Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Taking a photo is the only excitement on my 'weekend'


I'm a boring guy on my days off. That's probably because there isn't much to do in Brevard County, Fla., on a Monday and Tuesday, especially during the hours I'm up and at 'em (5 p.m.-2 a.m., when all the elderly inhabitants are calling it a day).

Oh, the agony of being a night copy editor.

My "weekend" usually consists of a trip to Starbucks or Panera Bread for some coffee and a little reading or blogging.

To shake it up a bit today, I stepped out of my car near the Panera in Viera to snap a photo of the rays of sun shining onto one of the expensive housing developments that typify this neighborhood. It's odd because the homes are built on grassy expanses dotted by short palm trees.

Panera is a great place. I get free and unlimited coffee refills, and that's good because I need the heat to keep me warm in the overly air-conditioned cafe. My first cup is caffeinated, then I usually switch to decaf.

Starbucks is quite awful, but it's getting better. The franchise's locations are supposed to introduce free wireless Internet access sometime this spring. But until then, I'll stick to Panera, where the Web always has been free.

I should do a live blog at Panera sometime. Maybe that would be exciting.

So you think you know everything about copy editing?


in review

Smokin' ACES
Denver national conference
a blog series by Andrew C. Knapp

This is a summary of some of my professional experiences at the 2008 national conference of the American Copy Editors Society in Denver. These posts range from the theoretical - ideas about the direction of copy editing - to the practical - a step-by-step guide to editing and headline writing on a tight deadline. This series is directed toward my co-workers at FLORIDA TODAY, other newspaper editors or just anyone who wants to learn something about copy editing.

Copy editing honcho rails against 'wacko' ideas and the people who think them out loud
ACES President Chris Weinandt of the Dallas Morning News kicked off the ACES conference with a little rabble-rousing - well, as much "rabble-rousing" that is possible for copy editors. The idea to outsource copy editing is just ridiculous, everyone agreed.

Newspapers must get dumb to make us smart
Our eyes float toward the visual. Alternative story forms aid comprehension.

Know-it-all copy editors ask, 'What's RSS?'
Copy editors are supposed to know a lot. We are the masters of all. But many at a session I attended were clueless as to how programs such as iGoogle gather headlines through RSS.

Life after journalism would be the death of me
Being a low-level celebrity and meeting high-level celebrities such as Dan Rather are cool parts about being a journalist. These moments make journalism a difficult career to abandon. But there are ways in which copy editors should diversify their skills and knowledge.

Copy editors are stuck in middle of new media
It's difficult to say what role copy editors will play in this new-mingled-media landscape. Will we be editing more? Will we be sitting on the sidelines? Or will we be stuck somewhere in the middle?

Ex-Freep editor is fond of the weird and short
Alex Cruden, longtime editor at another Gannett publication, the Detroit Free Press, reflected on his 40 years in daily journalism. He talked about how it's important to accentuate what makes news, news, and to use short sentences. He provided a step-by-step guide to copy editing.

Words will be words, unless your dictionary says otherwise (but it probably doesn't)
Dictionaries offer some fuel for debate and are often the main weapons of copy editors when attempting to shoot holes in a reporter's deranged word usage. But copy editors should remember: Just because a word is in the dictionary, we don't necessarily have the right to use it.

Trimming fat is big part of copy desk's job
This post is pretty straightforward. Copy editors often are charged with trimming large stories into smaller ones, sometimes considerably smaller ones. Here are a few tips.

Florida Today, small papers stand among giants of online editing
Surprisingly, many smaller newspapers do just as good at editing online stories as the larger papers. I talked about online editing at FLORIDA TODAY.

Premier editing professor Ed Trayes gets it
Temple University professor Ed Trayes has spent decades training young journalists. He knows that it is the flexibility of copy editors in adapting to new media that will determine our future. His keynote address offers several points for us to ponder about the changes in the industry.

Rocky Mountain News-Denver Post tour
On the final day of the conference, a few nice guys from the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post took a large group of editors on a tour of their not-so-humble abodes. Our two guides each tried to convince us that their half of the building was better than the other.

The lighter side of Denver

The following are some of my personal experiences at ACES. These posts are directed at anyone who cares.

Offlede visits real city, can't escape tropical 'plants'
Living in Florida makes me miss real cities with culture. Denver was nice, but I couldn't escape tropical trees.

I'm from Florida; what's all this white stuff?
It snowed in Denver. Co-worker Beth, who has been stuck in Florida her whole life, has never experienced snow to such a large scale: 1 inch.

