Friday, March 30, 2007

Porn stars of the newsroom!

This ad for a managing editor just crossed the transom:

The successful candidate will have leadership, organizational and management skills in dealing with XX staff members and an active readership. The managing editor will share editorial writing duties.

Let me make sure I have this straight: First I pair up some XX staffers with some active readers, then I view with concern and point with alarm at the sewer bond rate increase referendum ballot plan push?

The managing editor is someone with attention to detail, and will be able to coach younger staff members and to inspire. The ability to plan and manage the department’s budget is a plus. Layout/pagination skills are required.

And then I paginate the food section while coaching younger staffers (PG-13, I'm guessing) and inspiring? And paying attention to detail? You guys want a lot for your ... what was the salary again?

Please tell us about yourself in a cover letter, a resume, salary history and salary expectations.

Actually, it sounds a lot like the last time HEADSUP-L was a managing editor. As in: Whatever you're paying, my expectation is that schoolteachers will be laughing at my check.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What he said

Hope the fearless leader of Testy Copy Editors doesn't mind a repost of his comments on the Post's "Story Comments: Should We or Shouldn't We?" controversy:

"Re: 'reader comments': Spot-checking and self-policing do not work. Only moderation--which is time-consuming and 'labor intensive'-- would help. That would require money probably better spent on other things. Solution: Drop the 'comments.' Even if got rid of the racist, homophobic, misogynic, obscene and otherwise offensive comments, the pointless, stupid and repetitive ones would remain. There are enough Web sites in the world on which to post stupid and pointless comments. Why legitimize them with the Washington Post 'brand'?"

And, while we're at it, why waste people's time? I'm going to take a swing at paraphrasing Alexander Meiklejohn from memory here: The point of free speech in a democracy is not necessarily that everybody gets to talk, but that everything that needs saying gets said. I have yet to see the "comments" thread on a news report (you excellent commentators here are different, of course) that added anything to any discourse worth hearing.

"Pointless, stupid and repetitive" is putting it politely. And if you need more of that in your life, Dick Vitale will be back any day now.

Words and meanings

The takeaway line for all those lectures on Chapter 13 and its list of Insensitive Words is really the takeaway line for all of copy editing: A list isn't much help unless the brain is up and running. You can teach your word-processing program to flag instances of "articulate" all day long (teaching it to distinguish verbs from adjectives is another issue), but that's not going to help you understand why calling somebody "articulate" is likely to have unintended consequences. And if you can't think beyond the list to its meaning, you have the sort of job that, sooner or later, will be done by a computer chip.

It's not that "articulate" describes a bad feature -- unlike "glib," which is a deprecatory way of suggesting a similar characteristic, or "inarticulate," or "stupid" or "morally feline" or anything like that. It's that -- particularly in the context of in-group speaking about out-group -- nobody hears its good meaning. All the nice things are lost in the implication that "articulate" is the factor that distinguishes X from other members of his/her ethnic/linguistic/religious group.

So it's on the watch list for a good reason. Unfortunately, the reason goes ignored here:

Nick Maddox represented the best of high school football in the late 1990s. Bright, polite and athletic, the running back for A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis was a star.

"Athletic" is just dumb (usually, if you're recruited for a revenue sport by a bunch of Division I schools, you're presumed to be at least a little bit athletic.) The trouble is with the other two adjectives. The only thing that separates them from "articulate" is that they aren't on a list of frowned-upon words. What are we saying when we single this guy out as "bright" and "polite"? More to the point, what are we distinguishing him from?

Nothing wrong with raising questions about red-flag words. But don't hesitate to question red-flag meanings either, even if a specific word hasn't reached the infamous list. Meaning is how we'll keep our jobs, no matter how fast the computers get.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


If you read the story, you'll figure out what the hed means:

Murdered A&M Coed's Body Grilled

... but then again, if you read Fox regularly, you already had a pretty good idea:

Kerry Grills Nominee Over Swift Boat
Judge Grills Anna Nicole Smith's Ex-Boyfriend Larry Birkhead
Senate Panel Grills Gonzales Over Domestic Spying Program
O'Reilly Grills Trump on Personal Attacks Against Rosie O'Donnell

Sorry, gang. If you start tabloid, you're going to finish tabloid. Like it or not.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Sermon time (go back to sleep)

Forward the Dead Horse Brigade! Not to dogpile on the Washington Post or anything, but there's a long-term lesson for journalism and journalism education in this somewhat overplayed tale.

