Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Editor: A Pay Grade, Not a Job Description

The general manager of the DeSoto Sun writes a column this morning praising a large, metal-sided, tin-roofed building. It's essentially an indoor arena for horse shows, concerts and the occasional boxing match promoted by the general manager himself. He writes: “Over the years, this first-class facility has seen a grand assortment of venues held inside its walls.”

Venue does not mean event. It means locale, place, site. The civic center is the venue; its walls cannot hold an assortment of venues, grand or otherwise. The misuse is sort of like saying the Atlantic “sees a grand assortment of oceans inside its shores.”

The writer calls the land surrounding the tin arena "spectacular." Spectacular describes Disney World -- a spectacle. Spectacular does not accurately identify flat, mown cow pasture with nary a tree or hill in sight. It does, however, make something of a spectacle of the writer and editors.

The writer also opines that the building has the “potential for ... entertainment for practically every conceivable event imaginable.” Surely the colliding modifiers in this little train of words would awaken an editor? If not, the over-wrought hyperbole might rouse him/her from the land of Nod? Not at the DeSoto Sun, where “editor” is a pay grade, not a job description.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

BFF's Don't Report on BFF's

It's a small town. Reporters develop friendships with people in high places. Real reporters keep the evidence out of their stories. Laura Schmid seems unable to do that. This is how she reports one school board member's comments during a debate on whether to re-up with Florida School Boards Association:

Board chairwoman Karen Chancey diplomatically oberserved that she understood the arguments for both sides. [...] She pragmatically observed, "We can always rejoin again."

We're glad Laura likes Karen, but it's wrong to work her personal opinion about her BFF's diplomacy and pragmatism into her reporting.

Schmid's journalistic sin is especially heinous during election season.

And one more thing. Because this is Old Word Wolf's blog and opinions are permitted, OWW is reproducing this sorry quotation from an earlier post, just to keep it fresh in the minds of readers who might like to know what's happening in local science classes:
"My personal belief is creationism and I believe it should be taught along with evolution because our students should have a choice," said DeSotoCounty School Board member Karen Chancey.

No wonder DeSoto County schools' FCAT science test scores have headed south.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Budget Basics: Percent of What?

This morning's school-district budget story gives readers a laundry list of cost reductions undertaken by the DeSoto School Board in order to balance a budget that will be receiving less state funding for the next school year.

Unfortunately, it's impossible for readers to gauge the impact of the cuts because the reporter won't tell readers the size of the overall, proposed budget and she doesn't report the size of the state allocation that's being reduced.

Taking $2 million from a $6-million budget is a whopping 33 percent hit. Taking $2 million from a $60-million budget is a more manageable 3-percent belt tightening. Taking $2 million from a $600-million budget is a minuscule 0.3-percent shave. So which is it, dear reporter? She's not telling.

Readers who want the facts have to make a phone call to the district. There, they can learn DeSoto had anticipated income of about $40 million, of which $27 million would have come from state funds, the largest income category in its estimated $60-million budget.

Old World Wolf made a phone call to clarify a story; why didn't the paid reporter, who has attained the status of "editor," do the same before she hit the send key?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Seventh-Paragraph Stretch

Most reporters (local exceptions exist) – especially ones who’ve earned the title “editor,” and certainly editors who handle our daily dose of cops and robbers – know readers expect four or five basic facts in a story’s first sentence or two: like who, what, when, where, and why. In some cops stories, readers can forgive the “why” part. After all, who really fathoms the motives of the most deeply depraved among us? But there’s no excuse for leaving out “where.”

In today’s lead blotter item, the reporter-editor doesn’t write a dateline and, while not technically omitting “where,” she withholds it until the seventh and last paragraph. Meany.

As a direct result of that omission, a simple story about burglars who tried to reduce a Sears store’s inventory Monday dissolves into a head-scratcher. The reporter ends up generating more questions than she answers.

Identified at the top as Bartow men, two big-screen TV fans executed their feloneous heist, it is implied, in that somewhat distant city, 35 miles up the road. But does tiny Bartow even have a Sears store? No, it doesn’t. Readers with local knowledge may grasp this, but the reporter doesn’t share that with the general population, so myriad possibilities arise. Englewood? Murdock? Lots of Sears stores around these parts.

