A cranky curmudgeon's
September 5, 2015
weblog on editing, news
and the English language
Good writing -- and good editing -- boil down to this: Your words should say exactly what you
mean. That idea encompasses both accuracy and clarity. As I pontificate on specifics of how that plays out in
the real world, I encourage anyone to weigh in. Heartily endorse, or triumphantly demolish, my arguments,
as you please. I welcome all thoughtful commentary.
Can you trust your local paper? Why datelines matter
Everybody hates being lied to. It's especially disheartening when you find that a person, or institution, that you want to
trust proves to be less than honest. Worse yet when the dishonesty is a matter of deliberate policy, imposed from the top.
For eons now, newspapers have been putting datelines -- the likes of "WASHINGTON" or "LONDON" or "BEIRUT" -- on
stories, to give readers a sense of where they originated. The standard is summarized in The Associated Press
Stylebook, which says the dateline should tell the reader that the basic information for the story was obtained in the
datelined city. A dateline is appropriate, the AP says, "only if the basic information in a story was obtained by a full-
or part-time correspondent physically present in the dateline community." (My emphasis.)
But for some time now, my local newsroom's current regime has dictated that stories carry datelines that fit into
one of three categories:
Stupid. For example: "SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA." Or "NEW HANOVER COUNTY." Given that the paper is published
in New Hanover County, a compact but still sizeable slice of Southeastern North Carolina, what does this tell us? That the paper's
reporters weren't out of town on vacation when reporting their stories? Of course, whether those reporters are ever guilty of
"phoning it in" is different question.
Speaking of phoning it in, I saw a couple of "COLUMBUS COUNTY" datelines on the same day
recently. Really? Where, exactly, in that vast and colorful rural territory? Whiteville? Lake Waccamaw? Maybe Tabor City or Evergreen?
Nakina, Red Bug or Crusoe Island? Nah. The reporter whose name was on those items never got close to any of those places. Certaintly
not now; likely, not ever. And, contrary to a longstanding and respectable practice for reporting at a distance, didn't even pick
up the phone to ask any questions. Just put her name on a couple of days-old press releases and let it go at that.
Pointless. That's what the "WILMINGTON" dateline is, on any story reported by a Wilmington paper. The point
of the dateline is to highlight those stories that required greater effort, getting the writer away from comfy desk and computer
and out into the real world. Of course, if that story should be picked up by the AP and sent out far and wide, it's the wire service's
job to slap on the originating paper's dateline, for the information of readers of other papers. But here at home? Please.
Dishonest. Datelining stories on the basis of what they're about, regardless of whether any real reporting took
place in the field, actively misleads readers. In two ways. First, by implying that a reporter sitting in a windowless room took the
time and effort to get off his or her butt. That the reporter ventured out into the real world to observe, interview and question.
Second is to disguise the fact that entirely too much of what fills todays papers isn't news at all; not in in the sense of independently
reported, objective information. Rewriting (or running verbatim) a press release, then putting your byline and a phony dateline on it,
is a serious con job on trusting readers.
This is the situation that finally led me, after months of growing irritation, to send email queries to a number of
reporters whose bylines appeared on purportedly local stories in my hometown daily. One was a brief item, datelined "DAYTONA BEACH,
FLA" about how the ocean rescue team from Wrightsville Beach, N.C. had won a lifeguard competition. My (not entirely innocent) questions:
"When were you in Daytona Beach to report on this story? Since it says the competition took place on Aug. 7 through 9, Iím curious
about why the story is appearing only today, 10 days after the fact. Did you get any photographs? Interviews with the competitors?
Local color? Insight into the competition? It seems to me that if youíre going to go to the time and expense of traveling to Florida
to report on an event like this, the report should have more substance and detail."
The reporter, who I won't embarrass by naming, replied: "We were not able to travel to Daytona Beach and reported on the
results provided by the Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue team after the competition."
Sez I: "If you werenít in Daytona Beach to report the story, why does it carry a dateline that says you were?"
Reporter: "The dateline represented where the story originated."
Another story that same day, about proposals to develop an interesting little patch of land a fair way out in the boondocks,
carried the intriguing dateline "MONK'S ISLAND." So to that reporter went this query: "When did you visit the island? How would you
describe the landscape? What, if anything, did you observe that has already been built on the island?"
I'll let others judge whether this reply counts as "weaselly." But seriously: "I didnít head out to the island this time
around, but Iíve been assured that nothingís changed since we wrote our article a couple years ago (the one that the photo is from)."
A couple of years ago. When "we wrote" it. Very likely not even the same reporter. So I posed one more faux-naive question:
"If this story was not reported from the island, why does the story carry a dateline?"
Finally, this non-answer: "We have a policy of putting datelines on all of our stories." And a suggestion to take the matter
up with the newsroom managers who set that policy.
Bottom line: I got confirmation that this is a matter of deliberate newsroom policy, not just carelessness. The purported editors
of a respected daily paper are instructing reporters to place phony datelines on their stories. It's a policy that any journalist who cares
about his or her readers should realize is fundamentally dishonest. My challenge to all reporters is to review what the AP Stylebook has
to say, and to reflect about the purpose of datelines.
That place name on your story -- and "SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA" is not a place name worthy of that status -- is to inform
readers of where stories were reported. (If they were reported at all, and not merely transcribed.) Not what remote place a reporter might
like to pretend he visited in the course of his reporting. Having done that, I'd hope those reporters would then think about how that
deceptive newsroom "policy" jibes with their own sense of ethics and their personal responsibilities as journalists.
And, maybe, just maybe, before the inevitable next round of layoffs thins their numbers even more, have the integrity to speak
up and say, "This is wrong."
March 2, 2014
"Progressive complications" vs. a mundane tale
What makes a great story different from a yawner? This subject can (and has) consumed many a writers'
seminar and English-lit class, and it's at the heart of what agents and publishers do. This has been endlessly discussed
with literary-analysis jargon like "story arc" or what's been summarized as a character's "GMCs: goals, motivation and
A useful way to think about this came up the other day in an article by a free-lance book editor, Shawn Coyne.
