Friday, December 30, 2011

From the editing trenches: Dissecting a fire story

There was a terribly tragic fire in Stamford, Conn., on Christmas. The day later, the following story appeared in my paper.

I can't tell whether it was an original AP dispatch or was reworked on the local desk. I've found similar, but not identical, versions online that take care of some of the problems noted below.

But the story provides a good case study of editing problems, especially with structure. So I present the original below annotated with my notes (I use these for my classes), and then a re-edited version. Feel free to comment:

    STAMFORD, Conn. — Fire tore through a house in a tony neighborhood along the Connecticut shoreline on Christmas morning, killing five people, including three children, but sparing two whom firefighters managed to rescue.
The typical wire-service lede that puts the actor before the result. And why is it that fires always "tore" or "ripped" or "swept"? Will people be talking about how "a fire tore through a house" or that five people, including three children, died in a fire on Christmas? And why use the general "tony neighborhood" description (is it even needed and is "tony" a common word) when Connecticut shoreline, combined with the home of an ad exec, probably signals all you need? And why make readers wait to find out who was rescued or whose house it was?

    Neighbors awakened to the sound of screaming and rushed outside to help, but they could only watch in horror as flames devoured the grand home in the pre-dawn darkness and the shocked, injured survivors were led away from the house.
Cut this at "pre-dawn darkness."

    The large Victorian home was purchased last year by 47-year-old Madonna Badger, an advertising executive in the fashion industry.
Really? This is the next most interesting thing in the story? How about what Badger was screaming? (If need be, we can add the purchase information after that and include the neighborhood.) And when we finally do use this, we can write it directly, not in passive form.

    Stamford Police Sgt. Paul Guzda said Badger's three daughters – a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins – were killed. He said her parents, who were visiting for the holiday, also died. Police officers drove Badger's husband, Matthew Badger, from New York City to Stamford on Sunday morning.
The first two sentences are OK, though they can be tightened – and why back in with the attribution? The last sentence, however, raises lots of questions and distracts so early in the story. It would be better to explain who the other person was who was led from the house, then mention the husband.

    The fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. Firefighters were able to rescue the two adults from the house in Shippan Point, a neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound, Acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
The best information here was that the fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. The neighborhood information can be consolidated with the purchase information. And notice that the story still does not actually say Badger was one of those rescued. I'm not sure why the neighborhood information has to be attributed, since assessor's records are referenced later, but to be conservative, let's leave it.

    Neighbors describe Badger screaming repeatedly, “My whole life is in there.”
Move this up, and get the quote to the front. Also, the last "Badger" mentioned in this story is Matthew. That can cause a momentary hiccup in the reader's understanding. It's solved if we move this sentence before the appearance of the husband.

    Firefighters knew there were other people in the home but could not get to them because the heat was too intense, Conte said. “It’s never easy. That’s for sure,” he said. “I’ve been on this job 38 years … not an easy day.”
The first part of that quote does little work given the second part.

    Conte said fire officials don’t yet know the cause of the blaze and likely won’t get clues for a few days until fire marshals can enter the structure.
    By Sunday evening, the roof of the blackened house had largely collapsed.
Those two grafs are keepers but can be combined into one graf.

    A neighbor, Sam Cingari Jr., said he was awakened by the sound of screaming and saw that the house was engulfed by flames.
    “We heard this screaming at 5 in the morning,” he said. “The whole house was ablaze and I mean ablaze.”
Good material that can be moved up. But the quote essentially restates the graf before it. Fix this.

    Cingari said he did not know his neighbors, who he said bought the house last year and were renovating it.
Can be kept.

    The 3,349-square foot, five-bedroom home sold for $1.7 million in December 2010, according to the Stamford assessment office’s website.
Worth keeping, but relocate the information.

    Charles Mangano, who lives nearby, said his wife woke him up and alerted him to the fire. He ran outside to see if he could help.
    “I heard someone yell ‘Help, help, help me!’ and I started sprinting up my driveway,” Mangano told The Advocate of Stamford. There were already numerous firetrucks on the scene.
    “I just came out as a neighbor,” Mangano said. “There’s really nothing I could do.”
    He told the newspaper he saw a barefoot man wearing boxers and a woman being taken out of the house. “The woman said, ‘My whole life is in there,’” Mangano said.
Earlier, she was "screaming." Now she's just saying it? Eliminate the dissonance by eliminating this for now, but query the AP. The quote about not being able to do anything makes a much better ending to the story and, since it just reinforces what came before, it can be cut, if necessary.

    Badger, an ad executive in the fashion industry, is the founder of Badger & Winters Group. Badger was responsible for high-profile ad campaigns when she worked at Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
Keep, but reposition and tighten.

    Guzda said the male acquaintance was a contractor who was doing work on the home. A supervisor at Stamford Hospital said Badger was treated and discharged.
This info should be up much higher. And what was the man's condition? Also, use "released" instead of the terribly officious "discharged." And once we move up that the second person was a contractor, we can more seamlessly work in the idea that Badger bought the home last year

    “It is a terrible, terrible day,” Mayor Michael Pavia told reporters. “There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford.”
Stamford is about 25 miles northeast of New York City.
Move this up higher (one might argue that the mayor's quote is somewhat obvious – there unlikely has been a worse Christmas – but it still resonates and adds to the fire chief's). And the location, which inelegantly hangs at the end, can be worked more seamlessly into the sentence about driving Matthew Badger from New York City to Stamford.

Here is my redone vrersion:
    STAMFORD, Conn. – Three children of a fashion-industry advertising executive and her parents died on Christmas morning when fire burned through the family's house on the Connecticut shoreline. The executive, Madonna Badger, and another person were rescued by firefighters.
    Neighbors awakened to the sound of screaming and rushed outside to help, but they could only watch in horror as flames devoured the grand home in the pre-dawn darkness.
    “My whole life is in there,” neighbors said Badger screamed repeatedly.
    Badger's three daughters – a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins – were killed as were her parents, who were visiting for the holiday, Stamford Police Sgt. Paul Guzda said.
    The other person rescued was a contractor doing work on the home, Guzda said. A supervisor at Stamford Hospital said Badger, 47, was treated and released. [Need man's condition or sentence that it was not immediately available. Also should say his name was not available.]
    The fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. A neighbor, Sam Cingari Jr., said he was awakened by screaming. “The whole house was ablaze and I mean ablaze,” he said.
    Cingari said he did not know his neighbors, who he said bought the house last year and were renovating it.
    Firefighters knew there were other people inside but could not get to them because the heat was too intense, Acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
    “I’ve been on this job 38 years … not an easy day,” he said.
    Fire officials don’t yet know the fire's cause and are not likely to get clues for a few days until fire marshals can enter the structure, Conte said. By Sunday evening, the roof of the blackened house had largely collapsed.
    Mayor Michael Pavia called it “a terrible, terrible day.”
    “There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford,” he said.
    Police officers drove Badger's husband, Matthew Badger, from New York City to Stamford, about 25 miles northeast, on Sunday morning.
    Madonna Badger founded Badger & Winters Group and was responsible for high-profile ad campaigns when she worked at Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
    She bought the 3,349-square foot, five-bedroom Victorian home for $1.7 million in December 2010, according to the Stamford assessment office’s website. It is in Shippan Point, a neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound, Conte said.
    Charles Mangano, who lives nearby, said his wife woke him up and alerted him to the fire. He ran outside to see if he could help.
   “I heard someone yell ‘Help, help, help me!’ and I started sprinting up my driveway,” Mangano told The Advocate of Stamford. There were already numerous fire trucks on the scene.
    “I just came out as a neighbor,” Mangano said. “There’s really nothing I could do.”

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Compilation of social media guidelines

This compilation was put together by Europe's Chartered Instituted of Personnel and Development.

Worth perusing.

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60 seconds in the digital age

These two infographics about what happens online in 60 seconds are pretty interesting.

I always tend to take such things that average numbers with a little grain of salt, but even so, some of the numbers are impressive:
  • 370,000 Skype voice calls
  • 695,000 Facebook updates
  • 600 YouTube videos
  • 1,820 terabytes of data created

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Missing in plain sight - unemployment story

I have a class section and seminar (that I've done for the American Copy Editors Society) called "missing in plain sight."

