How to write good

Not the entire story, but you’ll have to read the captions to discover the mothers’ names.

They were the portrait of a modern family: a married female couple and their six adopted children. And in 2014, they were thrust in front of the world for all to see.

One of those children — Devonte, who is black — was photographed hugging a white police sergeant in Portland, Ore., during a 2014 demonstration to protest police violence. In the photograph, Devonte clung to the officer, a mix of fear and anguish in his eyes.

But the intense news media coverage that followed may have been the reason the family decided to flee to Washington State, the authorities said on Wednesday.

Then, recently, the unthinkable occurred. The family’s sport utility vehicle plunged off a 100-foot cliff in California and was discovered on Monday — upside down, engulfed by the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Both parents were found dead inside the S.U.V.; three of their children were discovered dead outside it; and the three other children, including Devonte, were still missing on Wednesday evening and feared dead, law enforcement officials said.

But the intense news media coverage that followed may have been the reason the family decided to flee to Washington State, the authorities said on Wednesday.

Then, recently, the unthinkable occurred. The family’s sport utility vehicle plunged off a 100-foot cliff in California and was discovered on Monday — upside down, engulfed by the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Both parents were found dead inside the S.U.V.; three of their children were discovered dead outside it; and the three other children, including Devonte, were still missing on Wednesday evening and feared dead, law enforcement officials said.

(New York Times)


No excuses

It’s an ad, but when you see this pre-publication, you make sure it’s taken out. No “not my responsibility” accepted.


Quaint observations from the 20th century

I wrote this in response to an article in Editor and Publisher magazine in 1990. Little did I know. (Errors are uncorrected.)

I believe that the future of the newspaper business depends
not on grooming young reporters but in building
strong, independent copy desks with absolute authority over
what appears in print. Even in the few years since I became an
editor (after more than 10 years of reporting experience at
newspapers and radio stations), the trend has been toward
making newspapers a reporter’s medium, at the expense of
coherence and veracity. The notion of a reporter’s copy as
sacrosanct has assumed ludicrous proportions. At the Gazette,
it would have been folly for a reporter to have objected to my
editing decisions. At the Times Union and, to a lesser degree,
the Sun-Times, editing a news story became over the years as
much a political process as a journalistic endeavor. I know
bad writing when I see it, instantly. Yet I must decide not
only what is necessary to make a story fit for publication,
but whether it is worth the political capital I must expend to
fix the copy in line with newspaper policy.

Reporters are called at home by city editors who
“negotiate” something that should be automatic. I of course
can make changes without consultation only at my own peril. No
one wants a reputation as a scold, so I and my colleagues
generally wait for the really big gaffes to make our stands.
This is wrong, and the reader is shortchanged.

The prevailing rationale for this nonsense is that a
reporter has the right to remove his byline from a story if,
among other reasons, he disagrees with changes imposed by
editors. I have no problem with this; as a reporter, I
occasionally withheld my byline when stories I wrote were
edited in ways with which I disagreed. But the stories ran as
edited. My belief is that reporters should be told that their
copy is subject to editing and what the editors decide will
prevail. If a reporter does not agree with this, he has every
right to have his byline removed from any story on which
substantial changes are imposed. But it interferes with the
production of the newspaper to negotiate these changes on
deadline. Of course, it is often necessary to check with a
reporter to obtain missing information or an explanation of
what he is trying to say. But I do not see it as a loss for a
story to run without a byline. Over a period of time, editors
should expect reporters to discern, by studying their edited
stories, how to write a news story. Failure to learn should
mean reassignment, retraining or dismissal.

Bylines used to mean something. I was a reporter for three
months before I got my first byline in 1972; in the old days,
reporters at such papers as the New York Times often waited
years before their names appeared in print. A byline used to
be recognition for a job especially well-done. Now we hear
about bylines being a tool to bring the newspaper down to a
human level, to let the readers know who is representing their
interest. Balderdash! I would submit as evidence that such
thinking is specious the several “byline strikes” employed in
recent years as weapons to get labor negotiations moving. No
one cares, except the reporters and editors themselves. In
Albany, a pretty strong labor town, the appearance of a byline
during the byline strike indicated only that the union’s ranks
were not as united as they should have been. It failed as a
pressuring device and it failed as public relations.

