In Shakespeares "Twelfth Night," Viola (disguised as Cesario) tells Countess Olivia that she has no right to hide from the world in her self-imposed cloister. Professor Peter Saccio from Dartmouth says thats a rather common idea and theme from Shakespeares times and it refers to the Biblical parable of the servants and the talents: We do not own our merits, we are stewards of them. In other words, we must use our talents for action instead of contemplation; and dont put a candle under a basket unless you have a good fire insurance policy.
Let me stay pedantic for another paragraph: Erasmus wrote in his work, "In Praise of Folly," that intellectuals and scholars engage in foolish work by splitting hairs, wallowing in self-importance and indulging in esoterica. Such actions, he wrote, are testament to their intellectual pride and vanity.
OK, I hope you stay tuned up to this point because here is where I tie those two thoughts together. Although I am just as arrogant as the next journalist cursed with a healthy ego, I have a Web site where I can split hairs, swell with self-pride and indulge in esoterica. So nyah-nyah.
But I also hope that, like Erasmus, I can humbly claim to be just as dumb and pig-headed as the next fool. What follows is a series of answers I posted on various listservs I subscribe to. Feel free to disagree with any or all of my thoughts.
I'm researching a proposed book on note-taking (and interviewing) techniques used by American print journalists and would value your publishable input
QUESTION: 1 Do you primarily use notebook & pen, or recorder, in face-to-face (vs. telephone) interviews?
ANSWER: For face-to-face interviews, I think it is best to use notebook and pen. When I was a stringer for AP, I used both. I'd rest my big yellow legal pad on top of my tape recorder and hold them all in one hand. You have to be rather skilled at "juggling" to do it because it requires some dexterity, but it was essential because the tape was necessary for transcription purposes.
QUESTION: 2 Why do you prefer one over the other (notebook over recorder, or vice-versa)?
ANSWER: Too many things can go wrong if you just rely on tape. Plus I think people are more at ease when you write. To me, it just seems more natural and you want people to feel at ease and open up.
QUESTION: 3 What if any "short-hand" system do you use? Can you briefly describe your technique?
ANSWER: Just standard abbreviations. Plus, I'm not a court stenographer, I'm a reporter, so I don't write everything down. If I hear a quote I like - and if I didn't get it - I'd ask the interviewee to repeat it, or rephrase the question to get essentially the same answer.
QUESTION: 4 What one piece of advice would you consider most crucial in advising beginning reporters on the art of journalistic interviews?
ANSWER: To relax and have a conversation with the subject; to find a way to put them at ease as well and get them to trust you and talk to you. Sometimes that means putting the notebook away for a while. It all comes down to being professional.
If we wanted to make money,
we’d have gone into sales
Question: Could you help us figure out a way to make our Web site profitable? It’s for captains and crews of luxury yachts. Should we charge for our content? It is incredibly unique and in 10 months has developed a good reputation. We’re trying to sell subscriptions but at the moment are just covering costs.
Answer: I'm not an entrepreneur, just an Ivory Tower guesser at Web sites, so take anything I say with a grain of salt. I assume you have a sophisticated counter that tells you what time people log on to your site, from where, what they use, etc. If so, then I'd use that to determine demographics and see what you may want to charge for (i.e., something that generates a lot of traffic and is unique even to your site). You wouldn't want to do it with classifieds since they are a revenue generator as it is and charging may drive away customers. But what else do you offer that a lot of people are reading? What I mean is, you may want to consider just charging for a section, or for certain stories (maybe even giving readers, say, the first couple graphs and then saying if they want to read the rest they'll have to pay). At any rate, I'd start from there and see if that worked. If it does, then you have to figure out what to charge. Personally, I'd advise you to be flexible and try to keep it on the low side (but enough, of course, to make a profit). Another good thing about the demographics thing is that you can always take the data to potential advertisers and say, "hey, look at how many captains read us online. Think of the potential audience reach you'd have by advertising with us, etc."
Question: You were an editor. Lemme pick your brain here. If you got this letter to the editor would you forward it to the FBI? It's the next to last paragraph that has me concerned.
To the Editor: In response to your publication’s attack on the great Tom DeLay, let’s settle a few things: He has been a force for conservative Republican causes, and is regarded as a role model by many. As of this time, nothing criminal or illegal has been proven about Mr. DeLay.
Thus, until all facts are together, lay off of DeLay. It'll do your paper good in that your exposure to a libel/defamation suit would be minimal. Tom DeLay has the right idea about making judges who give erroneous rulings pay for their errors. The judges who handled the Terri Schiavo case, handled it horribly. Judges who make wrong rulings should pay... The Supreme Court recently made a ruling stating that courts should look at other countries' rulings on similar cases when ruling on future cases.
What about American sovereignty? The Ninth Circuit in San Francisco recently overturned a murder conviction because, during the sentencing phase... the family and friends of the victim wore pins on their lapels bearing that person's image. Huh??? We hold politicians accountable when they do things that endanger the public trust. We hold product makers liable when they make products that cause injury. We hold each other responsible when we do things that jeopardize others.
Thus, with judges being American citizens just like the rest of us, when they make rulings that defy logic, or that harm the public trust, or that harm American sovereignty... they should be made to pay with their careers, their livelihoods, their everything. Once judges start realizing they are NOT above the laws of society, or of nature, or of common sense, will we then have a turnaround favoring judges who can give level-headed rulings and use some common sense.
Answer: This person seems like a real piece of work. First off, the letter is probably too long, so you don’t have to run it. Secondly, I'd write or call the writer back and tell him or her that these rants sound ominous and that it's not in the spirit of constructive journalism to threaten people.
Turn it over to the FBI? Hmmm, I’m torn. It sounds as if we're preaching freedom and then, in practice, also being neo-fascists for fingering people. Still, this person did write a letter that he or she expected to see in the paper, so there is no real confidentiality being breached. Also, the threat is implied. Does this person mean violence? He or she doesn’t come right out and make a direct threat. And yet, and still … well if someone got hurt and I did nothing to prevent it ... So, yeah, I guess I might call some cop and give them a copy of the letter or the original. I’d also keep a copy or the original for any potential story down the line.