What food is Denver known for? Mac 'n' chicken, apparently
I was looking for something different on the menu, and I found the mac 'n' chicken, pasta shells smothered in a few types of cheese and mixed with chunks of white and dark chicken meat. It was weird, but at least the carrot cake was good.

Not cool: Hot shower burns at Marriott in Denver
The stream of hot water it spits at me each morning at the Marriott Denver City Center is quite enjoyable, until things go south. About twice during each shower, I have been burned by a burst of extremely hot water.

Copy editing = great; copy editing with a view = even better
I just wanted to pass on a few photos of the view from atop the building.

Denver food disappoints; Burger King has its number
I didn't see any Rocky Mountain oysters (bull testicles) on the Rialto menu, but I still wanted beef for my lunch. It would have been a shame to leave Denver without having beef. So I went with the "Rialto Burger." It was burned and dry.

So long to Denver's mediocre food, time difference, cold air
My blood obviously has thinned during my seven months in Florida. Denver's cold, dry air didn't go over so well.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Smokin' ACES: Rocky Mountain News-Denver Post tour

On the final day of the American Copy Editors Society conference in Denver, a few nice guys from the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post took a large group of editors on a tour of their not-so-humble abodes. Through a joint operating agreement that formed the Denver Newspaper Agency, the two papers share a $100 million, 318,400-square-foot building they moved into in August 2006. (For more about the building, go here.) Interestingly, neither of our guides had seen the opposition newspaper's side of the building (or so they said). Their business ends may cooperate, but they are not allowed in each other's space. Their editorial independence is obvious, too: They guard and pride their own journalism.

Even the elevators display the papers' journalism history. Behind the elevator directional arrow is a collage of historic front pages from the Rocky.

The first stop on our tour of the Rocky was in the break room. The Rocky doesn't print a paper on Sunday, so it was empty on this Saturday. But imagine having a view of the Rocky Mountains, including Pikes Peak, while you're chomping on your bologna sandwich or dry leftover spaghetti. I wouldn't mind. (The view, that is. I could do without my own "cooking.")

John Boogert, Internet news editor at the Rocky, was our tour guide for his part. He participated in the same panel about online editing that I did. He was determined to show us how much better the Rocky's side of the building is. Each paper designed its space independently of the other. Above, Boogert points out the view from the rooftop of Pikes Peak and the assorted government buildings.

The Denver newspapers are right in the thick of the capital. Above are some more government buildings with the mountains in the background.

Here's the gold dome of the Capitol.

I was leaning over the side of the building to take a photo of the mounted statue below when the people walking by it thought I was trying to shoot them. They stopped and posed, so I had to take the photo.

The lone stool in the middle of the Rocky's photog studio has a simple beauty.

This is the view of the Rocky newsroom from the online department. They have nice TVs. But they aren't as nice as my roommate's.

Apparently, every good newspaper must have a Mardi Gras bear. The caution tape probably is hiding all the beer stains.

The Rocky displays its Pulitzer Prizes proudly. The above composition is of the Columbine shootings.

The walls in the newsroom lobby at The Post are covered with punctuation marks. But I don't see an interrobang on this wall?!

Each newspaper did some interesting things with lighting. Above, wall lights line the passageway to the Post newsroom.

Marc Chamberland, head of business copy editing at The Post, was our guide for his part of the building. Above, he stands next to the copy desk.

My bias shows in the number of photos I posted of each newspaper. The score is: Rocky, 10; Post, 3. The Rocky definitely had the polished, sleek, cool newsroom. Sorry, Post.

Smokin' ACES home

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Smokin' ACES: Premier editing professor Ed Trayes gets it

Temple University professor and Offlede mentor Ed Trayes delivers the keynote address at the 2008 American Copy Editors Society national convention in Denver.

If it weren't for a single person, I wouldn't be where I am today. I might be reporting at some tiny community newspaper in North Dakota.

But because of Temple University professor Ed Trayes, I'm a copy editor. And I'm proud of it.

I had the privilege of being taught by Trayes for two weeks as part of my training for The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund editing program. As a fund co-founder, he has led more than 50 such residencies.

After that boot camp last spring, I spent the summer at Newsday as probably its last Dow Jones intern.

It's because of Trayes that I value my role as a copy editor more than I would as a reporter. Copy editors are the quality controllers. We know a lot so that nothing will slip by us, whether it's about Brad Pitt or George Bush.

It was appropriate that Trayes was the keynote speaker for my first American Copy Editors Society national convention. And for a guy who has spent decades training young journalists, he knows that it is our flexibility in adapting to new media that will determine our future.