Let’s not kid ourselves. All competent copy editors, after
a few months on the job, know who can write and who cannot. We
know who to trust and who to challenge. I do not have the time
or patience to “negotiate” with a second-year reporter about
how a news story should be written. Nor do I want to write a
news story; I’ve done that, thank you. I want to edit.


Headline Writing 101

Commendable that headline writers are trying, but sometimes good intentions lead to bizarre destinations. Writers should remember they read the story first (or should) and then write the headline, but the reader is seeing the headline and then making a decision about reading the story.


Pronoun-antecedent puzzler

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron’s dog Nemo interrupted a meeting his master was having with members of his government when he urinated against a fireplace in the Elysee Palace.

(AP via Washington Post)


Voice of the people’s rep

There are ombuds, and then there are ombuds.

Alicia Shepard once had an outburst of anger that she’ll never forget. Shepard, the ombudsman for NPR at the time, was attending a board of directors meeting for a group of news ombudsmen. She was one of two women in the room and was years younger than everyone else.

“The executive director, another older white male, was explaining something,” Shepard recalled. “I raised my hand to ask a question, indicating I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.”

“It’s on the website, dear,” he said.

Without a beat, Shepard responded, “Don’t call me dear, fuckface.”

The retort went over well. Everyone in the room laughed. And at a reception that evening, the executive director apologized to Shepard.



This and that

Hollywood interview, and you didn’t record what the interviewee was wearing or eating? Amateur. However, you dithered until well into the Sunday Arts  jump before quoting more than two words, so there’s hope.

LOS ANGELES — Going into a lunchtime meeting with Charlize Theron a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure whether to feel amped or a little afraid.

Ms. Theron is, of course, a powerhouse actress who has old Hollywood glamour and a mile-wide range. She has also played a series of lethal ladies so convincingly it is hard not to conclude a part of her is tapped into a rich vein of redirected rage. Obviously, being an Oscar winner, she’s ace at her job. But her slam-dunk portrayals of real and fictitious killers — the convicted murderer Aileen Wuornos from “Monster,” Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Ravenna in “Snow White and the Huntsman” and now a merciless hand-to-hand combatant in the new “Atomic Blonde” — all suggest a woman who does not easily suffer fools.

Ms. Theron does, however, suffer colds, and had to cancel a few hours before our lunch and reschedule for the next day. She was fighting a virus, she later explained, and shortly before our planned chat had downed daytime cough medicine that left her a little high, and not all that cogent.

“So sorry,” Ms. Theron said as she scooched into a corner banquet table at a restaurant on the Universal lot. She is luminous, lanky and, by all evidence, poreless. (Defying celebrity profile protocol, I neglected to jot down either what she had on — I dimly recall black pants and a black top — or what she ordered for lunch.) She still sounded somewhat froggy, and her eyes were a little rheumy, but she had rallied. As the extended fight sequences in “Atomic Blonde” show, Ms. Theron’s work ethic is, in a good way, sick.

(New York Times)


Life imitates, etc.

When a Times editor asked if I could taste a handful of new Oreo flavors and share my notes, for Maya Salam’s story about the company’s strategic expansion, I jumped at the chance. Growing up in Europe and the Middle East, the Oreo was my introduction to American food culture, and I loved the cookie instantly and fiercely — from the crinkling sound of the plastic packaging; to the frosting, sweeter than anything I’d ever tasted; to the impossibly dark, intricately embossed biscuits, which tasted only vaguely of chocolate.

I still consider the classic Oreo to be a sandwich cookie of perfect proportion and sweetness, but my affection for it wasn’t entirely based on the way it tasted: It was about consuming something American, something cool and rare and glamorous that I might be cut off from at any moment. The cookies could be hard to find internationally in the ‘90s, and the only reliable source was a relative who transported them in his suitcase. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I understood Oreos were not, in fact, a luxury product.

My assignment was a simple Oreo taste test, but how could I set aside my deep attachment to the cookie, my true love for it? How could I taste with the composure and impartiality of a reporter?