Lead me to the write lede
Question: I need advice/opinion re: a particular hard-news story summary lede. Here are some of the details: A woman is arrested at her home after her husband came home late and – according to an eyewitness – apparently drunk, after playing golf. The woman beat him over the head with one of his golf clubs, and was subsequently arrested on a charge of battery.
Here are my questions:
1.) The parties are not well known, so should I use their names in the lede at all? Or is a "generic" lead best? Something like, “A Riverbend Drive woman was arrested for battery Monday, after police say she beat her husband, etc...” And then get into the names in a subsequent graf?
2) An eyewitness claimed the man was disheveled and "three sheets to the wind." Can we report that the man was "allegedly" or "apparently drunk," and do we have to attribute that allegation to the eyewitness – or can we attribute it to "police said"?
3) Should we avoid the alleged drunkenness altogether, since it's only hearsay? Yet it seems a rather important detail.
Answer: Prominence is a big part of news. Since neither the golfer nor his wife are well-known, we can use their names as a transition in the next graf to keep the story running.
For example, if I’m arrested on a shoplifting charge the story would read something like: "A Joeville man was charged with petite larceny after allegedly taking a print cartridge from a Joeville Target store Tuesday." But if a noted jurist commits the heinous act, then his or her name goes in the lede and we have to find a new transition. Drunkenness is part of hearsay. I'd be careful about it unless it was specifically mentioned in the report the reporter got at the cop shop. If a neighbor says so-and-so is drunk it's just one person's impression at a particular time. After all, the man could have been sick, could have lost his balance, or any other number of things. But if you can back it up because it's mentioned in the incident report then go with it and attribute it to the official source, thus giving you qualified privilege if somebody threatens to sue. An analogy is akin to running a report that says an eyewitness saw the mayor come out of a house of ill repute and set it on fire. We wouldn't run such a story unless we had several witnesses say that.
So my hypothetical lede would be something like this:
JOEVILLE – A Riverbend Drive woman was arrested Monday on a charge of battery after police said she beat her husband with one of his golf clubs when he returned home late from Persimmon Hill Golf Course.
Vote to read this
Question: A candidate for City Council wants to post some of our articles about the campaign on his Web site. The articles in question are not posted on our Web site, so we would need to send him the text, or he would need to just copy it out of the paper. I don't really see a problem with it, do you?
Answer: A couple things to consider:
First, can you be sure the stories can't be altered? Papers with Web sites prohibit anything except links back to their own site. (Since the stories aren't available on your site, maybe you can send him a read-only PDF.)
Second, be sure you really would do the same for anyone who asked, particularly another candidate. Here’s why: I know what you mean when you write that this is a common practice. But I'm still a little hesitant because I think it's walking an ethical tightrope. For some the perception might be seen as an implied endorsement.
Of course, if they were on your Web site then the candidate would just link to them – even without your knowledge – and the same perception could apply. What are the articles about? Why does he want to post them? Do they contain general info, or does he want, say, an endorsement? Does he think the articles cast him in a favorable light, or any potential opponent in an unfavorable light? I'd answer those questions and then decide if I want to go any further. I’d assess all the stakeholders involved – including my paper and its perception in the community – before making a decision. Did you ever check out Poynter's Ethics tool on its Web site (www.poynter.org)? It's usually at the bottom of the lefthand sidewalk and it helped me when I was a community newspaper editor. But here’s a “recipe” to help make such decisions that a colleague (Professor George Hole at Buffalo State College) and I used in our ethics class on how to make a decision in a conflict situation:
1. a. State
the conflict briefly to make sure you understand the issues and context.
b. Identify the relevant facts.
c. Now rank them in order of importance.
d. Identify everyone who needs to be considered. (If they’re not to be considered equally, rank their order of importance.
e. State your involvement in the situation, including any special relationship and any negative or positive feelings you have toward anyone involved and any personal interest you may have in any decision to see what bias you may have.
2. Identify the principles, obligations, promises, or interests) and restraints for making a decision, including any relevant by anyone else involved.
3. a. List some
b. For each option, predict its consequences (both long- and short-term consequences, symbolic consequences and the consequences of silence). Also include best- and worst-case benefits, harms, costs and risks.
your character and integrity. How do you want to be perceived. How do you
want others whom you respect to think of you.
a. Make a decision: choose the best option, all things considered.
b. Summarize your reasons.
5. Answer yes
· Would I accept the decision if I were in the position of the (other) persons or groups involved, or if someone applied the same decision to me in similar circumstances?
· Am I willing to make my decision and reasons public?
· Can I act on my decision without regret or guilt?
· Is this decision consistent with my basic values?
· Would I make the same decision if it did not benefit me or people close to me?
6. Re-examine doubts
7. Act with
a. List any difficulties you foresee in acting on your decision and how you’ll face them.
b. List ways that you might gain acceptance for your decision. c. List objections others might have and how you can overcome them.
OK to quote an e-mail?
Question: A reporter sent someone an e-mail about a scandal. (The reporter identified himself/herself as a reporter.) The person who was e-mailed replied that he/she didn't want to get mixed up in what's going on (as a former staffer of the organization). But then the source wrote a couple more sentences about his/her respect for those being investigated. Do we quote the entire reply? After all, if we were talking on the phone, we wouldn’t ask, "Can I quote you on what you just said?" because the source knew he/she was talking to a reporter. Does the same hold true for e-mail? After all, a lot more thought goes into composing a reply and hitting send.
Answer: Even though e-mail is about a decade or so old, I don't know if people are sure how to handle it. Perhaps the person who responded equated it with a letter and thought his/her reply was confidential, especially if it was written to a friend. However, the e-mail should be fair game, especially if you make it clear in the original inquiry that you are working on a story and that you are a reporter. But be prepared for possible flack from the source. And telling him/her you are going to use it would be the polite thing to do if you ever want to use him/her as a source again.
Whenever I use a quote from an e-mail, I sorta "Mirandize" people – i.e. I tell the source up front that whatever they write may be used. It's best to run it past the source to get the official OK, but if he/she backs out, tell him/her why you want to use the quote and why their voice is essential to the story. Sometimes the source, after some initial trepidation, may give a better quote (better in the sense that it is more eloquent and clear).
