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Issue for May 2016

The Importance of Beginnings

Posted on Monday, May 30, 2016 at 10:44 PM

How your piece begins determines where it will go.

By Peter Jacobi

In early May, the issue of The New Yorker that arrived in my mailbox featured a striking yet also subtle cover by Bob Staake. It showed purple rain.

And it was, of course, a tribute to Prince, followed inside the magazine by Vinson Cunningham's short but penetrating essay, part of "The Talk of the Town," about the mysterious, often puzzling rock star.

"What a concept, genius," wrote Cunningham for his lead. "Especially in an age like ours -- secular, rational, disenchanted. No one, perhaps, was more suited to exploit the idea of genius-as-enigma than Prince Rogers Nelson, who died on Thursday at his Paisley Park compound, outside Minneapolis, at the age of fifty-seven. Prince played impenetrability like a guitar. To think about him was to ask a series of questions: Why purple? Whence the glyph? Did he really love spaghetti and orange juice? What was up with the retinue of light-skinned, long-legged women, who were visually identical to one another and to him? Vis-à-vis sex and sexuality and gender; what, if anything, was he trying to say?"

Meanwhile, ABC reported that "in Minnesota, where Prince was found dead Thursday in his suburban Minneapolis compound, the Star Tribune reports the interstate 35 West Bridge over the Mississippi River was bathed in purple light. A dance party in downtown Minneapolis was expected to go all night."

A weather sign proclaimed: "Today's Forecast -- cloudy with a chance of purple rain."

Why Beginnings Matter in News Coverage

All of the above were beginnings. I think The New Yorker cover served as an imaginative lead to the Cunningham essay, written for consumption several days after Prince's passing. I think the ABC message quoted above was an effective start for a stay-up-to-date television news report. I think the weather sign was a clever way to draw attention to the death, while also suggesting the societal significance of the departed entertainer.

There are lessons in studying how a news event of scope is verbally covered, how journalists strive to gain and keep attention amidst the river of reports that flows over a period of days or more.

The Associated Press quickly produced an alerting news story that began: "Prince, one of the most inventive and influential musicians of modern times with hits including 'Little Red Corvette,' 'Let's Go Crazy,' and 'When Doves Cry,' was found dead at his home on Thursday in suburban Minneapolis, according to his publicist. He was 57." The opening sentence proves a bit overburdened with facts, but the information shared follows the principle in news stories of providing as many of the five W's and the H.

The New York Times kept its first sentence briefer but also with the intent of providing the basic facts as limitedly known from first reports: "Prince, the songwriter, singer, producer, one-man studio band and consummate showman, died on Thursday at his home, Paisley Park, in Chanhassen, Minn. He was 57."

The second paragraph in the Times tells us: "His publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, confirmed his death but did not report a cause. In a statement, the Carver County sheriff, Jim Olson, said that deputies responded to an emergency call at 9:43 a.m. 'When deputies and medical personnel arrived,' he said, 'they found an unresponsive adult male in the elevator. Emergency medical workers attempted to provide lifesaving CPR, but were unable to revive the victim. He was pronounced deceased at 10:07 a.m." We are into a straight news story that will give the reader the facts, as then known, and nothing more. The thought pieces, the remembrances will come later.

USA Today followed the same pattern: "Prince, a game-changer in popular music, died Thursday at his Paisley Park compound in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen. He was 57." The second paragraph traces the same events as did the Times.

Framing Breaking News to Set Up a Continuing Story

Remember the tasks that beginnings are responsible for: (1) Attracting attention; (2) Establishing the subject; (3) Setting the tone; (4) Guiding or bridging into the article that follows. Keeping these obligations in mind, editors and writers -- with a continuing story such as the death of Prince -- start thinking about how to pursue later coverage.

So, creative minds turn more creative.

Lorena Blas in USA Today wrote: "Purple rained everywhere this weekend. From Coachella in Southern California to Jazz Fest in New Orleans and the Boss' concert in Brooklyn, N.Y., music lovers paid tribute to Prince, who was cremated and memorialized in a private ceremony Saturday at his Paisley Park home outside Minneapolis." And so forth.

