Editors can answer frequently asked questions

Two recent FAQ-style stories caught my attention for the smart way they convey information:

  • The BBC website posted this Q&A on the unrest in Ukraine. I had been following the news from that country in the newspaper and on NPR, but reading this story, I felt like I fully understood the situation for the first time. The map and video contribute to the storytelling.
  • Joe Ovies of WRALSportsFan.com posted this Q&A about Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has a complicated history, playing college football at both N.C. State and Wisconsin before moving on to the NFL. Ovies uses a conversational tone that is appropriate to the topic.

From sports to international affairs, simple and straightforward explainers like these are a service to readers. Information presented in alternative formats is memorable. That’s something for editors to keep in mind as they decide what to publish and post, and in what form.


Student guest post: How can editors stop plagiarism and fabrication?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Andy Bradshaw is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in political science and reporting. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel and hopes to write for a legal publication in the future.

In 1998, Stephen Glass was at the center of possibly the most infamous instance of fabrication within the world of journalism. At just 25 years old, Glass had risen to prominence as one of the most high-profile reporters in Washington, D.C.

His stories for The New Republic, a magazine with a focus on political commentary, had that extra little quote or character that made his stories stand out above the rest of the pieces in the magazine. Glass always presented vivid, enigmatic figures with heartwarming back stories.

But behind the scenes, Glass was inventing entire companies, sources and stories purely from his own imagination. When he wrote an entirely fabricated piece centering on a 15-year-old hacker breaking the firewall of an entirely fictional company under the name of Jukt Micronics, Charles Lane, Glass’ editor at the time, expressed some suspicion.

When Lane forced Glass to take him to the conference room of a Hyatt hotel where Glass had stated the young hacker and the software company had met up to make a deal, Lane discovered that on the day Glass said the meeting took place, the conference room had been closed. After Lane found out that Glass had fabricated this story, he and other editors at the New Republic discovered that at least 27 out of the 41 stories Glass had written for the magazine contained at least some fabricated material.

This was truly a case of a lose-lose for all those involved. Glass’ name still evokes contempt from most of the journalism world, and The New Republic had a stain on its reputation that took years to diminish.

Since this scandal, fabrication has remained a prominent issue for reporters and editors. In 2003, Jayson Blair was forced to resign from The New York Times in the wake of the discovery of his plagiarism and fabrication in his stories. Just last year, a student journalist at the University of Alabama was discovered to have quoted up to 30 nonexistent students in her stories for The Crimson White. And in this past week, three Bangladeshi journalists were held in court for writing a fabricated story.

What seems clear is that fabrication is a problem with a wide scope — it can occur at a small college newspaper or even at a respected media behemoth like The New York Times. As editors, it’s our job to maintain accuracy. But how far can we actually go to ensure that reporters are engaging in ethical journalism?

The Poynter Institute has laid out some guidelines to prevent fabrication in the newsroom, and among them are some tips that editors may find useful. Sourcing notes can help force reporters to link their sources to biographies, names and titles. This makes it much easier for editors to be able to verify that their reporters are being honest in their stories. Had the editors at The New Republic used sourcing notes with Glass’ stories, they would not have been able to verify many of his sources, and thus suspicions likely would have arisen earlier.

But perhaps we as editors should take sourcing notes one step further. For digital stories, I would suggest placing hyperlinks to source information. This not only makes it easier for editors to verify source information, but also to open up the editing process to readers. As editors we bear the weight of the verification process, but we could use all the help we could get from our readers to ensure the stories we put out to the public are accurate and fair.

Furthermore, linking our sources lends context and authority to the story as a whole. Linking to information that was plagiarized could alert an editor to the fact that the information was taken from another source. However, when it comes to fabrication, the solution remains muddled. But sourcing notes can help editors easily get in contact with the sources listed in a story to verify that what the reporter wrote was truthful.

Overall, the process of preventing plagiarism becomes easier when editors employ techniques such as providing links to sources and incorporating those links in digital stories. This would make it easier for editors to detect if any information in the story was stolen from another source. Fabrication presents a new set of problems, but by providing these links with contact information, editors can get in contact with sources listed in stories to verify information.