I keep coming back to these because with the decimation of copy desks, I'm seeing more cases. So let's see how quickly you can pick out what's missing in this story - and figure out why a copy editor seemingly missed it:

South Carolina’s economy got an early Christmas present on Tuesday, as the unemployment rate dropped under 10 percent for the first time since April. The plunge came as retailers beefed up sales staff for an unexpectedly good holiday shopping season and others dropped out of the job search.

   More strikingly, the drop to 9.9 percent from October to November was the largest monthly drop in the 35 years that statistics have been kept in the state, according to a report from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce released Tuesday. The national unemployment rate also saw a significant decrease, to 8.6 percent in November from 9 percent in October.

   “This is truly good news for South Carolina, and surprising,” said Doug Wood- ward, an economist with the University of South Carolina. “We’ll take it.”

   Overall, nonfarm employment grew by 15,000 jobs from October to November and is up nearly 31,000 from a year ago – the largest increase for the same time period since 2006.

   Folks found 7,100 jobs in retail and 6,600 in professional and business services. Manufacturing, which has been a bright spot for the state, continued its climb, adding 900 jobs between October and November.

   The retail spike was fueled in part by people believing that the economy both in South Carolina and nationally is on the mend.

   “As the economy begins to rebound, they are less worried about being laid off” and more willing to spend, said USC economist Joey Von Nessen.

   Deedra Senter, co-owner of the Learning Express toy stores in Lexington and Irmo, is seeing that trend first hand. After a flat November, December sales are up 20 percent over last December and she and co-owner Paige Watson had to order additional stock.

   “We’ve had an unexpectedly good holiday season,” Senter said. “There have been some scary times this year.”

   The owners wanted to beef up their staff of 13 but couldn’t find workers with the right experience. So they have their present staff working overtime.

   “Our staff has to be very customer-oriented and experts in toys,” Senter said. “We put ads on Craigslist but had people not show up. It worked out great for our girls because they are getting time and a half.”

   Woodward and Von Nessen earlier this month declared that the state’s economy for 2012 was “looking pretty good” and predicted substantial job growth in the coming year – most in the manufacturing sector. However, in their annual economic outlook, the Darla Moore School of Business economists predicted the unemployment would remain flat as more people entered the workforce and began looking for work in a brightening job market.

   So Tuesday’s report was a surprise.

   “The good news is the major reason (for the drop) has been due to actual employment gains rather than just drops in the labor force,” Von Nessen said.

   Although the labor force did drop by 4,750 from October to November to 2.17 million, meaning some have dropped out of the job search.

   Gov. Nikki Haley and workforce executive director Abraham Turner issued statements praising S.C. businesses for ramping up employment and predicted more gains to come.

   “When we took office, the unemployment rate was 10.5 percent,” Haley said in a release. “To see it drop to 9.9 percent is a good way to end the year. We continue to have challenges, but we are committed to doing all we can to put South Carolinians back to work.”

   Lexington County once again had the lowest unemployment rate in the state, dropping to 7 percent from 7.5 percent. Orangeburg County and Calhoun County were the only two counties in the state to have unemployment rise.

   The jobless rate improved dramatically in South Carolina in November, dropping by the largest amount since the state began tracking the rate in 1976, as more people landed jobs. Two counties in the state saw an increase in unemployment, but most improved in November from October:

   Lexington: 7% from 7.5%

   Richland: 8% from 8.8%

   Kershaw: 8.6% from 9.1%

   Newberry: 9.2% from 9.6%

   Fairfield: 10.8% from 11.4%

   Calhoun: 14.1% from 12%

   Orangeburg: 15.6% from 14.9%

   SOURCE: S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce 

Did you ask yourself this: They're making such a big deal of this being the largest month-to-month drop, so what exactly was the unemployment rate last month? (It's not in the story or the graphic.) It was 10.5 percent.

Oops. Not sure why a desk missed that.

(The penultimate graf references that figure, but only from when the governor took office nine months earlier. The rate had actually gone higher than that in the interim - to 10.9 percent in September, for instance.)

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

LaRocque needs to be less rigid in usage

I have long admired Paula LaRocque as a writing and language coach* and some of the excellent columns she has penned for SPJ's Quill magazine. But in the past couple of years, it seems to me her columns have taken on more of a rigid approach than a modern observer and user of language should be.

Several times, especially with some of her "brevity" examples, I've wanted to write a post saying wait a minute, things are more complicated than that (and some of my students and others who know me might find that interesting because I'm known for squeezing a sentence till it screams). But her latest column in the Quill dealing with a "potpourri of poor writing" sent me to the keyboard for pronouncements about "correct" usage when what is correct is changing ever more rapidly.

There are some excellent points in the article - you should read it - about misusing things such as "feel badly," "adieu" vs. "ado," "low (lo) and behold," etc. But she runs off the rails in her discussion of more important/importantly and gauntlet vs. gantlet.

More/most important(ly)
LaRocque writes emphatically: "Adjective/adverb errors are also perennials in the garden of bad grammar. “Most importantly” and “feel badly” have been in my end-of-year folder for years, and 2011 was no exception. “Most importantly” is an elliptical expression meaning “what is most important,” so careful writers and speakers lop off that “ly” and keep the adjective: most important."

Well, not exactly. A quick Google search will show you this is hardly settled territory. And, as a matter of fact, there are good arguments for the "ly" form.Mark Liberman at Language Log, for instance, has a good dissection of the topic. Among other things, he points out that Merriam-Webster's guide to English usage traces the angst about this back only rather recently, to the Times' Theodore Bernstein, who advocated for "more important" but then seemed to backtrack.

If you are in the camp of those who hate M-W as too liberal, however (and I tend to not make it my primary source for that reason), then Liberman supplies this usage note from the American Heritage Dictionary, the most middle-of-the-road of the big three: "But both forms are widely used by reputable writers, and there is no obvious reason for preferring one or the other."

Even the most conservative of the big three, Webster's New World 4th (the one used with the AP stylebook), uses "importantly" and not "important" in its example (page 717 of my well-worn edition, though it may vary in some newer printings).

Brian Garner, one of the most cited observers of modern English usage, argues that to insist on "more important"  is "picayunish pedantry." He lays out three reasons:
  • If you can use "importantly" to begin a sentence, why not "more importantly"?
  • While the argument (as LaRocque makes it) is that "more important" is elliptic writing for "what is more important," the same form isn't used for "more notably," "more interestingly" or other analogous phrases.
  • If the phrase is moved to the interior of a sentence, the "ly" form is generally acceptable.
Gantlet vs. Gauntlet
LaRocque writes with unbridled conviction: "Mistakes with the word gauntlet, a glove, are common. The word is confused with gantlet, a double line or row that a subject travels between, often as a punishment or
hazing: “He says an extended run through the gauntlet may not be a bad thing for the Massachusetts senator.” This writer means gantlet."

And I'm ready to line up behind her, hoist the flag, throw down the gauntlet, run past the gantlet and charge into linguistic battle.


Two of the three major dictionaries - M-W and AHD - now list "gauntlet" as the preferred form. The M-W entry goes to far as to now label gantlet "a variant of gauntlet." Again, I take M-W with a grain of salt, but when AHD throws its gauntlet into the fray behind, well, gauntlet, I pay lots more attention. In fact, of at least a dozen modern dictionaries and online sites I have looked at, only WNW and the AP maintain the clear distinction.

I'm thinking it's time to move on. I maintain the distinction in my writing, but I no longer insist on it as a teacher (though I urge students to consider it). Again, a Google search will show that this is an area of changing usage. I like this from the Grammarist blog: "Writers have been mistakenly using gauntlet in place of gantlet for so long that most dictionaries have simply given up on trying to preserve the latter word. But careful English users still distinguish between the two." (See this fun example of when the word was used "correctly" and the reaction it brought.)

