Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Journalistic ideas

Color by Numbers (in Narratives)

Let’s face it: Journalists aren’t known for being good with numbers. But that doesn’t mean they don’t write about them. A slew of recent headlines involving numbers come to mind, including: “Dow Closes Up 936, Biggest Point Gain Ever,”; “Bengal’s Wide Receiver Changes Last Name to Ocho Cinco”; and “Marry Me at 8 on the 8th, OK?”

Numbers are important details (think ages, room numbers, times, distances), that can help give inanimate objects distinguishable identities. Consider, for example, an article from The Washington Post‘s Walter Reed series written by Anne Hull and Dana Priest:

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18 …

The number 18 is a detail that makes the building seem more like a character than a setting. Take a look at another passage from the same article:

The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely — a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them — the majority soldiers, with some Marines — have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.

Hull and Priest weave numbers into almost the entire narrative without making the piece seem as though it’s bogged down with technicalities. Numbers are sometimes better represented in charts or graphs, but often they add color and depth to what may otherwise just be an average story.

When writing stories, it’s important to keep in mind the “magic number three.” Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, suggests writing out lists or examples in sets of threes. “In storytelling,” he says, “three is the magic number. Four is too many.” Lots of things are grouped in threes: The father, son and the holy spirit; Larry, Moe and Curly; Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

The New York Times highlighted the number three
in a Sunday Styles piece this week. I like the article for two reasons: 1.) It puts an unusual twist on the news about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg running for a third term and 2.) It asks a rather obscure question (“Whence, then, the lure of three?”) and leaves readers with an epiphany moment that makes them think, “Ahh, it makes sense now!” New York Times reporter Andy Newman writes:

Throughout history and across disciplines, from the triple crown of horse racing to the trilogy as bid for literary greatness, the No. 3 has represented the pinnacle of achievement, the triple crème de la crème: the Nile, the Tower of Pisa, the smile on the Mona Lisa.

Perhaps the wise man on “Schoolhouse Rock” said it best:

“Three is a magic number./Yes it is; it’s a magic number./Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity/You get three as a magic number.

The number three has always been my “magic,” or lucky, number. I’ve grown to like the number 33 even more because I think it represents extra good luck. And, the native Bostonian that I am, I can’t help but think of Larry Bird and his No. 33 Celtics jersey. I’ve considered changing my lucky number to 508, though. This number seems to follow me wherever I go. It was the area code for my hometown in Massachusetts, it was the street number of my apartment in Clearwater, Fla., and it’s the street number of The Dallas Morning News‘ main building. Strange, isn’t it, how numbers find their way into our lives?

As a journalist, I may not be good with numbers, but I try to pay attention to them, if for no other reason than to tell better stories.

Seeking Resources for Copy Editors

Pretty soon I’m going to be entering the world of copy editing. I have copy editing experience, but I want to read and learn more about the profession. Right now I’m reading The Copy-Editing and Headline Handbook by Barbara G. Ellis. (Sounds real fun, I know!) It’s actually pretty interesting. Ellis goes into a lot of detail about headline counts, writing and editing captions, transition words and forbidden terms in text, and more.

I asked a couple of friends who are copy editors what they would suggest reading. One of them recommended the following books, some of which I’ve read:

Woe Is I and Words Fail Me, both by Patricia T. O’Connor.

The Elephants of Style and Lapsing Into a Comma, both by Bill Walsh of The Washington Post.

Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark.

She also suggested reading the American Copy Editors Society’s forums at www.copydesk.org and visiting Testy Copy Editors at www.testycopyeditors.com.

Another copy editor said that once you know the basics and are familiar with the AP Stylebook, copy editing is mostly a learned-on-the-job skill. He added:

If you have a good ear for writing, it helps you decide when a grammar rule can be bent or when a writer’s gimmick just isn’t working. Basically, readers should not notice the writing style, or any gimmickry or any of the mechanics of what they are reading – all they should have to think about is the subject of the story.

Check out a variety of stuff: How effectively Domino uses blurb-style writing; how The New Yorker’s writers take a complicated subject and boil it down to 10 inches; how sharp and witty Entertainment Weekly’s headlines are – but not so sharp and witty that the story itself is a letdown; or, how The New York Times Magazine’s stories tend to be about 15 inches too long, or how The Observer’s stuff doesn’t quite dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.

Or, as far as books are concerned, how you can just sail effortlessly through Dean Koontz’s and JK Rowling’s novels, while every single word in Anthony Swofford’s or Annie Proulx’s works has a visceral punch. Polar opposites, but all rewarding.

Well said. I also like visiting The Grammar Girl’s Web site from time to time. Eats Shoots and Leaves and The Elements of Style are good resources, too.

What copy editing resources would you recommend?

Addressing (and Parodying) Criticisms of the ‘Eastern Media Elite’

“On a mission to destroy.” “On a witch hunt.” “Got it wrong.” “Tackier than a costume change at a Madonna costume.”


These are just some of the criticisms that have been used to describe journalists and their coverage of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Last week, Republicans called out The New York Times for an article it published about Palin and her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy, saying the paper used the pregnancy news as “fodder for political purposes.”

