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Issue for June 2012

Making the Best Possible Use of Facts

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:04 PM

Use them with flair!

By Peter Jacobi

As you produce what you're pledged to produce, informational nonfiction, please keep in mind that word "informational."

First and foremost, always be informational. Offer specifics, facts, details. Make them the raison d'être for your labors.

It's all to the good, of course, if you also have a way with words, if your writing conveys style, if it exhibits voice, if you can use the language with flair. That alone is likely to earn you a reader's attention, at least for a while. But how well you write loses importance and pertinence if that reader concludes -- and it may happen rather quickly -- you've got little in the way of useful information for him or her.

Facts Are Your Substance

There's power in facts. Be reminded they can take a variety of forms and shapes and fulfill different needs and purposes. In an almanac, they are unfiltered and simply tell you that Port Moresby is the administrative capital of Papua New Guinea; that, on the average, sea water is about 3. 5 percent salts; that Wings earned the first Best Picture Oscar in 1928, and that no Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded in 1914–16, and again in 1928, 1939–43, and 1948.

Journalistically, however, filtered through a writer's mind and heart, facts can gain different meanings, even from one writer's use to another's. We look for, aim for context, explanations, inferences, significances because most of our readers want to know what we're trying to get across -- in other words, why we are sharing particular bits of information with them.

We need, of course, to make our most earnest effort to use the information we've gathered accurately, clearly, honestly, fairly, and wisely, even when -- as we so often do -- the intent of our article is to make a point. Distortion should be out of bounds. So should exaggeration, falsification, and other forms of misuse.

Otherwise, there should be no limit to your employment of facts. They are your substance. They are your gift to those you mean to serve.

Blend Your Style with Your Facts

The late CBS commentator Andy Rooney used facts and blended them with his personality when he said: "I'm always pleased but surprised that anyone will take the job of being President of the United States. Of all the jobs in the world, it's the one I'd least like to have. I know," Rooney explained, "you get a big house to live in for free, a salary of $200,000, a helicopter, an airplane, your own doctor and a big staff, but I still don't want the job. Don't even ask me because I won't take it. The President doesn't even have a White House psychiatrist, which is probably the doctor he needs most."

Rooney argued that the "President can't go down to the basement of the White House on a Saturday morning and putter around," that he can't "climb up on the roof and straighten the television antenna," that he can't go to the movies the way we do, by "getting dressed to go out, driving to the theater, finding a parking place, standing in line to buy the tickets, buying the popcorn and then groping your way down the aisle to find a seat."

He was making a point effectively and amusingly because he's based his essay, "The White House? No, Thank You," on facts.

Facts Make Your Point

In Defenders, the publication of Defenders of Wildlife, a recent roundup includes the status of red knots, migratory shorebirds about the size of robins. "Some travel from the tip of Argentina all the way to the Arctic," we're told. "But the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs provide critical food for the hungry travelers at a major rest area along Delaware Bay, is largely causing the bird's population to plummet. Last year, the peak Delaware Bay count found fewer than 15,000 red knots -- down from more than 100,000 in the 1980s." And so forth -- facts presented to make a point.

Your Experience and Facts

Natalie Angier, writing about jellyfish for the New York Times, quotes an expert on the creatures, Anders Garm from the University of Copenhagen, as saying, "The poison of a common moon jellyfish is very weak. You'd have to kiss the jellyfish to feel it." The quote is a fact in just someone having said it, and it also contains facts. To those facts, writer Angier adds facts that she's gained from her reporting experience of the moment: "There was no risk of that, but when we parted, the jellyfish left behind a kiss of its own on the palm of my hand: a sticky film that was surprisingly hard to remove. Thanks, my little honey moon."

Facts Gained through Your Observation

"The dusty, rutted road that leads to Halima Bagaya's house doesn't bear the load of cars often," writes Phillip Jordan in "Another Path Home," an article printed in Habitat World, the magazine issued by Habitat for Humanity. "The route from northwestern Uganda's Kaztasenywa village is usually accomplished on foot. Young boys push bicycles overloaded with green banana bunches. Women walk the road to reach the nearest well, balancing the ubiquitous, bright-yellow water jogs that are mass-produced in the capital city of Kampala. Only the slow crescendo of an approaching boda-boda, Uganda's motorcycle taxi, forces foot traffic to the side. "

Jordan has used observation to gather the facts that give life to scene-setting. It's his way of getting into a Habitat theme: building houses, but in this case through microfinance methods.

