Monday, July 13, 2009

Culling the richest report from the wires

By Kate Parry, Star Tribune Reader's Representative

Stan Feldman started his newspaper reading Tuesday morning with the New York Times, interested in a page one story about White House involvement in the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors.

The Times reported in the second paragraph that questions about political motivation arose after President Bush told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about complaints involving several prosecutors by Republican lawmakers.

In the third paragraph, the story explained that a year earlier, when Harriet Miers was the White House legal counsel, she had asked about replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys.

When he finished with the Times, Feldman started reading his Star Tribune. The retired schoolteacher from New Hope noticed the New York Times story about the federal prosecutors also appeared on the Star Tribune's front page. But he was surprised to see the second paragraph (on Bush and Gonzales) had been moved down to just after where the story jumped to an inside page.

That's when Feldman called me to ask what the Star Tribune's motive was in moving that paragraph. Doing so, he initially said, seemed to change the focus of the story.

We talked about why wire editors might make changes in wire stories. Feldman took another look and decided the change actually made the story easier to follow because it put events in chronological order.

As it turns out, though, wire editors Nan Williams and Catherine Preus moved the paragraph because the story dealt mostly with Miers, and they wanted to get a reference to her in the part of the story appearing on page one, said Nation/World editor Dave Peters. They then made a reference to Bush and Gonzales part of the jumpline on page one directing readers to that part of the story on an inside page.

Feldman's puzzling over the change raised an issue I hear about regularly from readers who wonder why wires stories in the Star Tribune sometimes read differently than they did when they originated at another newspaper or wire service. Many readers regularly use the Internet to compare Star Tribune wire stories to the originals on other newspaper and wire service websites. If there are changes, some are quick to assume impure motives -- mainly that Star Tribune editors are slanting stories to the political left or right.

"Of course we're not trying to introduce imbalance or unfairness," Peters said. "The editing we do is with an eye mainly to length and clarity."

Every night his wire editors comb the wires of the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy News Service and several others for various versions of the same news events. Sometimes a story from one of those sources is clearly superior to the others and they choose to use it.

Often, Peters said, "we'll take information from several stories and combine it into one story that serves the reader better." When that much editing happens, the credit line on the story often reads "news services" or a credit is added at the end.

Editors trim and tighten stories to fit the space they've been assigned -- which means New York Times stories that tend to run long often get a trim. A skillful wire editor can do that quite seamlessly and retain the substance of the report despite shortening up background and details. About 12 inches of the New York Times story on the U.S. attorneys was trimmed.

The wire services didn't alert newspapers that the U.S. attorneys story was coming until evening, and the New York Times story didn't arrive until right on the first deadline, Peters said. His staff scrambled to get the story ready and called a top editor at home to get the go-ahead to remake the front page.

On Wednesday night, the wire editors faced another round of quickly combining differing wire stories when the Associated Press and the New York Times both offered stories on a hearing transcript that showed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed admitting to involvement in planning dozens of terror attacks, including Sept. 11.

Night team leader Steve Riel had his editors use the Associated Press version early and replaced it with the New York Times version when it arrived. Wire editor Sharon Nyberg noticed a reference in the Associated Press version to Mohammed admitting to involvement in the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl that was missing from the Times piece. She inserted that information in the Times story and in a Times list of Mohammed's claims, adding the Associated Press to a credit line at the end of the story.

The Times story was trimmed to fit the space, and Riel plucked a cautionary line from that material and added it to the list of terrorist acts Mohammed claimed to have directed. It read "Validity: It is not clear how many of Mohammed's expansive claims were legitimate. In 2005, the Sept. 11 commission said that he was noted for his extravagant ambitions and his view of himself as 'the superterrorist.' "

That line really put that list in perspective for me.

"Our goal is to provide the best and cleanest version of events," Peters said.

©2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Russians Invade U.S.?

Did you know that Russian troops are thrusting into the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia? That's what readers will learn from a Google Maps graphic accompanying a news story about Russian incursions into Georgia — the nation-state in the Caucasus, not the Caucasian-pride-ridden state in the southern United States. Google's mixup will not help Yahoo Answers user Jessica B., who presciently asked, "i herd on the news that rusia has invaded but i dont see them no where wats going on."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Writing for the Web (Some Notes)

Interesting interview with Slate editor – especially:

DIA: Do you feel people write differently for the web than they do for print?

Mr Weisberg: If they don't, they don't succeed online. Writing that's native to the web is different in ways that are crucial but subtle enough that you can miss them if you conceive of your audience as reading a printed product. The tone of good web writing grows out of email. It's more direct, personal, colloquial, urgent, witty, efficient. It doesn't waste your time. It reflects that engagement, responsiveness and haste of web surfers, as opposed to the more general passivity of print readers. It integrates the use of links into the creative and intellectual process as opposed to tacking them on afterwards. And it uses multimedia in an organic rather than an ornamental way.

Old vs. New Newsroom (Some Notes)
"This is a flattening not only of information and sources but also of newsroom process. The point about a traditional news organization is its high level of orchestration, of hoops to jump through to get into the paper or on the air, of stylebooks to follow, of a hierarchical, tradition-bound, gatekeeping idea of who gets to say what’s news."