Pronouncements rarely work anymore
What I hope you take from this:
  • Language changes more rapidly than ever. You're probably writing and saying things now that a decade or two ago were frowned on or just plain prohibited (not that it stopped anyone).
  • Usage is not grammar, and most of these kinds of things are arguments about usage, which changes even more rapidly in the digital age. (Another reason I tend to object to "grammar" exams proposed to screen students for entry into college journalism programs - much of what my colleagues refer to as grammar is actually usage and style.)
  • Let's drop the "man the barriers against the language Huns" arguments (such as the inanity going over at an editor's forum on LinkedIn about "over" versus "more than" (it's not an issue anymore - use whichever one suits your purposes or whichever one your boss, client or style guide dictates; Garner, fr his part, calls the distinction "a baseless crotchet")). Journalists have never been guardians of the language and, if looked at in the "man the barriers" light, have done as much "damage" to it as anyone else.
  • Pronouncements like LaRocque's do damage in that they delay needed, prolonged and intelligent discussions about where language has been, where it is going and how to assess when it's time to change. Every semester, for instance, I find myself telling students that "rule" they learned a couple of semesters ago, well, it no longer applies as it once did or it is in flux. It drives them nuts, brought up as they have been in a world of right-and-wrong standardized test answers. But if we don't help them learn how to deal with ambiguity, we are not teaching them how the current world works.
LaRocque treads close to the edge on two other examples. She mandates "sank" instead of "sunk" in a sentence such as "There was silence as the foreign minister's words sunk in." I'm with her for now - but only for so long. Just as with pled for pleaded, snuck for sneaked and dove for dived, I think this one is on an unstoppable change trajectory.

She also decries the use of "one of the only" instead of "one of the few." I'm with her again, but this is a case of idiomatic usage overtaking strict meaning, much like "could care less," which some observers see taking on idiomatic acceptability.

This spring, a linguistics doctoral student is teaching a course at the University of South Carolina on how new media is more rapidly changing language than ever before. It's already filled - that ought to tell you something. I wish every journalism student had to take it.

So in the new year, let's try for fewer pronouncements and more reasoned discussions about language issues and a realization that very little of this "beautiful, bastard language" of ours, as John Bremner used to call it, is set in stone.

(*Her husband, Paul, also has written one of the best books on copy editing I've ever used and read, avoiding entanglements with most such usage things and emphasizing the big questions that editors must deal with before all others.)

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Numeracy - a minuscule problem

If you were reading along in The State this past week and came across this story,* you might have spotted a problem:

   If state lawmakers want to retire, they would have to give up their seat in the Legislature, according to a proposal moving through the state House of Representatives.

   The proposal would end the practice of lawmakers retiring but remaining in office and replacing their $10,400 annual salaries with much larger pension benefits - more than $30,000 a year, in some cases.

   State lawmakers are members of a separate - and much smaller - retirement system than state workers. Because of that, any changes to the General Assembly Retirement System would have little affect on the much larger state pension system’s debt of $13 billion.

   But lawmakers hope the change would send a message of shared sacrifice to the nearly 500,000 workers, retirees and other beneficiaries on the S.C. Retirement System. Come January, state workers in that system will be asked to pay more into the retirement accounts only to potentially receive lower benefits once they retire. ...

     State lawmakers still would benefit from a more generous pension formula.

   State workers calculate their annual pension benefits by multiplying their years of service times their average final salary times 0.0182 percent. State lawmakers multiply their salary and years of service times 0.0482 percent, giving them a higher benefit.

   Meanwhile, the proposal to change the retirement system for state employees calls for them to pay 1 percent more into the system - an increase of $408 a year for the average employee - while changing their pension formula, which could result in a lower benefit for some workers.

   The S.C. State Employees Association has agreed to endorse having state workers pay more into the retirement system, but only if lawmakers give state employees at least a 2 percent raise. Carlton Washington, the association’s executive director, called the current proposal, which lacks that guaranteed raise, “shortsighted.” But he said the offer from lawmakers to change their own retirement system could be a good sign to state employees.

   “If that is put on the table first, then that would send somewhat of a positive message to employees that (lawmakers) are at least interested in a comprehensive review,” Washington said. ...

It's a wonder S.C. state workers weren't already stocking up on canned pet food for their retirement. A pension based on "0.0182 percent" (or even the more generous "0.0482 percent" for legislators) would be very slim pickings indeed -- a factor of 0.000182 times the average of their last five years' earnings times the number of years worked. For someone making $50,000 who worked for 30 years, that would be a grand total of $273 a year. It's a case of mixing decimals and percents - the factor is 0.0182, or 1.82 percent - or $27,300 a year for our hypothetical worker.

It's what happens when a reporter tries to change the factor to a percent or vice versa** and forgets to move the decimal -- but a sharp-eyed copy editor should have caught it.

(For bonus points, you might also have caught the affect/effect error in the third paragraph, especially egregious from a copy-editng standpoint because it's used correctly in the headline.)

*The error has been corrected in the online story. Perhaps it was by an eagle-eyed copy editor when the story was posted. But since the affect/effect error is still there, my bet is on a correction made after the error was pointed out but never acknowledged online - a more common occurrence for this publication. The copy above is from the PDF replica edition.

** Don't ask me how I know this was it. Take this one on faith.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Kodak - a lesson and a reminder

Eastman Kodak serves as a good case study and reminder for those of us in journalism:
  1. You can't sit on your laurels
  2. The innovation that could save your bacon might be right in your own shop - if you don't discount it
  3. "We needed to understand that we were not a family; we were a team."
All three can be found in a look by Reuters today at Kodak and its spinoff, Eastman Chemical. The venerable film and camera maker is struggling, now seventh in digital cameras and struggling against HP and other established players in the printer market. Spinoff Eastman Chemical, on the other hand, is thriving.

As to point one above, Kodak clearly stayed at the dance with film too long. Think about the difficulties, some tradition and some financial (large debt and capital investments to be paid down; sucking at the teat of the cash cow, etc.), that traditional news organizations have gone through.

Point two follows from point one - as the article notes, Kodak invented the digital camera. But there was no urgency to develop it - after all, why cannibalize the cash cow that was film (and chemicals).

Point three is from a former CEO of Eastman Chemical, Brian Ferguson, who talks about the difficulties Eastman had in adjusting to faster, more flexible times (and the need to lay people off) because of the "paternalism" of Kodak. You can scoff at it if you want; you can decry how the orientation of capital and labor has changed - or regressed, depending on your view. But I throw it in because it captures nicely the orientation I hope graduating students have and understand. Too many in my generation wanted to work for a "family," and the PR spin in many corporations still emphasizes that. But when push comes to shove, it's best to remember Ferguson's words because in the cold light of business, they ring more true.

I've used Kodak before as a parable of our times. Kodak's story is worth reviewing periodically for any journalist.

As we approach another new year, I want to share with you that 6-year-old speech that's also linked to above. I think it still has some good points.

Keynote Address
Florida Press Club Annual Meeting
Oct. 15, 2005, Orlando, Fla.
Doug Fisher, author Common Sense Journalism
and instructor University of South Carolina

    It's been a tough year. Journalism has been economically battered ... then legally battered in the Valerie Plame case ... and finally – literally – physically battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
    Yet you have persevered, practiced and honed your craft, true to the idea that people deserve to know what works – and what doesn't – in this world. It is not easy. It is not a job everyone can, or will, do, despite what some people would tell us.
    But you did it. And you are being honored tonight for excellence in that work, and you should all give yourselves a round of applause.
    I'm a nomad. I started in radio some 30 years ago when all-news was becoming hot and got a break working for one of the all-news pioneers – Westinghouse Broadcasting. I moved to a TV assignment and anchor desk for a while, and then got hired at the paper because an editor was willing to take a chance on me. It didn't hurt that we kept beating them down at City Hall.
    I ended up spending 18 years at the Associated Press, the kind of journalism that is exhausting, maddening – and thoroughly exhilarating: From covering presidents and what were then the super-secret stealth fighters, to writing about the guy in western Ohio who had a Titanic museum in his basement and watching thousands of elderly people jam the Rhode Island Statehouse because their money was frozen in decrepit credit unions.
    So I figured when you all invited me to speak, the press club decided, given the times, it might be good to see that it's possible to be a nomad journalist and still maintain a 300-pound, churlish figure.
    When I was leaving the AP bureau in Columbus, Ohio, to start my days as a correspondent, my boss put his arm around me and gave me my – as he put it – "AP management training."
    "Do good, don't do bad. And don't miss the big one." That was it – short and sweet. So we'll try to stick to a few short observations tonight about our current state of affairs in journalism and what we might do about it.

