’s Bistro, and laissez les bons temps rouler!


Charlotte creep

The promised merger of some content between The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer is under way. The two North Carolina papers, once informal rivals but now both owned by McClatchy, are indeed joining forces and sharing stories. Here’s some evidence of how Charlotte is creeping into the Raleigh paper:

  • Earlier this month, the Observer’s Scott Fowler listed the top individual performances that he’s witnessed as a sports writer. The column, while entertaining, is localized to a fault. It’s littered with Charlotte references (a high school, the Bobcats and “the Charlotte swim community”) that would have little or no interest to readers in the Triangle (or Raleigh-Durham, if you must). The column also encourages readers to chime in on his paper’s Web site — not the site of the Raleigh paper.
  • Three of the four stories on page 4B of the N&O today are out of Charlotte. One is about the Charlotte area’s United Way campaign. Again, how is this relevant to a Triangle audience? Perhaps that space could instead be used to restore the recently truncated op-ed page in the Monday N&O.
  • A fluffy business story from the Observer refers to a CEO as “the wealthiest Carolinian on Forbes’ 2008 list.” The story appears on the N&O business page. The Charlotte paper has long used “Carolinian” in an effort to appeal to readers in nearby South Carolina; the word is rare in N&O copy because it has virtually no circulation south of the border. In addition, the CEO in the story, Jim Goodnight, lives in Cary, N.C., which is in the heart of the N&O’s circulation area.
  • Reporters from the Charlotte paper are now getting “staff writer” as part of their bylines when their stories run in the N&O. This story by Ken Tysiac, which ran on the N&O sports front today, is an example. Tysiac is fine reporter and accomplished author, but he is not an N&O reporter. His byline should read “The Charlotte Observer” when it appears in the Raleigh paper.

What does it all mean for readers? It’s hard to tell just yet. But it’s ironic that in the era of “hyper-local news” that North Carolina’s two largest newspapers seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Careful editing — from story selection to word choice — will be essential to ensure that each paper maintains its identity.

I kid you not

When R.E.M. sang “hey, kids” throughout “Drive,” listeners understood that Michael Stipe wasn’t addressing a group of baby goats. Similarly, the Indigo Girls were not saying they were scared of youthful livestock when they performed “Kid Fears.”

Yet, as reflected in this James Kilpatrick column, some still insist that “kids” should never be used as a synonym for children or young people. It’s all about goats.In one of his “court of peeves” pieces, Kilpatrick rules on a plea from readers who were “justifiably irked” with the use of “kids” in this Randy Cohen column in The New York Times Magazine. In his decision, Kilpatrick admits that several dictionaries recognize “kid” as a word meaning “child.” (The dictionary on my computer lists it as the first definition.) However, he waves off that evidence, siding with the readers: “Their motion will be emphatically granted.”

We need more testimony. I asked three copy editors what they thought of using “kid” this way in newspapers and news Web sites. Here are their answers:

Bill Cloud of UNC-Chapel Hill: I think “kid” is fine in casual uses. I wouldn’t change it in a column, for example, but would question its use in a crime story. We all talk about the wife, husband and kids.

Kathleen Flynn of The New York Times: Since starting to work at The Times in 2005, I have become ever more conservative about word choice and grammar, even in my off hours, even when I am not really thinking about it consciously. You might say I drank the Kool-Aid, but that would be far too informal to say in print. So, yes, I would avoid “kids” to describe young human beings in all but the most informal written usage. But I also have to recognize that I am probably in the minority here, and there is really nothing wrong with the word.
Bill Walsh of The Washington Post: I wouldn’t write “6 Kids Killed in Fire,” but for more casual references there’s nothing wrong with the word. As I recall, I wrote in “Lapsing Into a Comma” that the kids-are-goats argument “belongs in the assisted-living facility.”
My ruling: After weighing this expert testimony and reading the magazine column in question, I dissent from the Kilpatrick court. Although ethics is a weighty topic, Cohen writes in an informal way, which is part of his appeal as a columnist. Additionally, we as editors should grant some leeway (but not carte blanche) to columnists.

Thus, in this case, “kids” is all right.

UPDATE: Cohen responds and elaborates in a comment to this post. Thank you, Randy.

No more weasel words at The Associated Press

Politico has an in-depth look at changes at the Washington bureau of The Associated Press. Under new leader Ron Fournier, the bureau is focusing on “accountability journalism.” The Politico article describes that like so:

Reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.

First-person pieces and more analytical writing are encouraged as well. Politico dutifully notes that not everyone likes the changes at the AP. Elsewhere, Talking Points Memo (among others) has been critical of the wire service’s recent coverage of the presidential campaign.

UPDATE: Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism discusses AP’s new direction in a first-person and analytical piece. A former AP man himself, Fisher beat my post on this news by a couple of hours.

On advice of counsel

This headline and lead gave me pause, as it probably did for many readers. The problem is in the verb: continue.

“To continue” and “continuance” in the legal sense are not the same as we use them in conversation. One legal glossary, for example, defines “continuance” this way:

Adjournment of the proceedings in a case from one day to another.

In news stories, the word usually means that a hearing or trial has been pushed back on the calendar. But what everyday word works best in place of this bit of legal jargon? With legal matters, it’s especially important that we are precise.

I asked a friend, a copy editor turned lawyer turning law librarian, for some advice. Here’s her response:

I’d go with “postponed” because “continuance” literally means you are moving the trial (or appearance or whatever) to a new definite date (the judge always picks the new date when granting the continuance). So “put off” might make it sound like something less definite — like the trial has been put off and we don’t know when or whether it will actually happen.

So ordered. More on continuances here.