Thursday, August 30, 2007
Declaration of principles
Tenure-track faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill undergo a third-year review to see how things are going. As a part of that process this year, I have been asked to write a statement on teaching that describes what I do in my editing classes and why I do it. Here's a draft of that statement. Comments are welcome.


As a member of the “practice track” faculty, I strive to create a professional environment in the classroom. This means making the classroom as much of a newsroom as possible. I serve as a managing editor or slot editor, overseeing students' work, coaching them and providing feedback in a timely fashion. I believe that this approach prepares students for the internships and jobs ahead of them.

The classes I teach are skills courses: News Writing, News Editing and Advanced Editing. They require students to think critically and analytically, to verify information, and to edit and write clearly and effectively in a variety of forms — all under deadline pressure. They are among the most challenging courses in our curriculum, but students who work hard find them to be rewarding.


I allow students to use every resource available in a newsroom: stylebooks, textbooks, dictionaries and the Web. I never take these away except when required to do so by the School (e.g., the spelling and grammar test) or for midterm and final examinations. I believe it’s more important for students to master how to use the stylebook (and to appreciate the reason for it) than to memorize it.

All the courses I teach are in a computer lab, a setting that creates opportunities for plenty of hands-on work but also obstacles for students who are unfamiliar with software used in newsrooms. The editing courses in particular are heavy on software instruction as the students learn InDesign, InCopy and other computer skills. As they do so, I let them know that mastering the technology itself is not the objective of the course. The key is to understand that the software is a tool to communication. Indeed, the names and methods of computer software are likely to change several times during these students' careers, but the skills and principles of writing and editing will remain constant.


I on occasion allow students to work in pairs or in small teams, again to mirror the newsroom experience. In the professional world, little work is done solo; collaboration is essential. Even the reporting and writing of a story includes guidance by editors and input from fellow reporters and copy editors. By allowing students to work together, they learn how to interact with others on a project, to brainstorm to give and take, and to compromise to create a more effective story, critique or page design. This technique is especially realistic and effective in Advanced Editing, where the class functions as a copy desk, with assigned roles that change from class meeting to class meeting.


I weave an ethical component into all the classes that I teach. Given the Jayson Blair scandal and other issues in the media, I believe it is vital to our curriculum. In the News Writing class, we discuss the problems of plagiarism and fabrication, and we watch the movie “Shattered Glass,” about disgraced reporter Stephen Glass. We discuss the need to quote accurately and to fact-check information.

In my editing courses, we discuss the ethical ramifications of word choices (“illegal alien” or “undocumented worker”?) and photo selection as part of the editors’ job. In my Advanced Editing class, these issues became reality when editors detected an example of plagiarism in a story written by a fellow student. Although it was a difficult moment for all involved, the student editors said that overall it was a positive experience because it was similar to situations that they had read and talked about in other classes but never went through themselves.


I have worked hard to bring in new ideas and trends from the profession into my teaching. One element I have introduced is writing and editing of alternative story forms. Story structures such as Q&A formats, checklists and “chunky text” have become more common in print and, to some extent, online. Some job descriptions now ask for proficiency in this area, and my students will be prepared for this requirement.

In my News Writing course, I have students report and write a recurring story (holiday shopping, tax time, etc.) in an alternative story format. In my editing course, I give them an existing story in traditional form and ask them to recast and design it into an alternative format. Interestingly, students in both classes list these as among their favorite assignments of the semester.

I also worked with my colleague Jock Lauterer to form a partnership between his Community Journalism course and my Advanced Editing course. His students were the reporters and photographers for The Carrboro Commons. The result was what we think could represent the future of the newspaper: a highly local news site with a print corollary, available for .pdf download at the leisure of the reader. The collaboration also resulted in a paper that Lauterer and I will present to the National Newspaper Association annual convention in September 2007.


Overall, students respond well to my approach to teaching, as reflected in teaching evaluations. They enjoy the courses, often more than they imagined that they would. My scores are especially high in areas such enthusiasm, clarity and preparedness. Most of the negative comments — issues regarding length of class meetings, credit hours and School-administered tests — are outside my control.