    My first piece of advice: Next time, instead of New Orleans, send the hurricane entries to Boise.
    [Eds note: The press club lost about half of its entries, those that had been sent to the Press Club of New Orleans for judging, as a result of Katrina.]

A "media" company threatened
    Let's start with the tale of a media company, one that's been an integral part of our business.
    In recent years, this company saw technology change. High-tech competitors from industries it hadn't had to think about before invaded its turf.
    The company is trying to reinvent itself – to pull away from the medium to which it is so closely tied. Its stock price is down almost a third in the past year, and large layoffs threaten to cut to the core of its business.
    I'm not going to tell you quite yet which media company I'm talking about, but all of us could probably find something in there that sounds a lot like where we work.

What is journalism worth?
    The one thing this company does know is what its product is worth, even if that worth is diminishing.
    Sadly, I'd suggest that's not the case with journalists. We know what our newspapers are worth, and our radio or TV stations. You can put a value on those presses and transmitters, on those cameras and subscription lists.
    But what is the journalism itself worth?
    If we look at it with the cold, hard eye we bring to our stories, we might have to admit our journalism is worth nothing, at least when it comes to money, which is the way business keeps score.
    Our journalism has gotten its value from being lumped together into a package that attracts eyeballs and thus attracts advertisers. We're like some giant 800-number dating service, only with a purpose we keep telling ourselves is nobler.
    For a journalist, advertisers exist for one reason – to turn time into money.
Our readers and viewers pay us in time. But if we want to be in business, we have to keep score with money. But if our only value comes from aggregation, that's a problem at a time when corporate behemoths like Viacom are splitting and when we see a rise in free papers and we continue to struggle with whether we can charge for news on the Web.
    After all, if the "package" your journalism comes in is free, what does that say about the value of the actual content?
    Without knowing what our journalism is worth, we end up valuing the package, not the content. And that makes us dependent on any change that suddenly makes that package less relevant.
    In short, it cheapens our journalism.
    Yet I rarely hear journalists ask this basic question. And there's hardly been a peep from the major journalism organizations. (True, they've been a little tied up lately trying to keep journalists out of jail and to preserve some semblance of freedom of information after September 11.)
    Some researchers – Stephen Lacy and Phillip Meyer are the most prominent – have been trying to figure out this question – can quality sell? So far, the answer is a tentative yes.
    But too much of today's journalism is just a commodity, one nugget not much different from the next. And as we learned in beginning economics, in a commodity business, you get large and you get cheap.
If you think about it, that sounds a lot like modern media.
    If we're going to argue that somehow quality journalism is too important to die – and if we expect anyone to pay attention to that argument – we need a crash program that gets to that core question: What is journalism worth?
    I challenge you tonight to leave here and start asking what your journalism really is worth.
    Because if we don't do that, if we let others do it for us, then we might as well admit journalism is nothing more than a social good to be supported by foundations, donations and government funding. In short (and with apologies to anyone from public radio or TV in the audience), the way we pay for most social goods in this country – by begging.

Rapid Relevance
    Part of modern business is understanding that your customers likely will be gone tomorrow if you don't meet their needs. There are simply too many alternatives.
    Who is that customer? As Pogo said: "We have met the enemy and it is us."
    That media company I talked about? The medium is film, the company is Kodak, and we, journalists, were among its largest customers. At every sporting event, newspaper and magazine photographers went through yards and yards of film.
And then things changed. The digital camera became relatively affordable. We didn't want to wait. We wanted those images now. And we could do away with all those messy chemicals and cost.
    One day, in the late 1990s, the AP decreed that if you were a newspaper and you wanted photos, you'd better get a digital receiver. That was enough to move even recalcitrant publishers. Some of Kodak's largest customers were history.
    OK, so you're Kodak. You still have that massive base of retail customers who not only have film cameras but have to get that film developed, something that also was a big part of Kodak's business.
    Only now Kodak had to deal with cameras that had names like Sony. Or Hewlett-Packard: A computer company? Selling cameras? (Does that sound familiar – Yahoo hiring war correspondents?) And that developing went to one-hour labs. (How many of us still send film for two-day processing – assuming we still own film camera?)
    So now one of Kodak's biggest competitors isn't another camera company but a retailer – the world's largest – Wal-Mart. And Wal-Mart often is using another company's equipment – Fuji's.
    But we – as journalists or as amateur photographers – didn't care about some venerable name, did we? We wanted rapid relevance  – when we wanted it, where we wanted it and how we wanted it.
    We're not the first. People are fond of saying the railroads suffered because they didn't realize they were in the transportation business. But the smartest people in transportation realized their business also was actually rapid relevance – getting it to the customer exactly when, where and how the customer wanted it.
    So if Kodak dies – and I really don't think it will because it is reinventing itself, but it's going to be gut-wrenching for many people – but if it does, we helped kill it. And if we don't care about a little $13 billion company, why should our readers care any more about a $3 billion Knight Ridder or New York Times or a $1 billion McClatchy – or any other media company, if we don't give them what they want?
    Consider a few things about those customers we covet, the 18- to 34-year-olds:
  • Jupiter Research recently reported a third of them increasingly rely on their portable media players for TV and instant news and information – and that was before the video iPod.
  • M-metrics says full-time students with jobs are significantly more likely to use mobile e-mail than anyone else.
  • Another recent survey found that 85 percent of college students surveyed had cell phones – and most of those could send and receive text messages or play games.
    Consider the widely reported Washington Post focus groups where people said they wanted the news – they just didn't want the newspaper. It was dirty, messy, a pain to deal with – in other words, just like all those photo chemicals we were so happy to banish from our newsrooms.
    And – even though Yahoo sponsored this study – consider a report from this week that should scare the heck out of you as a journalist: 81 percent of college students said search engines were the "best" source of information. Friends and family came next at 64 percent and then traditional media at 34 percent. (The numbers are more than 100 because the study took the top two choices as "best.)
    In other words, if we continue to value our journalism by the package it comes in, we have no idea what the core product – the thing our customers say they want – is worth, and we risk becoming obsolete.

"Dead Money" and "Bad Competitors"
    If we just cut profits and put the money back into the newsroom, all would be well. Right?
    It's become such a chorus that I'm reminded of something Gen. George Patton once said: "If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking."
    Recently, some folks have pointed out it isn't that simple, not when most media companies now are creatures of the public stock markets.
When you get stockholders used to a certain profit margin, you can't just wake up one morning and say, I think we'll cut the profits so we can do better journalism – even if you wanted to.
    You'd be fired – the directors by law have to protect shareholders' interests. And you'd probably be sued.
    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.
    We also face what business-strategy expert Michael Porter calls the "bad competitor," one that doesn't play by "our" rules. It doesn't have to. Electronic news sites have much lower costs of entry. Even a new newspaper these days can buy press time or even new presses more cheaply than those of the established media.
    "Citizen journalism" sites – one of which I'm in the middle of trying to set up – are even doing it without "big-j" Journalists.

