Monday, November 28, 2005

Automated editing

Over at the American Copy Editors Society's discussion board, Merrill Perlman of the New York Times has posted a link under this headline: Something REALLY Scary

The link goes to Tansa Systems, which boasts that it is "far more effective at finding and correcting spelling, style and grammar mistakes than ordinary 'spelling checkers.'" One of its case studies (PDF) proudly notes how it has improved the fortunes of the Norwegian newspaper Bergensavisen. Of course, tucked into that case study is this sentence: "Unlike many Scandanavian newspapers, Bergensavisen has never had full-time employees dedicated solely to proofreading text." (It does, however, apparently have subeditors - the European equivalent of copy editors -- because one is quoted in the story.)

My thoughts, as posted on the ACES board:
Well, mixed emotions. If we look at our jobs in the cold light, we might say some of what we do could be done by ever-more-sophisticated automated systems. And maybe we should jettison that part of the job.

But critical questions, things like why is "blonde" relevant here or that she's "a mother of two" in a murder story, or these things would go together better if we flipped A and B, or that percentage increase doesn't make sense unless you give me the raw numbers, too, are things I don't think a computer ever will get right. So, just like the business we are in, if we peg our hats on the "commodity" stuff, we risk getting replaced. If we really concentrate on the value-added, less so.

Having said that, of course, you know darn well there are publishers who would replace large chunks of their desks in the process. I think you have to treat that as you would a charging bull elephant -- it's inevitable that it's coming your way; you just have to try to step out of the way in time.

(Also, even allowing for the European origin, I quickly found several mistakes on Tansa's Web site, so ...)

(Disclosing my bias: Were I to start a paper or news Web site today, I would look into installing an automated writing program strictly to handle processing of any press releases deemed necessary to get in but not important enough to follow up. Why have a reporter burning time doing rewrite when he or she can be out getting the goods? However, NONE of that material would ever be published without an editor's review.)

Here's Tansa's list of U.S. customers:

Magazines / Trade Journals
American Chemical Society
- Analytical Chemistry
- Chemical & Engineering News
- Environmental Science & Technology
- Modern Drug Discovery
- Today's Chemist At Work
The Chronicle of Higher Education
- The Chronicle of Higher Education
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Geo. J. Foster & Co.
- Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.)
- The Citizen and Sunday Citizen (Laconia, N.H.)
- Sanford News (Sanford, N.H.)
- Best Read Guide
- Rochester Times

The Lawton Constitution (Lawton, Okla.)
The News-Gazette (Champaign, Ill.)
Republican-American (Waterbury, Conn.)
Rockford Register Star (Rockford, Ill.)(future)
St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)
The Washington Times (Washington, D.C.)

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Here's another bit of alphabet soup that's become in vogue recently that you'll probably run across -- N2KN -- need to know now.

It's part of the debate about whether people doing searches on their mobile devices really are doing "local" search -- in other words, is it really unlikely they don't know where the best pizza joint is in their neighborhood?

This has some implications for newspapers, which are being urged heavily to get into the local search market. Russell Buckley at MobHappy has some thoughts.

Aside from that, though, N2KN is another way of saying rapid relevance, which should be on every media outlet's agenda.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Future of news libraries

Liz Donovan, the Infomaniac, has some thoughts on what newsroom libraries must do if they are to survive and thrive, especially at these times of cuts.

She notes that in these days when much of the research once done by librarians can be done by reporters, it's important for the research department/library/info center to show they can do it better, faster, and more efficiently, and/or be the providers of that information.

That reporters can do it, however, doesn't mean they should do it. Lost in some of these cutbacks and the idea that all this technology has moved to the desktop is that every minute a reporter spends doing the research it probably takes a special librarian 30 seconds to do is a minute that reporter isn't on the street or on the phone. Pushing such research to the desktop is empowering. It also can create false economies, just as pagination did (just ask many copy editors how much less time they have to devote to the words if the also have layout duties).

There is a zen to be achieved here, a balance. Let's hope we don't get so short-sighted as to lose such valuable expertise in our newrooms.

Annual job survey - interesting note

Just had a chance to dive a bit into the University of Georgia's annual survey of journalism graduates and whether they're working (and for how much).The news is good, and has been broadcast elsewhere, the short version being more graduates are working at better pay, with a median starting salary for bachelor's degres of $27,800. In current dollars, the salary earned by the 2004 graduates is the highest ever received, surpassing the old top salary of $26,988 earned by 2000 graduates.

