Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tnx and best

The doors of the Manor are barricaded, and we're seeing another year out with BG's bluegrass show, that excellent 1975 Liebling anthology and a jug of the Branch's fine ESB. We hope you're crossing the divide as painlessly. Thanks for listening, and please stop by often in the oncoming year.

Trouble with quoting Liebling is that once you start, it's hard to quit. So we'll stop with this comment from --funny old world -- 1947:

I think that anybody who talks often with people about newspapers nowadays must be impressed by the growing distrust of the information they contain. There is less a disposition to accept what they say than to try to estimate the probable truth on the basis of what they say, like aiming a rifle that you know has a deviation to the right.

All best to you and yours in naught-seven from me, the doc and the Official Research Kitties.

Resolutions: There's still time

Fast away the old year passes, but there's still time to sign up for those last few spaces on some of our most popular New Year's resolutions.

Made of durable Grammar®, these sturdy resolutions are favorites of professors, employers, and each one comes with its own lesson in parallel structure. And a HEADSUP-L editing resolution is a gift that keeps on giving! Throughout the new year, you'll get:
1) Regular e-mail reminders of the importance of your resolution to the Free World and your job prospects!
2) Random horse parts left around the house, just like in the movies!
3) Suspicious white powder delivered to your mailroom within two business days of any backsliding!

If you act now, you can be signed up by first edition deadline for:

"RESPONDED": Kick any story containing "police responded" or the like back to the city desk for revisions, no questions asked:
Columbia police responded to the robbery at Bocomo Bay, 1122 Wilkes Blvd., Suite A, at 11:11 p.m. Thursday.

Traffic was backed up at the intersection of Tenth and Walnut streets for about 30 minutes Thursday afternoon while firefighters responded to a small fire at a crematorium.

Boone County firefighters responded to the home at 900 Cedar Grove Blvd., just before midnight Monday.

At about 9:05 p.m., police responded to a report of a masked man firing shots at a crowd of people leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses Assembly Hall.

Boone County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a report of a disturbance at 2:54 a.m. Sunday in the 4400 block of Mesa Drive in south Columbia.

CELEBRATES: Permanently banned in all cutlines, all sections, all tenses and aspects:
Oregon State strong safety Sabby Piscitelli celebrates after the Beavers took the lead with a two-point conversion late in the game. (5B Sunday)

Colt McCoy celebrates Texas' come-from behind victory Saturday at the Alamo Bowl. (6B Sunday, hyphenation CQ)

RTFS: If you can't place a finger on a fact in the text ("The blast left two people missing and 26 hurt"), don't put it in the hed ("Car bomb kills 2 in Madrid," 8A Sunday)!

All major credit cards accepted. Operators are standing by now. Thanks for your support of HEADSUP-L Enterprises.

Duck, Harry!

Some low-horizon cutline commentary from the AP, for those of you who are still wondering how to put the year into context:

When U.S. leaders decided it was time to despise Saddam Hussein, he made the perfect foil. He was cocky and cunning. He looked dangerous and deranged standing at rallies firing a rifle into the air - conduct unbecoming a head of government. (AP Photo/File)

Always good to hear the views of the elite AP cutline department on proper firearms etiquette (left). Next: Potting at the peasa pheasants with Phil the Greek and the House of Windsor (right).

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Quantitative methods quiz!

Some more cutting-edge participatory journalism from the Fox cousins. For extra credit:

1) Read the survey question carefully. What does a "yes" answer mean?
2) List at least three things that a "no" answer might mean.
3) What does "not sure" mean about the respondent's views on the death penalty?
4) Is anything in the item unquestionably true?
5) Would the results be valid if the poll followed "scientific" methods?

Catch 'Your World' at 4 p.m. ET for more on this topic:
Should the U.S. save millions in tax dollars by having a shorter time period for prisoners on Death Row, like Iraq?
Not sure

This is not a scientific poll.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Bowl weekend hed reminder

Here's another of those advance resolutions that there's still time for some of you to keep. Remember, any time the hed

Bowled over
appears within 12 broadsheet or 24 tabloid pages of any story or photo about postseason football, an angel misjudges its approach and piles into an upright of the Pearly Gates at about 200 knots.

Yes, I'm looking across Elm Street at a particular newspaper even as we speak, but it's not the only offender. In the past few weeks, hed writers have inflicted "Bowled over" on readers of the Houston Chronicle (twice), the Seattle Times, the Oregonian, the Denver Post, the Boston Globe (also twice) and the Post-Dispatch, to name a few inhabitants of the Major Papers database.

If you don't have the time to waste on a wide-scale database search, at least check your own files. If you find that your original idea has been a hammerhed three times in two weeks for the past umpty-dozen years, that shall be a sign unto you.

Always at war with Eastasia

Another before-and-after from the cousins at Fox News. Here's a glimpse* of that opening page, as of about 9:45a Central today:

Saddam's Days Numbered
Former Iraqi dictator's lawyer asked by U.S. officials to retrieve personal effects; Saddam visited by brothers VIDEO
U.S. Forces Kill Six, Destroy Weapons Cache in Iraq Raids
Two Iranians Detained in Iraq Reportedly Released
Arctic Ice Shelf Breaks Loose
Massive 41-square-mile ice shelf breaks away from land in Canadian Arctic; scientists fear global warming to blame
DUI Charge KOs Mike Tyson
Former heavyweight champion suspected of driving under influence, cocaine possession after almost hitting sheriff's car

Those damn scientists! Sneaking in among our Mike Tyson stories with that pesky global warming again! How long did it take to fix this offense against the party line? We don't know, but here's a look at the top heds from three hours later ("updated 16 minutes ago"):

Final Hours
Judge: Saddam to be executed by Saturday
Iraqi prime minister signs death warrant; conflicting reports emerge if Saddam's been transferred to Iraq custody VIDEO
U.S. Forces Brace For Violence After Execution
Timeline: Saddam Hussein's Life and Career
DUI, Drug Charges KO Mike Tyson
Former heavyweight champ released from Arizona jail without bond after being arrested on DUI, cocaine possession charges
Cops: Murder of Ivy League Prof's Wife Staged to Look Like Burglary
U. Penn professor's wife found bludgeoned to death in kitchen of their home; cops not ruling him out as suspect

Pretty good upgrade for the Penn geek story. "Underwear-clad Bush opera" is still down there among "latest headlines." But Site Of Former 41-Square-Mile Ice Shelf? It's been demoted to somewhere in the Science section.

