Wednesday, July 30, 2008
When restaurant reviews are news
A recent New York Times story about the culinary scene in New Orleans is noteworthy for obvious reasons — but some subtle ones as well.

The readily apparent news of the story is the return of restaurant reviews in The Times-Picayune, the daily newspaper in the New Orleans area. Regular reviews were suspended in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster in 2005. The paper's food critic, Brett Anderson, turned to straight-up reporting as New Orleans began its long recovery. Now, as a sign of the city's rebuilding efforts, that writer has filed his first restaurant review. He's back on that beat, and that return is the focus of the NYT story.

The less obvious component of the story is the primacy of The Times-Picayune in the city's famed restaurant culture. Its reviews — and its authority — were missed. Did bloggers fill the gap? Not really. How about the alternative weekly in the area? Not so much. Here's the key quote from a New Orleans chef:
“We cooks love to wake up on Friday mornings and open up The Times-Picayune and learn what other people are doing. The key thing is to stay competitive, and that’s where the role of the critic comes in.”
The brand name that is The Times-Picayune still gives the newspaper a prominent role in this aspect of the culture of New Orleans. Whether that name exists in print or online doesn't matter. The Times-Picayune is the go-to place for restaurant criticism. That's food for thought as newspapers consider how to "own" a story in an ever-increasing market of media.

Enjoy the review of Mr. B's Bistro, and laissez les bons temps rouler!
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:59 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Monday, July 28, 2008
Charlotte creep
The promised merger of some content between The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer is under way. The two North Carolina papers, once informal rivals but now both owned by McClatchy, are indeed joining forces and sharing stories. Here's some evidence of how Charlotte is creeping into the Raleigh paper:
  • Earlier this month, the Observer's Scott Fowler listed the top individual performances that he's witnessed as a sports writer. The column, while entertaining, is localized to a fault. It's littered with Charlotte references (a high school, the Bobcats and "the Charlotte swim community") that would have little or no interest to readers in the Triangle (or Raleigh-Durham, if you must). The column also encourages readers to chime in on his paper's Web site — not the site of the Raleigh paper.
  • Three of the four stories on page 4B of the N&O today are out of Charlotte. One is about the Charlotte area's United Way campaign. Again, how is this relevant to a Triangle audience? Perhaps that space could instead be used to restore the recently truncated op-ed page in the Monday N&O.
  • A fluffy business story from the Observer refers to a CEO as "the wealthiest Carolinian on Forbes' 2008 list." The story appears on the N&O business page. The Charlotte paper has long used "Carolinian" in an effort to appeal to readers in nearby South Carolina; the word is rare in N&O copy because it has virtually no circulation south of the border. In addition, the CEO in the story, Jim Goodnight, lives in Cary, N.C., which is in the heart of the N&O's circulation area.
  • Reporters from the Charlotte paper are now getting "staff writer" as part of their bylines when their stories run in the N&O. This story by Ken Tysiac, which ran on the N&O sports front today, is an example. Tysiac is fine reporter and accomplished author, but he is not an N&O reporter. His byline should read "The Charlotte Observer" when it appears in the Raleigh paper.
What does it all mean for readers? It's hard to tell just yet. But it's ironic that in the era of "hyper-local news" that North Carolina's two largest newspapers seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Careful editing — from story selection to word choice — will be essential to ensure that each paper maintains its identity.

UPDATE: Three of the five stories on the N&O sports front Wednesday are by Charlotte reporters. Each is credited as a "staff writer." Just one of the stories is by an actual N&O sportswriter; the other is a wire story from Newsday.

FURTHER UPDATE: Ted Vaden, public editor at the N&O, chimes in on his blog and explains the new byline policy.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:09 AM | Permalink | 4 comments
Friday, July 18, 2008
Vacation — all I ever wanted

This blog will be on hiatus for the next week as I go on a family vacation.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:28 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Interesting reading
  • James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, on the decline of editorial cartoonists.
  • Paul Chaney of Practical eCommerce, on the hazards of editing your own blog.
  • Craig Silverman of Regret the Error, on his visit to the men's room at the Newseum.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:11 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
I kid you not
When R.E.M. sang "hey, kids" throughout "Drive," listeners understood that Michael Stipe wasn't addressing a group of baby goats. Similarly, the Indigo Girls were not saying they were scared of youthful livestock when they performed "Kid Fears."