Also, it's best to say where you're quoting something from, such as "XXX," Jane Smith wrote in an e-mail reply. Or "XXXX," wrote Supervisor Dick Jones in a memo to the town board. And if you’re part of a listserv and the e-mail you want to use has been posted, I wouldn't take it as an on-the-record remark, but instead e-mail the person and ask if you could use the quote.
This hed was written by Joe in the passive voice
Question: Can anyone give me a clear explanation of passive voice? I know it most of the times I see it, but I'm having a hard time explaining it to my reporters/interns. And is it always avoidable?
Answer: Well, the grammarians will say that active voice has the subject doing something to an object; the passive voice has the object having something done to it by the subject.
Confusing? You bet it is. So here's how I explained it to my reporters when I was an editor: Joe is typing on the keyboard. (ACTIVE VOICE) The keyboard is being typed on by Joe. (PASSIVE VOICE) Another way to remember this is that we don't normally talk in passive voice, so if the goal of clear writing is to "write like we talk, only better," then the reporters/students will write without affect.
The passive voice is used to avoid taking responsibility for an action. Yet as journalists we often seek to hold people accountable. So it’s best avoided. However, there is a place for the passive voice: Joe is a plagiarist. (ACTIVE VOICE, BUT IS IT ACCURATE? LIBELOUS?) Joe was arrested on plagiarism charges. (PASSIVE VOICE AND A POSSIBLE PREDICATE ADJECTIVE, YET YOU'VE PERFORMED THE NECESSARY CYA) And don't forget the role of the subjunctive in all of this: If Joe were a rich man he wouldn't be working and trying to fend off plagiarism accusations. Deedle-deedle-deedle didle-do.
Art for art’s sake?
Question: Regarding car accident pictures that don’t show any blood or injured/killed people, what’s a good policy on publishing them?
The same principle can be applied to photos. Rather than routinely assign a photog to go to the scene, or take a pic from a shooter who happened to be there, stop and think: Why are we shooting this? What is the goal of the photo? Why should readers care?
Was it a scene where more than one person died or was injured? Then perhaps the focus of the pic should be on the rescue workers working to save a lives. Pictures of hospital helicopters standing by with other rescue equipment can just as eloquently tell a story as a pic of a bloody victim.
Is it an intersection where there have been other accidents? Then maybe a shot of the intersection, street, etc., sans traffic light or stop sign or pix of cars ignoring stop signs, or of trucks barreling down the street (with a speed limit sign prominently nearby in the shot) will suffice.
Placement also becomes an issue. Not every pic
What the *&^$^%@!! do you mean?
Question: How do you handle so-called “blue words” that might try to get into print?
We came to the conclusion that we would be more thoughtful and careful in the future, and decide these things on a case-by-case basis. However, we would always take into account our community's sense of taste and weigh that against the need to be informed. What was greater? What would the purpose be? Who are we serving? Of course, also included in the mix are legal concerns and First Amendment rights (as we defined them).
And, just to make this long and rambling blog even longer and “ramblier,”
I tape, therefore I am
Question: Is it OK to tape board meetings, et al.? Suppose someone, say a board member, objects? Should I make a scene?
Answer: I think that a tape recorder is a tool we use to get the news. I rarely use one, basically because Im techno-challenged and think that it is MORE work to transcribe a tape then check my notes and give a call to someone if I want to make sure I got what they said correctly.
But since it is a tool, we have the right to use it. A board member wouldnt think to tell a radio reporter to put away the microphone, nor ask TV reporters to put away their cameras.
And if they do object, make the argument that the tape recorder ensures accuracy.
As to the second part of the question: I dont know if you should cause a scene, unless you want to become part of the story, which is not out of the question. But just know it will happen and gird yourself for it.
What I would do is tell the people in charge that I am going to pursue this as an angle to the story and get quotes from all the people involved who would want me to turn off my tape-recorder. Then Id turn off my tape and get the story I was originally sent there to get.
Something akin to this happened to me when I was an AP stringer covering Buffalo Bills home games. The security people wouldnt let me into the Miami Dolphins dressing room after a game (and, if memory serves, they won!). The NFL forbids shutting legitimate press out from the locker room. Rather than argue with the security guys, I just waited until I saw the Dolphins PR guy, told him what had happened, and he then took me personally into the locker room, telling the security guys they couldnt keep me out. I didnt lose any access or quotes. So everything worked out that time. But I would have gone to the league if it didnt.
Its my way or the highway
Question: Can a reporter openly be an advocate for a cause?
Answer: We must avoid even the suspicion of being "bought and paid for" by some group or some person. We are not PR voices for anyone; we are objective reporters doing our best to present a fair and unbiased report of an event, group, whatever.
For example, not too long ago I was asked to be a Democratic Party candidate for the town council in Colden, N.Y., my hometown. (Because I have a recognizable name, though Im also a registered Democrat and the party bosses know that.) Turning them down was a no-brainer. I write about Democrats and Republicans. And even though Colden is a little town about 25 or so miles from Buffalo, where I work, I would have completely lost my credibility if I had accepted.
At the end of the day, all we have is our credibility. Lets face it, our papers will be recycled or used to wrap fish and our broadcasts are right now wafting on waves to infinity and beyond.
The only other way I can "explain" it is by quoting what B.B. King supposedly said about the blues: "If I have to explain it, it aint the blues."
Hiding in plain sight
Question: What to do with anonymous letters to news organizations?
Answer: No matter what paper I worked for, if we got an anonymous letter, wed throw it out. Or if such letters were anonymous and mentioned a specific issue or person, wed turn it over to the beat reporter for background info only.
If they were anonymous and full of misspelled and words and bad grammar, we passed it around in our self-important, delusionally superior way. If they were all of the above and full of complaints about us, we contacted the IRS in hopes it could determine the sender and audit him or her. (Just kidding. That sentence in no way implies that we had any influence with or over any federal government agency. Void where prohibited by law. Member FSIC, BBB, AARP, NATO and Mickey Mouse Club.)
What did you do in the paper, daddy?
Question: Do columnists or maybe more precisely, their work have an impact on the community in which they work?
Answer: Yes, I believe they do, but I dont have any hard research or anecdotal evidence to back that up.
I know the politicos read my column because I get (or my boss gets) a couple complaints a month. And when they complain I tell them: "Look, Im not smart enough to know what the hot topics are. I go out and talk to people and this is what they tell me. So if Im complaining about you in my column its only because people are saying those things." For an example, click on my name along the righthand sidewalk at sree.net/teaching/scrippshoward and follow the link to some of my columns.