One valid area of criticism involves the editing class. A few students have said that the class is excellent for those who want to go into print journalism, but not so much for those seeking careers at Web sites. I am working this semester to bring in more online elements, specifically how to write headlines for news Web sites, and I plan to make it more clear what editing skills are shared by print and online journalists and which are different. I am actively seeking an “internship” at a newspaper Web site for summer 2008 so I can get hands-on experience that I can then bring back to the classroom. In addition, I will work with colleagues to revise News Writing to incorporate discussion and assignments for online media.

These changes are a natural reflection and necessity of my idea of classroom as newsroom. As the newsroom changes, so does the classroom. My goal is to keep pace with that change (and stay a step ahead) and to continue to prepare students for the work, and lives, ahead of them.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:26 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Advantage: copy editor
It's gratifying when a student in my editing class detects an error in the professional media, especially this early in the semester. Here's the example from that someone brought to my attention:
Novak Djokovic's last name is misspelled in the first paragraph; it's correct in the second. Sure, it's not an easy name to spell, but when it appears in successive, similarly structured paragraphs, the difference stands out. It's up to an editor to notice.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:36 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Interesting reads
  • An editor for a community paper in Georgia begs readers to use AP style when submitting announcements, guest columns and other items. (Good luck!)
  • The editor of the Tribune Star in Terre Haute, Ind., assures readers that print is here to stay despite the paper's expanding efforts on the Web.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:52 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, August 27, 2007
The wrong word?
You may have read about the latest discussion regarding the "cleansing" of quotes in news stories. The incident in that case happened at The Washington Post, and it involved Redskins player Clinton Portis. (Here's a good recap if you missed it.)

Along comes another quote in possible need of repair, this one from The New York Times. President Bush is speaking about Alberto Gonzales, his departing attorney general. The direct quote, already awkward, becomes especially pained at the end:

What is "proof of wrong"? He likely meant "proof of wrongdoing." Would those who suggest repairing direct quotes get out their tools for this one?

UPDATE: Fellow blogger John McIntyre of the Baltimore paper weighs in on the issue. His post includes the Sun's policy on quotes.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:57 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, August 24, 2007
Think tiny
This paragraph from a recent News & Observer story about crime statistics illustrates the problem with Web addresses in print. Many of them are cumbersome.

Pity the poor readers who see this story, clip it out and bring it to their computer to find out what crimes have been reported in their neighborhoods. What are the odds that they will type the address correctly?

Here's one solution to the problem: Use TinyURL. This site will create a pithy "nickname" for a long Web address. Simply copy and paste the unwieldy URL into Tiny URL, and it instantly does the work for you at no cost.

Here's what it came up with for the URL you see in the clip above:

This address may not be as memorable as, but it's more useful to readers who want to type it into their Web browsers. And it takes up less space in print and doesn't break oddly from line to line.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:24 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Says who
Chip Scanlan at Poynter Institute offers a good examination of "said" vs. "says" in attribution. Among the experts he consults is Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:39 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Proud to be a fact checker
It's easy to think that Lee Greenwood's famous song is called "I'm Proud To Be An American." It's the tune's signature line and the reason why politicians like it.

The song's real title is "God Bless the U.S.A." (Watch the video here.) Under the Dome, a column of political tidbits in The News & Observer, didn't get this right in the print edition, but the blog version makes the change — and makes note of the update.

I'll leave it to fans of the genre to decide whether Greenwood is a "country crooner."
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:23 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
News from the newsrooms
I love being in a newsroom. Although it looks like any other office these days, the newsroom is still a special place of energy, dedication and (on occasion) intrigue.

One of the highlights of my summer was spending a few days in the newsroom at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., to work with the staff on alternative story forms. In the summer of 2006, I was fortunate enough to get to visit the newsroom of The New York Times. And being in a newsroom is part of the reason that I am angling for an "internship" in online news for the summer of 2008.

New newsrooms are making news this summer. The magazine Fast Company has a spiffy one, as does The New York Times, although the latter move has also drawn criticism. And Ifra has built "newsrooms for the future" at the University of South Carolina and in Darmstadt, Germany.

