Tuesday, July 31, 2007
We could be heroes
This front-page promo groups the obituaries of three notable people. It's a reasonable attempt to give some 1A presence to these people, whose only real connection beyond time of death was excellence in their respective fields.

But are they heroes, as indicated in the headline? Whenever I see that word applied to people in the news, I always think of this exchange from an old "Simpsons" episode:

Homer: That little Timmy is a real hero.
Lisa: What makes him a hero, dad?
Homer: Well, he fell down the well and ... can't get out.
Lisa: How does that make him a hero?
Homer: Well, it's more than you did!

Tom Snyder, Ingmar Bergman and Bill Walsh did more than fall down a well, and they did more than I'll probably ever do. Their work is significant, their lives newsworthy. But I am not sure they match these definitions of hero:
  • a person distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength;
  • a being of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits; often the offspring of a mortal and a god (classical mythology)
Some heroes are tragic, others epic. And some are folksy. Whatever type, let's be careful not to confuse achievement with heroism. Luke Skywalker, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi were heroes. (So was Hero, if only in name.) Snyder, Bergman and Walsh? Probably not.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:38 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Monday, July 30, 2007
Interesting reads
  • The reader representative at the Hartford Courant says copy editors are just as important as reporters.
  • The Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri promises to use more alternative story forms in its revamped Sunday features section.
  • The New York Times looks back at Ed Anger, the Colbert-like columnist for the fading Weekly World News.
  • The News & Observer tells us how developers pick names for condominiums — should it be the West on North or the West at North?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:03 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, July 27, 2007
Let Junie be Junie
The Junie B. Jones children's books are irritating to some parents, as The New York Times reports in this story. The books' titular narrator, a child who goes from kindergarten to first grade in the series, uses unconventional grammar and spellings. Will this lead young readers to make the same mistakes in their own writing? Is Junie B. a good role model?

All I can do is offer anecdotal evidence. My 7-year-old son has read several of the Junie B. books, and he seems to be unharmed. He's also apparently unscathed by the scatological tales of Captain Underpants. Despite the "anything goes" grammar of both of those book series, my son is still finding typos in the sports section of our local paper, and he points out errors that he sees in road signs. And he corrects me when I refer to the series as "Janie Jones" (the title of an old Clash song).

As a parent and copy editor, I am not worried about the influence of these books. Let Junie be Junie.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:09 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Massachusetts gets another Kennedy
Ann Kennedy, the Nation & World editor at The News & Observer, is leaving North Carolina for Massachusetts. She'll be managing editor at Boston Now, a free daily newspaper and Web site that incorporates both traditional and citizen journalism.

Kennedy's nearly eight years at the N&O, she was a copy editor, sports copy editor and assistant wire editor. She was my successor as Nation & World editor, starting in July 2005.

Best of luck to Ann in Boston.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:03 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Party all the time
The latest blunder from Fox News regarding a politician's party affiliation is being noted on liberal blogs. The cable network identified Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania as a Democrat. He's a Republican.

Daily Kos doubts whether this string of errors by the "nutwork" is just a coincidence. Talking Points Memo is a bit more forgiving, with Josh Marshall admitting he's made that sort of mistake from time to time. Yet he still wonders how Fox manages to mangle it in one ideological direction.

Similar objections come when a story omits party affiliation — especially when the news is unflattering to the person and, therefore, to the person's political party. The suspicious reader sees that omission as evidence of a coverup. (Here's an example.) This problem is bipartisan, as seen here in the brief about Coy Privette, a former lawmaker in North Carolina. Editors have tried to make that point, but readers remain skeptical.