But something else caught my eye as I dove into the stats: One in five of the graduates with a job is writing and editing for the web and about one in 20 is designing and building web pages. From time to time, dissent still arises about whether our students should be taught multiple media strategies. I think those numbers should largely put that to rest.

A few other interesting findings:
  • As is true for the public at large, journalism and mass communication graduates make less use of the news media today than they did 10 years ago.
  • Journalism graduates are much more likely to report using the Internet for news than is the public at large.
  • Journalism graduates are as likely to use the Internet for news as to read a newspaper.
  • Monday, November 21, 2005

    Unpack those bags

    Romenesko points to a story that with Knight Ridder's troubles, the plan to move Lou Heldman as publisher from Wichita to Columbia and move Columbia's current publisher, Ann Caulkins, to Charlotte, is on hold.

    Heldman puts a good face on it: "It's not a bad thing for either of us to remain with the papers we love and people with whom we enjoy working, especially in this time of so much other change."

    Now, a word from our sponsor

    Well, not exactly, unless my sister-in-law takes pity and tosses me a cheese sandwich.

    But I must detour from the normal course of my rambling and carrying on and note that if you are ever in Georgetown, Ky., (just a little bit east of Lexington in Bluegrass Country and home of the large Toyota plant), then stop in at Paula Rodman's place, PJ's Cottage, just off downtown. Just opened! Best bean soup and cornbread this side of Stamping Ground.

    In all seriousness -- best of luck to Paula and her new venture. Having children may have been easier. Here's the menu should you happen to be driving by (the helpful link to the origin of the Hot Brown is provided for those of you who ain't from around those parts):

    PJ’S Cottage, LLC
    303 E. Washington Street
    Georgetown, KY 40324

    Phone: 867-0775 DINE IN OR CARRY OUT Fax: 867-0772

    Monday’s Specials Week of November 21, 2005
    Baked Ham
    Plate w/ 2 sides: $6.50

    Tuesday’s Specials Daily!! Lunch Salads w/ Chicken Strips $6.50
    Hot Browns
    Smoked Sausage and Kraut
    Plate w/ 2 sides $6.50

    Wednesday’s Specials
    Mom’s Bean Soup and Cornbread
    Country Fried Beef or Pork Steaks
    Plate w/ 2 sides $6.50

    Thursday’s Specials
    Closed Today- Happy Thanksgiving!!

    Friday’s Specials
    Closed Today!! See ya’ll Monday!

    Sides: $2.00
    Vegetables will vary daily
    Side Salad
    Red Potato Salad
    Macaroni Salad
    Fries or Onion Rings
    Mushrooms or Mozzarella Sticks

    Sandwiches: $3.50 Assorted Desserts: $2.50
    Fried Cod
    Grilled Ham and Cheese Hoagie or Turkey Club
    Pimiento Club, Bologna, or Rueben

    Friday, November 18, 2005

    NPR's grammar hangup

    Over at NPR they do fine work, except they have this little hangup about plurals and plural possessives.

    NPR's ombudsman got his neurons wrapped the wrong way around this when, in responding to a reader, he suggested Roberts (as in Chief Justice John Roberts' nomination) was a plural (and thus a plural possessive) and was deftly taken down in Headsuptheblog.

    Now, in browsing NPR's Web site today, I see a more straightforward problem in this photo caption.

    The family name is Warren. If you are talking about more than one -- as in there are more than one who own that basement -- it's Warrens. Thus, the plural possessive is correct here: Investigators found thousands of forged documents in the Warrens' basement.

    Next time my local public radio station's seeking a handout, I may send a grammar book and ask the kind folks to pass it on to Washington.

    Sobering news

    Editor & Publisher reports the loss of 1,900 jobs in the newspaper industry this year, and maybe more since cuts at smaller papers usually don't get the publicity.

    Thursday, November 17, 2005

    What we should teach in J-school

    Received these words of wisdom from an industry veteran today by e-mail. Thought they were worth sharing (with some very slight edits to make sure this blog will pass through those corporate firewalls that look for certain words ...)

    Words of Wisdom
    From a Newsroom Veteran

    Be on very good terms with the secretary who takes down how many days off you have had. If she likes you, that's worth another week of vacation every year.

