Monday, March 31, 2008
Interesting reading (Future edition)
  • Brian Stelter of The New York Times, on the future of The Huffington Post, which plans to add sections on sports and books as part of its plan to be an "Internet newspaper." (I'd also suggest more careful photo editing as noted here.)
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:29 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Further comment
The clever site Boing Boing recently published a lengthy but worthwhile post on its comments policy. It's presented in a helpful Q&A format; just about every question has been anticipated and answered.

Boing Boing moderates comments vigorously. Some are rejected. Others are published but "disemvowelled" — removed of their vowels for being lame.

I've allowed anonymous posting since I started this blog in 2006. That changes today. You'll need to identify yourself. I've noticed that the more meaningful comments here and elsewhere online are those with names attached.

My hope is that this will create a more interesting discourse here and a sense of ownership and accountability among those who comment. Perhaps it will also eliminate spam, which has popped up on occasion in the comments.

For the time being, I'm not planning to moderate comments as other editing blogs do. But as Boing Boing notes, all comments policies are subject to change.

Thanks for visiting, and please leave a comment that adds to the conversation and tells us a little bit about who you are. You won't be disemvowelled.

UPDATE: Some wonder whether this policy amounts to censorship, and if so, whether that's a hypocritical stance coming from a journalist. Far from it. A blogger is under the same obligation to publish a comment as a newspaper is to publish a letter to the editor. That is, no obligation. To put it another way, the First Amendment does not require HarperCollins to publish your manuscript for the Great American Novel.

Boing Boing gets the last word: "The people who write and edit Boing Boing have the right to have (or refuse to have) anything they want on their own Web site. If one of the things they don't want is a comment that you have posted, they aren't depriving you of your freedom of speech. You're free to put that comment up on your own Web page."
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:31 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Friday, March 28, 2008
Under the Dome takes us behind the blog
Ryan Teague Beckwith, the primary reporter for The News & Observer's Under the Dome blog, is doing some interesting work on BlueNC, a liberal blog that focuses on North Carolina issues.

Beckwith takes his questions straight to the source in "interviews" for all to see. On this post and comment thread, you can follow the give and take between Beckwith and numerous bloggers who contribute to BlueNC. Topics include "progressive" vs. "liberal," the definition of "blogger" and BlueNC's style of news judgment for its "front page."

You can read the early returns of Beckwith's reporting at the Dome blog, with a traditional "dead tree" profile to come later in The News & Observer.

UPDATE: That full profile is now in print and online. It's a good example of how the information gathering and smaller pieces come together for a greater whole.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:34 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Campaign for a tobacco-Free sports section
As the NCAA basketball tournament rolls on, I am seeing and hearing references to a place called Tobacco Road. Here are some recent examples:
  • Tobacco Road paves way for North Carolina's championship bid ( headline)
  • He didn't want to be the next blue chip recruit to end up on Tobacco Road. (The Daily Trojan)
  • RALEIGH, N.C. — Georgetown received the full Tobacco Road treatment here Sunday in its most shocking boot from March Madness in more than 20 years. (Washington Post)
  • Coach Bob McKillop's white house across the street still was festooned with toilet paper, which has become a tradition whenever schools down on Tobacco Road win a big game. (Daily News, New York)
On television, announcers such as Jim Nantz of CBS speak of "Tobacco Road" in dramatic tones, assigning some sort of mythic stature to the proceedings on the basketball court. Perhaps that is a reflection of the name's literary roots.

Tobacco is certainly a significant part of North Carolina's history, but its influence in the state has been waning for years. Nowadays, it isn't easy to find a place to smoke on the campus of the state's flagship university.

Changing times aside, my main problem with "Tobacco Road" is that I have never heard it used in real life. In casual conversation, no one has ever asked me: "Did you see the game last night? That's how it goes on Tobacco Road." And believe me, the topic of "the game last night" comes up a lot.

When I asked students in my editing classes this week whether they used "Tobacco Road" in conversation, they gave me puzzled looks and said no. Yet the Wikipedia entry for "Tobacco Road" claims that the term "is often used" in discussions of sports at four North Carolina universities: UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest. But "often used" by whom?

My hunch is that "Tobacco Road" is to North Carolina what "Big Easy" is to New Orleans: a term used by unwitting visitors and lazy reporters. I therefore nominate it for the list of words (seen here and here) to avoid this tournament season.