(“Fireworks Oreos? A Reporter Digests,” New York Times, 7/3/2017)

The paper’s editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments, and the obituaries to Nabisco, so that the staff will have “more time to think.” The foreign desk is turning out language lessons (“Yo temo que Isabel no venga,” “I am afraid that Isabel will not come”). There was an especially lively front page on Tuesday. The No. 1 story was pepperoni — a useful and exhaustive guide. It ran right next to the slimming-your-troublesome-thighs story, with pictures.

(“Pepperoni” in the New Yorker, 12/1/1980)


How to edit good

Copy editors who want to keep their jobs at the retooled New York Times should have the following skills, says a memo to the staff. (Poynter)

Core Skills

  • Attention to detail (in terms of acceptable style, grammar, punctuation, language, word choice, etc.)
  • Accuracy; ability and willingness to check facts
  • Agility and efficiency with respect to all aspects of editing work
  • Understanding and facility with display type on all platforms, including social media
  • Ability to lift stories
  • Ability to assess and discuss with reporters the best “voice” for stories in the earliest stages of story development
  • Ability to guide and work well with reporters
  • Ability to collaborate and communicate well with colleagues

Specialized Skills

  • Subject-matter knowledge or expertise
  • Foreign language skills
  • Other unique skill(s) or experience
  • Strategy/Planning/Forward-Looking Skills
  • Ability and judgment in conceptualizing stories and story lines
  • Ability to think through stories and topics effectively and constructively with reporters
  • Ability to prioritize on a continuous basis and pivot as priorities change based on the news
  • Adaptability to new modes of storytelling as they evolve


  • Solid news judgment, including the ability and willingness to identify and drive forward stories with impact and steer away from dutiful, incremental news
  • Solid judgment about what not to cover and the willingness and ability to exercise that judgment
  • Solid judgment about story questions worth raising and pursuing, understanding what can be tackled in any given time frame
  • Clear understanding of and adherence to Times standards, ethics and policies
  • Ability to manage work effectively on deadline
  • Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision


  • Understanding of our current systems (e.g., the fundamentals of Scoop) and ability to use them effectively
  • Willingness and ability to experiment with, learn and use new technology
  • Initiative and interest in changing/developing technologies



Location, location, location

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that. Meanwhile, the New York Times focuses on the detail that seems to matter most to the readers.

Mr. Ailes’s wife, Elizabeth, announced his death in a statement, which did not give a cause or say where he had died. Mr. Ailes was a hemophiliac long plagued by obesity and arthritis.

Without identifying him, the police in Palm Beach, Fla., said a 77-year-old man had fallen and struck his head in a bathroom at Mr. Ailes’s home in Palm Beach, Fla., on May 10 and was bleeding heavily when paramedics arrived in response to an emergency call and found him “not completely alert” and still on the floor. He was then taken to a hospital. It was not clear if he had remained at the hospital or was discharged. Mr. Ailes and his wife bought the home last fall for a reported $36 million.


Business as usual

“Tall order.” Get it? If you did, the Washington Post headline should have been rewritten. Check that. It should have been rewritten anyway.

That was an Associated Press headline. Duplicating headlines on wire stories is one of the great examples of laziness. Even if they’re wrong, they are widely used in print and online. On top of that, AP headlines are often just stupid, which compounds the problem.

Using wire stories? Write your own headlines.


7-Eleven is buying 1,108 convenience stores, mostly on the East Coast and Texas, from Sunoco for $3.3 billion.

The deal will put 7-Eleven into the Houston market and gives it a fully developed menu of tacos. (Dallas Morning News)

This is a $3.3 billion acquisition. Do tacos belong so high in the story? Do they belong in the story at all? I would refer the tacos angle to the food writers, or at least move it deep in the story.

“But the tacos help the reader relate to the story,” I hear you cry. Not the readers of a story like this. It’s business. Readers who don’t care about business will stop at “7-Eleven is buying 1,108 convenience stores,”

(Aside: Kudos to the Morning News for daring to begin a sentence with a numeral. It spared us from “Convenience-store giant 7-Eleven” in the lede. My longtime goal is to eliminate the pointless rule prohibiting numbers at the start.)