By the way, some of my most personal columns about my wife or daughter usually provoke the most responses. People want to connect with people. And parents always identify with other parents. (One of my columns on the Web site I mentioned a few lines ago is about my daughter; another is what its like to live in snowy Buffalo; and the third is on my Irish heritage.)
Actually, I do have a bit of evidence, though not from any column I did, that what we print in a newspaper has an impact on a community. When I was a bureau reporter for the Olean Times Herald in Bradford, Pa., back in the mid-80s, I did a series of stories about the Klan making noise of establishing a branch in Bradford. Before I knew it, there were anti-Klan rallies and the city council was mulling an anti-mask ordinance. So Im never surprised by the impact a news story or column has on a community.
All columns are local
Question: What is the role of a columnist?
Answer: Sports columnists got me hooked on reading. They gave me my newspaper jones. I was an elementary school student in sports-mad Buffalo just after the Bills had won the AFL championships in the mid-60s and then, a few years later, the Bills drafted O.J. Simpson. Well, we all know where that led, so I eventually stopped reading the sports pages (except for whenever I found a Jim Murray column).
But Buffalo at the time was a two-newspaper town and the columnists in the now defunct Courier-Express (Mark Twain was editor of the Express during his brief Buffalo sojourn) and the surviving Buffalo Evening News (now The Buffalo News) opened the world to a kid from the next parish acrost the crick in Sout Buflo. I particularly loved to read a column by a Courier sportswriter named Phil Ranallo; and I still read sports columns by Larry Felser in the News, though Larry is retired now and has cut down to once a week.
And one of the papers (I forget which one, but I think it was the Courier) carried both Jim Bishop and Jimmy Breslin. In my naive days, I liked Bishops historical stuff. But I WANTED to be Breslin. I loved the way he turned a phrase (and still does). I identified with him. He was an Irish Catholic city kid who went to Catholic schools, just like me. Of course, his city is much, much, much bigger. He knows the neighborhoods and writes for the people in them, giving them a voice. Royko did the same thing.
Tip ONeil once said "All politics is local." Breslins and Roykos columns were local, in fact they were so local they were universal. Heres what I mean: They could write about somebody fighting city hall in such a way that anyone anywhere who fought city hall identified with the protagonist and the columnist. (A quick digressionary anecdote: When I interviewed for a job at the Olean Times Herald in the late 80s, a reporter who was showing me around said something like "You sound like a neighborhood kind of guy." I took it as a compliment. By the way, I got the job.)
For my money right now, the best columnist out there is Leonard Pitts. I dont always agree with him, but he makes me think. I also read Dave Barry for a unique perspective. (Unique Perspective isnt that the name of a rock band? A direct steal from Barry.)
Question: How do you consistently find material for a column? What if you just dont have anything to say?
Answer: Getting out of the office and talking to people is the best way to come up with column ideas. Being aware of what is happening in your community is another fine way to not only generate column ideas, but make contacts and new sources. Keep a file of festivals, meetings, legal notices, etc., to know where people are. For example, I tell any pols who call and complain about my column that Im just reporting what people are saying. Theyd find that out, too, if they left their cushy city hall offices and talked to real people, not the ones who spend $100 or $1,000 a plate to hobnob with them and their ilk at fancy fundraisers.
I try not to write about personal things, but once in a while, when it has a "universal" appeal, Ill say how something affected me or my family. At least I know my brothers and cousins will read THOSE columns.
Here at Biz First we have a sports columnist and a real estate columnist. We also have a general interest columnist. I am the humor columnist. But sometimes I just dont feel funny. When that happens, I write a draft and put it away and sleep on it. The next day I can usually add at least some humorous asides.
Politicos and their actions are a great source of material. Theyre the "stupid pet tricks" of our medium; comedians of bygone days told jokes about their wives, we do something similar with elected "leaders." (To paraphrase Dylan, dont follow leaders and dont trust parking meters.) So its hard to run out of ideas. But I do. And when that happens, I fall back on the ol evergreens that come with holidays, graduations, significant community events, etc.
Once in a great while I have too many ideas. When that happens, I have two irregular stock formats I employ: Talk Newspaper, when "readers" send me questions and I answer them (that way I can address several topics at once); and coLumn cLassics, in which I parody some famous book or play and use modern (and local) characters in the same situations.
I love you, I hate you
Question: How do you view columnists relationship with editors?
Answer: Im an editor and a columnist.
So, speaking as an editor, anything an editor does is correct and brilliant. In fact, it is the voice from heaven sent to repair my miserable screed. Thank God for them and their kind.
Speaking as a columnist, if those uneducated, ill-informed miserable parents of a luckless tribe touch my prose theyll have a mad dog on their hands. Why, it will likely even get me mad enough to write a strongly worded letter to the editor in which Ill threaten to cancel my free subscription!
I have written a column for four different newspapers at one time or another ever since the mid-80s. All those trees died to satiate my overinflated ego. Yet only a handful have been spiked. At the time, sure, I was resentful, but I listened to the editor, sneered when he or she was out of range, and went along. Looking back, I can see why they were spiked. My columns have always had an edge. (Do a search under Fifth Coast or my name at buffalo.bizjournals.com) I try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (hmmm, theres a slogan in there somewhere). Sometimes, it doesnt work and the editor has to pull me back.
So if a column is spiked its because it simply doesnt work. Its one thing to poke fun at comical situations, its quite another to be vicious and vindictive. If given a choice between the Horace/Erasmus approach or the Juvenal/Swift/Jonathan Edwards damnation and hellfire approach, Ill take the former. After all, we are all sinners in the hands of an angry god. (And Im pedantic as hell, aint I?)
Question: How has Sept. 11 changed columns?
Answer: (If I were Osama bin Laden, this is what I would write in response:)
There are the newspaper, broadcast and online columnists full of fear because they dont know what is appropriate to write anymore. But Leonard Pitts is still writing. Thank God for that. Ann Coulter is not. Thank God for that.
The proto-censorship* that columnists are now facing is nothing compared to what overzealous copy editors and legal teams have done to cityside reporters for years. Columnists will taste that humiliation and degradation unless we actually use our brains, get out of the office, and talk to people about their hopes and fears.