Needless to say, the "Only on Fox" section right below the heds still has this:
Polar Bear Meltdown?
Opinion: The White House caved in to junk science

And "Fox 24/7" has two related reefers:
Hannity & Colmes
'Real Free Speech'
Dennis Miller's end of year thoughts on life on Mars, liberals, diversity training, Hillary Clinton and 'eco-nuts'
The Big Story w/ John Gibson
On Thin Ice Bush administration wants polar bears listed as 'threatened' species

Everybody else at Fox can get the hymnal open. What ails the folks over at the news desk? Ain't they heard we're at war with Eastasia?

* Anybody out there know how to turn .mht files into bitmaps?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

New Year's came early for ...

A few useful resolutions, if anybody wants to stake a claim on 'em:

1) No more question heds:
Did clerk pay herself $2 million and no one noticed?
It's even worse in the 1-column original. Stop this, please.

2) No generalizations about stuff you don't have the wherewithal to measure:
A nation mourns
(Jackson Sun and a cast of thousands)
A nation mourns Ford
Houston Chronicle)
Nation prepares to mourn
(St. Cloud Times, Kalamazoo Gazette)
Nation mourns a bridge-builder
(Hartford Courant)
Nation reflects on loss
(Orange County Register)
... the part I saw was bearing up OK under the strain. And you?

3) Don't write the hed everybody else writes:
The accidental president
(Cleveland Plain Dealer)
'An accidental president'
(Carroll County Times)
Remembering the accidental president
(Frederick News-Post)
... the rest of you know who you are.

4) Shun local anesthesia:
Late leader had local ties
(Fort Myers News-Press)
Local ties
(Bakersfield Californian)
Ford no stranger to Indian River
(Vero Beach Press Journal)
President Ford was 'no stranger to Idaho'
(Idaho Statesman)
Howard County officials remember Ford
(Kokomo Tribune)
Ford had extensive local influence
(Elkhart Truth)
Historic visit to Silk City
(West Paterson Herald News)
Whidbey baker made Ford's birthday cakes
(Everett Herald)

5) Don't take tips on numbers stories until the numbers have proved their provenance:
An L.A. psychologist says 80 percent of the resolutions made on Jan. 1 are broken by Jan. 20.
Uh, yeah.

6) No more procrastinating on Amen.

Non sequitur of the (rapidly dwindling) year

As a Midwesterner, the long-time congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., most definitely was not Richard Nixon, the president he replaced on Aug. 9, 1974.

No, he wasn't. What his Midwestitude had to do with that condition is, erm, open to debate. No, that's not true. It's not open to debate at all. Those two concepts aren't apples and oranges, they're apples and light opera. Stop it.

This having appeared in the previous day's editorial about James Brown ("a South Carolinian who grew up in poverty"):

His high-energy on-stage performances informed the work of new generations of performers: Michael Jackson, Mike Jagger, Prince and scores of others.

... a few suggestions seem in order:
1) Bag the road atlas
2) Hire a copyed for the editorial page
3) Pay attention when (2) starts hitting him/herself upside the head with a brick

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


The first of the year-end corrections columns has shown up, and -- gloria in excelsis Deo -- it doesn't live up to its billing! The Houston Chronicle's James Campbell* discusses the year in blunders, but citing the numbers is as close as he gets to the hed's claim to be "Doing the year-end math on the paper's corrections." And that brings us to the first of today's reminders:

It is forbidden to draw inferences by comparing this year's total of corrections to last year's.

Somebody's always saying the paper's more accurate than last year, or that its Resolute Striving for accuracy has paid off, or something like that. All such conclusions are bogus and must be relegated to the ash heap of history. These numbers are interesting as descriptive stats go, but all they tell you is whether you've run more or fewer corrections this year than last year. Smart papers don't try to compare them.

While we're at it, alas, a few further reminders need to be issued:

Florida's Christmas Miracle
Some injured, but nobody killed ...

Ah, the cousins at Fox: So much to learn about editing, so little time! Dear Foxoids: The desk doesn't do "miracles." We have enough trouble with "grammar" and "spelling." Hence, reminder the second:

The copydesk leaves proclamations about the supernatural to the relevant ecclesiastic authorities. Forever without exception Amen.

And this from the big daily in the capital of HEADSUP-L's home state:

Chatter about N.C. tragedies abounds online
Got a theory about the deaths of Michelle Young or Peyton Strickland, or about the Duke lacrosse case? In the virtual world, strangers dish about real tragedies.

Sigh. Reminder the Third:

"Macbeth" is a tragedy. "Murder" is a gruesome crime. "Prosecutorial ineptitude" is an offense against the administration of justice. Try not to get the concepts confused, OK?

Dear N&O: For the upcoming year, please try not to toss words around at random (as in "A Christmas outing turned tragic near Wendell"). Death doesn't get sadder or more senseless, or the role of the media more comforting, by dressing the grislier variants up as "tragedies."

And which rocket surgeon decided to lump the Duke lacrosse case in among the tragedies? What's the scenario here: the DA wakes up one morning and finds a bunch of ceorls dressed up as Duke Forest surrounding his castle?

Those are your warnings for the New Year. No miracles. No tragedies. And no inferential comparisons of last year's corrections with this year's. Got it? I mean ho-ho-ho.

* All in all, not a bad little summary, though Campbell's a bit coy with:
Unpublished corrections are those factual errors that are corrected for our archives to avoid repeating the error. Readers won't see them in the paper.
I'd sort of like to know which "factual errors" fall into this category. If it's fabricated assertions about the Near East or public-opinion polling, to name two favorite targets of the fast-fading year, readers very much need to be seeing them in the paper, no matter the embarrassment it might cause the staff.

