Friday, January 30, 2009

I Want to Be a Riter

The big DeSoto County feature this morning is John Lawhorne's report of a career day for students. Middle school kids visited businesses and shadowed workers. It was probably inevitable that some would tour the newspaper office. Lawhorne writes:
Eighth-grader [young man's name] had expressed an interest in becoming an writer. [Young woman's name] wanted to explore what it would be to work as a cartoonist.
The incorrect indefinite article and the missing half of the predicate verb aren't enough. Lawhorne also demonstrates that neither pronoun control nor graceful composition is required to write a daily story:
[Young man's name] said he thought his experience with Wilson was 'cool.' He said he thought he was the only one who liked cartoons. ... Blosser and other particpating businesses later took their respective students to lunch.
Old Word Wolf's initials spell OWW for a reason. The language arts teachers did both youngsters a disservice when they sent the kids to cover to this beat.

Friday, January 23, 2009

When to Spike a Photo: Rule 1

When the picture shows a young woman aiming a big, long, red thing at her mid-section, you don't publish it.

And when the newspaper wants to win a photo contest, this is what the Venice Gondolier does: The editors download a couple of stock photos from the Web and print the cutline: The Venice Gondolier is printing this photo for submission to the Kodak-Inland Print Quality competition.

Update: Old Word Wolf has been informed by a veteran photojournalist that Kodak asks all its Inland Contest entrants to print the same two photos. I'll go with that. But why, oh, why didn't Gondolier editors take just one teensy minute to write a little story: "We're entering a Kodak photo printing contest with these photos. Last year, we won first place. For those of you who are into the technical stuff, we're printing these on a BigMomma Web Press at a gazillion dots per inch ... and so on. It actually would have made a nice little feature -- serving the reader even while being self serving.

Readers Get Kid Lit Instead of Journalism

The "reefer" this morning is a regular Friday abomination. It refers readers to page 11 to catch the latest: "Gussie the Gator meets Pickles, the twin of Tickles the Octopus."

Here's the background: For the last 18 months or so, a nice lady who lives in one of Arcadia's several retirement parks fills her idle hours by writing seven-paragraph animal vignettes for children. The stories feature little animals with cute names swimming, picnicking, avoiding bee stings, safely crossing the road and such. A few months back, when summer came, the nice lady retreated to the north for the season, and the weekly installments stopped. Old Word Wolf was sure the torture was over. Arcadian news reporters would find they didn't need this space filler from a writer who addresses the kindergarten (and must surely be, OWW speculates, the publisher's great auntie, perhaps?). The real journalists would find plenty of news to pursue. Between city hall, schools, courthouse and jail, OWW heartily hoped that real news -- the type that informs taxpayers, citizens, businesses, young people, and visitors about their community -- would resume. OWW was wrong.

To read how awful it really is, the latest installment is tucked below the fold:

Little Tail plays with Tickles and Pickles

One bright, sunny, yet cool day, Gussie the Gator and Little Tail the Gator were sunning themselves in the pond. After a while, Little Tail said to Gussie, “Daddy, I’m going out to find someone to play with. I am tired of just floating and sunning myself.” He did not need to swim far before he ran into Tickles the Octopus. Now, Tickles got her name because she laughed and tickled you with her eight legs and made you laugh and laugh, which she was trying to do to Little Tail. Suddenly, Little Tail saw two octopi. So he said to Tickles, “Are there two of you?”
“No,” replied Tickles, “that is my twin brother, whose name is Pickles. When I was born I always had a smile on my face and eyes wide open, ready to play and laugh. So that is why my mother named me Tickles.
“But my brother always has his eyes half-open and never smiles. Sometimes he is really grumpy and never wants to play. So my mother said to him, ‘I’m going to name you Pickles because you always have a sour look on your face.’” With that, Little Tail said to Tickles, “Let’s see if he will play with us.” Tickles said, “I bet he won’t.” Sure enough, when Little Tail swam up to Pickles the Octopus to play, Pickles swam away and hid behind a rock, saying, “Stay away from me!” So Little Tail swam back to Tickles the Octopus and said, “Boy! He sure is grumpy. He acts just like a sour pickle. Your mother gave him a good name.” So off Little Tail and Tickles went to find Bubbles the Goldfish to swim and play and have fun. They played hide and seek. So ended another happy and beautiful day in paradise, in sunny Arcadia.