From his experience preparing manuscripts to be submitted to agents and publishers, he's learned to look for this essential
quality in any story. That is "the storyís progressive complications: the escalating degrees of conflict that face the
He illustrates this nicely in the negative by using an all-too-common summary of the all-too-tedious stories
in every publisher's slush pile. These stories go nowhere, in a couple meanings of the phrase.
If things don't keep getting more and more challenging for our hero -- something like Hamlet's "sea
of troubles" -- a tale won't have much appeal. Coyne also looks for what he calls a "point of no return" where the central
character's decision changes everything, forever.
It's great advice for writers. I found this, by the way, thanks to the very helpful online conversations
among members of the Editorial Freelancers' Association, an international alliance of written-word professionals.
"Boiling Frogs:" An editor's thoughts
on how not to write a compelling story
Feb. 22, 2014
Words of wisdom about publishing
I just spent a fascinated day conferring, conversing, and otherwise hob-nobbing with my brother (and sister)
wizards in the writing and publishing game. The event was the "Book 'Em North Carolina" conference, held at Robeson
Community College in the nearby community of Lumberton. (This is the real Lumberton, on I-95 just south of Fayetteville, not
the fictional town where David Lynch set his bizarre, unforgettable Blue Velvet. That movie was actually filmed right
here in Wilmington ... but that's a tangent of a different color.)
Anyway, this conference and book fair brought together 75 or so authors and publishers, and included a bunch of informative
and entertaining panels and speakers. The name "Book 'Em," by the way, is a play on cop talk. (Remember "Book 'em, Dano" from
Hawaii Five-0?) This event isn't just about to helping writers sell their books and improve their work. It's sponsored by
police who believe encouraging kids to read helps them avoid the temptations of crime, gangs and other self-destructive behavior.
I heard a lot of good advice, and some pretty good yarns, but what struck me as most notable included:
Authors have to do the work -- "get their hands dirty" -- to market their books, whether they're handled by
a traditional publisher or self-published. The author's "platform," consisting of website, blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts,
etc., is vital for helping to build an audience, and to develop the author's "brand." Nobody loves your book like you do, and nobody
will do a better job of selling it than you do.
"The best marketing is a really good book." And one of the differences between "promising" and "really good"
is a really good editor.
"Perseverance sometimes trumps talent" in selling your book, whether it's to an agent, or to a publisher,
or to readers once it hits the market.
Promotion isn't just about one book. A successful author is one who has figured out how to promote "who you are
as a writer," and established a personal brand.
About submitting your book to publishers
A professional approach is crucial when submitting a query. That includes making 100 percent sure that every detail
of your query letter is perfect. In one publisher's words, "Editing is key. Make sure you're sending a clean query letter."
About structuring a compelling story
The beginning of a novel is not the place for back story. "It should start with narrative. It should start right now."
A writer whose story grabs and holds readers understands how to weave the back story into the narrative once it's gotten under way.
Otherwise, "It's like saying to the reader, 'This isn't where the story starts, but please bear with me.' " Readers don't want to bear
with you. They want to get right to it.
About learning from editing
"You've got to kill your old writing style and work on becoming a better writer."
Here's some info about the event and its sponsors:
Book 'Em North Carolina
And this is my selective list of some of the publishers and authors who attended this year:
to see links to publishers and authors.
Jan. 31, 2014
It ain't style, it's typography.
Friends and colleagues who care about such things have been exchanging comments about a peculiarity
that bugs editors. I'm talking about the "rule" some of us learned, ages ago, that you must hit the space bar twice after
ending a sentence. (I don't mean ordering a second drink at the Mos Eisley cantina after you get out of prison. That's
a different kind of space bar, and a different kind of sentence.)
No, this is about the mundane matter of whether to treat the space between sentences (or after certain types of
punctuation) differently from a plain old between-words space. This debate sure sets off heated reactions from traditionalists
who were taught to do this, even though hardly any of them can say why.
My fellow wizards in the Editorial Freelancers' Association use an online forum to conduct lively discussions
on all manner of editing and writing topics, and this is part of a comment one colleague posted:
It has been my policy to allow the author to choose which way he or she likes best. If the author has a
style he uses more often, then that is the one I adhere to. If the author switches incessantly between the two, then I
choose one space and enforce that.
Should I be insisting on one space? I am willing to face off with writers who remember being told in English
class that you must always use two, but I want to choose my battles wisely. If the author decides to go through traditional
publishing, is this issue going to affect her chances of being published?
So, having honestly earned my Mr. Know-it-all reputation, and having unsolicited opinions galore, I had to weigh in:
About the one-space/two-space dilemma:
That old rule about two spaces after a sentence lost its relevance when typewriters disappeared, and it never
applied to typeset copy in any case. (For what itís worth, I learned the two-space rule in a typing class. As in, typing
on manual typewriters. No English teacher ever mentioned it, nor did it ever come up in journalism school.)
Even in the pre-digital world of Linotype machines, spacing between words and between sentences was controlled
by a "spaceband," a mechanical device that would expand or contract to ensure every line was fully justified. When
mainframe text-editing systems like Atex (of blessed memory) and its PC spinoff XyWrite appeared, they used H&J (hyphenation
& justification) systems that did the same thing: adjusting spaces -- single spaces -- as needed to fill out lines in columns of text.
The same principle is true with modern software, whether itís Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign, or their various
off-brand competitors: the keyboardís spacebar generates a variable space that will automatically adjust itself to fit
whatever column format itís placed in. Double spaces confuse the H&J protocols, which makes text look ragged and words break
in peculiar ways.
Bottom line: Sooner or later, this has to be cleaned up, unless a misinformed author self-publishes, in
which case the text will look like crap (that's the technical term for this problem.) If itís not fixed by the editor, then
it will have to be somebody at the publishing house. Whether publishers are put off by this, I canít say, but as an editor I
feel obligated to help my authors understand this is primarily a technological issue, not really a matter of style. And so it
has ever been!
