Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Ledes: Zig left, zag right - constructing thin air out of ... thin air

You don't have to be spot on the bull's eye when writing a lede, but it is nice if you kind of open somewhere in the general neighborhood of the story.

It seems to be of fashion these days for writers to indulge their fantasies in ledes that start out with a faux anecdote -- one that is about as close to the actual point of the story as, say, Greenland is to Antarctica (well, yes, they're both cold) -- only to give the perplexed reader whiplash as it snaps back the point.

Our latest exhibit:

On Sept. 13, 1899, Henry Hale Bliss stepped off a streetcar at 74th and Central Park West, and walked right into the path of a taxicab, and into the record books. He was the first person in the Americas to be killed by a car. Getting killed by a car was a new thing, and very big news.
The Ooyala Q3 Global Video Index is the opposite of that. 

For several quarters in a row, Ooyala and other companies have been reporting growth--ridiculously large increases--in online video viewership or other up-worthy stats.  Ooyala is  doing that again this morning and it’s news only in that the numbers are growing at such a absurdly fast clip, all around the world, so that now the thing to do is find the biggest crazy number, and note it.

 What's even worse is when you're on a mobile device (or even on a desktop reading a digest) and the summary line actually gives you a sense of the news -- only to click through and have to wade through this to get back to the original point.

No one's suggesting you have to be sparse about it, but a little less self-indulgence, please.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

AP style: 'Justify'

AP has issued one of its periodic style updates, and one might be of interest to usage mavens:

Justify: Smith justified his actions means Smith demonstrated that his actions were right. If the actions are still controversial, say Smith sought to justify his actions. 

It's much like refute (proved) and rebut (sought to prove). I like it, but as with all usage issues, AP is splitting hairs a tad. For instance, Merriam-Webster's entry first lists to provide or be a good reason for (something) : to prove or show (something) to be just, right, or reasonable, to provide a good reason for the actions of (someone).

To "provide" is a tad less than the AP's take, which would fall more under "prove."
AP is in more line with its master dictionary, Webster's New World 5th: to show to be just, right, or in accord with reason; vindicate.

American Heritage is similar :  To demonstrate or prove to be just, right, or valid.

M-W is always considered the more liberal. And in the digital age you've got to deal with the reality that many people are going to get their usage sense from places like Your Dictionary.com (The definition of justify is to provide an explanation or rationale for something to make it seem OK or to prove it is correct or OK.) or Dictionary.com (to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right; to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded), both of which are less restrictive.

So be aware.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

How to annoy your readers, McClatchy style

McClatchy has apparently found a new way to torture readers who go to at least some of its websites -- the ad intercept screen that has no ad on it and asks you if you want to read a story that's not the one you clicked through.

Is it any wonder that McClatchy's stock (MNI) is in the tank?

McClatchy keeps talking about how digital is its future (PDF). But I've yet to see this company really show that it understands how online works -- except to annoy readers with websites that don't display or print correctly, or have so much underlying crap code they slow down browsers.

For a while, I thought MNI was sort of getting it with its redesign (though the design still is about five years behind where forward-looking operations like The Guardian are going). And then this stuff crops up.

Here are a few screenshots from Myrtle Beach and Rock Hill. (I already had tripped The State's cookie by the time I decided to see if this was at other MNI sites, so I'm not getting the screen there right now -- but I will as soon as I sign out and clear session cookies.)

Rock Hill and Myrtle Beach screens that appear when you try to click through a story. Notice "skip this ad" in upper right - but there's no ad. So why annoy readers? Upper left is a suggestion to read a story -- one that's different from the one you clicked through to read.
Update 11/14
Matt Derienzo expounds on the Nieman blog about how newspapers in general are ditching the idea of customer service.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Alice Fraser takes a comedic look at modern journalism

Australian comedian Alice Fraser takes a wonderfully sardonic look at modern journalism in her "Why journalists don't fact check anymore."

