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Issue for May 2018

Nurture Your Reader

Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2018 at 12:24 PM

An important part of our job, caring and feeding our readers, becomes even more important in the aftermath of an error.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Several months ago, I wrote about the multi-tasked nature of editing a publication, tossing in that writers have their share of obligations, as well. In totality, the tasks came to center on the care and feeding of our readers.

Allow me to return to the subject, this time with a situation that I personally experienced. It has to do with a single error I committed and should have caught, that my editor might have caught, but that went uncorrected when the paper, the Bloomington Herald-Times, published it. I do not and cannot blame the situation on anyone save myself. Fortunately, the care and feeding of several readers was taken care of as best as possible, meaning in an OK manner but not as if I had initially been more careful and not allowed the error to be made.

I am writing this Editors Only piece in April of 2018, and the piece-with-error I submitted made the newspaper in early February. As many of you know, I cover classical music for the newspaper in the Indiana city named Bloomington, not the Illinois or Minnesota. This Bloomington is home for Indiana University, which has one of the great music schools in the world, resulting in an overly-rich banquet of events that get served to the public from the first to the last day of every year.

The Review

I'm just a freelancer for the paper. I've always had primary income from elsewhere, meaning my Herald-Times association has been on a part-time basis. But I've taken responsibility for covering somewhere between 100 and 150 musical events annually as reviewer, and I've also contributed a weekly Sunday column called Music Beat for about 34 years.

Well, in early February, as I said, I wrote a review of an IU Opera Theater production of Richard Strauss's strange concoction of an opera called "Ariadne auf Naxos," filled with lush music and built on a curious tale involving a show within a show. As usual, I worked hard on the review, read it over more than once, turned it in, and waited to see it in print.

The Error

It was printed. I skimmed the printed version. It looked fine. And then a letter arrived, via email, from a reader. The arts editor read it and sent it to me for comment and suggestions. I'm not passing along the letter author's name or my editor's; their identity has nothing to do with this column. But here the letter is, for your perusal:

"To whomever it may concern.

"I recently watched IU's production of 'Ariadne auf Naxos,' thrilled by the magnitude of the performance and the skill with which it was executed. Keen to read other reactions to the Jacobs School of Music's production, I came across the review by Peter Jacobi. Something that disappointed me is there is a glaring mistake. Mr. Tislam Swift is credited twice as a Harlequin, in place of Mr. NiZel Austin.

"A career in opera is a labor of love and a treacherous journey for recognition, one that is even worse for developing and young singers. The first time seeing your name in print is a monumental occurrence, held with pride and sincerity. NiZel Austin's Saturday night performance was worthy of such recognition. However, he was not credited and, even worse, was mistaken and had his work attributed to someone else.

"It is important to note that these two members of the cast are two of the few African American students in the Music Department at Indiana University. The pitfalls and roadblocks that African American and Black singers face in this industry is one of opera's great shames, and the fact that Mr. NiZel Austin was not recognized, or even worse could have been mistaken for someone due to racial bias on their similar skin tone, is something that cannot go unresolved. I believe it would be appropriate that a correction should be published. Yours sincerely."

The Apology

The paper quickly placed a simple correction. I added one to my next Sunday column: "I take full blame for allowing an error to mar my copy for the review of IU Opera Theater's 'Ariadne auf Naxos.' In discussing the second night cast of the production, I misread the two lengthy lists of performers being credited for portraying the opera's numerous roles. I praised both the Friday and Saturday foursomes playing the male contingents of the commedia dell'arte troupe, but I slipped up on one name credited in the Saturday performance. NiZel Austin played the part of the Harlequin. I credited another singer. That's very bad journalism, and I truly regret the error. My eyes simply gave way. NiZel Austin was the delightful presence on stage that evening. Please forgive me, Mr. Austin."

I went no further in that correction, deciding not to get into the racial inferences because of the complexity involved in such a charge and, in my case, the way-off-base of it. But I did write a letter to the complainant, considering the proper care and feeding of that reader and, probably, her friends. Here it is, in part:

"Dear Ms -----

"I cannot tell you how embarrassed and hurt I was to learn that I committed such a terrible, unforgivable error in my review of 'Ariadne auf Naxos.' Mistaking names is a journalistic sin, whether committed by error or for a reason. Let me assure you, as a practitioner and teacher of journalism, this error was not planned. It was, most definitely, an error, and one I regret very much….

