Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Out With the Old

Of all years, 2003 wasn't the best for journalism. Remember that Blair fellow, the re-emergence of that Glass guy and too many plagiarists to list? The world continued to boil, but newspaper didn't always put the bubbling in context. The war in Iraq brought both decent work and some too-credulous reports.

This is my wish for 2004:

A forceful, vigorous news media. We need it now more than ever. Our country has undergone radical changes in the past two years. The challenge for journalists of all stripes has seldom been greater.

Some have risen to the challenge. Others have not -- or do not acknowledge the reshaping of our national landscape. Perhaps the preoccupations of the news business itself have obscured the national picture.

Reporters must ask tough questions. Newspapers must be willing to publish the answers and live with the consequences. Newspapers cannot sit by and watch the changes. They must interact with them.

But what about copy editors? What role does the desk play in this?

When every week brings more news of national and international import, the basics become crucial. The desk's bread-and-butter -- grammar, spelling, fact-checking -- must be done right.

Copy editors maintain a newspaper's credibility. We must pursue our jobs with the same force and vigor as every other department. If our newspapers print accurate, fair and comprehensive reports, we have done our jobs. And not before then.

Year-End Searches

How readers stumbled across Copy Massage of late.

copy editing code
headlines + massage
clay massage
how to edit picture massage
massage icons

These weren't the most fascinating of referrals, I know. I just figured I would clear them out before 2004 hit.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

ACES Board Discussion

Enough of my rambling about Testy Copy Editors. How about some frolicking over at the American Copy Editors Society board?

The latest debate: "mic" or "mike" as an abbreviation for "microphone." (Thanks to a colleague for pointing me to this discussion.)

I like "mic" intellectually. It clearly derives from "microphone" in spelling. But we pronounce the shorter word "mike."

For clarity's sake, I would give "mike" the edge. But just barely. The larger question: Why use the abbreviation in the first place? I can think of few situations where one would absolutely require it.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Not Adding Up

Too many times, quotes are attributed with the word "added" or "adding."

I think this springs from reporters resentful about having to use "said" all the time as attribution. Thus, they pepper copy with "added"s.

An example:

"Justin Timberlake gracing the cover of Rolling Stone is outrageous," Wiggins said, adding that "his album is pretty good, though."

In this case, you don't even need the extra attribution. Folks believe, in a context like this, that it designates a comment as an aside. My belief: If we have to signpost a comment as an aside, it's not an especially effective one.

In this case:

"Justin Timberlake gracing the cover of Rolling Stone is outrageous," Wiggins said. "His album is pretty good, though."

The quote does the work. It changes the subject for you. The "adding" adds little.

One more:

"I enjoyed Christmas with my family," he said. "It was the best holiday ever."

He added, "My goldfish died and the house burned down."

"Added" drops by here to serve as a transition. The writer wants to jam two disparate quotes together. But the word works even less well here. "Added" has a jaunty air, which our speaker did not presumably share when talking about his holiday difficulties.

One option for a change: Cut the second quote and paraphrase.

"I enjoyed Christmas with my family," he said. "It was the best holiday ever."

But the day also challenged Perkins. His goldfish died, he said. To make matters worse, the house burned down.

My final objection to "added," is that it suggests the comment being added is the last one. The speaker has made his or her point and has just one more thing to toss into the mix. Few stories take this suggestion to heart. "Add" becomes a variant of "said."

Avoid this whenever possible.

I planned to end this gripe with an example of when "added" could be used appropriately. I couldn't think of one.

Saturday, December 27, 2003


This is why proofreading is important.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas and the happiest of holidays to you and yours.

Remember, Copy Massage cares.

Ranting will resume soon.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Ripped From Romenesko

A day late and several bits of change short, let me point folks to articles of interest.

Editor & Publisher denigrates blogs in its year-in-review section.

The point I'm concerned with reads:

"Blah, blah, Blogs: Probably the most hyped online development in 2003 (along with growth in site registration), but will these self-important online journals actually change the way newspapers do journalism on the Web?"

Does it matter? Blogging doesn't exist as a fixed thing. It's a medium. Like any medium, it benefits a certain type of communicator -- in this case those with time and words to spare.

But blogs won't succeed or fail based on whether they revolutionize newspapers, which are another medium altogether. They will succeed or fail based on people keeping them and networks forming around them.