Florence Barboro is a DeSoto County resident and regular contributor to the Sun for Cross Creek Country Club and RV Resort. She has written a series of short stories geared toward young children. Look for her story each week in The Arcadian.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wanted: A Copy Editor

A Charlotte Sun columnist and all the newspaper's copy editors marred their description of yesterday's big event. No, we don’t mean Steve Baumann’s ridiculous – and clich├ęd – column lede (“Don’t tell my boss, but I stayed home yesterday to watch the inauguration ...”). We’re referring to his uncorrected, erroneous use of the phrase “an historic.”

As a grizzled newspaper man, Baumann is certainly familiar with his profession’s guide to words and their uses, the AP Stylebook. It is expressly specific on the book's alphabetical Page 1 “A,” third entry down, about the article for this particular adjective: it should be “a” as in “a historic.” Of course, one organization’s stylebook isn’t the language's bible (and even editors can't change a direct quotation from a speaker). But, when a highly educated columnist expounds, readers expect a professional standard.

Baumann, apart from not using the standard, isn't hearing his own language. “An” accompanies a word that opens with a vowel sound. Baumann has not (to date) spoken of or written “an history book,” or “an hopeful event,” or “an highly educated columnist.”

“Think Howard Cosell”

But who am I? Here’s the thinking of the copy editor’s copy editor, Bill Walsh, in a passage from his book, The Elephants of Style:

For choosing a or an, spelling doesn't matter; pronunciation does. A is for consonant sounds; an is for vowel sounds. The ever-popular an historic is incorrect, at least for American speakers, because historic does not begin with a vowel sound. Even those Americans who say "an istoric" will admit that they say "historic," with the consonant h, when the word stands alone. I don't care whether "an istoric" rolls off your tongue more easily than "a historic"; you don't go altering your pronunciation of a word in order to change the article you use before it. Your comfort is none of the language's concern. Most of the times I've heard "an historic," however, it has been from blustery types who heartily pronounce the h. Think Howard Cosell.

Ain’t Headlines Gotta be Accurate?

Another reason editors are paid to read stories before publication is to write headlines. It always helps if an editor understands what she/he has read. Luke Wilson writes today about his dismal attempts at cooking and sets the scene: “I don’t ... have famous restaurants beating down my door ... nor do I have TV food guru Rachel Ray calling me for cooking tips ...”

Unfortunately, the “copy editor” sums up the story as “Rachel Ray ain’t got a thing on me,” which is precisely opposite the columnist’s point. And apparently also without reading the story, the front page editor decides he/she likes the snappy country colloquialism so much – which the columnist never uses, by the way – that it winds up on the front page as a teaser. Ain’t that cute?

And speaking of cute, it would be respectful to readers in DeSoto County (where the school superintendent reports a 99 percent literacy rate among the general population and 100 percent among newspaper subscribers) to eschew fake dialect entirely. Today's front page "Hoggin' the show" is condescending -- just as all the rest of the newspaper's editors' attempts at country cute have been. Yes, it happens a lot.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It'sWrong, but Run it Again Anyway

The consumer-advocate column ran yesterday in the Charlotte Sun with a headline saying the opposite of what the writer reported. So, the pick-up editor runs it again today in the DeSoto Sun -- with the same incorrect headline. What the story says doesn't matter (see yesterday's posting), and whether there's time to fix it doesn't matter either.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Copy Editors Agree: Subjects and Verbs Must

The headline's subject is not only plural, it's plural in triplicate. The verb needs to be plural. Once will do. Lower, in the story's second graf, the writer tells us " ... none of the collisions have brought down a plan." None, as copy editors -- and readers know -- is singular.

What the Story Says Doesn't Matter

On the local front, the Charlotte Sun's consumer
advocate advises caution when entering
pay-to-publish literatry contests. But
the copy desk disagrees and says so in the hed.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What the Reporter Left Out When She Phoned It In

Any improvement in reading scores is good news. But the local paper's report on the topic should make readers wonder if the reporter or the copy desk editor (who writes the heds) learned to read very well. Starting at the top, the headline screams:
Districts ace reading list

No; one district came in at about the middle and the other came in dead last on a list made up of districts that scored between the 75th and the 99th percentiles, a comparative ranking of participants. (We used to call it "grading on a curve." And, doesn't one "ace a test?" But why let the language as we all know it get in the way of the appearance of a snappy headline.)

DeSoto, Charlotte Counties at top of state program

No, they're not. Among counties that have been in the program six years, Dixie and Bradford were the two districts "at the top" of the fourth quartile. DeSoto ranked third and Charlotte ranked eighth, last in the top quartile.

The reporter writes: "According to the state education Web site, Reading First is a federal grant program that allows districts and schools to use scientifically based reading instruction in classrooms to allows all children to learn to read well by the end of third grade." (my emphases)

No. According to the state education Web site, the grant program requires districts to use scientifically based reading instruction. The reporter's use of "allows" -- twice -- invites readers to wonder if other reading classes are not allowed to use scientifically proven methods. The idea is silly, of course, and the silliness is rooted in the reporter's careless writing without benefit of a skilled copy editor.