Layoffs are everywhere these days and "unnecessary" columnists are among the first to go. I say the situation is clear and obvious. After this event, after the infidels and bean counters who run our newsrooms try to make us write Pablum that is safe and "salable," the whole world will be divided into two sides: the side of the real readers and the side of the superficial scanners, and may Hearst keep us away from them.
Every columnist has to rush out now to make our calling victorious. The winds of change have come to try to bring oppression to the followers of Ernie Pyle.
So, to my fellow columnists, I say only a few words. I swear by Joey Pulitzer, who somehow got a fancy-schmancy prize named after him, neither columnists nor the people who read our screeds will laugh again until Joel Stein gives up his day job writing hard news for Time and goes back to his column inch niche.
(*Editors note: Marren is the ur-show-off. Proto means the start of something. Hes using proto-censorship in the sense that the increased scrutiny that columns are getting is analogous to the beginning, or rise, of a new awareness of what columnists write and how it is interpreted. What occurred Sept. 11 can be seen as the common event that brought about any sea change in column writing and columnists work being accepted by the public.)
(Marrens note on the note above: The editor should know that ur means original. Im not the original show-off. Im just a pygmy on the backs of Giants who won the pennant back in 51 thanks to Bobby Thompsons home run.)
Question: Should a college newspaper fear making endorsements?
Answer: First off, I may sound like a heretic, but so be it. And I apologize in advance for any feathers that get ruffled.
All that being said ... Outside a campus, I dont think a newspaper endorsement is worth as much weight as we attach to it. Oh, sure, the endorsee will make a big deal of it, and local pols will still try to get it (though not as fervently as in the past; in fact, some pols only grudgingly meeting with editorial boards). But know what? The sun still comes up in the morning for the candidate who doesnt get the endorsement.
So can I back up what I say? Well, no, I dont have any stats, just anecdotal evidence and a general feeling that Im right about this after many years in the business. I thought I remember seeing a study that said readers dont pay much attention to the editorial page or read editorials. Speaking as a former editorial page editor, I hope Im wrong. But it sounds true because of a highly unscientific feeling I get from talking to friends, neighbors and students of mine at Buff State.
And my anecdotal evidence is also weak, but let me cite one example: The former mayor of Buffalo, Jimmy Griffin, never cared if he got the endorsement of The Buffalo News. In fact, for him it could be a badge of honor not to get it. A "We love him for the enemies hes made" sort of thing. If his opponent got the papers endorsement Griffin would never mention it, but his opponent would. And yet Griffin won four times in a row.
I was editorial page editor in Olean and wed make endorsements based on interviews the candidates had with the editorial board, the beat reporters input, divinations from oracles, etc., and we made our choice based on who we thought would do the better job (as all papers do). But sometimes it just didnt matter what we thought or wrote, especially if a candidate with a strong personality who was as dumb as a slab of stone (someone with charisma, though AP would chastise me for misusing the word) beat a wonk who could release policy statements until Judgment Day. (Think of Dubya vs. the Man Who Invented the Internet and Im not naming names because I dont want to get any deeper into trouble.)
OK, to get to the point just six grafs later:
1.) A campus paper that depends on college funding is vulnerable. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be independently financed and chicken wings wouldnt be deadly and ice cream wouldnt be fattening and the Bills would have won at least one of those four miserable Super Bowls ... ah well so stress to the folks who will try to yank funding that they need a fair and unbiased press to present the issues to the entire college community of students, faculty and staff. Also tell them its the law, the courts are on the side of the angels and newspapers. Or, should the college try to publish an in-house organ in place of the campus newspaper, know that it is doomed to failure because eventually no one will believe it or read it, its credibility will be shot, its circulation will dry up, advertisers will desert it and, horror of horrors, boy bands will proliferate because of that. I dont know how all that will happen, but it will happen as surely as Costello follows Abbott.
2.) If the endorsed candidate loses, the paper still has to be fair and honest with the winner. Editors cant say, "This is my printing press and Im going home." I know that rates a 10 on the ol DUH!-o-meter, but I just wanted to point out the obvious.
3.) And an endorsement should mention the process involved. Say who was interviewed and what was asked, etc. It has to strongly say why the endorsee got it and that everyone got a chance to be heard.
Will our mystery guest sign in, please
Question: Does putting a newspapers community name on the paper matter?
Answer: I used to be a part-time features and sports reporter at the Niagara Gazette. Quick, what do you think of when you hear Niagara Gazette? ... OK, now what do you think of when you hear its old name the Niagara Falls Gazette. ... Two different breeds of cat, right? In my opinion the former is bland and generic and the latter has magic dateline written all over it (complete with the falls, the dioxin at Love Canal and the tacky touristy T-shirt shops).
The Gazette covered Niagara County and portions of northern Erie County (Buffalo environs) and portions of neighboring Orleans County (very rural). We also published zoned editions. We had the Lockport edition of the Gazette (to compete with the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal) and the North Tonawanda edition (to compete with the Tonawanda News). But each of our editions was the Niagara Gazette to show that we covered all of our county and a bit beyond. (Now the papers are all owned by the same company and Greater Niagara Newspapers puts out three papers out of the same newsroom, more or less.)
On the other hand, I was also the assistant city editor of the Olean Times Herald. We boasted that we covered five counties in two states along the New York-Penn border, competing with the Bradford (Pa.) Era and Salamanca Press. (Of course, that was before we were bought by a chain and had to lay off several reporters. The chain now also owns the Bradford and Salamanca papers.) But we never even thought of changing our name because Olean was the hub of the region and our identity.
So, bottom line: Go with the recognizable name all the time.
fiX thiS, pleasE
Question: What do copy editors do about weird tech names (e.g. Yahoo!)? Go with Associated Press style? Or leave it alone?
Answer: Let me be wishy-washy and try to take both sides here its good practice if I decide to go into politics.
Let me start by saying I hate the people who come up with such things as JetBlue, e.e. cummings, RE/MAX, et al. If Dante were alive today hed reserve the ninth ring of Hell for them. I think they make up those names because they flunked Sister Mary Propernouns fourth-grade English tests and that turned them into misanthropes waaaaaay back when.