    Do not date anyone in law enforcement. It does not matter how intelligent they sound. They do not share your values.

    Do not date a stripper.

    Be active in a journalism related organization. You will meet people who can give you jobs if yours goes to crap, and maybe even some sources.

    Learn to say: "Yes boss. What can I do for you?" Then do it, unless banned by the Geneva Convention. It takes less time than fighting and then you can get back to your real job. Try not to insult anyone with the BS you put into it.

    Find something that is important, but too complicated for the guy that reads the paper or scans the Internet all day. He is there to do the "Woman bites dog who killed her children" story. You are there to make a difference.

    Go to an office supply store and get a receipt book. When you are out there, you sometimes don't have the time to document your expenses. Make sure you pull receipts from your book in random order.

    Always have several cases of water at your house and another in the back of your car. You can live a lot longer without food than you can without water.

    And the most important thing - if the story is worth running, you need a photog. For one thing, it costs twice as much to send a reporter and a photographer, so editors think it is worth better play. For the second thing, a great photo will get you on A1 with a so-so story. And, if you get a great story, you assuredly want a photo.

    And never get drunk at a company party. Put in half an hour of shaking hands and then split. There is nothing good here.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2005

    Yeah, right, a 'witch hunt'

    More like a "which" hunt -- as in "Which story can we find by Nada Behziz that doesn't have plagiarized material in it?" At least that's what one comes away with after reading the Bakersfield Californian's review of the now-fired Behziz's work. (reg. required)

    Internal probe finds plagiarism, other problems in more than 35 stories written by the ex-staffer, says the headline. That's out of 96 bylined stories she did for the newspaper. The list of corrections goes on for nine pages printed from the Web. It runs the gamut, from material lifted from other publications and wire services without attribution to apparently making up sources and then attributing lifted material to them.

    But wait, Johnny, there's more: Misstatments on Behziz's resume about her former jobs (some were internships, though she allegedly listed them as regular positions) and about a supposed degree from San Francisco State University (went here, but never got the degree, the school told Bakersfield reporter Gretchen Wenner).

    Behziz has hired a lawyer, and her response to the newspaper's request for comment sounded more like she's auditioning for a White House job: This is a witch hunt. Too bad your news organization is not this vigilant in pursuing true wrongdoers.

    No, Ms. Behziz. If what the paper says is true, you are the true wrongdoer, having wronged every reader who ever looked at one of your stories. And since you wrote about health -- a truly life-and-death matter for some who might have made decisions based on your words -- you effectively pointed a loaded verbal gun at every one of those readers.

    The only "witch" hunt here is figuring out which job flipping burgers you're even qualified to get now. Maybe serving up Whoppers?

    On second thought, let's keep you away from the grill just to keep from tempting you to try to pass off that soyburger as the real thing.

    (Quick editing notes: Bakersfield has put together a nice package, complete with a nice graphic showing one of the stories and the original from which material supposedly was lifted, the main story, the corrections list, Executive Editor Mike Jenner's column in which he promises more thorough background checks on new hires and a system of auditing accuracy, and links to previous stories, including one detailing how the paper blew it when a doctor complained months earlier about possible plagiarism.

    Two jarring errors in the first few grafs do mar it a bit for a copy editor: "The piece centered around a supposed local deaf man's experience with cochlear implants ..." [read: centered on. Things center on or revolve around]

    "Nearly 200 of the 850 words in Behiziz's story -- including the first sentence -- is plagiarized ..." [make that "are' plagiarized. Those words really aren't acting as a unit; they can be counted].

    It also concerns me that Behziz's response was left until the last three grafs of the story. I've just always been of the school that in fairness you get the other side's response up high. Putting it that low after two pages of piling on, comes across, I fear, as merely tossing it off. The public senses such things.

    But overall, a nice piece of work.)

    Tuesday, November 15, 2005

    Word Mint

    OK, enough already with the outsourcing!

    Now, the subcontinent has taken over making up our new words for us.

    Joking aside, Word Mint, which describes itself as New words minted fresh for the world by wordsmiths from India is an interesting and new blog stop.

    Some of them are pretty silly and others pretty predictable. But some catch my fancy:

    • Dull Jazeera: A boring TV channel.
      Usage: If you don't take a set-top box, chances are you might end up with all the dull jazeeras of the world.