"No journalist's job has changed more than the copy editor's," he said. "And no group has handled change better, been more nimble, ever going forward, ever adapting, succeeding."

Trayes said that some publications have shot themselves in the foot by trying to attract all audiences through the "slicing and dicing" of content. A focus on a broader readership results in a poorer diet of news.

"So often the competition is we - ourselves," he said.

Today's world is one of shorter attention spans. Instead of actively seeking it, readers want the news to come to them. Commuters at metropolitan train stations will check a box of free newspapers, find it empty, then walk away disappointed - all as a box of 50-cent papers sits full, forlorn, almost untouched.

Trayes said publishers should give away newspapers. Maybe then, we could make those commuters happy.

But the greatest challenge to newspapers, to journalism, is not price; it is time. Technology has trimmed the news cycle from 24 hours to 24 minutes, "probably less," he said. But copy editors will not, must not, get lost in this frenzy.

"Technology ... will not kill us," Trayes said. "As long as there are words to be written, there will be copy editors with whatever at the time is the technological equivalent of a sharp pencil. ... With this in mind, technology and the lifestyles of today - how people choose to get news and information, how they choose to spend their time - will change us."

Technology certainly has changed me.

In the past several months, I have gone from a copy editor of words to a copy editor of media. The new tools that make the news richer - tools such as video, photos, blogs and the general wide world of the Web - must be viewed with the unique and critical eye of a copy editor. We know the genuine from the contrived, the worthy from the weak. When I trained in video editing, I said it is a job that is natural for a copy editor because video is also about details.

After Newsday, I took a job at a company with forethought, with a vision for the future's journalism that is dominated by new media. Copy editors' jobs have changed from the strict editing of words to pagination and design. Now, we must adapt to the online world. And we can't sit back. We must speak up to ensure quality.

"It is up to each of you to meet the challenges as they come while taking an active role in determining what copy editors can and must do in the years ahead," Trayes said.

Some people have criticized my views that traditional copy editors have fallen behind because they have not met the challenges of today's technology. They do not understand how to use it. They do not even understand its uses.

"For at least some of you, if not most of you, the next great battle is online editing," Trayes said. "Editing for Web sites and other venues must have the same standards as print. There is no doubt about copy editing being under attack in this area."

Trayes arrived the morning of his keynote address at the convention's host, the Marriott in Denver. He attended the panel discussion about online editing at which I spoke. I thought his presence would make me nervous, but it put me at ease: I knew he would support, if not agree with, what I said.

In my closing words, I said, "Because of the scrutiny that our Web sites are subjected to, it’s absolute that the next generation of online news producers should be us – traditional, well-grounded, smart and unreasonably critical copy editors. Our reputations are at stake."

In his closing words, Trayes said, "Readers, online and otherwise, count on, depend on, what copy editors pass along as true, accurate and fair."

We may be ignored, but we are not insignificant. We are not powerless.

We are copy editors. We balance the scales of journalism justice. That will never change.

Bill Connolly, formerly of The New York Times, spoke after Trayes.

Trayes and I after his keynote.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Offlede finally finds answer to newspapers' problems


Buyouts. Folding newspapers. The Internet.

Woe is we.

The secret to calming our fears? A stress ball. I bought mine for $1 at ACES in Denver.

They sold out.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Offlede finds more downs than ups of Mac conversion

The new MacBook Pro is on the left, and the old Toshiba Satellite is on the right. It's actually not a total conversion because I'm keeping the Toshiba.

My new friend came all the way from Shanghai in just a few days. And now that the Apple MacBook Pro is here, I'm adjusting to several things.

I decided to buy the MacBook when the old Toshiba Satellite was slowing during Web browsing. I wouldn't want Offlede readers to suffer because of inferior equipment.

Another reason for becoming a Mac convert is the Final Cut Express video editing software I had installed. The slimmed-down version of the software has all the tools needed for news-like videos. Journalists don't use special effects, so I won't miss them. Besides, it's light years beyond Microsoft Movie Maker, which was imprecise and not even close to sophisticated.

