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Issue for February 2013

Start Your Story Right

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Take the time to think, gather, and select information for the best lead.

By Peter P. Jacobi

As I write this installment, the third season of Downton Abbey is in midstream. When you read this, it will probably be long gone, and fans will be anxiously awaiting the fourth. But I've been reading reports and reviews of this dynamo import from Great Britain. As result, a subject has come to mind: Leads.

Yes, I've written about leads previously and often. But we all know how important they are and how troublesome they can be to get right. They serve four purposes, which I've preached before: (1) to attract attention, (2) to establish the subject, (3) to set the tone, and (4) to guide the reader into the story.

My perusal of the Downton Abbey literature brought additional reflections and considerations. Let me, as we get this column underway, share two beginnings that I came across.

The first is from the Denver Post and was written by its television critic, Joanne Ostrow: "On the verge of any historic shift, some people rise to the occasion, enunciating a modernist attitude, others stubbornly cling to what worked in the past, a few enrage their loved ones by pushing for faster, more radical change, and still more are oblivious, mired in smaller concerns and unable to see the culture evolving around them. That's true whether the new wave brings loosening standards of dinnerware, the admission of women into the workforce, or the possibility of forgiveness for one who has transgressed.

"All are topics for contemplation, along with terrific wardrobes and period effects, as the Brit hit 'Downton Abbey' opens its third season on PBS Sunday night."

The second lead initiates Robert Bianco's coverage for USA Today: "Steaming into the '20s, Downton Abbey comes roaring back to life. Not that this exemplary period-soap was deadly last season by any stretch of the imagination; it's hard for a series this well-acted, and filled with this many well-developed and justifiably well-loved characters, to be anything less than entertaining.

"But there was a troubling, even if slight, drop-off in quality in last year's run, as if the second-season attempt to tackle World War 1 jarred the show off its axis. Too many people wandered by without registering, and too many plot points wandered astray. In honor of the drama's fondness for discretion, let's just vow never to speak again of Robert's dalliance or the disappearing would-be heir.

"Happily, all that is behind us, and what lies ahead for Downton fans is a first-rate run of episodes that feels less hectic and more tightly focused on the family core."

What Is Your Intent?

Both beginnings have professional sheen. They differ in purpose. The first is informational in nature; it brings readers up to date on the series by reminding them where events left off at the end of the previous year and offers a push, a "Hey, you might as well sit yourself down in front of your set Sunday to find out how the story moves forward." The second opening, though it also urges an active look ahead, provides a more judgmental reminder of what we saw and heard last season.

In determining how to get a story underway, be sure to know your intent. What are you trying to get accomplished? Simply introduce a subject? Bring the subject up to date? Strive to be an insider with the resources to provide little known, behind-the-scenes information? Tell the story? As a tease, describe some of what will be shown? Explain how and why this evening soap has struck such a chord? Lead with an opinion? Engender contemplation?

Know your intent, and act accordingly. The success of a lead depends not only on what material, what detail, you choose to include but how you plan to use it. Information can work differently, depending on what you make of it and how you employ the language and what sort of atmospheric thrust you inject.

It is instructive when the media supply a packet of coverage examples that show different minds meeting differing goals, as has been the case with Downton Abbey. Here are a few more lead samples.

Informational Lead

From Reuters, a news service, the informational: "Cousin Matthew, Lady Mary, and the rest of the clan will be back to their post-Edwardian shenanigans on Sunday. The period drama has become Britain's biggest television export since launching three years ago. It has been sold to more than 100 countries and is up for three Golden Globe Awards this year, including TV drama (Michelle Dockery) and best supporting actress (Maggie Smith).

"'We've set a show in a very recognizably English genre,' said Downton Abbey executive producer Gareth Heame. 'It's a genre that can't be done in America and isn't really done anywhere else in the world.'"

Instructively Critical Lead

From Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times, the instructively critical: "A lot of time and discussion have been spent deciphering the extraordinary success of Downton Abbey, but it's actually pretty simple. This series about British aristocrats and their servants is Fifty Shades of Grey: soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex.

"The infamous Fifty Shades S-and-M trilogy by E.L. James began as an e-book and became a publishing sensation by adding a frisson of Story of O-style bondage to an old-fashioned romance novel. And Downton Abbey, which was supposed to last only one season, is beginning its third on PBS Sunday and is basically a romance novel with a thick dollop of The Forsyte Saga. The books have gall; the television series has Galsworthy." Stanley goes on to make her case.