    • Foolean Algebra: The grossly illogical calculations made by people who make stupid assumptions.
      Usage: The NDA goverment dissolved the parliament earlier than its expiry date based on some foolean algebra proferred by some bright young minds in the BJP.

    • Paper Condom: A token safety measure that offers no guarantee of risk reduction.
      Usage: The Indian government's tsunami management plan is nothing but a paper condom. (Make up your own one here about the latest industry steps to stem circulation losses.)

    • Socktail: A pair of different coloured socks.
      Usage: What do you think of my latest socktail?
      (Could be confused with 'socktail,' which also means a mix of blows to various parts of the body.)

    I especially identify with the last one as I look down ...

    Excuse me, your headline is squinting at me

    Seldom do you get such an exquisite example of a "squinter" in 24-point type as this from today's State newspaper:

    Kids who eat out often
    face greater health risks

    Why is it a "squinter"? Because the adverb often is trapped between two verbs: Are kids who eat out more likely to face greater health risks? Or do those health risks rise only when you eat out a lot?

    It's simply fixed: Move often to before eat.

    Now, there are valid objections that we usually don't talk that way (with often before eat), and a squinter isn't going to make the world stop. It might not even lead to as much misunderstanding or as many snickers as a dangler. But it's a sign of craftsmanship, and it does make people do a double take. One woman with whom I routinely discuss such matters -- oh, OK, my lovely wife -- said she had to read it twice this morning to understand it.

    (The story by John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a couple of squinters in the text, too:
    -- Kids who eat in restaurants often are more likely to have risk factors for both cardiovascular disease and diabetes, according to a study presented here.
    -- It adds to earlier research showing that children who eat out frequently are more likely to be overweight.)

    Don't make the reader guess

    Quick quiz: What bothers me about the opening grafs to this story?

    Koch Industries’ $13.2 billion purchase of paper products giant Georgia Pacific Corp. will create one of S.C.’s largest employers and the nation’s largest private company.

    Koch employs 1,300 people in the state, while Georgia-Pacific employs about 2,200.

    The cash deal, announced Sunday, would marry the maker of Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and Quilted Northern tissue with a company three times its size in sales.

    Koch has expanded vertically in recent years beyond petrochemical commodities. In South Carolina in the past four years, it has bought a DuPont nylon plant in Camden, a former Hoechst polyester plant in Spartanburg and a Michelin tire textiles plant in Winnsboro.

    It's a small thing, but easily corrected. (Let's forget for the moment the jargonish fourth graf about expanding vertically -- you mean it got taller?)

    Consider the structure of the four grafs:
    1) Koch-GP
    2) Koch-GP (with a secondary Koch small-GP large)
    3) ?? (paper maker-smaller) -?? (larger)
    4) Koch

    The story is structured so that Koch is in the lead position in every graf except the one in question. So when I come to that middle graf, my mind first puts Koch in the lead position. That's reinforced by the graf directly before it that makes Koch small and GP large because the graf in question has the paper maker smaller.

    Yes, the lede says GP is a "paper products maker," but the reference is so glancing, it's easily lost. So just make it a little easier on the reader and insert the helpful hint:

    The cash deal, announced Sunday, would marry GP, the maker of Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and Quilted Northern tissue, with a company three times its size in sales.

    Sometimes an extra word carries a whole lot of extra understanding.

    SC FOI audit shows continued problems

    The AP and South Carolina Press Association, working with newspapers around the state, have produced a second freedom of information audit (the first, in 1999 when I was news editor at AP, showed 70 percent compliance), and -- surprise -- not much has changed.

    Oh, maybe a few more police agencies give you the crime reports you are entitled to without question or the need to show ID, but a disturbing number still refuse to hand out the information to ordinary (read non-reporter) people or so heavily redact the reports that they are useless.

    (To this, let me add a third horror story. Each summer my reporting class has to do the same thing -- go to the local cop shops and try to get reports without identifying themselves as journalism students. One department, West Columbia, uses what to my mind is a particularly dangerous dodge --saying the reports are tied up in the computer and no copies can be made available. The FOI law (pdf) provides that free copies of crime reports must be made available for inspection for up to 14 days after the incident. As more departments go electronic, this weaseling bears monitoring.)