A postscript: Shortly after this appeared, a colleague posted this response. She started off commenting
on another thread, concerning the value of the EFA's dues. Here's the part that tickled me:
Thatís just the money. The fact that my partner is now going to train himself to use one space between
sentences because of the conversation we had yesterday is absolutely priceless. Do you have any idea how long I have been
trying to convince him that it is the way things are done? (Thank you to everyone who participated in that conversation
yesterday, and a special thank you to John Meyer! Your email was the one that convinced him!)
One last thought on this subject: This link goes to an entertaining piece that a friend posted on
Facebook. It makes the same point from a slightly different perspective.
Why you should never, ever put two spaces after a period
By Farhad Manjoo, Slate.com
Dec. 7, 2013
Life imitates art, Part II. (Same old story!)
The column linked here could be describing my own hugely entertaining and time-wasting adventures through the surreal,
Kafka-esque world of HealthCare.gov. I can't imagine how much madder I'd be if I didn't think the Affordable
Care Act is badly needed, and almost essential for my family's health and solvency. Memo to everybody connected
with this fiasco: The first commandment of politics should be "Don't piss off your friends."
My nightmare on the Obamacare Exchange
By Michael Smerconish, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Originally published Dec. 3, 2013.
I'm in health-care purgatory. Since sunrise on the day of the launch, Oct. 1, I've attempted to shop for health
insurance at healthcare.gov. Almost eight weeks later, I still haven't been successful in accessing quotes online
A good friend, who's a sincere, dedicated Democrat, suggested that 1) my state should have set up
its own exchange, and 2) I should just "pick up the phone and enroll." That required further comment.
I'm as much in favor of this reform as anyone. But get serious. "Pick up the phone and enroll?" Wait
on hold for 20-plus minutes just to talk to a human being? Those I've spoken to (several times) have been clueless
about the most basic questions. Read the Smerconish piece and take him seriously, because he describes, almost
blow-for-blow, what my experience has been. NOTHING comes close to working as it should. This is disgraceful, and
I'm infuriated at being played for a chump. I voted against the bozos who refused to set up an exchange in my state,
but that doesn't excuse the incompetence of the federal people who have inflicted this travesty on us.
My friend replied, with some comments about what a huge undertaking it was, and how no big online
application ever rolls out smoothly (a debatable proposition.) He also suggested, again, that I "pick up the phone
if you can't navigate the website." I couldn't let that go.
I guess we're coming at this from fundamentally different points of view. I'm angry that the people I
trusted to shepherd such a huge change in our country's economy and social network have so grotesquely mismanaged
it. In those immortal words from "Animal House:" I fucked up. I trusted them.
You, like me, believe in the Affordable Care Act, but you're trying to defend it against any and all
But they had better listen when their friends and allies -- like me -- have been so badly mistreated,
patronized, and ill served. This is way too important (and too essential for people like me and my family) to be
papering over the bungling with excuses. And it remains a colossal bungle. Remember: I'm ON THEIR SIDE! And they have
turned me into one of their harshest critics.
One last thing: I will strenuously challenge the phrase "if you can't navigate the web site." That implies
that the problem is mine. As a guy who has been designing websites, with some pretty complex database-programming
features, for almost two decades, I can navigate pretty much anything online. And "pick up the phone" is somewhere
between a bad joke and an insult. The phone system is as dysfunctional as the website. The people who answer the
phone are overwhelmed, under-trained, and have to cope with the same badly integrated databases that keep crashing
the website. As the columnist learned, after spending close to an hour on the phone with a clerk painstakingly
entering his data, it had all vanished when he tried to resume the process.
So my advice, to a fellow partisan, who supports the same causes I do: Face the reality that this is so
badly broken and ill-managed as to be a betrayal of all the hopes you, and I, and millions of others, put into the
promise of health-insurance reform.
Dec. 5, 2013
'Some guy' did 'something' 'some years ago.'
In one of its "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween episodes, "The Simpsons" played off a classic "Twilight
Zone" drama about a kid who uses his telepathic powers to terrorize his family and the entire community. One of
the gags was that history books were being revised to conform with Bart's most recent test answers. Among those
changes was that The Father of Our Country was now, officially, "Some guy."
I thought of that when I noticed, two days running, these photo captions in my local daily print-media outlet.
"Workers guide the statue of Gabriel James Boney into its home on the Confederate Memorial at Dock and
Third streets after it was repaired some years ago." (Dec. 4, 2013.)
"Loggerhead turtle eggs are placed in a relocated nest on Topsail Island some years ago." (Dec. 5, 2013.)
I'll skip over the mis-identification of the statue in the first caption -- it's a generic Civil War
soldier, not Mr. Boney, who was the gentleman who paid for the monument back in the 1920s. What bemused me was the
notion that, in our new, streamlined, digital-age media world, we can dispense with "when" as one of the famed "Five W's."
Times are tough for advertiser-supported publications, and if we're going to get rid of superfluous luxuries like beat
coverage, editing, fact checking and self-respect, why not cut back to Four W's? Or Three?
Dec. 3, 2013
The news, untouched by human hands! (Or brains.)
I'm not always this snarky, but seeing a wire-service story on my local paper's front page with
virtually every punctuation mark stripped out compelled me to comment. For you young folks out there, the
phrase "untouched by human hands" was once a common advertising boast by food manufacturers, to assure us their
products were sanitary and had been packaged by machines. Now, I'm as big a fan of automation as anyone, but
somebody always has to keep an eye on the machines, and what they're doing. At least until Skynet becomes self-aware.
Dear Star-News: It's the holiday season, and time to think of those less fortunate, having to make
do without life's essentials. Seeing in this morning's paper that you've gotten down to the bottom of your
supply, let me donate some commas, apostrophes and quotation marks to replace those you'd apparently used up sometime
' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' '
' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' '
Let me know if you run out again; I get 'em wholesale.