The Times‘ public editor, Clark Hoyt, points out that journalists were just doing their job: reporting the news and educating readers about Palin’s background. In an article in Sunday’s Times, Hoyt addressed concerns about the Times‘ coverage and rightfully admitted to a mistake the paper made regarding the lack of an attribution. He described the articles being criticized, saying:

“The drip-drip-drip of these stories seems like partisanship to Palin’s partisans. But they fill out the picture of who she is, and they represent a free press doing its job, investigating a candidate who might one day be the leader of the Free World.”

Thank goodness for public editors who can serve as the liaison between the public and the press and, when necessary, clarify and explain why journalists do what they do. It’s important to listen to people’s criticisms of the press because they’re often valid. Other times, though, they’re unfounded or unfair and stem from a misunderstanding of news organizations’ intentions and purpose.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post also responded to recent attacks on the “Eastern media elite” in this video, in which he parodies the idea that journalists are among the “elite.” It’s pretty funny. Journalists will especially enjoy it because they know that a journalists’ job is anything BUT glamorous. Crappy pay, ever-changing hours, cubicles instead of offices, late nights on deadline … the passion definitely has to be there to want a job like this.

New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich offers this bit of advice to the “elite”: “Thicken that skin of yours and develop a good sense of humor.” It seems Milbank and hopefully others are doing just that.

Weigh in: How well do you think the press has handled its coverage of Palin?

Responsibilities Rise as Copy Desks Shrink

Mallary Tenore/Poynter Online

My editor asked me to write an article about “the future of copy editing” last week after hearing talk of copy desks shrinking nationwide. She said she thought I would be especially interested in the topic, given that I am going to spend the next year copy editing for Poynter Online and News University. (I’m going to keep freelancing on the side, but my primary duties will revolve around editing.)

I agreed, but wondered how I would approach the article. “Future of” stories can be tough to write because you have to approach them with a clear focus so you don’t end up with a simple round-up of people’s guesses as to what the future will be. I didn’t want to write an article that was preachy or not grounded in research and reporting, so I made some phone calls and spent five days talking with copy editors, top editors and others for the story. It took me longer than usual to find a focus for the piece, and it wasn’t until after I wrote the first draft and sat down with my editor that I realized what I wanted the message to be. I conveyed this message in the nut graf of the story:

Those in charge of hiring copy editors aren’t so quick to call copy editing a dying profession, but they know change is on the horizon. The future they envision for copy editors includes a merging of responsibilities, a greater focus on editing blogs and multimedia and an understanding that even with fewer resources, the basic fundamentals of copy editing still need to be upheld. Outsourcing, meanwhile, has reminded them of the importance of knowing a coverage area at the local level so they can catch mistakes that might otherwise find their way onto sites like “Regret the Error.”

The stakes are no doubt high for copy editors, who are the last folks to see a story before it gets published. If a mistake slips through, the copy desk is usually blamed. Now, there are fewer people to blame, but greater responsibilities to be had. Copy editors are being asked to do page layout and design in many newspapers, meaning their sole focus is not editing. Some copy editors I talked to for the story said they fear that accuracy could be jeopardized with fewer people to catch mistakes.

Outsourcing copy editors is another risky undertaking, they say, because outsourced workers won’t know the communities being written about. I’m learning more and more that to be a copy editor, you have to know a community as well as, if not better than, reporters do. Copy editors need to know how to spell city council members’ names, and they need to know which streets run parallel and which ones intersect. They realize the value of such details. It’s their careful attention to detail and accuracy that make copy editors such valuable assets to the newsroom. They’re the unsung heroes of news operations, the folks who never get a byline but who “save” reporters and editors from making themselves look silly or careless.

In reporting the copy editing story, I found that many copy editors don’t think the newsroom understands all the work they do. John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun, alluded to this in my interview with him when he asked: “Will copy editors find it within themselves to immerge from their customary anomyinity and make a persuasive case for the value of what they do? If not, then they’re going to lose out.” I didn’t have room for this quote in the article, but it struck me as an interesting question.

I raised a question yesterday in the comments section of my piece about the dialogue that copy editors and reporters have — or don’t: “I’ve talked to a lot of copy editors at mid to large-size papers who say they have little interaction with reporters when editing their stories,” I wrote. “Sure, assigning editors talk with reporters, but it seems like it would be smart for copy editors to do the same. Maybe then more people in the newsroom would better understand the work they do. What’s the conversation like between copy editors and reporters in your newsroom?” Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section of my story by clicking here.

The responses I’ve gotten in the comments section of the article and in personal e-mails has made me realize just how passionate copy editors are about the work they do, and how much they are trying to ensure that the value of their work will not be undermined in the future. My article didn’t reveal what the future of copy editing will be, but I hope it at least provided readers with a sense of where the future is headed. As the kicker of my article says: For now, this much is true: The stakes for copy editors aren’t getting any lower.

I’d like to continue writing copy editing stories and am open to your ideas. What questions do you have about copy editing that you’d like to see me pursue?