    Interesting here is the implication for bloggers and citizen journalists. No such access restrictions were faced by reporters from the major media each department had to deal with. So if we are moving into an era where we engage the public in more of the generation of stories about a community, and if I want to take the care that will give my work more credibility, where does that leave me when I show up on the doorstep of my local police or sheriff's department? We talk about people's right to know, but this might add some heft to those arguments, especially in South Carolina, which is now home to three such experiments: Bluffton Today, The Columbia Record and Hartsville Today.

    Someone needs to sue departments (cover my costs, and I'll volunteer) like West Columbia and like Greenville, which is abusing a privacy section of the law to redact much of the information in what it will release. From one story:

    Capt. Jinny Moran, who supervises the records management service division of the county's public safety department, said its policy on redacting information on incident reports is designed to protect crime victims and other innocent people.

    For example, a suspect could find out the address of a victim through a report and retaliate, if that information weren't redacted, she said, citing a section of the FOI law that allows withholding such information.

    But, of course, when it is to their benefit, police departments leak such information like a sieve, or just plain openly provide it at news conferences and the like. (Besides, in the case in question,the complaining party was another police department. Moran later said the records clerk went too far.)

    So a suggestion: Wouldn't it just save lots of heartburn if the cops just routinely printed out a copy of each report, stuck it on a clipboard, and handed it to whomever requested? That's the way it used to be done in a lot of departments.

    I do have one issue with the AP's writing/editing of these reports. I searched largely in vain in the main stories for the confrontational question to that police chief or sheriff who's not releasing records or who is charging $6 a page -- Why are you breaking the law? Certainly, the sidebars done by the papers in Charleston and Greenville (same links as above) were excellent in this regard. But those are not going to make it into many papers around the state, as they did not make it into The (Columbia) State.

    The resulting main stories were weakened as a result, relying instead on Jeff Moore, executive director of the state sheriff's association, to stand as a stalking horse for all the law enforcement agencies with such pablum as: The good news is about three-fourths complied with requests, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association. "The ones that didn't, I don't know why they didn't," he said. In some cases, people may be confused about what has to be disclosed, he said. (Note to Jeff: The confusion in many cases is conveniently self-induced.)

    So back to Reporting 101 (OK, 102) for that part of the series -- ask the tough questions of those really in the position to set the policy; not the records clerks, not even the captains in charge of the records rooms, but the sheriffs and police chiefs who set the tone by their, if nothing else, benign neglect. The one chief quoted was in Charleston's sidebar: Interim Police Chief Ned Hethington didn't hesitate when asked what the department will do. "We'll get it straightened out," he said. "We'll follow the law."

    A few more on-the-record promises like that would have provided better grist for what should be a decisive follow-up not too many months from now..

    Saturday, November 12, 2005

    Heads Up on another fine editing blog

    Somewhere along the line I missed the start earlier this year of a great editing bog run by "Fev," who as near as I can determine from the posts resides at the University of Missouri but has ties back to North Carolina (where he or she keeps a very close eye on The (Charlotte) Observer).

    Headsuptheblog is a great entry to the editing set. "Fev" has some great send-ups of journalistic foibles. Consider "Yo. Jersey. Wanna Buy a Bridge?" in which Fev deftly takes apart a rather ham-handed self-promotional piece by The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record. Or this one that deconstructs a "grammar" column. The best may be Fev's demolition of some of the pseudo social science that passes for religion reporting. And be sure to read this exquisitely written takedown of an Observer poll story.

    Fev's latest: Running a bulldozer through the latest language drivel from NPR's ombudsman.

    The link is in my right rail, the XML is in my RSS reader, and I promise to be an avid reader.

    Another good dictionary - oysergeveyn(t)lekh

    The Yiddish-English dictionary probably should be bookmarked in every copy-editor's browser.

    'Will'ingly illogical

    Someone please explain to me how this bit of verbal detritus from George Will's column today gets through the copy desk of the Washington Post and of my local paper, The (Columbia) State (and, from what I've seen other papers as well). Will is writing about Utah's resistance to federal intervention in its schools under No Child Left Behind:

    Not all Utahns are Mormons. Almost 11 percent are Hispanics, heading for 20 percent by 2020, and there is a significant population of Pacific islanders. But the state's singular tone is set by the Mormons.
    So Hispanics can't be Mormons? Does that mean white people of Polish descent can't be Catholic or black people can't be Jewish? And lord knows what religion those Pacific Islanders can be.

