Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Something in the water

Nice to hear the Official HEADSUP-L Hometown -- OK, not exactly the hometown, but where else except the county seat, hard by the banks of the Mighty Tar, would they put such a monument? -- getting a mention on NPR this ayem.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Soaring like a vulture

Today's topic is robot reporting and the editorial rubber stamp, and today's query -- particularly for all of you beyond the Boone County frontiers -- is: How many newspapers ran this lede intact or nearly so?

WEST POINT, Va. (AP) - With gasoline prices soaring, President Bush urged Congress on Monday to encourage development of alternate fuels like biodiesel and ethanol to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil.

Given this, also appearing Monday, from Reuters:
U.S. retail gasoline prices fell to their lowest level in seven weeks, mirroring a drop in crude oil costs, the government said Monday. The national price for regular unleaded gasoline declined 2.3 cents over the past week.

And this from AP on May 9:
The average price nationwide for all grades of gasoline fell 3 cents in two weeks, continuing a drop in pump prices that began last month, an industry analyst said Sunday.

And this from AP on April 25:
The average price for all grades of gasoline nationwide has fallen nearly 4 1/2 cents per gallon in two weeks because of a drop in crude oil prices and slightly lower demand, an industry analyst said.

... it's worth asking if anybody is paying attention out there. Or maybe if by "soaring," the AP had in mind a vulture, circling ever lower over some particularly rank bit of road kill.

OK, one instance of robot journalism (jeez, does nobody at the AP even drive past a gas station on the way to work?) isn't exactly six months' worth of systematic misreporting on Iraqi WMD capabilities. But it's not really far enough away to take much comfort. Panic-button episodic reporting about gasoline prices tends to reinforce a series of dangerous frames: Gasoline is more expensive than ever (it ain't, and any article that mentions "record prices" without adjusting for inflation is fundamentally dishonest). $1.50-a-gallon regular is a civil right (uh, sure). It's all the producers' fault (make way for more idiot cartoons of guys in dishdashas* holding American vacationers hostage).

What's needed here is not another story about whether pump prices are down or up another three cents from last week, dressed up with another photo of an MU sophomore (or Huntersville commuter, or whatever annoying local fixtures you have on your pages) whingeing about the cost of filling an SUV. What's needed is some non-event-driven reporting that decouples week-on-week retail price shifts from the bigger picture.

In his own disingenuous way -- India and China better start conserving, but we need more production -- that's sorta what Mr. Bush was hinting at**. Somebody, meaning us, needs to go him one better.

Comments, complaints, other reflexive ledes?

* HEADSUP-L, as a longtime advocate of diversity in the news and editorial columns, is confident America's cartoonists will soon start including representations of OPEC members Venezuela and Nigeria in their paeans to cheap fuel.
** Though if he really wants us to believe he's off the herb for good, he might want to reconsider comments like "Our dependence on foreign oil is like a foreign tax on the American dream, and that tax is growing every year."

Sunday, May 15, 2005

A way with words

RIP Jimmy Martin, bandleader, ex-Monroe sideman and author of one of the greatest lines in all of bluegrass:

"There sits a blind man/So blind he cain't see"

Drink up and go home, y'all.

Friday, May 13, 2005


"Enough commas in this sentence?" asks the HEADSUP-L legal affairs department, presenting the following from today's NYT:

President Bush called the dissenting Republican, Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio, on Wednesday, the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Mr. Voinovich serves, was to take up the nomination, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said.

The answer, unfortunately, is: Yes (the question's sorta rhetorical, there being no comma slouches over in Legal Affairs). Exactly enough commas, and thus a convenient reminder of the difference between correct writing and good writing.

The Times is a pretty good paper, and given the amount of high-quality international and national news it supports and publishes, I'm willing to forgive it almost anything, up to and including Frank Rich (well, maybe not including Frank Rich). But every now and then, as with the sentence above, it seems to be daring its readers: You want our insights? Well, let's see you wade through this set of embedded relative clauses.

There's no obvious one-shot fix. It would help if the Times didn't have an unwritten rule against tight apposition for occupational titles ("spokesman Scott McClellan said" would get rid of two commas) and an unreasoning fear of metonymy (as would "the White House said"). But the only real solution is radical surgery. Voinovich and the committee -- and maybe even the attribution -- could move up to their own setup graf. Then the events can roll out in a series of nice, tight SVOs. Bush can stay at the top of the sequence, though I'd consider moving him to the end for emphasis.

