Friday, August 29, 2008
I took your name
The guideline for using a person’s surname in a newspaper headline is fairly simple. If we have reason to believe that readers will instantly recognize that name, go ahead and use it. If not, use a description of that person.

An example: “Meeker” is fine for media in Raleigh in stories about the city’s mayor. But if hizzoner is mentioned outside the Triangle, “Raleigh mayor” is a better choice.

These rules change some for the Web, where many readers use proper names to arrive at stories through Google searches. To get them to our story rather than our competitor’s, use that name even if it’s only marginally known. First names may be handy here, too, where in print the last name usually suffices. (More on online headlines here.)

Of course, sometimes that surname may not conjure the correct person in the reader’s mind. Here are two examples today where that happened to me:

HEADLINE: McClaren works to reunite religions
PERSON INTENDED: Brian McClaren, leader in the “emergent church movement”
PERSON I THOUGHT OF: Malcolm McClaren, music impresario best known for the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols

HEADLINE: Palin emerges as potential McCain VP
PERSON INTENDED: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska
PERSON I THOUGHT OF: Michael Palin, comedian and travel writer best known for his work with Monty Python

Recognition of surnames in headlines is, of course, colored by our own experiences and interests. Your household may know names that others don't. Sometimes the solution is to use the proper name and a description. That’s what the Los Angeles Times did with the Palin story on its home page: “McCain VP choice is Alaska's Palin.”
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:11 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Interesting reading
  • Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune, on Joe Biden's frequent use of "literally" in a recent, high-profile speech.
  • David Judson of The Turkish Daily News, on how a single word added by a copy editor caused a correction and an apology.
  • Alex Beam of The Boston Globe, on what the Christian Science Monitor may tell us about the future of newspapers.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 7:44 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Bracket interference
Here's another example of the hazards of inserting bracketed information into direct quotes. This time, the insidious practice has created a fact error.

The problem pops up in an otherwise effective story about Lou Holtz, who has been a football coach at N.C. State and South Carolina, among other destinations. The story, which appears today in both The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, has Holtz compare his highs and lows at each school. It's told in an alternative form, organized by theme. Here is what appears in The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer under "disappointing losses":

The rush to splice in brackets to clarify Holtz's reference to this disputed play has led to an error. Clemson scored a field goal to win that game, not a touchdown.

A better option is to use a sentence before the quote to set up the play that Holtz is talking about. That will eliminate the awkwardness of the bracketed material. Then check to make sure that sentence is correct.

This is a curious mistake from a reporter who has written books about Clemson football, but perhaps an editor is to blame. It may be small thing in the scope of world events, but these details matter to sports fans, especially in coverage of a rivalry game. They expect sports departments, as the experts on lore and arcana, to get those details right.

UPDATE: The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., also ran the story. No one there caught the error either.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:04 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Saturday, August 23, 2008
When things break your way
The timing of Barack Obama's "text message" announcement of his running mate had copy desks scrambling Friday night and early Saturday. A news alert from the Los Angeles Times site arrived in my inbox at 1:12 a.m. EDT. The Obama message itself was sent at 3 a.m., according to this CNN story.

Many papers on the East Coast didn't have the story, but things got better as they went west. And in one case, mechanical problems helped a newspaper get the story. A former student who now works at a paper in North Dakota reports this on Facebook:
Our press blew apart and ran a few hours late, so we were able to get the VP stuff in. Lucky and unlucky at the same time.
Indeed. Sometimes this is just the sort of break you need.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:09 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Two magazines that do it well
A comment responding to this post about textboxes made a good point: Magazines have been doing that sort of thing longer (and often better) than most newspapers. Here are two magazines that newspapers can learn from:

1. Fast Company magazine routinely includes textboxes to accompany its stories. For example, an article about Web video in the latest issue comes with a list five famous bits of online comedy. Another story uses a “tale of the tape” textbox to compare Facebook and MySpace. Yet another has a “by the numbers” textbox that works because each number has a clear connection to the story and is presented in context. Some of these examples are available at the Fast Company site, but curiously, they look better in print.

2. ShopSmart magazine takes the alternative approach a step further. This magazine is essentially Consumer Reports “remixed” into alternative story forms. It uses forms such as the Q&A format, “by the numbers” and checklists to help readers learn about classic Consumer Reports topics such as how to get a deal on a credit card or how to buy a bra. ShopSmart offers .pdf versions of some stories at its site, but like Fast Company, the magazine works better in print.

Fast Company and ShopSmart provide good examples of how to do textboxes and free-standing alternative story forms. They are written well, edited well and designed well. Indeed, the content always guides the design — not vice versa. Newspapers would be wise to use these magazines as role models.

More about story forms here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:12 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Beats and bylines
Do bylines matter? That question came up this week in chat at the journalism school’s annual cookout.

Two of my colleagues were baffled by a recent story in The News & Observer announcing changes in sports coverage. The newspaper’s writers for Carolina Hurricanes hockey and the N.C. State Wolfpack are getting new beats. And a Charlotte Observer reporter, part of the merger of the two papers’ sports departments, is now on the Wolfpack beat.

The story about these moves was on the front page of the Sunday sports section of the Raleigh paper. That drew criticism from my colleagues: Why is the N&O wasting space on this? Who cares?

I responded that the N&O announcement made sense. Beat writers build a relationship with readers. For example, the hockey reporter, Luke DeCock, had covered the Hurricanes for eight years, a span that includes the team’s Stanley Cup win in 2006. Readers came to know him, and when his byline disappears from hockey stories, they will notice. They deserve an explanation.