UPDATE: John Robinson of the News & Record kindly mentions this post and shares his "Tobacco Road" experience.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:47 PM | Permalink | 9 comments
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Funky headline
The comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" tries to find humor in the headlines this week. A "criminal" misspelling of a proper name in display type serves as the punchline. It's unclear whether the story had the same error.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:19 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Interesting reading and essential viewing
  • Tony Dokoupil of Newsweek magazine, on how the phrase "thrown under the bus" has become unavoidable.
  • Ted Vaden, public editor at The News & Observer, on a sports headline that made some readers angry because it used the word "laugher."
  • Chris O'Brien of The Next Newsroom Project, on an educational film (circa 1940) about newspaper journalism that has to be seen to be believed.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 7:56 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, March 24, 2008
Mousse on the loose
My family enjoyed an Easter brunch at an Indian restaurant. The buffet included a dessert area, and one of the items there was an orange goo with this label:

Mango Moose

The restaurateur meant "mousse." That is the word for a dessert — and for the foam that people put in their hair in the 1980s.

Mango Moose may not be a great name for a dish, but it's perfect for a cartoon character.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:35 AM | Permalink | 4 comments
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The The, the Buckeyes, a hero and the future of history
Along comes word that The History Channel is getting a new name: History. The "H" logo will get a makeover to give it a more contemporary look. The changes are part of an effort to recast the channel's image so it is no longer seen as the place for World War II documentaries and little else.

"Channel" is unwanted because it apparently signifies old media. The Internet doesn't want channels. The reason that "the" is gone isn't explained, but the humble article has a history of being added and deleted on occasion for various purposes.

Back in 1993, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "The Last Action Hero" became "Last Action Hero" shortly before its release. The thinking in Hollywood was that "the" wasn't good for marketing the movie. "Last Action Hero" failed to meet box office expectations, however. Perhaps "Titanic" lacked "the" for the same reason; that title served not only as a label for the ship but also as an adjective for the massive production.

If "the" is not good for the movies, perhaps it beneficial in academia. Ohio State University seems to think so because it prefers to be known as The Ohio State University. This is most evident to the rest of America when an NFL lineup is introduced at the start of a game on television. As each player states his name and his college, the former Buckeyes almost always stress this point: "John Doe. Theee Ohio State University." It does ensure that no one is confused by those other Ohio States.

Finally, there is The The, a British band whose heyday was in the 1980s. More recently, The The's song "This Is The Day" was used in a candy commercial. (Listen here and see whether the tune sounds familiar.) The group's name seems to be an inside joke on the naming conventions of rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, the joke is now on The The, because the name isn't friendly in the Google age of distinctive search terms.

What all of this back and forth about "the" means for The History Channel is unclear. As the Clash once said, the future is unwritten. Or was that Clash?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:41 PM | Permalink | 5 comments
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Al-Qaida: questions and corrections
What is al-Qaida?

That would be a good way to start a Q&A on the terrorist organization. Given recent confusion among politicians and reporters, we could use a good explainer on the status of the group, who's in it, where they are and what their affiliations are.

These two clips from recent days illustrate the need for this sort of journalism:
  • Kyra Phillips of CNN, on a similar theme, with Gen. David Petraeus getting her back on point.
The Associated Press sheds some light on the al-Qaida situation in this "fact check" alternative story form, but it's a topic worth more explanation to counter rhetoric and misstatements.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:38 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
By the number
Many newspapers are taking note of the anniversary of the Iraq war. Such stories are tough to write, edit and present, but they can provide an opportunity to step back and assess what has happened and what is ahead.

The Winston-Salem Journal offers an Associated Press story on the anniversary accompanied by this timeline. That's reasonable enough, but this bit of design experimentation isn't. (Click on the image for a better view.)

Shaping the timeline into a numeral makes it difficult to read. Including the photos is OK, but the lines linking the images to events in the timeline make this more confusing. Readers should be able to scan a timeline to find items of interest to them; this one is difficult to scan because the type is cramped.

Beware of shaping text into numerals or objects. Sure, it may look cool when your design desk makes a story into the shape of a wine glass (a gimmick that's been done enough to discard, by the way). But ask yourself: Does this design serve the content? Does it help the reader?

UPDATE: The New York Times takes the timeline concept and enhances it. This is the sort of thing that works well online — sometimes the Web really is better than print.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:16 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Chronic town
Cary, N.C., is a suburb of Raleigh. It's known for its tough zoning regulations and its appearances on "best places to live" rankings in magazines. The old joke is that Cary stands for "Containment Area for Relocated Yankees."

Cary has a population of more than 100,000. To many of us, that would make Cary a city. North Carolina law, however, allows a municipality to call itself whatever it likes. (Hello, Village of Charlotte!)

Despite its size, Cary prefers to be a "town," with the official flag flying that label proudly. Some of its residents are buying into that idea, and one man successfully pushed for the replacement of 50 road signs so drivers cross the "town limits" rather than the "city limits" when entering Cary.