Long story short, the Post spends 13 grafs explaining why it too had had an incorrect John Edwards hed up on the Web, even though (pat, pat) it had caught the error and fixed it in under a minute. The amusing quote is this:

"It was not an error of journalism," he said. "It was an error of production . . . Nobody knows how it got up because nobody hit the publishing button," Brady said.

Uh, no. It was an error of journalism. Production only enters into it because some idiot put a full magazine in the empty handgun that is production and left it on Daddy's nightstand for the Post to shoot itself in the foot with. And to get to the dead horse part, it's the sort of error in journalism that the now-much-derided "production line" model has developed a number of routines for handling.

To sum up a few points (and a big tip of the hat to Doug down in the Lesser Carolina, who for a 21st-century dude has been making this case with some sharpness of late): Publishing on deadline isn't an innovation. It's not something that requires a new set of protocols or staff retreats before we can stem the tide of howlers that breaking online news is heir to. It's what wire services and multi-edition papers did for many decades. It rewards a set of journalistic skills that should be in more demand, not less, as the distance from "the publishing button" to the audience gets shorter.

"If you don't want to see it in print, don't put it on the screen" is more than a breakfast cereal. It's the sort of professional routine that would have kept "Edwards suspends White House bid" from seeing the light of day at the Post or anywhere. My in-class example is the cutline about the 7th-grade basketball team, but the principle works the same way for a presidential campaign.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bad lede of the (still-young) day

From this morning's Vox (for you out-of-towners, that's the weekly tab that comes out with the Thursday Missourian):

So long, Shiloh?
More like goodbye, gossip
Vox is setting the record straight: Despite the rumors, Shiloh Bar and Grill is not closing due to University expansion plans.

OK, then. Why is it closing?

As it turns out, the place apparently isn't closing at all, for university (not University) expansion plans or for any other reason. But the causal phrase at the end leaves the question hanging: He doesn't beat his kids because he loves them, he beats them because they robbed a bank without asking permission.

I know the lede doesn't mean to say the place is closing. But I can't tell what the lede meant. All I can tell is what it said.

(And while we're at it, could we put a lid on the "Vox is ..." ledes? If readers can't tell what the prose is up to without a reminder, you have problems.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We submit, you decide

Rough day for our little friends over at the armed propaganda wing of the Republican National Committee. They've jumped the gun on an inquest in identifying the Purdue Tragedy Body; they're at least half an hour behind the lumbering Observer in announcing the Missing Scout Rescue; and in the great federal prosecutor flap, they make clear again that "fair and balanced" has got a bad case of the where-you-stand-depends-on-where-you-sits:

But some other e-mails challenge the claim prosecutors were fired for their performance, and that has oddsmakers betting on whether the attorney general will keep his job. Among the e-mails that are particularly worrisome are two written by former Gonzales Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson, who in one weighs the prospect of former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins testifying before Congress.

"Worrisome" to whom, one might ask?

Long about your first or second semester (registration is still going on, Foxsters!), you should be getting comfortable with the idea that not all adjectives are created equal. Some are straightforward and unobjectionable. Others require that people on both the sending and receiving ends share a particular viewpoint. Sometimes that's just friendly-but-dumb, like the idea that rain constitutes "bad weather." At other times, as above, it makes clear whose ideological pocket you're in.

The specific case at hand is a tricky one, sure. And Fox isn't the only source that wears its ideology on its sleeve, though it's probably the most consistent and shameless. But that's why you hire real editors and pay them decent bucks: so they stop your reporters from shooting themselves, and you, in the foot.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Futuatin' the countryside

Don't get us wrong here. HEADSUP-L advocates a firm, generalized, nonpartisan disdain for things whose first name is "wiki-" or last name is "-pedia," or both (see discussions elsewhere). And it's not nice to sneak in and draw mustaches on other people's versions of online TRVTH. But a favorite source of amusement of late has been checking in on the edits over at Conservapedia, as in today's version of the entry on "Dinosaurs":

Humans and Dinosaurs Coexisting
There are a number of lines of evidence that point to dinosaurs and man coexisting, namely the Flintstones. For example, explorers have reported seeing a live dinosaur.[9] A thousand people reported seeing a dinosaur-like monster in two sightings around Sayram Lake in Xinjiang according to the Chinese publication, China Today. [10] An expedition which included Charles W. Gilmore, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology with the United States National Museum, examined an ancient pictograph which is claimed to portray dinosaurs and man coexisting.[11][12].