This is the way news works now. Speculation regurgitated as fact, swallowed as news, excreted as statistic, rehashed as opinion and commented on as though it were a completely different article about something else entirely. Since the 100% true story from history of that emperor who wasnt wearing any clothes but everyone agreed that he was wearing clothes because the SMH had picked up a picture of some clothes from Reuters, news has been full of circle-jerk hearsay, the kind of drippy dribbling mouth to mouth communication that coughs itself up into a  foetid phlegm of hot, secondhand, coagulated lung fluid. Or so I hear. Ill have to check Wikipedia. Lets just agree to agree that the News is as fukt as the world or that Ikea table I shouldnt have just tried to sit on, and I dont know that we can fix it. Just, maybe dont trust it with your full bodyweight. 

Read the whole article. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

When prescriptivism scrapes the railing: plethora

I love the Testy Copy Editors blog overseen by Phil Blanchard. It's one of my daily go-tos.

But occasionally, as is always going to happen at places that ruminate over usage and other editorial matters, the danger is that things take on a "get off my lawn" tone. It happens in this space too, regrettably, though I try to avoid it.

So from TCE today comes this:
Shannon Serpette of Henry is our new copy editor. She comes to the BCR with a plethora of writing experience. Her smiling face is a great addition to our department, and she’s also going to continue doing some writing. If you get a phone call from Shannon or have the opportunity to chat with her, please help us welcome her into the BCR family.
(Bureau County Republican, Princeton, Ill.)

Once Shannon is through her probation, she can put on her big smile and tell the boss to look up the meaning of “plethora,” which the boss probably thought was a compliment.
 And, true, the classic definition of plethora means an overabundance, an excess, of something.

Bryan Garner, still considered the leading authority on American usage, hews to that side of the word, though his latest volume, now at the ripe old age of 5, is starting to age a bit in these digital times when usage changes have gone from glacial to, at least, climate change proportions.*

So posts like TCE's need to acknowledge that maybe some change has crept into the conversation. No less than the Oxford Dictionaries is now suggesting usage has changed.

usage: Strictly, a plethora is not just an abundance of something, it is an excessive amount. However, the new, looser sense is now so dominant that it must be regarded as part of standard English.

We must not become so pedantic that we don't stop and take a deep breath before pulling the trigger.

* While Garner says, "Although W11 [Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed 2003)] seems to countenance this meaning, it is unrecorded in the OED and in most other dictionaries. And it represents and unfortunate degeneration of sense."

But things change. Here is the latest entry from the Oxford English Dictionary online (this is the big boy, available only through very expensive subscription, not the slimmer sibling I linked to above):

Usu. with of. Originally in pejorative sense: an excessive supply, an overabundance; an undesirably large quantity. Subsequently, and more usually, in neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety. (emphasis mine)
So, yes, the careful writer will take note. But the peevers among us should also.

Otherwise, why not open up the shopworn debate on "decimate" while we're at it?

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Friday, October 03, 2014

From the brevity files -- how to sound like a tool (again)

Today's superfluous wording from The State (though the TVs thoughtlessly do this all the time):

Lexington County Coroner Earl Wells said Ethan Payne, 13, of Lexington, died after sustaining a single gunshot wound.

Or, in plain English: died after being shot once.

Do we really want to sound like a tool of the authorities that much? Are we that insecure?

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Headlines: Where you put the atttibution can be important

It's worth some attention to where you put the attribution in a headline.

There's this gem from Reuters, courtesy of James Montalbano over at Testy Copy Editors.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

SC FOIA: The legislative exemption

The Nerve has an interesting piece this morning on a big exemption to the state's open-records law as the legislature moves forward to close some holes punched in the FOIA this year by court rulings.

This one puts much of the Legislature's correspondence off-limits.

It's a tough nut: While I tend to not want to delve into the average Joe's or Jane's plea for help with , say, a workers' comp claim, I sure would like to know if the Koch brothers are trying to influence folks.