These efforts are aimed at professional journalism. Now the changes are reaching the college level. As part of a major remake of the campus at Duke University, the campus paper, The Chronicle, has the opportunity to get a new home that can help the paper cover the campus in more effective and powerful ways. The effort is called the Next Newsroom Project. Here's what Chris O'Brien, a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News and a Duke alumnus, says about the project:
We're just beginning our work to research and design the ideal newsroom for the next 50 years of journalism. We're excited about the potential to create something that will have a tremendous impact not only for the community at Duke, but hopefully for the future of journalism.
The Next Newsroom project is looking for help and advice. Check out this site to learn more. Maybe even some Tar Heels will get involved. I hope we at least get a tour from our Blue Devil friends when it's all done.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:39 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Interesting reads
  • Ted Vaden, public editor of The News & Observer, on readers' criticism of headlines, starting with "The day I got shot in Durham."
  • Jean Folkerts, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, on how journalism's past may point to its future.

posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:04 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, August 17, 2007
In search of the lost cord
My colleague Bill Cloud passes along this error in word choice: "Chord" should be "cord." The paragraph you see here is from The News & Observer, but it also appears in the original version from The Los Angeles Times.

It's a good example of the need to edit wire copy — and why it's not a good idea to let wire stories flow unedited onto news Web sites, as is the practice at many newspapers these days.

(Other catches by Cloud here and here.)
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:08 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Print vs. online in academia
Buried in this survey of administrators at journalism schools are these two curiously contradictory findings:
  • More than 90 percent say they are “actively reviewing” their curricula with an eye toward doing more with new media and digital developments, and 47 percent report that their units will be adding at least one new digital-related or multimedia course to their programs starting this fall.
  • 73 percent report that their universities would hold faculty work published only online in less esteem than work published in traditional venues.
So even as we accept and adapt to the changes in the news profession to better serve students, we are less willing to do so in our own research and creative activity. Print still beats online, at least on campus and at tenure time.

Journalism faculty should make it clear to our universities that the shift to online is not only happening in our field, but others as well. So if we write for an online-only publication, that work should not by default be diminished because it doesn't appear on the printed page. It should be judged on its merits and the merits of the publication, regardless of medium.

I admit to self-interest here. Two of my summer projects (a course on alternative story forms for NewsU and an article on newsroom collaboration for SND Update) will be exclusively online. I hope that they will "count" as much as a textbook chapter and an article in a trade publication. (More on the tenure process here.)

This push and pull between "traditional" and new was also felt at the recent AEJMC convention in Washington. These two bloggers sum up the conference's tone and content:
Check 'em out. They're online, but they're just as insightful as anything in print.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:02 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
War is not our franchise
"Local news is our franchise," the executive editor told the newsroom of the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C. This was in 1990.

We're hearing much of the same now, if not more so. The front page of another North Carolina newspaper, The News & Observer, illustrates the "local first" news philosophy.

The lead story is about the installation of crosswalks and other efforts to help pedestrians on a main road through Raleigh. The centerpiece is a local angle on the problem with toys made in China. At the bottom corner is a report of bombings in Iraq that killed about 175 people. (Click on the image here for a better view. You can see the entire front page here at The Freedom Forum's collection.)

The proponents of "local first" will argue that the Iraq story was widely available elsewhere, particularly online and on television. It isn't exclusive and doesn't break news. That information, therefore, is "old" by the time it appears in print the day after it happened. Perhaps that's why other papers, such as The Charlotte Observer, didn't even note this attack on its front page at all. (Greenboro mentioned it in a promo and put the story inside.)

This particular Iraq story does a good job of putting the bombings into context — this was the worst such attack since November 2006, and the target and location were atypical. And the toll is still stunning, even to those numbed by years of war news.

That makes the story's position on this page unsettling. By placing this in a lower position on the page than news about toys and crosswalks, editors show their priorities, as they do every day in making such decisions. But are they the right ones?

UPDATE: The death toll in the bombings exceeds 250.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:31 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Players only love you when they're playing
Just when I think that I need to get on the Wikipedia bandwagon, I read (again) about how easy it is for interest groups to manipulate information there. But now you can trace who's doing the editing — including the example of someone at Fox News editing the entry on one of Fox's enemies, Al Franken.

