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Issue for December 2010

WikiLeaks Hits Home

Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:36 PM

How would you handle your own WikiLeaks conundrum? Many editors find serious ethical and legal implications in the scandal.

By Meredith L. Dias

What if you or one of your freelancers stumbled upon top-secret information of significance to your readers? Would you publish the information or keep it classified? The WikiLeaks scandal has raised this ethical question, and many others, for journalists and editors everywhere.

We recently approached editors with a hypothetical situation: What would they do if presented with classified/sensitive information that could make or break a story? Would the information involving foreign governments have any bearing on their decision? The response was as passionate as it was varied; editors discussed everything from the First Amendment to legal issues to journalism ethics.

The Measured Response

A lot of editors we spoke to didn't take sides. Instead, they pointed to a host of considerations a publication ought to take before releasing sensitive information to the public. "For me, the decision would be based on the content of the material," says editor and journalist Carolyne Gould. "I would need the information to in some way benefit humanity (i.e., save lives, prevent a war). If it were what we used to call 'yellow journalism,' I would not release it."

Other editors supported a similar approach. "It would depend on the content that was leaked, and what the repercussions of making it public would be," says technology industry editor and writer Charles Masi. "For example, recent leaks have provided information that would be embarrassing to certain governments. In that case, so what? They're big guys and can stand a little embarrassment. On the other hand, I believe some leaked information has included names of agents who might be compromised -- as in killed. I wouldn't want to be responsible for making that public."

Masi also emphasizes the importance of the public domain in the dissemination of information, noting that some leaked material was associated with published research. "The flurry of leaked emails regarding IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scientific documents was highly embarrassing to the U.N., but, generally, all documentation backing up published research should be public domain, anyway. It would have been easy to decide to publish that content."

Ben Martin, editor-in-chief of The Father Life, takes nationality into consideration. "If it's a foreign government, I wouldn't think twice. Run that story! If it's my own government, that becomes more complicated. Are there legal ramifications? Are there national security ramifications? Those would have to be carefully weighed."

The Case Against Dissemination

Other editors who responded to our survey were vehemently against the publication of classified information. "Printing knowingly leaked classified material is fatally irresponsible," says one editor, who wished to remain anonymous. Another remarked, "I never went to j-school, so I've never been indoctrinated in the freedom of the press."

Some survey respondents tempered their opposition a bit. One editor associated with the U.S. government said that he "would always err on the side of not upsetting the interests of the [government] if there was some national security concern, due to my own values as well as my employer's."

David Gewirtz, publisher and editor-in-chief of Zatz Publishing, agrees. Like the anonymous editor above, he works with national security professionals. "I would immediately contact my colleagues in the U.S. government national security command authority, report the incident, and related details. I would not publish."

The Case for Dissemination

Other editors, however, note the ethical and constitutional roles of the press. "The proper role of the Press is to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,'" says Curtis Phillips, senior technical editor of Wine Business Monthly and Wine Business Insider. "If more journalists were doing this rather than kowtowing to their corporatist masters, we wouldn't need WikiLeaks. Domestically, it is a straightforward First Amendment issue. Either we have freedom of the press or we don't."

Brian Carlson, editorial director and editor-in-chief of CIO Online, shares his case for dissemination: "As an editor and writer, and American citizen, I support the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment. If the content I received was of interest and I deemed it to be important material to my reader base, and publishing that material was in the scope of my editorial mission, then, yes, I would release that information. It would be my duty and responsibility to my readership and the values and ideals of a free democratic press to do so. First Amendment rights of the press have a long history and precedence, especially in cases such as the Pentagon Papers; that protects my right to provide information to the populace. If I did suppress that information due to pressure from said government body, I would be negligent in my duties as an editor."

An Unanticipated Consensus

As illustrated in this article, there is no ideological consensus when it comes to hot-button issues like the role and parameters of the press and freedom of information. There are simply too many variables for that. The consensus lies in the reaction. Regardless of position, editors and journalists across the board were on fire over the WikiLeaks scandal.