Meanwhile, for all my friends who want to contribute: Please put some cash into The Salvation
Army USA's kettles, and consider offering help to the punctuation-challenged among us. The small things do make
Dec. 3, 2013
Missing the point of who does the paying
A social-media friend posted a link to a "New York Times" story with this headline: "As Hospital Prices
Soar, a Single Stitch costs $500. Hospital pricing is often convoluted, and hospital charges represent about a third
of the total United States health care bill."
As a loyal Republican, but too smart to blindly parrot every current GOP talking point, he made this
comment: "Who cares what it costs? The gub'mint will pay for it all." I couldn't let that go unchallenged.
Gub'mint, my ass. You want to know how much I pay every month toward my insurance premium? This stuff is
coming directly out of my pocket, and of everybody else who's part of our crazy, dysfunctional health insurance system.
Healthcare.gov started off as a bad joke, but it wasn't any more ridiculous than the train-wreck it's meant to start,
slowly, cleaning up. The most efficient, least wasteful segment of the health insurance industry is Medicare: that
wicked, socialistic, gub'mint-run single-payer threat to every good American's liberty.
Nov. 27, 2013
Is this efficient marketing, or just a stretch?
This highly targeted, data-driven granular marketing business has officially gotten out of hand,
based on the "related" ads I found while doing a bit of word-origin research.
Nov. 7, 2013
Getting elected isn't always enough
This was a great day in history for Tippecanoe and Tyler, too! 1811: US forces led by William
Henry Harrison defeated warriors from Tecumseh's confederacy in the battle of Tippecanoe, thus preparing
the general to get elected president.
Then in 1862, old Tippecanoe's vice president, John Tyler, got elected as a Confederate congressman.
Much like Harrison, who died after just weeks in office, Tyler died before he could take his seat.
Nov. 5, 2013
Politics, poetry and partying
I can't let Guy Fawkes Day pass unrecognized, especially since this beloved English holiday has
some cool literature attached to it. (Besides being a great excuse to drink beer and burn stuff.) Thanks to
my son Eli for calling my attention to this 17th-Century ditty:
Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes and his companions did the scheme contrive
to blow king and Parliament all up alive
Three-score barrels laid below
to prove old England's overthrow
but by God's providence him they did catch
with a dark lantern, lighting a match
A stick and a stake
for King James' sake
if you won't give me one I'll take two
the better for me and the worse for you
a rope, a rope to hang the Pope
a penn'orth of cheese to choke him
a pint of beer to wash it all down
and a jolly good fire to burn them
holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring
holloa, boys, holloa boys, God save the king
Oct. 13, 2013
Life imitates art: Surrealism online
Ever feel like you're trapped in a story by Franz Kafka? I was able to create my account on the
Healthcare.gov website on Friday, Oct. 4. Everything was ready to go with my insurance application except
for the "verification" stage. Upload scans of your sensitive documents, I'm told, and as soon as the nice
bureaucrats can look at them, I'll get an email telling me what to do next. Within minutes, an email arrives
saying "You have a new message waiting for you in your Marketplace account."
It only took another 9 days before I could log in, as the instructions said, to read the message.
And, lo and behold, right there on my very own account page, it says I have a message!
There's no way to actually see or read that message, but at least I know there is one, somewhere,
floating free in cyberspace.
The online chat support people were very nice, too. They said soothing words, but couldn't actually
get anything done or help in any real way. But they were nice. So I tried the toll-free verification number,
and after only five minutes on hold, a nice lady was on the phone ready to verify my identity! Except. I gotta
have a special number. Where do I get that? Oh, you would have seen it when you chose your security questions.
Which was 9 days ago. Do I remember seeing any mysterious 14-digit numbers at that stage? No, I was so glad the
pull-down menus finally worked after days of showing up blank, that I didn't pay any attention to any secret
numbers. Is there any way to recover that number now? No, not really, she says. Can I get my account verified
without it? Nope. But the lady on the phone was very nice.
Dear President Obama: This time it wasn't the Tea Party sabotaging things. Your own people screwed
the pooch with this misbegotten system. It's a good thing I like the new health insurance system (at least in
theory) or I might be really mad by now.
* * * * *
After a number of friends weighed in to defend the Affordable Care Act and urge me to be patient,
with useful perspective on why it's needed, I had to revise and extend my remarks, as they say in Congress.
I know your point of view and I share it. Nobody wants this thing to work more than I do. But after
my latest misadventures this morning, I have to declare that the system is a FUBAR. A cluster-f**k. The contractor
who was hired to program this made bad decisions, starting with the underlying architecture of the site, that go
way beyond just overloaded web servers and a shaky database. That stuff, I understand and can accept.
But failure to adequately train the online and telephone "help" people is unconscionable. And the
Kafkaesque, Catch-22 nature of what I'm going through is threatening to make the whole thing a bad joke. The only
saving grace: The anti-"Obamacare" zealots are attracting so much negative attention to themselves that this mess
looks good by comparison.
Oct. 8, 2013
Distorting history in a careless lead
Well-known historical incidents tend to get reduced to shorthand, a natural way to simplify
and make sense of complex events. Pearl Harbor. Munich. 9-11. Any reasonably well-informed person recognizes
these phrases and can make some sense of them.
But, alas, so often the shorthand version of an important event is wrong. By describing it
incorrectly, we distort reality -- and how we think about reality.
This morning I read a wire-story version of this obituary, originating at The Baltimore Sun.
Here's the original version:
Leonard J. Kerpelman, a civic iconoclast and legal gadfly who is best known for representing atheist
Madalyn Murray O'Hair in the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case that outlawed prayer in public schools, died
Thursday at Sinai Hospital of complications from a tumor. The Mount Washington resident was 88.
An interesting and important story. And grossly misleading, as far as its too-simple shorthand
description of the O'Hair case is concerned. This lead is the latest careless misstatement of what the court actually
decided about school prayer. Too much of the debate on that subject in the past half century has been distorted by
this very oversimplification.