Monday, December 25, 2006

More slop from the Paper O'Record

It's just about midnight here at the Manor, and we're resolutely staying away from the chimney in hopes that Santa Cliche will slide in any second now with the goodies. At the top of the list -- right after peace on earth and a new US importer for Badger products -- is a big old bag of remorse for reporters who are tempted to make stuff up.

Copyeds, you cannot insist often enough. When conventional wisdom is slopping down the pipes, ask for some evidence. Don't settle for "everybody knows that" or "well, I saw it that way somewhere." And don't accept the justification that feature sections don't need to play by the rules. They do.

Here's some bilge from the Times' Week in Review section that should have been shot down. It's not just dumb (as if that wasn't reason enough), it's the sort of dumb that makes a pretty good paper look like a political tool. And if you're going to do that, kids, at least try to do it right.

Ten days after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush gave the national lexicon “the war on terror” — a linguistic gift that, five years later, keeps on giving.

Quick, who was the first president to use "war on terrorism" in a speech to the United Nations?
a) Teddy Roosevelt
b) William Howard Taft
c) Ronald Reagan
d) George W. Bush

OK, trick question. No UN for TR and Taft! Best we can determine here, the answer is Reagan (September 1986, should you be scoring along at home).

Oh, you meant "war on terror"? Pretty much the same vintage. If Bush got it from anybody, he probably got it from hed writers. Which more reporters might have noticed if they, um, read the paper more often.

This year, Mr. Bush warned that Americans were fighting against “Islamo-fascism,” a fancy term that was retired almost as fast as it was introduced. As the elections drew near, and Mr. Bush tried to wrap the controversial war in Iraq inside the politically palatable war on terror, he came up with a more sweeping tag: “the great ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

"Islamo-fascism" isn't especially fancy (I'll buy "brainless," though), and Bush neither introduced nor retired it. It appears to date to mid-September 2001, though "Islamic fascism" is about a decade older. The construction seems to be doing fine among the sorts of people who always took to it. And wrapping Iraq into the "war on terror"? It's been going on since 2002, assisted, with more and less enthusiasm at different times, by the solemn voice of the news pages.

... But those presidential utterances — cooked up mostly by speechwriters — cannot compete with the president’s most notable, and unscripted, contribution to American discourse this year: the Decider.

Mr. Bush first used the phrase, back in April, to insist he would not fire Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. “I hear the voices and I read the front page and I hear the speculation,” Mr. Bush said then. “But I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.”

Well, let's pick on the facts before we speculate on motives. In the AP's Lexis database, Bush first refers to his deciderhood ("I'm a pretty good decider") in June 2000. And he isn't even the first one in the family: "In the event that that hypothetically were to ever come up, the president would be the decider," a White House spokeswoman said in October 1990.

[The copyed who wrote the c-deck -- "Verbalization not being his strong suit, Bush chooses to create a noun" -- gets a lump of coal too. You figure it might be worth looking in the dictionary to see whether "decider," as in "one who decides," had been on active duty since the 16th century or anything?]

How we know what can and can't compete with what in this realm -- especially since we seem a little short on database skills -- remains a tantalizing question. I wish I knew. But here's a hint:

... The Decider struck the national funny bone.

Oops. Reporter commits cardinal sin: assuming that "what my friends and I think" is the same as "what the whole freaking country thinks." I think Jon Stewart is dead-on funny too, but I don't mistake him for the national funnybone (I doubt he does either). This presumption is just out-and-out stupid, and anybody who wants to wave it around as clear evidence of Meedja Bias can go ahead. You want to pick on Bush for the Rumsfeld two-step, fine. But save the pseudo-reported snark for the party circuit.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ministry of Truth

A quick scissors-and-paste job from Fox News, and the Big Soviet Encyclopedia is more or less in order. That means the contest mentioned below is now closed, though readers are still welcome to check in with comments and observations.

Brief summary: A quick check of news sites this morning (Central Standard Time, if you're wondering) found that Fox had a global warming story in the No. 3 position on its opening page. Not just any global warming story, but one that (without attribution) blamed the phenomenon for sinking an inhabited island. Half an hour later, the offending tale was gone -- not just from the front, but apparently excised altogether (a search for the island's name on Fox finds no hits, and a search for "inhabited island" nets one tale about Vieques).

Is Fox going through the overnights and cleaning up everything it can't affirm on its own? Hmm. The global warming story was a straight link to a piece from the Independent, but the lede is still a rewrite from this morning's Observer about a purported terrorist plot to attack the Channel Tunnel (it has a Fox credit at the top and a staff shirttail, but if the Fox staffer added anything that isn't in the original, I can't find it). The No. 2 tale is now an AP piece about Iran. At No. 3 is Donald Trump's flag lawsuit, also from the AP. So what's up?

One, it's a holiday weekend. Fox's web operation always feels a bit short-staffed anyway, and the copyediting is careless even by Internet standards (Fox can't even be consistent with its signature tweaks, like capitalizing "War on Terror" and changing "suicide bomber" to "homicide bomber"). Two, Fox is more than just the armed propaganda wing of the Bush administration. It's also a geek channel -- "geek" as in "bites the heads off live chickens," not as in "computer programmer." Fox doesn't love car chases because they fit the party line; it loves car chases because it's an old-fashioned populist tabloid at heart.

Three, "news" consists of two channels. One is a stream of data (usually quite accurate, sometimes utterly fictional). The second carries a series of calibrating signals about The Way The World Ought To Work. That's as true of any news organization as it is of Fox; it's why CNN's front page has a video story up today called "Christmas In America: We All Join In." Somebody at Fox (pulling a holiday weekend lobster trick; guess the seniority level) must have mistaken the Lost Island for a straight-up geek tale and overlooked the flashing red light on the Party Line. Fox World doesn't have global warming. Oops.

"No, Comrade Editor, there is no heat on the train to the gulag. Perhaps your precious global warming will come in handy now! HAHAHAHA!"

[UPDATE: As of 11:25a, the story's back as a six-graf rewrite (with attribution and Fox credit), downpage. Let's see how long this one lasts.]

Up against the wall, comrade!