As Marshall mentioned at TPM, everyone makes mistakes or fails to include a detail that we take for granted. Here's what copy editors can do:
  • Doublecheck party affiliations in every story they edit.
  • Ensure that party affiliations are included in stories about politicians accused of some sort of malfeasance.
  • If one politician in a story is identified by party, make sure they all are. Be evenhanded.
It's quick and easy to add "Democrat" or "Republican" to most stories. Those words don't take up much space and rarely interrupt the flow of a sentence — except perhaps in the case of Sen. Joe Lieberman.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:46 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Interesting reads
  • Ted Vaden, public editor at The News & Observer, says enough already about John Edwards' haircut. That seems like a reasonable conclusion, given that this story ran on the N&O Sunday front page nearly three months after the "story" broke. That news peg was getting wobbly.
  • A college newspaper adviser gets her job back in a legal battle. Bad editing was among the reasons listed for her dismissal; she alleged retaliation for the paper's news stories and editorials critical of the administration.
  • A writer at Salon rises in defense of editors — now more than ever. (Registration may be required, but this one is worth the hassle.)
  • The managing editor of the paper in Lafayette, Ind., discusses the expanding duties of the copy desk. "Today's copy editors are not only responsible for the editing and headline writing but are also charged with production duties," she says. "They create and design the pages; import the stories, photos and graphics onto their computer page; and often have to troubleshoot computer problems on deadline."
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:33 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Monday, July 23, 2007
The Weekly World News, the supermarket tabloid that brought you Bat Boy and the alien who endorsed presidential candidates, is shutting down. The print edition and Web site will vanish by the end of the summer.

Maybe the editors should have removed "world" from the name — everyone knows that Americans don't care about that stuff.

UPDATE: A Washington Post blogger offers an appreciation of sorts.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:35 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Vacation, all I ever wanted

This blog is on vacation until next week.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:14 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
We are the champions
Deborah Gump, formerly of Ohio University and now at the Committee of Concerned Journalists, has once again been kind enough to organize the annual Breakfast of Editing Champions. It's a great chance to exchange ideas and to discuss trends in editing, both in the classroom and in the newsroom.

This event, part of the AEJMC convention, will take place at 8:15 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 10. Gump says it is open "to anyone who teaches editing or likes to hang around editing professors — and who doesn't?"

To attend, you must RSVP. Do so by contacting Gump. See you there.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:07 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Summer projects
Journalism students and faculty alike tend to scatter for the summer for internships, research, training and other projects. Here are two examples of what my colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill are up to:
  • Joseph Schwartz, a student and former editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, writes about why he wants to go into newspapers. Schwartz has a summer internship at the St. Petersburg Times. I like this line from his column:
The portability, permanence and presentation that newsprint offers can and will have value. Media companies that don't realize this and insist that newspapers are dying will be the first ones to keel over. Others will adapt.
  • Jock Lauterer, who teaches community journalism, tells us what it's like to work with smaller newspapers across the state. His most recent visit was to The Kenly News in Kenly, N.C.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:33 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, July 16, 2007
Newspapers are history
HBO is airing (if that's what cable channels do) an excellent documentary this month on a piece of New York history. "Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts Of Flatbush" is, of course, primarily concerned with baseball. The stories of the introduction of Jackie Robinson and the Dodger-Yankee rivalry are covered in depth. But the show also digs into Brooklyn as a place. The underdog Dodgers reflected the borough, just as the powerful Yankees reflected Manhattan (even if the Yanks did play in the Bronx).

The documentary makes prominent use of newspapers as source material, as such shows often do. Headlines tell stories conveniently, after all. But the newspaper itself becomes a part of the Dodgers story. Brooklyn fell on hard times in the 1950s, and "The Ghosts of Flatbush" makes some interesting mention of the influence of the local paper — or the lack of one. The demise of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1955 is portrayed as symptomatic of what was happening in Brooklyn at that time. The documentary also asserts that the lack of a daily newspaper in the area made it easier for the Dodgers to move to Los Angeles. No newspaper meant no community voice.

Baseball is not the only ghost in Brooklyn. The singular and prominent role of the newspaper may be just a memory as well.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:47 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, July 13, 2007
Alternative help wanted
Jobs ads (yes, some newspapers are hiring) are starting to include proficiency with alternative story forms as part of the job description. Here are two examples:
  • We need a professional who is not afraid of alternative story forms or writing for the Web.
  • The candidate takes responsibility for the whole package, including collaborating with other departments to ensure the best presentation, including online, print, alternative story forms, sidebars, photos graphics and other elements.
This shouldn't be too scary for copy editors. We've already been working with any number of story forms in a single workday — a briefs column followed by a wire story followed by a centerpiece package.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:50 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Lady Bird flipped
Which one of these Texas papers flopped this photo of Lady Bird Johnson? Romenesko has the answer.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:55 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Columnist fires back at critics and editors
Ruth Sheehan's column typically appears in the City & State section of The News & Observer. In today's paper, however, her work is in the Outdoors section. Sheehan's first-person piece recounts her recent trip to a gun range. It was her first time handling and firing a gun.