Analytical Lead

From The Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan, the analytical: "This court will now come to order. In the dock today, we find Downton Abbey ... a phenomenon whose popularity rivals that of Justin Bieber and Homeland put together....

"You probably won't be able to avoid the third season of Downton, even if you'd wanted to, so we might as well review the show's strengths and sins together. Oh yes, there are sins to be found, or rather, a series of mostly avoidable mistakes that are almost up there with mistaking the shrimp fork for the dessert fork.

"I kid because I know what Downton Abbey is -- it's unquestionably one of television's most contrived confections, and there's nothing wrong with contrivances as long as they serve a greater purpose. But what is that purpose, exactly?" Read on in The Huffington Post.

Confrontational Lead

From The Atlantic's James Parker, the confrontational: "At what point in the history of domestic service, I wonder, did lords and ladies start saying Thank you to their staff, instead of just kicking them into the fireplace? When did it begin, this treacherous acquisition of personhood by the dishwashing classes? Was there perhaps a single, pivotal moment, deep in some ancestral pile, when a purple-faced baronet looked upon his vassal and experienced -- wildly, disconcertingly -- the first fizzings of human-to-human recognition? Blame Saint Francis of Assisi. Blame Charles Dickens.

"By the early 20th century, at any rate, the whole master-servant thing was plainly in ruins. Individuals were everywhere. The housekeeper had opinions; the chauffeur had a private life; and the gentleman found himself obliged to take an interest, however slight, in the affairs of his gentlemen's gentleman. 'And what will you do with your weekend off, Bassett?'

"I know all this -- lest you doubt my expertise -- because I've been watching Downton Abbey, the ludicrously popular aristo-soap currently airing on PBS's Masterpiece Classic." And I invite you to read the entertaining rest in the February 2013 issue of The Atlantic.

Plan Your Leads Carefully

There are more samples in my files, but let the above serve to prove the point: It takes careful thought on your part, along with careful gathering and selection of information, to get the start of your story right. Yes, leads are hard. But we love them for what they can accomplish.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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Vetting Your Editorial Content

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Are editors and publishers doing enough to produce quality content?

By Meredith L. Dias

Times are tough for editorial quality. All too often in recent months, publications, websites, and newsrooms have scrambled to correct wildly erroneous content in their coverage of major news stories. In their mad dash to report first, some editors have failed to vet their content properly before posting. Make no mistake: Reporting first has its benefits. It establishes a publication as a go-to news source -- but only if that up-to-the-minute content is reliable and accurate.

The Manti Te'o Debacle

The recent Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax illustrates the need for thorough fact checking before publication. The college football star won widespread media sympathy after the tragic death of his girlfriend in September 2012. The truth of the matter sent the media and sports worlds into a tailspin. In a twist that David S. Klein of Advertising Age called "a massive failure of reporting, a de-pantsing of sports journalism," intrepid reporters from Deadspin.com revealed in January 2013 that the girlfriend never existed.

In the aftermath of the media disaster, more and more publishers are scrutinizing the editorial quality of their publications. A publication can only survive if readers and advertisers consider it credible, and thorough research is a vital contributor to that credibility. If publications are allowing content rife with factual errors to pass through the editorial sieve, they run the risk of driving away readers (who will seek more reliable content elsewhere) and advertisers (who will funnel dollars into publications more trusted by those readers). Our editor, William Dunkerley, agrees in a recent STRAT article: "It is less common to measure how believable and reliable a publication is generally perceived to be by readers," he says. "Yet that is a very important indicator of product quality."

So What Is Editorial Quality, Anyway?

The phrase "editorial quality" lends itself to all manner of subjective definitions. However, certain elements are universal in terms of editorial quality assurance: neutrality, research, fact checking, proper source attribution, and proofreading (among others). These elements ensure that the final editorial product doesn't compromise the publication's integrity. They allow a publication to stand tall among its competitors.

Dunkerley defines editorial quality thusly: "Quality is in the eyes of the beholder, the reader. Often, editorial departments measure reader satisfaction with individual articles, categories of content, and even gauge reaction to an issue as a whole."

Quality vs. Being "First"

Editors of news content face a dilemma: Should they spend time vetting content for accuracy, or should they post first and correct later to keep pace with their competitors? There are pros and cons to both approaches, but the latter opens the door for debacles like the Manti Te'o hoax.