Bet on the jockey, not on the horse
    It sounds like a bleak picture. It doesn't need to be.
    Yes, there are going to be rough times.
    But if we, as journalists, are to have a hope of reclaiming the journalism we set out to do, we can't ignore – or worse yet, simply wring our hands and whine about – what's happening around us. We have to bet on the jockey, not the horse.
    Let me explain.
    I enjoy putting a few bucks down on the ponies. But you won't find me in most cases at thoroughbred tracks like Belmont or Churchill Downs. I'm more likely to be watching the harness races at Yonkers or the old Louisville Downs – or maybe Pompano Park.
    I've learned that I'm lousy at betting on horses. They are like technology – big, sleek, powerful – and more likely to come in out of the money. So while the payoff can be great, I'm not willing to tie my paycheck to Big Elmer.
    But I have learned I can bet the jockey.
    The jockey straddling half a ton of horseflesh is pretty much along for the ride. But a harness jockey has more control over that "technology," and you can find jockeys who tend to be more consistent winners. So I'm betting on the skill, the craft, not the technology.
    And that's what I'm hoping you'll do as journalists.
    You need to worry less about the technology and bet more on your craft. The medium does not matter as much as the journalism.
If you're a good storyteller – and that you're here tonight shows you are, whether in words, pictures or graphics – you already are honing the skills necessary in this multimedia, always-on world.
    A good storyteller already tries to create a multimedia event in the reader's mind. Sight, sound, smell – you're trying to transmit all of them.
And the smart writer has always worked with photographers. That writer knew a so-so story could make 1-A with a great photo -- and the photographer was another advocate for the story. And a good photographer always got a sense of the writer's story, knowing that if the pictures matched, they were likely to get the best play.
    That's what this multimedia world is all about – being aware of all the ways to tell a story and knowing enough to use those other resources when needed – and when appropriate.
    If you're a writer who wants the reader to "hear" a story, why wouldn't you want to help those readers who come to the story on the Web with a few short audio clips? If you want them to "see," why not video or a slide show?
    Fortunately, we rather quickly shrank from this vision of the new-age multimedia reporter as "Edward Scissorhands" – outfitted with multiple tools, a veritable Swiss Army knife of a journalist. Of course, as in the movie, things tended to turn out badly when it was tried, or even when we just thought about it much. We now seem to realize this "one-person band" idea isn't the best and this isn't going to be journalism on the cheap.
    But even if you're in a small newsroom without big resources, you can still expand your storytelling. There are so many simple, cheap tools out there that even if all you do is occasionally add sound to your print story shoveled onto the Web, you're giving people a reason to come to that Web site for your journalism.
    This isn't going to be painless. We're in the "Jell-O era" – the time when managers are tempted throw anything they can against the wall to see what sticks. That's natural. It also produces silly mandates, such as you have to get sound on every story or every story has to have some other multimedia element.
    Of course, not every story lends itself to sound, and you certainly don't want to spook an interview by whipping out a microphone at the wrong time. Just the same, I've seen too many "print" journalists and journalism students fall back on that excuse when it clearly wasn't likely. Do what we used to do in TV when we had to shoot film – do the interview in pencil and paper first, and then pull out the microphone and record. You'll probably get better, more thoughtful answers as a result.

Watch the people, not the rats
    Two final points: First, listen to the rat poison expert.
    On NPR the other day there was a fascinating interview with an author who recounted dinner with the rat poison specialist of Europe. Asked about his success, the poison specialist said: "I watch the people, not the rats."
    Rats eat the food people leave. So in France, he mixes in a little butterfat with the poison. In Germany, it's some pork fat. In Venice, I guess it's olive oil. As journalists, we also need to watch the people – not the rats.
    Part of the reason we're in this mess is because we haven't paid attention to changing desires, lifestyles and needs.
    We wrote too much for those we were covering – the rats. We expected people to read it the way we wanted them to. We heard, but we didn't really pay attention, when someone questioned whether we were really in "mass media" anymore.
    And too often we forgot that it doesn't hurt to mix a little butter – or some occasional sugar – into our stories.

In the 21st century, large is not in charge
    My final point comes from, Sumner Redstone, the power behind Viacom. When Redstone said this year that he was splitting the $23 billion colossus so that it could more nimbly respond to changes in the media world, he said this: "In the 21st century, large is no longer in charge."
    Those should be sweet words to journalists because, at its essence, journalism is small. We too often confuse journalism with the practice of putting out a newspaper or putting on a newscast. Those are team efforts.
    But the process of gathering news, of discovering and uncovering, of going places where the average person can't go – that, my friends, remains a one-on-one relationship between source and journalist. And that's not likely to change anytime soon.
    Small means opportunity. Yes, it was sad when the Baltimore Sun said it was closing its London and Beijing bureaus. But perhaps now jobs open for two, three or more freelancers.
    If we don't like the way things are going and think we can do it better ourselves, there's no better time. The costs to entry are low – you can put up a community news Web site for a few hundred dollars and a few hours' work. Remember, unlike at Kodak, we are the raw material.
    Will such "citizen journalism" make money? I don't know. That's what we're trying to find out in a South Carolina project.
    But don't make the same kind of arrogant mistakes we've made before in dismissing things out of hand, like this kind of thinking from a former SPJ president:
    "There is a difference between 'citizen journalism' and 'professional journalism,'" he wrote. "A professional journalist's No. 1 obligation is to be accurate. A citizen journalist's No. 1 obligation is to be interesting."
    He missed the point. The challenge for both these days is to be accurate and interesting.
    If we can do both – and be quick ... if we can figure out what we do is worth ... if we can bet on the jockey and not the horse ... and watch the people not the rats ... and if we remember that large is not in charge ...  I believe we as journalists can reclaim journalism's soul, no matter what the medium.
    There is no better time than now. There is no one else but us!
    And if you don't believe me on that, well at least trust me on this: Next year the hurricane entries go to Boise.

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Quicken: A case of software arrogance

There are some parallels to be drawn between Intuit and its Quicken software and the media industry. Both have tended to do things because they can, not because they really understand the needs of their consumers.

 Intuit's Quicken 2012 is a good example. One truly wonders how much usability testing it was put through before release.

If you've used Quicken for years, as I have, its combination of spreadsheet views,when necessary, and database aggregation made it a very powerful tool. But now the developers - or marketers - at Quicken apparently have decided they know best. What has resulted is a piece of bloatware (required 1GB of memory to run) loaded with non-optional graphical interfaces that sometimes are less easy to understand than a simple spreadsheet in colors and that severely restrict the options and functionality.

The best example is the "new" budget. It's a circus of colored bars arrows, drop-down boxes, etc., but with less functionality than the original spreadsheet version. For instance:
  • You can't do a specific budget out for more than 12 months from the current month. So if I want to sit down today and do all of a 2012 budget, guess what? I can't do December 2012. December is usually a month of some pretty big inflows and outflows, gifts and travel on one side, and things like capital gains on the other. Yet I have to wait until January to put those in the form? So you've just decreased my efficiency.
  • Once a month has passed, you are locked out from making any changes. So let's say I decided to make a big purchase at the end of a month and pay for it with a sizable withdrawal from savings. If I wait a day or two to enter it, the month's end might have passed, and I'm locked out.
  • Maybe I make an advance payment on a loan. I have to wait a week or two (even online) to get the statement showing the adjusted principle and interest. If I've passed month's end, I'm locked out.
And on and on. Even generating the budget favors more using averages than specifics.

What's it matter? After all, you still get a general sense of spending, right? Yes, but sometimes - fairly often judging by the complaints on Intuit's third-party complaint forum - a more detailed look is not only appreciated but needed. Being able to generate a year-to-date budget report that is as close to up-to-the-minute as possible can be quite important at times.

In trying to create  "Quicken for Dummies," Intuit has severely limited its product - and the irony is that in in doing this, the bloatware is actually less useful than a slimmer, more elegant version.

That's a lot like the media business was, if you think about it: We'll tell you what features you'll get - and you'll like it. Customer feedback is kind of shunted off to the side.

When options became available, people quickly fled.

For now, there aren't that many options. Microsoft is not developing "Money " anymore, though there is a free, lite version. And Intuit owns "The Mint." But Intiut might take a lesson from the media. In this digital age, nothing is forever, especially when you try to force things down customers' throats.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Foxtrot comic illustrates the inanity of 'and/or'

The inanity of using "and/or" is wonderfully illustrated by a weekend Foxtrot comic. Go to my Tumblr for the comic and discussion.

(Logically, "or" includes "and.")

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Blondie makes a common holiday error

What's wrong this panel from Sunday's "Blondie" cartoon ?

Find out.

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We need your views: Is some research threatened?

The December Convergence Newsletter is out with a couple of important articles looking at how news organizations' convergence practices have changed and challenging some of our assumptions about "digital natives."