That reporter-reader relationship is evident in blog comments about this change. Read them here and here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:31 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, August 18, 2008
Interesting reading
  • Katie Schwing of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, on how the paper hired her, laid her off and rehired her.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:44 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, August 14, 2008
The world where you live
The war in Georgia requires a locator map. Many Americans probably need help finding Macon and Valdosta on a map, not to mention places in this Georgia.

This map from The Associated Press gets us halfway there. Let's add:

A compass pointer. Sure, up is (usually) north, but for this distant location, it doesn't hurt to make that clear.

A scale. How many miles from Gori to Buron? How big of a piece of land are we looking at?

An inset. Where on the globe is this?

This is where a copy editor can work with our friends in graphics to increase the usefulness of a map. And the wire desk can help too by using a Q&A like this one and textboxes to explain what it all means.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:13 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I remember California

The kind people at The Poynter Institute have published a piece that I wrote about my experiences at the Los Angeles Times site. It's called "Eight Things I Learned as a 40-Year-Old Intern."
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:57 AM | Permalink | 3 comments
Monday, August 11, 2008
How boffo is Batman?
In the media speculation about whether "The Dark Knight" will surpass "Titanic" at the box office, it's nice to see The Associated Press put those numbers into perspective. (It's also heartening that this paragraph wasn't cut from the story.)

If Batman does go on to beat Leo in raw totals, that will be news. But stories about that need to have a disclaimer. Inflation matters.

Here's a list of the biggest hits at the American box office, as adjusted for inflation. ("Gone With the Wind" still rules.) And the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a convenient calculator to help you understand the impact of rising prices over time.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:46 AM | Permalink | 2 comments
Friday, August 08, 2008
Editing from Nashville to Jerusalem
You may recall the BusinessWeek profile of the company in India that wants to handle editing and layout for U.S. newspapers.

The magazine has published a response in the form of this column by Hanan Sher. He is a copy editor whose career took him from the American South to the Middle East. Here's the gist of his argument:
Cheaper outsourced editing may sound like a good idea to profit-squeezed, advertising-challenged media barons. But they're deluded if they think their readers won't notice, or care.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:28 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Endless summer
When is a movie a "summer movie"?

That question arises from this Associated Press story about how summer comedies have a raunchier tone nowadays. The story includes this paragraph:
The wave of R-rated hits over the last few summers includes "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and "Superbad."
Alas, the wonderfully titled Borat movie wasn't a summer movie. It was released in November 2006. A quick check of sites such as the Internet Movie Database or Rotten Tomatoes would have prevented this fact error.

A similar problem popped up online recently in a Los Angeles Times slideshow about summer movies. The photo gallery included "The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie," which was released in November 2004. The image from the movie probably led the LAT astray — it was of SpongeBob on the beach with David Hasselhoff. It looked like summer, not Thanksgiving.

"Summer movie" may be as much of a reference to genre as it is to season. But the term needs a place on the calendar too. How about blockbuster films released from Memorial Day and Labor Day? We'll entertain making reasonable exceptions for movies such as "Iron Man" (released May 2) and the upcoming Bruno movie, a sequel of sorts to the Borat movie, which is set for release on May 15, 2009.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:12 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Is this any way to write a headline?
Allow me to pose a question: Do headlines that ask something a good idea?

Poynter thinks so. Sara Quinn, who is on the faculty there, says asking a question is a way to make a headline more engaging. My supervisors during my News & Observer days had other ideas. The directive there was to avoid question headlines — we should tell, not ask.

I asked award-winning headline writer Jim Thomsen what he thought of question headlines. He is a copy editor at The Kitsap Sun in Washington state and a board member at the American Copy Editors Society. (Thomsen also blogs.) Here is his response via Facebook:
As we look for new ways to invite readers to buy our newspapers and read our Web sites, I think we need to embrace new ways to bring them into the conversations that newspapers should be inspiring.

And what better way to start a conversation than to ask a question? It got me to realizing that most stories I read prompt more questions than they answer.

And that, I think is the nature of news: Every newspaper, every day, predominantly publishes stories about people considering something, investigating something, studying something, about to make a decision on something.

Rarely are stories so factually black-and-white as to anticipate and answer every question a reader would reasonably have.

Why not write headlines that reflect that?
Thomsen makes a compelling case. What do you think?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:41 AM | Permalink | 3 comments
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Let's go the mall
When you are the most popular news site in the region, you need to get things right. If you don't, you put your position at risk.

So it goes here. has the name of a Raleigh mall two different ways (in the headline and lead), with neither correct. It's called Triangle Town Center.

This is where a local stylebook comes in handy. Such a reference may also remind you, for example, that Cary Towne Center does indeed have that annoying "e" in the middle of its name.

While we are on the topic of malls, take a look at this curiously worded entry at Wikipedia for a defunct mall in Greensboro. The wiki-writers include interesting "facts" about why the mall failed and have an unusual flair for metaphor.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:55 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Friday, August 01, 2008
Interesting reading (Blogroll Edition)
My fellow editing bloggers are on a roll:
  • Common Sense Journalism, on why we need to edit Associated Press cutlines.
  • Headsup, on why passive voice is just fine on some occasions. (Related post here.)
I've also added to my blogroll: TootsNYC, Mighty Red Pen and Talk Wordy To Me. Please check 'em out.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:24 AM | Permalink | 2 comments