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Issue for March 2017

Fighting Writer's Block, Part I

Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 12:52 AM

Accept the challenge and let the words flow.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I've come to think December doesn't exist.

It comes and quickly goes without my having accomplished a December must-do: send Christmas cards. Christmas December 2015, I evaded the sending-of-the-cards until January. Not only that, I never finished the task. I sent wishes to about half of those on the list, maybe two-thirds, and then I stopped, not removing the remainder cards and addresses from the dining room table until November, when I realized I might as well forget about it and start sending my cards for December 2016.

Well, now as I write, it's late January and I haven't even started to write the cards for this just-past Christmas, not a one. December is all gone and January all but. The boxes are sitting on the dining room table again and the insert letters and the postage stamps. Mind you, the stuff is sitting there untouched and probably quite lonely, feeling forgotten.

So, you ask, what does that have to do in any way with Editors Only?

Self-Imposed Deadline Pressure

Quite a lot, I can tell you. This getting-nothing-done-with-my-holiday-cards thing is my version of writer's block. I convinced myself many years ago that I don't believe in writer's block. And when it comes to making deadlines when I used to meet (and still do) deadlines with news and feature stories for newspapers, with program material for radio and television, with putting together and out magazine issues, I always ended up following my belief that deadlines must be met. Journalistic media do not wait for deadlines, I realized; they must be there for a waiting public. Lateness wasn't an allowable practice. It wasn't. It isn't. I practiced what I preached for myself and for those who were on my staff, and -- across decades -- my students.

But I've come to realize that, actually, I've practiced a form of writer's block. Take my Christmas cards. I've built a mental block that has flawed my personal life. And take another Jacobi reality: to put off my writing assignments until I can no longer put them off. Almost all I write is done so under the self-imposed pressure brought on by delay. The column you're here reading is being written on the 29th of the month, and it probably wouldn't have been started until tomorrow or the day after, if I weren't scheduled for cataract surgery tomorrow, which has led me to the realization I better get this column done pronto.

I can tell you about book deadlines, too, these met but barely because of dangerously put-off starts.

Fill Block Time with Research

My problem is that I love to write but do not like it. Truly. I'm compelled to write but resist the labor involved as long as possible. I much prefer the allied task of gathering material. Both researching and writing are loved activities, but the gathering is so much more pleasant. I've been known to hold off the writing by extending the research a bit more here and a bit more there, lying to myself that the extra gathering is a necessity when it really isn't.

Of course, when the writing begins, the more interesting I find the gathered information to be, the more easily and even lustily I find the writing to be. The richer the material, the better is the likelihood that the writing will result in a really good story or article.

Meaning: here's a possibility for you if writer's block lurks. Fill the block time with non-writing aspects of your writing project: locate material that knocks you for a mental loop. Fall in love with your details; search for content that will cause you to want to set it in prose.

What's next? Read it in Part II.

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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Received Any Plagiarized Submissions?

Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 12:50 AM

The Internet puts loads of information at our fingertips. Lamentably, that's been a boon to plagiarists.

By William Dunkerley

Google the term "Internet plagiarism" and you'll find that there's a lot of chatter on the subject. Most of it seems to revolve around student plagiarism.

The Internet clearly makes plagiarism convenient and tempting.

As editors, though, we are vulnerable to submissions from authors who have succumbed to the same temptations.

A Case Example

A recent Washington Post story ran up a warning flag for me. Here's the passage that caught my eye:

(Washington Post, David Filipov, March 23, 2017)

"Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who died three weeks after drinking a cup of tea laced with deadly polonium-210 at a London hotel. A British inquiry found that Litvinenko was poisoned by Russian agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, who were acting on orders that had 'probably been approved by President Putin.'"

That's nothing that would catch most people's attention, especially amidst today's raging controversy over Russia vis-a-vis our presidential election.

The Litvinenko case, however, is one with which I've been very familiar. Shortly after Litvinenko's 2006 death the International Federation of Journalists commissioned me to analyze the media coverage of the tragedy. What I found and documented is that virtually everything we saw about Litvinenko in the news had been fabricated by an arch-enemy of Putin. So I recognized that the Post's story lacked a factual basis.