Rules are good, but when they start to overgrow each other this badly, the copyed needs to reach for the machete.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Scalpels in the patient

It might not be Job One on anyone's copyed checklist, but it's a good candidate for Job the Last: A final look over the finished product to make sure that loose ends are tied off, that any edits we started have been completed, that the whole thing looks like a unified, processed whole rather than a bunch of fragments thrown into the mixer we call journalism.

Slipping at this stage is known as leaving a scalpel in the patient. It's awfully hard to make a case for all the good, even lifesaving, work we've done when somebody's knife is sitting there big as life, right next to the spleen, on the X-ray. Thus a few end-of-semester thoughts, with X-rays, on how to make the end-of-story process look smoother.

"Insurgent attacks kill at least 22" (Sunday 8A). Nothing wrong with the hed until you reach the cutline, which says "killed at least six people." Photos, unlike stories, are never "written through" -- in other words, the photo won't be sent again, as the story is, to take later developments into account. This photo moved around 4:45 a.m.; the death toll had reached 15 by 8 a.m. and 22 by 10:30 a.m. It isn't the AP's fault that hed and cutline don't agree; it's ours.

Here are some ways to increase the chances of making the two sing in harmony.
1) Designers, if a story runs with a photo, ALWAYS mark the story "with photo" and the cutline "with story."
2) Copyeds, when you see a photo that goes with a story or vice versa, be sure you handle both pieces of copy. If you have to reconcile two death tolls, advise the slot so the correction isn't de-corrected on the backread.
3) Page-proofers, always check cutlines, heds and ledes to make sure all totals agree.
4) As a rule, mention casualty figures and the like only once in the display type accompanying a story. If the hed needs the death toll, spend the cutline on a different detail. It's a better use of high-readership space, and it reduces the chance of errors like this one. (For example, instead of the dreadful "Iraqi police respond to ...," this one could have given some details about the location.)

We did a good job in waiting for a 3 p.m. take on this one, but one of the advantages of that should have been the update on the political scene. That's mostly gone from the version we printed, except for a chunk that's tacked onto a graf about Friday violence. Again, when you cut for space, don't forget continuity.

The cutline with "Bush and Putin display unity" (3A Monday) picks up an explanatory fact from the story, but it's a fact that needed to be modified in the process. The event in the Netherlands didn't commemorate "the end of World War II" (which had several gruesome months to go after the German surrender). These doings marked the end of the war IN EUROPE. When the AP gets something like that wrong, we need to fix it, not amplify it. Handy hint for future use: Whenever the White House press corps writes about international issues (that'll be pretty much any presidential jaunt overseas), increase the threat level a notch.

And when you do internal editing -- chopping weaker details from the middle of a graf to make room for more relevant stuff later -- don't forget the punctuation. There's an incorrect comma in "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said Bush and Putin found wide agreement" because whoever took out the relative clause about their briefing reporters forgot the introductory comma. That might look like small stuff, but it's the sort of small stuff readers complain about.

(On the trivia front: The AP probably meant "soldiers and civilians," not "soldiers and citizens," in its summary of the Soviet death toll. Don't be afraid to fix AP mistakes. If you aren't sure, ask.)

Thoughts and comments?

Sunday, May 08, 2005


anewa here is a peom as molesworth sa.

Royal Nonesuch

More reasons to keep the atlas at hand whenever you edit copy: It's a great way of heading off the breathless exoticism of heds like this one, referring to the Ivory Coast:

Rebuilding a life lost half a world away

Well, no. As it turns out, Yamoussoukro is about as far from this particular copy desk as London is. "An ocean away" will do the trick if you must, but let's try to tone down the Vachel Lindsay effect.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

desk notes

HOW NOT TO WRITE C-DECKS: If the main hed says "Investigation: Officer's shot accidental" (5A Thursday), can't we find anything better for the C-deck than "The investigation concluded officer's shot was accidental and improper"? C-decks are supposed to supplement heds, not repeat them. Yes, they use articles and forms of the verb "to be" and the like. That's why they're called "C-decks." If you're going to ignore that rule, at least be consistent -- don't put the article before "investigation" but not before "officer."

DETAILS: The piece the constable fired through the floor is a "12-gauge," not a ".12 gauge," shotgun. See the "weapons" entry in your stylebook (which even explains why the style for a .410 is .410). And the folks who released the name are Columbia police, not Columbia Police. Isn't there a list over the copydesk spelling out the capitalizations we use on cop references?