    It's the classic case of confusing ethnicity for religion (or race for either of the above). In essence, Will is using Mormon as a code word for "white."

    This is not about ideology -- whether you agree or disagree with Will, this is trash journalism/opinion writing. Someone on a desk somewhere should have caught it and requested a rework or have cut it.

    Thursday, November 10, 2005

    Oregonian internships disappear

    For now, at least, according to Joe Grimm in Detroit who got the word from Portland's recruiter, George Rede. Budget problems is the word.

    I know of at least one other large-paper internship that hangs in the balance right now as budget decisions are made. It is far from certain it will continue.

    No reason to panic yet, but I hope this is not the tip of a much larger iceberg. It would be more evidence of the industry eviscerating itself.

    AP/MSN video deal for newspapers

    Will video start sprouting from your local newspaper site?

    It could. AP and MSN have announced a deal where AP expects to provide as many as 50 video clips a day for free. MSN provides the tech support, including an MSN player based on Windows Media Player. MSN also gets to sell the ads that wll run on the service, which starts early next year.

    This could get interesting. Although AP's release says it's ready to supply newspapers and broadcasters, Terry Heaton writes in comments that is pretty much a play for newspapers and that the real threat is taking ad dollars away from broadcasters. Cory Bergman agrees.

    But turnkey video for your Web site, even if it isn't local and everyone else has it? Who can resist, especially in an industry that has taken shovelware to high art?

    (A few more details from AP story on Seattle P-I site.)

    AP Style - "retarded"

    AP has added an entry on "retarded":

    Mentally retarded is the preferred term for those with significantly subaverage intellectual functioning. Do not use retard.
    I thought we learned that in second grade. But probably good as a reminder.

    Wednesday, November 09, 2005

    Mutter-ing about circulation

    Alan Mutter, the Newsosaur, puts a hopeful face, or at least less of a frowning one, on the latest newspaper circulation slip-and-slide. Mutter takes up where I left off a year ago, suggesting that at least part of the drop comes as newspapers target their circulation better and thus, hopefully, become more valuable to their advertisers.

    Well, yes, to a point. But as noted in my earlier post, this is nothing new. Large parts of the newspaper business shed large parts of their outlying circulation, or their low-income circulation, in the 1990s. Columbia Journalism Review did a major story on the trend. Those were the days when papers like the Des Moines Register or the Providence Journal prided themselves on being the "state" paper with not only circulation, but bureaus, reporters or regular freelancers in those far-flung places.

    The same argument was made then: This circulation costs too much to serve, we need to pull in to better target, etc.

    There comes a point where the only part of the target that's left is the bull's eye, and you're in the middle of it with someone else taking aim.

    I think Mutter is still more right than wrong -- for now -- and his logic holds even given the industry's so far plaintive attempts to get advertisers to consider readership along with, or instead of, circulation. If you can convince advertisers that not only is your circulation elite -- but that the folks those folks are passing the paper on to are of the same ilk -- so much the better.

    Again, I go back to a prediction I've made -- and that is hardly unique to me: The industy evolves to the point of small, expensive print publications and most of the "mass" news on the Web somehow. Then, as we evolve toward paid content online will come issues such as whether a certain amount of "base" information should be free for every person -- sort of like a public utility of information (perhaps presented as a social utility necessary in a functioning democratic society). If we are smart, we start getting ready for those conversations now before some folks in Congress and on Pennsylvania Avenue decide it for us.


    Tuesday, November 08, 2005

    Yahoo Events Browser

    Today's question: Who would want to go to the typical clunky newspaper community calendar listings after seeing this demo of Yahoo's events browser?

    Monday, November 07, 2005

    Winthrop student's column raises hackles

    The staff of The Johnsonian newspaper at Winthrop University finds itself in the middle of some campus unrest as the result of a column by copy editor Christine Byington:

    I don’t mean to implicate all blacks in this. I just have a problem with the belligerent ones who think we aren’t doing enough for them.
    I'll leave it up to your imagination to where things go from there. Will Atkinson's blog has the details.

    Today's Rock Hill Herald has more.

    "We have ... become humorless"

    Just came across a some good thoughts on the future of this business from Will Bunch of the Philly Daily News, who pens the Attytood blog.

    Bunch was commenting on the latest round of layoffs at the DN (and at the Inquirer).