But then I heard from someone who revealed something else that surprised me. Not only was the Post's article inaccurate, it might have been plagiarized word-for-word from a story that ran in an Australian publication a month and a half earlier.

Here's what Marnie O'Neill wrote for news.com.au on February 13:

"Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who died three weeks after drinking a cup of tea at a London hotel that had been laced with deadly polonium-210. A British inquiry found that Mr Litvinenko was poisoned by Russian agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, who were acting on orders that had 'probably been approved by President Putin.'"

Except for a minor copyediting change, the Post's article looks like a complete rip-off.

What About You?

Have you ever been victimized by plagiarism at your publication? We asked a few editors for anecdotes.

Many report having been spared. Kate Penn, for example, told us, "We have not experienced this (as far as I know)." She is editor-in-chief of Floral Management.

Dan Reynolds, however, editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance, reported:

"We once picked up some plagiarism in a piece, caught it before it ran. There was some tension between the editors on the topic of whether to axe the freelancer immediately or give them a second chance. That freelancer no longer works for us."

Finding Out Too Late

At Massage Magazine, editor-in-chief Karen Menehan had a more complex story to tell:

"About three years ago, an author with a PhD turned in an article that had been plagiarized from various websites, with chunks of stolen text cobbled together.

"We discovered this after publication. The author said she had no idea she shouldn't use other people's work.

"This situation resulted in our rewriting our submission guidelines to more clearly stipulate that none of an article's text may have been published elsewhere, either in print or online.

"We also bought a subscription to an online plagiarism-checking tool, which is now a key element of our editing process. This tool helped me discover a month ago that another writer -- who makes his living as a freelance journalist -- had lifted quotes from someone else's article, and presented them as quotes he had gathered.

"He did take the extra step of rewriting those direct quotes slightly 'to make them sound better.' He did not receive a second assignment."

Heather Granato, VP of content at Health & Nutrition, told us:

"It's been many years since we've had a plagiarism issue. However, I had the situation with a staff writer who submitted an article for a print magazine.

"When the article came out in our magazine, we were contacted by an online blogger who shared her blog and asked that we compare it to the article. In fact, our writer had pulled multiple paragraphs verbatim, despite saying she had done original research. When confronted, she had no excuse beyond just being busy and she didn't think anyone would notice.

"We had to issue a formal apology to the writer, put a print error notice in the next print magazine, and we terminated the writer from our team.

"We have since that point done spot checking of phrasing that seems out of the usual TOV for our contributors and writers, and generally try to work with known personnel. It is difficult with new employees, but in those cases we request notes and fact-check for multiple months after initial employment."


These editors treated their plagiarists with the firmness demanded by editorial integrity. What's more, Menehan used her experience to clarify things in her editorial submission guidelines and began using an online plagiarism-checking tool.

With all the freewheeling copying of material from the Internet, these are things every editor should seriously consider.

And the Post?

We invited the Washington Post to comment on the duplicative text it published. This response came from Mary Beth Sheridan, deputy foreign editor:

"Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Those two sentences initially appeared in Business Insider [www.businessinsider.com] in March 2016, and wound up in the Washington Post blogpost as the result of a failure by our Moscow correspondent to clearly label in his notes what was original reporting and what was clipped for reference from other sources. As a result, when he wrote the post he inadvertently reproduced the sentences from another source without attribution. David Filipov is a veteran reporter who has had an impeccable career, but he acknowledges -- as do we -- that this was a serious error. We are correcting the blogpost and attaching an editor's note."

So the explanation is that the plagiarism was a result of inattention rather than mal-intent. From the standpoint of serving the reader, however, I believe this is a distinction without a difference. I'm glad that the Post published a correction, however.

And news.co.au?

The Australian pickup predates the Post's story, but it postdates the Business Insider coverage. So it looks as though news.co.au plagiarized from Business Insider, too. It seems like all three stories are from the same playbook.

I wonder where Business Insider got its information from. Not only did it misrepresent the Litvinenko matter, but there was something else. It named others who had been "critics" of Vladimir Putin and who subsequently died suspiciously. The list included the name Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes magazine's Russian edition.

