A challenging word

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This front-page headline in the Sunday edition of The News & Observer surprised me for a couple of reasons:

  • The newspaper had landed an interview with Jan Boxill, one of the people connected to the scandal involving bogus classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • The headline used the word “refuted,” which indicated to me that Boxill had argued successfully against the many accusations (such as these from the NCAA) against her.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster list two definitions for the word:

  • to prove wrong by argument or evidence
  • to deny the truth or accuracy of

The use of “refute” in the Boxill headline matches the second definition well enough. But it’s unclear in the story whether she has proven the accusations to be false. That conclusion lies in the mind of the reader.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against this use of “refute” because it “almost always implies editorial judgment.” With that in mind, I would suggest other verbs for the Boxill headline: challenge, dispute or deny. Each of those would reflect the tone and content of the story without overselling it.

I’m open to rebuttals.

Q&A with N&O reporter Mandy Locke on the Deadly Force series

Mandy Locke is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her recent series, Deadly Force, examines violent incidents surrounding the sheriff’s office in Harnett County, including the death of an inmate who was shot with a Taser. In this interview, conducted by email, Locke discusses how the multimedia series came together and how the N&O published it in print and online.

Q. How did the Deadly Force series come about? What were some of the obstacles you faced in your reporting?

A. I wish I could claim some sort of brilliance, but the initial tip to this story came because of a relationship. I had a long-ago source, an eccentric lawyer whom I met as a cub reporter in 2004. He would now and again leave me ranting, raving voicemails late at night over the years.

He left one of those in December. John Livingston, he said, shouldn’t have died. A deputy who was at the wrong house with no permission to enter had killed Livingston.

Naturally, this sounded important. But, it was one of about eight important stories on my list in the new year when I met with my investigative teammates and our editor. How or why I bit this off first may have been simply random; it may have been fate.

Within hours of my visit to Harnett County, to the place where John Livingston died, I was convinced this was something. I didn’t know how big and wide and tough this “something” would be to report, but my gut said, “Whoa, stop. Listen. Think.”

Obstacles? So many. Where to start? Simple sentences:

  • Officials here rarely dealt with reporters.
  • I had few established sources.
  • I was an “outsider.”
  • My subjects had become distrustful; they were beleaguered.

Q. The series was available each day in the print newspaper or all at once on the website. It also has a video trailer and a podcast. Why did the N&O decide to present this story this way?

A. In the last several years, The N&O and our parent company, McClatchy, have learned much about storytelling and how best to harness our platforms. Our digital audience had different engagement patterns than our print audience. Our audience increasingly engages better through video and infographics.

We launched the first part of the series online on a Friday, when our online audience is high; same story ran in print Sunday, when our print audience is high. It takes a mind shift.

I learned this year that there is no shortcut to reporting. You must dig and push and press. However, there are so many ways to tell a story.

Though I love to write, I had to check that sensibility at the door. What is the best way to tell this story? Video? Podcast? How do I help people relate and respond to this work? We do not have the luxury of expecting people to digest our work in traditional formats because they must.

Q. How did editing, fact checking and headline writing work for the series?

A. We are rigid at the N&O. For good cause.

For each and every word and fact, I must present the document or the audio interview or transcript to my editor, Steve Riley. It takes about a day for me to prepare one story for this test. It takes another day to go through it with Steve.

We do not employ fact checkers, and even if we did, there is no shortcut to shoring up a significant story for public scrutiny.

Headline writing is by committee. A team evaluates and challenges, and eventually, we settle on something that works.

Q. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming. What do you see as its future as newspapers continue to face reductions in budgets and staffing?

A. This is the most pressing question in journalism in my estimation.

I give credit to John Drescher and other top leaders of the N&O for preserving and expanding our investigative efforts in the age of falling revenues and layoffs.

As a breed, investigative journalists are expensive. Our work is risky, time-consuming and often does not endear us to those who keep this business afloat through advertising revenues.

