Saturday, January 12, 2008

Do Not Attempt Column Writing Without a Copy Editor Present

America’s Best Community Daily is experimenting with a new tier of writers: the outlying offices’ general managers have been reporting on local businesses. The results are awful.

The Englewood office’s general manager assembled a “business column” this week that suggests his publishers issued a memo ("Write a column!") and offered no training, guideline, editing, or even friendly advice about how to do it.

And poor the GM’s, who’ve been hanging around newsrooms for years, think this reporting business looks pretty easy and agreed to jump in the pool without a swimming lesson.

For example, over in Englewood, the lead is All About You Salon's grand re-opening (not, please, as in the head, a re-grand opening). But the brief lacks “when,” or “where” (Dearborn street is several country blocks long). And, the “why” is pretty fuzzy. The "re-grand opening," readers are informed, celebrates “the store has reopened.”

Next thing down: Nice Carla Stiver has been named Realtor of the Year, but which year? What organization handed her the trophy? What city does she live in, work from? When did the big event take place? Same problem with the next tier of award winners: who’s got all that community service? Which city fielded the year’s notable rookie? I’m reading this info in DeSoto with no “dateline” to provide a geographical or temporal context so the story has to. But it doesn’t. North Port is not the center of a universe whose fine denizens are instantly known in the hinterlands.

One more thing: Wal-Mart is a singular “it” not a plural “they.” Thus, “they” has no job in the sentence, “Wal-Mart has opened up its new liquor store in from of their building. From the looks of things, it is going fairly well.”

And one more thing. The phrases “looks of things” and “fairly well” mean what? General managers recruited to write business columns should be gently coached not to assert and give opinions without providing readers with a fact or two supporting the journalistic allegations. Try this: “At 10 last Saturday morning, a steady stream of customers emerged from the new Wal-Mart liquor store lugging bags bulging with round, square and fat-bellied bottles. As the automatic slider doors whooshed open in the Englewood sun, I could hear the credit-card reader’s ca-ching-beep, ca-ching-beep from deep within as Mary Brown, the store’s clerk, worked through a queue of four or five customers – each pushing a cart bulging with potent potables. From the looks of things, the new liquor store seems to be off to a good start.”

And, not to make too big a deal of it, but a real reporter would take five minutes to find out how many liquor stores North Port has, identify two or three top sellers (the state has these figures), and maybe point out if a Wal-Mart liquor store is positioned a discounter. After all, this is a business page report.

And one more thing...

And one more thing. A General Manager Reporter Columnist, no matter how smart, cannot foretell that Bob Marquette, who just relocated his pool-building business, will be building great pools. That’s fortune-telling and opining all rolled into one biased cookie.

And one more thing. Real reporters are not allowed to fulfill the “when” part of their journalistic obligations with “soon.” Telling readers Bobarino’s Pizza will have a grand opening “soon” is not helpful to readers.

And one more thing. That friendly advice giver (a.k.a. copy editor) would point out announcing a new menu at the Lock and Key restaurant requires a from-to reference. It might look like this: “The Lock and Key’s general manager has changed the menu from Caribbean seafood to Cajun home cooking,” or whatever.

Reporting -- particularly business reporting -- is not as easy as it looks, guys. Hook up with a good copy editor (one who doesn't design pages or pour Quark) and let him or her give you a couple of swimming lessons before jumping into the deep end.


  1. The Writer's Guild should protest. Well, apparently it's not a union shop, but the actual reporters should ask to put a stop to this -- it's not out-sourcing, it's down-sourcing.

  2. Excellent stuff, apart from the assumption that good copy editors don't design pages. On our business model you need a solid reputation as a copy editor before being let loose on design. The publisher in this case ignboers a basic of commerce: If you run puff pieces in a paid daily readers will turn their attention elsewhere.

  3. This is an outfit concerned only with turning a profit, not providing quality editorial nor providing a quality workplace for its employees. The motto should be, "We strive for mediocrity."