The following are a few differences and potential downsides I've noticed on the new Mac. I haven't looked into solving them yet, so don't judge me for judging the Mac too quickly. These are only superficial observations (and ones I was aware of before the purchase):
  • There's no forward delete key. There's only a backspace key labeled "delete" that, of course, deletes backward. I'm used to deleting forward on a PC. Am I missing something?
  • My Web site looks funny. Certain letters are cut off on the right sidebar, such as in the "Journalism Job Links" section. The hook of the J in "Job" is not visible. My Georgia font looks different in Mac's version of Firefox, I guess.
  • The keyboard is slightly offset compared with my Toshiba. This is noticeable when I hit the "caps lock" key instead of the "A" key.
  • There's no right click on the trackpad. This is especially bothersome in Firefox, in which I often highlight a word on a Web page, then right click and hit "Search Google for 'keyword.'" On the Mac, I have to open a new window and search for it. Some fixes would be Google Desktop with a Web search window or an external mouse with a right button.
  • Surprisingly, I miss the tabs on the Windows toolbar.
  • Are there "page up" and "page down" keys on this thing? The arrows are too slow. On a PC, I hit those keys instead of using the vertical scrollbar.
I found fewer positives. They are great, though. They are:
  • The 15-inch widescreen is not glossy. That's the main reason for converting: Most PC laptops have a glossy screen that looks like a mirror in harsh light. The matte Mac is easy to see and easy on the eyes.
  • It's thin and purrrrty.
  • The keys are pleasantly soft. Typing is an enjoyable experience - if I could just stop hitting the "caps lock" key.
  • It's fast. I was beginning to wonder if it was the network that slowed my Toshiba. But the Mac is fast on my home's wireless, so I guess not.
I'm not discouraged; it will just take an adjustment. If you have any suggestions to deal with the drawbacks, let me know.

Smokin' ACES: Florida Today, small papers stand among giants of online editing

From left to right: John Russial, University of Oregon; Valerie Mass, The Denver Post; John Boogert, Rocky Mountain News; Andrew Knapp, The Offlede (and FLORIDA TODAY); and Amy Hubbard, the Los Angeles Times. Michael Roehrman of The Wichita Eagle is hiding behind Hubbard. Boogert gave Mass a difficult time throughout the session because they're cutthroat, but friendly competitors.

Photos by Daniel Hunt, Flickr

Several weeks ago, after being in my first full-time job for six months, I was preparing for the American Copy Editors Society national conference. It would be my first.

So when University of Oregon professor John Russial asked me to participate in a panel about online editing, I was hesitant to accept. I told him that I was inexperienced and relatively immature, but he still thought I would be "a good addition." So I accepted. And I'm glad.

I presented my opening statement alongside Amy Hubbard, the copy desk chief for Travel, Real Estate and Books at the Los Angeles Times, and John Boogert, Internet news editor at the Rocky Mountain News. Even Hubbard was nervous when she gave her speech, so that put me at ease.

Russial first presented his study about the editing of online products at newspapers. He surveyed 210 publications and divided them into three size categories. I don't have many details, but these are a few things I jotted down.

Twenty percent of the largest newspapers said they don't edit online stories.

Of all papers that do edit online, there's a 2-1 ratio of editors who have editing experience to those who don't. But copy editors would say "editing" experience doesn't mean "copy editing" experience.

Of the newspapers that don't edit online stories, 59 percent said they don't because it delays posting, and 42 percent said they don't have enough employees.

But the most striking result in Russial's study is that smaller newspapers are, for the most part, doing just as well as the larger ones when it comes to online editing.

For example, Michael Roehrman of The Wichita Eagle, which is about the size of FLORIDA TODAY, said that all stories are given to the day or night copy desk to be edited, then sent to the Web site. The Eagle was surveyed in Russial's study. FLORIDA TODAY was, too, and that's why Russial asked me to join the panel.


At FLORIDA TODAY, online producers are responsible for editing and for the technical maintenance of the site's function and aesthetics.

My opening statement about how editing is done in Brevard County was well-received. People came up to me several times for the rest of the conference to talk about FLORIDA TODAY. I was a proud ambassador.

To look at my speech, click on either the Word version or the PDF version.

Editing blogs

In Russial's sample, one of three newspapers did not edit blogs. Of the sites that didn't edit blogs, 70 percent said blogs were solely the writer's responsibility.

Hubbard said the Times assigns blogs to copy editors to edit whenever they have time. It's not a regular part of their duties. This seems like a good way to handle blog editing.

Some people argue against blog editors because they risk taking away the writer's voice. But what about accuracy? What about embarrassing errors? Andy Bechtel of the University of North Carolina talks more about blog editing here.

Copy editors don't edit FLORIDA TODAY blogs. Instead, an assigning editor oversees them, so there is some quality control.

It isn't always practical to have a copy editor for a blog, such as in the case of FLORIDA TODAY's space team. Some blogs are 24-hour features that are updated from home or from the field. For example, our NASA reporters blog from Mission Control in Houston at 3 a.m. when no one is on duty in Florida.