Had these practices been in place when Glass and Blair were slipping their fictional stories under the eyes of editors, the damage they caused to their own reputation as well as the integrity of their institutions may have ended much sooner.

Aww, shucks — this headline just doesn’t work

Jim Romenesko’s website calls our attention to a recent headline in the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. The story is about Auburn University’s narrow defeat to Florida State in college football’s championship game. That’s front-page news for papers in Alabama and Florida, and perhaps elsewhere.

au-shucksThe “AU SHUCKS” headline didn’t go over well with Auburn fans who apparently read “shucks” and “sucks.” Tom Clifford, the editor of the Montgomery paper, reported that he received a “barrage” of phone calls and email from furious readers.

Clifford defended the headline on the grounds that it was clever wordplay on an abbreviation of the school’s name. The intent was something like this: “Aww, shucks. Auburn almost won that game.” Clifford noted that this headline followed through on previous ones in the Advertiser about Auburn victories such as “SHOCK AND AU” and “AU YEAH!”

I asked my colleague Chris Roush what he thought of the headline. Roush, who teaches business journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, is an Auburn alumnus who follows the football team closely. Here’s his response:

“As an Auburn fan, it doesn’t bother me. But as an advocate of good word usage, it is a poor headline. When I think of shucks, I think of opening raw oysters. I don’t understand how that can be compared to Auburn losing a football game. I think the headline writer tried too hard in this case. But it’s not offending to me as a third-generation Auburn graduate.”

I agree. I have no connection to Auburn, so my measure for assessing this headline is the “pun form” created by Steve Merelman, a former News & Observer editor who now works at Bloomberg.

“AU SHUCKS” fails the first point in Merelman’s six-part test of whether a wordplay headline should be published or posted: “The headline makes immediate sense to the reader and does not distort syntax or usage to make the pun and/or wordplay.”

This headline doesn’t make immediate sense to me. My brain doesn’t hear “AU” as “awww.” My eyes see “AU” the way you would say that aloud: “A-U.” So “AU SHUCKS” baffled me when I first read it. Other readers, for whatever reason, are reading “shucks” as “sucks.” I didn’t and can’t explain why some people see it that way.

It’s obvious that the Advertiser didn’t mean to offend its audience; it would be bad for business to insult its readers or an entire fanbase in football-crazy Alabama. But this is a headline that needed a rewrite before it went into print. Next time, use the Merelman Test.

Q&A with John Conway, general manager of WRAL.com

John Conway is general manager of WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C. Before making the move to online journalism in the 1990s, he worked as a reporter at newspapers in Greensboro, N.C., and Orlando, Fla. In this interview, conducted by email, Conway discusses the recent overhaul in WRAL’s digital operations.

Q. Why is WRAL redesigning its website?

A. It has been seven years since the last major redesign of WRAL.com, and a lot has changed in that time. Web technologies have changed, connection speeds have increased, and content consumption patterns have changed. There also has been a proliferation of new devices (tablets, “phablets” and phones) in a dizzying array of sizes.

We had been following some of the early adopters of responsive design, most notably The Boston Globe. We saw a lot of merit in a build-once strategy that works on all current devices, as well as ones that have yet to be sold. It is important that users of our site have the best possible experience of our content and advertising, regardless of how they are accessing it.

So in 2012, we committed to launching a responsive redesign of WRAL.com in late 2013/early 2014, and we did that. We launched an internal beta version in early December and a public beta in mid-December.

Q. What are some of the major changes, and what has been the reaction from readers?

A. We wanted to create a world-class user experience across platforms — desktop, tablet and mobile. That started with a close look at our analytics to see what content was most popular. We also did heat-map testing to see where users focus on key pages as they are browsing. That helped inform changes to our navigation, which we streamlined.

Another key goal was to declutter the site, especially the homepage. So one of the first things you notice is more white space.

We also wanted to get more content above the fold. We did that by adopting a three-column design for desktop users, along with introducing what we call the “mega menu.”  The large drop-down menu allows users to preview content throughout the site. Discoverability of content is a key challenge for content-rich sites like ours, and we think the mega menu will help visitors find our best stories, video, photos and special features.

