Friday, November 30, 2007
Clearing up some misconceptions about journalism
Much of what you hear, see and read about journalism isn't true. (That is ironic, isn't it?) The erroneous information is often based on assumptions or leaps of logic. Or it's just conjecture and opinion. Here are two examples I've run across in the past week:

MISCONCEPTION: Managing editors and executive editors at newspapers control the content of editorial pages. This idea comes at the end of this incisive point-by-point analysis of a recent Q&A with John Drescher, the new executive editor at The News & Observer. The blogger wonders whether Drescher was asked about the editorial pages and whether he might change the direction of that "weak link" at the paper.

REALITY: Top newsroom editors at the N&O (and most papers like it) have no role in the editorial pages. News and editorial typically don't mix, with interaction between staffers in those departments limited to pleasantries in the snack bar. Thus, asking the executive editor about the editorial page would be as useful as asking a university's chemistry professor about the football team's game plan. (Related post here.)

MISCONCEPTION: College students who major in journalism are deprived of a "real" education in the liberal arts and are wasting their time. This view exists among working journalists (such as this one) and others outside the field, including this poet.

REALITY: Majoring in journalism doesn't mean a student takes only journalism courses. No more than a third of the courses that a journalism undergraduate takes will be in journalism. The idea is to not only teach undergraduate students the skills and concepts directly relevant to the field, but also to help them be well-rounded people versed in history, literature, mathematics (gasp!) and other areas. A journalism degree is not required to be a journalist, and it shouldn't be. But it's a good way to get there.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:41 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Sports desk illustrated
This four-minute video opens a window on the world of the sports desk at The Washington Post. As copy editors in most sports departments will tell you, every night is election night for them, and the Saturday shift is especially demanding.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:22 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Comics page from hell
The News & Observer is taking on the dreaded task of revamping its lineup on the comics pages. Readers can vote online or mail in a ballot printed in the features section.

I voted online, and my 7-year-old son filled out the paper ballot. It's interesting to see his preferences — he likes Peanuts, which is still new to him, and he is still innocent enough to be charmed by Family Circus.

The accompanying article about the vote explains that the paper seeks a diverse "portfolio" of comics similar to a stock portfolio. Some comics are reliable, others risky. The key is to come up with a good mix. It's a reasonable approach to a process that can never make everyone happy.

My silly side has a different approach: a comics page with the worst strips imaginable, collected in one place to irritate as many people as possible. There are varying levels of awful in these strips. Some are poorly drawn. Others are telling the same two jokes over and over again. Others are cloying or just downright annoying.

With apologies for the "from hell" cliche, here is my comics page from hell:
  • Andy Capp
  • Baby Blues
  • Barney Google and Snuffy Smith
  • Broom Hilda
  • B.C.
  • Cathy
  • Crankshaft
  • Dennis the Menace
  • Drabble
  • Garfield
  • Grin and Bear It
  • Hagar the Horrible
  • Heathcliff
  • Herman
  • Hi and Lois
  • Judge Parker
  • The Lockhorns
  • Marmaduke
  • Mallard Fillmore
  • Opus
  • Sally Forth
  • Tank McNamara
  • They'll Do It Every Time
  • Ziggy
For further reading:
UPDATE: More on the N&O vote.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 6:57 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Interesting reads
  • Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne on his reading habits, the new New York Times building and the future of the media.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:55 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
The right approach to corrections
I've been enjoying a Reuters blog called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. (The serial comma is theirs, not mine.) The wire service reports and responds to reader complaints in a pithy fashion.

It's a welcome approach that many U.S. publications could try. Too many newspapers fail to own up to their mistakes. When they do, they publish corrections that are often inscrutable, written so painfully to "not repeat the error" that the reader is left wondering what happened. (Here is an example.) Many blogs by ombudsmen and top editors deal with weighty topics such as identification of rape victims, allegations of bias, etc.

Reuters does the opposite. It operates in the world of the small stuff. In each post, the editors show what was wrong and quote the reader's complaint. Then the editors respond, either acknowledging an error or defending the story. It's simple but effective, and the blog format allows for faster responses than corrections in print, which typically run a few days after the original story.

For more about corrections, take a look at this column by Ted Vaden, the public editor at The News & Observer.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times has started a blog that looks to be similar to what Reuters does.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:10 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, November 19, 2007
Shrunken dunk
Photojournalism online is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, news Web sites can offer multiple images with a story rather than just one or two in print. Slide shows can be storytelling vehicles that are independent of story text and enlivened with sound.

On the other hand, many photos lose their impact because they are too small. That's the case here. In print, this photo of a UNC basketball player's emphatic dunk is a powerful image, stretching across five columns of the page. On the Web next to this story, it loses its sense of drama because it measures about 2 inches by 1 inch on a typical computer screen. (More on the photo here.)