We often discuss the changing nature of content delivery in Editors Only and our sister newsletter, STRAT. That discussion has taken on a new dimension with the WikiLeaks scandal. Editors and journalists have at their fingertips access to information previously unavailable to them (or, at the very least, information once difficult to obtain). But there are a host of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to publish. For one, is it something the public needs to know? Is it unethical to share leaked information in the press when average readers could access the information on their home computers? Is national security an issue? Does the benefit to your readers outweigh the potential cost of dissemination?

(And, by the way, editors: Is it WikiLeaks or Wikileaks?)

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only and STRAT.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), News (RSS), Writing (RSS)


Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:34 PM

A chronological design, based on time or order, can solve approach issues in a wide range of assignments.

By Peter Jacobi

Dann Denny is an award-winning feature writer for the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana. The city is where I live. The newspaper is one I serve as part-time freelancer, providing readers with a Sunday column called "Music Beat" and about 150 reviews of musical events annually. Dann Denny is a full-time staffer. Most every story he contributes can probably offer a lesson of value about writing and/or reporting. But I was deeply moved recently by a particular effort which, deservedly, ran on page 1. "Tribute to a hands-on Dad" was its title, and it retraced the embracing, nurturing relationship of a father, who had just died, and his writer son paying tribute.

The feature is a series of memories, starting with the earliest: "I was 3 years old, maybe 4. Dad would place his powerful hands beneath my armpits and hurl me high into the sky. Even at the apex of my flight, suspended in midair, I never felt fear. I knew his hands would catch me upon my descent."

Dann moves forward: "I'm 5. I'm in a swimming pool with my Dad, and his hands are beneath my stomach holding me above water ... I'm 7. I'm watching Dad, who's on his back peering at the underbelly of our leaky dishwasher ... I'm 9 ... I'm 11 ... I'm 13 ... I'm 17 ... I'm 20 ... I'm 30. I'm at my wedding rehearsal dinner. Dad rises to his feet, holding a glass of champagne in his right hand. He says he wants to make a toast. In a quavering voice, he says he hopes I light up Kim's life in the same way I have lit his. Then he sits down and starts rubbing his eyes ... I'm 38 ... I'm 39 ... I'm 58..."

This is the final paragraph: "It's March 24, 2010. Dad died today, more than a half century after he first tossed me into the air. His hands are resting now. But I can feel them still."

A love story has been shared. I'd encourage you to look up the whole piece (March 28, 2010) to be inspired by an account of two entwined lives lived so positively, so productively, so beautifully.

Chronological Years

Dann Denny's memories suggest the course of familial unity and devotion. In format, they also draw attention to a structural technique always available to you as writers and editors: chronology. Not that you want to overuse any story structure, but a chronological design, one based on time or order, can solve approach issues in a wide range of assignments.

Chronology: giving substance to a recipe. Chronology: explaining how a bill becomes law. Chronology: going back-of-the-scene to describe the conceptual origin and development of an art exhibit. Chronology: the steps that must be taken toward a healthier lifestyle. Chronology: a day in the life of someone or something. Chronology gives order to a series of events or to a process. Order, in turn, gives comfort to a reader striving to understand a topic with multiple elements.

Chronological Days

The New York Times recently ran, on its first page, "Diary of a Queens Pay Phone, Where a Link to Life Costs 25 Cents." Manny Fernandez, the author, reminds us that the public pay phone is a dying entity. "And yet," he notes, "this grimy phone -- in a silvery booth that Superman would have skipped over, for it is door-less and not fully enclosed - survives and, in its own nickel-and-dime way, thrives."

He continues: "Those who stepped into the booth last Thursday and Friday provided a snapshot of New York's pay phone user... They were mostly men, as young as 18 and as old as 62. They were Hispanic, black, white, Arab. Several said they were unemployed and could not afford a cellphone. Others owned a cellphone but did not have it for one reason or another ... .They called their mothers. The machine served not so much as a lifeline as a simple landline, with life."

