Tennis nation and the cliché next door

The U.S. Open is in full swing, and one of the highlights has been the unexpected rise of Melanie Oudin, a 17-year-old who knocked off several higher-ranked players. It’s the kind of story that the media love.

That led a colleague to ask on Facebook:

Can a tennis fan explain to me why I keep hearing her referred to as “American-born Melanie Oudin”? What is the importance or significance of where she was born, e.g., they don’t say “Russian-born Maria Sharapova.”

I replied that tennis is an international game that brings out nationalistic feelings in some fans. Many of us who follow tennis cheer for their countrymen (although my favorite player of all time is Swedish-born Bjorn Borg). Curiously, that attitude manifests itself more in devotion to individual players than in the team-based Davis Cup, at least in the United States.

federer-flagTune in to the U.S. Open, and you will hear John McEnroe and brother Patrick bemoan the state of men’s tennis in America. Follow Wimbledon, and you will learn how the British yearn for one of their own to win that title. Fans of players wave the flag of the home country at matches.

As for “-born,” that could be a reference to the fact that some players were born in one country but now live in another. Sharapova, for example, has left her native Russia for the warmer climate of Bradenton, Fla.

It is indeed puzzling to see “born” attached to Oudin’s name. She was born in Georgia (the U.S. state, not the country) and still lives there. A simple “American” before her name will suffice.

And here’s a bit of advice to sports journalists and headline writers: “America’s sweetheart” and “girl next door” have already become shopworn ways to describe Oudin. Avoid these clichés.


Barack Obama on writing well

A speech by President Barack Obama to the nation’s schoolkids was scrutinized for a hidden agenda. Such “indoctrination” criticism prompted the Department of Education to edit a suggested lesson plan associated with the speech.

It turns out that the Obama’s address, delivered Tuesday, had nothing to do with health care, abortion or other hot-button issues. Instead, the president encouraged the students to take responsibility for their education and their lives. It was a message that even Newt Gingrich liked.

Obama also talked about careers, including journalism:

Maybe you could be a good writer — maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper — but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class.

The president is right: Writing isn’t easy. Neither is editing. The earlier you get started trying them and the harder you work, the more likely you are to succeed.

Here are Obama’s other tips regarding writing and communication:

  • “Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published.”
  • “You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.”
  • “Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.”
  • “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.”

Read more about Obama’s interest in writing and editing in this Time article from 2008.

Q&A with Laura Leslie, WUNC reporter and blogger

Laura Leslie covers state government for WUNC radio, and she also blogs about that topic at Isaac Hunter’s Tavern. Leslie is the president of Capitolbeat, the national association of statehouse reporters and editors. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Leslie talks about her blog, her use of Twitter and the state of journalism.

Q. You’re a broadcaster and a blogger at WUNC. How do you balance those roles?

A. Broadcasting comes first. It’s our primary purpose, it reaches more people, and it’s what I get paid to do. The online work is sort of a labor of love.

I pushed for the blog for almost two years before my bosses agreed to let me try it as a volunteer effort — I don’t get credit for the time I spend working on it, and I’m still expected to produce just as much radio as people who don’t blog. But their attitude toward it has warmed some as it’s taken off. None of us, especially me, expected it would find such a big audience.

When I started writing it, I was thinking it could be sort of an extension of my notebook — I could just slap my radio scripts up there and build them out with the extra stuff there wasn’t time for on the air. But I learned pretty quickly that doesn’t work. It’s a different style of writing, aimed at a different audience, and it offers a much richer palette of storytelling tools – links, graphics, etc. — than radio does.

One surprising outcome is that the blog has helped me become a much stronger radio writer than I used to be. The best way to write for the radio is to write like you talk, in your own voice. That’s harder than it sounds. I think writing the Tavern has helped me develop that skill because that’s in my own voice, too.

Q. You’re also active on Twitter. What do you like about that format to “broadcast” the news?

A. I love its immediacy, of course, and its portability — I tweet from my phone at events or from my desktop at the legislature.

It also forces you to boil it down. When you’ve only got 140 characters to work with, you’ve really got to focus on what you want to get across. It’s like writing a good headline a dozen times a day.

When I live-tweet an event, I treat it like my notebook. When it’s over, I can go back and build radio stories or blog posts out of those nuggets of information.

I also love the way tags allow you to follow a range of people at different events in real time. At the legislature, if you follow #NCGA, you can see what’s going on in various committee rooms – it’s like being able to track six meetings at once. Plus, you get the benefit of multiple perspectives. When you’ve got lobbyists, lawmakers and reporters all tweeting about an event, you get a lot more information about what’s at stake and why it matters.

Q. For your blog, how do editing and headline writing work? Do you have someone read back on your posts?

A. I don’t get an edit before it goes live. In the beginning, that was because our platform wouldn’t allow for that. Now, it probably would, but we’ve just settled into doing it this way.

I write a post, I come up with a header of some kind, and I let my bosses know about it. They go back and look it over for typos or mistakes, sometimes a day later.

My most dependable editors are my readers. They’re quick to let me know when a link doesn’t work or I’ve misspelled something. I always say thank you when they do, and I mean it.

Q. What advice do you have to student journalists who want to go into the field nowadays?

A. Number one, learn every medium or platform you can, as early as you can, even if you’re not sure how or when you’ll ever use it. I can’t say that strongly enough.

Audio, video, blogging, Twitter — these are all tools for storytelling, and who doesn’t want a bigger toolbox? Even more importantly, get good at learning new media, because you’re going to be doing it on a regular basis as technology evolves.

I think the smartest way to think about our field these days is in terms of what we do, not how we do it. A journalist is a journalist, regardless of your mode of communication. We aren’t “print” or “broadcast” or “online” anymore. We’re doing it all.

That’s a change some older journalists have had a hard time accepting. You hear a lot of complaints: “Why should I have to do X? It’s taking time away from my reporting. ” No, it IS your reporting now.

We have better tools than ever to be smart, absorbing storytellers. The journalists who succeed will be the ones who focus on the potential of those tools, not the drawbacks.

UPDATE: In January 2011, Leslie took a job as a multimedia reporter at WRAL in Raleigh.

Cutlines or captions?

This blog has occasionally discussed the writing of cutlines, with examples both good and not so good. And that’s the word I have used most of the time: cutlines. I even have a category and tag for it.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether “cutline” is destined for a list of antiquated terms (like these) heard in print-centric newsrooms. Is “cutline” showing its age?

Early on in my editing courses, I describe the many duties and responsibilities associated with editing the news. When I get to cutlines, I am always careful to define that term for students, many of whom have never heard it until that moment. When they understand that cutlines are those bits of text that accompany photos, the students get it: “Oh yeah, captions.”

The information that accompanies a photograph is still important. Good editors use that information to connect the image to the story. They avoid the cliche, the pun and the obvious. Good editors also use that information in a sequence to create an effective slideshow online.

So yes, the form still matters. But does the word? Is it time to search for “cutline” and replace it with “caption”?