And -- just an observation here, based on a decade of covering schools -- we also wonder what "scientifically based" means. Sure, it's a phrase tossed around (a lot) on the DOE Web page, but that doesn't mean it's English. (Educationese is a lot like copspeak, except it has a graduate degree.) The reporter never gets around to explaining the term or making an effort to show readers what it means for those who count -- the students, teachers, and taxpayers.

"Ultimately, the program hopes to increase the percentage of students reading at or above grade level, while reducing the percentage of students with serious reading difficulties. " The program doesn't hope. Teachers and parents hope. The program's goal is to increase the number of students reading at grade level. Be precise.

"According to the DOE, these schools increased grade-level reading by 14.72 percent since last year ..." No. The number of students reading at grade level increased 14.72 percent over last year. Be accurate.

Amid all the glowing, chest puffing, self-serving comments collected from the superintendents, the reporter needs to tell readers how the schools qualified for Reading First grants: They were designated as failures at reading preparation in the No Child Left Behind initiative and needed extra help to do the job.

A good education reporter would also have told readers, taxpayers, and parents:

--How much money has flowed into the school district in these grants (a figure not readily available on the school budget report -- there is no line-item for the federal "Reading First" funds, either as income or outgo.)
--If the program requires specially purchased books (remember the 2007 texbook scandal and congressional hearings surrounding this very program?)
--How many instructional folks have been added to achieve these goals.
--Whether the grant affects any grade other than third grade.
--Who, in the district, is in charge of the federal reading program.
--In what way the program is related to "No Child Left Behind."
--Whether Reading First instructional folks are counted as part of the state-mandated student-teacher ratio.
--How "scientifcally based" reading instruction is implemented.

-- How many children are represented by the 14.72 percent figure?

-- How much money per child is being spent for that increase?

And oh, so much more. As it is, everything Pam Staik says -- except for the local self-congratulations -- can be read in the press release. There has been no "value added" for the reader, no enlightenment for the taxpayer, and certainly no real journalism.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Accuracy and Trust: Journalism's Horse and Carriage

DeSoto Sun newspaper editors tell readers that local is important -- but evidently not important enough to write about or edit. Both key jobs of journalism have been left to -- well, sorry -- left to amateurs. And it shows.

Over at the Lake Placid Journal, second verse, same as first.

An epic recap of a state trooper's murder is marred from the first line, which opens with, "Two years have past ...." Come on, guys. Eighth graders know that should be "passed."

Next line: "For 17 gruelling hours the usual tranquil community ..." Ninth graders know that should be should be "the usually tranquil community .. ."

Next leg: "While undergoing emergency surgery at the rural community hospital, his wife and two children..." A copy editor would quietly change that to "While the officer was undergoing surgery...," avoiding the misdirected medical procedure.

Next leg: "Officers staged across the highway.." A copy editor would gently inquire, "staged what?" because "staged" is a transitive verb.

Next leg: "... taxed with the responsiblity ... " A wise copy editor would silently change that laugh line to "tasked with the responsibility ..."

The rest of the narrative-style recap -- intended to be a tribute -- is riddled with randomly Germanic capitalizations, illogical tense shifts, a profound ignorance of basic comma rules, awkward echos and redundancies, and a failure to attribute a single fact -- which is what journalism is all about. The story is not a tribute. It's a mess.

If the newspaper publisher genuinely cared about local news, he would assign someone the job of editing to save himself and his writers the embarrassment of childish writing. That, in turn, might salvage a shred of trust: If the newspaper's writers don't know how to write coherent sentences and editors don't know how to edit them, why should readers trust the paper's ability to report? Or its "commitment to local news?"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Local Journalism: Dying a Slow Death

The morning newspaper brings this news, printed on a single sheet of paper, composed by the general manager (the guy with a ring of keys). It was tucked in the home-delivery bag, and it apparently bypassed the pesky copy editing that might have provided clarity and coherence or supplied more than a series of breathless imperatives:
DeSoto Sun Customers
Please Read
The DeSoto Sun Newspaper will begin delivery six days per
week. The DeSoto paper will publish Tuesday through Sunday.
No Monday delivery! Effective 1/19/09
No home delivery or single copy papers in stores or racks
starting Monday 1/19/0-9 and contining on as a six day per week delivered paper.
Subscription rates will maintain current price point as a six day delivered product.
E-Mail your concerns and comments to ...