This kind of dumbing down can actually be quite cleverly planned. It's a proven public-affairs strategy
to control the terms of a debate. I don't think the Sun's obituary writer meant to keep skewing the issue,
but whatever his motives, the result matters.
Our civic life would be so much less poisonous if we could have serious debates about actual facts.
For those who aren't clear on this point: What Abington Township v. Schempp actually
outlawed was mandatory prayer sessions, ordered by the state. Ever since, we've been wasting a lot of time and mental
effort arguing about the wrong issue.
Four desks, four misses. This is a small example of how the death of newspaper copy desks
is harming the body politic. It's the sort of garden-variety factual error that an inexperienced, or rushed,
reporter will make. For a city editor, it could be a great teachable moment for a staff. Time was, when city editors
were actually training their reporters, fixing an error once, at the source, kept it fixed. Any news medium's first
line of defense should be the assigning desk in the newsroom, the Sun's in this case. Then the newspaper's copy
desk would have another crack at it, and another chance to question the error.
Step 3 comes when the story's picked up by the wire service. Once, you could expect the wire desk would
at least take a good look at the lead before passing a story on. More than once I'd get a call to the city desk from
our state AP bureau, questioning this or that detail on a story we'd sent up.
And finally, when the wire story is being put on the local newspaper's page, the fourth missed
opportunity, where editing might have saved the day. Yet no copy editor questioned or even recognized the factual issue.
How could it be that not one of four (or more) editors handling this story made the catch? It might be
ignorance, it might be apathy. But I can easily see how the desperate straits of the newspaper biz have stripped away
at least two of those editing stages, and those remaining are too few, too demoralized and too poorly directed to
protect us from such errors.
Oct. 5, 2013
Time Warner doesn't understand
what home-based business needs
A mega media monopoly is proving that it can litter the marketplace with more "Catch-22s"
than even the Army did in Joseph Heller's time. I'm talking about Time Warner Cable, which holds a monopoly
franchise here in Wilmington, NC. On top of the TV programming they sell us, TWC has been our internet service
provider ever since it rolled out its Road Runner service, back around the millenium.
Here's the beef. We run a fairly high-tech, internet-based business from a home office.
As do many thousands, if not millions, of other small entrepreneurs around the country. That has required us
to buy TW's "Business Class" internet access, because of one technical feature they won't sell to garden-variety
Road Runner customers. But in spite of the extra dollars we send to Time Warner every month, we actually get
worse service than we did when we were just plain ol' Road Runner customers.
The most recent (but by no means the only) example of how long-term customers get caught in a
crack of Time Warner's making: Like a lot of families, we have competing priorities when it comes to what TV
shows or movies we watch. So it seemed like a good idea to start using TW's TV-on-computer feature. Should be
easy enough: All the data for all the channels comes down the coaxial line into the house already, as do all
the Internet packets that zip back and forth between us, our web servers and the public.
Signing up is easy, TW's website assures us. Just create an account, we'll verify it with a link sent
by email, and you'll be all set.
Except the signup process keeps throwing weird errors, claiming a 72-hour expiration window has closed
after only a few seconds, and ominously warning that this really isn't a Road Runner issue, it needs to go to
Business Class. And after wasting a good chunk of time with TW's online "chat" support people, they blow me off
by sending me to a completely different tech-support universe.
Deep sigh. OK, whatever. I'll play the game your way. Let's try Business Class's online support. But
guess what! Although Road Runner offers 24-7 chat support for residential customers, as a premium, extra-bucks
Business Class elite platinum preferred professional customer, I can't get online help except during bankers' hours. Dang.
Silly me. Of course. It's BUSINESS, and what business these days would be trying to operate on weekends, or in the
Next best solution: Phone help! Which, alas, quickly devolves into the same depressing litany: "Well,
sir, since you're a Business Class customer, you can't get residential cable service." "Oh, really?" sez I. "I've
been a residential cable customer of Time Warner, and its corporate predecessors, since 1976." Repeat: 1976. That's
37 years as a customer. You know how customer loyalty is valued by a corporation like Time Warner? Nada. Negative
I know, I know, it's silly to try to use logic when dealing with tech support employees. But my last
ditch plea went like this. "This is my home. My family watches channels we get from Time Warner, and pay for at
the same rate every other household does. We want to have the same level of service. We didn't ask to be shifted to
Business Class, but that was the only way we could get a static IP address." (Technical aside: necessary to manage
some essential aspects of the websites that drive our business.) "Why are we getting less/worse service, despite
paying you a premium?"
Nobody will be surprised that the answer was, in essence, "That's your tough luck. I can't help you,
nobody can help you, and we don't care."
Is Time Warner Cable so profitable, and so immune to competition, that it's happy to continue alienating
its most loyal customers? Is it so clueless that it can't understand how many of its customers combine residential
and business services at the same address, and under the same account? Is it that oblivious to how changes in
technology and the economy are affecting how millions of Americans live and work and use media?
Sept. 30, 2013
Why we need a daily newspaper
-- and how this one is failing us
With information of every description streaming at us online, 24-seven, why should we be reading
a daily newspaper anymore? It has to go beyond we old-fashioned print people's mere nostalgia for the smell of newsprint
in the morning. A well-edited daily should be able to offer serious answers to that question.
A local newsroom can still give readers something unique and important, if it tries. Of course, as in
the case of Wilmington's Star-News, it can't try if it doesn't realize it needs to try.
This morning's paper contains two big, gaping missed opportunities.
First is a massive page-one wire-service package about how to use the brand-new "insurance marketplaces"
created by the Affordable Care Act. This huge, sprawling program has innumerable wrinkles, many of them
varying from state to state. So any national wire analysis will necessarily skim over or summarize those
That's where a wide-awake copy desk will ... wait for it ... EDIT the wire copy to insert important
local or state-level facts. In this morning's paper, that should have gone right about here:
[Health insurance exchanges] ... might not be available to some consumers until later. ...
