Monday, September 29, 2008
Bumstead/Marmaduke '08
The News & Observer is asking its readers to let the paper know what they’d like to see on the comics pages. It’s the second such vote in less than a year, and people are taking notice of how the four-part ballot is set up.

This comics election also comes shortly after Ted Vaden, the public editor at the paper, suggested that “Mallard Fillmore” should be dropped from the comics lineup. (“Doonesbury” runs on the op-ed page.) The ballot includes a question about strips with a strong political angle.

I asked Debra Boyette, the paper’s features editor (and a top-notch copy editor) about the latest election. Here are her e-mail responses:

Q. Why is the N&O doing a comics vote again?

A. In January, we added additional space for comics. Rather than just choosing three strips, we decided to give some of the new strips that are being introduced tryouts. About every four weeks, we put in three new strips and ask readers to give up their feedback. We're winding up the guest-strip program now and are taking readers' comments into consideration as we decide on the strips that will make up our final lineup.

Q. The “Doonesbury” and “Mallard” comics are paired on the ballot. Readers can't pick one and drop the other. Is that by design?

A. Readers can vote for “Mallard” as one of their 12 favorites, and “Doonesbury” isn't on the ballot because the newsroom doesn't have any control over it. We hear from readers fairly regularly that they don't think “Mallard” belongs on the comics pages, that it's too political to go there. Many of them also put “Mallard” and “Doonesbury” in the same category — as political strips. We want to get feedback from a wider range of readers as to where they think political strips should go or whether they should even be in the paper.

You can vote in the N&O poll here, and read related posts here and here. I only wish I could write in “Garfield Minus Garfield.”

UPDATE: John Drescher, executive editor at the paper, announces that "Mallard" will stay where it is.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:14 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Split the ticket
When writing multiple-line headlines, should copy editors consider how they break from line to line?

Awkward “splits” used to be something to avoid, though some editors have said that the readers don’t notice the difference. Editors writing headlines for the Web don't seem to worry about this as much their print counterparts.

This print example splits the adjective (“hot”) and the noun it modifies (“topic”). That’s a no-no, according to this tip sheet on headline writing. Does the top line of this headline create a false impression about the story’s content, at least for a moment?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:53 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, September 22, 2008
Interesting reading
  • Jamie Gold of the Los Angeles Times, on the newspaper's corrections policy and errors in print vs. online.
  • Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times, on the media's word choices regarding the financial woes on Wall Street and throughout the country.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:13 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, September 19, 2008
Stith says goodbye to N&O
Veteran reporter Pat Stith is retiring from The News & Observer. The news comes as a relief to politicians across North Carolina, but readers will miss his investigative skills.

Copy editors may appreciate Stith's attention to detail, as described in the story announcing his departure. Any journalist would benefit from Stith's reporting tips, as he discusses here.

Farewell, Pat. You will be missed.

UPDATE: John Robinson at the Greensboro paper remembers Stith's role as a mentor.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:05 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Sorry, Mike: The students pick Mic
Each semester, I have my editing classes settle a few style questions. This exercise helps students understand that style isn’t stagnant and that they can have a role in shaping style choices in the classroom now and in the newsroom later.

Here’s how it works:
  • We discuss a memo that I wrote when I was a wire editor at The News & Observer. The paper’s managing editor requested the memo after questioning why wire stories in the paper referred to “Myanmar” while the BBC called the same country “Burma.” (More on that here.)
  • I ask the students to break into groups of four to resolve several style quandaries. These change from semester to semester, depending on recent news events. Examples have included Mumbai vs. Bombay and refugee vs. evacuee.
  • Each group of students conducts research on the meanings, uses and histories of terms. They look at what other publications do and what guidelines in the AP stylebook may be applicable.
  • Each group offers its recommendations. The class as a whole discusses them until we come to an agreement. We then use the students’ style recommendations on assignments for the rest of the semester.
This time, I picked two serious style quandaries and one I hoped would be on the lighter side. Here they are and the students’ recommendations:

Freshman vs. first-year student. “Freshman” prevailed, though a few students preferred “first-year student.” A sports-minded student noted that “first-year student” would be awkward when writing about athletes who redshirt.

Ground Zero vs. ground zero, in reference to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York. This was a pretty even split across two sections of the class. Some groups said that the World Trade Center area was a unique place that deserved a capitalized term. Others said that wasn’t fair to similar places, that there are other “grounds zero.”

Mike vs. mic, as a short form for “microphone.” This, to my surprise, was the slam dunk. Not one student took up for “mike.” Some hadn’t realized that the word could be used that way. Many said they were influenced by campus fliers and other advertising for “open mic nights.” A few others said “mike” looked like a person’s name, a viewpoint I took in this post. For both sections of the editing course, we adopted “mic” as an acceptable short form for “microphone,” should that come up again this semester.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:21 PM | Permalink | 5 comments
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
And every day, the paperboy brings more
Poor Richard Wright. The Pink Floyd keyboardist, who died earlier this week at the age of 65, deserves better.