In other happenings, a Naples Daily News columnist apologizes for his not-at-all-racially-charged column.

Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times writes about it. Key paragraph:

"For this black reader, seeing Batten's parody felt like watching an Amos and Andy routine. Forget about the tenuous connection between hip-hop slang and a failed concert; the story felt like a veiled racist joke, implying that the limited intelligence of people who talk a certain way was the real reason the concert failed."

Kudos to the newspaper, though, for keeping the column up on its Web site and linking to criticism.

Monday, December 22, 2003

The Holidays Cometh --

-- And with them, the usual holiday features and crowds of folk in newsrooms across the country taking vacations.

Some holiday tips for desk people who remain:

1.) Retain the sense of humor. At some point, actual news will begin to happen again.

2.) Keep the standards high. Folks might let the Christmas spirit inspire them to be a bit too free with the adjectives.

3.) Don't resent the rest of the world. Impress it. All those people lounging around at home will get the chance to read your headlines more closely than usual.

4.) Read up on your Christmas fact and fiction. Snopes, as usual, has the scoop. (You might want to turn off the music.)

5.) I find that wearing big, red, fuzzy Santa hat keeps the world in balance.

Any other suggestions?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Readers on the Lookout

The Tribune prints a column today that deals with the copy desk and assorted errors.

The lesson? We may look at our work carefully, but a huge audience will look at it even more carefully the day after.

Friday, December 19, 2003

More on Big News Heds

I'm torn.

On one hand, I like to think of newspapers moving the story along, especially when everyone has known the news for an entire day. Looking ahead suggests we're not just sitting on our hands waiting for others to break the news.

But one can make a persuasive argument about the importance of commemorating important events with a paper of record headline. No one would want to read, on Sept. 12, a newspaper front emblazoned with the words: "What's Next?"

I suspect we all have to make personal judgments about this. Saddam's capture, while important, certainly didn't have a Sept. 11 quality to me. Tweaking the headlines to suggest upcoming developments seems appropriate.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

More on Saddam heds ...

At this extensive Testy Copy Editors thread.

And as long as I'm linking to stuff over there, the board features a good discussion about Strom Thurmond's mixed-race daughter.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Flooding the Zone

Let's start with a question. What's wrong with wall-to-wall Saddam coverage?

Nothing. And everything.

Newspapers have certainly printed a bountiful array of stories about the ex-Iraqi strongman. With the controversy about the war and the near-daily reports of violence from Iraq, Saddam's capture ranks.

I wonder if we miss something with this zone-flooding, though. As we devote pages and pages to Saddam, how much do we really say or explain? After a certain point, stories recycle the same facts. We only know so much. We can only speculate so far.

We overwhelm the pages (and possibly our readers) with one message: Capturing Saddam is important. You should know about it.

Thus, the context of the Saddam capture can be lost. We hop on the immediate event, but perhaps the media are less than excited about the long-term, research-heavy work that covering a complex world demands.

Those in the business can bemoan the fact that many in this country think Saddam launched the Sept. 11 attacks. But we should ask if news media contribute to such erroneous beliefs. We certainly covered Saddam's capture with fanfare to spare.

Newspapers should take care to educate their readers, not reinforce incorrect preconceptions.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Saddam Update

From a quick glance over at Newseum.

New York Daily News: We Bag The Bum!
Miami Herald: Facing Justice
Houston Chronicle: 1 Down, 1 To Go
Several papers: Caught or Captured
Several papers: 'Caught Like A Rat'

The clear favorite: 'We Got Him' or 'Got Him'

Interesting to see how these trends emerge in newsroom working independently. I like how the Chronicle sets the news in a broader context. The Caught headlines work too, especially if paired with big pictures of Saddam.

On such days, though, quotes often double as display headlines. The last two clearly resonated.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Saddam Nabbed

Let's keep a watch out for the headlines used tomorrow.

I'm out of the office today, so I have no idea what people will use. I expect, as is usual with such large stories, that certain themes will pop up regularly.

Let's not forget, though, that any headline used to describe the capture of Saddam will pale next to the photos of the actual, bedraggled man. The photos tell so much.

We can debate headlines, but certain images overshadow any words.

Friday, December 12, 2003

The Most Basic Basic

Warning: Prepare for ranting, dear readers. Nothing annoys me more than this. Nothing.