It sort of sounds like, a reader might guess, that Bartow police are providing the information. The story says witnesses called police – but it’s a deputy (district unknown) who pulls over the getaway car. In these parts, deputies are affiliated with sheriff’s departments, not police forces, so who exactly did what?

The reporter writes with initial caps that the Department of Corrections had sent the men in the car out into the world as part of an early-release program. So which Department of Corrections with capitals – Florida, Georgia, New Jersey?

In the end – which coincides with the seventh paragraph – DeSoto County Sheriff’s deputies arrested the bad guys. In DeSoto County, there’s a small Sears store in the 1100 block of Vermont Avenue. Maybe that’s where this story happened. But the reporter doesn’t share.

Editor's Disease

Susan Hoffman, Assistant DeSoto Editor, entertains readers this morning with her olfactory nostalgia for the scents of her childhood home in Akron, Ohio. She has caught editor's disease, which is rampant in these parts. It's characterized by a journalist's delusion that readers need to know about her childhood 25 years ago in a city 1,500 miles away instead of what's going on in their own community. Editor's disease often results in a compulsion to write about one's own family and its charming foibles, pets, and personal vacations. In one notorious local case, a diseased editor produced a column about eyebrow waxing and another about 16 bags of laundry. Old Word Wolf hopes the new editor becomes innoculated as soon as possible.

The cops item as it ran ... :

Two Bartow men were arrested Monday after several witnesses allegedly saw them breaking into the Sears store.

According to the police report, witnesses called police Monday night after hearing what sounded like a gunshot. Several witnesses said they then saw two men breaking into the Sears store.

The witnesses described the vehicle the men were driving, and when a deputy passed a vehicle of that description, he made a routine traffic stop.

According to the police report, the deputy could see several flat-screen TVs, along with some gloves and what looked like a mask. When the deputy asked for ID, he learned the two were on early-release status from the Department of Corrections.

According to the police report, several witnesses positively identified the two men and the vehicle. The store owner identified the TVs in the car as having come from the store by matching up serial numbers. The TVs were valued at $5,000.

Police also discovered a camouflage jacket in the car, along with two pairs of gloves, a mask and a crow bar.

DeSoto County sheriff’s deputies arrested Marion Bruce Stewart, 29, and Christopher Lowell Wilson, 36, both of Bartow, on charges of grand theft ($5,000 to $10,000), burglary of a structure, criminal mischief and possession of burglary tools. Bond for each man was set at $13,250.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

School Test Scores Story Misleads

Friday’s headline on an op-ed piece: "DeSoto Should Be Proud of its Schools." It’s one man’s praise for the local district’s standardized test scores, which did improve in some areas. Unfortunately, neither headline nor story gives readers the whole picture. The praise serves to hide the disappointing achievements in DeSoto's public schools.

Here are facts that not one of the three articles by three reporters over the last month covering FCAT scores has acknowledged: Among 17 categories, the gap between the local passing rate and statewide passing rate was eliminated in just one class for one test (fourth grade math). In eight categories, the local lag behind the state average was reduced to some degree, but in eight remaining categories, the local lag behind state averages increased. Here’s a blow-by-blow summary starting at the top and working down through science, math and reading.

First, DeSoto High’s 11th grade science scores went down while statewide numbers went up: In 2007, 24 percent of local 11th graders passed FCAT’s science section. In 2008, only 21 percent passed. That’s a 3 percentage-point drop. Statewide, 11th graders made a modest gain: 37 percent passed the science section in 2007 and 38 percent passed in 2008. The numbers tell the story: In 2007, DeSoto High’s pass rate lagged 13 points behind the statewide average; this year the gap widened to 17 points.

Among local eighth graders, 25 percent passed FCAT’s science section in both 2007 and 2008. In the same period, the statewide average rose from 38 percent to 40 percent. Again, the numbers tell the story: in 2007, DeSoto eighth graders lagged behind the state-wide average pass rate by 13 points; this year the gap widened to 15 points.

