Thursday, November 30, 2006
Lohan needs an editor — and a new publicist

Lindsay Lohan, actress and denizen of the world of celebrity news, is under fire for a badly written letter on the death of director Robert Altman. (Here is the full text.) Her publicist blames haste and a BlackBerry, but a good flack makes sure such things are edited before they are made public.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:24 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Stealing and concealing the news
People who steal newspapers off of your front porch are pests. People who steal newspapers en masse to stop readers from getting the news are criminals.

That's what appears to be happening today on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The Daily Tar Heel reports that about 10,000 papers were taken from newsracks in the wee hours Wednesday. The paper is printing more and redistributing them on campus today.

Meanwhile, the DTH Web site is unaffected. It includes an update about the thefts, and the front page is available in .pdf format. You can't steal that.

UPDATE: Sigma Chi members admit that they are the ones who stole the papers.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:18 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
More war in Iraq, but is it civil?
By now you have heard about the latest round of debate about whether the situation in Iraq is a "civil war" or something else. Here are two views:
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:25 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Time, place and manner
Discussion of alternative story forms (timelines, Q&A material, checklists, etc.) almost always includes this question: "They must be great for the Web too, right?"

Sometimes, but not always. In fact, the print version of these forms often works better than its online counterpart. This timeline, a part of the News & Observer coverage of the firing of Wolfpack football coach Chuck Amato, is an example where something gets lost in the translation between media.

Because this is a long timeline, the photo desk and designers have decided to include some images to illustrate Amato's tenure at N.C. State. (Rule of thumb: If you have more than six items in a timeline, add photos and graphics to break up the type.) This is somewhat effective, although the photos could have been better integrated into the timeline. As it is, the reader is still faced with lengthy stretches of text, perhaps too many.

Still, it works better than the online version. There, the timeline is almost all text. Even the bold lede-ins for each date have disappeared, which makes this version look like an unpolished Word document. An accompanying link directs readers to a slideshow presentation of the Amato images. By divorcing the text and the photos, the Web version becomes ponderous. Perhaps taking the print version and making it a .pdf would have been a better way to handle this.

In the contest between online and print, chalk one up for the newspaper.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:35 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, November 26, 2006
A colleague passes on
Bob Stevenson, a professor at the UNC journalism school, has died. Here's how Jean Folkerts, the dean, announced his passing:
The School and Journalism and Mass Communication has lost a dear friend, and our field has lost a renowned scholar. Robert L. Stevenson, a Kenan professor and a member of our faculty since 1975, suffered a heart attack and died Saturday afternoon.

The School will host a memorial service for Bob, and he will be buried in his native Wisconsin. Please watch our Web site for details.
I took Stevenson's research methods class in the fall of 1991. The course helped me become more analytical in my editing, and thanks to him, I am able to easily detect faulty surveys and other bogus research.

Thank you, Bob.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:34 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Where the skies are so blue
Maybe it's Lynyrd Skynyrd's fault that people mistake Birmingham for the capital of Alabama, as seen in this recent News & Observer article in the Business section. That band, after all, did famously sing in "Sweet Home Alabama" that "in Birmingham they love the governor." But that doesn't mean the governor works there.

For the record, Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. Frankfort (not Lexington or Louisville) is the capital of Kentucky, and the capital of Missouri is Jefferson City (not St. Louis). And Lynyrd Skynyrd was from Florida, not Alabama.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:52 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Deviated preverts?
Slate examines the New York Post's apparent fascination with "perv" as a headline word. "Fiend" is also popular.

The examples mentioned in the Slate article don't include the one I use in my editing class when discussing libel:

Vatican sacks six pervy N.Y. priests

Here's the catch: Two of the priests were convicted of sex crimes; the others were punished by the Catholic Church for unknown reasons under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Yet the Post lumped them together as pervs.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:28 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, November 20, 2006
Cuts in Winston-Salem, worries in Orlando
The film critic is among the five jobs cut from the Winston-Salem Journal's newsroom, but copy editing was not directly affected. The paper's managing editor discusses the cost-cutting move here. The comments to his post are worth a read, too.

In related news, the public editor at the Orlando Sentinel offers his take on the future of newspapers.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:00 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, November 17, 2006
History lesson
The newspapers now known as The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer played a key role in fostering racial violence in Wilmington, N.C., more than 100 years ago.