Yet, as reflected in this James Kilpatrick column, some still insist that "kids" should never be used as a synonym for children or young people. It's all about goats.

In one of his "court of peeves" pieces, Kilpatrick rules on a plea from readers who were "justifiably irked" with the use of "kids" in this Randy Cohen column in The New York Times Magazine. In his decision, Kilpatrick admits that several dictionaries recognize "kid" as a word meaning "child." (The dictionary on my computer lists it as the first definition.) However, he waves off that evidence, siding with the readers: "Their motion will be emphatically granted."

We need more testimony. I asked three copy editors what they thought of using "kid" this way in newspapers and news Web sites. Here are their answers:

Bill Cloud of UNC-Chapel Hill: I think "kid" is fine in casual uses. I wouldn't change it in a column, for example, but would question its use in a crime story. We all talk about the wife, husband and kids.

Kathleen Flynn of The New York Times: Since starting to work at The Times in 2005, I have become ever more conservative about word choice and grammar, even in my off hours, even when I am not really thinking about it consciously. You might say I drank the Kool-Aid, but that would be far too informal to say in print. So, yes, I would avoid "kids" to describe young human beings in all but the most informal written usage. But I also have to recognize that I am probably in the minority here, and there is really nothing wrong with the word.

Bill Walsh of The Washington Post: I wouldn't write "6 Kids Killed in Fire," but for more casual references there's nothing wrong with the word. As I recall, I wrote in "Lapsing Into a Comma" that the kids-are-goats argument "belongs in the assisted-living facility."

After weighing this expert testimony and reading the magazine column in question, I dissent from the Kilpatrick court. Although ethics is a weighty topic, Cohen writes in an informal way, which is part of his appeal as a columnist. Additionally, we as editors should grant some leeway (but not carte blanche) to columnists.

Thus, in this case, "kids" is all right.

UPDATE: Cohen responds and elaborates in a comment to this post. Thank you, Randy.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:14 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Monday, July 14, 2008
No more weasel words at The Associated Press
Politico has an in-depth look at changes at the Washington bureau of The Associated Press. Under new leader Ron Fournier, the bureau is focusing on "accountability journalism." The Politico article describes that like so:
Reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.
First-person pieces and more analytical writing are encouraged as well. Politico dutifully notes that not everyone likes the changes at the AP. Elsewhere, Talking Points Memo (among others) has been critical of the wire service's recent coverage of the presidential campaign.

UPDATE: Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism discusses AP's new direction in a first-person and analytical piece. A former AP man himself, Fisher beat my post on this news by a couple of hours.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:06 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Thursday, July 10, 2008
On advice of counsel
This headline and lead gave me pause, as it probably did for many readers. The problem is in the verb: continue.

"To continue" and "continuance" in the legal sense are not the same as we use them in conversation. One legal glossary, for example, defines "continuance" this way:
Adjournment of the proceedings in a case from one day to another.
In news stories, the word usually means that a hearing or trial has been pushed back on the calendar. But what everyday word works best in place of this bit of legal jargon? With legal matters, it's especially important that we are precise.

I asked a friend, a copy editor turned lawyer turning law librarian, for some advice. Here's her response:
I'd go with "postponed" because "continuance" literally means you are moving the trial (or appearance or whatever) to a new definite date (the judge always picks the new date when granting the continuance). So "put off" might make it sound like something less definite — like the trial has been put off and we don't know when or whether it will actually happen.
So ordered. More on continuances here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:56 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Why be normal?
The News & Observer reporter who covers the Wake County schools has an active blog at the paper's site. One recent post generated (as of this posting) 40 comments from readers.

Many of these comments, of course, are off topic or lengthy. Yet, buried deep among the chatter, comes a curious request from reader to reporter, with emphasis added:
Please report this in a normal article in the print version of the N&O also.
It's interesting that this reader sees a reporter's blog post this way — as less significant, if not "abnormal." The request also indicates that the post would have greater weight on newsprint than on screen. It's somehow less serious in the blog format — and of course, not as widely read as it would be in the print newspaper.

As producing print media becomes less profitable and reporting through blogs increases, readers can expect to see more news that appears only on the Web. Just when those posts will have the same impact as a story in the paper is unclear.