Committed to Commenting … Or Not

I often wonder why some articles receive more comments than others. If I receive three comments on a Poynter Online article, I consider that to be pretty good. I thought the article I wrote about journalists paying it forward last week would receive at least a couple of comments, given the subject matter of the piece and the question/”click here” link at the end: “Click here to share your stories about how fellow journalists have helped you.” Yet, it was a centerpiece story for three days on Poynter Online and it didn’t receive a single comment.

The lower number of comments on our site compared to other Web sites may have something to do with the fact that the majority of our users are journalists. My colleague Amy Gahran wrote a thought-provoking piece about journalists commenting on the Web, called “Journos: Do You Post Public Comments? Why/Why Not?” She writes that: “In almost every blog and public forum where I participate, I’ve noticed that generally few of the commenters are journalists working for mainstream news organizations.” She raises a valid point that a whopping 17 readers expand upon in the comments section of the piece.

Another recent Poynter Online essay, “Hazarding a Guess on Race” by Sally Lehrman, received 14 comments, which is a lot for a Diversity at Work item, or any article on our site for that matter.

Drawing from your own experiences, what compels you to want to comment on an article/multimedia piece, etc.?

‘Sex and the City’ Movie Makes for Quite the Story

I’ll admit, I’m a huge “Sex and the City” fan. I hardly ever watched the show while it was on TV, despite the fact that my friends were all fans. But when a colleague lent me the DVDs, I was hooked.

I went to see the movie tonight with friends from work and felt as though I was walking through a fashion show. Wearing jeans and a (bright pink) T-shirt, I was sharing the runway with girls dressed in high heels, short dresses and Louis Vuitton-like bags. Carrie wannabes kicked up their heels and walked in groups with other girls. All that was missing was the New York City skyline in the background.

It would have been so much fun to be a journalist covering the “Sex and the City” craze. Fashion reporters would have had a blast, and still could throughout this weekend. Here are some stories that could have been pursued/questions that could have been asked tonight:

  • Hang out with a group of girls as they get ready to go see the movie. What do they do when they’re getting ready? Talk about their favorite “Sex and the City” episodes? Drink cosmos?
  • Interview two different age groups — the older women in the theatre and younger girls. What does the movie mean to each of them and the point they’re at in life?
  • Plenty of girls dressed up as “Sex and the City” characters. Were they any “Big” look-alikes or wannabes?
  • What did the few guys in the theatre think about the movie? Did they go there because they wanted to, or because their significant others dragged them to go see it?
  • What were all those girls’ boyfriends/husbands doing while the girls watched “Sex and the City”? Having a guys’ night out? Lounging at home?
  • Which local businesses, if any, were holding Sex and the City parties? A restaurant/bar near the movie theatre I went to tonight was hosting a Sex and the City premier party.
  • Hang out with the person collecting movie tickets. What kinds of stories does this person hear from the girls who pass through the theatre?
  • “Sex and the City” shows that movies primarily geared toward women can sell out on opening nights. What does this say about the culture of movies for women?
  • This would also be a good opportunity to put together an audio slideshow of what people are wearing and saying about the movie.

If you’ve seen particularly good stories about the “Sex and the City” movie, feel free to share them in the feedback section.

Chips Quinn Reunion: New Memories and Friends in D.C.

The Chipsters and I

The Chipsters and I.

Me and our cute D.C. tour guide, Carol, at the FDR Memorial.

Me and my friend Meghan in front of the Capitol. Windy day.

Thought I’d share a couple of photos from my trip this past weekend in Washington, D.C. I was fortunate enough to attend the Chips Quinn 2008 training program and reunion held at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. What a spectacle. For three days, I sat in a room with the Capitol building as the backdrop as I listened to former Chips Quinn scholars who are now reporters and editors at news organizations across the country. They offered advice about how to deal with the Debbie Downers in newsrooms, how to manage family life with life as a journalist, and how to confront issues of race and ethnicity when reporting. You can read the Chipsters’ blog entries here.

The training program would have been fulfilling in and of itself, but the fact that it took place in D.C. made the trip that much more entertaining. Having not been to D.C. before, I crammed in as much as I could with the help of a tour guide named Carol and my friend Meghan, who lives just outside of the city. Carol took me and the Chipsters on a three-hour bus tour, enlightening us with historical trivia about the city’s monuments and memorials.

Sleep is calling my name, but more to come this week on the trip/the Newseum.

A Swimming/Summer Story Idea

I just wrote a Diversity at Work post, “Bridging the Minority Swimming Gap,” about a new study that found that 58 percent of black children can’t swim compared with 31 percent of Caucasian children. One reader, who is a teacher, pointed out to me that the word “pool” in my article could just as easily be replaced with “school.” Interesting thought. Now that I’ve presented this idea, I wonder how many reporters will read it and use it as a story idea.

Here’s part of the post:

The minority swimming gap is a story worth localizing. With summer vacation approaching, you may want to visit your local pools and see what the demographics there are. If the majority of children are white, what are children of other races/ethnicities doing instead? How does the cost of private pools affect the demographics of families who swim there? How does all this tie into pool safety? What does a day in the life of a public pool v. a private pool look like?

Exploring such questions can help turn a report about a survey’s findings into a story about the people behind the numbers.