The column takes a curious turn toward the end. Sheehan mentions those who criticized her opinions on the Duke lacrosse case, and she suggests that she is ready to act in self-defense if need be:

I like the idea that bloggers — and editors — don't know for sure whether I might be packing heat. I think I'll keep it that way.

I hope this isn't aimed at copy editors. Assigning editors, well...
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:30 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
The liberal media
Some "left-leaning" links:
  • The Chicago Sun-Times indicates that its editorial board will become more liberal.
  • Liberal film maker Michael Moore and CNN reporter Sanjay Gupta battle over the "Sicko" facts.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:07 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
RIP, Doug Marlette
Doug Marlette, who penned editorial cartoons for The Charlotte Observer and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has died in a car accident. Marlette was a visiting professor at the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill several years ago.

Take a moment to remember his work by visiting his Web site.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has a nice appreciation of Marlette.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:16 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
If you promise a list, give us a list
Headlines are similar to song titles. Effective ones give us a peek at the content and tone of what's to come. Some are more direct than others, and that's OK. When you see "She Loves You," "Dazed and Confused" or "Anarchy in the U.K.," you have an idea what the song sounds like.

Some headlines and song titles indicate that a list is ahead. This is why "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" works so well — Paul Simon delivers what the title promises, even if he never gets around to describing all 50 methods. (Watch him perform the song here.)

This package of headline and story on CNN.com, however, fails this test. Here's the headline:

Seven thoughts that can make you thin

The story that follows is a meandering mess. The reader is hard pressed to find the seven thoughts because the story never presents them that way. The easy solution is to rewrite the headline. The better, more time-consuming solution is to recast the story into a different form, starting with introductory text and then moving into the list.

(Tip of the hat to my keen-eyed wife for pointing this out.)
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:32 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, July 09, 2007
Ombud roundup
Here are some columns by public editors that are worthy of attention:
  • Clark Hoyt of The New York Times, on the paper's loose use of the "al-Qaeda" label.
  • Manning Pynn of the Orlando Sentinel, on how newspaper readers are sometimes flat-out wrong in their accusations of bias and double standards.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:24 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, July 08, 2007
A little off track
The tenure process is mysterious to just about everyone. On campus, it's spoken of in varying tones, from ominous to hushed to "don't worry, it won't be so bad." The public at large doesn't understand it, and radio talk show hosts rail against it because it means professors who anger them can't be fired easily. And the media, try as they might, have a hard time describing it.

At least this story from The Boston Globe tries to define tenure, and it's a decent effort. But the story's definition goes off track:
Tenure, which requires professors to have the highest degree in their field, is a permanent job appointment designed to protect academic freedom.
The problem is in the "which" clause. Not all tenure-track professors (as opposed to lecturers and adjuncts, who are typically hired from semester to semester or year to year) have the highest degree in their field. I know because I am one of them. I have a master's degree, but the highest degree in journalism and mass communication is a doctorate. I am one of several people in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill whose highest degree is a master's. It's possible, but rare, to get a tenure-track job with just a bachelor's degree.

I am part of the "practice track" faculty. I have a higher teaching load than "conceptual track" faculty. That means I am in the classroom about 18 hours a week, compared with about six hours a week for my Ph.D. colleagues. My classes are hands-on skills courses such as editing; their courses tend to be lecture courses. Both formats have their own challenges and rewards.

In another part of the job, faculty members with a Ph.D. have a higher expectation for research than I do: They need to publish frequently in peer-reviewed, academic journals. I can do that too, but for us "practice track" faculty, writing articles for trade publications and the like will satisfy this part of the tenure requirements. There's a difference in what "counts."