And this from state Sen. Brad Hutto is a bit disingenous: “Ultimately, all we do is public. ... How we come to a decision may not be totally public, but when we actually vote, it’s on the record.”

That would be the point -- the coming to is often far more important than the final vote.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

FOIA: Another little chip away in South Carolina - criminal suspects' birthdates

S.C. officials will find any way they can to withhold more information, it seems. This from The State newspaper this week:

The S.C. Department of Public Safety said it no longer will release the date of birth in incidents the agency handles.

Failure to provide that information makes it nearly impossible for the public or the media to determine whether a suspect or victim has a criminal history. SLED requires the public to provide a date of birth to do such a search.

The agency’s legal staff cites two state laws to bolster its decision: The Family and Personal Identifying Information Privacy Protection Act and a financial identity fraud law.

“Insofar as the FPPA precludes the agency from releasing a date of birth, its provisions supersede any release that would be required by FOIA,” Public Safety spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said, referring to overriding the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The crime of identity theft lists 10 examples of personal information that can be used to steal financial identity. The lists includes bank account numbers, Social Security and driver’s license numbers and credit card numbers. The last example cited in the law for personal identification is a date of birth.
 We can debate victim's birthdates. But when someone has been charged, I don't think their privacy is in the mix

Wes Wolfe had some interesting insight on Facebook in reaction to this post:

I've seen this sort of crap from law enforcement agencies and it's infuriating because it's so unnecessary. It's a way of asserting control of a piece of information that makes your job harder specifically to show they have control and can make your job harder.

Currently in North Carolina when an agency does this I can check court dates on the state courts network or check the state DPS site -- if the suspect had a previous conviction that resulted in probation or prison time -- and get the DOB like I should have 10, 15 or 30 minutes earlier. It's creating and/or aggravating an adversarial relationship between law enforcement and the press when there doesn't need to be one.

Considering the number of times people with the same name or fathers and sons both have current charges or convictions, DOB goes a long way toward making sure the right person's identified.

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/09/3671227_officials-silence-on-trooper-shooting.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Caveat emptor: Comptek/Universal Media Syndicate, Aereo and morally challeged newspapers

We've all seen them, the full-page ads for Amish heaters (where it doesn't exactly say but where, apparently, primarily only the frames are made by the Amish), "rare" coins and bills, etc. While the debate about "native advertising" in digital rages in various forums (punctuated by John Oliver's hilarious takedown of it), the old-fashioned "advertorial" has become more and more a staple (from my observations) for cash-strapped newspapers.

But even newspapers have some moral, if not legal, obligation, it seems to me to at least give these things a vetting for being misleading -- and, frankly, from a business sense, too, since this kind of stuff doesn't do much to help your already steadily eroding credibility.

This ad was in The State newspaper today (The State is happy hunting ground for all these ads) on page A13. It's not masquerading -- it is clearly labeled as "Special Advertising Feature":

But what the ad is trying to do is trade off what may be for many people some dim recollection of this thing called the Aereo case that got headlines a few months ago when the Supreme Court ruled against the company. The ad artfully misstates what Aereo really was, however:
  • Yes, it did use "mini" antennas.
  • But they were in a bank of antennas in a huge warehouse in Brooklyn, for instance.
  • And they were not so much designed to plug into your TV as to enable you to watch your over-the-air free TV stations on your computer anywhere you wanted to.
  • And, finally, consumers have been able to get "free TV" as long as TV has been on the air
There's no evidence I see that this "slick little $88 device" that "pulls in crystal-clear digital TV channels for free with no monthly bills" does any more than a $15 or $25 antenna from Wal-Mart (or other retailers) that you can plug right into the back of your digitally enabled flat screen. And if you happen to have an old analog TV, you can add a digital converter box for about $35, bringing the total cost to maybe $60 instead of almost $100 with shipping and handling. Heck, one of those boxes will even record shows if you plug in a large-enough digital drive.