In life, Wright labored in the shadow of band leaders Syd Barrett and, later, Roger Waters. Despite significant contributions during Pink Floyd's glory years of the 1970s, Wright was ousted from the band by the increasingly imperious Waters. Given that, it's a tribute to Wright that he participated in the Floyd reunion at the Live 8 concert in 2005.

In death, Wright continues to get little respect. The Associated Press, as seen here, got the details of the band's history wrong. "Atom Heart Mother" and "Echoes" were recorded and released before "Dark Side of the Moon," not afterward. A bit of fact checking could have prevented that error — yet another example of the need to edit wire stories. Even worse is the headline from The Huffington Post. "Pink Floyd guy" is flippant and disrespectful. It's also not great for search engine opitimization — "Richard Wright" was the top search term on Google Trends when news of Wright's death hit the Web.

For a proper sendoff as Wright goes to the great gig in the sky, try this appreciation at NPR's site and this post at David Menconi's blog, On the Beat.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:30 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Places to go for grammar
This blog is about editing, which includes grammar. But it's not a grammar blog.

Some readers find their way here looking for grammar tips. They will find some here and there, but such posts are infrequent.

If you are here for grammar and only grammar, allow me to point you in some helpful directions. The New York Times has an excellent topics page about grammar. Grammarphobia, led by "Woe Is I" author Patricia O'Conner, is also a great resource.

If you are looking for grammar exercises, here are some sites to visit:
  • Triangle Grammar Guide by copy editor Pam Nelson includes fun, five-question grammar quizzes. Here's the full collection of those.
  • Newsroom 101 has exercises on topics such as subject-verb agreement and dangling modifiers.
  • The American Copy Editors Society site has a few grammar quizzes in this trove of tests.
  • NewsU offers "Cleaning Your Copy," a course by copy editor Vicki Krueger. This one is the "Dark Side of the Moon" of NewsU — it has been on the "Hot Courses" list for as long as I can remember.
All of these sites are free. Enjoy!
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:08 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, September 15, 2008
Recognizing great catches by copy editors
You sometimes hear copy editors say: "If you could only see the things we do catch, you would understand how a few errors still slip into publication." Readers, of course, never see what was corrected at the last minute. They only read what ends up in print or online.

This column by John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., offers some examples of good catches. Copy editors there stopped a variety of errors of spelling and fact, including the dreaded "pubic/public" glitch.

The column's headline is "In appreciation of copy editors." The copy editors at the News & Record most certainly appreciate Robinson's kind words.

You can see other mistakes caught by copy editors at Why Editing Matters.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:47 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Interesting reading (and listening)
  • Kathy English of The Toronto Star, on the shared responsibility between writers and editors on issues of style, spelling and grammar.
  • Grey Blackwell of The News & Observer, on his animated cartoons for the paper's site. (An audio interview.)
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:20 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, September 12, 2008
Anniversary of the 9/12 front pages
Today is the seventh anniversary of the front pages that covered the Sept. 11 attacks. The Freedom Forum has an archive of these pages. They make for interesting browsing.

The one here is from The News & Observer. (Click on the image for a better view.) The best story on the page is in the left-hand column. It's a wire story, told as a narrative, that gives an inside view of what it was like to be on the plane that hit the Pentagon. It was an exclusive story from The Washington Post.

The other stories (a roundup from the wires on the day's events and another about local reaction) are less compelling because similar stories were on television and the Web throughout the day of the attacks. Neither story told readers much beyond what they already knew.

That's something to consider if such news happens again.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:44 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Come with me and escape
Rick Edmonds at The Poynter Institute has a column this week comparing newspapers to the Bennigan's restaurant chain. As you may know, Bennigan's is no longer in business, and the newspaper industry isn't looking so good either. Both have been overtaken by the times because of their failure to change, Edmonds says. The blurb on the Poynter homepage put it this way: "Stuck in the '70s is the wrong place to be now."

The column got me thinking about what music from the 1970s might tell us something about the plight of newspapers in 2008. Almost immediately, the Rupert Holmes hit "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" came to mind.

The song, released in 1979, tells the tale of a man who's bored with his relationship. Then this happens:

I read the paper in bed
And in the personal columns

There was this letter I read

The lyrics then recite the wording of a classified ad:

If you like pina coladas
And getting caught in the rain

If you're not into yoga

If you have half a brain

If you'd like making love at midnight

In the dunes on the cape

Then I'm the love that you've looked for

Write to me and escape.

The song's protaganist and love interest continue their courtship through the classified section of their local paper. They set up a meeting at a bar called O'Malley's, where they will plan their escape. When they do meet in person, our hero realizes that his classified correspondent was "his own lovely lady." Ah, the irony!

In 1979, the story of the song was silly yet somehow plausible. Holmes was reportedly inspired by an actual ad when he wrote the song. Now, however, the idea that the classified section of a newspaper could be the vehicle for a love affair seems antiquated. Classified advertising was a significant source of revenue for newspapers, but it is fading, never to return.

