Guest post: Telling the story without text

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Brecken Branstrator is a senior journalism major from Greensboro, N.C. Her passion is magazines, and she is an editorial intern at the Carolina Alumni Review.

When you first see a huge block of text, do you get excited and dive right into it, or are you wishing that it was shorter or broken into chunks with illustrations to go with it? You’re probably thinking the latter. That’s where alternative story formats come in. As we have been learning in class, some things just work better in illustrations.

As the same-sex marriage debate has grows, especially as California’s Proposition 8 heads for the Supreme Court, many media sites are using alternative story formats to report the issue and follow its progression. Instead of trying to write convoluted stories with many numbers or states, a number of them are creating interactive maps or slideshows of pictures. They present the issue in a visual way that allows the reader to consume the information faster and retain more.

NPR has a great example of this, with a map that not only shows the status of each state on the issue but also a feature that allows the viewer to hover over the state to see details about past legislation. This is the kind of alternative story format that readers are attracted to and appreciate because they can get the facts fast. CNN also displays the story in a very similar way.

But GOOD magazine took another route when it created an innovative flow chart that outlines the arguments for and against same-sex marriage. This chart would look good in both print and online, and actively involves the reader as they become invested in following the lines of the illustration. Its off-the-beaten-path methods are what newspapers should strive to create to attract readers to a story and enhance the text.

These sites are great examples of how alternative story formats can enhance the text of a story and how all options should be explored. An issue that progresses over a long period of time, like the same-sex marriage debate, can only be explained in text for so long before the readers get bored. So when developing a story, designers and editors should always be thinking of a different way to tell it.


Two takes on the Edwards scandal

How does traditional newswriting differ from blogging? It’s not always clear cut, because some bloggers write in the same straight-ahead style as The Associated Press. Others have attitude.

The latest news in the rise and fall of John Edwards offers some insight into blogging versus straight news. The story is about a new book by a former Edwards aide who helped the presidental candidate cover up an extramarital affair. Here’s how the AP starts its story, which is written in the inverted pyramid form:

A former aide to John Edwards says in a new book that the two-time presidential candidate told him he thought about leaving his wife but also cited his love for her as a reason to keep details of an affair hidden.

On the blog side of things, here’s how Gawker did it:

Someone finally read John Edwards aide Andrew Young’s forthcoming tell-all, putting a cherry on top of months of crazy Edwards rumors. He’s a wellspring of scandal — but is it all John’s fault?

The Gawker item is a “truth squad” alternative story form that attempts to figure out who’s to blame for Edwards’ various problems. Yes, it is full of snark.

See the difference? For somewhere in between, take a look at this item in Under the Dome, the News & Observer’s blog about North Carolina politics.

Image via Creative Commons

Reading too much into a transcript

A relative of mine likes to forward e-mails about politics and the media. Usually, the e-mail includes an allegation of bias.

The latest example involves the sentencing of Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber.” In January 2003, Reid was given life in prison for his attempt to blow up a plane with explosives that he had smuggled on board in his shoes.

The federal judge in the case, William Young, didn’t take well to Reid’s defiant attitude at the sentencing. He lectured Reid on issues of terrorism and patriotism.

“Richard Reid, see that flag?” Young concluded. “That is the flag of the United States of America, it will fly there long after this is over, and I am now sentencing you to life in prison.”

The e-mail includes Young’s full remarks and then asks: “So how much of this judge’s comments did we hear on our TV sets? We need more judges like Judge Young. Pass this around. Everyone should and needs to hear what this fine judge had to say.”

My first instinct when I receive this sort of e-mail is to check it out at Snopes. Sure enough, it’s there, and Snopes verifies that the e-mail fairly reports the judge’s statement.

But what about allegations of bias? Were the Reid verdict and judge’s comments ignored by the media?

The answer is no. has a full transcript. The BBC story highlights a quote from the judge. The Wikipedia entries for Reid and Williams both quote his statement to Reid.

But what about broadcast media? Why didn’t viewers see and hear the judge’s statement for themselves?

Because the case was heard in federal court, cameras and recording devices were forbidden. So it would have been impossible for anyone who was not in court that day to see or hear the judge. We can only read about what he said in print and online, and see the artist rendering of what the proceedings looked like.

Guest post: Online headlines should entice readers

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, will write guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Daniel Bethea of Hendersonville, N.C., is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. He enjoys sports and his internship on the copy desk at The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C.

The headline is typically the first thing that a person reads, but a recent study shows just how important online headline writing is. The study found that 44 percent of Google News readers only read the headlines and did not actually follow the link to the publications’ Web sites.

What does this tell us about headline writing for the Web? First, online headlines should be more informative than a typical print edition headline. Names should be included. The print edition may say “mayor,” but the online headline should say the mayor’s name. Figures can also enhance a Web headline. Instead of writing “millions,” write the actual number.