The story follows use across those two selected days, from Thursday morning to Friday night. You'll have to read the story (February 13, 2010) to get details of those who called and whom they were trying to reach and what they said and why. The story will move you; it will intrigue you. And it comes to you in chronology.

Chronological Hours

I'll go back a couple of years -- to July 25, 2008 -- for an "American Idol top 10 hit the road to stardom" feature in USA Today, by Marco R. della Cava. Again, the article has been laid out in chronological form. This time, the coverage deals with just part of a day, specifically starting at "1 p.m., when a convoy of unmarked luxury tour buses pulls up to Allstate Arena, disgorging 10 American Idol finalists in search of a career." The arena is in Rosemont, Illinois.

At 1:40, according to a subtitle, "Mobs of fans greet their arrival in Chicago." At 2:30, it's "Time for a quick bite to eat - and a few quick laughs." At 4:10, there's "More meeting, more greeting, more signing." Rehearsals follow at 5:25. At 7:24, "It's showtime, and the livin' ain't easy." "Archuleta brings the show to a crescendo" at 8:55. At 10:50, the entertainers entertain "More fans" with "more autographs." And come 12:05 a.m., they're "On the road again."

Yes, it's a "day-in-the-life-of" piece, like so many others I've read across the years, each one effective, at least if and when the specifics employed for substance have resulted in individuality: "A Day in the Life of a Department Store Santa," "A Day in the Life of a Newsstand." "A Day in the Life of Hollywood," "A Day in the Life of China," "72 Hours in the Life of a College Team," "Seven Days in the Life of the City," "A Week in the Life of a Day-Care Center," "Seven Days and Seven Nights Alone with MTV," "Murder, A Week in the Death of America," "A Year in the Life of a Painting," and "An Hour in the Life of a Retail Manager."

Narrative is Chronological

As I state in my book, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It (Indiana University Press):

"A narrative is chronological. It happens in time. Even if you employ flashbacks, you offer a series of events or happenings that become consecutive. If you have a story to tell, an event to relate, chronology becomes your means from a beginning to an ending.

"How-to articles also lend themselves to chronological treatment. They involve sequential activities. Therefore, think chronology, the technique of the storyteller."

Yes, think chronology.

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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Posted in Editing (RSS), Writing (RSS)

Editing in 2011

Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:32 PM

Top editors discuss the challenges they face and how they will tackle them in 2011.

By Denise Gable

A new year brings new challenges to many in the publishing industry. The economy may be improving but many editors are still struggling with issues such as profitability, social media, and redesigning to better fit the needs of their readers.

Automotive Industries
Frequency: Monthly
Description: Automotive Industries (AI) is the world's oldest continually published trade publication covering the auto-making business.

Ed Richardson, editor, “The big challenge is to find ways of getting people to pay for the work we do—sourcing, analysing and packaging information. We know that, with few exceptions, online publishing is not profitable. Traditional print publishing is under threat from the Net and rising print and distribution costs. The immediate impact has been on the quality of content and ‘juniorisation’ of newsrooms. Editors have been replaced at the head of publications by salespeople, accountants, and business managers.

“As a result, the focus is on profits (or survival) rather than editorial excellence. Business and political leaders and individuals are making far-reaching decisions based on poorly researched and unverified information in all but a handful of quality publications. Trade publications are surviving by printing “advertorial”—a non-critical report on the company or its products. This type of information has its place, but should also carry a disclaimer or health warning.

“So, in response to the question of what I will be doing differently, it is simply whatever it takes to survive as a purveyor of information and (occasionally) knowledge.”

HME Business, 1105 Media Inc.
Frequency: Monthly
Description: Dedicated coverage of a range of home medical equipment niches, from adaptive automotive, mobility and rehab to respiratory, beds and support surfaces, senior aids, and other medical supplies that enable people to live safely and more comfortably in their homes and communities.