All that aside, what I do first is stop and think before applying a blanket rule. What I mean is, I ask myself if it is a national company or an organization, etc., that is widely known. If so (e.g. Yahoo, Adidas, Nike, etc.), I adhere to what my personal style savior, Bill Walsh, says to do: Do not to reprint logos but adhere to accepted AP style. My reasoning is that readers would recognize the brand, person, organization, etc., if its not in its quaintly weird style but sticks to the rules of the road. So, then, its Yahoo, not Yahoo!
The same applies to acronyms. If the initials are pronounced as initials and not as a word, then all the initials are capped; if it is pronounced as a word, then it is spelled as a proper noun. For example, there is a company in Western New York called Noco Express. At one time, N-O-C-O might have stood for something. No longer, or at least no one knows or remembers. So even though its company letterhead says NOCO, we use Noco because we pronounce it as no-co, not N-O-C-O. Just like no one says Fibbi when they mean F-B-I.
On the local front this is harder. Suppose Noco was a restaurant that was commonly known around town. For instance, suppose you lived in Western New York and had friends in town who wanted real Buffalo-style wings, so you tell them, "One joint, N-O-C-O, has the best wings." If I were to write that out in a restaurant review, would I write Noco or NOCO? Since it is commonly known (pronounced) as N-O-C-O, Id go with NOCO even if it gave me indigestion.
That may be a poor example to follow, but it is our job as editors not to fix so much as coach. We have to help writers write what they mean to write. Were advocates for the readers. Its our job to make sure there is clear and stress-free communication between the writer and the reader. A reader should glide effortlessly through a story and not stop every now and then to say, "HUH?"
If that happens often enough, the reader will stop reading our paper. We dont want someone to read that restaurant review and then say, "I wonder if they mean N-O-C-O? Or is there a new restaurant in town with a very similar name? And since Im an attorney maybe I can work up some copyright infringement business!!"
Is it Fuhrman or Fuhrmann Boulevard?
Question: Is there a need for local stylebooks?
Answer: I understand everyones concerns about a stylebook. There will always be quibbling about that vs. which, Coke vs. Pepsi, butter vs. margarine, first ref. ID vs. subsequent ID, Flutie vs. Johnson. In other words, no one wants to lose their sense of independence or ownership of their market.
That being said, however, heres how I look at a stylebook: It is composed of specific guides (or rules) to help make copy more graceful, to give it a certain élan while still communicating a basic premise.
When I wrote my stylebook for Buffalo I wanted to convey not only the accepted rules, but also strive to answer why it is that way. Obviously I didnt (couldnt) do that for every entry in the stylebooks 205 pages, but I tried to do it when the opportunity arose.
For example, the other day a reporter asked me if a stand-alone ref to the assistant secretary of the big bucks was "assistant secretary of Treasury ... or treasury." I think the answer is to write treasury.
Why? Well, remember high school geometry where we had to prove theorems? Wed start with a certain accepted fact and then logically build on it to prove that right angles listen to Rush. Or, well, something like that.
But here is how it goes:
1.) All proper nouns are capped.
2.) Treasury Department refers to a specific government entity or agency that AP says to capitalize.
3.) Assistant secretary is a title, but it is not going before a name.
4.) Accepted AP style says to only cap titles (but not job descriptions) before a name.
5.) Therefore, a standalone ref to the assistant sec of treasury would not cap treasury, though we would cap a ref as saying the secretary oversees the Treasury Department (or Department of the Treasury).
Or another example would be the nonsense about giving full name and titles on first ref. When I was a rookie reporter back in the Paleozoic Era I actually would write something like: " Always use said, not says, opined Joe Marren, Business First of Buffalo associate editor and adjunct professor of communication at Buffalo State College."
Wow, thats a classic MEGLO (my eyes glaze over). But now I say to forget the rule, strive instead to write gracefully, as in: " Always use said, not says, said newspaper style guru Joe Marren. And the genial and portly Marren, 46, has the chops to back it up. He has written a stylebook for his newspaper, Business First of Buffalo, and has accepted a full-time position to teach new media and traditional print reporting and editing at Buffalo State College by fall 2002."
Well, I wouldnt quite write that, but you get the idea. Strive to communicate effectively. Dont make the reader want to turn the page.
So heres my point, and its only buried near the end (talk about delayed ledes!): A stylebook is more than a collection of rules meant to be followed blindly and obediently. It is a guide to help writers write better and editors edit better. A well-tempered clavier (obligatory classical music ref) and a well-written stylebook should include not only grammatical rules and explanations but make suggestions on how to make our writing clearer and, therefore, more useful to our readers. Our goal as communicators is to help readers get the true facts about a person or topic, not to make them say, "Huh?"
I learned at Poynter that I would rather be a "coach" than a "fixer." I prefer to show writers why something is the way it is, rather than tell them, "Just do it." We are not lemmings heading pell-mell, helter-skelter for the abyss. A stylebook can make suggestions to save us from inconsistencies, those hobgoblins of little minds.
How do I deal with jerks?
Question: OK, put your mentor hat on. Im having a difficult time editing one reporters stories. He is the most challenging man I have ever worked with and defensive on every question In fact, hes often rude. Its gotten to the point where I take questions in his stories to the editor before going to him. (Mostly because the editor has to rewrite his stories before I get them anyway.) I know that I let a lot of stuff by because I dont want to deal with him if I rewrite sentences to make them clearer and Im curious how much of that Im doing. What should I do?
Answer: Is this reporter an old fogey like me? Or is he one of those smug, "Nobody touches my copy" types?
Either way, an editor, publisher or you (hint: Buy or bake some cookies and share them with him as you chat) should explain to him that you and he have one goal: To put out the best damn newspaper you can every week. If you have questions about his stories, its likely a reader will also. If a reader (tries) to read him often enough and comes away with more questions than answers, then that reporter is not being effective. Over time, the reporter will be a dead weight when people stop reading his stuff.
After all, when you get right down to it, what do we do? Well, we try to explain things to readers, just like a teacher tries to explain the joys of photosynthesis or how to tune a clavier to a class. As communicators (reporters and editors), we have to be on top of our game. That means using plain English that (if were good) sings as well as teaches.