But we also need your help beyond that. Here's an excerpt from the newsletter. Please weigh in:

Is some research threatened? We need to hear from you.
The article by Jake Batsell and Camille Kraeplin not only continues their significant research into the evolving nature of convergence, but also includes an observation that signals potential concern for researchers: "Our difficulty soliciting responses suggests that, in an age of information overload, email surveys are becoming a less effective mechanism for conducting newsroom research."
They found that many large and midsize TV stations and groups have adopted "no survey" policies. Others begged off, citing an increasingly burdensome workload. Such surveys have, in the past decade, become an important method of gathering significant information about changes in the field. Are you finding the same problems?
We'd like to hear from you, problems or no, about your views on this and whether you think it could be a significant problem for some research. Email us at, or comment on our Facebook or Google+ pages or on our blog. We'd like to compile your views in a future issue.

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Tools: Free graphic design programs

You know you need some free graphics programs. There's a really nice review and video here:

(Thanks to Ed Henninger for the pointer.)

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

When a correction is not enough

When a correction blows a hole in a previous story and actually raises more questions about what went on, is a small correction buried on page two enough?

Here's an example from The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.

The original story:

What crosses the jump is this graf (Keel is Mark Keel, head of the State Law Enforcement Division):

Keel said the sanctions came because SLED’s prior administration outsourced most of the agency’s information technology work. That left the agency unable to monitor local law enforcement agencies as they used the federal system, leading to the sanctions. “I don’t know if the prior administration understood how important this particular part of the agency was."

Later, the story explained that as a result of outsourcing IT, SLED stopped doing required audits of the use of the national crime database.

The same information was picked up by AP from The State:
SLED is supposed to audit every local law enforcement agency to make sure it uses the federal crime database properly. Those audits stopped in 2007 under Keel's predecessor as the agency had most of its technology work done by outside companies. The FBI sanctioned SLED last week, but also commended the agency for taking steps to resume the audits.

OK, makes sense to me and provides a simple explanation, although one could certainly raise a bunch more questions about Keel's predecessor and the decisions to outsource IT. One might also ask why SLED wrote a contract, apparently, that did not give it an opportunity to audit, etc.

Then today comes this correction, buried at the bottom of page 2:

To my mind, that raises many more serious questions. If the IT was not outsourced, then the problems were even more clearly internal to SLED. Why did it stop monitoring? Why were no audits done?  Is there a failure of leadership or a systemic failure?

This is when a typical correction does not cut it.

The paper's online story has this graf:

Keel said the sanctions came because SLED’s prior administration had planned to outsource most of the agency’s information technology work. The plans caused SLED to lost [sic] most of its IT staff, which left the agency unable to monitor local law enforcement agencies as they used the federal system. That lead [sic] to the sanctions from the FBI.

“I don’t know if the prior administration understood how important this particular part of the agency was.”

OK, perhaps not quite so nefarious (though it still raises many questions), but it reinforces my point. The buried correction was not enough. There is an important nuance here for the necessary understanding. At least the correction should have been more robust.

But this also raises some other questions. I can't tell, because I did not see the original online version, but it appears the story has been hastily changed (circumstantial evidence comes from the two language problems note with "sic"). If that's the case, I see no note on the story indicating the change was made. That would be a transparency problem, something else the paper might want to think about in being honest with its audience.

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Ban headlines like this

One inviolate rule of headline writing - it should reflect with fealty what the story actually says.

So let's look at this specimen from today's (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper.

Is there really a "ban"?

Let me help by starting with the last graf:

The provision that Upton got placed into the spending bill will cut off money the Department of Energy would have used to make sure that the regulations are followed. The lighting standards themselves remain. 

Not definitive enough? OK, let's go up a few grafs to this:

In fact, the new standards don’t ban incandescent bulbs, but rather require that new ones use about 25 percent less electricity. The extra efficiency is provided by the use of halogen gas.

We report, you decide.

It's not as sexy, but something like House blocks money for light bulb rules would be a bunch more accurate.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why Firefox is losing my loyalty

The folks at Mozilla know Firefox has gone from being an upstart challenger industry to becoming firmly entrenched in some production processes. Knowing and understanding, however, are two different things.

Yet another update appeared this week on my various machines, and again, the pre-install message was the same: This or that plug-in is incompatible and so deactivate it.

Nope, screw the update (thankfully, only a minor one, 8.01, instead of the major version changes that have been flooding out in recent months). I need that plug-in, one that automatically refreshes websites, to work on the digital signs in the newsroom that display those sites.

And I don't need to get messages from the CMSes, digital signs and other back ends I work with telling me my browser is no longer compatible (I usually can ignore those, but the nag factor is a pain).

And then there's the added annoyance that on some Macs, FF8 won't properly integrate with the Quicktime 7 plug-in, prompting the "Quicktime needs another component" message (it doesn't) and won't play MP3 files inline. (No problem with FF3, which is why it stays on my machine.)

Firefox's great vitality is its stable of plug-ins. But that will also be its downfall, if it iwn't careful. You can't offer a buffet of useful plug-ins by third parties, encourage people to use them and integrate them into workflows, and then break them with numerous updates.

I can see the response now - these are important updates and if those third-party developers can't keep up, too bad. (I also largely agree that sites that sniff for specific browser versions, for instance, instead of core engines are bad and stupid.)

But that misses the point. That was OK when you were an upstart. When plug-ins were new toys and discoveries that had a large cool factor. But now they have a large embedded-in-workflows factor. Constant breakage is not just a trifling annoyance, it's a major pain in the arse.

I'm not particularly voting for Big Browser here.  But it's time for Mozilla to get some of this crap out of the way, get more judicious about updates, and figure out a way to get major plug-ins and other sites in line before releasing all but the most serious security updates.

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AP's new plug-in for MS Word - Styleguard

Tired of having to reach over to lift up that heavy AP stylebook? Enter "Styleguard," AP's new plug-in for MS Word that checks as you type.

From the news release:

AP StyleGuard, powered by Equiom Linquistic Labs, is a powerful yet easy solution that integrates with Microsoft Word and provides automatic checking of your documents for AP style.  Using defined structure and rules similar to Word's spelling and grammar checking, AP StyleGuard helps ensure the consistency of your writing style.  It saves the time of manually referring to the AP Stylebook and offers recommendations on items you might not have realized are covered by AP style.

No matter what type of writing you do, you can rest assured that AP StyleGuard helps you stay on top of all the current spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage guidelines from the journalist's bible.

Cost: $49.99 For now, it's available only if you have a subscription to the online stylebook and, in keeping with AP's traditional operating system myopia - it appears to be Windows only.

On the other hand, anything that might short-circuit much of Word's absurd grammar recommendations with some common sense might be useful.


Good for newspapers, maybe, but for journalism?

Thanks to Lou Phelps of the Savannah Daily News in a column this week for making brutally clear that newspapering is a business - a cutthroat one - that's not necessarily good for journalism.

 Phelps, a media consultant whose company also publishes the Daily News, seeks to make the point that, when looked at from a cash-flow perspective, newspapering is still a pretty decent business and that "we are far from dead," especially smaller community papers:

For smaller publishers still operating their own presses who need to spend $150,000 for computer-to-plate equipment, or $250,000 on press improvements, these incentives will help them cut their payrolls and newsprint waste, helping to make their companies even stronger in future years.

I agree with Phelps, who also looks at Lee, McClatchy and Gannett and finds that they would be in decent shape if it weren't for their crushing debt and depreciation payments. Traditional media companies are going to have to move earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization (EBITDA) closer to bottom-line earnings.

This month's Common Sense Journalism column is going to use an example out of Iowa to argue that if trad media companies want to thrive among the nimblest of new-media companies, they are going to have to write down and throw off more of the real estate, "big iron" and "big silicon" they find themselves writing down and tied to. They have become storefronts on the information highway, and, frankly, they probably ought to be operating out of storefronts, or close to it.

Phelps, however, takes it a step further, nicely drawing the distinction between newspapering as a business and journalism:

Unlike many business sectors, our expenses are tied very tightly to revenue. And, our industry, generally, is not burdened with significant research and development costs or patent attorneys, such as those in the drug or manufacturing sectors.

Take a restaurant, for example. It has to have employees standing there to cook and serve, and has to purchase the food items listed on the menu whether customers come in the door on Friday night or not.