"I did not, in my correction, allude to a possible racial reason for the mistake because that is so far away from being a factor and would, I think, have muddied the waters….Let me, first, explain that my participation in the arts, particularly music, is totally as a non-professional. It is not that I didn't have the desire to perform. I simply didn't have the talent for it, and this I knew very early from my piano lessons and my efforts to sing…So, I became an avid consumer from early childhood and have remained so ever since. I will be 88 next month….

"I have, as an outsider, understood (as much as an outsider can) the often crushing roadblocks artists must push away in their struggle to shape a career….

"Secondly, let me say, yes. I am a white male and, therefore, cannot put myself into the shoes of a person of color, male or female. But I firmly believe I am devoid of prejudice. Let me explain. I lived my first eight years in Nazi Germany, son of a Jewish mother and an extremely non-prejudicial Lutheran father who made the greatest effort to get his family out of the Germany of the 1930s. I was considered a mixed-blood, a half Jew. I was forced to go to public school where I underwent more than my share of contempt and abuse. I know what prejudice is.

"Not to belabor this, but I am prejudiced, as was my dear father, only against the prejudiced. I cannot understand prejudice. I cannot abide it. We do not choose where we are born or to whom. We do not choose our racial identity, our ethnicity, our sex, our economic status, our environment. It comes to us with our birth, and we must handle it the best way we personally can. Race does not come into my thinking process, except to feel joy and wonder when young artists manage to overcome hurdles because they so strongly believe in what they are doing. NiZel Austin deserves my blessing for his efforts. That I committed the factual error about him only makes me feel worse.

"Sorry to have gone on so long. I hadn't meant to. But please know that as I always do, I wrote my review with love in my heart for those who gave me an evening of satisfaction, one that I left with the same repetitive thought: 'Oh, I wish I could have been on that stage doing it!'"

The Lesson

And so on. I received a lovely letter accepting my regret and thanking me for my efforts to serve the arts in Bloomington.

I think that, more likely than not, a few unhappy readers came to understand the error. If so, it came because of needed care and feeding, an important part of our job, editor or writer.

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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AP Stylebook Update

Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2018 at 12:24 PM

Rounding up recent AP Stylebook news and style updates.

There have been several recent changes to AP style guidelines. Poynter.org and the Columbia Journalism Review have summed up some of these changes, which have gone into effect but won't appear in the print stylebook until its next edition is released. Most of these updates have arisen in response to major pop culture movements and world events.

A New AP Stylebook Chapter

Per Lauren Easton, director of media relations for the AP, a new chapter updating the AP's polling guidance has been added to the stylebook. It's available in the online edition and will be included in the 2018 print edition. Per Easton, "The update reflects the latest in polling science and the idea that some cutting-edge methodologies that incorporate opt-in online surveys may, after thorough review, be suitable for publication. Journalists are still encouraged to use probability-based surveys to accurately assess the public's opinion."

Merrill Perlman of the Columbia Journalism Review writes in a recent CJR.org piece,: "According to the lead stylebook editor, Paula Froke, some online polls where people choose to participate might be considered reliable, though they would need to be rigorously vetted."

The Royal Wedding

Kristen Hare of Poynter.org recently discussed how the AP Stylebook was handling the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Widespread media coverage of the royal wedding (lowercase) prompted the AP to issue a definitive style guide earlier this month, which can be viewed here. The style guide includes a glossary of key terms and guidelines for capitalizing official titles, as well as a reference list of key people associated with the bride and groom.

#MeToo and Mass Shootings

The stylebook has also made style updates for journalists covering the #MeToo movement in various industries. Perlman reports that the AP favors "sexual misconduct" over "sexual harassment" in vague references but encourages reporters to be specific about the misbehavior in question. Moreover, she reports, the AP has instructed writers to use the terms "victim" and "survivor" sparingly when discussing people who have faced sexual misconduct or mass shootings.

Hurricane and Storm Nomenclature

Perlman also discusses a change in how the AP handles storms. Hurricanes and typhoons receive official names from government weather agencies, but reporters shouldn't use names for other types of storms given by private weather groups or for wildfires.