Of course, while people are sneaking around the innards of the entry and adding new bits of evidence all the time, the intro appears to have been relatively stable:

That fine print, for those scoring along at home: The word dinosaur was coined in 1841 by Richard Owen[1], from the Greek for "terrible lizard" (fututor). Dinosaurs were a group of large reptiles that previously lived in abundance on Earth.

Cave, classics skolars! Anybody want to take a swing at that word in parens there after "terrible lizard"? (Hint: It isn't Greek and doesn't appear to have an adjective.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Forgetting the basics

Today's sermon topic: That's why we call 'em "the basics." It doesn't matter how often you update the homepage. It doesn't matter what the New York Times does with its morning 1A meeting. It doesn't matter that Newsday thinks the world has been "digitally remastered." All these worldly things are but dust in the wind if the Desk of the Future can't remember the Fundamentals of the Past.

As in? Well, as in not declaring crime suspects guilty upon arrest, as at upper right. Sheez. By this point in the semester, that sort of blunder gets your hed assignment in J4400 knocked down to an F. What's it doing on the opening page of a great big daily paper?

Of course, the purpose might be to take readers' minds off the inexcusable hed topping the 1A rail in the print edn. Every day, somebody gives new life to the bizarre belief lamented in John McIntyre's latest eloquent rant: "It's not a cliche when I use it."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

There's one now!

From today's Greensboro front, a reminder that editors need to make sure the big type and the photos work well together -- because if you don't, they're going to work together any way they please.

The problem with the hammerhed here isn't that it's necessarily wrong or presumptive (though the 1A text characterizes the visit as an effort "to reach out to the political left," not specifically the black vote). The problem is that it's such a perfect fit with everything that's going on within the image: Edwards' eye direction, the motion of the main characters, even the way everybody in the background seems to be pointing. Your brain has done all its cognitive work before you get anywhere near the cutline proper.

"Edwards heads left," of course, isn't going to work. The best solution, if you can't find a hed that does complement the art, is to aggressively dull it down until there's no unintended connection either. If that means dulling it all the way down to "Edwards in Greensboro" or something -- well, better that than looking silly.

Takeaway? There's always time for a fresh set of eyes on the 1A big type.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Clueless editing award of the (still-young) month

How to give copy editors a bad name in one easy lesson. Latest in a series! Collect them all!

Original lede:
DURHAM -- John Cornwell's latest invention is the stuff Super Bowl commercials are made of.

It is a dorm fridge with a twist. Push a button and it launches a cold, frosty brew your way.

As "edited" in a fellow McClatchy rag:
DURHAM -- John Cornwell's latest invention is the stuff of which Super Bowl commercials are made: a dorm fridge that, with a push a button, launches a cold, frosty brew your way.

This is embarrassing. Or at the very least, it should be embarrassing. Once more, with feeling: If you're going to steal a cliche, steal the damn thing correctly. It's "the stuff dreams are made of," not -- not, not, NOT -- "the stuff of which dreams are made."

It's not that there isn't plenty of editing to be done. The writer can't decide on a register. He slips too easily into commercial-speak (journalism doesn't dislike adjectives; it just dislikes stupid ones, as in "cold, frosty brew"). And the copy editor didn't check the suturing after the alleged edit, so we end up with "a push a button." The copyed who lets all that slide just to fix something that wasn't broken in the first place makes us all look like pinheads.

It's tempting to offer something like "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that hypercorrecting neck." But if the writer insists, it's going to be hard to stop him.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Exclusive to this day

OK, it's not very charitable to call somebody's story a crock before the evidence is in, and it's impossible to prove a negative, and all that. But we're going to go ahead and speculate that if we check in on this one in six months, or six years, it's going to remain "exclusive to this day" (I think the phrase originated with Peter Braestrup but am happy to accept corrections). In other words, it isn't going to be matchable, now or then, because it's a crock.