The only thing that I ask, however, is that bloggers learn to write headlines.

Session information
  • Title: "Online Copy Editing: What’s Being Done, What Could Be Done"
  • Time: 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Friday
  • Panelists: John Russial, University of Oregon; John Boogert, Rocky Mountain News; Amy Hubbard, Los Angeles Times; Michael Roehrman, Wichita Eagle; Valerie Mass, Denver Post; Andrew Knapp, Florida Today
  • Description: "A look at who’s editing what online, and how little copy actually is being edited before being posted. The problem runs from small to large publications. But some newsrooms have created online copy editing positions, and others are experimenting with schedules, desk structures and other things as a way to get online copy read."
Smokin' ACES home

Smokin' ACES: Trimming fat is a big part of copy desk's job


This post is pretty straightforward. Copy editors often are charged with trimming large stories into smaller ones, sometimes considerably smaller ones. It's increasingly becoming a reality as our readers' attention spans shorten. I'll just present my notes in bullet points for any editor who wants to pick up a few tips.

Types of trims

  • An inch or two
  • Slash and burn: cutting a story by several inches
  • From a story to a brief
  • From a story to a sentence or two (FLORIDA TODAY has a page of summaries for the big articles of the day. It's called the 5-Minute Read. Each item is a sentence or two.)

  • Deadlines, especially online
  • Shrinking news hole and staff size
  • Pressure for shorter stories and fewer jumps
  • Alternate story forms (design-heavy stories)

  • Make use of cutlines: Don't repeat the same information from the story.
  • Let graphics and text boxes share the load: Again, this text shouldn't regurgitate the story.
  • Use the Web.
  • Cut carefully with the reader in mind.

An inch or two
  • When a story is close to fitting, edit it thoroughly before trimming: Find words and phrases to cut.
  • Trim excess details and quotes.
  • Summarize and condense.
  • Pull back lines if your publishing system allows it: Watch out for widows.

Slash and burn
  • When you have a lot to trim, remember the inverted pyramid.
  • Read, but don't edit, the entire story.
  • Pick an ending point. Deal no more with what's below that point. (Turn a major trim into a minor trim.)
  • Look for optional trims in wire copy.
  • Keep the "new news."
  • Keep the explainer (why you should care about the story).
  • Keep the "talker" (something you would tell a co-worker tomorrow at the water cooler).
  • Keep the methods and disclaimers on scientific and poll stories.
  • Keep the he said/she said (both sides of the story).
  • Cut the excess, and summarize the essential.

  • Make sure you keep the first reference of names.
  • Don't end on a transition.
  • Make sure the story ends somehow, not necessarily with a quote.

  • Use just the facts: Leave out quotes.
  • Craft a focused lede.
  • Use quotes only if they're effective at getting the story across.

Web streamlining tasks
  • Breaking news
  • News updates
  • Night-before stories (big teasers to print edition)
  • Summaries for multimedia projects
  • All of these elements require a short style, which often is achieved through trimming.

Breaking news
  • When a car accident happens around 4:30 p.m., put the traffic information at top. Do this especially if people are injured. Later on, the lede might change to stress injuries or fatalities.

Session information
  • Title: "Tighten Up! Trimming the Fat, Trimming to Fit"
  • Time: 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Saturday
  • Panelists: Andy Bechtel, University of North Carolina; Lisa McLendon, Wichita Eagle
  • Description: One of the underrates skills that a copy editor must have is the ability to trim: Cutting huge swaths, excising an unnecessary paragraph of two, posting parts of stories online first, even if the whole story is in. But trimming isn't just about fitting the story to the page. Just because there's unlimited space on the Web doesn't mean readers wants 1,600 words. This session will cover trimming for both situations: fitting stories into a print publication and streamlining for the Web.
Smokin' ACES home

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Smokin' ACES: Words will be words, unless your dictionary says otherwise (but it probably doesn't)

I can't remember, but I think Erin McKean was looking up a word on a BlackBerry as I snapped this. ... Sorry, Erin. But look! She's got letters, which make words, on her dress.

Words are surprisingly entertaining. So that means a book of words, also known as a dictionary, could be a good piece of literature to curl up to on a cold January afternoon.

Not necessarily. As I will explain later, there's danger of death when you do that.

But dictionaries do offer some fuel for debate and are often the main weapons of copy editors when attempting to shoot holes in a reporter's deranged word usage.