Too often, daily newspapers use the exact same headlines from their print editions for their Web site. A print edition can get away with using a vague headline that will entice its reader to read the story, but if that headline is used on the Web where people are apparently only reading the headlines, the reader will learn nothing. A better version of the Hendersonville Times-News article may read something along the lines of “Polk escapee now faces 86 charges.”

News Web sites are often cluttered with several stories, and the viewer may be overwhelmed. A good online headline will stand out to the reader if the editor has implemented some of the tactics mentioned earlier in the writing of the headline.

Online headline writing is much less restrictive than print writing. Space is not nearly as big of an issue, and longer headlines are often used online. Google News and several other online news sources also use a blurb underneath the article’s title. This can either be the first sentence of the article or the deck headline from the print version of the story. It provides the skimming reader with more information and may even persuade them to (gasp) read the article.

While every news outlet hopes that readers are actually reading its stories, the reality is that some people don’t want to spend five minutes reading, but would rather have you tell them everything they need to know in 50 characters. This is the task placed upon online copy editors.

We want our public to be informed, and we need to do our best to write headlines that will give details and hopefully make the reader want to read further. The easy thing for copy editors to do is simply duplicate their headlines from print to the Web. But if you simply spend a little extra time writing new, more detailed online headlines, your Web site can be greatly enhanced.

Q&A with Eric Ulken, professor and data visualization expert

Eric Ulken, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, specializes in database journalism. He’s given talks on that topic and others (including writing headlines for the Web) for The Poynter Institute, the American Copy Editors Society and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Ulken discusses his latest job as a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Q. Why the move into teaching?

A. First, I should say that I love and miss the newsroom, and I hope to get back there soon. But I thought this would be a good time to be away from daily news for a while and explore the changes in the field with students, who are approaching things with a fresh perspective.

The grad students I’m working with are really sharp — they’re thoughtful, tech-savvy and open to new ways of doing journalism. And I expect to learn as much from them as they will from me.

Q. One of your courses is called Integrated Journalism. Describe that course — does it have an editing component?

A. Integrated Journalism is the foundation course that all first-year students take. It’s an intensive, team-taught exploration of all facets of journalism.

Most weeks it consists of three hours of lecture and discussion and about six hours of lab work, in addition to independent reporting and production assignments. It is a full-year course, and I’m arriving right in the middle of it, but I’m gradually catching up.

Most of the first semester was spent on basic reporting and writing for print and radio. This semester we’re focused on TV, online and entrepreneurship. The online and entrepreneurship components, which I’m responsible for, include blogging, social media, data journalism and visualization, alternative story forms and the new information economy.

There is a copy editing component to the course, but most of that took place before I arrived. When we cover blogging, I plan to go into some depth on SEO and headline writing for the web.

Q. You’re known as a leader in database journalism and data visualization. How effectively are newspapers and magazines at this type of information gathering and reporting?

A. Gathering information is something journalists do naturally, but most of the time we really stink at organizing and presenting it. It’s a competency that legacy news organizations desperately need to develop if they want to compete online. Unfortunately, this kind of work requires skill sets that news organizations traditionally haven’t valued — namely, skills in software development and information architecture.

I should point out that I am neither a developer nor an information architect, but I do understand how they work, and I enjoy helping news organizations apply those skills to their problems.

Q. You’ve been in online media for more than 10 years and have seen lots of changes. What do you think the next 10 years will bring?

A. I hate making predictions like this, because I’m sure they’ll sound silly in 10 years. But if I suppose if I keep them vague enough, I stand a better chance of being right. So here goes:

The next 10 years will bring cheaper and near-ubiquitous wireless connectivity, as well as more powerful mobile devices, making mobile the most important medium for real-time information sharing. That’s a no-brainer.

Now I’ll go out on a limb and say we will start to see successful geo-targeted online advertising models that can support high-quality local journalism from a wide variety of sources. Among those sources will be some companies currently in the newspaper business, but they will have plenty of competition. And that can only be a good thing for journalism.

Follow Eric Ulken on Twitter and check out his Web site.

Getting the news in India

I spent much of December and a bit of January in India on a family trip with my wife, a native of India, and our 9-year-old son. We stayed with relatives in Mumbai, Hubli and Banglore, and on our own at a hotel in Goa.

What struck me through trip is how newspapers appear to be alive and well in India. Each family we stayed with subscribed to at least one paper (The Times of India) as well as a regional one (such as the Deccan Herald).

And people read them, although perhaps as much for the celebrity news as anything else. Sections were hefty compared with those of American newspapers. Classified advertising filled page after page.

In addition, hawkers plied the streets and train stations of Mumbai, selling an afternoon tabloid. And the day’s papers were available for free at the gate at the airport in Bangalore.

Now I am back in the United States and already hearing about more buyouts and layoffs this week at my former newspaper, The News & Observer. Hawkers and afternoon papers are but a memory. Classified advertising is vanishing, and news hole is shrinking.

Maybe it’s time for a return trip.