Maybe editors scare this guy. Maybe hes insecure and feels that confrontation is his best blustery defense. Either way, enough with the pop psychology. Tell the guy that youre an adult. You expect to be treated with the respect. Tell him to go pound salt if he doesnt like it.
In other words, dont let stuff get by. Thats not your job. Youre short-changing yourself, him and your readers. We all make mistakes (I once edited into a story: Society for Cruelty to Animals. That wee word "Prevention" put a lot of egg on the reporters face. I told her to tell people who called to blame me). We should learn from our mistakes. When we stop learning we stop living. But if all else fails, and only do this as a last resort because it will only work once, pull rank. It may surprise him and change his mind. Or he may get even crankier, so thats why I say pick your spot and do it just once. But at least it will be in the back of his mind.
Maybe this guy doesnt think he makes mistakes? If so, why arent my daughter and I praying to him when she goes to bed at night? I didnt know God came back to earth. Did anyone tell the pope?
One last question: What sort of relationship do other editors have with this guy? If others feel as you do, it sounds as if the fault is his.
We don need no stinkin ethics
Question: This is a real-life situation: A reporter took a picture of a voting machines results during a hotly contested school board race. But the machines were busted and the proof is in the pix. Now the losing candidates lawyers want the pix. What should the reporter do?
Answer: Keep the negs but give the pix to some investigatory agency i.e. the board of elections if they subpoena them. Dont get caught in the middle between candidates and their lawyers. Refer all requests for the pix to that board. After all, youre in your role as public watchdog here, not judge and jury and enforcer. Then you can function as a reporter and keep the public informed on the proceedings. After all, youre not protecting a source here, but youre trying to ensure voters rights are protected.
Question: Someone on a listserv Im on wrote and asked about advice for a friend on another listserv who was asked to be a media witness for an execution in Mississippi. They wondered if anyone had any advice. Always willing to put in my 2 cents, here was my reply.
Answer: I used to cover a prison on my beat when I was a bureau reporter in Bradford, Pa., but I never covered an execution.
Funny, the jargon we use, "covered," sounds so devoid of all the emotion inherent in what you are about to see the death of another human being. For once it would be good to be able to be emotionally drained, like the fictional Mr. Spock in "Star Trek." What I mean is, it would be nice to just write the story and not deal with conflicting emotions afterward. I remember my first murder trial and how the testimony of the actual death affected me. I didnt want to go back to the office and write the story. I wanted to go home and hug my wife, somehow do what I could to protect my family from such people. But I also knew I had a job to do.
From what Ive heard, the prison officials will try to make the execution all-so-clinical. Maybe even thats a story. It may be that youll be ushered into the witness cubicle and all youll see is a screen separating you from the actual death chamber. When the screen is pulled back youll see the person about to be executed on the table and the IVs hooked up (that is, if your state uses lethal injection). Hell say what he has to say, a few words of apology or defiance maybe, and then theyll close the screen again. That will be it, a doctor will later announce time of death, etc.
Of course, your state may be different, but if its the first one in many years the officials have likely researched how other states have done it and probably tried to copy that.
So I think the real story here is not so much the execution but peoples response to it the family of the executed, the family of his victim, other witnesses, prison officials and what they have done to prepare for it and the aftermath.
I guess the best advice I can offer is to be a sponge and absorb it all. Do your job and write the best piece you can that tries to show the human side of it all. Then say a silent prayer and take a long peaceful ride to reflect. Talk it over with someone: your editor, your partner, your bartender, whomever.
Make time for fun
Question: At small newspapers the editor is pretty much the de facto publisher. So there is less time (if any at all) for writing and reporting. Any tips for carving out time to do writing and reporting?
Answer: I dont mean to be contrary, but Ive found the opposite to be true.
Yes, there are all the clerking-type and "de facto publisher" duties at community newspapers, but there are also opportunities if you have the support of your staff. Map out ahead of time what projects youd like to work on and then get the staff enthused about cooperating by, say, having them cover some of your duties as you pursue your project.
In fact, I found that harder to do at the dailies I worked at (the Niagara Gazette, the Salamanca Press and the Olean Times Herald). For instance, I was the sports editor at the Salamanca Press at the time I was there in the early 90s, it was the smallest daily in the state. Actually, I was the sports department. If I didnt cover something it simply didnt get covered. I rewarded myself with a column and with the Buffalo Bills beat, but it was the longest 20 months of my life. I remember one stretch from the start of the school year to Thanksgiving when I didnt have a single day off. I dont mean to say I worked 12 hours each day, some of those days I just worked an hour or so when I went to shoot a game and then called the coach afterward, but it was tough.
Now Im associate editor of a niche pub (we cover business in Buffalo) and I write a column (Fifth Coast) and write/edit a special pub or project every summer. In other words, my editor trusts me and lets me pick projects to work on. For example, two years ago we did a millennium special pub and last year we did a centennial piece on Buffalos only worlds fair (President McKinley was assassinated at it and Teddy Roosevelt sworn in here.) We won a ton of awards for the two projects. Last year I drove the length of Route 219 and did a piece on how that would make an unlikely corridor for increased trade between Toronto and points south. (Backers here insist Route 219 would make part of an excellent trade route from Toronto to Miami they call it Continental 1 but apparently thought West Virginia was flat.) And this year I just finished a series on the Class A short-season New York-Penn League baseball league teams in Jamestown and Batavia. Im also finishing a special pub on Buffalos waterfront.
Along the way Ive also written the 205-page Biz First stylebook and the 50-page Web manual. So and Im sorry, I realize I sound like a pretentious jerk my point is, it doesnt have to be all clerking duties. You can make time to cover what you want if you think ahead and budget your time and resources and get people to help.
Can a former political candidate write op-ed pieces (oh, and what if he's also the publisher)?
Question: My boss was an unsuccessful political candidate. He's also the publisher of my paper. Now he wants to write op-ed pieces again. What should I do?
Answer: Personally, I think we tend to overanalyze such situations. Readers likely already recognize the unsuccessful candidate's name and will view anything he writes in that light. The question, then, becomes (at least it seems to me) is the paper de facto supporting any future candidacy? In a time when perception often equates reality, that may well be thought by many readers. However, it's also our job on the editorial page and the op-ed page to open up the marketplace of ideas. I don't mean to sound paranoid, but political factions these days seem to be trying to muzzle the press. By printing the former candidate's op-ed -- and also then printing (or inviting others to reply) any thoughtful rebuttal, we keep the ideas flowing.
