I will follow

About a week ago, my first Twitter message (or “Tweet”) read as follows: “I’ve caved and joined Twitter.”

I had been reluctant to join Twitter, a service that allows you to broadcast short messages to your circle of friends and to “follow” them. I’m already spending time with this blog and Facebook, not to mention old-fashioned e-mail.

But I figure Twitter is here, so why not use it? So far, I like its simplicity and brevity, characteristics epitomized in its the 140-character limit for each message. And I haven’t been bombarded with “25 things” requests that have consumed Facebook lately.

As a way to deliver news, Twitter reminds me of my days on the wire desk when The Associated Press would send news alerts. These would just be a sentence or two about breaking news, with a full story to follow later. Twitter messages from people and organizations that I follow are like that, with a mix of personal updates along with what journalists would describe as news.

I’m not so sure of Twitter’s usefulness as a way to follow a complicated event for a longer period. During the attacks in Mumbai, people in the city posted updates to Twitter. Reading that feed would be like listening to a police scanner: somewhat informative, but fragmentary. It takes a writer and editor to put all of those fragments into a coherent story.

A recent Webinar at NewsU offered some guidance for journalists who use Twitter. Perhaps I will try the replay of that session as I explore Twitter’s possibilities. In the meantime, you are welcome to follow me.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said that Twitter messages have a 140-word limit. The limit is 140 characters. I regret the error.

Guest post: Can you find victory in a cutline?

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the fourth of these guest posts. Amanda Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism and French, possesses an unusual love for proper grammar, romance languages and competitive sports. As an Atlanta native, she still dreams about Chipper Jones and the ’95 Atlanta Braves.

After the Tar Heels’ most recent victory over the Blue Devils in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, I eagerly awaited the next morning’s news stories, photos and videos. I wanted to relive every moment of the basketball game (especially Bobby Frasor’s three 3-pointers). After all, shouldn’t one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time result in the greatest sports journalism of all time?

There were some moments of copy editing greatness, such as the headline in The Charlotte Observer that read, “Once again, Tar Heels are kings of Cameron.” However, in my opinion, copy editors often fell short of greatness when it came to writing cutlines.

First, I found the inaccurate cutline. In her ESPN.com column, Dana O’Neil wrote about UNC-Chapel Hill player Tyler Hansbrough and his dominance at Duke’s basketball court. An accompanying picture carried the caption: “Tyler Hansbrough finished his career 4-0 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.” While this statement is completely accurate, its relationship to the picture bothered me. In the image, Hansbrough appears to be jumping over a Duke player to score a basket. However, those of us who have every play of the game engrained in our memories remember that Hansbrough did not score in the picture. Instead, he was called for a charge, which means that he actually hurt his team’s chances of winning the game in that moment. Ouch.

Next, I found the boring cutline. The Daily Tar Heel chronicled the mid-game and post-game revelry in Chapel Hill with a slideshow. Although the pictures expressed a sense of excitement, the cutlines did not. For example, one cutline said, “A crowd of students watches the basketball game in the Union lobby Wednesday night.” I can tell that from the photo. Cutlines are supposed to provide us with more information. How many students were there? How early did those in front arrive at the Union to claim their seats? How loud did the crowd get? Tell me more!

Finally, I found the absent cutline. A slideshow on the Sports Illustrated Web site documented the game with some fantastic pictures of both UNC-CH and Duke players handling the basketball like only the best players can. The pictures were clear and sharp, but they lacked cutlines. And to me, this was the least offensive of the cutline errors. Because the slideshow was clearly connected to the recap of the basketball game, cutlines seemed unnecessary and, perhaps, would have been redundant. The pictures were so expressive that they probably deserved to be left alone. However, I would welcome the challenge of supplementing the photos with a few words of my own.

So now, I conclude my tale of cutline woes by asking my fellow copy editors to be great. Be great like Tyler Hansbrough at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Make cutlines great or leave them out.

Checking the facts behind an opinion

The Wall Street Journal made a mistake this week in an editorial about President Barack Obama’s recent news conference. The WSJ board questioned Obama’s use of a list of reporters to call on, suggesting that a more spontaneous session would be more in line with the new president’s pledge of openness and transparency. Here’s where the WSJ goofed:

We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors.

Indeed, as documented by Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Bush used a similar list, with some reporters exiled to “Siberia,” never to be called on. It’s a practice that Bush “got away with” for eight years.