Let's kick off Media Studies Weekend here at HEADSUP-L with an office pool: How long do you figure Story No. 3 here will stay up on the Fox News front page?

Christmas Terror Plot
Report: CIA tips off Brits to Channel Tunnel threat
Major thoroughfare that connects Britain to France is holiday terror target of Islamic terrorists, Observer reports
Bush Considers $10 Billion 'New Deal' To Accompany Troop Surge in Iraq
Rebuilding component to new Iraq strategy would create jobs to draw unemployed Iraqis away from insurgency
Rising Waters Sink Inhabited Island
India's Lohachara island near the Bay of Bengal was home to 10,000 people, global warming believed to be a cause

The hed says "believed to be," but the story (a straight pickup from the Indy) out-and-out says it's global warming. How long do you figure before the Fox secret police kick in the door and pack the poor overnight editor off to reeducation in Siberia?

More follows.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Eds: Inserts dropped word "not"

You know you're really a copy editor when, ch. LXXVII:

The first thing you do on seeing a correction on the wire is to look for the original, especially if the writethru is topped by a cool phrase like "Eds: Inserts dropped word 'not' in 6th graf." Thus, the appearance of:

Eds: FIXES wording in lede
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Three people who were fleeing police died Friday after crashing into a tractor-trailer parked on an Interstate 70 exit ramp, the Missouri State Highway Patrol said.

sets the evil mind to wondering: What wording might the desk have in mind? Let's see ...

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Three people who were feeling police died Friday after crashing into a tractor-trailer parked on an Interstate 70 exit ramp, the Missouri State Highway Patrol said.

By the way? Anybody who claims to have never committed a blunder to type doesn't get to laugh at this one.

Xpesmas lede roundup

Q: Is it still a Forbidden Lede when the LA Times writes it?
A: Yes. The writers who produced
WASHINGTON — Christmas arrived Wednesday for the kidney dialysis industry.
... will face eternal torment, as will the editors who approved it.

Q: Well, how about if it's in the feature section?
A: Yes. Abandon all hope, ye who could have stopped
'Tis the season to be jolly, right?

Q: But if there's another Xpesmas cliche in the hed, that cancels everything out, right?
A: No. That is an arithmetic fallacy. Twice damned are those who added
Seasonal brews could make even Scrooge smile

To repeat: No Scrooges. No Grinches. Didn't no nothing come early. 'Tisn't no season for no part of nothing. There are not enough negatives nowhere to indicate how eternally banned the Forbidden Ledes are.

Local Couple's Vacation In Peril!

Behold, a head-on collision between the first-biggest-only rule and the nose-in-the-sand provincialism of the American press. Thus, a two-pronged reminder for copyeds:

1) Any time a story proclaims some event to be the first, biggest or only of its kind, the copydesk should demand (a) a copy of the scoring rules and (b) a list of the three runners-up.
2) There is a world out there beyond the borders of These United States. Really!

Anyway, today's lesson:
No true-life tale arrives with more built-in poignancy than We Are Marshall, about the aftermath of the worst sports disaster in history.

In November 1970, a private plane carrying the Marshall University football squad home from a tough loss in North Carolina crashed near its destination, killing all 75 people on board — including players, coaches, boosters and flight-crew members.

OK, let's spot our expert the easy one. The operational definition of "worst" is going to be "most deaths." Can we have a list of the event that this bumped from the hallowed peak of sports disasterdom and two runners-up? The short answer is "no," unless you believe that the only history is American history.

For starters? Well, there's the mildly famous Le Mans prang of 1955, which left more than 80 spectators dead. Or if you insist that your sports have to have at least one ball, 300-plus dead in a soccer riot in Peru in 1964.

In the years after the Marshall crash (which wasn't a "private plane," by the way; it was a Southern Airways charter), and thus more likely to have been shoehorned into the next day's paper by someone within shouting distance of the copydesk, we have the Sheffield stampede of 1989 (95 dead), the 1988 storm-related crush in Katmandu (93 dead) and a melee-stampede at a World Cup qualifier in Guatemala in 1996 (80-plus). None of them especially hard to find in the archive.

Whenever you run into an absolute or a superlative, even in the toy department, run it through the metal detector. Odds are it's bogus. You'll endure some growls from the prima donnas, but it'll all be worthwhile when the corrections dog doesn't bark in the night.

Of course, for our friends at Fox News, America First isn't just a philosophy, it's a way of life!

Blizzard Paralyzes Air Traffic Around The Globe

The closest resemblance to which in the text is in the seventh graf:

The 2,000-plus canceled flights at Denver, the nation's fifth-busiest airport, caused a ripple effect that disrupted air travel around the country just as the holiday crush began.

The Beeb is steadfastly resisting the temptation to run with "Fog On Channel, Continent Cut Off." That's got to be tough.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Arise, ye workers

Generally, HEADSUP-L doesn't share the hot stock picks that roll in around this time of year (nor yet the half a dozen approvals yesterday of our alleged request for a $300,000 loan). But the return addy on this was too good to pass up:

"Kirk Triplett" Marxist'ssection'

The hottest pick this year! We called it over the weekend and Monday showed that there is something big going on at this company. With strong volume and strong gains, Monday is looking like a GREAT setup for the rest of the week. Do no hesitate on this one. It's as hot as they come!

Working people of all nations, you heard Kirk there. Do no hesitate! Hurry over to Marxist'ssection's and get in on the ground floor.

Don't bogart that weekday

Ever pick up the paper and find yourself playing a round of "See how many things you can find wrong with this chuckle-choked picture-puzzle"? Such, such is the case with this cutline from the beloved crosstown competition:

Going to jail (1)
Sheriff’s deputies with (2) police arrest Naughty Localwoman, 21, right, (3) on suspicion of third-degree domestic assault, unlawful use of a weapon, tampering with a victim and knowingly burning yesterday (4) on the 4300 block of Readosa Lane. Deputies went to the area at about 11:05 a.m. after a report that someone was brandishing a knife, burning items on the front lawn and trying to drive one vehicle into another. (5)

Where to start?
1) Let's save the Monopoly references for the feature section, shall we?
2) You probably want "and." Or do you have some good examples of "with" as a coordinating conjunction in this position?
3) Thanks for clearing that up! Otherwise, I might have thought she was the one who was handcuffed and didn't have a handgun and a radio.
4) Knowingly burning yesterday, was she? Look up the transitive and intransitive uses of "burn" and report back when you have it figured out, OK?
5) I can't tell if this is the circus or a really good Christmas/nativity scene. Knife in one hand. Lighter in the other. Driving with her feet?