For fifth graders, the youngest group tested in science, the data shows a slightly better story: In 2007, only 23 percent passed, but by 2008 the pass-rate jumped 11 points to 34 percent. That means DeSoto’s 2007 pass rate lagged behind the state’s by 29 points; in 2008 the district reduced the gap to 9 points below the statewide pass rate.

Turning to math scores, in 2007, 53 percent of DeSoto High’s 10th graders passed FCAT math, 12 percentage points behind the statewide pass rate for the same group. Locally, in 2008, 56 percent passed, but because of statewide gains, the local pass rate gap increased to 13 points behind the state numbers.

Among local ninth graders, 46 percent passed math in 2007 and 56 percent passed in 2008. That commendable improvement lessened the local lag behind the state pass rate from 14 points in 2007 to 9 points behind the state in 2008.

Among eighth graders, 53 percent passed math in 2007, but only 51 percent passed in 2008. That decline increased the local lag behind the state from 10 percentage points in 2007 to 16 points in 2008.

Among local seventh graders, 53 percent passed math in 2007, making the local lag 6 percentage points below statewide achievement. In 2008, 59 percent of DeSoto seventh graders passed math, narrowing to gap to 2 points below the statewide rate.

Among local sixth graders, 51 percent passed math in 2007, putting them one point ahead of the statewide pass rate. However, in 2008, only 41 percent of local sixth graders passed the math test, creating a 12-point lag behind the statewide pass rate.

Among local fifth graders, 42 percent passed math in 2007, leaving them 17 points behind the statewide pass rate. In 2008, 58 percent passed, reducing the fifth-grade math gap to 3 points.

The best story comes from local fourth grade classes, where the math pass rate jumped from 61 percent in 2007 to 73 percent in 2008. That improvement erased an 8-point lag in 2007, turning it into a 2-point exceed in 2008.

Turning to reading scores, just 19 percent of DeSoto 10th graders passed in 2007 and 24 percent passed in 2008. Statewide in the same period, the average number of students passing 10th grade reading increased from 34 percent to 38 percent. The numbers tell the story: DeSoto’s pass rate lagged 15 points in 2007; in 2008 it lagged a litte less -- by 10 points.

Among local ninth graders, 27 percent passed reading in 2007 and 31 percent passed in 2008. Statewide, the percentage of students passing increased from 41 percent in 2007 to 46 percent in 2007. DeSoto’s 2007 pass rate lagged 14 points behind the state; in 2008, the local lag increased to 15 points behind the state.

For local eighth graders, 39 percent passed reading in 2007 and 40 percent passed in 2008. Statewide, the pass percentage increased from 49 percent in 2007 to 53 percent in 2008. That means in 2007, DeSoto’s eighth grade reading pass rate lagged 10 points behind the state; in 2008, the gap increased to 13 points.

Among local seventh graders, 50 percent passed reading in 2007 and 57 percent passed in 2008. Statewide, 63 percent of their peers passed in 2007 and 65 percent passed in 2008. The local achievement gap narrowed from 13 points in 2007 to 8 points in 2008.

For local sixth graders, 55 percent passed reading in both 2007 and 2008, compared to 62 percent statewide in 2007 and 63 percent in 2008. The local gap increased from 7 points to 8 points in the period.

Among local fifth graders, 61 percent passed reading in 2007; that declined to 60 percent in 2008. Statewide, 72 percent passed in 2007, declining to 67 percent in 2008. The DeSoto gap was 11 points in 2007 and narrowed to 7 points in 2008.

Among the youngest FCAT reading students, fourth graders, 60 percent of local youngsters passed in 2007; in 2008, that rose to 68 percent, significantly narrowing the district’s lag behind the state achievement levels. In 2007, 68 percent of students statewide passed fourth-grade reading; in 2008, 70 percent passed. The local gap was reduced from 8 points to 2 points behind the statewide average.

In Conclusion
Reporters have an obligation not to sugarcoat news. When local officials tell reporters, readers, taxpayers and voters all's well, genuine journalists will dig behind the self-serving spin. Not one single paid staffer at the DeSoto Sun bothered to do that. Maybe they don't know how.