Today, those papers published a 16-page special section explaining what happened then and how those events affected civil rights later on. The author is a Duke University researcher, with design and editing by the N&O staff. (It's good to see a copy editor in the credits.) Because it's set up like a short book, the tabloid-format section works best in printed form, but it's also compelling online.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:25 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Something wild
A recent piece in Slate bemoaned the decline in the "bus plunge" wire story. These are the short items on bus crashes in places such as Nepal and Pakistan. These briefs (sometimes just a sentence) used to litter the pages of The New York Times (as seen here) and other U.S. newspapers. Here's a recent example of the format from the BBC site:
Police in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh say 56 people have been killed after a passenger bus plunged into a lake near the city of Rewa.
The Slate article brought back memories of my first job as a copy editor. It was at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., in the days before Quark and InDesign. The copy desk edited stories, wrote heads and cuts, and laid out pages. The design desk did not exist, and the composing room was a hub of activity.

On the rim, our first duty of the day was to edit and write headlines for "wild briefs" -- short wire stories that could be used as last-minute fillers if a "real" story came up short. These briefs were of the "bus plunge" variety, usually about some calamity in a distant land. Ferry sinkings in places such as Indonesia and India were also common material. Sometimes we would put together some "wild obits" in case they were needed to fill space on the obit page. We would write two or three headlines for each one to add to their utility to fill gaps on deadline.

The wild briefs would then be sent to the composing room and put on the board above each page. As deadline approached and that late local copy came in, the composing room would notch in the wild briefs in any remaining spaces, typically on jump pages. It was taboo for newsroom people to touch type, but we could offer guidance on which wild brief to use. This led tojuxtapositions: At the end of the jump on the story about the school board's meeting, a reader would see that 16 people had been killed in a mudslide in Peru. Most of the wild briefs would be replaced with local cop briefs by the final edition, however.

Years later, I visited India, and my trip included several long-distance bus rides. The faraway stories of the wild briefs became an up-close reality. With every manner of vehicle on India's poorly maintained roads, a bus ride can be a harrowing experience. It's no wonder that these stories are so plentiful. I survived the journeys without incident, although I still have flashbacks to the moment when our bus was speeding through the foggy countryside in the dead of night.

When composing rooms died, so did wild briefs. Page designers can usually fill leftover spaces with quote blocks, subheads and other devices. Yet, as the Slate article points out, the "bus plunge" stories still have their fans. Sure, you can find them with Google News, or even visit this site, which tracks the latest bus plunges. But the random nature is gone.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:56 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Stay hungry
The Agriculture Department has decided that the word "hunger" is too vague to be used in its research. In its annual report on that topic, it includes a range of terms for that condition, with people with "very low food security" at the bottom. Says Mark Nord, the lead author of the report this year:
Lacking a widespread consensus on what the word 'hunger' should refer to, it's difficult for research to shed meaningful light on it.
The shifting language earned Nord the coveted title of "Worst Person in the World" on "Countdown" on Thursday.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:36 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
In case you missed these
Here are two excellent posts from my fellow bloggers:
  • Pam Nelson on the hazards of quoting Shakespeare
  • John McIntyre on proposed rules if English is made the official language
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:26 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Fortune's latest turn
As noted here, I recently attended a cattle call for possible "Wheel of Fortune" contestants. My wife was supposed to be the one who ended up on stage, but luck brought me up there.

Today I got a callback inviting me to participate in the next round. So after Thanksgiving, I will go to a local hotel and play simulated "Wheel" games, take a written test and get interviewed again. From there ... Hollywood?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 5:08 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Oops, He's not Roman
I just noticed an embarrassing mistake on this blog — I had "Romanesko" in my list of links. I've repaired the spelling of the name of the writer of that popular part of the Poynter site.

I regret the error. For my other blunders, read here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:45 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Java jargon

What do you get a copy editor for Christmas, Hanukkah or Festivus? Here's one for your holiday shopping list: a collection of coffee mugs that mock the jargon of the business world. Giving one of these will signify a major paradigm shift.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:36 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, November 13, 2006
A senator's new style
Sen. Joe Lieberman, having navigated an unusual path to re-election, says he is an Independent Democrat. He offers this for your stylebook:
I am now an Independent Democrat, capital I, capital D. Matter of fact, the secretary of the Senate called my office and asked, 'How do you want to be identified,' and, and that's it. Independent Democrat.
So look forward to this construction in news stories: Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:46 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Tiny slices

Pie charts can be trouble when the slices get too numerous or too thin. Here, the Coast Guard represents a small sliver of this pie, too small to be read.

The text, or chatter, of a graphic also needs a careful read. This one has a couple of glitches — "currently" isn't necessary, and "now" should be "how."
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:12 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, November 09, 2006
All the news that's fit to download

As part of a promotion of its TimesSelect area, The New York Times has posted an interesting collection of stories from its archives. The sampling (in .pdf, so you can see the stories as they appeared) includes the moon landing, the Cuban missile crisis, a review of "I Love Lucy" and this formidable package of headlines on Sherman's march on Atlanta.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:33 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
De Do Do Do De Da Da DA

Yes, the AP says the abbreviation for district attorney is DA, but it looks absurd in this all-caps headline. Maybe this is the time to break from AP and put in the periods, especially when the abbreviation is used as an adjective.

