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?


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