    But assigning blame won’t save the Philadelphia Daily News. Besides, much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities...or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses – named Objectivity and Balance – we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.

    We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best – and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America – we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do.

    We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information -- serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.

    If we don’t change, we will die – and it will be our fault.

    The entire posting, especially the readers' comments, is worth your time.

    Friday, November 04, 2005

    Excel to Yahooo Maps

    Research Buzz points to a neat Excel template that allows you to take the values from a spreadsheet and plot them on a Yahoo map. I can see where that would be handy in some newsrooms.

    Tara Calishain of Research Buzz says she got a runtime error on Excel 2000, but the creator says it's been tested on Excel 2003 on Xp.

    Hawaiian or Hawaii resident?

    The AP has issued a new style guideline that the term Hawaiians should be reserved for those of native descent:

    Hawaiians are members of an ethnic group indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands, also called Native Hawaiians. Use Hawaii resident or islander for anyone living in the state.
    This has touched off the usual sharp-tongued discussion at Testy Copy Editors about the problems of being sensitive to people's ethinicity and ancestry while also dealing with general perceptions (if someone from California is a Californian, wouldn't someone from Hawaii be a Hawaiian?).

    It's easy in South Carolina to think the discussion is a little overwrought -- how often are we likely to have Hawaiians and Hawaii resident competing in the same story? But in other areas, it can take on more signficance. The TCE thread is worth a read to understand how copy editors do tussle with such things.

    Why I won't cry if K-R goes

    Nothing against Knight-Ridder. I like the company and think it's one of the best in journalism. But I won't shed more than a single tear if it's sold or broken up.

    This was the week the other shoe dropped in the newspaper industry when K-R's largest shareholder basically said sell or restructure the company because your stock price is doing nothing. That shareholder quickly picked up other allies. The hand-wringing was immediate and predictable -- as was the increase in the stock price (which K-R prominently displays on its homepage) as questions rose about what the media company might be worth in whole or in parts (a thigh to Gannett, a wing to McClatchy?). Maybe the predictable increase in the stock price was what the majority shareholder wanted so it could dump its stake at a reasonable face-saving price? Who knows; we'll have to see. K-R hired the obligatory team of investment banker, legal firm and P-R consultant.

    The first shoe -- that keeps dropping and dropping -- is the continued news of declining circulation, especially among metro dailies.

    This latest one, however, should finally make journalists realize that they have little clue about what their product is worth. In fact, if you read the tens of thousands of words that have spouted forth about K-R's prospects, at least half of them suggest no one would want to buy the company, or at least its crown jewels, its major metro dailies. In other words, to use the vernacular, when looked at from the financial community's perspective, your work ain't worth squat.

    That's not true, of course. But until we figure out what our work is worth, we will be at the mercy of third parties like this to determine our worth for us. That was part of the thrust of my Florida Press Club speech a few weeks ago:

    So if you don't innovate and find new products – or new ways of doing things – you basically must cut and cut to make margin. Finally, the market decides you've cut too much and you're no longer worth the price. It's called: "dead money."
    Eventually, your stock value falls enough that you can afford to buy back the shares and go private, or you become cheap enough that a takeover company dismembers you.
    That does allow some new players – some who might care deeply about the journalism – into the game. But it's gut wrenching, and there's no guarantee you won't be bought up by a financial blood-sucker. This is business survival of the fittest. Be ready for it.
    So when I talk about the possibility of "financial blood-suckers," why am I not shedding tears at the possibility that fine, even noble parts of K-R, could end up in those hands?

    Because I am hoping this gets many, many more journalists, too many of whom are in a woe-is-me, I-cant-do-anything-about-it, this-industry-is-going-to-hell, if-it-weren't-for-the-suits mode, to start using the creativity god gave them to actually try to shape the future of this profession.

    Let's pause for a moment and consider the difference between a "media company" and a "news company."

    Most journalists, I would venture to say without hesitation, would prefer to work -- and may think they work -- for a "news company," one whose primary stock in trade is uncovering, processing, explaining and contextualizing the events of the day. They recoil a bit at the idea of "media company," for that conjures up visions of infotainment and all sorts of unsavory things, like reader-driven news.