Keep my name out of this!
Question: Do any names ever get dropped from the police report?
Answer: When I was the cops reporter in the Bradford, Pa., bureau of the Olean Times Herald, I had it drilled into me: Always name names (except for victims). I was also the court reporter for my bureau and could track a case all the way to its conclusion. The reasoning was that there shouldn't be two sets of rules. Everyone has to play by the same rules because our integrity was at stake. In fact, the paper once fired a reporter for NOT naming a name (his own) in an arrest story. You can bet the competition jumped all over it. When the guy was let go, his defense was, "All I lost was my integrity." He just didn't get it. Also, we'd usually get requests not to name names, with the usual excuses (will effect job, wife, etc.) My response was that I have to be fair and report everything (not including minors). Besides, I was just one rep of many media outlets going or calling the cop shops. If I left out a name and my competition didn't, I'd lose my integrity. The person who requested his name be left out would usually then realize it was futile to ask all the papers and radio stations to overlook his name. The only time this was a real pain was when about 20 or 30 students at one of our local colleges were charged with underage drinking. That became a chore to keep them all separate and make sure I got all the charges correct. Plus, going to the hearings was a pain when the parents angrily confronted me. But, hey, who said journalism was pretty?
Emerson was right
Question: Hey, you're a guy who thinks he's smart, so what do you think is the philosophical basis for Web writing?
Answer: Think of those good transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier and Ralph Waldo Emerson. What do they have in common? Sure, they're all dead white guys, but it's much more than that. Emerson's words can still ring true down the centuries and resonate on our Web sites today. Emerson, writing in the giddy, manifest destiny days of the Jacksonian era, was the chief architect of the American belief of the empowered self. He claimed there was a need for a new and original American literature free of the constraints of the European model. It's not too much of a stretch to apply that to online news. We see shovelware everywhere, yet we know that new media can be liberated - and still convergent - from its print and broadcast ancestors. Emerson, bless his little Brahmin heart, was the prophet of American cultural independence; and so, new media can be independent in its presentation of the news. "We are as travelers using the embers of volcanoes to fry our eggs," Emerson wrote in his essay "Self-reliance." So it is with the new media. We rely on words as well as other techniques (slideshows, layers, links, audio, etc.), but, just as Emerson challenged the new American writer, so should the new media practitioner be challenged to open up to the promises of the Web and capture the essence of a story by using the right language and methods. I don't mean to marginalize Emerson, but as he argued in his 1841 essay "History," we in the new media should set the agenda for ourselves. We should be the great encouragers, the visionaries who claim that we have not yet begun to take or to give our measure as a medium. But I also have a hunch it's like trying to turn a Henry James novel into a film. James was all about the pattern of thought, yet filmmakers are impoverished because they can't use the full force of his words and so they fall back on the period trappings of Victorian novels and therefore miss the gist of things in, say, "The Turn of the Screw." (After all, how do you present both the straight interpretation and the Freudian one?) It's still writing that matters, whether new media or old, but in the new media we must make sure we aren't tempted by the trappings - the bells and whistles - that can throw a news story off. This can be particularly true of narrative journalism on the Web. We're in love with the endless news hole, yet we must remember our readers. How do we remember those readers? Simply this: When we click on a news site we want golden nuggets of news. Jakob Nielsen has done study after study that says people don't read on the Web. They scan. They also scan while at work, so the narrative elements that work in print have to be tweaked for the online site. It's the chief reason why shovelware, which it stands to reason should work, doesn't work. And that's why I say that Emerson's words once again ring true.
We all have a part to play
Question: What do you think newspapers' role in society should be?
Answer: I think a general interest newspaper should inform the public about what's happening in the community. Now I don't mean a niche pub, because there are a variety of those and their role depends on their audience. But I think a general interest, metro daily - say the Toronto Globe and Mail, or Buffalo News should tell its readers what is going on in Toronto, Buffalo, Ottawa, Washington, Kabul, Baghdad, as well as Crystal Beach and Colden. If they can inform as well as offer commentary that adds to the debate and causes people to contemplate the issues of the day, so much the better. Hey, and comics and coupons are necessary, too. Narrative journalism also has a valued place in the scheme. To give you an idea of what I mean, let's say there are basically two types of writing: the efferent and the aesthetic. Efference means what we get out of a story or piece of writing (we read the sports section to find out how the Maple Leafs did; or we read a syllabus to find out what the professor expects). When a writer can present that basic info in an artful way, he or she is writing aesthetically. Narrative journalism seeks to do both by using literary devices such as characterization, plot, scenes, foreshadowing, etc. And It damn reads well, too. Good narrative journalism makes us pause and marvel at the skill of the writer. We don't want a really good piece to end.
Doing things well
Question: OK, then smart guy, how can newspapers achieve that role?
Answer: By being honest and by stressing the writing and reporting. For a parallel, see my piece about Web writing at www.oswego.edu/ccj -- it's under the "Coaching Corner" section. To briefly quote a line from "Hamlet," "To thine own self be true." A newspaper has to determine its mission and then go out and gather the resources (reporters, editors, photographers, graphics people, presses, software, etc.) to achieve that. Obviously, that's an ivory tower ideal in a world beset by fiscal shortages. But a newspaper can be true to itself and serve its readers by accurately reporting every story - whether a glamorous investigative piece or a simple board meeting. Then the paper has to get the finished product in the hands of its readers - on time. Fix it! Question: What's wrong with newspapers nowadays? Answer: Wow, where do I start? How much time do you have to read this? It reminds me of what Winston Churchill supposedly once said about government: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, which are worse." Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of things right with newspapers, but part of the problem is that newspapers tend to eat their young like some mythical proto-Greek god. We work beginning reporters to death and we don't pay them a lot. So we lose a good portion of the future. They may not be the best and brightest, but we squash their passion for the job with drudgery and miserable working conditions. There's also a lack of vision in many newsrooms, we react to events rather than do proactive work. Reporters have to get out of the newsroom and talk to people - and editors should force reporters to go out and do just that. Money is also a problem. Chain ownership groups expect so much back on their investment that it stymies imagination and growth. It also fosters a sort of homogeneity.