UPDATE: John Robinson at the News & Record offers his thoughts on this sort of request.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:15 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Inside outsourcing
You've likely heard about the outsourcing of newspaper editing to India. So who will be doing the work there?

The editors and designers at Mindworks Global Media, that's who. BusinessWeek magazine takes us to the company's headquarters outside New Delhi.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:11 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, July 07, 2008
Summertime blues
"Summertime Blues" seems like an appropriate soundtrack for the newspaper business. Every which way we turn this summer, the answer seems to be: "No dice, son..." At least we are still raising a fuss and holler about why editing matters.

We're seeing layoffs, reduced news hole and outsourcing. Many of my fellow bloggers have been writing eloquently on what is happening, and Pam Robinson at Words at Work has been especially vigilant on the outsourcing issue. And this piece at Poynter offers a look at what it all means for the future of the copy desk.

In addition, recent posts at an L.A. Times blog also speak to the situation at that paper and more broadly. Jamie Gold, the paper's reader representative, recently posted the memo from the paper's editor about impending layoffs and reduction in pages in the newspaper. That's followed by another memo from the Web site's executive editor discussing how the site has increased its readership and expanded its offerings. So yes, the L.A. Times, like most newspapers, has more readers now than it did 10 years ago thanks to the Web. But its finances do not reflect that.

This is our problem: People want news, but it's no longer profitable to provide them with it. It's enough to drive an editor to drink.

Fortunately, John McIntyre has arrived just in time to show us how to make a proper martini. Here's some "Summertime Blues" to go with it:
UPDATE: Perhaps this Webinar at NewsU, set for July 16, will offer some hope.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:54 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, July 04, 2008
How to declare independence
On every Fourth of July, the News & Observer publishes the Bill of Rights on its editorial page. Usually, a letter to the editor follows a few days later, asking why the paper would publish that document and not the Declaration of Independence.

It's a reasonable question. The declaration, not the Constitution, is the "reason for the season." It would make more sense to publish the Bill of Rights on Dec. 15, its date in history.

As one of the best breakup letters of world history, the declaration makes for a great read. The checklist of complaints against the king is especially interesting in its detail. That section is introduced this way: "Let Facts be submitted to a candid world."

On this day, I encourage you to read the full text of the Declaration of Independence. Or listen to a reading and learn more at NPR's site.

Either way, enjoy the declaration's language, structure and message, and have a safe and happy Fourth of July.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:03 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Q&A: How the L.A. Times edits for the Web
My summer stint at the Los Angeles Times is over. I learned a tremendous amount in my seven weeks at the paper's Web site, and I am eager to take this newsroom experience back to the classroom.

This Q&A with Henry Fuhrmann, conducted by e-mail, offers a look at how online editing works at the L.A. paper, where he is the senior copy desk chief for the Web. Fuhrmann has been at the L.A. Times since 1990 and in his current position for about a year.

The AM copy desk recently marked its first anniversary. How did the desk get started, and what is its main purpose?

I deserve no credit for the AM desk concept — I am merely the lucky guy who got the job after the leaders of the L.A. Times copy editing department decided that we needed to set up a team to handle the rapidly growing flood of material being sent to the Web.

At the time, by the way, I was an assigning editor — specifically deputy business editor — although I had previously run the business copy desk and worked on desks all around the newsroom. I happily rejoined the copy editing department when this opportunity arose. I knew it would be a terrific challenge, a lot of fun and, to my mind, even more important than helping run one of our largest newsgathering staffs.

Back to the your question: Our main purpose on the morning crew is to serve as a universal copy desk from about 7 a.m. onward, when stories, blog posts and photos are being offered for the Web and before the traditional nightside copy desks arrive.

As a result, we handle material from our foreign, national, metro, business and sports staffs. We also read quite a bit of entertainment content, mostly photos and blog posts, from 7 to 10 a.m., when the features copy desk checks in, and then throughout the day to back those folks up. The night desks are all in by 3 p.m.; we work a few hours beyond that, finishing tasks we’ve started during the day that may not have required immediate posting to the Web.

The copy desk department is not quite a 24/7 operation — more like 17/7 — but the 60 hours of service we provide Monday through Friday have filled in big gaps in coverage. In addition to working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on those days, we provide an editor from 8 to 4 on Saturdays. We are off Sundays, when we have the features and night desks split the Web copy editing chores.