Blending Myth and Fact

Myth and fact mingle in Joe Posnanski's article for Sports Illustrated, "Yogi Berra Will Be a Living Legend Even After He's Gone." Posnanski begins: "No man in the history of American sports -- perhaps even in the history of America -- has spent a lifetime facing more expectant silences. And it is happening again. Another afternoon. Another silence. Strangers stand a respectful distance and wait for Lawrence Peter Berra to say something funny and still wise, pithy but quirkily profound, obvious and yet strangely esoteric. A Yogi-ism.

"It ain't over till it's over.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

"You can observe a lot by watching.

"In this case, the strangers waiting in the silence are a mother and son. They had been touring the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, NJ, in anticipation of having the boy's bar mitzvah here."

Berra, the article then tells us, happens to be at the museum. He's looking for a glass of water. "I cannot believe it's really you," the woman tells Berra. "It's really me," he says.

The copy continues: "The woman pauses for a moment. Is that it? Is that the Yogi-ism? What did he mean by 'really me'? Was he being existential? Could he be summoning Delphic wisdom from the temple of Apollo, that phrase which translates loosely as 'Know thyself'? It's hard to tell. Yogi Berra is looking for water so he can take his medication."

We have here a building narrative that blends an actual moment with the legend that has come to surround the former Yankee. It's informative and works so well because it is so.

Nonsensical Facts

Sometimes, you state a fact, knowing that it is not, but you pass it along because you want to make sure your reader knows that nonsense has been spouted. Such is the case in the Southern Poverty Law Center's recent issue of Intelligence Report, the group's official publication for members. One reads, as part of an article about black separatists and extremists: "End times warning: Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, which has received millions in loans from the Libyan government, said President Obama's attempts to topple Muammar Qaddafi would hasten the arrival of spaceships that will destroy all white people." That the prediction was made is fact. That it would happen, well, I'll leave that to you, but I'm with the Southern Poverty Law Center in the belief that it is nonsensical fiction.

Finally, here's an example of something hard to comprehend, perhaps even to believe, made manageably understandable and believable: The eminent British mathematician, Sir James Jeans, explains that if we "put three grams of sand inside a vast cathedral, the cathedral will be more closely packed with sand than space is with stars."

Love facts. Make the best possible use of them.

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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Readers Ill-served by Inconsistent Facts

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:03 PM

Do you check your own content for factual consistency?

By William Dunkerley

It's common practice for editors to fact-check an article's content with authoritative external sources. But what about checking for consistency in the facts that you report within your own pages? Are you doing that?

What brought this issue to my attention was a recent Washington Post news story. It told of a Russian journalist who was on the receiving end of a heated tirade from his country's top investigative official. The incident followed a story that the journalist did that criticized the official's agency. Initially the journalist felt that his life had been threatened. But then the official apologized for his ill-tempered outburst and assured the journalist of his safety. The publication's editor was quoted saying "reconciliation has taken place." The article seemed to indicate that the matter had been settled.

But then three days later, the Post cited the same incident in an editorial that urged the U.S. Congress to "punish the Russian abusers." This was an example, claimed the editorial, of the Kremlin "cracking down on Russians seeking democratic reform or fighting corruption."

What's a Reader to Believe?

This all left readers to wonder which was the case: Was it a story of a hot-headed Russian bureaucrat's meltdown that had been resolved to the satisfaction of the parties involved? Or was this an incident indicative of a top-down effort to thwart democratic reform and preserve corruption? Did it really require punitive action from the U.S. Congress? The news story claimed one set of facts, the editorial, the other.

The Post's own facts seemed to be at odds with themselves. Did the Post's news staff miss an overarching angle of unresolved high-level government media abuse? Or did the editorial writers miss the fact that the incident had been settled satisfactorily? What were readers to conclude?

I wrote to the Post's editors about the disparity. They didn't reply. I also wrote to the paper's ombudsman in connection with this article. I invited comment on whether he believed that a reader disservice is created by inconsistent content that is presented in a publication, citing the Russian incident as an example. He didn't answer, either.


Editors generally focus on consistency. We use style manuals to provide uniformity in our content. We use layout grids for organizing text and images. We follow grammatical guidelines, too. In a sense, consistency is an underlying fabric of a publication. It helps readers to comprehend content. Inconsistency can result in confusion.

Of course, there are times when presenting inconsistency is intentional. One example from the archives of Editors Only dealt with the question of whether language should evolve over time or be preserved in the status quo. There are two sides to the issue. We ran side-by-side articles in a pro-con format. One article was written by a leader of an organization dedicated to language preservation. It advocated, for instance, keeping new and trendy words out of the vocabulary. The other article was by the chief editor at Webster's, who described how the dictionary evolves based on usage, with new words being incorporated into it all the time. The pairing made for an interesting contrast and gave readers something to think about.