If Holmes were to write "Escape" today, he would probably use Craigslist, eHarmony or Twitter to tell this story, not the print newspaper. Perhaps we've reached a low point: Even Rupert Holmes has little use for print media.

Yet, there is hope. News itself — along with the reporting and editing skills required to produce it — is not a throwback to 1979. Readers still want it, and a few even like it on paper. But news has to be presented, delivered and paid for in ways never dreamed of a few decades ago. That's the challenge of 2008 and beyond.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:07 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Questions for Fannie and Freddie
The news about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae requires some background and explanation. As noted here, the coverage hasn't been as complete as it could be.

Editors at the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Telegraph have smartly decided that a Q&A will help. Read the one from L.A. first. Then try the Telegraph's version. Together, they provide an interesting example of writing and editing to your audience.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:33 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, September 08, 2008
More Charlotte creep
The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer are increasingly sharing stories. The idea is to save money and resources on stories that both McClatchy papers would cover — North Carolina sports teams, state government, etc.

It doesn't always work, as detailed here. Another example of "Charlotte creep" was in a prominent position in the Raleigh paper last week: the centerpiece of the Friday features section. The story on "shout music" is full of Charlotte-centric quotes and geographic references that mean little to audiences in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. A reader complained (twice) about that in the comments in the online version. But here's the "tell," as they say in poker:
Shout music is like NASCAR: They have it all over the country, but we do it right.
In Charlotte, the first-person claim to car racing makes sense. The city has deep connections to the sport and will be the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Raleigh (and the Triangle generally) does not have the background, and NASCAR is not as big in this part of the state. That's reflected in the N&O's coverage of car racing. The paper hasn't had a beat writer on NASCAR in several years, perhaps because it believes other sports are more important to its readership.

So what to do with the "shout" story? Maybe Raleigh editors could use the Charlotte story as a news tip for an entirely different story with the same theme for Triangle readers. Maybe localize the story itself or add a sidebar. And perhaps edit the telling analogy this way:
Shout music is like college basketball: They have it all over the country, but we do it right.
This sharing of content between the Charlotte and Raleigh papers is apparently here to stay. If so, this advice bears repeating: Careful editing — from story selection to word choice — will be essential to ensure that each paper maintains its identity.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:56 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, September 05, 2008
Interesting reading
  • Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute, on the national media's meager coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav. Is there a story beyond New Orleans?
  • Jamie Gold of the Los Angeles Times, on the paper's policy on profanity in quotes. Does it matter whether the offending word appears in print or online?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:19 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Weather with you
The Weather Channel, led by intrepid reporter Jim Cantore, is the place to go for hurricane coverage, either on television or on the Web. In broadcast, grammar errors go by in a blur. In print or online, they stay for all to see. Here's a sentence from The Weather Channel site that needs some help:
Though in a weakened state, the conventional thinking is that the pesky upper level northwesterly winds will finally begin to diminish on Wednesday.
Conventional thinking isn't in a weakened state, but that's what the sentence says thanks to the position of the modifier. What is intended here is to say that a tropical storm has weakened. Dangling modifiers may not be as dangerous as a Category 5 hurricane, but we should still try to avoid them.

For tips on how to find and repair misplaced modifiers, try this at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Or consult the AP Stylebook under "dangling modifiers."
posted by Andy Bechtel at 7:41 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, September 01, 2008
Sarah Palin, journalism major
John McCain’s pick for his running mate, Sarah Palin, is the governor of Alaska, a former mayor and a beauty pageant contestant. She’s also a journalism major, with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho.

Palin didn’t leave much of an impression at Idaho, according to this Associated Press story. She didn’t work for the campus newspaper or TV station, but she worked in broadcast news after graduation. You can watch a sample of her work here.

Upon reading more about Palin, I recalled that Pat Buchanan, who was the Reform Party’s nominee in the 2000 presidential race, also studied journalism, earning a master’s degree in that subject from Columbia University. Buchanan’s journalism career includes work as an editorial writer at a St. Louis newspaper. And yes, he blogs.

I asked my colleagues at the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill whether they knew of any other journalism majors who went on to contend for the White House. Chris Roush, who teaches business journalism, pointed to President Warren G. Harding, who studied journalism at Ohio Central College. Others mentioned politicians, including Dan Quayle and Adlai Stevenson, who didn’t major in journalism but had newspaper connections and experience.

Is a journalism degree a pathway to the White House? My colleague Donald Shaw offers this: “I hope that the new candidate, with her journalism education, like all the candidates, can do what we educate our students to do so well: Listen ... and then communicate clearly and responsibly. A journalism education is an excellent background for all citizens and leaders.”

UPDATE: Since she was selected as McCain's running mate, Palin has fallen into the "blame the media" mindset. Certainly she must have learned in her journalism courses that the press serves as a watchdog on government and powerful institutions. That scrutiny includes candidates for vice president. Perhaps Palin's political ambition has overtaken her journalism education.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:51 PM | Permalink | 1 comments