Investigative journalism exists because people like John Drescher refuse to relinquish it, despite the expense. It exists because readers tell us over and over that his is what they want and expect from our news organization. We do this because it is our duty.

Read the Deadly Force series and follow Mandy Locke on Twitter.

Student guest post: Self-editing with our auto-correcting brains

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Kristin Tajlili is a senior who is majoring in editing and graphic design with a minor in creative writing. She has contributed to many on-campus publications including Should Does, The Daily Tar Heel and Blue and White. She gets excited over the most mundane of coincidences.

Why is self-editing hard? Blame our brains – the original auto-correctors.

Whenever I hit submit on a blog post that I have worked tirelessly on, I dread that it will be mangled with dropped words, wrong uses of there/their/they’re and sentences that don’t make sense.

It’s embarrassing, especially when people ask me: “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you know the proper use of there?”

Like many people, I can easily catch errors in other people’s work, but when it comes to correcting my own errors, I am useless.

The inability to self-edit can be attributed to our brain — the original auto-corrector, according to blogger Yuka Igarashi. Because our brains are very good at altering sensory information to be “correct” very quickly and unconsciously, it is difficult to catch our own mistakes.

In her blog, Igarashi uses this sentence to illustrate how humans perceive text:

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Did you see the word “the” twice? Even though I knew there was an error, I had to look at the sentence five times before I spotted it. My brain automatically removed the second the.

This ability of our brain can be helpful in situations where we have to think quickly, but it also makes naturally poor copy editors. For example, after proofreading my resume — which I had worked on for several hours before — I read the mistake “second-more viewed article” as “second-most viewed article.” Because I knew the message beforehand, my brain corrected it. A couple weeks later, after using this resume for a few job applications, I caught the mistake.

In order to become stronger editors, we must acknowledge our brains, like spell-check and many of the new grammar checkers flooding the market, are not reliable. Once we acknowledge that our brains are no good, we can look to other techniques to meet our copy editing needs.

In a handout about editing and proofreading, the UNC Writing Center lists several solid techniques, such as reading the paper out loud, slowly. I found this to be good advice, but when reading a paper longer than a couple pages, my vocal chords — and eyes — get tired. Also this isn’t helpful when it’s 5:30 in the morning and I don’t want my roommate to wake up to a lecture about the Roman Empire.

Instead of reading my own papers out loud, I usually find a free text-to-speech translator such as Mike. Unlike me, Mike sees the text for what it is instead of what it is meant to be. But for those who find Mike creepy, the UNC Writing Center allows students to download Read&Write Gold, a text-to-speech translator which offers more flexibility than those offered for free online. Just stop by SASB and ask for a copy.

When I’m not in the mood to hang out with Mike, I like to play with formatting on my word processor. I change the font type and size so that the text looks different than my original draft. In doing so, the errors have less room to hide.

That being said, it took me years to find effective methods for self-editing. What may work for me may not work for other people. There are dozens of tools and techniques to circumvent our auto-correcting brains. Finding what works may be the difference between landing an interview or staring at an empty inbox.

Q&A with Brooke Pryor, sports reporter at North State Journal

Brooke Pryor is a sportswriter at North State Journal, a new newspaper covering the state of North Carolina. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Pryor previously worked at The Herald-Sun in Durham. In this interview, conducted by email, Pryor discusses her job, describes how editing and headline writing work at the NSJ, and offers advice to college students looking to go into sports journalism.

Q. Describe your job at North State Journal. What is your typical workweek like?

A. The best/worst thing about working for a newspaper, and a startup newspaper no less, is that there’s no pattern to my workweek. Most of the time I love variety in my job, but it can also be a little draining to be on call all the time.

My schedule at least starts the same every week when I send in a story budget to my editor Monday morning. He’ll usually shoot back an email green-lighting the good stuff and tells me to scrap anything else.

Then I get to work reporting on all the different stories. As I write this, I’m sitting in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park procrastinating on a story about Rays top prospect Blake Snell. I just finished talking to him, so I want to transcribe the interview and then start writing or at least formulate a lede and an angle.