At issue is the "'Shadow' trackers" tale, getting No. 2 play on the Fox home page this afternoon. Seems to be worth a look -- exciting turn in the war on terrorism and all that, right? Let's start with the lede:

An world-reknowned elite group of Native American trackers used by the U.S. Customs to hunt down Mexican drug and people smugglers reportedly is joining the hunt for terrorists crossing Afghanistan’s borders, where Usama bin Laden has been known to hide.

Nothing like getting off on the wrong indefinite article to boost your credibility. Best guess? Somebody goosed the lede by sticking in "world-renowned" and didn't bother to double-check the suturing (or the spelling). But hold that that thought while we wonder about some bigger game: Whose report produces this "reportedly" we're relying on?

The Shadow Wolves unit, recruited from tribes including the Navajo, Sioux, Lakota and Apache, which patrols a 76-mile stretch of Arizona-Mexico border, is being sent to areas along the Afghan border to teach local units the traditional method called "cutting sign" of finding and following clues on the barren landscape, London's Sunday Times reported.

Wizz super! Another Murdoch product!

The Pentagon and the State Department, however, could not confirm the report the report to, according to a Pentagon official. (Does anybody copyedit this stuff?)

While we had the said official on the line, we might have asked a few questions prompted by the source copy, on the order of: How do you guys go about "requisitioning" civilians who look for smugglers at the Mexican border? And what do you do by way of training before you ship 'em off to a war zone? But at least Fox gives a link we can click to read the full story, so let's:

AN ELITE group of native American trackers is joining the hunt for terrorists crossing Afghanistan’s borders.

Looks like that settles the question about how Fox's lede became "an world-renowned." Let's see how good the Times's attribution is, shall we? Interesting task, because as it turns out there isn't any:

In recent years, members of the Shadow Wolves have mainly tracked drug and people smugglers along the US border with Mexico.

But the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan and the American military’s failure to hunt down Osama Bin Laden — still at large on his 50th birthday yesterday — has prompted the Pentagon to requisition them. (No attribution here.)

Robert M Gates, the US defence secretary, said last month: “If I were Osama Bin Laden, I’d keep looking over my shoulder.” (Well, I would be too -- but he isn't addressing the topic.)

The Pentagon has been alarmed at the ease with which Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters have been slipping in and out of Afghanistan. Defence officials are convinced their movements can be curtailed by the Shadow Wolves.

About this point, I'm longing to hear from one of those defence officials, under whatever cloak of anonymity he or she decires.

Some military experts want the Shadow Wolves to help to track down Bin Laden. ... But a senior US official insisted last week that Bin Laden’s trail had “not gone stone cold”.

Once again, as soon as a real person talks, he's talking about something else -- a classic shell game of sourcing. What we seem to have is a ginned-up tale about mythical figures from American fiction going after the chief evildoer, using their native wiles to help out where technology has failed.

A couple of remaining holes support that conclusion. One, the Afghan-Pak border is, oh, mildly different (topography- and climate-wise) from the Arizona-Mexico border. Two, there's already a set of Wily Native myths in play for this region. Let's let the Washington Post (November 2001) address both:

But our 12-horse team forged ahead, guided through the blinding blizzard by Afghan trackers on foot. The passengers on horseback -- three cousins in the jewelry business, a relief agency worker and three foreign journalists on their way to a war -- were hunched against the cold and the snow, beneath hoods and gloves and parkas. The Afghan guides walked alongside in tennis shoes, without gloves, wearing old army jackets and Afghan scarves.

I don't even want to ask how many words they have for "blizzard." But do you get the idea the the local trackers are not only accustomed to the weather, but already pretty fearsome? Or should we ask the Torygraph (September 2001)?

I used salt instead of toothpaste, fearing that the Afghan scouts used by the Russians would pick up the scent of Colgate.

Wow! See you an Apache and raise you a Pathan there, bubba. In other words, whatever the border/terrorist/Osama issue is, a lack of "ancestral sign-reading skills" isn't part of it. Unless, you know, bin Laden uses Gleem or something. And you'd think we would have searched his ancestral medicine cabinet by now.