The news -- as told not by the publisher but by the guy with the thermostat key -- is this daily's publication schedule is being cut to six days a week. It's happening just a couple of months after home delivery was suspended to most of the county and a week after the complete shutdown of another paper in the Dunn-Rankin chain. The news is subscription rates will continue as if the paper were available seven days a week, says the man in charge of loading the trucks.
Old Word Wolf's "concerns and comments" are actually questions: Will this in any way improve local news coverage? Will reporters and editors have more time to delve into local government and schools and report on tax money at work?
Doubt it; that's not how things work. And the irony is, one of the newspaper's general managers, Lang Capasso, wrote in his (unedited, grammatically challenged) column just yesterday:

"Many newspapers seem to have forgotten what made them important to people. We haven’t and that’s why Sun Coast Media papers will always be at the table as the coffee is being drunk, the eggs eaten and the conversation turns to the news. We recognize that local news and the community are important to people. They’re important to us as well because, after all, we’re a part of this community too and what affects our neighbors down the street affects us as well."

I like that part: "... will always be at the table ..."

Always means never on Monday, not at all in Hardee -- and oh, only on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Venice, and only when the mail carrier comes if you live in the rural parts of DeSoto.

It's a shame, because if the Dunn-Rankins had understood genuine journalism, instead of "photos provided," rehashed press releases, plagiarizing preachers, and forced features there might have been a little more reader loyalty and support -- and thus value for the fast-disappearing advertisers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Big Picture Conserves News-Gathering Energy

Too bad this looks fairly innocuous in thumbnail. In real life, this six-column wide, half-page tall color photo of a man adjusting an amusement-park car screams, "Arcadia's six reporters and editors didn't write any news, cover local government or schools, and no one sent us any consumer-generated content, so you'll just have to look at the pretty picture."

So, why not go to the trouble to inform Arcadians about the world around them? Surely there was a Florida story on the wires, surely there is news from across the ocean ... yes, it's the hometown section, but if you're having production problems, this is not the way to carry on


And .....

Sunday, January 11, 2009

R.I.P. Hardee Sun

Today is the last day Hardee County, a DeSoto look-alike just north of the border, will have its own newspaper. Sun Coast Media Group's staff writer, Carol Sakowitz, announced in her column today that it's the last issue with "Hardee" in the mast. She didn't say why (we can guess: economics, economy of scale, ad revenues, and such) -- only that she's enjoyed her seven months as a reporter.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Detective's Fake Column Scams Sun News Editors

The story on DeSoto Sun's local page 3 this morning announces a scam "is being perpetuated nationwide." The story, by-lined Ken Kleinlein (neither staff writer nor regular columnist) comes to readers in the form of a "letter" that claims to be from a victim. Kleinlein claims to be a detective. Too bad he didn't do a little Internet investigation that would have taken him directly to

The letter has all the hallmarks of fake news: first-names only, city and date unreported, credible source (a police report, maybe?) omitted, all presented by a naif. A real newspaper editor would have spotted the holes in this story on first reading.

"Ken Kleinlein," if that's his real name, posted the identical column on a local blog last month ("Red County: Grassroots Politics from the Center Right") with "thanks" to a NYPD officer for "contributing" to his report. Evidently, the blog wasn't enough glory, so Kleinlein sought out the "mainstream media" to get his "story" and picture in the public eye. Here's a more credible version -- one with less writer's ego, front and center.

According to Snopes, the baloney-detection site, the incident did happen -- in Sydney, Australia. Over a three-day period last October, a rip-off artist delivered gift baskets to homes and requested a $3.50-delivery fee, payable via credit card swiped in a portable electronic-funds-transfer gizmo; later in the day, he used the EFT information to clean out bank accounts. The con man was arrested and charged "with ten counts of fraud," New South Wales Police said in press release.

Kleinlein's "story" appears word-for-word on more than a dozen Internet sites -- strongly suggesting he and his NYPD buddy are unlikely to be the original writers. That alone makes the "detective" guilty of presenting the words and work of others as his own (or his friend's), and not properly crediting the source. His eighth-grade Language Arts teacher taught him the scam is called plagiarism.

Local editors have been duped -- and not by someone terribly clever -- because they failed to require this columnist-sprung-from-the-woodwork to provide the basics of any news story: who, what, when, where along with an independent source for verification.

Readers have been scammed because they have been fed an urban legend in the making instead of real news. Sure, warn readers of of a clever scam, but don't lie and exaggerate ("being perpetuated nation wide" and "especially prevelant around the holidays"). Get a real reporter to interview "Detective Ken Kleinlein," and then verify, verify, verify.