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Issue for September 2020

A Case Study in Newsroom Imparity

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at 2:22 PM

In the news: A city newspaper under the microscope for racial imparity in its newsroom and content that fails to serve the community's readers.

This week, Marion Renault of the Columbia Journalism Review examined long-standing racial problems at the Gannett-owned Columbia Dispatch. He opens: “The giant, light-up sign visible from The Columbus Dispatch’s newsroom proclaims it to be ‘Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper.’ A more honest description might be ‘Ohio’s Whitest Home Newspaper.’ In its almost 150 years of existence, the paper has consistently failed to reflect, and therefore serve, Columbus’s residents of color.”

The newspaper has long faced criticism about its lack of staff diversity and often stereotyped depictions of Black and other minority residents. It’s a systemic problem in the paper’s newsroom: Renault reports that “44 percent of [Columbus] residents are nonwhite, while the staff of the Dispatch is 95 percent white.... The census shows about 5 percent of the Dispatch’s full-time newsroom employees are Black, Hispanic, Asian, or two or more races.”

The paper is finally taking preliminary steps to rectify the problem, but there’s no quick fix. Summing up the paper’s efforts, Renault reports, “The Dispatch’s previously all-white editorial board [has] brought on two Black members . . . the paper [has] hired a full-time general assignment reporter who is Black . . . employees completed diversity and inclusion training, and [editor Alan] Miller says he plans to keep diversifying candidate pools for staff openings.... Gannett, has pledged newsroom gender, racial, and ethnic parity by 2025.”

Read the full story here.

Also Notable:

Hearst Invests in Editorial Content

Last week, Hearst announced that it would invest several million into improved print magazine quality. Sara Guaglione of MediaPost.com reports that the program, dubbed Premium Print by Hearst, will allow “the magazines [to] have larger formats, higher-quality paper and improved editorial ratios.”

Hearst has some specific print-related projects in mind, reports Guaglione. The company’s popular YouTube channel Delish will start producing a quarterly print edition. Elsewhere, Good Housekeeping will start running 10 percent more editorial pages. Read more about the company’s expanded print initiative here.

Journalists Turning to Subscription Newsletters

Some journalists are rethinking their relationships with major media brands and trying their luck with subscription newsletters instead. Last week, Marc Tracy of the New York Times wrote about Substack, a subscription newsletter platform that is particularly popular for journalists going this route: “Most Substack writers offer a mix of paid and free email newsletters. They make money through subscriptions, not ads. Writers own their newsletters, and the platform takes a 10 percent cut. Substack also offers a legal defense service to writers of paid newsletters in the United States.” It’s a compelling option for journalists whose media employers may be in decline (particularly in the Covid-19 era) or who have garnered large enough followings on social media to try independent content. Read more here.

Fact-Checkers Teaming Up to Combat Misinformation

The September 24 edition of Factually, Poynter.org’s newsletter about fact-checking, examines the uphill climb fact-checkers face during this misinformation-plagued election cycle. According to Harrison Mantas and Susan Benkelman of Poyter.org, on September 18, Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (aka IFCN) “launched FactChat, a bilingual WhatsApp chatbot that brings together fact-checks from 10 American fact-checking organizations with two Spanish-language broadcasters to offer users 2020 election fact-checks in English and Spanish.” The movement is taking root elsewhere, too: Mantas and Benkelman report that Ghana Fact in Africa is looking to pool fact-checking resources before Ghana’s election in December. Read more here.

NYT Cooking’s Android Design

In a September 24 piece of NYT.com, product designer Jayne Lee discusses NYT Cooking’s recent design system development project. The piece lays out the guiding principles that led the process and the system’s design and typography elements. Read the full article here.

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The Enormous Weight of Editorial Uncertainty

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at 2:21 PM

Uncertainty is no friend of an editor with quality goals and deadlines to meet.

By William Dunkerley

Seasoned casino gamblers are well accustomed to being up against uncertainty. Publication editors aren't. We rely upon a high degree of certainty to produce repeatedly a high-quality editorial product.

But now we are hearing from editors who to varying extents are having to cope with an unusual level of uncertainty. It is just one of the impacts the ongoing pandemic has had on our profession.

Has Uncertainty Affected You and Your Staff?