The ad promoting the "Clear-Cast" and using as a source "Comptek, 8000 Freedom Ave., Canton, Ohio, 44720," is artfully worded to avoid legal issues, things like "consumers who have a slick little micro antenna device will receive all of the major network Hollywood movies broadcast over the air for free." Yep, and you can receive those same movies with one of those cheaper antennas or, if you have an enabled flat screen, artfully shaped aluminum foil shoved into the antenna input, it would seem. Always have been able to. (Any implication that wording might make in the minds of the slightly informed and hugely gullible that they might get things like HBO or even TNT is, of course, an unintended consequence, I'm sure.)

No surprise here. Universal Media Syndicate, the operation behind these questionable ads, has been the subject of numerous complaints.

The only "slick little device" in this ad is the wording.

But at what point does a paper like The State have to make some moral decisions and say enough is enough? You no longer can separate the newsroom from the business, as if you ever really could. And that makes it even more important that news organizations -- newsroom, ad, business and corporate -- examine their morals and ethics when it comes to things like this.

(And I haven't exactly seen press associations rushing to rethink this, either.)

Oh, indeed, the almighty dollar is tempting -- and sorely needed -- at times like this. But if news organizations don't do it with an enlightened sense of what they are about, they will ultimately be almighty dead. Because, you see, even the dullest consumers have flashes of brilliance, and when they do these days, all they have to do is hit a button ...

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FOIA: Kudos to The State for laying out the problems

The State newspaper, in conjunction with McClatchy's chain-wide news service, does a good job today of laying out the abuses of using "contract" workers in the construction industry.

But deserving of just as much of a kudos is the paper's sidebar, Getting records from Columbia Housing Authority is expensive, slow, that lays out how agencies do their best to make it hard to get information. In this case it was charging more than $1,400 for the records in which the Social Security numbers were redacted.

One thing that might have made this a bit stronger was taking the $1,075 for copying costs and dividing it by the number of pages (three boxes of records) to show how much the Columbia Housing Authority wanted per page. Since the authority also charged for workers' time, the only copying charge should have been for actual copying costs -- and anything over a nickel or, possibly, a dime (next thing, FOI the agency's copier contracts to see what it is paying) is suspect.

We need to do this more, every time we run up against this kind of thing. And we need to make sure it is framed in a way that says it is the public, not journalists, who are being cheated.

Also in the story is the state's refusal to release audits or much other information because of the legal opinion that federal law makes workers' comp info private. However, there are a string of state and federal court cases also saying in general that off-limits info can be redacted and the rest released. This is why I do hope to win the lottery so I can establish an FOI foundation that will have the primary mission of providing low-cost or free legal assistance so these cases can be litigated quickly and often. Without that, it's sort of like the chocolate candies in Candy Crush -- the dodges just keep proliferating until they take over.

Getting records from Columbia Housing Authority is expensive, slow
It wasn’t easy or cheap to find out how many companies classified workers as independent contractors on the controversial Village at River’s Edge project and another project financed with federal stimulus dollars.

After receiving a Freedom of Information Act request, the Columbia Housing Authority took more than four months to supply three boxes of records to The State newspaper. The authority also charged the newspaper $1,425 for the right to review the documents. The newspaper paid the amount under protest.

State law allows public bodies to waive fees for documents when the information sought is in the public interest, but the authority chose not to do so.

The authority said it had to copy payroll sheets so it could redact the Social Security numbers of workers. The authority’s bill included $1,075 for copying costs. The remainder of the cost was to pay for staff time to prepare the records, the authority said.

Neither the Housing Authority of the city of Charleston nor the State Housing Finance and Development Authority charged anything for records they supplied. Each responded to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request about a month after it was made.

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2014/09/07/3664301/independent-workers-raise-questions.html?sp=/99/205/&ihp=1#storylink=cpy

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