At $2,000, that's a fairly pricey edit.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 7:57 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, March 17, 2008
Fact and opinion
William Kristol had to know he would be under a microscope when he accepted a columnist position at The New York Times late last year. As a well-known advocate of the Iraq war and other Republican causes, Kristol has formidable political opponents. Those opponents were shocked and angered that Kristol would be given a weekly column on the Times op-ed page. They wanted him fired before he had written a word, and their complaints prompted a response from the public editor at the Times.

Given that, you would think that Kristol would be particularly careful to get his facts straight in his pieces for the Times. Columns, after all, require solid facts to support their arguments. Errors of fact expose columnists to attack and damage their credibility. Editors can ensure that columnists meet the requirements of this part of the job. As an editor at The Weekly Standard magazine, Kristol should understand that.

So far, Kristol has stumbled on the facts. His first column had an attribution blunder. The latest mistake in Kristol's work on the op-ed page should give editors pause about the quality of his work. The subject of his most recent column is Barack Obama's church and the pastor's comments about the war and other political issues. Kristol alleges that Obama was in attendance when particularly controversial remarks were made from the pulpit. Yet, as noted here, Obama was not there that day in July 2007.

To its credit, the Times has quickly added this note from Kristol to the top of the online version of the column:
In this column, I cite a report that Sen. Obama had attended services at Trinity Church on July 22, 2007. The Obama camapaign [sic] has provided information showing that Sen. Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.
This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough because the error is still in the column. It's an assertion that is central to Kristol's argument, not just a piece of trivia. That part of the column needs editing as well, which is easy enough to do online.

Additionally, the column needs a rewrite for the wire services. Many newspapers run Times columnists a day or two after their works appear in the Times. It's possible some newspapers will run the Kristol column as is, which will spread the error.

UPDATE: Keith Olbermann of MSNBC has named himself one of his nightly "Worst Persons In the World" for a goof related to the Kristol column. Earlier in the week, Olbermann had singled out Times executive editor Bill Keller for the Worst Person "honor" for not firing Kristol. Alas, Keller plays no role in the editorial pages and has no say on the hiring and firing of op-ed columnists. (Related post here.)
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:35 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Here comes the sun
With National Grammar Day behind us, it's time for Sunshine Week. That is when journalists, librarians and others remind us of the importance of open government.

Access to council meetings and public documents is to government reporters what punctuation is to copy editors. Some of us are more passionate about certain elements of our profession. As journalists, we understand that each is important in its own way.

For more about Sunshine Week, check out the official site, this Editor & Publisher story and this graphic from The News & Observer.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:39 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, March 14, 2008
Interesting reading
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:51 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Citizen Spitzer
The resignation announcement of Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York didn't make the front page of The News & Observer. It was, after all, an expected story that happened fairly early in the news cycle for the Raleigh paper.

The Spitzer story was all over TV and the Web on Wednesday, and it was on the N&O front page earlier in the week. And lately, the N&O has been busy chasing North Carolina's governor, and one governor on the front is enough.

The Spitzer story got pretty good play inside the paper, however. The two-story package was the display lead on page 3A, and it included a sidebar with this headline:

Prostitute aimed for career as a singer

This brought to mind one of my favorite newspaper headlines from the movies. It's from "Citizen Kane," and it appears as newspaper kingpin Charles Foster Kane is running for governor of New York. A rival newspaper exposes his extramarital affair, leading with this headline:


The Highly Moral Mr. Kane and his Tame "Songbird"
Entrapped by Wife as Love Pirate Kane Refuses to Quit Race

The headline effectively destroys Kane's political career, and his personal life suffers as well. On election night, his own paper must choose the latter of these two headlines:



The cinematic technique of using a newspaper front page to move a story forward can come off as cheap and lazy. The headlines on such fictional pages rarely ring true in their wording or presentation. The headlines in "Citizen Kane," however, work on multiple levels, and they represent another reason why "Kane" is a brilliant movie.

Indeed, the "singer" headline is mentioned later in the film, when Kane tries to transform his mistress, now his wife, into an opera star. Kane radically edits a colleague's negative review of her performance, a significant violation of his "declaration of principles." Kane's motivation for doing so is explained this way by that colleague:
The whole thing about Susie being an opera singer, that was trying to prove something. You know what the headline was the day before the election, "Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, singer, unquote." He was gonna take the quotes off the singer.
Unlike some Hollywood writers, Orson Welles understood the power of well-worded headlines when he created "Citizen Kane." The "singer" headline is not just used to move the story forward. It's an integral part of the plot as another push toward Kane's downfall. That headline also reads well and has the "sizzle words" that managing editors love the desk to use in display type.