Many editors have faced job uncertainty. Publications themselves have had to deal with uncertainty about actual survival.

Getting down into the details of putting an editorial product together, there are new uncertainties as well.

Will sources of content come through as usual? Will your editorial staff be able to do their jobs well, given whatever Covid-related restrictions you may face? That kind of uncertainty can surely add to the stress of running any editorial department.

A study in the UK by Simetrica has shown that even in the general population stress levels are up. It indicates that levels of psychological stress are more than double over last year. They are somewhat higher for key workers. Meanwhile life satisfaction, happiness, and sense of worth are down.

The Washington Post on September 12 ran a story titled "Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety, Causing Your Mind to Conjure Up Scary Scenarios. The Pandemic Can Magnify the Angst."

The story's lead: "As it has become clear that the coronavirus pandemic is here for the foreseeable future, we’re all learning to live in a cloud of uncertainty..." Unfortunately for us, uncertainty is anathema to good editorial work. Living in a cloud of uncertainty is difficult when you have finite quality standards and established deadlines.

To wit, the Post continues, "Some people are more naturally tolerant of uncertainty than others. Having a 'planner' personality can predispose someone to feeling extra anxiety in response to uncertainty, says Lacie Barber, an occupational health psychologist at San Diego State University. 'Trying to exert control on an uncontrollable situation can leave you feeling even more stressed,' she says."

So that's what we're faced with.

Now What Can We Do About It?

One thing is to realize that different staffers will have varying degrees of coping ability. For some, coping at work may be compromised by having to cope with whatever else may be going on in their lives. Helping your staff members to acquire an awareness of where they stand may help them to keep things in perspective.

There is actually a psychological instrument that could be helpful for all. It is called the "Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale." It is a component of the PhenX Toolkit that was funded by the National Institutes of Health and other concerned organizations.

I recommend that you make this assessment device available to your staff. I also recommend against asking staffers to share their results with you. That would be too intrusive.

The instrument poses these 27 statements for participants to react to:

1. Uncertainty stops me from having a firm opinion.

2. Being uncertain means that a person is disorganized.

3. Uncertainty makes life intolerable.

4. It's unfair not having any guarantees in life.

5. My mind can't be relaxed if I don't know what will happen tomorrow.

6. Uncertainty makes me uneasy, anxious, or stressed.

7. Unforeseen events upset me greatly.

8. It frustrates me not having all the information I need.

9. Uncertainty keeps me from living a full life.

10. One should always look ahead so as to avoid surprises.

11. A small unforeseen event can spoil everything, even with the best of planning.

12. When it's time to act, uncertainty paralyses me.

13. Being uncertain means that I am not first rate.

14. When I am uncertain, I can't go forward.

15. When I am uncertain I can't function very well.

16. Unlike me, others always seem to know where they are going with their lives.

17. Uncertainty makes me vulnerable, unhappy, or sad.

18. I always want to know what the future has in store for me.

19. I can't stand being taken by surprise.

20. The smallest doubt can stop me from acting.

21. I should be able to organize everything in advance.

22. Being uncertain means that I lack confidence.

23. I think it's unfair that other people seem sure about their future.

24. Uncertainty keeps me from sleeping soundly.

25. I must get away from all uncertain situations.

26. The ambiguities in life stress me.

27. I can't stand being undecided about my future.

Respondents are asked to use a five-item scale to describe to what extent each of those characteristics fits them. The scale ranges from "not at all characteristic of me" on one end to "entirely characteristic of me" on the other, with "somewhat characteristic of me" in the middle. They are each numbered 1 to 5. The respondent should pick a number for each characteristic.

To score the results, one should add up all the numbers and divide the result by 27. That will yield the average score. Additional scoring instructions appear on the Phenx Toolkit website here. You can also download a PDF of the measurement instrument there.

While I recommend against asking staff members to share with you their results, there is something you can do: encourage them to bring to you privately any related concerns that they might want you to understand and be aware of.

This activity can be a first step in helping your staff to deal with "The Enormous Weight of Editorial Uncertainty."

It is a positive step, and it might help to ward off pessimism that is being spread through our society. It was particularly unfortunate to see an article in The Atlantic titled, "America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral: As the US heads Toward the Winter, the Country Is Going Round in Circles, Making the Same Conceptual Errors That Have Plagued It Since Spring." That's no help!