A few broader observations:
6) Generally, use the present tense in cutlines to talk about what's going on in the frame (and don't talk very much about stuff that's evident from the photo). The prepositional dogpile that starts after "right" would have been a lot easier to digest had it been sectioned off and put in the past tense.
7) It's usually better to go from general to specific, rather than specific to general -- or, here, from neighborhood to block, rather than specific block to "the area." On the way, we'd probably notice more ways to unpile those godawful prepositional phrases.
8) Is there a particular reason this set of offenses is worth singling out with a photo? Or did this somehow become newsworthy because of the photo?

Also from the same distinguished pyem journal, an example of why you don't declare that a suspect (that'll be the specific person who's suspected of or arrested in the crime) is the one who committed the crime itself:

A receptionist at the Assured Property Management office near the Dollar General Store watched Lambert walk up and down the strip mall for about 10 minutes before he entered the discount store.

"He had a hood on, so I couldn’t see his face," said the receptionist, who asked not to be named. "He was walking around the cars and looked suspicious."

Not to be rude or anything, but if the receptionist couldn't see his face, how is it she or he knew it was the alleged perp?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Copydesk radar

It's hard to pin down a lot that's overtly evil about today's story, but it feels funny. So perhaps this is a good chance to talk about the mystery of copydesk radar and whether it works (or, for that matter, exists). Pls consider the floor open for discussion. I think everybody will agree that the qualitative/subjective side of editing is the hardest to explain or teach.

It's not always the side your colleagues want to hear about, either. If your editing radar suggests that something's amiss with a story, you'd best be able to talk in detail about why that blip represents a reporting blunder with foils locked in attack mode, rather than just another flock of ivory-billed woodpeckers doing the Hokey Pokey. Because if you ask the city desk which of those phenomena has produced the most recent confirmed sighting, the answer's going to be "woodpecker."

Some excerpts, then, and some attempts to quantify what it is about them that sets the radar off:

'Forgotten soldier' remembered at last
Home buyers discover memorabilia linked to WWII Army private

They call him the forgotten soldier, killed on an Italian battlefield 63 years ago.

Forgotten, that is, until Janice and David Bentley bought his sister's house in the Stanly County town of Norwood.

Two things at the outset. One, orphan pronouns make me nervous. Especially plural ones. I don't know if "they" means two people in Stanly County, the whole Third Infantry Division or some total in between. But it usually implies a big number or a collective understanding, as in "They call the wind Maria." Two is "until," for pretty much the same reason. The poles are 1943 and 2006, but there's no signal about how much of that span "forgotten" covers. Between them, they suggest that this story has been cast into one of the narrow set of themes newspapers use for war retrospectives. It's shaping up as a remembrance-and-forgetting tale. We're being left to wonder about rather a lot.

In October, cleaning out the house to begin renovations, the Bentleys found a Purple Heart medal, a 48-star American flag and battlefield letters from Army Pvt. Robert Lee Barringer -- the last written 16 days before he was killed on Sept. 22, 1943. He was 24.

Today at 10 a.m., Barringer will be forever remembered during a memorial service behind the Harrisburg Town Hall in Cabarrus County.

Uh, no. He can be remembered today at 1o, or he can be remembered forever, but he can't be remembered forever today at 10. But do you see the theme solidifying?

After that, his flag, medal and copies of the letters will go to the G.I. House Memorial Museum in Kannapolis, dedicated to preserving post-World War II history. The real letters and local newspaper clippings announcing his death will be preserved by archivists at the Cabarrus County Public Library.

How come letters from 1943 are going into a museum of postwar history? Just asking.

"I'm looking at a man who's basically been forgotten, who paid the price before he had a wife and children," said David Bentley, an Air Force veteran whose wife grew up in a military family.

... The Bentleys of Stanfield bought the two-bedroom Norwood house for an investment from Pauline Burris, Barringer's sister. Burris, who couldn't be reached, lives in a nursing home and is unable to make the service. All but one of her three sons, Barringer's nephews, were born after he was killed.

"Couldn't be reached" why? When did we start calling or visiting, and how hard did we try? Once again, I'm mystified. The reason could be anything: She could be in Tehran working on the coup. Or she could be in Branson. Or she could be long gone in dementia. We don't know. Which is convenient if the story's theme has already been decided on but pretty irritating if you're trying to figure out how well the facts fit the theme.

We can rough out an idea of how old she is: One son was born before Sept. 22, 1943. Let's say he was conceived at the beginning of the year. Let's put her toward the lower end of the possible age range and say she was 16 at that point. On those assumptions, she's pushing 80. And she could be older than the decedent. We don't know, and I'm starting to wonder why we don't know.

"They obviously didn't know these things had been left in the house," said Janice Bentley, who found the items stored with swatches of material. "They said they just didn't know him."

That damn pronoun again! Who's "they"? All three brothers, or one who's busy trying to finish up at work and get to mom's nursing home and doesn't have time to talk to nosy strangers about an uncle who died before he was born? What exactly did "they" say, and when did "they" say it? (And, of course, why didn't we try to get "them" to say it to "us"?) But a story on this theme has to have bad people who forget and good people who remember, so ...

Newspaper clippings report the Purple Heart was awarded posthumously to Barringer's parents, along with the flag. The Bentleys surmise those items were handed down to Burris.

Good guess. Also a pretty good sign that for at least some of the 63 years, he wasn't forgotten.

... The idea for today's service came from G.R. Bradley of Concord, commander of the Veterans Honor Guard in Cabarrus County. ... Moved by the story, Bradley offered to put together a service for Barringer and see that the items are preserved.

He has also launched a genealogical study on Barringer. They know from relatives that Barringer's great-grandfather died in a Civil War prison in New York. They are unsure where Barringer is buried.