The problem isn't this particular photo or this particular newspaper Web site. The problem is the medium itself and its limitations.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:02 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Friday, November 16, 2007
Interesting reads
  • Talking Points Memo on how media critics take a Time magazine article out of context in an attempt to show bias in favor of Hillary Clinton.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:26 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, November 15, 2007
For richer, for poorer
Whenever a reporter (or columnist, as is the case here) decides to quote from a famous work to illustrate a point, it's always a good idea to check that quote. That apparently didn't happen here, and the paper has published this correction.

We can't be expected to know the texts of the great works of literature. You don't have to be a fan of "The Great Gatsby" to catch this error, however. The clue that something is amiss is in the column: the odd response from Hemingway. If Fitzgerald wrote what is printed here, the reaction from Hemingway doesn't make sense. That mismatch could have set off an alarm in the mind of the editor who read this.

Here are some other things to check when they are quoted in stories:
  • Shakespeare
  • Songs
  • Movies
  • The Bible
With online resources at our fingertips, editors can track down these references most of the time. If not, we can ask the writer to doublecheck.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:51 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Boys will not always be boys
An article in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair tells the tale of college students in Kentucky who stole rare manuscripts from a university library. It's a well-researched and well-written yarn. (It's not available on the magazine's Web site, but you can get the gist here.)

Unfortunately, the magazine refers to the four perpetrators as "boys." All four were 18 or older at the time of the heist. In 2006, broadcast media did the same thing in the Duke lacrosse case, describing the players, since exonerated, as "the boys." In such situations, the appropriate word would be "men."

Just when do boys become men for purposes of news stories? The AP Stylebook offers this guidance under the "boy" entry:
Applicable until 18th birthday is reached. Use "man" or "young man" afterward.
The use of "boys" isn't accurate when talking about the actions of young adults, and it casts a tone of "boys will be boys."

Related post here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:49 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
An unsatisfying choice of words
The editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary have picked their word of the year: "locavore." That's someone who prefers locally grown food. (You can learn more about "locavorism" here and here.)

I am disappointed in this selection. "Tase," which is a runner-up, is a better pick because people are actually using the word thanks to this incident. I have yet to see anyone use "locavore" in conversation or in a news story, although I have read about the "local food" trend.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:13 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Monday, November 12, 2007
Larry David on the copy desk
While watching the season finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" last night, I was struck by this line from Larry David:
"I'm not an inventor. I'm an improver. I see things that are wrong, and I improve them."
Would Larry be a good copy editor? His persona is reminiscent of a few copy editors I've known. I can see him on the rim.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:48 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Printer-Friendly news in Minnesota
MinnPost is up and running in the Twin Cities. Some sections don't have any stories yet, but this (mostly) online newspaper is on its way to give the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press some competition, journalistically if not economically.

The nonprofit venture isn't exclusively online, however. Readers can also download a .pdf version that looks like a traditional newspaper. MinnPost is offering to be partners with coffeehouses and other business that download and print out copies for customers to read over lunch.

It's a model we've used here at UNC-Chapel Hill with The Carrboro Commons. In the fall, the Commons is online only, but in the spring, we will once again get students in Advanced Editing to produce a printer-friendly edition for those who prefer reading the news on paper.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:25 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, November 09, 2007
Interesting reads
  • Chip Scanlan of The Poynter Institute on writing blurbs, those chunks of text that fall somewhere between headline and story text.
  • Chris O'Brien and Matt Mansfield on the future of their paper, the San Jose Mercury News.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:05 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Let's get local
Note: This post also appears at the Web site of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Copy editors are always concerned — about style, grammar, accuracy, headlines and a host of other issues. Now they have a new concern that’s more ominous than a comma splice or misspelled word. The changing media landscape threatens their livelihood and role in the newsroom, with some news executives questioning the need for copy editing at all.

The uneasy questions about the future of editing came to the fore recently with comments by two media leaders:
  • In Europe, David Montgomery of the Mecom newspaper group said copy editing (or sub-editing, as it’s known outside the United States) could be done away with altogether. “Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check,” he said recently.
  • In the United States, Joseph Lodovic, the president of MediaNews Group, floated the idea that newspapers save money by consolidating copy desks. “I think copy editing can be done centrally for several newspapers,” he said in a Bloomberg News article.
The response from copy editors has been quick and eloquent. They have argued that editing is as essential as ever, especially on the local level. Their work, after all, speaks to one of the cornerstones of journalism: the discipline of verification.

“By living where we work, we notice things,” wrote Lisa McLendon, the deputy copy desk chief at the Wichita Eagle, in a response on the American Copy Editors Society’s Web site. “We know which stores have opened and which restaurants have closed. We know what interests our friends and neighbors. We think about local issues as residents, not just as journalists.” (John McIntyre and Doug Fisher, among others, have also written persuasively about this issue on their blogs.)