(With apologies to Sting.)
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:45 PM | Permalink | 3 comments
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Kerry on and on
As noted at Romenesko, readers are not happy with the newspapers in Fayetteville and Wilmington, N.C., for their failure to run stories on John Kerry's "botched joke." And this letter to the editor wonders why The News & Observer put the story on 3A rather than the front page.

To be sure, some mention of Kerry's remarks is appropriate. But this story was made for the incessant yammer of 24-hour cable news, not the careful consideration of print media. Any wire editor who pitched the story for the front page was likely confronted with these questions from colleagues: What would our coverage add that hasn't been on television all day? And what real relevance do the comments have, given that Kerry isn't running for anything this year?

The News & Observer still managed to get in an inadvertent jab at Kerry. It ran this promo on 1A to the story about Kerry's apology. The photo used is the same one that Kerry supporters complained about during the 2004 campaign as an example of media bias. They said the mug shot made their man look like an oak tree and that the N&O should run a more flattering image. The photo desk came up with alternatives, and the "oak tree" shot was supposed to have been deleted. Alas, it ran again last week, and we probably haven't seen the last of it on the pages of the Raleigh paper. File mugs are hard to kill.

For more on mugs and reader reactions, here's a previous post on that topic regarding the Duke lacrosse case.

UPDATE: For more on the challenges covering election night, read this post by Dan Barkin, a deputy managing editor at the N&O.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Sure enough, the mug showed up again in the Saturday paper. It was part of a roundup of election winners and losers. Kerry was listed as a loser whose "feet wound up in his mouth."

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Manning Pynn, the public editor at the Orlando Sentinel, examines similar complaints in this column, these from Republicans unhappy with a photo of an unhappy George W. Bush.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:51 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, November 06, 2006
Humor amid the panic
Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas offers his take on the state of the newspaper business.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:49 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, November 05, 2006
No news is boring news
When you see a no-news headline like this one, you have to wonder why the story is on the front page. Other no-news headlines include words such as "still mum," "continues," "goes on" and the dreaded "mull."

Indeed, this second-day story on an extramarital affair by the local sheriff was at the top right of 1A in The News & Observer on Saturday. It offers anecdotal evidence (including an interview with an out-of-state visitor) that the indiscretion will not affect his re-election chances. In other words, the status quo is intact. Ho-hum.

Meanwhile, back on the City & State front, you would find these interesting first-day stories:

Two candidates paid taxes late

Anti-bonds gifts hard to trace

As copy editors, we can at least attempt to argue weak stories off the front page. When we find ourselves boxed into writing a headline like the one on the sheriff story, we know something is wrong. It's our responsibility to say so.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:55 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, November 03, 2006
Headlines across the pond
Some headlines, even in the same language, don't translate well. Take this example from this story on the BBC site:

Sex-row US pastor 'bought drugs'

Here's the American headline for the AP version of the story:

Evangelical leader says he bought meth

posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:13 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Q: What's an online journalist?
A: Sort of like a copy editor. Actually, a lot like one. Read how here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:06 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Critics: Be wary of experts, observers
Here are a couple of good pieces on unidentified sources:
  • The Orlando Sentinel's public editor, Manning Pynn, writes in his most recent column about what he calls "phantom attribution." He is concerned about the "observers" and "well-informed sources" who populate stories.
  • John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun explores similar territory in this post at his blog, You Don't Say. In addition to mention of "seasoned political observers," he laments the ongoing use of "war chest" and other political jargon.
I would add "critics" to the list of suspect words, as in "critics say" when the story never identifies or quotes those critics.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:16 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Pun time
Word play and puns in headlines and standalone cutlines are fine, even desirable, on occasion. As my former colleague and fellow blogger Pam Nelson advised at an ACES meeting last summer: Make the pun if it works on more than one level.

We also have to use moderation and subtlety; timing and tone are essential. Does the story or photo have the mood appropriate to word play? When we go too far too often, a backlash (such as this one) can result.

Here are a couple of examples of what to and what not to do:

THIS WORKS: The headline on the story about feeble apologies hits the mark. It's a clever play of words that uses the multiple definitions of "sorry" in a subtle manner. The headline's tone matches the tone of the story. And it won't make your reader groan.

THIS DOESN'T: The standlone cutline shows what can go wrong when things get too punny. (Click on the image for a closer look.) The kicker (or catchline, if you prefer) is tolerable. But this becomes irritating and distracting when we get to the cutline about the subject of the photo having "a lot of time on his hands." As if that weren't enough, the cutline ends with: "Still, he's not ticked off." This string of puns is contrived enough to make you wonder whether the cutline is even accurate.

A sincere apology is in order.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:52 AM | Permalink | 0 comments