Shoppers will have different buying experiences depending on who is running their exchanges -- the state,
federal government or a combination of the two.
An alert "content provider" -- they don't call 'em copy editors anymore, which is a good thing,
since so little evidence of editing remains -- could have dropped in a line or two about North Carolina's
exchange. For the record, North Carolina opted out, leaving the feds to run the exchange here. And according to
Healthcare.gov, North Carolina's exchange will be up and running on schedule Oct. 1.
Here's another obvious "local angle" opportunity:
[Universal coverage] ... will happen either through an expanded government Medicaid program,
which would cover costs for lower-income people, or by requiring people without coverage to buy it.
A newspaper that knew how to be indispensable to its readers would routinely edit wire copy to address
important local situations. Such as to be sure we understand our state is one of those that chose NOT to expand Medicaid.
The poor and near-poor will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand that program.
I don't want to beat up too much on the copy desk people, who are underpaid and overworked and put in
terrible hours. Where I do find fault is with those high-ranking newsroom managers who still do have "editor" in
their titles. The buck stops with those who set and enforce professional standards -- or fail to do so.
The other area where a good daily paper should beat its online competitors is staying on top of
the sort of important local news that you can't find on any national online aggregator's site. For instance, the
award of a contract for the long-awaited missing link in Wilmington's outer loop freeway, Interstate 140. Here's
what this morning's paper had to say:
Leland area officials are happy now that a $125 million contract has been awarded for the first
of two phases to bring the Interstate 140 Wilmington Bypass over the Cape Fear River and into Brunswick County.
A clued-in reader, trained to recognize "when" as one of the fabled "five Ws," will wonder: How recently?
The N.C. Department of Transportation recently contracted with Balfour Beatty, an international
construction company, to build two bridges and an expanse of road that will stretch from New Hanover County to
Cedar Hill Road in Brunswick County.
to the rest of the story.
The answer: at a minimum, 10 days ago. A week and a half. Long enough for fresh bread to get stale and moldy.
And for fresh news, too.
As it turned out, an upstart online news site, Port City Daily, reported this on Sept. 20.
A $125 million contract has landed for the construction of bridges over the Cape Fear River, to link
Interstate 140 in New Hanover County to Cedar Hill Road in Brunswick County.
In fairness, I should point out that this earlier piece also fudges the time element, saying only that a
DOT source confirmed the award on Sept. 20, not when the contract was actually issued. So the Port City Daily
reporter may well have been behind the curve, too. Just not as embarrassingly so as the Star-News.
to the rest of the story.
What many of us who cling to the newspaper habit still yearn for is the sort of systematic, routine
daily beat coverage that keeps reporters, and their readers, out ahead of the story. If I was content to wait 10 days
or more to get my breaking news, I could stick with my weekly and monthly magazine subscriptions and forget about the
paper. But I still hold out faint hope that my local daily's smart, but ill-supervised, reporters might actually cultivate their
sources, get to know them on a first-name basis, drop in at their offices on a systematic schedule to shoot the breeze
and read their recent correspondence. And maybe, just maybe, gain enough real understanding of their beats that they
routinely get the story in print before the official press release is issued.
Sept. 17, 2013
A not-so-epic spellcheck fail
Relying on word-processing software without thinking is an epidemic among writers and editors.
It's almost a cliche that a spellcheck program won't warn you that you're using the wrong word if it's correctly
spelled. And yet our media are riddled with embarrassing errors like this recent headline:
THE SMART COLLECTOR | Tiffany Studios
I'm not saying every copy editor should have studied French. (I didn't.) But it would be a good idea
to make occasional use of a dictionary, either dead-trees version or digital.
Original products carry a special cache
And enough reading should have naturally ingrained in a diligent professional some sense of how common
foreign words are pronounced. That the terminal "e" in "cache" is silent. And that ending a French noun in "et"
gives it an "ay" sound. This headline writer meant "cachet," which rhymes with "sashay," to mean the honorable
status that clings to old Tiffany lamps. But we ended up with "cache," pronounced "cash," which means an accumulation
of supplies or other valuables.
So what if an editor doesn't have enough French (or Spanish, or German, or Latin, or Greek) under his
belt to know these things? Easy: by knowing what you don't know (thanks for that insight, Don Rumsfeld) you know what
you need to look up.
Sept. 12, 2013
Out-of-commission government reporting
This heading isn't about disfunction in Congress, as easy as that would be to pontificate about.
It's about imprecision in how local affairs get reported, both in print and on the air.
It will be the second time local builder and community activist Rob Zapple makes a run for County
Commission. Last year, the first-time Democratic candidate watched Republicans Woody White and Beth Dawson win
first terms, while lone Democrat Jonathan Barfield held on to his seat.
Our local public radio station does the best, most intelligent broadcast news in this corner of the
Tar Heel state, but I still catch myself being annoyed at some avoidable glitches in its reporting.
to the rest of the story.
A useful starting point about accuracy in reporting is to get names right. The veteran newspaperman
who taught my first, 101-level reporting class back in J-school had an ironclad rule. No matter how good the story
was otherwise, he'd give an "automatic F" if any person's name was spelled wrong. I still have a yellowed piece of
copy paper, with a nice cheery "A+" in blue ink -- crossed out and replaced with a fat red "F" -- because I'd neglected
to look up John Updike's name.
This example is about the name of an elected public board, not a human being. So what's the big deal?
Ask yourself how much can we trust the subjective details of a story if we see the reporter gets the easy stuff wrong?
Just so you'll know, whether you care or not: In North Carolina, there's no such thing as a "County
Commission." Our state constitution calls for a "Board of County Commissioners." Well, gee, you say: That's a big,
awkward waste of time and space to spell out. Sure enough, it is. But it's not wrong to shorten it, so any reference
to our squabbling, 20-percent-crazy tax-setting panel can be simply "the county commissioners." Or, much of the time,
just "the board."