Right now, the NSJ is a weekly paper, and our hard deadline to submit the pages to the printer is Friday at 6 p.m. Recently, I’ve been flooding the copy editors with stories Friday morning, but I can pretty much file throughout the week up until about noon on Friday.

During the weekends, at least in the spring, I’m usually at baseball games or other events, gathering more material for feature stories. With the weekly print schedule, I have to focus on the long game and spend most of my time working on long-term evergreen stories and personality profiles.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work at the NSJ?

A. Great question — and one that I didn’t know until I went to the office last week. Like pretty much any newspaper, the process to produce a (mostly) error-free paper is a long one.

When I finish a story, I send it to my sports editor, who copy-fits it for print and edits for content, length, accuracy, etc. Then, it gets placed on a page, and when the rest of the stories for the page are placed and copy-fit by our wonderful designer Cece Pascual (UNC and Daily Tar Heel alum, woo!), they are printed out and passed out among the staff gathered in the office.

We circulate the pages for three reads before the section editor goes back to Cece and shows her all of the necessary changes. Then the page is printed out one more time and goes through three more reads before the final edits are made and the page is sent to the printer.

Headline writing is a group effort and usually involves a bunch of people yelling ideas at a computer screen. It’s just as chaotic and riveting as it sounds.

Q. You previously worked at the Herald-Sun. What has it been like to move from an established publication like that to a startup?

A. A lot of my day-to-day work stuff has been the same, but I do get a lot of questions about what the NSJ is or who’s paying for it. Spoiler, in case you thought I would have an answer to the latter: I have no idea. There’s a bunch of rumors floating around, but I don’t pay attention to them because I’m grateful for the opportunity and I love working in such a creative environment.

Because we’re not established, we run into some administrative or copy flow issues that are second-nature at established papers. So we’re in the phase of figuring out the details that make newspapers work, like how to submit photo requests, who should what and when, etc.

One thing I’m interested to see is how much access I’ll get to different events when the college football season starts up. When I was working for an established newspaper, I got plenty of access and interviews and was never denied a credential. But that could change now that I’m working for a brand new paper. Luckily, since I’ve been around UNC/Triangle sports since my freshman year at UNC, I’ve made a lot of connections, and I hope that those will keep me in the loop around here.

Q. Many journalism students have an interest in sports. What advice do you have for those seeking a career in sports journalism?

A. I think the biggest and most helpful thing I’ve learned as a writer is to not be afraid to try something new.

If you’ve only ever watched and written about football and basketball, try covering women’s lacrosse or field hockey. Sports journalism is more than just covering the revenue stuff, and you’ll find that there are plenty, if not more, interesting storylines in the less mainstream stuff. You might not understand what’s going on, but challenge yourself to find a story in an unfamiliar environment. It’ll make you a stronger reporter and adding a variety of sports to your background will come in handy when you’re looking for jobs.

You’ll probably have to cover a lot of random stuff in your career and the more experience you have going into unfamiliar territory, the better. Talk to everyone you can at those events and look for the human angle. People love reading about other people, so even if you don’t understand all the logistics of the game or event you’ve just covered, you can find an interesting story just by asking questions and tapping into human emotion.

Follow Brooke Pryor on Twitter and read some of her stories on her website.

UPDATE: In August 2016, Pryor announced that she had accepted a job covering college football for The Oklahoman.

Student guest post: editing Usher

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Rebecca Shoenthal is a junior majoring in editing and graphic design and minoring in creative non-fiction writing. She is a publicity intern at Algonquin Books and loves dogs, tacos and Netflix.

Last week when I was driving, flipping through the radio stations, one of my favorite throwback songs came on: “My Boo” by Usher, released in 2004. I turned up the volume, ready to jam out, when Usher’s beautiful voice came out signing, “There’s always that one person that will always have your heart.”

Add it to the list of grammar casualties.

Maybe The Associated Press style was different in 2004 (Well, of course it was; there’s a new edition every year.), but all I could think about was the “that, which (pronouns)” category in the AP Stylebook. I edited Usher in my head, changed the station and “went home proud,” as my professor Andy Bechtel would say.