Not so with the newspaper business. If our ad revenues decline, we cut newsprint/ink usage, we buy fewer stories and photographs, and we don't pay sales commissions (particularly optimum if sales reps are on straight commission.) Well-run newspaper companies have controlled all of their overhead and operating expenses, and changed their staffing strategies to be able to adjust to these vagaries.

Granted, some companies were late to that party and paid dearly in 2008 and 2009 as they struggled to believe that advertising revenues would not rebound - and took too long to cut.

But by 2010, most newspaper companies came to grips with the future, and began to admit to each other ... "It's amazing how few people it actually takes to run a newspaper company, isn't it?" as one distinguished newspaper owner in Georgia said to me last year.

And, we all began to cut like crazy.
 Exactly. Newspapering doesn't take (relatively) a lot of resources. Journalism does.

To keep things in perspective, The Savannah Daily News is not the traditionally dominant paper (the Savannah Morning News, daily circulation about 35,000, is). It's a free, low-staff operation (perhaps it's significant that the paper's "about us" page is blank, though this is on the subscription form: Welcome to readership of Savannah Daily News, locally owned and edited by professional journals. Be sure to sign up your family members...and we how you will consider recommending us to your friend and associates. ---Founded in 2004, Savannah Daily News is the region's FREE daily news source. SDN is locally owned, with news stories written daily by respected journalists who live in and love the Savannah, Coastal Georgia and the Lowcountry.)

I couldn't readily find any circulation figures, but it doesn't matter, because I think the sentiments Phelps expresses are shared by many others in the industry looking for low-cost, turn key solutions to what ails them (which Phelps will happily supply through her Community Daily News LLC).

As Phelps notes, newspaper companies are "not burdened with significant research and development costs." Which goes a long way to explaining why newspaper companies are finding it so hard to merge onto the new information - and journalism - highway.

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

News generated by computers

A new blog is up, "Just to Clarify," by Kris Hammond - and I'd recommend you read it occasionally. Hammond is the chief technology officer of Narrative Science, which is focused on turning data into computer-generated narratives.

Much of its work is based on research coming out of Northwestern University.

His newest post has the provocative title: Why 90% of news will be computer generated in 15 years.

Hammond's thesis breaks down to four (he says three, but I broke out No. 3 here) points:
  1. More and more data is being generated natively in all sorts of areas (business, government,sports, etc.) and it is becoming more accessible
  2. New techniques are also allowing computers to take text that previously required human mediation and interpretation and turn it into data
  3. Integrating the first two, with some human guidance, will produce richer and more relevant stories
  4. As news organizations increasingly have to rely on aggregating revenue streams from numerous niches, instead of a mass audience, doing so without the aid of computers doing some of the writing would be economically infeasible.

As he puts it: "A computer can write highly localized crime reports, personalized stock portfolio reporting, high school and youth sports stories at scale to provide coverage that was previously impossible and could never be possible in a world of purely human generated content."

Not to mention the fifth point - publishers looking for ever-cheaper ways of doing things.

See also Hammond's earlier, thought-provoking post: "The end of destination sites." That ought to give you a snoot full to think about for the rest of the day.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

AP Style: Holiday Guide

AP has compiled a special guide to style for the holidays. It's below. While we're at it, let's repeat the usual suggestions to avoid trite phrases like "'tis the season," "it's beginning to look a lot like ..." and "the white stuff" for snow.

The four Sundays preceding Christmas.

"Auld Lang Syne"
Sung to greet the New Year, poem by Robert Burns set to Scottish music.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) --
Dateline for AP stories from the biblical site of Jesus' birth.
Capitalize in reference to the Scriptures; lowercase biblical in all uses.
Boxing Day
Post-Christmas holiday Dec. 26 In British Commonwealth countries.
Capitalize sparkling wine from the French region uncorked to celebrate New Year's.
Christmas Eve, Christmas Day
Capitalize Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 Christian feast marking the birth of Jesus.
One word.
Christmas tree
Lowercase tree and other seasonal terms with Christmas: card, wreath, carol, etc. Exception: National Christmas Tree.
Toy spinning top for Jewish celebrations.
Lowercase the biblical praise to God, but capitalize in composition titles: Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus.
Eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights starting Dec. 20 this year.
Jesus, Jesus Christ
Pronouns referring to him are lowercase, as is savior.
happy holidays, merry Christmas, season's greetings
Such phrases are generally spelled lowercase, though Christmas is always capitalized.
Holy Land
Capitalize the biblical region.
Kriss Kringle
Not Kris. Derived from the German word, Christkindl, or baby Jesus.
African-American and Pan-African celebration of family, community and culture, Dec. 26-Jan. 1.
Three wise men who brought gifts to the infant Jesus at Epiphany, celebrated Jan. 6.
Candelabrum with nine branches used for Hanukkah.
Capitalized in references to Jesus or to the promised deliverer in Judaism.
Nativity scene
Only the first word is capitalized.
New Year's Eve, New Year's Day
Capitalized for Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
North Pole
Mythical home of Santa Claus.
Decorative plant for Christmas; note the "ia."
Passing along an unwanted present to someone else.
Santa Claus
Brings toys to children in a sleigh pulled by reindeer on Christmas Eve.
"A Visit From St. Nicholas"
Beloved poem by Clement Clarke Moore that begins, " 'Twas the night before Christmas ..."
"The Twelve Days of Christmas"
Spell the numeral in the Christmas carol.
Old English name for Christmas season; yuletide is also lowercase.
Don't use this abbreviation for Christmas

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Selective use of data

Data is good in journalism. Selective use of data, not so much.

So let's look at the following story from The Nerve, a journalistic endeavor of the S.C. Policy Council. The council is a heavily conservative advocacy organization, but for those critics who would like to dismiss The Nerve's work out of hand as a result, stop.

The reporters, many of whom worked for "established" media, know their stuff and more often than not have uncovered those annoying little tidbits that send politicians into a tizzy. It also has become another media voice documenting and amplofying FOIA violations - can't be enough of those.

Yes, the stuff could use some solid editing from time to time. And it can be a bit shrill - one clearly knows the direction the writers are coming from ("Where Government Gets Exposed" is the site's tagline). But to dismiss it out of hand is ill-advised.

However, there are things like this that bother me because they show selective use of data to put a finger on the fairness scale, so to speak. And yes, I am a USC employee, and no, doesn't matter a twit to me what the subject is. We're talking basic journalism, editing and fairness in presenting data here. So consider the following. My comments and questions, had I edited this, are in brackets and italics:

As College Tuition Rises, So Does Administrators’ Pay
The body of the story bears that headline out at only one school.
By Amit Kumar
We’ve all heard it before: Tuition at South Carolina’s public universities and colleges is rising; state appropriations for higher education are falling; and it’s something that has been going on for years.

There is, however, at least one budgetary commitment that has remained constant or even increased at state institutions of higher education in recent years: total compensation paid to university presidents and vice presidents.
"Remained constant or 'even' increased" - so if it's remained constant, why is it worth mentioning?

The Nerve analyzed total compensation packages for the presidents and vice presidents at the University of South Carolina, Clemson University, and the College of Charleston, the largest undergraduate public universities in the state. The Nerve obtained compensation records by filing S.C. Freedom of Information requests with all three universities.

While tuition at all three public universities has nearly doubled in the past decade, university administrators have been receiving steady compensation packages worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the review found.
OK, so the news is what? If administrators' salaries had been going up, the news is clear. But if their compensation stayed "steady," then doesn't that bolster the idea that the extra money's been going for other purposes (like education and more faculty)? 
 The Nerve’s review also found that, while university administrators often point to decreases in state appropriations as justification for tuition increases, the amounts of federal stimulus dollars each of these three universities received in the past two fiscal years more than offset any cuts in state funding.
More on this in a minute, but hold this question - do stimulus dollars actually replace state appropriations?

For fiscal year 2011-2012, the total compensation package for USC President Harris Pastides is valued at $535,000; for the College of Charleston President George Benson, at $398,987; and for Clemson President James Barker, at $400,000.

