Monday, December 29, 2008

Windy Sailing Column Shows Poor Taste

Imagine you own a chain of small-town newspapers. Times are tough, advertising revenues fall, and you are forced to fire half the staff. Your internal memos on the matter “mourn” the loss of “family.”

But soon enough, a particularly lovely day in December dawns (remember, it’s Florida). You decide to “take a vacation day” (!) from your labors and head over to the yacht club where you untie your sloop for a sail around the harbor.

Question: Do you write a column about it?
Answer: Yes, if you are Derek Dunn-Rankin.

Comment: Enjoying his sail under “a milk-blue sky” is one thing. Writing about what is often regarded as an elitist activity is simply rubbing the staff’s nose in the disparity between Dunn-Rankin’s holiday and theirs.

Perhaps feeling a twinge of conscience about spending 20 inches of ink waxing poetic about his personal pursuit of happiness under sail, the company patriarch opines: “If I could get just a few thousand of the millions shoveling driveway snow to spend a few minutes aboard, we would once more have a shortage of houses for sale.”

Oh my! One tack out of the yacht club and consumers would be back on board! Having a full-time job that pays more than collecting aluminum cans and the means to qualify for a mortgage aren't part of the Dunn-Rankin sailing-to-economic-recovery plan.

If, after considering how many of his laid-off staff had to forgo yacht club memberships this year, Dunn-Rankin still decides to publish his lyric to leisure, then he should at least send the column to a decent copy editor. A “tiller arm” and “sheet line” are both silly redundancies. (A tiller is an arm and a sheet is a line, so there’s no need for the pompous inclusion of the extra noun disguised as an adjective.) He describes the boat’s “heel to the wind,” giving a backwards description of what happens when wind moves over sail. (By sailing left or right of the wind’s head-on direction, a sail produces different wind pressures on the front and back of its air-foil shape. The differential propels the boat forward. In the process, the boat heels away from, or “off,” the wind source, not into it.) But these are minor points.

The bigger point is Dunn-Rankin left his better judgment on the dock when he decided to tell his former employees and former advertisers how much fun he’s having, and suggest that all their problems would be solved if they'd only take a little sail, just like he does.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Plagiarism Operates at Fawcett Hospital

There's a new way to treat heartburn in our little town. Local physician Alvaro Bada says this about it: This procedure can significantly improve quality of life for our patients. Many reflux patients are unable to drink carbonated beverages, caffeine or eat rich foods or fruit without triggering reflux.

Strangely enough, Dr. William E. Kelly Jr. at Henrico (Virginia) Doctors' Hospital, describes the same procedure this way: EsophyX can signficantly improve quality of life for our patients. Many reflux patients are unable to drink carbonated beverages, caffeine or eat rich foods or fruit without triggering reflux.

And amazingly, Dr. Paul Cirangle of San Francisco explains the procedure like this: EsophyX can signficantly improve quality of life for our patients. Many reflux patients are unable to drink carbonated beverages, caffeine or eat rich foods or fruit without triggering reflux.

Back in our town, Bada's partner, Domingo Galliano, adds to the discussion: Recent studies of EsophyX have shown that the procedure can reduce patients' dependence on medications with 80 percent of patients remaining symptom free after two years and experiencing a dramatic improvement in their quality of life. We are very excited to be able to offer our patiewnts the same incredible benefits with minimal risk.

But Kelley in Virginia "said" it first, back on June 23: Recent studies of EsophyX have shown that the procedure can reduce patients' dependence on meedications with 80 perc ent of patients remaining symptom free after two years and experiencing a dramatic improvement in their quality of life. We are very excited to be able to offer our patiewnts the same incredible benefits with minimal risk.

Even the San Francisco doctor said it more than a month before the local guys got around to saying it: Recent studies of EsophyX have shown that the procedure can reduce patients' dependence on meedications with 80 perc ent of patients remaining symptom free after two years and experiencing a dramatic improvement in their quality of life. We are very excited to be able to offer our patiewnts the same incredible benefits with minimal risk.