Business pages are full of “art” like this. Avoid. If you must use a picture of a company building or sign (and you musn’t), at least use the caption to say something related to the story. It doesn’t help that these file photos are usually old.


In 2014, the Associated Press began automating some of its coverage of corporate earnings reports. Instead of having humans cover the basic finance stories, the AP, working with the firm Automated Insights, was able to use algorithms to speed up the process and free up human reporters to pursue more complex stories. (Nieman Lab)

First of all, earnings reports are “complex stories.” Second, running earnings reports without humans having read them is unwise. * They include all sorts of seemingly mundane information that might be important. Third, the stories must be checked against the reports anyway, and that task falls to the copy desk – or should. So, while human reporters (they do exist) might be freed up to do things other than perusing earnings reports, editing them requires at least as much time on the copy desk (you really have to look at the reports), doing nothing to “free up” the editors there.

You don’t edit earnings reports? Like everything else, they require editing. Don’t know how to read earnings reports? Learn.

* I have no more confidence in automated earnings reports than I do in automated sports stories.


Empty Quote of the Week 

“Continuous improvement of our products is our daily work,” Kiran Rao, Airbus executive vice president of strategy and marketing, said in a statement. (Los Angeles Times)


Phillip Blanchard is a former business editor at the Washington Post. Previously he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and newspapers in upstate New York. He is founder of Testy Copy Editors. This column is a feature of Talking Biz NewsEmail:


Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop.

You’re Stanley, and James Gordon Bennett the Younger has hired you to find Livingstone. Of course the Herald’s readers will want to hear about cannibals and crocodiles. As for the rest, save your adventures for your autobiography, assuming you can find a publisher.

The great challenge and great pleasure of being a reporter chasing a developing story is having no idea what the day will hold. If you start to imagine a loose framework for your article, the facts you gather — and surprises along the way — are liable to blow it apart.

That is not what the reader usually sees. An article is, by definition, hindsight; it aims to make sense, in a condensed account, of what the reporter found, which can feel sprawling and confused while the reporting is underway.

But on Friday, two journalists from The Times’s Chicago bureau, Julie Bosman, a reporter, and Monica Davey, the bureau chief, tried something different. They looked to give readers not just the facts of a developing news story — in this case, the mayoral race in Bolingbrook, Ill., a Chicago suburb — but a feel for what it’s like to be the reporter pursuing it.

(New York Times)


Idiot-epicene latest

AP, to the surprise of exactly no one, plumps for fuzzy writing to go along with fuzzy thinking. If anyone at ACES fainted at the news, it wasn’t recorded.

The Associated Press Stylebook says it is “opening the door” to use of the singular they.

A new stylebook entry, which was announced Thursday as part of the AP’s session at the 21st national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the first time allows use of they as a singular pronoun or gender-neutral pronoun.

“We stress that it’s usually possible to write around that,” said Paula Froke, lead editor for the AP Stylebook. “But we offer new advice for two reasons: recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”

The new entry in the stylebook starts:

They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them.They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.

That’s compared to the AP Stylebook’s previous “their, there, they’re” entry, which read: “Their is a plural possessive pronoun and must agree in number with the antecedent. Wrong: Everyone raised their hands. Right: They raised their hands. See every one, everyone for the pronoun that takes singular verbs and pronouns.”

Froke said clarity is key when using they as a genderless pronoun

“We specify that you need to make clear in the context that the ‘they’ in question is just one person,” Froke said. “We don’t, among our own staff, want to open a floodgate. But we recognize a need for it, so we want to open it a bit.

“The whole issue is difficult. We worked very hard to come up with a solution that makes sense.

Clarity is the top priority. Our concern was the readers out there. Many don’t understand that they can be used for a singular person.”

But Froke also acknowledged that in speech, they is often used as singular.

“I write it naturally sometimes, too, and then have to go back and change it,” she said.

Colleen Newvine, product manager for the AP Stylebook, said people don’t have to use they as singular but “if you find it best, it’s allowed.”