Excuse me a second. Would this by any chance be the Robert Lee Barringer (entered service in North Carolina, died 22 September 1943) who's listed as buried in Plot C, Row 11, Grave 28 of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno? Just wondering.

That's the sort of thing that takes about three minutes (we're still on dial-up here at the Manor) to find if you're interested. But you have to be interested -- not set on writing another story about how the young generation forgets but a few stalwarts help us remember.

The service will include a 21-gun salute, taps, speeches and readings from the letters and clippings.

Copyeds? Here's a rule. Whenever an obit says the decedent will receive a 21-gun salute, head at once to the city desk and ask: "When was he president?" Presidents get 21-gun salutes. Kings get 21-gun salutes. Soldiers usually get something like three rifle volleys.

"This man was doing his duty, talking about coming home and then his life is cut short," said Bradley, whose group has performed 80 military funerals this year. "He never knew the joy of children or grandchildren. He needs to be honored by getting his items into a place where they can be seen."

OK. Our writer doesn't know a rifle from an artillery piece. Our expert is averaging almost two military funerals a week but doesn't know about a resource as basic as the Battle Monuments Commission. And we poor readers are about where we were at the outset. We have no way of telling whether this is a valid account of memory and forgetting or a badly misconceived tale about somebody who was remembered as much as the others who died in 1943 right up until his sister went into the nursing home. Or anywhere between.

If it's the latter, we've basically hijacked someone's life for the purpose of telling a socially congruent story, and that's not very nice. It's hard to argue for holding a story whose time peg is "today." But if we can't produce some evidence that we've checked all the plausible counterindications, we could rewrite the thing into a simple report rather than a grand symphony of cultural verities.

OK, over to you characters. How do you explain it when your radar is going off?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Player helps blind woman

There was a nice look at hed ambiguity over at Language Log this week (along with the revelation that one of the Logsters appears to be a former rimrat: Arnold, you've been holding out on us!). And sure enough, demons are summoned by the mention of their names, as the KC Star makes clear on today's F10:

Project would put reason back in season

Nope. Not the Three Agnostics debating hotel prices in Bethlehem or anything like that. This isn't about "reason" the noncount noun. It's about a particular reason, hence its usual appearance as "the" reason. Normally, we'd suggest finding a shorter version of "project" (say, our old friend "plan") to fit in "the reason," but then we have another issue: "in season" and "in the season" are, erm, sorta different constructs too. Oh well.

While we're over at the Star: Romenesko readers will want to note the correction on 2A:

A Dec. 10 column by E. Thomas McClanahan based on personal recollections from 31 years ago misstated a newsroom scene at the Dallas UPI bureau. The 1975 news “flash” on the fall of Saigon read “Saigon government surrenders” and moved at night, not on a “sunny day in April.” Although the column said “many” cheered in the bureau, at that time of the evening the staff would have dwindled to only a handful.

That's a start. But it still leaves one wondering what else in that remarkably stupid column was fabricated.

Friday, December 15, 2006

No, just dumb enough

Here's the scenario. A friend asks you to read over his (or her, or its, or their) prize lede (or cover letter, or application, or whatever). "Does that sound too stupid?" friend asks. Your answer:

a) Yes
b) No
c) Just stupid enough!

Exactly. Hence today's lesson in careless hed writing:

Study: It's too easy for minors to buy booze
Even in areas that teens called hard places to purchase, stores sold without checking ID

Too many stores in some Charlotte neighborhoods are letting minors buy alcohol, a study released Thursday suggests.

The main hed invites (without begging, of course) a question: How easy is easy enough for minors to buy booze? Unfortunately, it's a fairly good reflection of the lede, which also suggests that there's a correct number of stores that let minors buy alcohol. Remember, heds don't always say what you mean, but you can count on them to say what they say.

Now for the deck. Apparently there's some sort of cosmic clothes dryer into which prepositions, like socks, mysteriously vanish, only to reappear without warning in other headlines or popular songs (hence the so-called McCartney preposition: "This ever-changing world in which we live in"). These areas aren't hard places to purchase. Madison Square Garden would be a hard place to purchase. These are hard places to purchase beer or wine in*. Or in which to buy beer or wine. You need both complements.

And even when a "study" appears to be on the side of the angels, don't let it smudge the lines. This isn't a test of whether minors can buy alcohol. It's a test of whether people the group thinks look younger than 21 can buy alcohol.

* "Booze" is a bad choice of slang here; isn't that still restricted to ABC stores?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What hump?

OK, you kids, get away from those journalistic framing controls right now:

Peter Boyle of 'Everybody Loves Raymond' dies

Peter Boyle dies
Philadelphia-born actor known for playing curmudgeonly father on TV's 'Everybody Loves Raymond' dead at 71.

Sigh. That should put an end to the myth that CNN and Fox somehow represent different poles of some journalistic spectrum -- at least, when it comes to orienting their coverage toward generational sensibilities of cultural significance. (OK. There is a slight difference. CNN, using AP, gets "Young Frankenstein" into the lede. Fox waits until the fourth graf.)

Just a reminder that pop-culture references always come with a risk. Assumptions about what "everybody knows" or "everybody loves" are always going to leave somebody out.

Enough of that. I'm going to go make espresso.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Why a (conservative) duck?

Here's another one for the Great Meedja Bias file. It's worth noting for two reasons:

1) Ideological slant, like framing effects in general, can show up anywhere in the paper. It's not restricted to political stories about political activities.
2) Readers can't be expected to know what you think. But they can form very good ideas about what you do.

Here's the top of the tale, from this morning's

Mallard Fillmore creator charged with DUI
Star report

Hoosier Edward Bruce Tinsley, creator of the conservative comic strip Mallard Fillmore, was arrested in Columbus on Dec. 4 and charged with operating a vehicle under the influence -- his second alcohol-related arrest in less than four months, according to the Bartholomew County Sheriff's Department.

Brief detour into the land of newsroom sociology. Part of what "news" does is transmit facts, often quite accurately and impartially. Another part of what it does is transmit cultural norms and standards. There's nothing unusual or awful about that; indeed, if it's your culture being transmitted, odds are you won't even notice it. It's like being given a map and being asked to show where they speak good English: Your area is normal, but everybody else talks funny.