Paul was a subscriber to Editors Only, and I know that, ironically, instead of being a critic of Putin, he wrote positively of the work of Russia's then relatively new president.

The Post was astute enough not to replicate Business Insider's distortion of this. News.co.au didn't exercise the same judgment, however. O'Neill wrote her own version of the Klebnikov allegation, without using Business Insider's text directly. But the factualness remains lacking.

I guess it's not surprising that sometime-plagiarists don't place a premium on fact checking.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 12:44 AM

Assessing the readability of a TheAtlantic.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample text comes from a March 29 article on TheAtlantic.com ("Escaping Is Not a Form of Understanding" by Adrienne LaFrance). Here's the text we're analyzing, with longer words in italics for reference:

"There are deep and complicated tensions in these questions. Hawaii is beautiful, yes, but it is not simply an 'Eden of happy Americans.' Though many people in Hawaii are proud of its nearly 58 years of statehood, others don't consider themselves to be American at all. The state's economy is hugely dependent on both tourism and federal jobs, both of which can be viewed as complicit in a form of settler colonialism that shapes the way people perceive and experience life in Hawaii. This is heavy stuff, and worthy of consideration by all Americans, especially those who visit Hawaii."

--Word count: 99 words
--Average sentence length: 20 words (9, 14, 23, 37, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (12/99 words)
--Fog Index: (20+12)*.4 = 12 (12.8, no rounding)

We only need to cut one Fog Index point here to fall within ideal range. There's a simple fix that ought to do it:

"There are deep and complicated tensions in these questions. Hawaii is beautiful, yes, but it is not simply an 'Eden of happy Americans.' Though many people in Hawaii are proud of its nearly 58 years of statehood, others don't consider themselves to be American at all. The state's economy depends hugely on both tourism and federal jobs. Both of these can be viewed as complicit in a form of settler colonialism that shapes the way people perceive and experience life in Hawaii. This is heavy stuff, and worthy of consideration by all Americans, especially those who visit Hawaii."

--Word count: 98 words
--Average sentence length: 16 words (9, 14, 23, 11, 25, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (11/98 words)
--Fog Index: (16+11)*.4 = 10 (10.8, no rounding)

All we did was split sentence 4 from the original into two new sentences and tweaked a phrase. ("Is hugely dependent on" becomes "depends hugely on" in the new version.) This small edit cut the Fog by 2 points.

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Fake News: A Legal Definition?

Posted on Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 12:43 AM

In the news: The term "fake news" is everywhere these days, but what does it really mean? One potential publisher lawsuit may shed some light.

The term "fake news" has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Colorado's Grand Junction Daily Sentinel may add some legal context if the publisher opts to sue State Senator Ray Scott. The skirmish got under way back in February when Scott read an op-ed about himself and dismissed it as "fake news." Publisher Jay Seaton, in turn, threatened to sue.

Yesterday, Poynter.org caught up with Seaton to ask about the controversy and potential lawsuit. Read the full interview here.

Also Notable

Magazine "Tricks and Goodies"

How can magazines stay afloat in the face of complex revenue challenges? According to a March 28 Columbia Journalism Review piece, today's magazines are increasingly reliant on, in the words of Lapham's Quarterly publisher David Rose, "tricks and goodies." In other words, magazines are seeking creative new revenue streams, including events and merchandise. For a full list of other "goodies," click here.

Association Media Summit

This week, Folio: hosted its Association Media Summit at Washington, DC's National Press Club. The conference, according to Tony Silber of Folio.com, "included topics that ranged from using content to drive revenue for the organization to sales challenges in the non-profit environment." Discussions focused on, among other things, maximizing limited resources (including "a series of editorial cost-saving measures, including the creative use of stock art for covers") and collaborative management. Read more about the summit here.

The Single "They"

Traditional grammarians have spent years resisting the wave, but Chicago and AP have made their ruling in favor of colloquial usage. At last week's annual ACES conference, both stylebooks announced that they would allow the use of "they" as a singular pronoun. According to Merrill Perlman of CJR.com, both stylebooks "emphasize that 'they' cannot be used with abandon. Even so, it's the middle of the end for the insistence that 'they' can be only a plural pronoun." Read more about the controversial style update here.

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