Jon Caramanica in the Times wrote: "In 1993, Prince decided he'd had enough. His longtime struggles with his record label, Warner Bros., had left him wanting to reassert control over his creative life. The company might own his music, he reasoned, but it did not own him. So he changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph, a highly stylized overlay of the symbols for man and woman. Prince, as was made clear in that moment, existed in a place beyond convention." And so on.

For the Washington Post, Matt Schudel and Emily Langer wrote: "A musical chameleon and flamboyant showman who never stopped evolving, Prince was one of the music world's most enigmatic superstars. He celebrated unabashed hedonism, sang of broken hearts and spiritual longing and had a mysterious personal identity that defied easy definition." And so on.

Know what you want to accomplish. Consider what is the best path to achieving the kind of coverage appropriate for you, for your subject matter, for your publication, for your reader. And remember that everything you do depends on how you begin.

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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Digital Layout Challenges Explored

Posted on Monday, May 30, 2016 at 10:02 PM

Readers are using a wide variety of devices to access content. How can you ensure your content will be readable on them all?

By William Dunkerley

Are your digital readers getting an optimal view of your content on their computers? That's a hard question for most editors to answer.

A 2015 Pew Research study found that 66 percent of Americans already owned at least two digital devices (smartphone, desktop or laptop, tablet) -- and that 36 percent owned all three.

This adds up to a diversity of devices and variety of screen formats that are proliferating in the computer marketplace. That makes it impossible to know how your content is going to look on any given device.

Many editors have adapted to this reality by producing mobile editions. Others provide just one version of their publications no matter what device a reader might be using.

Here's an example. The illustration below shows the Manchester Evening News (UK) viewed on a desktop.

Desktop view.

Now if we adjust the viewing window to simulate a mobile view, this is what we get:

Simulated mobile view.

That's hardly a useful presentation for the reader. This publication solves that problem by producing a mobile edition. If the website detects that you are viewing it on a mobile device, it will automatically serve you the mobile version of the publication.

We viewed the Manchester Evening News on a Kindle HD, and this is what we got:

Mobile edition.

Here you have a more useful view of the content. But it is not full-featured. For instance, if I were looking just for business news, the desktop version gives me a link right up front. On the mobile edition I have to either open a drop-down menu or scroll down all the way to the bottom of a very long page to find that link.

Another limitation of the mobile edition is that it presumes what the reader's screen dimensions are. But with ever-evolving variations in reading devices on the market, that presumption often doesn't hold up. It doesn't seem practical to have a mobile edition variant for each and every screen format. And so you are still left with a possibly uncomfortable compromise for any given reader.

A related issue is that many editors have no metrics to tell what kind of devices their readers are using. So even if one were willing to create a mobile version for several of the digital device formats, many of us wouldn't know where to start.

Yet this problem of digital design exigencies remains staring us in the face.

A solution that some editors have employed is a technique called "responsive Web design." It is a new paradigm that departs completely from old notions of dimensional rigidity in page design.

Here is an example of a Web page that is constructed according to the responsive design paradigm:

Results of a responsive Web design.

What you see here is a unitary design that presents itself differently according to the reader's device parameters. It automatically resizes and rearranges elements according to a predetermined plan.

Note the four illustrations with accompanying text. In the desktop view each photo has its related text to the left. The text/illustration pairs appear in a 2-column format. The tablet view switches them into a 4-column format with the text below each photo, and finally the mobile view stacks the text/illustration pairs in a single column.

You can observe responsive design in action at www.TheEllington.org, a website designed by StimulusAdvertising.com. First view the site in full screen. Then adjust the horizontal size of your browser window, starting with the full-width view and then gradually narrowing it. You'll see how the various text and graphic elements change. This process automatically optimizes the content view no matter what screen format is being used.

That's probably enough to make many publication designers feel ill. Traditional publication design is founded upon the concept of a static overall design imposed upon a dimensionally stable substrate, be it print or digital. The reader gets to see what the designer designs.

That's still the case with responsive design. The big difference is that the concept of dimensional stability is out the window. This affects not only graphic elements, but text as well.

How can editors and designers cope with all this? We'll explore strategies in future issues.