RTFP: "Travelers declining at airport" (5A Thursday) is, by all appearances, true -- but why read this story if you read the same numbers in last Friday's 1A centerpiece? This one's about a meeting to discuss whether anything will be done about it. That's what the hed needed to reflect.

IT'S A START: Glad to see Gaza City getting in the paper (7A Monday) without being relocated to Israel. Relocating it to the West Bank, unfortunately, isn't much better, but at least it's a start. Copyeds, you might not believe this, but one of the best things you can do to keep corrections out of the paper is to have the atlas at your side and open every time you edit an international story. Judging from the staff ledes this week that have mentioned "Copper County" (7A Thursday) and "Roger Street" (1A Tuesday), it wouldn't hurt to apply a similar practice to local stuff as well.

JUDGE THE CONTENT, NOT THE BYLINE: Supplemental news services are great for offering readers something that isn't available from the fishwrap across town and for providing stuff -- usually context, depth and connections -- that the AP doesn't. The flip side is that a story that's chosen for context or scope needs to be given space to play. The LA Times piece on 3A Tuesday, "U.S. inquiry exonerates soldiers in fatal shooting of Italian agent," is, at three paragraphs, a brief for all practical purposes. And briefs should never -- right, that's NEVER -- have 67-word ledes. Note how much ground the AP manages to cover in 31 words next door to that one.

ALMOST: Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation isn't the "official name" for the School of the Americas (1A Thursday). It's the new name of the thing that used to be the School of the Americas.

More thoughts and comments?

Why question heds are tools of Satan

A stain on an underpass wall,
or an image of Virgin Mary?
Freeway underpass wall in Chicago draws crowd of believers, onlookers

News flash, y'all. It's a stain.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

desk notes

GRRRR: "Lee Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze, came to Columbia for a reason" (1A Tuesday). This would be the Leigh Lockhart we wrote about March 6, Feb. 10, Feb. 9, Sept. 28, Sept. 22 and Sept. 15 (twice), to name a few?
This is an awful lot of story -- hence an awful lot of work -- to be effectively torpedoed from the first word by a misspelled name. Given how regularly the businessperson in question appears in our pages, it would have been nice to rescue the clip for the writer.
Unlike its living, breathing counterparts, Rogers Street probably isn't going to roll its eyes at becoming "Roger Street" in the lede of the neighboring story ("Central area slated for face-lift"). That one illustrates the importance of always having a map at your side as you edit (indeed, the accompanying graphic gets it right). Both of them should cause us to wonder why readers who know these folks, and drive on these streets, should expect us to get other stuff right.

RTFS: A reminder to read all of a sentence before drawing on it for a hed. The c-deck on "Abu Ghraib private gives guilty plea" reads "Soldier accused of prison abuse could get 11 years in prison." That's not what the story says:
"The charges carry up to 11 years in prison, but prosecutors and the defense reached an agreement for a lesser sentence ... she will get the lesser of the jury's sentence or the term agreed on in the plea bargain."

SPEAKING OF WHICH: Given that the bulk of 4A is devoted to gender-stereotype-busting, is there any particular reason we let the AP indulge in the antediluvian sexism of that story's lede: "Pfc. Lynndie England, the young woman pictured grinning and giving a thumbs-up ..."?
Easy point first: Why waste a word calling her "young," which is a matter of opinion, when the next graf gives her exact age, which isn't? Second, given that her gender is clear from both her given name and the feminine pronoun later in the sentence, how come she's "the young woman" rather than "the reservist" -- or something else that adds information rather than being shocked! shocked! at the idea of women in uniform?

AND SPEAKING OF WHICH: Across from the very same aforesaid Page 4A, how come the folks who are "Steve and Lana Jacobs" in the first graf are "Jacobs and his wife" in the second graf? We have a rule on how to handle cases like this precisely so we don't have to guess, and guess wrong.
They are, of course, the Jacobses, not "the Jacobs," when appearing on second reference (graf 5) as a pair. And "Columbia activists and St. Francis House directors Steve and Lana Jacobs" violates a couple of good precepts for handling titles: Never double a title before a name, and if a title is longer than four words, put it after the name.
That would have left an equally bad lede: " Steve and Lana Jacobs, Columbia activists and St. Francis House directors, staged an Iraq war protest at MU on Monday evening. " So the best answer is to simplify: "Columbia activists Steve and Lana Jacobs staged... " or "two Columbia activists staged..." You don't have to put the kitchen sink in every lede.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

desk notes

HOO HAH! It's the online edition of HEADSUP-L, so bear with any technological disasters.