Other Updates

This week, Taylor Batchford of Poynter.org summed up other recent Stylebook updates, including the AP's ruling on the plural form of "emoji" (also "emoji"). Read more about those updates here.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2018 at 12:23 PM

Assessing the readability of a NewYorker.com excerpt.

This month, we're measuring the Fog in a May 15 sample from NewYorker.com ("Why Nouns Slow Us Down, and Why Linguistics Might Be in a Bubble" by Alan Burdick). Here's the text, with longer words in italics:

"Which is to say, the future word casts a shadow over the present one. And that shadow is measurable: the researchers found that, in all nine languages, the speech immediately preceding a noun is three-and-a-half-per-cent slower than the speech preceding a verb. And in eight of nine languages, the speaker was about twice as likely to introduce a pause before a noun than before a verb -- either a brief silence or a filler, such as 'uh' or 'um' or their non-English equivalents. That future word, when it's a noun, is more of a footfall than a shadow, creating a hole in the phrase right before it."

--Word count: 106 words
--Average sentence length: 27 words (14, 28, 40, 24)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 5 percent (5/106 words)
--Fog Index: (27 + 5) *.4 = 12.8 (12, no rounding)

We want our Fog Index score to be below 12, so we need to find a way to shave 1 point off the score. Our percentage of longer words is quite low. At a glance, then, it appears that we'll want to pare down average sentence length. Let's give it a try:

"Which is to say, the future word casts a shadow over the present one. And that shadow is measurable. The researchers found that, in all nine languages, the speech immediately preceding a noun is 3.5 percent slower than the speech preceding a verb. And in eight of nine languages, the speaker was about twice as likely to introduce a pause before a noun than before a verb -- either a brief silence or a filler, such as 'uh' or 'um' or their non-English equivalents. That future word, when it's a noun, is more of a footfall than a shadow. It creates a hole in the phrase right before it."

--Word count: 108 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (14, 5, 24, 40, 15, 10)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 5 percent (5/109 words)
--Fog Index: (18 + 5) *.4 = 9 (9.2, no rounding)

We gained two words in this edit, largely because we recast "three-and-a-half-per-cent" as "3.5 percent. Despite that slight gain, we shaved 3 points off our original Fog score. There was no magic or sleight of hand here. All we did was split up two longer sentences. That was all it took to bring the score down by 25 percent, from 12 to 9.

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Editors' Salaries Falling

Posted on Thursday, May 31, 2018 at 12:23 PM

In the news: How are magazine editors faring this year salary-wise?

This month, Foliomag.com published the results of its annual editorial salary survey. Citing various industry challenges including print decline and shrinking workforces, the magazine staff conclude that, by and large, editorial salaries are on the decline. What's more, the gender pay gap continues to be a problem for female editors.

However, the news isn't all bleak. According to Folio:, seasoned editors tend to earn salaries reflective of their years of experience: "Editorial employees with 20 or more years experience earned a median total compensation of $89,000, 68 percent more than those with less than 10 years under their belts." Work ethic also pays off; editors who worked over 50 hours a week tend to make 48 percent more than those who worked under 40.

Read the full summary of survey results here.

Also Notable

How Publishers Can Thrive Without Facebook

Last week, Joe Lazauskas of FastCompany.com examined how publishers might incorporate successful elements of Facebook on their own platforms. Now that Facebook's algorithms marginalize publisher content in users' news feeds, he writes, referrals to publishers' websites from Facebook have dropped by 50 percent (since last year). But new technology may allow publishers who have long depended on Facebook for clicks and views to thrive without the social media giant. Writes Lazauskas: "This technology has come from an unlikely source -- content-discovery engines like Outbrain, Taboola, and RevContent. The trio of competitors are responsible for the vast majority of the 'recommended' sponsored content under articles on publisher sites." Read more about how these tools might benefit Facebook-fatigued magazine brands here.

New Subscription Products for NYT

The New York Times is pulling out all the stops to expand its line of subscription products. The company has already tapped into its archives for content, and a new team has formed to develop a subscription product specifically for parents, reports Max Willens of Digiday.com. Existing subscription services include Cooking and Crosswords. Willens notes that subscriptions now comprise the lion's share of the Times' revenue, hence the company's push to develop more products. Read more here.

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