“Some people will be furious; others won’t think we’ve gone far enough,” Newvine said.

Froke said the stylebook also has added or adjusted several other entries related to gender.

“We have a new umbrella entry on gender and sex, noting that not everyone falls under one of two genders,” she said. “That particular entry also notes that language around gender is evolving. Because this language is ever evolving, newsrooms and organizations outside of AP may have to make their own decisions.”


RIP Bill Walsh

I am so sad that Bill Walsh died today. I share my sorrow with the copy-editing community nationwide.  No one deserves Bill’s fate, but it seems especially cruel for him. He was a man who clearly enjoyed life and had a lot more to do.

My heart goes out to Jacqueline and the rest of Bill’s family.

I met Bill at the inaugural conference of the American Copy Editors Society in 1997. That was before he became a copy-editing icon.

Over the years, I had contact with Bill mostly through ACES and exchanges related to our respective editing websites. In 2000, Bill hired me at the Washington Post, for which I am immeasurably grateful.

Bill and I were never close friends. Our extracurricular pursuits were mostly at odds and our social circles did not intersect. But I had enormous respect for him not only as the author of three pretty good books about editing, but also for running a copy desk like it should be run (for example, Bill wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I took two hours to edit a story). We had opposite temperaments, and I’m sure mine wasn’t easy to accommodate.

He wrote one of the most artful evaluations in human-resources history. He called me “unique,” and delicately explained away my eccentricities.

Bill Walsh belongs alongside Theodore Bernstein in the copy-editing Hall of Fame (which doesn’t exist, but should). It was an honor to work with and for him. He made me a better editor.




No confidence in confidence

Trump won. Consumer and small-business confidence surged. Now what?

 Albuquerque Journal


Correlation is not causation. Although the election result has been “credited” with improving some measures of the economy, there is no objective proof of it. The headline states flatly that Donald Trump’s election was what caused increases in “confidence.”

This story exacerbates the fallacy by its dependence on a single source, a Wells Fargo economist.

The consumer “confidence” and “sentiment” surveys are intended to indicate what the public thinks will happen financially to themselves and the nation. The reports, then, are predictions about matters about which the respondents cannot know.

We are not statisticians, so we cannot make intelligent comments about the surveys’ methodologies. But we know, for example, that it’s pointless to ask people what they think will happen six months in the future. If the survey respondents could make such accurate predictions, they shouldn’t worry about their finances because they could make a killing in the stock markets. There is no indication that the survey administrators go back to the people they question to find out how predictions of their own financial status matched reality. And any on-target predictions would be coincidental.

More from Testy Business Copy Editors.


When business writers use bad quotes

The latest from Testy Business Copy Editors.


Wall Street is throwing the most money at U.S. energy companies since at least 2000 amid growing confidence that the industry is emerging from the worst downturn in a generation. – (Bloomberg)

Don’t get confused. Contrary to popular opinion (and many careless business writers), “Wall Street” usually doesn’t throw money at companies at all.  The beneficiaries, though, can include company executives who get stock along with their salaries (although they might not, or cannot, dump their shares to reap the profits, lest doing so trigger a selloff and spoil the fun for others.

(Don’t say “since at least 2000.” Find out when it was.)

Investopedia has a useful primer, “Why do companies care about their stock prices?” Rookie editors, and not a few veterans, could stand to read it.


In case you had started to doubt it: People still love the iPhone. …

 “We’re thrilled to report that our holiday quarter results generated Apple’s highest quarterly revenue ever, and broke multiple records along the way. We sold more iPhones than ever before and set all-time revenue records for iPhone, Services, Mac and Apple Watch,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive.Washington Post

Who doubted it? Who cares? Cut to the chase. For example, what was the previous highest quarterly revenue? What were the previous revenue records for iPhone, Service, Mac and Apple Watch?

Why not find the numbers, and report them?


“We’re using almost a hundred percent more tires to produce the same mileage of transportation,” FedEx Chairman and CEO Fred Smith told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Wednesday. “Why is that? Because the road infrastructure has so many potholes in it, it’s tearing up tires faster than before.” NPR

Interesting if true. But we shouldn’t just report such statements without checking with other sources to make sure they’re plausible.