CUTLINE REVISIONISM: "Christian Orthodox worshippers pass candles around the tomb where Jesus Christ is traditionally believed to be buried in Jerusalem on Saturday" (7A Sunday). As a rule, folks who believe that this is where Jesus was buried also believe that it's where he got up a couple days later. "Is traditionally believed to have been buried" would have acknowledged that fairly significant element.

Now for some fine-tuning. For this sort of event, you need to identify the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by name. It's not the only such site; the Garden Tomb, just down Nablus Road from the Old City, is also claimed as the site of Jesus' tomb. And when you take a semantic shortcut, take the right one. We say "pass candles around the tomb," suggesting that the candles are circling the thing. The original said "pass candles TO fellow worshippers AROUND the tomb": The candles are being passed to people, and "around the tomb" is where the people are standing. The prepositional phrases aren't interchangeable. They rarely are.

COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: The confusion over what to do with collective nouns is getting out of hand. The AP's entry has some good advice, but it leaves out the prime offenders here in collegetown, "faculty" and "staff," and misses a few other important points. So stick with these simple rules and you'll never go wrong.

Nouns that denote a unit -- the AP's examples include "class," "committee" and "crowd," but we can add "faculty" and "staff" -- are singular and take singular verbs, but like most singular nouns, they usually take a "determiner": an article or a demonstrative adjective, for example. The other main way for them to appear is as attributive modifiers with plural nouns. So with "faculty," there would be two equally correct forms:
The faculty was ranked fifth in the nation (singular noun, singular verb).
Faculty members were told they wouldn't get raises (noun modifying plural noun, with plural verb; you could also use "Members of the faculty were told ...").

Those are the only two correct ways to use "faculty." You can't say "Faculty is expected to administer grades that best reflect student performance" (5A April 22) or "Faculty are not expected to use the whole scale" (ibid, and whoever let those contradictory uses in consecutive paragraphs go by was either tossing coins or sleeping at the switch). And by all means don't do anything as bizarre as "Syrian military leave Lebanon" (1A Wednesday).

This one is going to take some work. Academics and administrators are notoriously bad writers, and we need to work extra hard to avoid sounding like our sources. But we have the justification of being, well, right.

Bottom line: When you see "faculty," "staff" or the like, it needs either a determiner and a singular verb:
The faculty approved the measure.
This committee is in the pay of Satan.
or a plural noun to govern a plural verb:
Members of the committee were executed at dawn.
Staff members took the money and burned the rezoning proposal anyway.
Any questions?

THE "THAT" ISSUE: In the ongoing campaign to stamp out robot writing and bad J105 habits, a few guidelines for when to use "that" after attribution.

You can almost always delete "that" when a simple independent clause follows "said." In "Norm Reubling, MO-X owner, said that he recognized those economic impacts" (1A Friday), the "that" can come out with no harm done.

You always need "that" when a subordinate or relative clause follows "said." HINT: Whenever you see "if," "when," "although" or the like, be sure there's a "that" introducing the next clause.
"He said if two students fail the same course taught by two different professors, one could fail whole the other student receives no grade" (5A April 22). Needs "that" before "if."

Always use "that" if a time element follows the verb of attribution. Always use "that" with verbs like "explain," "estimate," "point out" and the like. Yes, being a good editor requires that you be able to tell an independent clause from a subordinate clause. That's why you're here and not in the advertising sequence, right?

KEEP IT SIMPLE: Let's start reining in the epidemic of using "explained" as a verb of attribution. "Explained" is all right as a transitive verb: "More than 75 students participated, remaining silent even in their classes and handing out flyers that explained their silence" (7A Wednesday). But each of these examples would have been better with "said":
"He explained that if markets aren't found for dried milk, the U.S. government will use taxpayer dollars to buy it" (11A Sunday).
"She explained that belly dancing is an ancient dance about 'birth and life'" (April 25).
"She explained that some dangers to raptors include being hit by cars and losing their habitats" (April 25).
"He also explained that every time a weapon is fired, the officer must file a report" (April 26).

Questions, comments, offers of technical assistance? I'm going to try to put a picture up, so if the Kremlin explodes or something, you know why.