There's quite a bit more, but you get the picture.

So, what's so bad about this obvious marketeering? Michelle Ritter, the local writer, put her name on the story and failed to use quotes or attributions; doing so tells Charlotte Sun newspaper readers she wrote it. That's clearly a lie for which there is a specific name: plagiarism. But the plagiarist doesn't sully only her own reputation; she draws others into the journalistic muck.

Ritter puts prefabricated quotes into the mouths of the local doctors, as if they had really said those things.

And Feeling Fit editor Jennifer Wadsworth publishes the fake as a news feature, probably unaware that Ritter is now a three-time winner in the 2008 plagiarism scorecard.

All in all, about a full third of the wordage Ritter claims as her own has a common source with the public relations writers for hospitals in Virginia and California. Old Word Wolf suspects a manufacturer's brochure or news release. At least the California and Virginia practitioners distributed generic notices, possessing an ethical compass that steered them away from claiming the words and work of others as their personal productions.
In other medical news, the Lake Placid Journal's edition of Feeling Fit wants readers to recognize the herb known as St. John's Wort. Here is the identification.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Write to Fit

In the old days, stories too long for the space allotted were cut from the bottom , giving rise to the tradition that reporters organize information in what came to be known as the inverted pyramid. Give the important stuff first (the 5-W lede), with details to follow. Today's headline on the Dear Abby column is an perfect example. The word "etiquette" is too long for the space. Cut off the end, all those repetitive "t's," and voila! a fit!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Five Ways to Spot Fake News

Congratulations to Sun Newspaper’s business editor, Terry O’Connor. Relatively new to the staff, he makes a front-page splash this morning with a publicity agent’s dream. He interviews a local construction company president, the president’s son, and a county parks director in order to describe – in glowing terms – the firm that built Sun Coast Media Group’s (O'Connor's boss) own addition to its telephone-company building in Murdock.

Unfortunately, it’s all fake news. As the reader swims through a sea of up-beat, uncritical praise for this sterling firm, she senses the editorial lard – a story greased with quotes that broadly support the paper publisher’s own policy of reporting whenever possible that the economic water glass is half full. It’s fake news, from start to finish. So, how does a critical reader spot fake news?

The first step is to look for the news nugget. If readers can’t find genuine news, usually near the top of the story, then all the words that follow may well be ersatz news. In this case, the not-news is presented as the grizzled construction mogul advising President-elect Barack Obama to “take care of our veterans [ ... give] them an affordable house.”

It’s patriotism. It’s history. It’s good intentions. It’s a WWII vet’s recasting of the past as a viable future. But news? No – maybe a sympathetic set-up for the soft feature that's about to swallow the news hole – but definitely not news. (If it were a real news story, O’Connor might somewhere have compared the number of returning WWII vets -- 16 million -- with 2.3 million troops since the 1991 Gulf war, and he might have pointed to the fallacy of wishful thinking as economic stimulus.) A real news hook might be that the county last week awarded its 25th contract to the company, or that the firm has merged or acquired or changed in some way. None of this is in evidence.

The second step is to look for hard facts, data, and numbers. Not too far down, O’Connor reports the company president says his firm's gross revenues declined from about $20 million two years ago to about $10 million this year. Gross revenues are a suitably vague measure of a privately held business. What the company’s profits actually are relative to gross sales is “company business [that] stays in the company,” as the patriarch puts it. O’Connor fails to note if this construction firm is the only one in town (which his feature makes it sounds like), or if similar firms are experiencing similar 50-percent declines. It’s one thing to put a rosy glow on the recession with profits generated by a $10 million base. It’s quite another thing to survive with two trucks and a Rolodex. The reporter fails to compare this firm's situation with any of the two or three major developers who have gone bankrupt or pulled out of major local projects. His hed says the contractor is "built to handle adversity," but nothing in the story supports this claim -- except that it thrives on government contracts: See Step Five, below.