But copy editors should remember: Just because a word is in the dictionary, we don't necessarily have the right to use it.

Erin McKean, the dictionary evangelist and chief consulting editor at Oxford University Press, asked copy editors at their 2008 geek fest in Denver what they want in a dictionary.

For me, all I ask for is a sound compilation of words with definitions that are easy enough for a reporter to understand.

But copy editors often use the dictionary as ammunition against readers, too.

My boss has mentioned on a few occasions that readers have complained about using the word "tank" to describe a team or business that founders.

Yes, dear reader, the noun "tank" is a sort of military vehicle, but it also is a verb meaning to decline, to sink or to otherwise fail miserably. It's in the dictionary. Look it up.

But the dictionary doesn't have your back 100 percent of the time. You can't always interpret it literally. McKean's example was "hackles," which a dictionary might say are the hair on a dog's neck. But the entry might not say that it means temper or anger that becomes visible when you see the neck hair stand up. The sentence "The boy pets the dog's hackles" would just be wrong.

Even though the definition of a word is technically correct, it's use as such in a sentence just may not fit. But the dictionary doesn't tell us that. In this case, a copy editor can't point to a dictionary when saying, "I told you so," to a reporter who insists on using "hackles" in that manner.

A case for online dictionaries

So, copy editors need something to explain why a sentence is "just wrong."

That's where extensive etymologies and usage dictionaries could come in handy. But the space needed to print them would be mind-boggling.

"The paper book is just too limiting," McKean said. "They can't show the supporting evidence."

Newspapers have found the print product limiting, and dictionaries should follow their lead by migrating online. Cyberspace offers forums for comments on words and their various usages, sometimes depending on regional dialect. They also offer efficient searchability, a time saver that would help the copy desk.

Probably the best online dictionary is Merriam-Webster. Some of my fellow copy editors are known to look up more words on m-w.com than in the proper, Associated Press-sanctioned Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

This is too bad, of course. Though Merriam-Webster bills itself as the direct descendant of legendary lexicographer Noah Webster, many circles see it only as the "slut" dictionary: It allows almost everything between its binders.

Ironically, Merriam-Webster seems rather bitter on its Web site. Under the frequently asked question "Are all Webster's dictionaries alike?" (which is answered "no"), it says: "In the late 1800s and early 1900s, legal difficulties concerning the copyright and trademark of the name Webster arose, and eventually many different publishers — some rather unscrupulous — began putting dictionaries on the market under the Webster's name."

I don't care. You're still a slut.

Words are fun when they're hopped up on caffeine

Where McKean really shined was in her humor and insight. Dictionaries can be fun.

She mentioned two words that irk her: "slacks" and "moist." I don't see their irksome nature. Of course, in Florida, if you dress up in a suit during the humid summer months, what do you get? Yup, moist slacks, and I guess they are a bit irksome.

McKean exposed a little-known fact about lexicographers. Because they guard their work closely, they make up words to see if other
lexicographers will steal them. A good example is "esquivalience." Go to this New Yorker article for more.

Also, the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, contains definitions from all the great sections of the United States. McKean mentioned the long-debated words for a soft drink.

These are my theories behind the soft drink variations:
  • pop (Upper Midwest)
  • coke (Lower Midwest and South, specificallyespecially Atlanta)
  • soda (Northeast)
  • tonic (Canadian border regions, such as my hometown)

Safe and deadly ways of improving vocabulary

This was the only session I attended with co-worker Beth. As we listened to McKean, I asked Beth, "What do you think she scored on her SAT?"

So, to get smart like her, McKean suggested two methods. One is safe. The other is fast and dangerous, possibly deadly.
  • Safe: Up your reading. Buy a bunch of magazines you wouldn't normally buy, ones that are out of your comfort zone. If you're the Vanity Fair type, buy Forbes. If you're the Forbes type, buy Vanity Fair.
  • Fast and dangerous: Buy a word-a-day calendar (or look at The Offlede's "Word of the Day" feed on the right sidebar). The danger is that you won't have the context to the use the word in a proper sentence. McKean said a child once told his librarian, "My family erodes a lot," because he learned that the definition of "erode" is "to eat away" or "to eat out." The boy meant to say, "My family eats out a lot." Also, high-security inmates with access only to dictionaries, not real books, are guilty of memorizing words without context. "You don't want to sound like someone writing from death row," McKean said.
Session information
  • Title: "Tell Me What You Really Want From Your Dictionary"
  • Time: 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday
  • Presenter: Erin McKean
  • Description: Once you really get some traction as a copy editor or journalist, you start to see the holes that all dictionaries—even great dictionaries—have. Words you can’t find. Unclear usage information. Ambiguity abounds, and trying to get a definitive (no pun intended) answer can be tricky, especially on deadline. But dictionaries can’t fix what they don’t know is broken. Come to this session and vent to a real-live lexicographer ... and learn about some new and exciting (and more importantly, more helpful) dictionary features that are just around the corner!
Smokin' ACES home

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Breaking news: Gas prices are high (it's official)

I've never paid this much to fill my tiny 11-gallon tank.

