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Issue for November 2016

Creating the Perfect Lead, Part I

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 2:09 PM

A few tips to keep in mind when writing your story's beginning.

By Peter P. Jacobi

To remind you once again: My assigned duties for a lead are to 1) attract attention, 2) establish the subject, 3) set the tone, and 4) guide or bridge into the story. All leads, I have consistently argued, must accomplish these responsibilities.

But there's more to consider when we strive to construct beginnings. To help you in working to shape a lead and to help the reader become immediately tuned to what we've written, careful consideration should be given to what the purpose or goal of our article is to be.

Determining purpose or goal leads us to decisions about the actual content that fills the opening paragraphs. We need to consider the informational substance to use, so to provoke a reader to read.

1. A Sample News Story

If we're simply providing news about a meeting to come, then a bare-bones approach to information is probably sufficient:

"'How Journalists Can Sway Today's Readers into Reading What Needs to Be Read' is Indiana University Professor Emeritus of Journalism Peter Jacobi's topic when, on Wednesday evening at 7:30, he offers his contribution to the current Monroe County Library's 'Love of Language' lecture series."

It's a matter of supplying the five Ws and the H, or at least the start for that. The purpose of this straight news story is to alert readers about an event to come and, thereby, attract an audience to the event, nothing more. Purpose met.

2. A Sample Follow-Up Report

If the writer then becomes a reporter and attends the lecture for a follow-up piece, then -- should the story remain straight news in approach rather than something more of a feature -- the beginning might read this way:

"'Writers need courage. They need a willingness to dare, to tempt, to surprise the reader.' So suggested journalist and Indiana University Professor Emeritus Peter Jacobi during his Wednesday evening talk as part of the Monroe Public Library's 'Love of Language' lecture series.'"

3. A Sample Speech Story

What follows is a traditional speech story, a supportive series of direct and indirect quotes that expand upon and explain the statement above that we started with. Purpose met.

But there are all sorts of ways to employ opening paragraphs, each depending on what the writer's intentions are.

Entertainment Weekly's salute to actor Gene Wilder, on his recent death, began with this paragraph:

"Gene Wilder was not funny. His doleful eyes and trembling mouth almost seemed hurt that you would think he was. How could you laugh at him, this poor soul mired in the deepest, darkest trouble? But there was also a shrewd glint in those blue eyes, an intelligence that could douse the panic and extricate him from his misfortune. And there was a gentleness to him, a bigheartedness that built tension because you cared so much for him. You laughed because you knew he'd make it. You laughed because whenever he seemed in over his head, all he had to do was stand up."

The paragraph is laced with feeling and with a grasp of what this man and actor was about. The information used reveals how and why those of us who knew his work came to admire him: his style, his manner, the aura he generated, the impression he left. The paragraph prepares the reader for what's to come: not only a salute for the talent he shared but a devoted exposition of what he accomplished and how and why. The paragraph is a springboard for an obituary with a point of view. Purpose met.

In the next installment we'll move on to the New Yorker and the New York Times.

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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Fake News vs. The Editor

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 2:01 PM

Readers are more aware than ever of fabricated news. How can we as editors regain their trust?

By William Dunkerley

The 2016 presidential election season brought the issue of editorial integrity to the fore.

Many media stories took up the phenomenon called "fake news." The term refers to the deliberate fabrication and propagation of information for the purpose of misleading the public. Who were the editors behind this kind of journalism?

The Problem and the Opportunity

For professional editors, all this attention presents both a problem and an opportunity.

On one hand is the problem that some readers may view what we publish with a more jaundiced eye moving forward. On the other is the opportunity for us to differentiate our publications and brands from the plethora of fabricated, poorly sourced, and malicious information that is all too present on the Internet.

This means going the extra mile to publish articles that are truly reader-centric rather than capitulating to advertiser, industry, organizational, or political pressure to push material not truly reflective of reader interests.

"Fake news" was a popular search term on Google. I did a Google Trends comparison of its prevalence with "terrorism," a concern to almost everyone. It shows that in early October there was five times as much search interest in terrorism than in fake news. But as the political story built, by November 18, fake news searches were twice the number of those for terrorism. See the graph below.

Google search interest in fake news vs. terrorism from October 27 to November 25. Note the spike in fake news interest on November 18. (The sine wave pattern in the terrorism plot reflects a lessening of interest over weekends.)

Who Is Publishing This Fake News?

Facebook took much of the fall, and much of the outrage, over fake news regarding election coverage. But it wasn't alone. Many allegations have been made that adolescents in Macedonia are deeply involved. I don't know if that's true or just a diversion. (Hmm, wouldn't it be ironic if that story about fake news were itself fake news?)

One of the many fake news stories involves a quoted statement from Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi. One headline exclaimed, "BREAKING: Pepsi Stock Plummets after CEO Tells Trump Supporters to 'Take Their Business Elsewhere.'" But an examination Nooyi's actual words reveals that the headline contains a fake quote. Nooyi never said it. Interestingly, the quote first appeared on a site called TruthFeed.com.

As far as I can see, this Pepsi fake news does not seem to have crossed over into mainstream media. One international broadcaster whose news appears on some American cable systems fell for the fake, however. RT, a Russian government–sponsored news channel and website, ran the headline "Trump Backers Call for Pepsi Boycott."

Strangely, in its own story RT added, "A number of websites quoted CEO Indra Nooyi as telling Trump supporters to 'take their business elsewhere' -- a comment she has denied." So the story narrative negates its own headline. What a truly odd editorial approach that is!

At a press conference in Berlin, President Barack Obama commented on fake news. The New York Times reported he "used the moment to make a passionate and pointed attack on bogus news stories disseminated on Facebook and other social media platforms, twice calling such false reports a threat to democracy in his hourlong news conference."