Users will notice other trends, such as the use of larger photos on section fronts and story pages, in-line video at the top of stories and a persistent toolbar for sharing, commenting and controlling fonts.

We also worked a lot on making pages load faster. That was tricky because of all the Javascript needed for the responsive design, but our technology team did a nice job of compressing and optimizing the code.

We also added an Amazon-like recommendations engine that is based on the reading patterns of individual users. If you read, for example, a lot of UNC and business stories, you will see more of those stories in the Recommended feed in the right column of most pages.

I have been through five site launches and redesigns at WRAL.com, and the reaction to this redesign has been fairly consistent with others. Some people love it; others prefer the old design. We’ve heard from people who like our cleaner, more modern design. Many have said that the site is easy to navigate. We’ve also heard from those who say why fix what isn’t broken.

We understand that change can be difficult, especially for heavy, loyal users who have grown accustomed over seven years to accessing content in a very particular way. That’s why we developed a number of tools to help frequent visitors make the transition. Those tools include a new Help Center and a guided, interactive tour of the new features, plus a video tutorial and blog posts.

Q. News and information are increasingly going mobile. What is WRAL’s approach to attract readers who use tablets and smartphones?

A. The responsive design is a key element of our mobile strategy. We think users should have a choice when accessing our content on mobile devices.

They can have a great experience of the rich WRAL.com site on the device of their choice, or they can opt for a tailored experience from one of our mobile apps for iOS and Android devices. (We have a news app, iPad-only app, weather forecast app, severe weather app, high school sports app, local entertainment app and an arrest photos app.)

With a surge in mobile search, it is important to lead users seamlessly from mobile search results to the mobile-optimized content. And now virtually our entire archive since 1996 will look good on any device. No more squinting or pinch zooming required.

Q. The Triangle region of North Carolina is a competitive market for news, including The News & Observer and WTVD. How does WRAL’s digital efforts compare with other news organizations?

A. We have strong local competitors. And increasingly, strong national pure plays are trying to make inroads in local markets. So we have to be on top of our game at all times.

Our competitors are increasing their investments in digital, which is leveling the playing field. That’s why we have beefed up our editorial, marketing, technology and sales staffs. It’s why we have one of the few local TV sites in the country with an investigative reporter and database researcher/reporter focused on digital content. It’s why we hired former ECU coach Steve Logan and former newspaper sports columnist Caulton Tudor to contribute to our sports properties (TV radio and Web).

As for how we stack up, media measurement firms such as Scarborough and The Media Audit show us having 2x to 3x leads over our nearest competitors. The Media Audit’s latest survey of the Raleigh-Durham market showed that 54 percent of adults visit WRAL.com at least once a month. Only one other local media outlet in the country had a higher penetration rate.

Q. Journalism is in a era of transition and disruption. How can today’s journalism students best prepare themselves for what’s ahead?

A. It used to be that strong reporting, writing and editing skills were all that mattered for writing and editing positions on the Web. Today, we’re looking for applicants who are more than one dimensional.

We still want those strong writing skills, but we also benefit from applicants who can shoot and edit photos and video, create interactive graphics or manage multiple social media accounts. Some experience analyzing data is useful. And while you are juggling all of those tasks, we need you to be accurate and fast.

Q&A with Rylan Miller of Business Insider

Rylan Miller is Contributors Editor at Business Insider. In this interview, conducted by email, she talks about her job and how the site uses headlines and social media to attract readers.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like at Business Insider?

A. I manage all of BI’s syndication partnerships and guest writers, which is an editorial job with some elements of business development mixed in.

My team has three main responsibilities:

  • We help choose the stories we will publish from our 370-ish partner publications, wire services, and blogs;
  • We package these stories so that they fit perfectly with Business Insider’s style;
  • And we act as the gatekeepers — I like to envision Gandalf shouting “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” when I say this — of every article that is republished on the site.

We ensure that editorial is following all of the partnership rules and industry courtesies when syndicating.