“There’s always that one person WHO will always have your heart,” but I guess that person isn’t Usher for me anymore.

This is the life of an editor, or in my case, a student editor.

I correct song lyrics I hear on the radio, posters I see walking around campus and friends’ Facebook posts without thinking twice. My friends text me asking, “Can you help me?” and it’s never about relationship advice.

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The other day, I was sitting with friends during lunch when the dreaded dilemma of among vs. amongst came up. “I think they’re interchangeable,” the table agreed before turning to me for a final opinion. “Among,” I corrected.

Later, of course, I double-checked my instinct against “Grammar Girl” who considers amongst “archaic and overly formal or even pretentious in American English.”

It’s not as if I advertise my status as an editing major, but once the word gets out that you’re good with grammar, it spreads quickly.

The thing is, I don’t know all of the answers. As my editing professor Denny McAuliffe once told me, “You don’t need to know the whole book, just where to look.”

But honestly, I don’t always use my AP Stylebook. In my day-to-day life outside of Carroll Hall, I don’t usually have it on me. (When will they release a pocket version like the Bible?) Usually, I refer to the previously mentioned “Grammar Girl” or, more commonly, I end up on “Grammar Girl” after a quick Google search.

Just the other night I needed to write a killer Instagram caption. I’d forgotten the rule for “each other” vs. “one another.” Which one was used for more than two people? Which one was used for indefinite numbers? (Spoiler: I chose “each other” even though I was referring to four people. The truth is sometimes you need to go with what sounds better.)

I’d hardly call myself a Comma Queen, but I do take pride in having an “Editor’s Eye.”

It does get in the way of jamming out in my car, though — like when I changed the station from Usher and the new One Direction song “History” came through the speakers. The chorus, “you and me got a whole lot of history,” made me seriously consider sticking to CDs. Do they even make those anymore?

Student guest post: A different kind of news judgment

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Katie Reeder is a senior journalism major and the managing editor of Southern Neighbor. She has a deep appreciation for coffee, witty humor and Carolina basketball.

I avoided social media after the Tar Heels lost the national championship on a Monday night in what was the most heartbreaking game I have ever watched. I did not want to see the comments — good or bad — or stories that I knew were coming. My friends had already agreed not to talk about basketball for the next few days.

By Wednesday, I decided I could handle the stories. March Madness was over, and I knew I would miss the college basketball coverage. I started with The News & Observer and ended with Adam Lucas’ column on GoHeels.com.

When I logged onto Facebook, the Lucas column was at the top of my news feed, and I could see that more than 20 of my friends had shared it. But what caught my attention was that my news feed also had a good number of blog posts friends had shared (mostly written by people other than themselves) about the season and what this team had meant to them.

I will admit that I read just about everything relating to Carolina basketball that I saw on my news feed. But as a journalist, I was struck by the seemingly illogical reasoning behind this. I was reading essentially the same story retold with a different personal angle. Most of those stories could be boiled down to this: We are heartbroken but proud, and we are still Tar Heels. There was no new information, but so many people read it and shared it anyway.

So what does this mean for journalists and editors? It’s tempting to say, “You’re talking about social media and blogs. There are different rules.” But when more than 50 percent of Americans consider Facebook a news source, the rules of Facebook are something to pay attention to.

Add in the fact that Facebook has an algorithm for what shows up in news feeds, and it begins to sound like the curation side of an editor’s job. The front page of The New York Times may still have the box boasting that it’s “all the news that’s fit to print,” but social media has taken away much of that authoritative voice and changed how people consume news.

I do not think all blogs are journalism, and I do not think the rules of social media are always transferable to traditional media. But the common denominator between the two is information intake. Both forms of media ask the question, “What do people care about?”

If my news feed the week after the national championship game is any indicator, people do not always care about fresh information or how timely a story is. The news values of proximity and magnitude came into play here, but do they fully explain why people continued to read and share similar stories? I don’t think so.