The 10 things local newspapers should do - compiled in one blog post

OK, I was critical of the American Press Institute's tired ideas for the newspaper industry. But what do I propose? Well, here goes: 10 ways to strengthen local newspapers in the face of the economic meltdown and the societal shift to the Web.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Common AP Problems That Need to be Mastered

These items are headings listed in your AP stylebook. Familiarize yourself with each of them and the bold-face links to related terms.

AP – A-C:

abbreviations and acronyms
academic degrees
academic departments
academic titles
a.m., p.m.
burglary, larceny, robbery, theft
collective nouns
compose, comprise, constitute
composition titles
courtesy titles

AP – D-H:

damage, damages
directions and regions
essential, non-essential clauses and phrases
exclamation marks
fewer, less
full-time, full time
geographic names
his, her
homicide, murder, manslaughter

AP – I-M:

job descriptions
legislative titles
military titles
millions, billions
Mr., Mrs., Ms.

AP – N-S:

nationalities and races
party affiliations
pupil, student
quotations in news
quotation marks
religious references
religious titles
second reference
state names
subjunctive mood

AP – T-Z:

that (conjunction)
that, which, who, whom
time element
time of day
trusty, trustee
weather terms
ZIP code

Other Important Sections:

Sports Guidelines
Business Guidelines
Guide to Punctuation
Briefing on Media Law
Proofreader Marks

Critical Thinking Checklist

1. Reading, not editing, is the first step 
  • Give the story a quick reading for content - without making any editing changes.
2. Organization. 
  • Is the lead labored or long? 
  • Is there a nut paragraph, no lower than the third or fourth graf, that tells succinctly why the story is in the paper?
  • Does the story contain the essential five W's and H?
  • Is the news presented in the order of importance? 
  • Does the story have a good ending that will make the reader remember it? 
  • Did the lead's writer mine the story for information that will grab the reader's attention? 
3. Clarity.
  • Is the story clear? 
  • Is it complete? 
  • Are there unanswered questions? 
  • Are there unexplained contradictions?
4. Fairness. 
  • Is the story balanced? 
  • Are sources reliable and identified? 
  • Does the story give both sides? 
  • Does it provide an opportunity to reply to charges? 
  • Does it libel anyone? Is it in good taste?
5. Length. 
  • Is the story too long, too short, just right? 
  • Is there more information than is useful or interesting to the reader? 
  • Can it be made shorter without sacrificing anything truly important?
    6. If there are problems in any of the areas listed above, go back to the writer with questions and suggestions. Ask the writer to fix the story. This is part of the feedback that makes a good story better and makes the writer and the editor a team.

    7. After the first reading, review the story again. Have you done everything that is needed or are you trying to avoid dealing with difficult questions? Leave no question unanswered. Have you listened to your instincts, your experience? If you have a hunch, have you followed it? Remember that gut feelings are an important part of editing.

    8. Check one more time to make sure the reader can understand the story.


    • Have you checked grammar, punctuation and spelling?
    • Are verbs generally active and lively, rather than passive and dull? Do subjects and verbs agree? Is verb tense consistent?
    • Is the time element clear? Does the reader know when things happened? Remember that chronology is a good organizing device.
    • Are historical facts and dates correct?
    • Does usage conform to style?
    • Have you changed awkward phrases, shortened marathon sentences, chopped up long paragraphs, eliminated repetitiveness and redundancy, killed cliches?
    • Have you checked the weird name in the city directory, telephone book or library?
    • Has the writer removed "stutter quotes," a direct quotation followed by a paraphrase of the same thing, or vice versa?
    • Does the story avoid jargon? Have you removed foreign words or phrases, unexplained acronyms and unexplained technical terms?
    • Are numbers correct? Double-check any math, including percentages, to make sure it is right.
    • Does the story avoid the use of words in place of "said?"
    • Does the story avoid hyperbole? Has the writer refused the temptation to set records for the biggest, best, tallest, shortest? Remember there's always a faster gun.
    • Have you corrected grammar in a quote unless there is a special reason for the ungrammatical usage?
    • Is there enough background for the reader who missed the last story?
    Warren Watson, API (Originally developed by Watson, Lou Ureneck and Jon Kellogg for the Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram)

    Thursday, July 09, 2009

    About Close Reading

    What is Close Reading?

    From Wikipedia:

    In literary criticism, close reading describes the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read.

    The technique as practiced today was pioneered (at least in English) by I.A. Richards and his student William Empson, later developed further by the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century. It is now a fundamental method of modern criticism.

    Close reading is sometimes called explication de texte, which is the name for the similar tradition of textual interpretation in French literary study, a technique whose chief proponent was Gustave Lanson.

    A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight. To take an even more extreme example, Jacques Derrida's essay Ulysses Gramophone, which J. Hillis Miller describes as a "hyperbolic, extravagant… explosion" of the technique of close reading, devotes more than eighty pages to an interpretation of the word "yes" in James Joyce's great modernist novel Ulysses[citation needed].

    Literary close reading and commentaries have extensive precedent in the exegesis of religious texts. For example, Pazand, a genre of middle Persian literature, refers to the Zend (literally: 'commentary'/'translation') texts that offer explanation and close reading of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. The scriptural commentaries of the Talmud offer a commonly cited early predecessor to close reading. In Islamic studies, the close reading of the Koran has flourished and produced an immense corpus. But the closest religious analogy to contemporary literary close reading, and the principal historical connection with its birth, is the rise of the higher criticism, and the evolution of textual criticism of the Bible in Germany in the late eighteenth century.