That's right! You heard it first on The Offlede: Gas prices are ridiculous.

I equate "breaking news" in the above headline with "it's official."

It's a statement of the obvious. It's almost like the headline "It's raining outside" that I wrote about an obvious weather story.

It's official: No. 1 sign you should rewrite that headline

The Detroit Free Press is guilty of using the pointless "it's official." And this headline was taken directly from the lede. Can it get any worse?

This post comes directly from the Rip Your Hair Out Department at The Offlede. "It's official" has to be one of the most grossly overused, unnecessary phrases in newspaper and online headlines. Why?
  • It rarely adds anything.
  • You can always drop it from a headline without losing any vital information.
  • You could probably add it to most any headline without making it incorrect.
So, when you can add Something or take Something away from a headline without destroying its meaning, that's a big sign that Something is pointless (and not capitalized).

To illustrate how perpetual it is, I did a quick survey. "It's official" appeared in 212 article headlines on Google News over the last two weeks. The unpunctuated "Its official" (the "its" still meaning "it is") even appeared six times.

Here are some of the star examples:

It's official: Jake Long is a Miami Dolphin (The Palm Beach Post)
  • Can't you just say that he's a Dolphin?
It's Official: Brauchli Out At WSJ (The Washington Post)
  • No. It's not that it's official now: It's that it actually happened. Everything else before the actual happening was just speculation through "sources with knowledge of the situation but without the authority to speak with the press."
It's official: Hasek benched (Detroit Free Press)
  • When he was unofficially benched, where was he exactly? On the bench? The Freep was an especially egregious violator of the no-it's official rule. This particular one was taken from the story's lede. That's horrible and horribly uncreative headline writing.
It's official: Olive Garden is coming (Bismarck Tribune, N.D.)
  • Oh, thank goodness! There was that unofficial limbo period, and I was so worried it wouldn't really happen. Soup, salad and bread sticks for everyone!
It's Official: User-Generated Content is By and For Corny, Backward Philistines (Wired magazine)
  • A good, vindicating, strangely biblical one for some of you traditional journalists.
It's official: Sex therapists suck in bed (San Francisco Chronicle)
  • Because everyone knew that before anyway. And finally, it has been written down.
Yup, it's official: Flint has shrinkage (The Flint Journal, Mich.)
  • Everyone knows it's cold up there.
It's official -- The Masters will forever be ESPNized (Orlando Sentinel)
  • Before it became official, the tournament was covertly ESPNized. Isn't that better than CBSized anyway?
It's official -- no state-sponsored cocktail (The McDowell News, N.C.)
It's official -- no clothesline ban (Oakville Beaver, Ontario)
  • Wait. Things can officially NOT happen?!
It's Official: Jenna Bush To Wed At Ranch (The ShowBuzz)
  • This must have been the lede: Despite his earlier threats of a veto, President Bush today signed a bill compelling his daughter to marry at his crib in Crawford, Texas.
It's Official: Mount Snow's Closing Date is Unofficial (AlpineZone News, Conn.)
  • There's nothing like unofficial officialism.
It's official, Alabama is the Soviet Union (The Huffington Post)
  • That's expected from Arianna.
It's official: Mountain named in honor of combat fatality (Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.)
It's official: Piestewa Peak name OK'd (East Valley Tribune, Ariz.)
It's Official: Piestewa Peak (Reznet News, Mont.)
Squaw Peak officially Piestewa Peak (The Arizona Republic)
  • Same story. Different newspapers. Same official headline. This was the fault of none other than The Associated Press. Other newspapers thought it necessary to keep the AP editor's "official" in their versions of the headline.
It's official: FairPoint closes Verizon deal (Mainebiz Daily)
  • When did they unofficially close it?
It's official: Rangers vs. Devils in playoffs (Newsday)
  • Like, so, yeah, it became official when the teams advanced to the next round, right? Or what?

Smokin' ACES: Ex-Freep editor is fond of the weird and short

"On guard for 176 years," and Alex Cruden was there for almost 40 years of it.

