I took your name

The guideline for using a person’s surname in a newspaper headline is fairly simple. If we have reason to believe that readers will instantly recognize that name, go ahead and use it. If not, use a description of that person.

An example: “Meeker” is fine for media in Raleigh in stories about the city’s mayor. But if hizzoner is mentioned outside the Triangle, “Raleigh mayor” is a better choice.

These rules change some for the Web, where many readers use proper names to arrive at stories through Google searches. To get them to our story rather than our competitor’s, use that name even if it’s only marginally known. First names may be handy here, too, where in print the last name usually suffices. (More on online headlines here.)

Of course, sometimes that surname may not conjure the correct person in the reader’s mind. Here are two examples today where that happened to me:

HEADLINE: McClaren works to reunite religions
PERSON INTENDED: Brian McClaren, leader in the “emergent church movement”
PERSON I THOUGHT OF: Malcolm McClaren, music impresario best known for the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols

HEADLINE: Palin emerges as potential McCain VP
PERSON INTENDED: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska
PERSON I THOUGHT OF: Michael Palin, comedian and travel writer best known for his work with Monty Python

Recognition of surnames in headlines is, of course, colored by our own experiences and interests. Your household may know names that others don’t. Sometimes the solution is to use the proper name and a description. That’s what the Los Angeles Times did with the Palin story on its home page: “McCain VP choice is Alaska’s Palin.”


Interesting reading

  • Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune, on Joe Biden’s frequent use of “literally” in a recent, high-profile speech.
  • David Judson of The Turkish Daily News, on how a single word added by a copy editor caused a correction and an apology.
  • Alex Beam of The Boston Globe, on what the Christian Science Monitor may tell us about the future of newspapers.

Bracket interference

Here’s another example of the hazards of inserting bracketed information into direct quotes. This time, the insidious practice has created a fact error.

The problem pops up in an otherwise effective story about Lou Holtz, who has been a football coach at N.C. State and South Carolina, among other destinations. The story, which appears today in both The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, has Holtz compare his highs and lows at each school. It’s told in an alternative form, organized by theme. Here is what appears in The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer under “disappointing losses”:

The rush to splice in brackets to clarify Holtz’s reference to this disputed play has led to an error. Clemson scored a field goal to win that game, not a touchdown.

A better option is to use a sentence before the quote to set up the play that Holtz is talking about. That will eliminate the awkwardness of the bracketed material. Then check to make sure that sentence is correct.

This is a curious mistake from a reporter who has written books about Clemson football, but perhaps an editor is to blame. It may be small thing in the scope of world events, but these details matter to sports fans, especially in coverage of a rivalry game. They expect sports departments, as the experts on lore and arcana, to get those details right.

UPDATE: The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., also ran the story. No one there caught the error either.

When things break your way

The timing of Barack Obama’s “text message” announcement of his running mate had copy desks scrambling Friday night and early Saturday. A news alert from the Los Angeles Times site arrived in my inbox at 1:12 a.m. EDT. The Obama message itself was sent at 3 a.m., according to this CNN story.

Many papers on the East Coast didn’t have the story, but things got better as they went west. And in one case, mechanical problems helped a newspaper get the story. A former student who now works at a paper in North Dakota reports this on Facebook:

Our press blew apart and ran a few hours late, so we were able to get the VP stuff in. Lucky and unlucky at the same time.

Indeed. Sometimes this is just the sort of break you need.

Two magazines that do it well

A comment responding to this post about textboxes made a good point: Magazines have been doing that sort of thing longer (and often better) than most newspapers. Here are two magazines that newspapers can learn from:

1. Fast Company magazine routinely includes textboxes to accompany its stories. For example, an article about Web video in the latest issue comes with a list five famous bits of online comedy. Another story uses a “tale of the tape” textbox to compare Facebook and MySpace. Yet another has a “by the numbers” textbox that works because each number has a clear connection to the story and is presented in context. Some of these examples are available at the Fast Company site, but curiously, they look better in print.

2. ShopSmart magazine takes the alternative approach a step further. This magazine is essentially Consumer Reports “remixed” into alternative story forms. It uses forms such as the Q&A format, “by the numbers” and checklists to help readers learn about classic Consumer Reports topics such as how to get a deal on a credit card or how to buy a bra. ShopSmart offers .pdf versions of some stories at its site, but like Fast Company, the magazine works better in print.

Fast Company and ShopSmart provide good examples of how to do textboxes and free-standing alternative story forms. They are written well, edited well and designed well. Indeed, the content always guides the design — not vice versa. Newspapers would be wise to use these magazines as role models.

More about story forms here.

Beats and bylines

Do bylines matter? That question came up this week in chat at the journalism school’s annual cookout.

Two of my colleagues were baffled by a recent story in The News & Observer announcing changes in sports coverage. The newspaper’s writers for Carolina Hurricanes hockey and the N.C. State Wolfpack are getting new beats. And a Charlotte Observer reporter, part of the merger of the two papers’ sports departments, is now on the Wolfpack beat.

The story about these moves was on the front page of the Sunday sports section of the Raleigh paper. That drew criticism from my colleagues: Why is the N&O wasting space on this? Who cares?

I responded that the N&O announcement made sense. Beat writers build a relationship with readers. For example, the hockey reporter, Luke DeCock, had covered the Hurricanes for eight years, a span that includes the team’s Stanley Cup win in 2006. Readers came to know him, and when his byline disappears from hockey stories, they will notice. They deserve an explanation.

That reporter-reader relationship is evident in blog comments about this change. Read them here and here.