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

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"I kept being distracted from the layout aspects of the article by the clunky headline - 'was sat ...' -- but this was very helpful information." -- Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, WriterRuth.com

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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, May 30, 2016 at 9:45 PM

Assessing the readability of a TechCrunch.com excerpt.

This month, we're calculating the Fog Index of a paragraph from a May 29 TechCrunch.com piece ("Robots Add Real Value When Working with Humans, Not Replacing Them" by Matt Beane). Here's the sample text, with longer words italicized for reference:

"In many Da Vinci procedures, residents find themselves on the edges of the playing field. When once they might get four hours of practice during a traditional operation, now they get 10-15 minutes during a Da Vinci procedure -- if they get a chance to participate at all. It's not that the robotics technology itself [bolded for emphasis, was italicized in original article] prevents residents from learning; the technology just makes it iPhone-easy for liability-saddled attending surgeons to assume complete control. The expert does the work, which is good for patients in the short run, but the profession itself is in a new kind of trouble."

--Word count: 97 words
--Average sentence length: 24 words (15, 32, 25, 25)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (12/97 words)
--Fog Index: (24+12)*.4 = 14 (14.4, no rounding)

This sample divides 97 words into just 4 sentences. This leaves us with an elevated Fog score 3 points above the recommended limit. Let's try to get this within range by cutting our average sentence length:

"In many Da Vinci procedures, residents end up on the edges of the playing field. When once they might have gotten four hours of practice during a standard operation, now they get 10-15 minutes during a Da Vinci procedure. That's if they get a chance to participate at all. It's not that the robots themselves prevent residents from learning; the technology just makes it iPhone-easy for liability-saddled attending surgeons to assume complete control. The expert does the work. This is good for patients in the short run, but the profession itself is in a new kind of trouble."

--Word count: 98 words
--Average sentence length: 16 words (15, 24, 10, 24, 5, 20)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (9/98 words)
--Fog Index: (16+9)*.4 = 10 (10.0, no rounding)

This may be the first time we've gained a word in the editing process. (This happened when we changed the verb tense in the second sentence.) Our other edits did little to change overall word count, but they did cut sentence length by one third (from 24 to 16). We could have cut this even further by splitting the new sentence 4 into two new sentences, but we didn't want the writing to become too staccato. The decrease in the number of longer words helped offset this waived opportunity.

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Facebook Addresses Content Bias Accusations

Posted on Monday, May 30, 2016 at 9:15 PM

In the news: Facebook revamps its Trending Topics feature amid claims that curators are culling conservative-leaning content.

Earlier this month, Facebook landed in the hot seat when Gizmodo published an explosive report alleging Facebook staffers were deliberately culling conservative news items from its Trending Topics. The social media giant conducted an internal investigation and reportedly found no evidence of such political bias, but it has revamped the feature all the same in hopes of minimizing the risk.

According to Deepa Seetharaman of WSJ.com, "[Facebook] curators who assemble and approve topics will no longer rely on external websites and news outlets to assess the importance of potential topics." Instead, Facebook will focus solely on site data and metrics to assess which topics are trending on a given day.

Read the WSJ.com article here and the original Gizmodo report here.

Also Notable

Fashion Magazines: Getting Bigger?

Several fashion magazines are experimenting with larger, more expensive print issues. Erika Adams of Racked.com reports, "The May issue [of Vogue] is a physical inch wider than past issues, $1 more expensive on the newsstand, and select pages are printed on a heavier paper stock. The summer issues will shrink back down to standard sizing, but in September, Vogue will again increase its size and nearly double its price on the newsstand." According to digital media consultant Elizabeth Spiers, a larger, higher-quality print edition can draw in more upscale advertisers. This can provide much-needed revenue for titles struggling at the newsstand. Elle and Marie Claire have also recently started publishing in a larger format. Read more here.

Top Women in Media Awards

On June 9, Folio: will host its annual Top Women in Media awards luncheon. Writes Tony Silber on Foliomag.com: "The essential mission of this program is to recognize the creativity and accomplishments of our female colleagues, sometimes against the grain and often against a glass ceiling.... We have people from B2B, consumer, enthusiast media, digital-only companies, startups, association media, regionals, and more." Read more about the awards here.

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