    Here's the rub: A "news" company, as we currently practice the idea, will never have anything but squat value in the financial markets, while a "media company" will be valued. The media company creates while the news company largely processes. Colleagues may vehemently disagree with that assessment, but most of what now passes for "news" is processing -- processing to one varied degree or another, but still largely processing. That creates little new value, ergo little intrinsic value in the financial markets.

    Why do companies like GE or Merck or Intel thrive in the financial markets? Because they create. They take raw materials, physical or mental, and create new products with new potential increasing value. Which is also why "media" companies are more likely to thrive in this environment. Entertainment, like it or not, is the process of creating new things with new potential and increasing value.

    Hard as they try, K-R and its ilk are "news" companies. They have been largely unsuccessful in becoming "media" companies (just because you are in different media does not make you a media company). This, actually, is a badge of honor. But it's also become a target.

    About a year ago I wrote about the barriers to innovation in the newspaper industry. It still applies. The business, like utilities, is so weighted down with "embedded costs," both physical and intellectual/emotional, that it struggles to break free.

    So why don't I shed a tear over K-R? Because this may well be the beginning of a series of events that frees some of that human and financial capital to create media companies, but with the core value of the news company instead of the core value (oxymoron?) of Hollywood.

    Make no mistake, were K-R or any other major newspaper company to be broken up, a fair number of titles are likely to end up in the hands of bloodsuckers (there are more than a few Hollingers in the world). It would be terribly wrenching for employees and their families. It would do a disservice to their communities.

    But maybe it has to happen so that others who are ready to innovate, to rethink completely the way we do things, to go out and investigate to find those critical stories so far untold, have more of an opportunity to play as well. In any sale or breakup, parts will be shed at "affordable" prices for those with such ideas. Not that they're at a loss for a playground now; Internet costs are low enough so as not to be a barrier to entry. But that's still just one medium.

    And so some will wither so that others may flourish. It is the cycle of nature -- and of business and financial markets. Journalists need to realize that and be ready to deal with it.

    Gloria Pan writes an intriguing scenario in Morph, the blog of the MediaCenter at the American Press Institute.

    In essence, she suggests a future where more journalists strike out on their own to develop their speciality and depth, a break from mere processing and one that allows creation of value. News organizations, realizing the financial or institutional barriers to doing this all in-house, start contracting with these techno-savvy specialists.

    One critical commenter suggests this is unlikely because editors -- and media lawyers -- are all about control. That, however, is a perspective anchored in today and with today's corporate structure. Would that have to be true for a new purchaser of one of K-R's parts, for instance? Not necessarily. For instance, Bluffton Today, a part of one of those old-line chains, Morris, certainly is showing it's possible to cede some control, in this case incorporating work from its community journalism site into its print product.

    I can envision a day where the "newspaper" has a core staff, but one that is smaller and more attuned both to the depth of a story and the breadth of presenting it across media. Computer programs automatically reprocess news releases into standard, formulaic journalistic copy to be reviewed by an editor because, we have asked, why waste reporters' time on such things? (Of course, significant releases that are the tip of important stories still would be forwarded to the reporter.) Specialized staff are contracted as needed -- be it a video producer, a specialized reporter or a copy editor specializing in narrative. In some ways, this is the current magazine model; the trick is how to pull it off daily, or even hourly.

    It is not even too far-fetched to suggest a new kind of journalist-aggregator relationship: Small, specialized journalistic operations under contract to and aggregated by an organization -- OK, let's call it a newspaper -- that itself specializes in culling the best material and presenting it in in ways that allow its users/readers many-faceted access. (I do not think most consumers are going to click all day looking for tidbits, and I thnk the automated or semiautomated aggregation models have limited usefulness.)

    Keep in mind this date -- 2009, the year TV stations have agreed to go all-digital. That will free up not only significant bandwidth on the current analog channels but significant data sidebands on the new digital signals (few TV stations will "waste" a full digital channel just to bring you a pretty picture). In short, that TV tower just became one big mother Wi-Fi antenna. Couple this with continued progress on thin-screen digital media. If you think K-R was the other shoe dropping, this will be the whole shoestore.

    Wednesday, November 02, 2005

    McCuistion is Copy Massaging again

    Good to see Clay McCuistion is back writing about editing and related matters at Copy Massage.

    He's moved from Tampa to Concord, N.H., where he's taken up residence at the Monitor.

    After all, we need Clay around to maintain the ramparts against the verbifying of "effort" into "efforting."