"It's" versus "Its."

Let's hit them one by one. The apostrophe only shows up after an "it" when you are making a contraction of "it" and "is." Sometimes "has" can pinch hit for "is."

Thus --

"It is a wonderful day," can be contracted to "It's a wonderful day."

"It has been somewhat fun," can become "It's been somewhat fun."

Now, if the "it" works as a pronoun, and you need to make it possessive, add the "s" but don't add the apostrophe. This seems to violate what some folks dimly remember from school, I know. But this is a special case.

Please. It doesn't need the apostrophe to be possessive.

"The house's paint peeled from the sun," should therefore be "Its paint peeled from the sun."

"The sweater's colors ran in the wash," should switch to "Its colors ran in the wash."

I know, I know. It looks a little funky. But resist that apostrophe. Take it out only for contractions. You will show people who know and love the language that you know and love it too. And you can dismiss my bitter mumbles.

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Ah, Columnists

Some warmed-over blog fodder, as I haven't been keeping up.

Tom and the Testy Copyfolk are busy linking to this example of modern newspaper column-writing.

What can I say?

Bad taste? Yep. Not that funny? Yep. Playing too loose with the race thing? Yep. Unforgivable? Not quite. But someone should have mentioned it was a bad idea. And then yelled about it if people didn't listen.

Meanwhile -- The same folk don't like NY Times ombudsguy Daniel Okrent's comment that his "copy will not be edited, except for grammar, spelling, and the like."

Does it come across as a slap at copy editors? To a point. But I read it as him underlining the fact his column will be independent of the Times hierarchy. Given the people out there that want to watch the newspaper bleed, that's a distinction worth making.

As long as he stays away from writing in dialect.

Sunday, December 7, 2003

Times Public Editor Makes Debut

Daniel Okrent writes his first column for The New York Times (registration required).

Best bit: "Journalistic misfeasance that results from what one might broadly consider working conditions may be explainable, but it isn't excusable. And misfeasance becomes felony when the presentation of news is corrupted by bias, willful manipulation of evidence, unacknowledged conflict of interest — or by a self-protective unwillingness to admit error. That's where you and I come in. As public editor, I plan on doing what I've done for 37 years, reading the paper every day as if I, like you, were asking it to be my primary source of news and commentary (and ruefully expecting it to enrage me every so often as only a loved one can)."

Sounds good to me.

Paging Readers

If you enjoy Copy Massage, and want to contribute by asking a question or sharing a gripe, use the comments feature or send me an e-mail (just click on my name above). This Web thing is about community, after all. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Picking a Dictionary

Slate hands out some advice.

I wish they had included some slightly larger dictionaries. You can get the unabridged American Heritage (a better book than its condensed offspring) for only about twice the price.

Still, the article outlines the modern collegiate dictionary wars pretty well. My advice: Just buy them all.

Saturday, December 6, 2003

The Simplest Advice

The simplest advice you can give to a copy editor (or a writer, or anyone who hopes to make a living wrestling with this beast we call the "English language) is this:


So much in copy editing becomes apparent simply through close reading. Yes, you can memorize a style guide. But if you truly want to make stories the best they can be (and teach yourself when to bend the rules), I advise reading. It's that basic.

You can read anything, but it helps to read what you're interested in. It also helps to read things radically different than what you're interested in. You should strive for perspective.

We just do our jobs best when we interact with the language all the time. That means we constantly learn and discover. Such interaction, such discovery, keeps us alert and ready to wrestle.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Too Good to be True

A little holiday lesson --

Drudge links to a story that casts some doubts on that widely circulated "woman trampled at wale-Mart" story.

A similar case popped up during the summer. A too-popular story about a little girl forced to close her lemonade stand was more complex than it appeared.

Whoops. On both counts.

Let's use the same discernment on a "colorful" wire item that we would on a local news story. Don't let that color obscure what could really be going on.

Thursday, December 4, 2003

What Do Those Young People Want?

The news industry obsesses about people like me. Or so I gather.

The whims of "youth" seemingly occupy news executives. Commuter-oriented tabloids have popped up. Broadsheets ask: "How can we attract them?" Tabloids ask: "How much more titillation do you want?" Advertisers ask: "Will you please give us money?"

