Saturday, May 31, 2008

RTFL/LaTFP

A couple sugges- tions for the Orlando copydesk: Read the story before writing the display type. Look at the photos before writing the cutlines. Look at the photos again after writing the cutlines. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That's not a guaranteed formula for success, but it is a time-tested way of cutting down on the number of times you write "Security cameras show a woman toting a rifle" under a picture of a woman toting a shotgun -- and over a lede like this:

A woman carrying a pump shotgun and making jokes about George Bush walked into a Bank of America and told a teller: "This is a stickup."

Links re-created from the actual story, because they're part of a broader package of stuff underscoring one of our favorite refrains: The world of journalism doesn't need less editing, it needs more. Your garden-variety reader probably has a good idea which George Bush you're talking about, even without the link, but the same reader will probably also notice that you're violating a basic principle of stagecraft: If you introduce a loaded Bush joke in the first act, it needs to go off sometime before the final curtain.

Does it? Well, have a look.

She then ordered everyone into the bank vault.

It was over in moments, and no one was hurt.

But the drama began shortly after 5 p.m. as chatter over law-enforcement scanners alerted authorities that someone had a shotgun in the lobby of the bank branch on Orangewood Boulevard.

Starting to see a pattern here?

More details trickled in: The armed suspect was a woman wearing a pink shirt. She was barefoot and sitting in a chair with the shotgun.

That's three mentions of "shotgun" in the first five grafs, if you're scoring along with the cutline writer at home. But more to the point:

And at least 15 people were held inside -- some in the unlocked bank vault, according to the reports crackling over the law-enforcement scanner.

Wow! It sounds just like ...

Katlego Mogwera, a 23-year-old hotel worker huddled in the vault, described it as "something out of the movies."

... Calm, controlled chatter between dispatchers and deputies continued as they updated each other about what was happening.

We do seem to be sort of following a script, don't we?

... Deputies locked down the Publix and the Williamsburg Downs strip mall near SeaWorld Orlando. "For about a half-hour it was interesting," a Publix bagger said.

Kids today and their short attention spans! (OK, that's a guess. I don't know it's a "kid." For all the paper sees fit to tell us, the "Publix bagger" could be a "90-year-old former paramour of Alger Hiss." Hell, it's Florida.)

It sounded as if some hostages were calling dispatchers from inside the bank. Dispatchers tried to reassure them by saying deputies were there.

Let's review the bidding for a moment. Barefoot woman sitting in chair with shotgun as deputies surround bank -- would this be a nice place to tell us which Bush joke(s) she was regaling the, erm, captive audience with? ("And then he comes out of the Oval Office with this puzzled look on his face and says, 'How many zeroes in a brazilian?'") Or, failing that, what it sounded like as the hostages called dispatchers?

Someone asked the hostages to stay in the vault until the bank was cleared, according to scanner reports. "Weapon and white female secured," a voice clattered over the scanner at 5:45 p.m.

Chatter! Crackle! Chatter! Clatter! Who wrote this, Dr. Seuss?

It's a bit dismaying to try to figure out how much effort went into what on this tale. There's a double byline, and the shirttail lists three staffers as contributing (for a total of 22 grafs). Figure one writer over at the Publix trolling for quotes, two at the scene (one chasing down hostages, one watching the deputies and helicopters) -- where are the other two? Back at the shop taking notes from the scanner?

This is the sort of story that's made for the Live'n'Local 6 o'clock news. One of the functions of editors is to remind the breathless reporters that a newspaper isn't a television. (Doesn't anybody read McLuhan anymore?) Stick to your own best flavor of storytelling. And try to make sure somebody in the process -- preferably somebody who knows a rifle from a shotgun -- looks at the whole package with a critical eye before you hit the button.

7 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

How does a voice "clatter"? I mean, I get the "crackling" radios. I get the jargony use of "chatter" for people talking in (I presume) short, snappy sentence fragments according to cop protocol.

But voices don't clatter. Do they? This thing reads like a script treatment.

11:31 AM, May 31, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

And yeah - unless the only function of mentioning the Bush jokes is to hit that some godless liberal is robbing the bank, either drop it or tell us one.

And if it IS, then definitely drop it. I know a lot of conservatives who tell Bush jokes.

11:33 AM, May 31, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

err. HINT that ...

11:34 AM, May 31, 2008  
Anonymous rayb said...

This has a symptom of more than short attention spans. The biggest illness is lack of motivation. A reporter could've gotten up and away from the "clattering" voice on the scanner and done some actual reporting. But gasoline prices are so high...

5:33 PM, June 01, 2008  
Blogger Denise said...

Duh. . .every Publix bagger is a spy. That's one of the rules of Florida living. (Story doesn't mention, but I was living in Melbourne at the time, and he was a Publix bagger.)

3:32 PM, June 02, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

I didn't know! Is Publix affiliated with Harris Teeter? H-T had its own brush with bagger-related fame in the '90s:

http://www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/PrintFriendly?oid=oid%3A15586

(We were no longer in Chapel Hill by then, but we were walking distance to the H-T on East Boulevard, for you Dilworth fans)

8:05 PM, June 02, 2008  
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