The Hacking Scandal: A Case Study

While alternative media have gotten the brunt of criticism over fake news, mainstream outlets deserve a share, too. The Russian hacking of the DNC emails stands out in this regard. Very few national media outlets didn't jump all over this one. I won't repeat the headlines. But what's significant is that this major story may have been fake news, too.

National Review reported that many political officials have been claiming that 17 US intelligence agencies have determined that Russia was responsible for the hacking. However, that claim was "false and misleading" according to the magazine. It went on:

"First of all, only two intelligence entities -- the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- have weighed in on this issue, not 17 intelligence agencies. And what they said was ambiguous about Russian involvement."

I looked at the official statement issued by the agencies in question, and National Review appears to be correct. The report presents no evidence to back up the hacking contention and merely says that this is something they wouldn't put past the Russians. In other words, it fits their MO.

National Journal elaborated: "Saying we think the hacks 'are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts' is far short of saying we have evidence that Russia has been responsible for the hacks. Maybe high-level officials would have authorized them if Russian hackers were responsible, but the DNI and DHS statement did NOT say there was evidence Russia was responsible."

A Teachable Moment for Editors

Thankfully the 2016 election season is mostly over and the politically hypermotivated fake news stories will, with any luck, finally subside.

There is a lasting message in this sorry tale for the rest of us, however. It is that public awareness of journalistic malfeasance has been heightened.

That means as long as you're not a part of the fake news travesty, you've got something significant to brag about and to use to differentiate yourself. And I strongly recommend that you do so.

It is really important that we as editors let our current and prospective readers know that we embrace and practice editorial integrity. They can rely on us. Be sure to point out how beneficial that is for each and every audience member.

That will highlight the distinct value that established and respectable editorial brands offer over the shady, unreliable, and sometimes fly-by-night alternatives that are so easily encountered online.

Don't miss this chance.

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

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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 1:51 PM

Assessing the readability of a TheAtlantic.com excerpt.

This month's Fog Index sample comes from a November 25 article on TheAtlantic.com ("The Evolution of 'Like'" by John McWhorter). Here's the text.

"In our mouths or in print, in villages or in cities, in buildings or in caves, a language doesn't sit still. It can't. Language change has preceded apace even in places known for preserving a language in amber. You may have heard that Icelanders can still read the ancient sagas written almost a thousand years ago in Old Norse. It is true that written Icelandic is quite similar to Old Norse, but the spoken language is quite different -- Old Norse speakers would sound a tad extraterrestrial to modern Icelanders. There have been assorted changes in the grammar, but language has moved on, on that distant isle as everywhere else."

(Note: This month we did not italicize longer words for emphasis because the sample itself contained an italicized word. The longer words, per Fog-Gunning guidelines, are "similar," "different," and "extraterrestrial.")

--Word count: 109 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (21, 2, 15, 21, 30, 20)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 3 percent (3/109 words)
--Fog Index: (18+3)*.4 = 8 (8.4, no rounding)

The final Fog score of 8 (8.4, no rounding) is among the lowest we've seen since we started running this monthly column. The excerpt manages to tick all the important Fog-Gunning boxes. Not only does the author keep the language simple, but he also breaks down his thoughts into manageable portions.

Breaking down our sometimes rambling thoughts into shorter sentences isn't just for readability. As we see here, varying sentence length creates a flow. Mathematically, the 2-word sentence offsets the 30-word sentence that comes later. But it also provides a nice short beat between the 21-word and 15-word sentences that bookend it. Changing the em dash in sentence 5 to a period would further reduce average sentence length, but it's not crucial here.

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Editorial Controversy at People Magazine

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2016 at 1:15 PM

In the news: How 2016 election coverage landed the pop culture magazine in hot water.

Earlier this month, People found itself at the center of controversy when it published its 2016 election issue. The issue showed a picture of president-elect Donald Trump with the headline "President Trump." Just a few weeks earlier, the magazine had published a story by one of its reporters, who alleged that Trump had sexually assaulted her while she was writing a story on him in 2005. The neutral post-election cover marked a shift in editorial tone that many readers found jarring, prompting calls on social media for celebrity and subscriber boycotts of the magazine.

The backlash has raised questions about the editorial direction of the magazine, which falls under the recently restructured Time Inc. magazine umbrella. Becky Peterson of Foliomag.com writes, "People faces a rather complicated audience satisfaction question: what do its readers want?" She later elaborates, "As [parent company] Time Inc. eliminates silos through the launch of cross-brand digital desks, the legacy publisher may be forced to reconcile some yet unsorted issues of editorial discretion.... Should People -- part of the celebrity, entertainment, and style group -- continue its current editorial output, it may see great difficulties when it comes to cross-brand alignment."

Read Peterson's full commentary on the controversy here.

Also Notable

News Coverage of Fidel Castro's Death

One of the biggest news stories this week has been the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Some magazines and news outlets have been preparing their coverage for years. In a November 26 article, Al Tompkins of Poynter.org discusses coverage of the event with managing editor Rick Hirsch and executive editor Mindy Marques, both of the Miami Herald. The newspaper has been planning for this story for decades, adapting its strategy as the media landscape and reader behavior have changed. Tompkins also discusses coverage of Castro's death with CNN correspondents Patrick Oppman and Chris Moody. Read more here.

Now on Scribd: Magazine and News Subscriptions

In early November, Scribd announced that it would be adding several magazines to its subscription service, which traditionally has hosted e-books and audiobooks. According to Jeffrey Trachtenberg of WSJ.com, "The eight publications include Time Inc.'s People, Money, Fortune and Time, as well as New York magazine and Bloomberg Businessweek." The expansion into the magazine and news arena will make the service more competitive with Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service. Read more here.

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