The third step is to look for a cross section of what folks say about the “news.” The writer rounded up a county parks director (to give high praise for the nice construction company), a banker who needed a new building (to give high praise for the nice construction company) and the company president’s son (to give high praise for the nice construction company his dad owns and which has written him a paycheck since he was 10 years old).

The fourth step is to beware of “chamber of commerce” press release statements woven into the text. O’Connor manages to get the man who built his own boss's new building to say “Charlotte County is one of the finest places in Florida situated between two huge growing metro areas.” It probably didn’t take too much prompting to get him to add, “Now more than ever, it’s a very affordable community. It’s beautiful and you’re not in the rat race.”

The fifth step is to look for the reporter’s dig. This one didn’t dig; he surfed. He used the construction firm’s Web site and copied its list of projects. Some are generous and big-hearted sounding: “support areas for Charlotte County Homeless Coalition,” and a safe house expansion for the homeless. What the reporter fails to report is the millions made seem to stem mostly from local-government funded construction. Tax revenue funds this firm’s profits – and the head of that firm is urging the next president of the United States to build bridges and homes for returning vets.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with government construction. OWW is a big liberal when it comes to homeless shelters, county parks, city marinas, and air-conditioned “justice centers.” She just wishes the reporter had made it clear this featured contractor’s revenue stream flows directly from taxpayer.

There’s no evidence of digging when a reporter fails to report on lawsuits, liens, layoffs, settlements, or even one less-than-perfectly satisfied client. There’s no evidence of digging when the reporter fails to investigate exactly what it was that happened in Mississippi to make the contractor decide he was “spread too thin.” There’s no evidence of digging when readers are given no hint of interests overlapping, country and yacht clubs in common, or mutual business interests between publisher and the featured gentleman of the day.

So what happened here? A promising new reporter, fast promoted to business editor, gets roped into his publisher’s dilemma. As a result, readers are asking if the cash-strapped, layoff-prone newspaper has had to exchange a little free, uncritical publicity -- and a reporter's soul -- for a contractor’s debt.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Find 10 Things Wrong ...

It was a game page in Highlights for Children: Find 10 Things Wrong With This Picture. Maybe that's what those fun-loving Charlotte Sun editors have in mind. Here's three to get you started on today's paper:

Front page: The headline writer tells readers "Community leaders see local economic recovery peaking through the clouds."

Front page: A reprint from Fort Myers News-Press (implying that two copy desks read it? ) reports a stolen elf from a holiday lawn display. The mock drama of the mini-featurette is lost the moment the writer reports the scene was "grizzly." That's supposed to be grisly.

At the national roundup page: An event in Dale City, Prince William County (Virginia), is placed under a Washington, D.C., header. Even a sleepy copy editor should instantly recognize that D.C. doesn't have counties.

The rest of the 10 Things Wrong are scattered throughout the paper in all the usual spots: cutlines, overlines, the home-grown editorial, and in-house ads. Happy hunting!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Desperately Seeking Cute Trumps Accuracy

Since the headline doesn't refer to anyone in the story -- no one expresses desperation in this light rewrite of a prepared city council agenda -- and since the headline doesn't fulfill the requirements of a grammatical English sentence, and since it misprepresents the story, readers can consider themselves officially irrelevant. It's the copy desk's need to be cute that counts. It's the desk's need to show she/he has seen a 23-year-old grade B movie that matters. That's just plain desperate.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gondo "Columnist" Pays for His Material

Back in high school, busy students logged onto www. free-essays dot com to download five or ten pages analyzing theme, conflict and imagery in The Scarlet Letter or "A Rose for Emily." When they got to college, those same busy, busy students hooked up with www. college-papers dot com. For eight or ten dollars a page, they could put their own names on “nonplagiarized essays,” complete with footnotes and bibliographies on such topics as “Comparative Motifs in The Pearl Poet and Sir Gawain,” or “Microeconomic Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of NAFTA,” and “The Psycho-Social Impacts of Gay Adoption.” Now, thrust into the real world of work, what’s a busy, busy high-school-valedictorian-college-grad-cum-laude now a very busy, busy CPA to do when he needs a nicely written newspaper column?