The upshot of that is that news isn't a naturally occurring element. It's one that arrives in a culturally constructed framework. News couldn't be about what's unusual if there wasn't a "usual" to deviate from. So transmitted alongside the data (votes for Bush, votes for Kerry; runs, hits, RBIs; changes in the federal funds rate) is a separate stream of information setting out or reinforcing the boundaries of what's normal and what's not.

To get back to the subject at hand, then, what you mark as unusual or deviant in a news text says as much about you as about the subject. In this case, it's the nature of the comic strip. And the implication, in a nutshell, is that conservative isn't normal. A conservative comic strip is so deviant that it needs to be marked -- the same sort of thinking that produces ledes like:

An American male nurse was convicted Monday in the arson deaths of billionaire banker Edmond Safra and a nurse, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

... and cop-report sentences like:

Fruitland School District officials got an anonymous tip last week that a 45-year-old female driver might have been driving a loaded school bus while drunk, said J.D. Huff, a Fruitland Police Department detective. When the woman finished her route, Huff said, school district administrators had her undergo alcohol breath tests through a private testing company.

By the time the main clause of the second sentence begins, you have a noun ("woman") and a pronoun ("her") to tell you it was a female driver. But apparently newsrooms still have cultural assumptions about killer nurses and school bus DUIs. And right-wing funnies. Old Mallard isn't singled out for being sublimely clueless and unfunny (which, of course, would make it way too easy to confuse with "For Better or for Worse"), or even for being political. What makes it deviant is its brand of politics.

Tinsley, 48, Columbus, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 -- almost twice the level at which a driver in Indiana is considered intoxicated, the Sheriff's Department said. He posted $755 bond.

On Aug. 26, Tinsley was arrested on a charge of public intoxication, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Mallard Fillmore, about a conservative duck, appears in almost 400 newspapers nationwide, including The Indianapolis Star.

Wow. Four grafs and we get the damn duck's politics twice. Interesting, too, to compare this report with another DUI story in the same issue:

Roncalli High School head baseball coach John Wirtz faces drunken driving charges after his arrest over the weekend.

Nothing about his priors in the lede, though readers who hang on for the third graf will note that he had a drunken-driving conviction (not just a charge) in July. You don't suppose there's one set of cultural norms in IndyStar World for high school coaches and another for unfunny conservative cartoonists, do you?

Forbidden stuff

Wouldn't be the end of the semester without some stuff that looked like the beginning of the semester, would it? A quick reminder of some banned items, then, as exam week enters full swing.

Chicago's Devin Hester celebrates his 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown during the second quarter. (1B Tuesday)

The verb "celebrate" in all forms and conjugations is banned from photo captions forever, without exception. Why? Because despite regular reminders, it tends to show up every day:

Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher celebrates after intercepting a pass against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 3. (1B Monday)

Titans kicker Rod Bironas celebrates with his teammates ... (Thursday 4B)

United States skeleton racer Zach Lund pumps his fist to celebrate his win ... (Friday 2B)

Got it? Never use "celebrate." You're an editor, not a stenographer. Let the photo speak for itself; spend the cutline space on something useful.

On the lede front, whenever you see one of these, throw it back to the originating desk for rewrite:

"He looks like an average college student" (1A Nov. 27)

Who died and appointed the Missourian official arbiter of what the "average college student" looks like? Keep your opinions of typicality -- and your biases -- to yourself. Readers have plenty of stuff to whack us over the head for without your adding to it.

Same goes for the inverse of Average College Kid:

Real McPerson, a 47-year-old social worker, isn't your typical user (1A Friday)

Hard to imagine a more thoroughly worn-out cliche. But freshness isn't a benefit when an idea is just silly:

Genocide and book fairs are not usually mentioned in the same sentence (5A Friday)

Um ... you certainly seem to have a point there.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Where do I subscribe?

OK, everybody can go ahead and have as much fun as you like with Rick Santorum's farewell speech. HEADSUP-L being the sort of place where we talk about news decisions rather than ideology, we'd like to single out this graf:

Let's look at other interested parties as we look at how we solve the problem in Iraq and dealing with Iran. The American media seems to be very focused and spends a lot of time talking about how poorly things are going in Iraq. They report daily--not just recently but repeatedly for the past 3 years, daily--the body count in Iraq. It is the lead and has been virtually every single day for 3 years.

... and ask Sen. Santorum, R-Don'tletthedoorhityou, what news it is that he reads every day. Or what he smokes before reading it. Rick! Dude! It's football season! If your paper isn't leading with the NFL, it's because Milford High has capped its stellar run at the state championship by obtaining, um, peace with honor against Central Tech.* Or because there's a new coach at Moo U. Or because there's a basketball precede. Or because it's the first day of the Xpesmas shopping season. Or something. But don't accuse us of trying to provide prominent, consistent coverage of the salient foreign policy issue of the past four years. That dog won't hunt.

Let's spot Rick two points. He says the Iraq body count has been the lede "virtually every single day for 3 years." Let's count any Iraq story, anywhere on the front, rather than just body count in the lede, and ask him for his evidence. He isn't going to have any, because content analysis takes work, and making stuff up is not only quicker but way more fun.

Really, Rick. If your local paper has been fronting Iraq every day for three years, I wouldn't mind a subscription. And you have the sort of well-informed constituents you ought to be proud of. There's no "I" in team. But there are two in "res ipsa loquitur."

* Hey, how 'bout those Fighting Rampants, though?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Clear days on the lede front

"We really need to find a way to put Venn diagrams in the paper to help the reader with ledes like this," Strayhorn writes from the homeland:

A 23-year-old woman ticketed by police after a friend was talking on a cell phone outside her home following a barbecue has landed in jail for violating the city's noise ordinance.

Yep. Venn diagrams might help. On the other hand, cattle prods would be a lot more direct.

Why have a sports section?