I've seen plenty of misspellings, misused punctuation, run-on sentences and other writing errors on Wikipedia. I've seen stranger things such as this statement from the entry on Steve Nicks, the Fleetwood Mac chanteuse:
During the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, Bill Clinton used the Fleetwood Mac hit "Don't Stop" (written by Christine McVie) as his campaign theme song. The Rumours-era line-up of Fleetwood Mac reunited to perform the song at his 1993 Inaugural Gala, sowing the seeds for a later reunion album and tour. Rumors soon arose regarding the nature of the President and Nicks' relationship.
This was the first I had heard of a possible affair between Clinton and Nicks. No citation is provided. The Wikipedian solution to the problem is to edit this out, thus improving the quality of the online encyclopedia. The more we edit, the better it gets. OK, but what of all the people who have already read this entry and will never visit it again?

This and previous thoughts on Wikipedia here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:22 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Monday, August 13, 2007
In 200 words or less
Politicians don't like to be edited. Each and every word they write or utter, after all, is essential. Or so they think.

Paul Coble, a member of the Board of Commissioners in Wake County, N.C., is a case in point. He's unhappy that The News & Observer trimmed his letter to the editor to conform to the newspaper's generous 200-word limit. To Coble, such editing is "dishonest."

Here's why the criticism is misguided:
  • Coble, by virtue of his position, is guaranteed publication of any letter he writes to the paper. He would also have an inside track on having an op-ed piece published. Everyday readers enjoy no such privileges.
  • It was Coble's second letter to the editor published within 30 days. That means he was granted an exception to the paper's rule limiting people to one letter every 30 days. He's lucky he got any part of his second letter published.
  • The word limit is in the N&O solicitation for letters to the editor. Coble could have avoided having his letter trimmed by writing less than 200 words. Thus, any wound he suffered from these cuts was self-inflicted.
  • Less is more.
Previous post on this topic here.

UPDATE: I did a word count on the original post, and it had 217 words. It's been trimmed to meet the 200-word limit.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:39 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Sunday, August 12, 2007
I'd like to solve the puzzle, Pat
Leave it to TMZ to come up with this crass yet clever "headline" on the death of Merv Griffin.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 5:50 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Wish you were here
I'm off to our nation's capital for the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I'm especially interested in the Great Ideas for Teachers session and the Breakfast of Editing Champions.

Maybe I will see you there.

UPDATE: Those sessions did not disappoint, and the conference as a whole was a great experience. I especially enjoyed seeing the faces behind editing blogs such as Headsup and Common Sense Journalism. And the conference even made some news, thanks to Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:19 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Candidate presses flesh with copy editor
This column by the editorial page editor of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., is making noise on the Web, being picked up by The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, among others. The headline ("Why I see John Edwards as a big phony") is certainly effective at grabbing attention, and the writer, Brad Warthen, recounts three "phony" moments from the presidential candidate.

What many readers may overlook in the column is the unusual presence of a copy editor. About two-thirds of the way into the piece, Warthen recounts a meeting of the State's editorial board with Howard Dean, who (like Edwards) ran for president in 2004. (Such meetings are typical as candidates fish for endorsements.) A copy editor in question described as "a real Dean fan" sat in on the meeting and called Dean a "nice man" as the candidate shook hands with employees of various stature as he left the newspaper building.

I've never heard of copy editors being invited to such meetings. It's never happened at papers where I've worked. Is it a good idea?

On the one hand, it's heartening to see copy editors included in this part of a newspaper's operations. It's probably a good idea if the copy editor works on the editorial and op-ed pages. On the other hand, it's unnerving to see such unabashed fandom from a journalist. It opens the door to accusations of bias and favoritism, particularly if the copy editor is working on the news side.

Here is a previous post on the separation of news and editorial departments.

UPDATE: Warthen responds and clarifies in a comment to this post. He also responds at his blog.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:25 PM | Permalink | 8 comments
Monday, August 06, 2007
Back to school
The fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill begins in about two weeks, so my thoughts and efforts are on preparing for the 2007-2008 academic year. Here are two places on the Web that I will keep my eye on:
  • Media Bistro has started a series called J-School Confidential, which promises to provide the inside story of what's happening in the classroom. The first entry is (predictably) about Columbia University's program.
  • Tom Bowers, recently retired from the UNC-CH journalism school, continues his blog about teaching. Bowers' latest topic is about how to grade writing, and his measured and sound advice will earn high marks from anyone who's been faced with a stack of assignments.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:39 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Wish you were here
This blog will likely be quiet until next week. I will be in Baton Rouge working on a book project with colleagues at Louisiana State University.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:21 AM | Permalink | 0 comments