An Oak Harbor, Wash., firm, Mostad and Christensen Inc., comes to the rescue! For a tad less than $500 a year, the nice folks there e-mail a monthly assortment of tax and financial articles, edited to about 300 words and suitable for “publishing in local newspapers or community publications under your firm’s name,” according to the company’s Web-sales site.

And, my goodness! How well this system serves all involved – as long as you don’t count the reader – is evident right here in today's Gondolier, business page, front and center. D. Grady Hough Jr., who earns his living as a CPA in Venice gets “business columnist” status to publish the 300 words he bought last month from Mostad and Christensen. His purchase price includes the privilege of saying the essay is his own work, even though it isn’t.

Apart from the bleak ethics of lying about whether you wrote something – called plagiarism except when semi-winked at by contractual arrangements between consenting adults – this article requires the newspaper’s entire staff of writers, editors, and publishers turn a blind eye to the deception it works on their community of readers. Most newspapers, when running this sort of drek, put a box around it and display the words “paid advertisement” in a place easily discerned by readers who like their business news gathered and presented by trained journalists who make at least a pretense of objectivity.

As for the CPA: He’s in a field that requires a high level of trust. Old Word Wolf can’t trust him to admit where he got his “news” or acknowledge that he didn’t research it, write it, or check its accuracy. And we're supposed to trust him with our taxes?

On a jollier note ...

Cutline: Trees bring season joy

So that's why the holiday is happy!

Half a Name Isn't the Whole Story

There wan't enough room in the Charlotte Sun's state-roundup page to give the city's whole name, so half would have to do. The result: readers are briefly led to believe that an institution of higher learning in Pennsylvania has gone into the fowl-ordinance business.

Local hed style: York, Louis, Barbara, and Paul.

Back at the front page, a local writer
announces that "Today the U.S. Census released the first set of
three-year American Community Survey data ..."

The problem is, the data came out yesterday. Sun readers are accustomed to getting their news "whenever." The shock of reading -- at 7:30 a.m., no less -- what happened today was too much for Old Word Wolf.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Doing Too Much With Too Little

The DeSoto Sun's front page designers couldn't decide exactly what the story says (there's actually a good reason for that -- see next graf), so they opted to play it both ways:

Illegal immigration is down
Refugees keep on coming.

We can hear it now: "They'll figure it out once they read the story."

Uhm, no. We can't figure it out once we read the story. The opus opens with lots of stuff about illegal immigrants -- the news hook is 17 Cubans came ashore last month, beaching on an island at the fringes of the newspaper's circulation area. The problem is, Cubans aren't illegal immigrants. And the headline about "refugees" seems to be taken from the table, lifted from a Web-aggregator's data showing the top five countries that have been sending refugees -- all perfectly legal arrivals -- in the last decade.

To add to the confusion, the refer trailing the story announces "Lee County opts not to participate in 287 (g) program" Readers expecting to solve the mystery of what exactly a 287 (g) is turn eagerly to page 4.

No where in the inside story is a 287 (g) program defined or explained. The cops complain about it, calling it unflattering names. Administrators complain about it, saying it doesn't work. Officials, some 20 inches into the story, call it a "seminal problem," whatever that is. But no where, no where, no where can the reader learn what the heck a 287 (g) is.

Nice work, guys. Maybe if writers asked someone to actually read their stories before they landed on the front page, Sun readers wouldn't be quite so busy wondering if their $200 subscriptions are worth renewing.

And, a lot of papers have piled up since OWW was away....

Just skimming the top of the stack: back on November 30, Susan Hoffman went to the dog show and got the name of every champion, owner and city. But Samantha Williamson, sent to cover actual children, couldn't muster more than a "This little girl..." and "This little boy..." for the"Catch and Release Fun at Lake Katherine" cutlines. The dogs have names -- they're champions. The kids, well, never mind.