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

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A Fresh Approach to Leads, Part III

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at 2:19 PM

Traveling further down the road to good article leads.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Finding the right route into a story, editors become like travel guides, pointing the way for writers so they can, in turn, point the way for readers.

We discussed leads in the last two months, but space prevented full disclosure of the issues. So we continue the theme now.

We had looked at the four tasks assigned to a lead: to establish subject, to set tone, to attract attention, and to offer the reader a bridge into the story.

That all means to draw the reader in. "The only difference between NBC and the Titanic," began a Wall Street Journal feature some years ago, "is that the Titanic had an orchestra."

The reader is drawn in. Oh, a networking crisis is the immediately established subject. The sardonic approach sets the tone of the piece, which sought to show there was no good reason for NBC to have maneuvered itself into such a situation. The humor tended, I'm certain, to attract the reader. And the bridges end there; as readers we can move right into the rest of the reporter's revelations.

Finding the Right Approach

Consider, with your writer, whether animation/action/narration is the best way into the article, or visuality/scene-setting/description, or definition/explanation/exposition, or passion/point-making/argumentation.

The decision should depend far less on what we think a fetching lead would make them than on what direction or goal or purpose we think the story should take or supply.

Jump Right In

But the word is plunge. Plunge in some way to begin to make the point of the article, quickly. Don't dillydally. Don't allow meandering. John Eastman, in writing "The Ghost Forest" for Natural History, uses description to make a strong point, almost immediately: "Up hill and down, extending miles across northern Michigan, the pine stumps endure. They squat in hard-core silence, cracked and ravaged by age, insect lichen, and fire, eroding like upthrusts of an old geology in a modern city of bracken firm and aspen. They are timing worked in the landscape, relics of the golden age of timber, amputees of an America I never knew. Today they form a ghost forest of sullen carcasses littering the slopes and plains that bridged the inland seas."

Directional or Informational?

That lead makes me, as reader, care immediately. And it makes me begin to understand what the writer has discovered and what he wants me to know and think about.

I recognize that Eastman's article is designed to lead me in a selected direction, to gain a desired perspective. If the story is meant to be directional, to move the reader’s thought or view or opinion, then the lead selected should begin to take the reader in that desired direction. If, on the other hand, the story is being written as an informational vessel, a collection of facts intended merely to instruct, to pass on knowledge without also asking for at least reflective reaction, then the story's opening should do only that: give information.

As Margaret Opsata does, for instance, in Spirit, the magazine of Southwest Airlines: "Americans purchased a whopping $247 billion of new mutual-fund shares last year. In fact, the 2.4 trillion that is now invested in mutual funds is almost equal to all the money collectively on deposit in the commercial banks of the United States."

Now, perhaps the author intends to suggest mutual funds as a solid investment opportunity. Perhaps? Of course, she does. But the paragraph and the story attached to it, dealing with matters of personal finance, are more instructive than motivational.

Leads That Mystify

I read that issue of Spirit once on a trip to Chicago. In it, author Jim Schultze begins his article this way:

How about this for a business plan?

(1) Find a product that has been around forever; that anybody can manufacture cheaply with almost no investment; that has no style, in fact, has negative style; and not too many people wanted, but at least it's permanent.

(2) Now, make a new version of it that's not only temporary, it actually disappears, so that two weeks after your customers buy it from you, they have nothing.

(3) Then, before you even have distributors, let alone market studies, invest 1 million or so bucks of your own money, order millions of the things, and buy all kinds of racks and packages for them.

(4) Really hope it all works out.

And what precisely is that product again? Temporary tattoos.

Actually, the title, "Tattoos to Go," gave away the punch line (and that’s something else for you as editors to consider: how to hint at a subject while not destroying the mystery that the author is trying to build). But Schultze was striving for a touch of puzzlement. And why not, as a change of pace?

Next time, in Part IV, we'll conclude this series on leads.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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Free Assistance

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at 2:19 PM

During this time of crisis, we stand ready to answer any specific questions our readers may have, time permitting. You can contact us at: crisis-help@editorsonly.com.

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