Generally, there's not a lot of mileage in trying to infer motive from news copy, but the AEJMC deadline is coming up, so let's indulge. There's probably a strong corporate sense at Fox, and the other Murdoch products, that "good news" in the GWoT is, at best, given short shrift by the liberal mainstream media. So when a piece comes along that scratches that itch and lets you indulge in some comfortable cultural myths too, it's on its way to a good ride.

The piece doesn't have to be ordered in from the glass offices. In a case like this, it'd be commendable initiative for a low-ranking desk to advance the story (even with a mere phone call) and pitch it for good play. All you have to do is ignore all the warning lights and you've got a pretty good tale on your hands.

Is there a lesson in that for Fox, or for journalism in general? Sure. Ideology doesn't make a story dumb. Stupid journalistic practice makes a story dumb. Ideology just makes it easier for people who already don't like you to point out how dumb you are.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Make up your mind, please

Rough night on the desk down at The State, eh? Looks like nobody can make up his/her/their mind about anything at the top of the front page:

OK, to be fair, the one about the sex offenses doesn't end with a question mark. But surely somebody could have asked, once again: If we don't have any answers, why on earth would people want to give us their money?

Ministry of TRVTH

Herewith the military explaining why it was perfectly all right to force a couple of freelancers working for AP to delete photos and video taken after some unpleasantness in Afghanistan last week:

"When untrained people take photographs or video, there is a very real risk that the images or videography will capture visual details that are not as they originally were," he said. "If such visual media are subsequently used as part of the public record to document an event like this, then public conclusions about such a serious event can be falsely made."

This really doesn't need further comment, unless anybody wanted to bring up the growing body of evidence pointing to the role press freedom plays in the "democratic peace" and in democratization in general. Would somebody in the chain of command care to remind Col. Klink here that camera-grabbing is properly the province of the KGB, which was supposed to have left Afghanistan a ways back?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday funnies

If you haven't run across it yet, enjoy the Fox News entry from Conservapedia:

No, we don't make this stuff up. If we could make this stuff up, we'd be rich by now.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Wanted: Freelance facts

It's hard to know exactly what to make of an ad like this. What is it that fact writers do? And why do we need freelance ones -- to supplement the staff fact writers? Are the folks over in the politics section the fiction writers?

Or do you need "fact writers" around so you can give a story like this No. 3 play on your newspage with a straight face?

Makes it tough on a poor old copyediting blog. Every time we swear to stop talking about Fox and start talking about journalism again, Fox pulls something like this out of the old chapeau. But as graduation season draws near, it's good to know there are jobs out there for hungry young journalists.

As a rule, journalists are better off if they don't delude themselves into thinking they can write dialect effectively. This is a reminder that they probably shouldn't try to write about it, either.

Stupid Question of the (still-young) week

Step forward, the Detroit News:

Hard to know exactly what answer the desk has in mind: Yes? No? Forty-two? At any rate, it's nice to know there's something next to which the Freep can look like a better paper.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Libel is hard. Let's go shopping!

One of the basic steps in keeping your tales libel-free is to make sure that the hedges and attributions go with the stuff that actually has the potential to get you sued -- in other words, the ones that make accusations of criminal scuzzballhood that you can't substantiate on your own.

In other words, you don't write

Smith parked at the curb, police say. He allegedly got out of the car. Then he emptied a magazine into Jones

because parking and getting out of the car aren't illegal, whereas doing away with your fellow mortals sort of is. It's hard (not impossible) to have too much attribution, so when you spend it, try to spend it properly.
That's what ails the Fox lede at upper right: Two teenage women suspected of donning sunglasses as they robbed a supermarket bank branch were arrested along with a bank teller following a brief car chase Thursday, authorities said. "Suspected of" goes with donning the sunglasses, not with the verb in the following subordinate clause -- you know, "robbed." And "authorities said"? Goes fine with being arrested (which there should be a paper trail for), but doesn't do a lot for that pesky crime itself -- like, "robbed."
And of course, when the cutline says "Ashley Naughty, 19, was arrested after robbing a bank wearing big sunglasses," the cutline writer hasn't merely proved him/herself a salivating goober, he/she has declared young Ashley guilty of -- oh, heck, robbing the bank. And generally it's a good idea to leave that sort of thing to the legal system.
If you have to write "Barbie Bandits," in short, you need to have a few editors on hand who can stop giggling long enough to put your copy through the basic sort of stuff that happens on a real desk.