Opinion roundups are another genre where consistency is not the objective. Indeed, lively disagreement makes for interesting reading!

But in these examples of disagreeing content, we're talking about presentational formats that make clear to the reader that there are some things in dispute, whether they be facts or opinions.

The Post's Downfall

Perhaps that's the trap the Washington Post fell into. They didn't present their disparate "facts" as a "you decide" proposition. First the story was one way, then it was another. And there was no commentary to explain the change.

The news story was well sourced and included relevant quotes. The editorial presented allegations as if they were facts, and provided no substantiation.

Elsewhere in this issue, Peter Jacobi writes, "[The facts] are your gift to those you mean to serve." Perhaps the Post was serving a master other than its readers. Their coverage of the story in question was clearly no gift to the readers.

Your Gift to Readers

The example offered by the Post with its Russian story is one of what not to do. Consistency in the representation of facts is as much a service to readers as are matters of style, design and grammar. It is important to differentiate between facts, opinions, and allegations. And when facts are in dispute, readers will be well served if you make that clear at the outset. If you apply these precepts consistently, you will be giving your readers an unquestionable gift.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:03 PM

Assessing the readability of a TheDailyBeast.com excerpt.

This month, we analyze an excerpt from The Daily Beast ("The Digital 100 Power Index" by Nick Summers). Here's the original:

"In a sector as sprawling as tech -- where 'genius' might describe the idea to monetize LOLcats as readily as the way transistors are crammed onto a chip -- power takes many forms. Some of the names on our list, like Tim Cook, derive theirs from an obvious history of success. As Steve Jobs's No. 2 at Apple, Cook's genius for operations gave the company's designers and engineers precious advantages in creating futuristic devices. He has continued that work as CEO, lifting Apple's already stratospheric stock more than 50 percent since Jobs's death. There are others we include who derive their power more from potential: in the streaming service Spotify, has Daniel Ek delivered yet another revolution in the way we listen to music?"

Word count: 122 words
--Average sentence length: 24 words (31, 18, 23, 19, 31)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 16 percent (19/122 words)
--Fog Index: (24+16)*.4 = 16 (no rounding)

The good news is that this week's sample is pretty close to the mark. The average sentence length is on the high side, but we've seen higher. We can also try to reduce the number of words with three or more syllables. Here's our attempt:

"In a sector as sprawling as tech, power takes many forms. 'Genius' might describe both the monetizing of LOLcats and the cramming of transistors onto a chip. Some of the names on our list, like Tim Cook, derive power from a history of success. As Steve Jobs's No. 2 at Apple, Cook's operational genius empowered designers and engineers to create high-tech devices. He has carried on that work as CEO, lifting Apple's already sky-high stock more than 50 percent since Jobs's death. Others on our list derive their power more from potential. For instance, has Daniel Ek spawned another music listening revolution with streaming service Spotify?"

Word count: 106 words
--Average sentence length: 15 words (11, 16, 17, 18, 20, 10, 14)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (11/106 words)
--Fog Index: (15+10)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

This was a difficult piece to edit. All it takes is a few careless strokes of the keyboard to obliterate an author's meaning. We did some minor copy editing to trim word count and split up sentences without losing meaning. In the end, we were able to bring our Fog score down from 16 to 10, a reduction of over one-third.

Finally, some food for thought: We included "idea" in our count of words with three or more syllables. However, does a word like this truly "fog" up the passage? What do you think, editors?

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The New Magazine Landscape

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:03 PM

In the news: Things are looking up for the magazine industry.

A few years ago, things seemed bleak for the magazine industry. The recession sparked enough magazine closures to inspire the startup of a "Magazine Death Pool" blog. But things are changing. In 2010 and 2011, more magazines launched than closed. According the Association of Magazine Media (as reported on Economist.com), magazines are experiencing more significant audience growth than newspapers or television.

Magazines have the advantage over newspapers, says Economist.com, because "most magazines didn't have large classified-ad sections to lose to the internet, and their material has a longer shelf life." Magazine editors continue to experiment with different formats (tablet, mobile, etc.) and are repurposing content to create multiple revenue streams. Read more here.

Also Notable

On Covers

"I often wonder why some art and editorial departments seem so reluctant to talk with their circ teams and ask them what they think about cover images and logos before they send the files off to press," writes newsstand sales and publishing consultant Joe Berger in his NewsStandPros blog. Read his thoughts on the importance of covers for single-copy sales here.

The Dangers of Google Journalism

These days, many journalists are leaning heavily on Google and even Wikipedia when researching their articles. What is this doing to the discipline of journalism? Foliomag.com's Mark Newman discusses it in a recent blog post. Read it here.

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