This job has a lot of moving parts, but for me, that’s part of what keeps it interesting. Some days I spend a lot of time talking to our point people at companies like Slate, Condé Nast, Wenner Media, and more. Sometimes I focus on teaching our editorial team what syndication is and how to do it the right way.

Other days I like to dive into setting up posts, which means formatting them so that they look great on BI, writing catchy headlines, and picking photos that really pop on the main page. Sometimes I tinker with formatting in our CMS, and I frequently study our analytics.

I have learned more about the world of online publishing from this one job than I ever thought possible. It’s really a fascinating mix of journalism, psychology, business, and management, and perfect for a generalist like me. It’s fun to know what’s happening in just about every section of the site, and — important job perk — people want you on their team for bar trivia.

Q. Headline writing for digital media is seeing a shift from SEO to “shareability,” as demonstrated by sites like Upworthy. What is Business Insider’s approach to headline writing?

A. One of our editor’s mantras is that headlines should “get clicks without being annoying.” It’s very easy to tease someone into reading a story online—I’m sure we’ve all fallen for the “7 Things That Will Completely Change Your Life” headline at some point.

But when you actually read the article and see that the headline is hyperbole, skewed, or a flat-out lie, you start to resent that publication. I think BI does a great job of getting people interested while also delivering a great story.

As a site that does breaking news, features, photo-centric slideshows, videos, syndication, and now longform, there really isn’t a magic formula for how we write headlines. Above all, we consider the reader and what he or she should know immediately before we think about SEO and “shareability.”

If a headline isn’t working for us, we can change it. The priority is still focusing on writing (or in my case, choosing) excellent stories that are worth sharing in the first place, and then pulling out the most interesting nugget or angle for the headline.

Q. Business Insider is active on Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn. What is the organization’s social media strategy?

A. Every single person on editorial puts in effort when it comes to our social media policies and strategies. Each section is responsible for maintaining and expanding their own Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and relationship with LinkedIn if it’s relevant. They also have to make sure their best work gets pushed out to BI’s main Twitter and Facebook accounts. We have a small bit of oversight at the top of this chain, but for the most part we rely on common sense and good news judgment when deciding what gets shared.

We’re constantly assessing what’s working and what’s not when it comes to our social media strategies, and I think that’s served us well so far. Everyone gets a chance to put in their two cents.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012. What’s the most important thing you learned there, and what have you had to learn on the job after college?

A. As someone who’s not in a traditional journalism job at a 100 percent digital news outlet, I’m surprised every day by how much of what I learned at j-school is still relevant to what I’m doing now. I’ve realized how important it is to have that solid foundation in place before learning new skills on the job.

Copy-editing classes taught me how to be nitpicky (in a good way) while reading through articles. My business journalism classes taught me basically everything I know about the industry I’m in now. Media law gave me a good understanding of where we can get photos, who holds copyright on freelance stories, and how to not get my employer sued for dumb mistakes.

I also cannot overstate how much I’ve learned on the job. I’d say most of what I’ve learned is in the technical and strategic aspects of how a news website functions. I’ve learned how publishers can work with each other to expand and improve, and I’m continually discovering what people feel compelled to read. Despite what you’re hearing, people aren’t solely interested in “reading” GIFs. And finally, I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Serial Comma And All-Caps Headline.

Follow Rylan Miller on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn. If you want to become a contributing writer for Business Insider, check out the Contributors FAQ or email contributors@businessinsider.com for more information.

We’re going to put four normal people into a conference room at a Las Vegas hotel and ask them to react to real headlines. What they’ll say may blow your mind.


Preparations are under way for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. This year’s gathering is in Las Vegas in March.

I’m helping put together and will moderate two sessions at the conference. One will be about getting into teaching, either as an adjunct or a full-time, tenure-track faculty member.

The other session will be about headlines. In a revision of a session from previous conferences, we will invite “regular folks” to give feedback on a series of headlines. The twist this time: We’ll include “shareable” headlines from sites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. (The one on this post is an example of that type of headline.)

For more about the ACES conference, check out the official site. I hope to see you in Las Vegas.

UPDATE: This session is scheduled to take place on Friday, March 21, at 4:30 p.m at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. If you or someone you know in the Las Vegas area would like to be a panelist, please contact me.