The Journal usually takes care in its word choices and phrasing. Could this mistake have been prevented? Of course. That’s where editing comes in.

Romenesko made a connection between this error and the Journal’s recent decision to close its news library. Perhaps that unfortunate move will lead to more fact errors in the paper’s news stories and editorials. But the Bush error could have been caught by a copy editor. Opinion pieces need editing too — and not just for style, punctuation and grammar. Copy editors can check facts and ask questions, just as any journalist would.

More on the editing of the editorial and op-ed pages in this interview with Burgetta Wheeler of The News & Observer.

No static at all

fm-headline

Just as my American eyes have become accustomed to “PM” as a short form for prime minister, along comes this headline from an AFP story. The way you see it here is the way it was presented on Yahoo earlier this week.

I still see “FM” as a reference to radio, not a foreign minister, so I stumbled on this headline. What do others think?

Q&A: Editing in the corporate world

Chris Hoerter is a copy editor at SAS, a software company based in Cary, N.C. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Hoerter discusses what editing is like in the corporate world.

Q. Describe your job. What it is it like to edit at a software company?

A. Like newspaper editing, the turnaround time is fast — less than a day for most jobs. Most days we also get a few rush jobs that require immediate action.

The documents we’re looking at are relatively short — 75 percent of what we get consists of marketing e-mails, Web pages, signs and short mailers. Medium-length pieces make up most of the rest, things like press releases, success stories and magazine articles. And then every few days we’ll get something massive, like a 4,000-word white paper.

Paradoxically, we have to really take our time with short, prominent jobs, such as large trade show signs. A mistake on one of these is easy to see and makes us look especially unprofessional.

We’re also the front line for trademark enforcement, and make sure that dozens of trademarks and product names are used correctly.

Q. The business world has lots of jargon. How do you balance the urge of writers to use jargon with an editor’s urge to translate that into everday English?

A. It depends a great deal on the audience. Because SAS markets software to many different industries, writers and editors have to put themselves in a lot of different shoes. In general, we encourage plain English by working with our writers to identify unnecessary jargon, much of which we capture in an online style guide.

Other times we work with the writer to identify possible jargon and come up with alternatives. This often requires some research.

Q. You come from a background in creative writing. How has that influenced your editing?

A. It’s been challenging in some ways and helpful in others. I don’t think of myself as a naturally detail-oriented person, so I’ve had to approach copy editing in a very mindful way.

For example, I look at most pieces three times. First, I read from beginning to end. Next, I bump up the text size to 150 percent and read backwards, paragraph by paragraph. Last, I review all my edits, making sure that there’s a good reason for each one.

I feel my creative writing background pays off most when I’m working with our copy writers and graphic designers, who are wonderfully creative people. I feel like I can identify with what they’re trying to achieve, and I get a lot of satisfaction from suggesting a different way to write something that improves the delivery.

Q. Some copy editors for newspapers and magazines may look into getting a job like yours. What advice would you have for them?

A. The next best thing to knowing the person who is making the hiring decision is knowing the company. Do your homework. Read the collateral, check out the Web site, and think about it from an editing perspective. What is the company doing well? What kinds of mistakes is it making? How could you help?

And I wouldn’t be scared off if you’re not seeing official corporate editing positions. I’m lucky to work at a company that values consistent, professional business communications. But judging from what I see elsewhere, many companies don’t choose to make that effort — or they make it inconsistently.

If you think there’s a need and you’ve got something to offer, you may have a strong case for a creating a new position or at least getting some freelance work. And that’s a situation that’s good for everybody.

The return of mic

Faithful readers of this blog will recall a post last fall that discussed a style exercise in my editing course. Students work in small groups to make a few style rulings that we then use for the rest of the semester.

The decision that drew several comments was about the short form for “microphone.” Should it be “mic” or “mike”? The students last fall unanimously picked “mic.” Some were unaware that “mike” was even an option.

I decided to try this one again, and once again, all of the students in two sections of the course went with “mic.” The groups were more divided on “freshman” vs. “first-year student,” though they leaned toward the latter. “Athletic director” vs. “athletics director” drew an even split.

The reasons they gave for “mic” were similar to those offered by students before. It’s what you see on signs for “open mic night.” There’s no “k” in microphone. “Mic” is more contemporary.

Indeed, if these students are the ones who will soon settle style questions in newsrooms, the future seems to be on the side of “mic.”