Let's review the bidding here at this front page of a major metropolitan daily. Site Of Former Nameplate, baseball. (That don't-take-the-brown-acid Bakersfield design is spreading fast, isn't it?) Centerpiece, basketball. Midpage right, baseball. Raising a question: Who needs a sports section when you're spending all your news space on sports as it is?

Oh. Right. There has to be someplace to run the Grammys.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Packaging to annoy the reader

Here's an especially bad bit of story selection and packaging from the cousins at The State. The editors are trying to signal that a bunch of related stuff is going on, but they can't decide what it is. And the kicker goes both ways: Is it a package about the "War on Terror" or about "White House policies in spotlight"? Declaring Iraq part of the "war on terror" is a distinct ideological choice itself, but ... the U.N.? What does that make Mr. Bolton, the war or the terror?

If the "war on terror" means this many things, it means nothing (on the other hand, maybe it now means "snow removal" too, which would be good news in these parts). Editors, when you're in a quagmire, stop quagging. If you can't package sensibly, don't package at all.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

History quiz

From today's obits:

Mr. Foster was born June 11, 1929, in Columbia to Jesse and Ella Foster. He attended Hickman High School and was an Eagle Scout.

After serving four years in Japan during World War II with the Marine Corps, he briefly owned a service station and was employed by Chrysler in Indianapolis. He later worked for National Gypsum Company and McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. Mr. Foster retired in 1978 and returned to Columbia.

1) How old was the decedent when World War II ended?
2) For how many years was the United States a combatant in World War II?
3) At what point in the war did the Marine Corps enter Japan?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Wendy, I'm home

Faith-Based Holiday Gift Guide

The great thing about faith-based gifts is that they come in such wide varieties. Have a jewelry lover on your list? Try a labyrinth. Have a teen on your list? Try a T-shirt. Have a reader on your hands? Try a "One Year Bible."

Ahem. The great thing about "faith and values" sections is that they're an endless source of mirth. It's not just their tendency to assume that "faith" and "values" are different ways of saying the same thing. It's that delightful ability to throw "getting in touch with your inner self" into the faith-n-values mix:

This Chartres Labyrinth pendant is 1.25 inches in diameter and made of sterling silver by Asheville artist Chuck Hunner. Labyrinths have been around for thousands of years, but modern people are finding ways to use them to release stress and to connect with their inner selves.

Exactly! The same way Jack Nicholson connected with his inner self while chasing Shelley Duvall around the maze with an ax in "The Shining"!

Tracing the pattern in, then out, can create a clear and calm feeling.

Those things down at the bottom of the page? With the prices and the pictures of women in fur coats and stuff? They're called "ads." That's where you make claims about the sorts of clear and calm feelings a particular brand of snake oil can create. More to the point, though: The labyrinth has exactly what to do with "faith" or "values"? Except maybe the edifying spectacle of Franklin Graham being fed to a minotaur?

The bigger problem with this one, though, is the problem with faith-n-values sections in general. The diversity template doesn't make for a good overlay because diversity isn't a very good fit with indivisible truths; one man's clear, calm connection with the inner self is another's idolatry. If the jewelry-lover on your Xpesmas list doesn't cotton to New Age stuff, or the "reader" doesn't fancy the idea of writing the Bible down to third-grade level, your "wide variety" has gotten a lot narrower.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Eskimos of the Desert, ch. xxiv

Yet another example of how deeply implanted a false meaning can become when it comes wrapped in a successful sort of cultural generalization. This one's from an organization that ought to know better (OK, you could argue that the NYT ought to know better too, but its offenses in this category tend to be restricted to feature sections and their attempts to be cute and literary):

Iran issues fatwa on Azeri writer
One of Iran's most senior clergymen has issued a fatwa on an Azeri writer said to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

How come a mainstream news organization can use an obscure word in hed and lede like that? Because everybody "knows" what it means:

The call on Muslims to murder Rafiq Tagi, who writes for Azerbaijan's Senet newspaper, echoes the Iranian fatwa against Indian writer Salman Rushdie.

Trouble is, "fatwa" doesn't mean "call on Muslims to murder a writer." It means "answer to a question about religious law." This widespread subsitution of meaning caught hold within a few years of the Rushdie matter and more or less died down around the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. But it's obviously never gone away, and it won't until editors start throwing stuff at people who misattach this particular set of wires.

How does this sort of stuff come about? For the same reason the thing about the Eskimos never goes away. Talking about people's language is a hugely effective backhanded way of generalizing about their culture; as Geoff Pullum put it, the “quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorize the world so differently from us.” The Eskimos have 6.023x10^17 words for "snow"; Muslims have a single word for "religious death sentence."

Journalists more or less started this one, and it'd be nice if we were the ones who stopped it too. Murder as a form of literary criticism is barbaric. Let's go ahead and raise hell about that and the sort of attitudes that feed it. But let's do it without the unnecessary cultural baggage.

Aaaaaaaaaargh redux

Let us give thanks for the crosstown competition, for whenever the Missourian doth something clueless, the Trib is likely to be close behind, if not steaming into the lead.

As in:
Old Man Winter dumped between a foot and 15½ inches of snow on Columbia in a 24-hour period, making this year the second most significant snowfall since 1900.

Let's try to get this straight before any more of December sinks below the horizon, shall we? No "Old Man Winter." No "Big Chill." No "white stuff." No "Mother Nature." Ever.

That's by no means an exhaustive list. Xpesmas is just around the corner, and eternal torment awaits those who perpetrate "'Tis the season" and any of its ilk. The eloquent and patient John McIntyre offers this list of never-never cliches. Heed it and the danger to your soul is dramatically reduced.

And remember, bad construction is bad construction all year 'round:

...making this year the second most significant snowfall since 1900.

A year is a snowfall? Sheez. Read the stuff before you hit the send button, OK?

Nor is this much better:
From left, MU students Katie Borges, Pam Olszewski and Alex Swoyer throw snow at Stankowski Field on Thursday.

Threw snow at Stankowski Field, did they? Any of 'em hit it? Or is that like the Missourian throwing prepositional phrases at the broad side of a barn? Once again: If it reads silly, don't sent it.

And be sure to look at the picture while writing the cutline. Which of those three is throwing something?