It took Old Word Wolf about a two hours to sift through Florida Department of Education Excel worksheets to compile the info and another hour to write it up. Shame on Sun “reporters” who would rather make nicey nice with Powers That Be than inform readers how their schools are actually performing -- which is significantly below statewide averages.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Journalism 101: Write Accurate Headlines

The Dunn-Rankin ranks have been trying to put a good face on the economic downturn by running lots of stories in their newspapers recently that tell readers things aren't as bad as everyone else makes out. Of course, readers aren't stupid and most probably ignore the boosterism, seeing it for what it is.

But clearly, the headline writers got management's memo, and they're willing to play along. The deck on today's top story from Our Little Town: "DeSoto building activity shows some signs of recovery."

Unfortunately for journalism, readers can read the six-graf masterpiece all day without once stumbling on the word "recovery" or any hint of the idea. Neither is there any effort by the reporter to compare the news -- county commisioners approve three commercial development plans -- with same-time-last-year data or even last-month or last-quarter figures.

At a real newspaper, a sharp-eyed editor would demand: Recovery from what, exactly? and then bounce the hed or the story (should be both) back for a rewrite.

But there seems to be no sharp copy editor around to do that -- or at least not one to willing to buck the memo. As a result, a headline unsupported by the story delivers a false impression of the news while giving readers a specific look at the biases and carelessness that govern The Daily Excuse.

For Old Word Wolf's take on today's X-rated banner, you'll have to read below the fold.

A recent letter to the editor begged publishers not to discontinue their newspapers in the schools program. This morning, Old Word Wolf is trying to think how, exactly, she would explain today's banner to the class. Her usual first strategy is to help the cubs locate a dictionary -- often a group activity. Once the M's are accessed, the closest thing they'd find to "mons venus" is "mons venerius." In Merriam-Webster's, that discovery rewards them with a blunt directive to see "mons pubis."

The kids aren't quite wide-eyed with delight yet, but they will be as soon as they deciper "the rounded eminence of fatty tissue on the pubic prominence, esp. of the human female." If they happen to use Webster's New World dictionary, they get the added helpful hint, "which becomes covered with hair at puberty," and no translation is apt to be needed at all.

Fortunately, OWW is fully prepared to deconstruct Latin puns, even ribald ones. But it remains up to each DeSoto County school teacher to individually determine how to incorporate "Mons Venus Nude" into her community newspaper lesson plan. Any questions, class?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Not To Be Used for Navigation

The newspaper has fewer people to do more work. So it's logical to inject a "labor intensive" page, right?

That's exactly how the publisher describes "Florida Report" in his June 29 column: "a very labor-intensive process." He never gets around to telling readers what makes it so, but it's evident those arrows darting across the page may be part of the intensity. If nothing else, they create so many more ways for the Sun to screw up.

Take today's page, for example. The headline says, "Tiffany art to be shown in Winter Park." The dateline clearly says WINTER PARK. And yet the arrow boldly aims at the eastern reaches of Interstate 75, near Miramar. Winter Park and the museum of the story are accessed from Interstate 4, a bit southwest of Orlando. It was too labor intensive to look it up.

The Lehigh Acres story arrow points to a large blank spot on the map north of Naples -- no city listed there. It was too labor intensive to set a bit of extra type to overlay the map.

The Oldsmar story is from a cute little village perched on the north shore of Tampa Bay, across the water from Safety Harbor. The arrow directs readers to an unidentified inland spot 40 miles north of Tampa. It was too labor intensive to be accurate.

Back when we sailed around the Caribbean, Old Word Wolf and her mate occasionally stumbled on cartoon maps -- the kind touristy restaurants print on paper placemats. A good many of them warned "Not To Be Used for Navigation." That always gave us a giggle. (We're approaching a new harbor just after sunset and coral heads dot the entrance; the captain barks, "Hand me the fricking placemat!")

The Sun should give a similar fair warning. But that would be labor intensive.

Let's not overlook yesterday's front-page giggle ...

The overline says:
Show horses staying home more,
others are forced to sell or give up their pets

The statement rides over a picture of a horse that is presumeably telling his pet that the time has come to sell her.