Deadlines are tighter than ever in the 24-hour news cycle, and fact checking seems like an easy target when streamlining the editorial process. Breaking a big story first can certainly enhance's a publication's perceived quality; however, getting major facts wrong in hot pursuit of being "first" can destroy credibility with the very readers and advertisers that sustain said publication.

Editorial Quality Post-Recession

During the recession a few years ago, many newspapers and magazines were forced to downsize their editorial staffs. As Dunkerley states in his STRAT article, "Certainly at a time when everyone was scrambling to avoid losing even more revenue to the weak economy, it seemed easier to make do with one less editor than one less ad salesperson." To this day, many newsrooms are still operating on reduced cylinders.

Some publishers are finding now, however, that overall quality has taken a hit. Reduced editorial staffs have resulted in reduced ability to fact-check before an article goes public. The staff cuts of the recession may have helped to save the publications in the short term, but we're seeing now that these cuts may have helped create an environment in which short-staffed publications are forced to play fast and loose with the facts to stay competitive in a news world that never sleeps.

All publications, even the best ones with the most robust editorial staffs, make mistakes. It's bound to happen. However, shoddy coverage of major news stories has unearthed a possible editorial epidemic: sacrificing quality and accuracy for timeliness. Moving forward, publications must strike a balance between editorial integrity and promptness of reporting. After all, a breaking news story is only as valuable as it is true.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

In the news: Assessing the readability of an excerpt from TheAtlanticWire.com.

In honor of the recent Academy Awards, we've selected a sample from TheAtlanticWire.com ("Seth MacFarlane Is Oscar Ratings Gold" by Richard Lawson) for this month's Fog Index installment. Here's the excerpt:

"So, we should probably expect more Oscar evenings like Seth MacFarlane's in the future. It may seem like a bleak prospect to some, but others are likely rejoicing. Still, we don't see MacFarlane repeating any time soon. Part of the interest in MacFarlane's presence was that it was so novel; an unguarded insult craftsman tasked with guiding his industry's most important and Respect-heavy evening. The trick probably wouldn't have the same punch the second time around. But yes, with a ratings upgrade like this one, especially among advertisers' favorite people, we shouldn't expect to see Whoopi Goldberg or Steve Martin back on stage any time soon."

--Word count: 106 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (14, 14, 9, 27, 12, 30)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (8/106 words)
--Fog Index: (18+8)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We have reviewed this sample carefully, and there isn't much we can do to improve upon this Fog score. We could make minor tweaks and replace some longer words to shave a point or two off the Fog Index, but there's really no need.

So what did this writer get right? For starters, he kept his sentences short. The writing sustains a nice rhythm without extended complex sentences. There are also very few longer words to fog up the writing. The writer is able to convey his ideas in a way that's both smart and succinct.

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Thriving Food Magazines

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

In the news: These are trying times for magazines, but food magazines appear to be leading the pack.

Retail stores are seeing diminished print magazine sales, but that doesn't mean that all magazine categories are suffering. Although consumers are spending conservatively these days, food magazines seem to be holding up well compared to magazines in other categories.

Hearst recently launched a food magazine, Delish, exclusively for Wal-Mart. The magazine has done so well since its November 2012 launch that Hearst plans to publish on a quarterly schedule. Read more about the success of Delish and other food magazines here.

Also Notable

Magazine Website Traffic Booming

Magazine website traffic is on the rise as more and more readers turn to apps and Web content. Cooking Light and Forbes have been particularly successful. Unique visitors at Forbes.com are up 26 percent over last year, and unique visitors at CookingLight.com are up 47 percent over last year. Read more here.

Women and Online Magazines

Tablets still tend to account for a low percentage of a magazine's revenue. However, more and more female magazine readers are adopting portable reading devices with 7-inch screens. This has led to an increase in the number of female online magazine subscribers. Read more about tablet adoption here.

Hearst's Designer Visions

Every year, Hearst editors-in-chief and designers team up to showcase the latest home decorating trends for the Designer Visions event. Top editors from Elle Décor, Veranda, and House Beautiful participated in the event. The event provides readers with a real-life manifestation of their magazines' design principles. Read more here.

Fashion Editors on the Move

A recent piece in the London Evening Standard discusses some of the alternate avenues top fashion editors are pursuing. Some are taking their expertise to the shop floor, while others are trading in print magazine publishing for fashion websites. More and more stores are looking to magazines staffs when recruiting new hires. Read more about this trend here.

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