An older generation -- the boomers' parents -- is passing on, and with it some of the most dedicated print readers. As the boomers move into geezerhood, an obsession with finding the next audience is natural.

Everyone should calm down. Listen carefully to one of those youthful people you crave. Those under the age of 30 will read a paper.

How do you make them do that? Give them a quality product. Every newspaper that thirsts after younger readers should devote serious space to quality news and photography, and ensure that it has the resources to cover news effectively. Not just local news, but national and international news as well.

My university had a newspaper readership program. Copies of the Lawrence Journal-World, The Kansas City Star, USA Today and The New York Times were shipped in Monday through Friday. If you had a student ID card, you could get a free copy of each paper.

Guess which paper was read the most. Hint: It wasn't one of the first three.

University kids (who had access to a weekly alternative tabloid and the campus newspaper along with all those others) chose the Times. And not because they all love William Safire.

They read it because it's a great newspaper, featuring interesting articles and quality writing. It helps put the world in perspective. It did not feature reviews of local bands. It didn't print a sex advice column. It did tell the news. Well.

Young people will read newspapers if they think the newspapers are worth their time and energy. It really is that simple. A clumsy piece of pandering won't help, especially if it bulges with the same tired wire copy you can find on a dozen Web sites.

Make it good. Make it fresh. Make it relevant.

Guess what -- young readers won't be the only ones who respond to that. Everyone will.

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Watch Out for Mr. Dictionary

For copy editors, the problem with dictionaries is that the books describe usage, rather than prescribe it. This makes sense for a book that tries to reflect most meanings of most words.

In newspapers, though, we want to use the most accurate and most easily understood meaning. Just because a dictionary says a few people use the word in another way doesn't give the writer a pass.

Case in point: Gantlet/Gauntlet. In comments to my quibbles post below, a reader pointed out that a dictionary included one of those words as an alternate spelling of the other. That's fair for the dictionary to do, I suppose. Many people misuse those words.

But they come from entirely different sources, and they mean entirely different things.

In my reply, I pointed to the late John Bremner's "Words on Words."

He writes: "Gantlet comes from the Spanish gatlopp, a running down a lane, from gata, street, lane, and lopp, course, running, wherefore a gantlet is (1) a lane between two lines of men who beat some unfortunate as he tries to run through it, as in 'run the gantlet,' ...

"Gauntlet comes from French gantelet, diminutive of gant, glove, wherefore a gauntlet is (1) a protective glove and (2) a challenge."

Spelling the words differently in a newspaper setting, therefore, has a purpose. There's a reason to do it. We want to preserve the separate senses.

I love dictionaries. I collect them. But they can't edit for us.

Don't Do It

A reader made a comment below about use of the word "fag" in a newsroom. Folks, I know newsrooms are full of good-humored, sometimes-obscene fun. That's cool.

But we can't let homophobia infect them. If newspapers are to be open, valuable forums for news and opinion in this next century, we must make it clear that all views and speakers are respected.

This goes for inside the newsroom too. There is no excuse for a paper to abide a hateful atmosphere toward gay people, in offhand comments or anything else. If you take the mission of a newspaper seriously, you will not put up with such things. In yourself or in others.

Yes, freedom of speech is indescribably important. But there is a difference between an individual's right to print up little "burn the gay people" tracts at home and that same individual's right to bring that attitude into a place that tries to encourage civic engagement and discussion.

Some words to the straight newspaper folk out there: You probably already know a gay person. You will probably attend a gay wedding someday. You will someday probably do all this inside and outside the work environment.
You may have done all this decades ago.

How you -- and we as a business -- deal with such a world says a lot about us. Your political beliefs have nothing to do with it. The gay people are here now. As the old pride march saying goes, get used to it.

Monday, December 1, 2003

The Winner Returns...

...Or something. I wrote more than 50,000 words in November for a novel. That's right, National Novel Writing Month has wrapped up, and I succeeded.

I succeeded at the word count, at least. The novel still has a few chapters to go. But with the month over, I'm going to take it easier on the fiction. That means more time for this precious blog, as well as eating and bathing.

A few notes while I have you all here:

Folks actually added comments on a few items over the past two to three weeks. I have responded, sometimes at length.

The old comments will be entirely restored at some point. Honest. I just need a few spare moments.

Copy editing? Oh that's right. I do that too. Well, more about that soon as well.