You could start with the Tire Industry Association, a trade group. It’s true that association members are interested in selling more tires, but it’s a start. State highway administrations in might have relevant information, like where the problem (if there is one) is the worst. Ask some truck makers about wear and tear. Do something. Don’t rely solely on FedEx.


Cooper Hefner, “chief creative officer” of Playboy:

“When you have a company, and the founder is responsible for kick-starting the sexual revolution, and then you pluck out that aspect of the company’s DNA by removing the nudity, it makes a lot of people, including me, sit and say, ‘What the hell is the company doing?’”New York Times

Generating publicity, that’s what, just like the announcement that nudity is returning to the magazine.

The Times’ story, which ran in Business Day, has very little business. It mentions that Playboy hopes to sell more ads and get more exposure on newsstands, and that’s it.

Aside: The Times used a hackneyed lede (Playboy is returning to the bare essentials) but that’s no surprise, however disappointing. More puzzling is why Science Times ran the story, including the bare essentials.


Empty quote of the week:

We’re pleased to offer these competitive jobs that come with the opportunity to grow careers,” said David Hupper, senior vice president and regional leader in Albuquerque.Albuquerque Journal


Phillip Blanchard is a former business editor at the Washington Post. Previously he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and newspapers in upstate New York. He is founder of Testy Copy Editors.


Testy Business Copy Editors returns

After 2+ years in the wilderness, Testy Business Copy Editors is back, now as a feature of Talking Biz News.

Join us there, and load up the comments.



Testy Business Copy Editor

Testy Business Copy Editor ran for three years on the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism website, from January 2011 through December 2013. It was canceled, we were told, for budgetary reasons.

We were promised that the posts would remain archived on the Reynolds website, but they were deleted anyhow. However, the posts remain available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. (Take a look.)

Below are the last two posts, in which we summarized the most important points from  the series.


Dec. 4, 2013

Mistakes are inevitable: a wrong number here, a typing error there. The news media are full of them. There was never a realistic hope that they would disappear entirely. But when mistakes multiply, when the same ones are made over and over, the system is broken.

With the Worldwide War on Copy Editing nearing its conclusion and inevitable outcome, it will only get worse. Reports just this side of gibberish are lamented, then ignored, and then accepted.

Financial news coverage is especially susceptible to error. Put the decimal point in the wrong place, or miscalculate a simple percentage, and a news report becomes illogical and, often, indecipherable.

The big mistakes in the business press, though, are more profound than isolated errors. The problems are as acute in an analysis of the Federal Open Market Committee minutes as they are in a puff piece about a new store in town: “We’ve always done it that way.” The business pages, always a niche feature, turn readers away with their clubbishness, relentless cheerleading for capitalism, perpetual state of denial and, not least, banality.* This means that a lot of readers aren’t learning things they ought to know.

Exclusivity: As the business sections retreat into the back pages of newspapers and the bowels of general-news websites, the clubhouse metaphor becomes more apt. The stories are rarely more than businesses talking to other businesses. Policy coverage is dedicated to speculating how the government might help businesses make money, not to explaining how it might affect the rabble (By this, I mean the general population, not individuals who might reap riches or lose everything. The human side of finance is rarely portrayed as anything other than one person’s road to prosperity or ruin. Individual “business leaders” — store owners and investment bankers alike — are profiled as exemplars of American values. Broad trends are obscured by local accounts of how Main Street reacts to general economic triumph or turmoil. Apple introduces a new iPad? Talk to people lined up to buy it, all of whom know what they are expected to say and do not disappoint. Get a picture (with an iPhone, of course, not a camera handled by a professional photographer). Unemployment drops by a tenth of a percentage point? Talk to the local fast-food franchisee, who hired a new grillmeister, even though it has no relevance to the jobs report, which, in any case, is likely to be revised a few weeks later. Leave the big picture to the wires.