David Kopf, editor, “Top bullet point: leverage social media. It’s where our readers are going. My readership works within a heavily regulated portion of the healthcare industry. They provide home medical equipment to patients the majority of which have traditionally been Medicare patients. However Medicare funding for home medical equipment is undergoing massive upheaval to the detriment of my readers and their patients. Because the majority of my readers are smaller businesses, they are engaging in a phenomenal amount of grassroots organizing and lobbying and social media is increasingly becoming a central tool for pulling that off. Given the mutual loyalty between the pub (print and web) and the readers, we need to be there with them.”

The Herald-Times
Frequency: Daily
Description: Local news for the Bloomington, Indiana, area.

Bob Zaltsberg, editor, “Next year, we will look very carefully at our editing load. How are we dealing with sports agate and wire copy? Are we spending too much time on those things that we could be spending on local news gathering and presentation?

“We will continue our emphasis on ‘watchdog’ and ‘sense-making’ reporting and see if we can better promote the increasing number of these stories that are appearing in our newspaper.

“We will continue to see what we can stop doing. We're not very successful at this, but we must get better as we add new digital responsibilities.”

Remodeling magazine, Hanley Wood, LLC
Frequency: Monthly
Description: Monthly magazine with the best in management advice, popular design ideas, new products, innovative construction techniques, and effective marketing strategies.

Stacy Freed, senior editor, “We have done a redesign that will be rolled out in January 2011. My editorial role won’t really change. However, we will be doing shorter stories and more of them. We’ve changed story size in response to the market, the way people are reading, as well as for style reasons.”

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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Posted in Management (RSS)

The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com excerpt.

This month, Editors Only calculates the Fog score of a December 17, 2010, excerpt from Time.com ("Drug Companies Await FDA Guidelines for Online Marketing," by Steven Gray):

"Surprisingly, it's the pharmaceutical industry that's been at the forefront of moving the FDA to issue social-media rules. The companies realize their traditional websites and advertising strategies are no longer sufficient tools to promote products in a competitive marketplace in which doctors, pharmacists and consumers aggressively trade information about medicine on blogs. The companies are also aware that "if they can't fully participate in the social-media conversation, they get marginalized," says John Mack, publisher of Pharma Marketing Blog, which attracts about 25,000 industry readers a month. One impetus is to protect companies' credibility in the face of rogue online outlets selling dubious goods. Part of the push is to resolve practical challenges, like how to sufficiently explain a drug's risks within the bounds of a 140-character tweet. Or a sponsored Google ad's roughly two lines of text?"

--Word count: 137
--Average sentence length: 23 words (18, 34, 34, 17, 24, 10)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 24 percent (33/137 words)
--Fog Index: (23+24)*.4 = 18 (no rounding)

This passage could use some trimming. Both the average sentence length and percentage of longer words are quite high. Let's see what we can do to bring down this Fog score:

"Surprisingly, the drug companies want FDA social media rules. Their websites and ads are no longer enough. With so many doctors, pharmacists, and clients discussing medicine on blogs, they know that 'if they can't fully participate in the social-media conversation, they get marginalized,' says John Mack. Mack publishes the Pharma Marketing Blog, which attracts 25,000 readers each month. Companies want to gain trust despite the rogue online outlets selling shoddy goods. They want to convey drug risks in a 140-character tweet or sponsored Google ad's two lines of text. This is no easy task."

--Word count: 94
--Average sentence length: 13 words (9, 8, 29, 12, 13, 18, 5)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 12 percent (11/94 words)
--Fog Index: (13+12)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

We were able to eliminate 43 words from the original excerpt. Average sentence length fell by 10 words, and we cut the percentage of longer words in half. The biggest challenge here was reducing the percentage of longer words without losing meaning or context.

(Note: There is one minor change to our Fog policy. We no longer consider words made 3 syllables by an "-ing" suffix in our longer word totals -- e.g., "discussing." In the past, we have only exempted words made 3 syllables by "-es" or "-ed" endings.)

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Grammar (RSS), Writing (RSS)

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