I would extend McLendon’s idea and ask news executives this: If newspapers and Web sites are getting increasingly local in their coverage to survive, shouldn’t we also have copy editors become increasingly local? Instead of consolidating copy desks, why not have copy editors work more closely with reporters, not only in the main newsroom but also in newspaper bureaus?

That’s exactly what The News & Observer, the regional paper in Raleigh, N.C., did in the 1990s. As part of a push into nearby Durham and Chapel Hill, the N&O sent copy editors to the bureaus. I was one of them, working in the then-threadbare Chapel Hill office with an assignment editor and a half-dozen reporters. The advantages were significant:
  • I was able to work side by side with reporters whose prior interaction with copy editors consisted of phone calls from the Raleigh newsroom. I handled all of the stories that came out of the bureau, writing the headlines and rewriting them as needed between editions.
  • I became the face of copy editing to reporters and the assigning editor. They congratulated me on a job well done, and on occasion, questioned why I edited a story a certain way or wrote a headline the way I did. They called me with a late update or correction to the stories rather than trying to track down an anonymous editor in Raleigh. Most importantly, they knew who was editing their work and writing the headlines for their stories. My physical presence in the bureau built relationships that created a collaborative environment. “I find that I am much more confident about the process when I know who will be copy editing and when I know that that person is familiar with my beat and my work,” said Jane Stancill, a reporter who covers higher education at the N&O.
  • I became an expert in local copy, knowing the names and places that popped up in stories such as the country road that had a funny name. This helped me detect and correct fact errors in stories that may have been overlooked by an editor unfamiliar with the area. I also understood the context of stories better and was able to make sense of incremental developments in long-running stories.
  • I was a fill-in assignment editor in the evenings, letting the Raleigh office know of breaking stories. This came in handy, for example, when a school board member abruptly resigned in a resume-padding scandal. I was able to notify editors in Raleigh in time to get the story on the front page for the edition that went to Chapel Hill readers.
My time as the copy editor in the Chapel Hill office was among the most rewarding of my career, and reporters liked the arrangement as well. “The closer collaboration is definitely the way to go,” Stancill said. “In my view, it can only improve the work of both the reporter and the copy editor.”

The real beneficiaries, of course, were the readers. Effective collaboration, wherever it takes place, between writer and editor creates a better story and a more informed readership. As stated by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, “journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens.” Diminishing the role of the copy desk and divorcing editing from reporting are betrayals of that loyalty.

Now that I have moved from newsroom to classroom, my bureau experience informs my teaching. In my editing classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, local stories make up a substantial portion of the assignments. In one course, students edit stories written by their fellow students who are covering the town of Carrboro, N.C. Their work is published on a news Web site called The Carrboro Commons. These students will become the “hyperlocal” copy editors of the future — if news executives give them the chance.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:42 PM | Permalink | 5 comments
Election winners
Some students from my editing classes helped with this effort to cover local elections last night in Chapel Hill and neighboring Carrboro. As one student told me in class this morning:
It was fun. We had to wait for a while for anything to do, and then suddenly all the stories came in at once.
Whether online or in print, some things about election night remain the same. What's different now is the online commentary (such as this) about media coverage, particularly reporting by student journalists.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:37 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Monday, November 05, 2007
Upon further review
The shenanigans behind movie blurbs ("Has audiences standing up and cheering!") have been exposed now and again, and even lampooned. In its heyday, Spy magazine had a fake critic named Walter Monheit, the movie publicist’s friend, who always had a pun-infested blurb at the ready. Here's one for the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie:
Terrapinrific! A snapping good yarn! Donatello is the thinking man’s Stallone!
Now comes the latest in flimflams in movie and TV criticism:
  • A Washington Post story tells us how some reviewers' affiliations are being inflated to make them sound more authoritative. For example, a critic for a TV station in Arizona is cited as being from "ABC TV."
  • Keith Olbermann shows us how Fox edited reviews of its new Fox Business Network. Needless to say, the snippets put the new channel in a better light than the reviews from The Economist and The Globe and Mail did.
Walter Monheit feels more real every day.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:18 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, November 02, 2007
And that's not the word
The Associated Press reports the latest from the Colbert campaign this way:

South Carolina Democrats squashed Stephen Colbert's fanciful White House bid on Thursday.

The story
goes on to say that Democratic leaders turned down the Comedy Central host's attempt to get on the ballot in his home state.

The problem here is in the choice of verb. To squash something is to flatten it. The word the writer wanted here was "quash," which means to end or reject by legal procedure.

And that's the word.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:51 AM | Permalink | 0 comments