Archive | February, 2012

Newspapers must embrace change to stay afloat

8 Feb

New media often encourages the notion that the Internet is the new frontier, and newspapers have been left in the dust. Despite the popular view that newspapers have been rendered obsolete by social media and more hip means of news gathering, some polls indicate that readership in small cities is still booming, and newspapers are still heavily relied upon for local news (about 81 percent). This is especially applicable to an older, more educated demographic that reads non-daily papers. These readers have also been dedicated to a particular publication for an average of 25 years.

On the flip side, actual newspaper revenue is at an all-time low after plummeting about 44 percent from 2006 to 2009 alone. In spite of media giant executives’ seemingly unethical personal finance practices, the downsizing of budgets, massive layoffs and sharp decline in stock clout may not be the fault of poor leadership. Gannett and The Tribune Company, among others, have suffered greatly both in part from the economic downturn and lessened newspaper reliance and circulation on a national scale.

The newspaper industry may be severely scaled back compared to its prior glory days, but it has also been quick to adapt, even with a few hiccups along the way. Whether you agree or are opposed to embracing the new media revolution, newsrooms across the country have begun to create specific protocols for these changes, including expanding their social media presence, reaching out to audiences directly and creating some form of ethical standards.

Although some papers are putting a halt on print circulation, others have opted to embrace the wave of the Internet era and have seen success in hosting their news both online and in print. The advent of social media could, in theory, replace newspaper staples like classifieds, but good quality news is good quality news and will always be in high demand. However, how people fulfill this need may be harmful to the traditional news industry itself. Many attribute the decline of old-fashioned media methods to news aggregation and content farming websites, which are now wildly popular for those who want concise news tailored to specific topics of interest.

With these adaptations, however, comes the price of a greatly diminished audience, but not necessarily a diminished readership. A wide demographic of people may still continue to read and be exposed to a news product, but the Internet and new media have made it possible for them to contribute their own ideas and put their own journalistic foot forward to the point where they are no longer a passive member of society waiting to be spoon-fed information. They go out and make it. Generally speaking, this is excellent for the general population — but is it good for newspapers as an industry?

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Case Study 3: Protocols

8 Feb

The onus of making judgment calls imperative to the integrity of a news story most often falls on the shoulders of the copy editor. Although this is stressful for those behind the copy desk, a publication’s protocol can help guide them through the murky river of uncertainty. These can also be especially useful for reporter-editors who do not spend the majority of their daily jobs making editing decisions.

The Charlotte, N.C., Observer and The Oklahoman have very specific guidelines for its editors to follow, such as outlining the specific role of a copy editor (and drawing a firm line in the sand between editor and proofreader), when to consult reporters and how to handle feedback. Although editing for grammar, spelling and other basics doesn’t usually require consulting with the writer, heavy edits like moving paragraphs and attributions around and trimming sentences could severely change the reporter’s original intent. A student from Ohio University compiled other protocols as well to add to a well-rounded idea of what newspapers generally look for in terms of editing guidelines.

Copy editing protocols are implemented to streamline the copy-editing process and make life easier for editors on copy and assigning desks alike.  – John Russial, associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, according to “Copy editing protocols” by Nick Juliano

Even some of the most seemingly innocuous changes could result in an unwanted fact error that was actually added in the editing process. For example, the common he/she gender typo can often lead to unwitting mistakes. For reference to the linked example, the error is small but monumentally changed the identity of the reporter’s first source — the reporter turned in the story with Leslie attributed as a woman and the edited version portrayed Leslie as a man. Did the reporter mistype “he” for “she,” or was Leslie actually a woman who happened to have a girlfriend? Making the assumption that Leslie Manning was a man without consulting the reporter led to a completely avoidable mistake that was likely offensive to the source.

The McCormick Foundation Civics Program released the Protocol for Free & Responsible Student News Media to guide students through difficult editing decisions. The best way to polish editing skills before getting acclimated to a particular publication’s protocol is to use this tool and your own best judgment to hone your skills. While protocol guidelines are imperative to being a reliable editor for your publication, it is just as important to have solid, responsible judgment on your own. Especially in the case of freelance writers, being able to make educated editorial decisions based on a standard can help in a sticky situation.

Because the role of a copy editor extends well beyond being finicky about grammar, protocols are imperative to ensuring a standard for good practice and open communication between editors and reporters.

Skepticism: A copy editor’s best tool

1 Feb

The job of a copy editor extends way beyond grammar and spelling errors. Not to trivialize these important aspects of making a great article, an editor needs to be alert and ready to challenge both questionable story points and other information. Situations like what happened with Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke have proven that the shortcomings of editors have resulted in the deceit of audiences and a serious blow to the credibility of their respective publications. But what about the mistakes and oversights that occur on a daily basis?

According to a piece by the former managing editor of the Hartford Courant, it sometimes takes large-scale upsets to remind us of the importance of going over stories with a fine-toothed comb. Training editors not only in technical skills, but to practice using their own good judgement to question information and be able to point out a story’s flaws and weak spots.

Our biggest weakness is not the occasional dishonest reporter. Our biggest weakness is unchallenged information.

Fact checking is not merely something to do in the wake of a serious PR nightmare; it’s a practice that needs to be refined and put to use with every story that reaches the copy desk or before a reporter clicks “submit.” While depending on fact checking as a basis for news stories is a debatable issue, fact checking should be a major part of the writing process for every single article.

The Portland Oregonian uses a method with its editors and reporters that involves going line by line through the story to ensure that every bit of information has been covered by the reporter and can be backed up with legitimate data, logic and evidence. Although tedious, this kind of dedication to preventing the presentation of unconscious bias or misleading facts should be considered a  model for all publications and online media. This list on ACES outlines 10 tips for copy editors looking to be more wary when reading stories, including paying particular attention to dates, consulting maps for directions, and checking recent stories about similar issues. Having some hard-and-fast rules when editing stories can help prevent common mistakes that can often be the most lethal to story credibility. These questions to keep in mind also remind editors to polish ledes and headlines, as well as keep both big-picture ideas and details of a story in check with the overarching circumstances. In addition, one of the more elusive aspects of a story are statistics. Numbers are generally unfamiliar to journalists and writers, and without concrete proof, they’re incredibly difficult to verify and, therefore, deserve special attention.

Whether or not an editor uses a system or relies on their own best case-by-case judgment, it is his or her responsibility to their readership and credibility to be curious to the best of their abilities.