A related issue, which crops up so often it's hardly worth quoting specific examples, is about fuzzing
who did what.
Commissioners asked the county manager to research the matter and report at the next meeting.
What I can't tell from this sentence: Was this an official request by the board, or a random query by
a couple of its members? There's a big difference between "some commissioners" (and in my home-town board that can
get very, very random indeed) and "the commissioners," meaning the board as a whole.
Little words can mean a lot, and "the" in this context would tell us something very important. Kinda like
a classic Doctor Who episode, in which our hero explains who he is.
"A doctor?" a character asks him.
"THE doctor," he replies. "You might say the definite article."
Aside from demonstrating the BBC writers' high level of literacy and wit, this is a good way to remember how
those insignificant little words can be crucial to clarity and accuracy.
Resources about editing, writing and literature
My focus ranges from Wilmington and Southeastern North Carolina, where I've lived and worked most
of my life, to the national marketplace for news, writing and publishing. This is a highly personalized list
of links to websites, blogs and other resources I recommend for anyone interested in the written word.
Ben Steelman's "Bookmarks" Blog
Wilmington's smartest, best-informed journalist, Ben Steelman has been writing about books --
and movies, the arts, history, and everything else under the sun -- for decades. A writer and editor for the
Morning Star since 1977, Ben's vast knowledge and lively wit have made his writing an oasis in the otherwise
arid pages of our local daily. (It changed its official name to Star-NEWS a few years back, just as the
afore-mentioned "news" was being systematically purged from its pages.)
In addition to his intelligent, content-rich commentary, Ben also keeps his readers posted on
literary events throughout North Carolina.
to Ben's Bookmarks blog.
Rita Dove's poetry page
My favorite poet, Rita Dove has been honored for a lifetime body of writing that includes
book-length poetic works, a novel, and the Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry, which
she edited. Rita holds the chair of Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, won a
Fullbright Scholarship in 1974 and Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and was Poet Laureate of the United States in
1993-95. She's been feted by presidents, starting with Richard Nixon (!), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Besides prodigious native talent and great family support, she's the beneficiary of an outstanding public
education in the Akron, Ohio public schools, Miami University and the University of Iowa.
to Rita Dove's home page
GROUPS & EVENTS
WHQR Public Radio's "Prologue" book series
Ben Steelman is host and moderator of this monthly event sponsored by Wilmington's public
radio station, WHQR. (Those call letters were chosen well, standing for "Wilmington's High Quality Radio.")
Normally held at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month, Prologue is also sponsored by the Star-News.
Free and open to the public, Prologue features Ben talking with a North Carolina author, with plenty of time for
audience questions and book signing. The venue is WHQR's M.C. Erny Gallery, on the third floor at 254 N. Front
St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
to Prologue schedule.
Wilmington Writers' Support Group
Any writer is welcome to sit in with this informal group, which includes writers of every flavor.
Fiction, non-fiction, poetry -- even ad copy! -- are among participants' interest. Writers are encouraged to read
short passages of 1,000 words or so. Members will offer comments. Meetings are the first and third Tuesdays of each
month at the Barnes & Noble store in Mayfaire Towne Center, 850 Inspiration Drive, Wilmington, NC 28405.
to group details.
Beach Author Network
Writers in the Myrtle Beach, SC area are invited to attend this group's meetings, which are
held the last Tuesday of each month. Venues vary; see the group's blog for details about meetings.
to the group's blog.
ABOUT EDITING AND NEWS
"HeadsUp," Fred Vultee's editing blog
Fred Vultee is the most brilliant editor I've known in my news career. He's now an
associate professor in the Department of Communication at Wayne State University in Detroit. Before hitting
the academic track (master's and PhD from Mizzou) he upheld standards of truth, justice and clear thinking
at such wildly divergent papers as The Charlotte Observer, Columbus Dispatch and Washington
Times, after running the copy desk at Wilmington's Morning Star in the 1980s. I had the
honor to work alongside Fred in those halcyon days, putting out pretty good newspapers and writing in-house
proto-blogs: My "DoItRight" for the city desk reporting staff and Fred's "MrDesk" (motto: "He's not a real
desk") on the copy desk.
Professor Dr. Vultee has maintained the high standard he set then. He describes his current copy
editing blog, "HeadsUp," thusly: "It looks at matters of interest to copy editors as well as issues like
securitization, news routines, statistical competence and/or incompetence, ethics, and the creation of meaning."
Yeah, well, okay. He is a college professor now, after all. Anyway, I recommend it.
to "HeadsUp: The Blog"
EFA, Editorial Freelancers Association
Editors, proofreaders, indexers and other self-employed specialists make up this national
organization's membership. A member directory helps prospective clients find the right mix of specialty and
expertise. A jobs board sends proposals to members, who also benefit from a lively online forum.
to Editorial Freelancers
ACES, the American Copy Editors Society
This national organization has evolved from being mostly about newspaper copy desks, as
more and more editors are being laid off and working free-lance. As am I. It's an important resource for
the editing profession, with news, sponsored events and educational opportunities.
UNCW's Creative Writing department
A regional hotbed of literature, this independent branch (not part of the English Department)
at UNC-Wilmington has gained a national reputation thanks to the many talented authors it's turned out, or
hired on its faculty. Best known among those literary stars is Clyde Edgerton. The department's three-year
Master of Fine Arts program is highly regarded in the literary world, and it helps to sponsor well-attended
writing workshops each year. The Department's Publishing Laboratory addresses the editing and publishing steps
needed to get a book from manuscript to bookstore. Its fledgling Lookout Books imprint has already gotten
national attention. (See next item.)
to UNCW Department of Creative Writing
A new imprint of UNCW's Publishing Lab, Lookout started in 2011 and has published several
titles: Memoirs, short stories and poetry. Its mission statement: "Lookout pledges to seek out emerging and
historically underrepresented voices, as well as overlooked gems by established writers. In a publishing landscape
increasingly indifferent to literary innovation, Lookout offers a haven for books that matter." In practice, that
means soliciting work from the University's Ecotone literary magazine. (See next item.)
to UNCW Department of Creative Writing
Literary journals: 'Chatauqua' and 'Ecotone'
Two literary magazines from UNCW publish original work from both local and nationally
known writers. I'll let their editors speak for themselves.