Reaction: The business press acts as one when a story breaks, regardless of whether it’s a real story or not. For example, this has been a record-setting year for the stock market by some measures. But the “records” don’t look so impressive when the various indexes are adjusted for inflation, which they almost never are. And, of course, the companies listed in the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index change periodically, so they compare different companies over time. This is elementary, and I’ve mentioned this before. Nobody listened. For local media, we’ve just been subjected to the annual orgy of Christmas-shopping stories, which are pretty much the same every year. “Black Friday,” “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday” have no angles left unexplored, yet hundreds of newspapers have assigned precious resources to interview people in line to buy cheap TV sets and toys. If our eyes glaze over — and they should — imagine being a reader. Another kind of reaction pops up in nearly every story: the opinions of “analysts,” who usually are stockbrokers or investment advisers with vested interests. Their comments are almost universally useless, yet the same ones are called over and over to muse on the day’s events even when “analysis” is either obvious or irrelevant, or both.

*The same could be said for political coverage, but that’s too easy a target.


NEXT: Sensationalism, favoritism, and contradiction.


Dec. 20, 2013

Editor’s note:  This will be Phillip Blanchard’s final regular post for A copy editor on the Washington Post Financial desk for 6 1/2 years and founder of an online forum called Testy Copy Editors, Blanchard has written here about best practices for the business press since January 2011.  An archive of his posts will always be here: Testy Business Copy Editor.

 And he will continue to write regularly at Testy Copy Editors We wish him well.

Author’s note:  This is the second and last part of my valedictory. The first part appeared on Dec. 4.

Sensationalism: The business press is more restrained than general news and sports, but still has a tendency to blow things out of proportion. The stock market is not the economy but we persist in giving the impression that it is. Savvy investors — by which I mean professionals, since few individual investors are particularly savvy — know this and often bid shares up and down based not on economics, but rather on how they think other traders will buy and sell. It’s gambling, pure and simple. That’s not news, but the business press usually acts as though it’s something else. This sort of reporting is unhelpful and should be curtailed. Business reporters and editors need to stop thinking of themselves as part of the grand market, and instead embrace true outsider status. Copy editors can contribute by stopping themselves every time they are inclined to include the word “record” in a headline. Any claim of a “record” should be scrutinized and, if need be, challenged.

Favoritism: We play favorites, with business people, companies and, especially, economic systems. Steve Jobs, of course, was the favorite among favorites, and in many ways still is. But we also lionize people like Henry Blodget, despite legal problems. Blodget’s Business Insider was his way back into the limelight after he was kicked out of the securities business for fraud. Incredibly, he is taken seriously. Same with Michael Milken, who went to prison and also was barred from the securities market for fraud. He now bills himself as “philanthropist, financier, medical research innovator, public health advocate.” The press loves him, perhaps because it’s thought that he’s turned over a new leaf. It’s amusing that Blodget’s Business Insider is a leader in the we-love-Milken club.

There are local favorites, too. Developer Douglas Jemal, who was a special favorite of the Washington Post when I worked there. The Washington Business Journal liked him, too. The idolatry seemingly came to a crashing end when Jeman was indicted in 2005. But, no. He was convicted of fraud the following year, but the Post, noting that he was acquitted of other charges, cast his trial’s result as a victory:Jemal

The Post followed up with a feature about how Jamal was recovering from his ordeal. It included a picture of him and his pet parrot. The Post continues its enthusiastic coverage of Jemal projects, omitting of course that he is a convicted fraudster. Editors — even if they admire a developer convicted of fraud — have to put the brakes on when things go south. It’s easier if you spike the fawning features in the first place.

Contradiction: The business press, with its story selection and play, often seems to report one thing and also its opposite without trying to reconcile the contradiction. The best current example is the “economic recovery.” We dutifully report estimates of gross national product and its fluctuations, and declare that “the recovery” is proceeding. Yet we also report that millions of people are underemployed, many service workers need food stamps to supplement their pay, older workers are being forced out of their jobs, unemployment is distressingly high among young people and minorities, and so on. Editors have to allow for the reality that “recovery” means different things to different people. A good start is to report the GDP figures without characterizing them. Go ahead and say the government estimates that the GDP (not “the economy”) rose at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the third quarter and leave it at that (but explain in there somewhere what the GDP is). Since there are several interpretations of the figure, don’t choose one. Another idea, which would require something of a revolution to put into practice, would be to question the definition of “recovery.” The word seems to have outlived its usefulness. It conveys an optimism that may or may not be justified.