Each of those packages is more than 12 times the per capita income in South Carolina, valued at $33,163 in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
OK, gives us a bit of context. But is 12 times excessive compared with similar officials in other states (which also have been cutting budgets) or with other S.C. officials? Has that ratio increased or decreased over time - that's a major weakness throughout the story; the real issue is whether there have been increases, and have those been excessive? I know it's hard to feel sympathy for someone making $300K or $400K a year, but as journalists, we're supposed to know when a snapshot can be more misleading than a time series. BTW, check the state salary database, and 17 state employees show up (most from the universities, including the Medical University of South Carolina,  as making more than $300,000, none of them the university presidents because the presidents' actual salaries are much lower).
At USC, the total compensation paid to Pastides each year since fiscal year 2008-2009, his first in the post, has been constant at $535,000. That number includes both money from state government and supplemental private funds from University of South Carolina foundations.
What's the breakdown? Has the public portion of that changed? What relevance does the "private" part of that have to the argument at hand, which seems to be tuition rises but these folks keep dipping from the trough.
A report by The Chronicle On Higher Education, though, found that the median total compensation package for university presidents – including presidents of university systems with multiple campuses, like that of USC – at 185 of the top research institutions in the nation in 2009-2010 was $440,487 – $95,000 lower than Pastides’ package.
Useful to know.
Meanwhile, both in-state and out-of-state tuition for attending USC have more than doubled in the past 10 years, with in-state tuition rising from $5,024 in 2002-2003 to $10,168 in 2011-12. After adjusting for inflation, that figure represents a 61 percent increase in tuition and fees.

A common refrain from universities regarding their yearly tuition hikes is that the increases are necessary because the amount of money the state appropriates to higher education has decreased each year. And this is true: For instance, for the 10-year period from 2001-2002 to 2010-2011, annual state appropriations to USC-Columbia have declined by 45 percent, from $183.7 million to $101 million, according to the most recent report by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.

However, for the past two completed fiscal years, state universities have received federal stimulus dollars as a response to the recession. While those stimulus funds, which are non-recurring, have more than offset year-to-year reductions in state appropriations, universities have still elected to raise tuition in those years.
OK, back to the original question - are stimulus funds the same as state funds? I don't know, but the journalist could have helped me out as a reader. Many federal funds come with restrictions, as opposed to the state's "general fund" dollars. If the fed money is not a perfect substitute, is the argument here that the fed money used for purpose "x," should have then freed up the same amount of state money for other uses, thus negating or lessening the need for a tuition increase? Would have been nice to explain.
 For example, in fiscal year 2009-2010, state recurring appropriations to the entire USC system declined by $20.5 million; that same year USC received $29.2 million in federal stimulus dollars, more than offsetting the loss in state dollars. Still, USC increased tuition by 3.6 percent for in-state and out-of-state students in 2009-2010.

Similarly, at the College of Charleston, President George Benson’s compensation has not increased since he first took the top position in 2007-2008. However, the compensation packages for five of the college’s six vice presidents have increased since 2006-2007, including three packages that have increased by more than 14 percent each after adjusting for inflation.
OK, so the story vis a vis Benson is? The five VPs is interesting. But why does the story report only VP increases for College of Charleston? What about Clemson, USC, etc.? (Note: Clemson's data comes at end - would be useful if these were grouped if the point was that VPs overall were getting raises.)
For instance, the compensation package for George Watt, the college’s executive vice president of institutional advancement, has increased by $62,687, or 20.1 percent after adjusting for inflation, since 2008-2009 – right at the height of the recession.
Sounds not so good. But what does a VP of institutional advancement do? As a reader, helps me decide whether it's reasonable.
 In the past 10 years, in-state tuition at the College of Charleston has increased from $4,858 in 2002-2003 to $9,616 in 2011-2012, or by 57 percent after adjusting for inflation. Out-of-state tuition has increased even more, by 76 percent after adjusting for inflation, or $13,356 more per year.

College of Charleston, like USC, repeatedly justifies tuition increases at least partially because of lowered state appropriations. But although the amount of general funds appropriated to public universities has decreased significantly in recent years, general funds make up only a small portion of a university’s overall budget.

For fiscal 2011-12, general funds made up only 9 percent of the College of Charleston’s overall budget. For USC, that number was 11 percent; for Clemson University, general funds were only 8 percent of its overall budget.
Perhaps it is too obvious to note that one of the reasons general funds make up "only" (a loaded word) a small part of the budgets is because the state appropriations have been cut so much? Again, trend data useful for me as a reader to determine context.
 The bulk of these universities’ budgets actually comes from other funds, which are made up of tuition and fees. Of the College of Charleston’s $220 million budget, $183.5 million, or 83 percent of the overall budget, comes from other funds. At USC, $641.8 million out of its $907.2 million budget, or 71 percent, comes from other funds; at Clemson, other funds make up $650.6 million out its $805.4 million budget, or 81 percent.
And, again, that large proportion would be a direct result of state funding being cut, right?
Universities are crying out that they need to increase tuition because their state appropriations are dwindling; but those appropriations make up only about 10 percent of their overall budgets, and cuts to those funds have been offset by federal stimulus dollars in recent years.
So synthesizing my comments: This is a collection of random facts that when put in the same graf sounds sinister but fails to answer whether stimulus dollars can be directly substitutable for state appropriations and how much state money as a proportion of the schools' budget has changed. The implied argument seems to hinge on "only," but the "only" might well be the result of state cuts, especially if the federal money is not a one-for-one replacement  - seems a bit tautological, eh?

All these same financial trends are visible at Clemson, where in-state tuition has increased by 67 percent and out-of-state tuition by 75 percent in the past 10 years after adjusting for inflation.

In that same time, Clemson President James Barker has seen his compensation package increase by $120,986, from $279,014 to $400,000 – a raise of 14 percent after adjusting for inflation.
OK, that's useful.
Some of Clemson’s vice presidents have received large compensation increases in the past decade as well, even when adjusting for inflation.
In the past 10 years, the compensation package for Doris Helms, Clemson’s vice president for academic affairs and provost, has increased by 28 percent, to $270,389 today. The package for John Kelly, vice president for agriculture, public service, and economic development, has increased by 19 percent after, to $242,732 today; and for Neill Cameron, vice president for advancement, by 15.5 percent, to $211,185 today.
OK, that's useful. So Clemson raises some flags. But when did those raises happen? Isn't it possible the bulk were before the 2008 recession? Help me out as a reader to evaluate the information. It's far more significant if they've continued getting raises even after the economy tanked.

And why don't we hear about the VPs at the other institutions - USC? So at two out of three schools, there weren't significant VP raises? But not at the largest? And how do they relate? That's cherry-picking data.

Bottom line: Might be a story here. Take your pick based on your policy/political/fiscal orientation:
  • Tuition's gone up even though the schools' financial picture shouldn't have changed because federal stimulus dollars were exactly substitutable for the state money that was cut. (Nothing in the story says that about the fed dollars; we are left to artfully conclude it.) Ergo, any tuition increase somehow is tied to the pay, although how is that possible when the pay remained steady for the presidents of two schools and we have no data in the story showing significant increases for underlings at one of those the three schools (besides Clemson)?
  •  University officials' pay has continued to rise even while the economy has gone to crap. (Unfortunately, the data we have right now shows that's the case at "only" one of three, and even then it's not clear when the increases took place.)
  • State appropriations were cut and the stimulus dollars that came in could not directly replace them. So tuition was raised, in part to cover the salaries plus any increases in those salaries over the past decade. That was wrong, since the stimulus money could have freed up other funds that could have been transferred back to other lines to cover/offset the salaries. The implication is that those top officials should somehow have refunded parts of their salaries to cover that (unspecified) part of the tuition increase.
One of these might have been true. But this story, as a "random walk" through data, doesn't support any of them. If the stimulus was not a dollar-for-dollar replacement, you could also debate things like whether the money was effectively spent, whether the universities should have added positions at such a time, did the universities properly transfer money among lines to account for the stimulus, etc.? But that's a different story than what's here.

Bottom line - numbers don't make a story credible by themselves. Careful, clear numbers with accuracy, completeness and context - and the assumptions clearly spelled out - do.

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