Chautauqua, named for the Upstate New York resort that's become a synonym for continuing
education in things cultural. Chautauqua wants work showing "a sense of inquiry into questions of
personal, social, political, spiritual, and aesthetic importance, regardless of genre. ...
Above all, the editors value work that is intensely personal, yet somehow implicitly comments on larger public
concerns ó work that answers every reader's most urgent question: Why are you telling me this?"
Ecotone gets its name from a term for a transition between two ecosystems. The journal says
it "seeks to reimagine place. Each issue brings together the literary and the scientific, the personal and the
biological, the urban and the rural. ... You wonít find the hushed tones and clichťs of much of so-called nature
writing in our pages."
to Chautauqua magazine.
to Ecotone magazine.
Barnes & Noble
It's the biggie. 'Nuff said. The Wilmington store, complete with coffee shop, is in Mayfaire
on the east side of town. The Writers' Support Group meets there on alternating Tuesday evenings. 850 Inspiration
Drive, Wilmington, NC 28405.
to Barnes & Noble's Wilmington store.
McAlister and Solomon
Used and rare books is the tagline this independent shop uses on its website. Tucked away in
an old house in the venerable Winter Park neighborhood, they specialize "in nice copies of better books," which
also encompasses an interesting assortment of local interest and privately published titles. 2204-1 Wrightsville
Ave., Wilmington, NC 28403.
to McAllister and Solomon.
Wilmington's largest independent bookstore, as Pomegranate describes itself, specializes in
local & North Carolina authors and Wilmington history, in addition to an array of literature, children's books
and lifestyle categories. It has "small, but well-curated and frequently changing used-books sections" and is
host to author readings, writers' workshops and other events. Its "little white house with red shutters" is in
Winter Park, not far from the UNCW campus. 4418 Park Ave., Wilmington, NC 28403.
to Pomegranate Books.
Two Sisters Bookery
A smallish downtown boutique that the successor to the original sisters operates in The Cotton
Exchange, just a block from the Cape Fear River. Aiming in part at the tourist trade that frequents its
neighborhood of Riverwalk, hotels and convention centers, Two Sisters is well-stocked with local-interest titles and
work by Wilmington authors. 318 Nutt St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
to Two Sisters Bookery.
Old Books on Front Street
Just what it sounds like, this jam-packed warren is a browser's delight, stuffed with
a weird, wonderful array of volumes in every conceivable genre, and a few I'd have to call inconceivable.
For years its founder's one-man band, Old Books on Front survived a near-death experience (building
threatening to collapse) before moving a couple of blocks and getting a new owner. The store has an in-house
coffee shop and hosts book-related events. 249 N. Front St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
to Old Books on Front.
NORTH CAROLINA PUBLISHERS
Black Mountain Press
Based in Asheville, which along with Wilmington and Chapel Hill is one of North Carolina's
three coolest cities, Black Mountain Press specializes in work by "emerging authors of literary poetry, novels
and short stories." It's interested in promoting the best story telling, and encourages submissions by unknown,
first-time authors. Unlike some publishers, it doesn't require that authors have agents. Works with a North
Carolina setting or other regional connection are especially desired, according to publisher Carlos Steward.
109 Roberts St., Asheville, NC 28815
to Black Mountain Press.
Producing both periodicals and books, this company accepts a variety of fiction and non-fiction,
but not children's books. It's based in the small Piedmont city of Concord. 296 Church St. N., P.O. Box 5265,
Concord, NC 28027
to Comfort Publishing.
Second Wind Publishing
Publishing several popular fiction genres, this independent press is based in the "Triad"
region (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point) of North Carolina. It accepts adult and young-adult fiction,
illustrated children's books, and a smattering of non-fiction titles, mostly with a regional focus. Its website
sells both hard-copy and ebook editions of all its titles. 931-B S. Main St., P.O. Box 145, Kernersville, NC 27384
to Second Wind Publishing.
ODDS AND ENDS
New Hanover County Library
A temple to reading, with branches. After 30 years as a department store, this big
brick building downtown was transformed into Wilmington's new main library. What were once the store's
display windows now help flood the reading room with natural light. The library has convenient suburban
branches, in the Landfall/Mayfaire area, Monkey Junction and Carolina Beach. Beyond being a repository for
books and other sorts of media, the library conducts literary events and through its "friends" group
holds a great used-book sale every year.
Main: 201 Chestnut St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
Northeast (Landfall/Mayfaire): 1241 Military Cutoff Road, Wilmington, NC 28405.
Myrtle Grove (Monkey Junction): 5155 S. College Road, Wilmington, NC 28412.
Carolina Beach: 300 Cape Fear Blvd., Carolina Beach, NC 28428.
to the New Hanover County Library.
Cape Fear Literacy Council
Reading is essential to success in today's world, and the dedicated volunteer tutors
of this dynamic organization have helped hundreds of people overcome the poverty and isolation that come
with illiteracy. The Council's annual spelling bee is a major fund-raiser, and it also sponsors author
readings and other literacy-related events. 1012 South 17th Street.
to Cape Fear Literacy Council.
Book 'Em North Carolina
A partnership between authors and police, The Book 'Em Foundation was founded by suspense
writer p.m.terrell and Waynesboro, VA Police Officer Mark Kearney. Its mission is to raise public awareness
of the correlation between high illiteracy rates and high crime rates. The annual North Carolina writers'
conference and book fair assembles 75 or so authors under one roof to talk about writing and publishing, and
to sell their books. A portion of the proceeds goes to the host community, Robeson County and Lumberton, NC,
for increasing literacy and reducing crime.
to Book 'Em North Carolina.