Editors who try to follow my advice, of whom there are none that I can tell, are doomed to a life of conflict and second-guessing. Editors who don’t can probably find jobs.



Forward into the glorious future!

From the latest New York Times report outlining “the newsroom’s strategy and aspirations.” As with any report, there is always the danger that someone might read it.


We devote a large amount of resources to stories that relatively few people read. Except in some mission-driven areas or in areas where evidence suggests that the articles have disproportionate value to subscribers, there is little justification for this. It wastes time — of reporters, backfielders, copy editors, photo editors and others — and dilutes our report.


The 2020 group believes strongly in the value of copy-editing. There is a high price for easily identifiable errors, such as spelling and grammar mistakes. An increase in such errors would send the wrong message to readers — that our product is sloppy and lacks high value. When we publish sloppy stories, readers complain to us in significant numbers. At the same time, The Times spends too much time on low-value line-editing, such as the moving, unmoving and removing of paragraphs, and too little on conceptual editing and story sharpening, including on questions like what form a story should take. A shift toward front-end editing will need to involve changes in multiple parts of the newsroom, including the copy desk, the backfield and the masthead.

The Times currently devotes too many resources to low-value editing — and, by extension, too many to editing overall. Our journalism and our readers would be better served if we instead placed an even higher priority on newsgathering in all of its forms.


Reporters said they wanted more helpful interaction with their editors at the outset; less editing in the middle; and more attention to presentation and promotion. There was much frustration about stories being held because of print considerations. And several editors and reporters said they would like to see a copy editing process that was more responsive to the complexity of the story and the urgency of the news.


“Hire editors and reporters who don’t need to have their hands held. Honestly, how can we still afford to have five editors arguing for hours over a routine day story? The print mentality still rules the newsroom, from the top down. But it is important to maintain the commitment to copy editing, as it is essential to the quality of the journalism and the reputation of the news site.”

“There is too much editing on the copy desks, where editors are adhering to a style that is increasingly becoming far too rigid for the Times.”

“Too often, on breaking, competitive stories, the time from the reporter filing, to the slot publishing, is far too long. I get the impression that the backfield and copy desk are overloaded and have trouble prioritizing.”

“Most of the time, you time and edit stories to print requirements, no matter what the official doctrine says. I’ve had things hold for weeks while waiting for a print slot.”


There was quite a bit of ambivalence about changing the tone or sensibility of writing. Some were eager to try new voice and forms but weren’t quite sure how. Others said they were stymied by the backfield or copy desk when they tried. Others still felt we should be very cautious about making any such changes.


“We frequently hear from the top editors at the paper that they want more voice and less institutional-ese in our stories. But typically when you try to make the prose more playful or engaging in a news story, or just generally inject a bit more personality, the copy desk is quick to ferret it out, and it can be exhausting to push back on every single word or phrase. If we’re going to loosen our style up a bit, the copy desk is going to be the key swing demographic.”


By Dummy Byline

We’re not the public editor or the mommy of the New York Times, so we’re not going to break the news to the executive editor of the New York Times that readers pay about as much attention to bylines as they do to the Postal Service boilerplate, and remember bylines about as well as readers remember last month’s lottery numbers.


You’ve spoken about buyouts and other newsroom cuts. How might those impact readers? Will readers be notified if favorite bylines move on, one subscriber asks?

That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. We will have a smaller newsroom but I don’t know what that means yet because there’s so many factors. Print advertising, which was one of the things that most sustained our newsroom, and all newsrooms, for a long time is dropping significantly — and more this year than ever before. The election of Donald Trump also changes the calculation, for example. We went from three to six people covering the White House. We have to think harder about how we cover agencies in Washington, because it’s going to undergo a dramatic transformation. My goal is to keep as many people as we can whose work is to gather news. Who write stories, cover the world, take video.

(New York Times)