Orson Welles would have been a great copy editor.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:55 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
It's almost time to confer about the future
I'm looking forward to two conferences this spring. They happen to share a theme: What does the future hold?
I hope to see you there.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:34 AM | Permalink | 4 comments
Monday, March 10, 2008
Unstuck in time
Paper Cuts, a New York Times blog about books, is asking readers to contribute "a favorite signature passages in books they love — a sentence or two that seem to convey the essence of a complex, beautiful work?"

Here's mine. It's from "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, in which the main character, Billy Pilgrim, watches a movie on television:
He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this :

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.
The passage epitomizes Vonnegut's view on war as well as his writing style, which has a journalistic tone. Like much of his work, this is absurd, hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time.

I thought of this passage when news came last year that Vonnegut had died. So it goes. I am heartened that his writing is still with us even if the man himself is not.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:42 PM | Permalink | 5 comments
Friday, March 07, 2008
Monstrous words
The latest news in the campaign for the Democratic nomination comes down to a word: monster.

That is the word that an adviser to Barack Obama used to describe Hillary Clinton. In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper, Samantha Power is quoted this way:
She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything.
Power apologized for the remark, and the Clinton campaign called for Obama to fire her. A few hours later, Power resigned. This may be be a typical tiff between campaigns, but it's interesting to journalists in other ways.

First, note how Power attempted to edit herself. Few reporters, however, are going to let a source go off the record in the middle of a thought. And they shouldn't. It appears that Power, whose job requires the ability to interact with the media, agreed to this interview and its ground rules. She cannot toggle between being on and off the record as she speaks, and she cannot do so unilaterally. (More back and forth on this issue here.)

Second, consider how "monster" has several meanings. Yes, it's a big, scary creature. It can also be an "inhumanely cruel or wicked person." It can also be anything that's huge, such as a force that's impossible to stop. Clinton could fit the latter definition and not the others. It's hard to know which definition Power intended.

Third, take a look at The Scotsman's headline on the story:

'Hillary Clinton's a monster': Obama aide blurts out attack in Scotsman interview

The editors there are playing loose with Power's quote in this headline. They put words in her mouth that are unnecessary. The second part of the headline comes off as self-promotional on the part of the paper. If "monster" is the angle to play up in the headline, try this:

Clinton is 'a monster,' Obama aide says

As for the political damage that the remark will inflict on the Obama campaign, I would be surprised if it has a major impact. Then again, perhaps we will see this cause-effect headline:

Clinton claims win in Wyoming caucus; 'monster' gaffe looms large for Obama

Let's hope not.

UPDATE: The reporter for the Scotsman defends using the quote in an MSNBC interview and also takes on the insufferable Tucker Carlson.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:43 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Interesting reading
  • Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, on media coverage (or lack thereof) on the financial cost of the Iraq war.
  • Laura Ruel of UNC-Chapel Hill, on the pros and cons of Dreamweaver, Flash and other software in the journalism classroom.
  • The News & Observer's Under the Dome blog, on "chilipunking" a Libertarian candidate for governor.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:13 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
HuffPo and the front page
The Huffington Post uses this collage of newspaper front pages to illustrate its big story of the moment. Mashing up the print media is a curious way for an online-only publication to show the importance of the news, no? Then again, HuffPo also promises to "watch TV so you don't have to."

Related post here.

UPDATE: HuffPo has changed its main image to a similar collage, this one of screen grabs from TV "news" shows from this morning.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:30 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Copy editors on the rise at the N&O
Two major moves in the News & Observer newsroom have connections to copy editing:

  • Thad Ogburn is the new metro editor, overseeing the paper's local coverage. Ogburn started at the N&O as a copy editor, and he was deeply involved in the American Copy Editors Society during its formative years. He was most recently the features editor at the N&O.
  • Debra Boyette is the new features editor, succeeding Ogburn. She has worked as the copy desk chief for features at the N&O.
Congratulations to Thad and Debra on their new jobs.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 7:41 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
A new hope in need of a slight edit

As much as I love this imaginative "remake" of the opening credits to the original "Star Wars," I couldn't help but notice a misspelled word in the first 12 seconds of the 56-second video.

See whether you can spot the error, which I must stress is a minor flaw in an otherwise brilliant take on Saul Bass. The answer is in the comments.

UPDATE: I just read the full "About This Video" on YouTube. The clip's creator is aware of the error but kept it as is because the video is "just for fun." Fair enough. For some of us, trying to catch the mistake is fun too.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:37 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, March 03, 2008
Tomorrow is National Grammar Day
Get ready for National Grammar Day, which will be Tuesday, March 4. Read about it at the official site. Check out the related blog, which has an interesting post about the wording of the Second Amendment.

Is there Grammar Day dissent? Yes, here and here.

UPDATE: John McIntyre puts it all into perspective in a typically witty post at his blog, You Don't Say.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:13 AM | Permalink | 0 comments