Alex Cruden, longtime editor at another Gannett publication, the Detroit Free Press, reflected on his 40 years in daily journalism. He just took a buyout in March.

This was actually the last session I attended at ACES, but it was one of the best. Oddly enough, however, I didn't take many notes. I must have been too engrossed in his wisdom. (Cruden is at left. Photo by Daniel Hunt, Flickr.)

This is the one thing I wrote down, and it's a quote from Cruden: "Be willing to not only tolerate the unusual; try to enhance it." He was talking about the editing process and how it's paramount to accentuate what makes news, news.

Cruden distributed a handout about how to edit on a tight deadline. He offers a 14-step process. For the Word version of the guide, go here. For the PDF version, go here. Click it. Print it. Learn from it.

The closing two sentences of his biography in the ACES conference program were: "As an editor, he has a fondness for short sentences. And irony."

I know a few flowery-writing reporters who could benefit from his insight.

Session information
  • Title: "40 Years in 90 Minutes"
  • Time: 2:15 to 3:45 p.m. Saturday
  • Presenter: Alex Cruden, Detroit Free Press (retired)
  • Description: "Cruden will offer a one-page handout and lead a discussion based on distillation of four decades of daily journalism. What’s most valuable amid the tread of deadlines and the blare of online? What skills should an editor cherish, and expect to be rewarded for?"
Smokin' ACES home

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stuff you find on Florida roads: plastic and glass near work


This is the second installment of "Stuff you find on Florida roads." And I almost became a victim of road rage to bring it to you.

It seems that another minor accident happened, and crews did a shoddy job of picking up.

This time, it was in front of the FLORIDA TODAY building on U.S. 1 in Melbourne/Rockledge/Suntree/Brevard (its location is debatable). Of course, my car tires had to roll over the glass and tail-light plastic when I entered the driveway to my workplace.

I snapped this photo from my driver's seat after stopping in the turning lane with a car behind me. Its driver honked and was likely wondering what the heck I was doing. Luckily, that person didn't turn into FLORIDA TODAY. I thought it was a co-worker. That would have been awkward.

Maybe that traitorous interrobang should just be shot


Browsing through the Newseum's front pages yesterday, I noticed the either deft or dimwitted use of the interrobang on the front page of the Detroit Free Press.

Ideally, the interrobang is formed by visually blending a question mark with an exclamation point, as you see to the left. Few pagination and word processing programs allow such blasphemy, so we must settle with side-by-side marks of punctuation whose usages are merged. I'll call it a "severed interrobang." OK?!

There are three common uses for an interrobang:
  • To excitedly pose a question
  • To convey excitement or disbelief through a question
  • To ask a rhetorical question.
And, of course, the word "interrobang" itself is derived from interrogation (asking a question) and "bang!," which is slang for an exclamation point. So, to use an interrobang is to ask a question with a bang.

Its origin has been traced to media advertiser Martin Speckter, who supposedly invented it as a convenient way to express incredulity.

I suspect its frequent usage today in our sacred English language is another casualty from the slaughter that electronic communication has committed. How many times have you seen your instant messaging buddy respond to you like this:


My problem always is deciding which order the question mark and the exclamation point should be arranged in. The question is: Which is the most important mark of punctuation? The first? Or the last?

I'm guessing it's the last because that's the one that makes the lasting impression, the punctuating cherry on the top. In the case of this headline, it's an exclamatory cherry.

The question mark says, "Seriously, who's next? I wanna know so we can start watching film."

The exclamation point says, "Grrr, who's next? Who wants a piece of me? Bring it on!"

Of course, the severed interrobang flies in the face of the old rule that a sentence should end in a single piece of punctuation. Sentences that end, say, with a interrogatory title cannot escape that rule's jurisdiction. Example:
  • I used to watch "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"
It's not:
  • I used to watch "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?".
The latter would be silly.

But what would happen if the headline had just one of those punctuation marks?

  • Borrrrrrring.
  • Wrong.
So in the old world, the severed interrobang would be sacrilege. But in the new world, it might work.

After all, the use of punctuation, as opposed to grammar, always has been somewhat interpretative. Even The Associated Press admits this. Its stylebook says: "The punctuation entries in this book refer to guidelines rather than rules. Guidelines should not be treated casually, however."

But let's remember that the person who invented the interrobang worked in advertising. So putting it in a front-page headline is not just melding two marks of punctuation; it's also combining news and advertising.

A simple punctuation mark, the interrobang, could be responsible for the fall of the wall between church (advertising) and state (news).