Any newspaper article about tenure should probably include a textbox that explains what tenure is and how a professor goes about getting it — that is, doing well in teaching, service and research/creative activity.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 7:42 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, July 06, 2007
An interview with style
Fellow editing professor and blogger Doug Fisher has a good interview with Norm Goldstein, the man behind the AP Stylebook. Check out the short version or the complete Q&A, which even has audio. And yes, the 2007 edition of the stylebook is available.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:25 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
A saved scroll and a lost role
Look across the media spectrum, and you will see, read and hear news about editing. Here are two recent examples from wildly different news organizations:

  • NPR offers some historical context on Jack Kerouac and the mythology surrounding "On the Road." Contrary to popular belief, the book manuscript underwent significant revision and editing. That doesn't detract from the importance of Kerouac's scroll (now on tour) on which he banged out a draft of the book.
  • TMZ chides Britney Spears for an editing error on her Web site. The fallen pop star (or one of her minions, more likely) confused "roll" and "role" in discussing a possible part in a movie. (She didn't get it.) TMZ thankfully avoids the "oops, she did it again" angle on the headline. "That's how she rolls" could have worked, though.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:21 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Two farewells
  • A copy editor turned food editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says goodbye to the newspaper business.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:40 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Online redesign
You may have noticed a new, sleeker look at CNN.com. It's not the only news site trying to clean up its appearance. This article gives an overview and analysis of what's going on with CNN, USA Today and others.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:32 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, July 02, 2007
Some readers of The News & Observer are angry about a story on Sunday's front page. Ted Vaden, the paper's public editor, reports that the word "catfight" is the cause of numerous complaints. Interestingly, readers both liberal and conservative see the prominent use of the word as biased against their points of view. Here's how the lead goes:
Claws were bared and tongues were wagging last week as a "catfight" took center stage in the presidential race.
The story is an attempt to set the feud between Ann Coulter and Elizabeth Edwards into a larger context. The reporter asserts that "catfight" was the word used "across the Web" to describe the exchange of words between the women. Therefore, Vaden says, the readers' gripe is with bloggers, not the story, and it's OK for the story to use the word to get people to think about the dispute.

Such a distinction will be lost on most readers. They see a loaded word in the story's lead, and they interpret that as the reporter's choice of words, not a source's. The quotation marks around a single word don't help. Neither does the reference to bared claws.

As for "catfight" itself, the word is a throwback, much like "coed" is. It's best avoided in news stories, but fun to say in party conversation with people who are not irony-impaired. Indeed, "catfight" is so absurd that it became an easy laugh line years ago on "Seinfeld," and it's hard to imagine anyone saying it in a serious situation, which makes its use with the Coulter-Edwards story even more of a puzzle.

The story doesn't stop there, however. It follows the lead with this:
The confrontation began Tuesday when Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic candidate John Edwards, confronted conservative provocateur Ann Coulter on the MSNBC program "Hardball." Portraying herself as incensed over Coulter's personal attacks against her husband, Edwards demanded that the blond bomb-thrower stop "debas[ing] the political dialogue."
"Conservative provocateur" and "blond bomb-thrower" are unnecessary. The latter is especially suspect: Do men receive the same labels? Is Rush Limbaugh "a rotund rabble-rouser"? Is Dick Cheney the "chrome-dome VP"? The story also seems to doubt Edwards' sincerity — why "portraying herself"? Perhaps she was incensed, not just acting like it.

Here's the bottom line: We need to be careful with the labels and characterizations that we stick on people. The writers and editors didn't do so with this story.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:04 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Sunday, July 01, 2007
Training for you at NewsU
I'm back from a three-day visit at Poynter Institute, where I worked with the NewsU team on a course about alternative story forms. It was intense, fruitful and fun.

The self-directed module will show you what alternative story forms are, why they are often a good idea, how readers react to them and when they work best. We hope this course will appeal to writers, editors and designers alike. The course will have several exercises and other interactive elements, including a gallery area where visitors can post story forms they've done and others can comment on them.

We are aiming for an October launch, and like most courses on NewsU, it will be free. If you have an idea for a NewsU course, here's how to get involved.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:41 PM | Permalink | 0 comments