Sometimes people like to see the same story retold because they love a basketball team that lost a heartbreaking game, and reading those stories reminds them why they loved the team in the first place. Sometimes stories are about connecting with others and feeling like you can say, “Me too.”

We’re not always taught that in our newswriting classes, and this is not meant to discount the importance of objectivity and accuracy. But I think as journalists learn to navigate the increasingly social digital world, it’s important to remember that people don’t always share what we think they should share. Sometimes stories are more about fostering a sense of community than taking in new information. 

Q&A with freelance editor Laura Poole

Laura Poole is a freelance editor who lives in Durham, North Carolina. As senior editor at Archer Editorial Services, she specializes in editing scholarly nonfiction and academic journals. She has also edited travel guides and textbooks. In this interview, conducted by email, Poole discusses her freelance work, training opportunities for editors, and her viewpoint on some language issues.

Q. Describe your job at Archer Editorial Services. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m often up by 6 a.m. to do an hour of work before my daughter gets up at 7. I’m very productive in the early morning.

I usually have multiple projects going at once, so I make progress on each of them in chunks: one journal article, 30-40 pages of a book, some email responding, and so on. I try to keep my morning interruption-free, because that’s my most productive time.

I eat a quick lunch, then back to work, but early afternoon is my slow-brain time. That’s good for submitting paperwork, setting up files, proofreading, coffee appointments and phone calls, even a short nap if I have time!

I’m finished with work by 3 or 5, depending on the day. I don’t get full billable hours in a day, but I usually get my tasks done in a timely way.

Q. What types of writing do you particularly enjoy editing? Is there anything you avoid?

A. I avoid philosophy and hard sciences with a lot of very technical terms. I edit exclusively scholarly nonfiction, and I particularly enjoy gender studies, cultural ethnographies, and science studies (slightly different from hard sciences).

I have a specialty in editing math and economics, but it’s not my favorite thing to work on!

Q. People often ask how much freelance editors are paid. What do you tell them?

A. There’s a range, of course, and the pay rate depends on many things — experience, skill, client budget, and so on. Skilled, experienced editors can command higher rates.

I like to say I make a comfortable living, and now I have broadened my income base by earning money from training, referral fees, and royalties. Plus, I’m developing a new business (see next question). The more streams of income I have, the more stable my income. But the majority of my income comes from the editing I provide directly for my clients.

Q. In 2015, you and Erin Brenner formed the Pilcrow Group to help train and coach editors. What services do you provide, and how is that effort going?

A. Pilcrow Group was founded to purchase Copyediting (http://www.copyediting.com), and we did that in September 2015. Our mission is to offer development and support for editors across the career spectrum — from just starting out to advanced!

We are very proud of our premium newsletter (Copyediting), which has been around for 25 years and is the heart and soul of what we provide. We added a free weekly newsletter, and we have an active blog and job board.

We offer training in the form of monthly Master Classes on various editing topics (and archived recordings available for purchase) and now In-Depth Courses, which are three to five webinar sessions. We are creating an imprint to have our own books and ebooks, with our first title, a grammar workbook, coming out in late summer.

Very soon we are pilot-testing mentoring groups and mastermind groups for editors. We are sponsoring conferences and planning to roll out our own live training and development events in the future.

The efforts are going well so far! We were pleased to announce that Copyediting was back in the hands of editors, and the response among our colleagues and in the editorial community was heartwarming! We are very excited about all our plans, and the interest level has been high.

Q. What advice do you have for college students looking to go into freelance editing?

A. Start NOW! Edit for your classmates, edit for other students, post a flier or classified ad. You can get experience at any time, and the more you DO, the more you will learn.

Q. Let’s wrap up with two hot-button topics: How do you feel about the Oxford comma? The singular they?

Singular they: Used to hate it. Now I see its utility and have grudgingly accepted and am warming to it.

Serial comma: I’m a big fan. I’m a CMoS girl, so I like to use it. In fact, I even invented my own serial comma hand signal! Here it is:

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