You come from a print background. How is editing for the Web different from print?

When people ask me what it takes to edit for the Web, I ask two questions: Can you work fast? And can you right-click? (That mouse function is required to “export” stories from the newspaper editorial content system, CCI, to our Web content management system.)

Whatever the medium, good editing is still, in essence, getting the words in the right order and communicating as effectively as we can with the reader-user. The difference with the Web is the lack of a firm deadline (other than “right now”) and the demand for speed.

The ever-ticking clock has required that we eliminate a few layers from the traditional print editing sequence. Instead of going from reporter to assigning editor to copy editor to slot (and usually proofreader), material for the Web moves from reporter to assigning editor to copy editor, or from blogger to editor to copy editor, or often from blogger directly to copy editor. At odd hours, when, say, a foreign correspondent files while the assigning desk is asleep in Los Angeles, he or she will work directly with one of our two overnight Web producers, cutting yet another layer from the process. (Those two producers, no surprise, were ace copy editors in previous jobs.)

Because fewer hands are touching the copy, we have recruited slot-capable editors to our ranks for the most part. After a year, we have trained four editors and sent them back to their home desks to help spread their Web knowledge to their print peers. We’ll keep rotating people in and out on six-month stints.

What about headlines for the Web?

Writing headlines is a crucial part of the Web copy editing process. In many respects this is the area in which we can make the most difference to the Times’ efforts to build its online audience, as we try to optimize our heds for search engines in an effort to draw Web users to our stories.

There’s probably nothing unusual about how we approach the task. We try to use the obvious search terms that we think would apply to a given story, including specific names and other key subject words. To put this another way, we aim to replicate what a typical Google user might type to find our story.

All stories that go through the morning copy desk get Web heds because all of our material is posted online. But we also ask that copy editors working for print write a Web-specific hed for practically every story.

Optimizing search is a newsroom-wide effort, with reporters and their editors adding hyperlinks, Web producers filling in keywords in Assembler and so forth. But our understanding is that the Web hed is the most important tool, so we on the desks take that responsibility very seriously.

The L.A. Times site has dozens of blogs, with more added each week. What is the paper's approach on editing blog posts?

Our stance is that the blogs carry our good name, so they also must carry our usual stamp of quality. That said, we copy edit relatively lightly (as we do with any opinion journalism) and quickly (by necessity — we have so much else to do). We correct for typos and errors of fact and watch for legal and taste issues. But we discourage heavy rewriting; again, time is a factor, but we also acknowledge the importance of maintaining the blogger’s voice. I gather that copy editing blogs is considered somewhat novel, so we’re happy we can provide even this modest level of scrutiny.

The challenge is certainly big — and getting bigger. Three years ago the Times had three blogs. As of this writing, we have 42, with at least two more coming this summer and several others planned for the fall. Nearly every member of the copy editing staff has his or her hand in at least one blog.

You get out a lot to see cool concerts and sporting events. Is the idea of a morning copy desk good for the social lives of copy editors?

Yes, definitely. Getting out earlier has been one of the great side benefits of the job. It has enabled me and my daughters (ages 16 and nearly 14) to have more quality time together every evening. I attended a lot more of the girls’ softball games and other after-school activities than in years past. I’ve seen a personal record nine concerts this year (and it’s only the halfway mark as I write this) and also attended two Dodgers games and four Lakers games.

The flip side of this has been an interesting development in our recruiting efforts. I always thought that copy editors worked for years to get those coveted, rare openings on the day side and a presumably “normal” schedule in real life. But, in fact, many otherwise interested copy editors have told us that they love nights and couldn’t imagine how they could convert to days, even for just a few months.

Thanks to Henry for these insights and to everyone at the L.A. Times for your hospitality this summer.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:18 PM | Permalink | 4 comments
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Further studies on alternative story forms
This blog is seeing a bump in traffic, thanks in part to the recently released NewsU course on alternative story forms. Thanks to everyone who has taken this free course and taken a moment to visit here.

I blog about ASFs on occasion. In case you are reading here for the first time or just want a look at some previous thoughts on ASFs, try these previous posts, along with a new link or two:


The Los Angeles Times covers July 4th travel one way and then another.


The story of one ASF from conception to publication at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

Thanks again for taking the course and reading here. I hope you find it all helpful.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:58 PM | Permalink | 0 comments