Dear Answer Page

Dear Answer Page: I thought it was against the Law of Journalism to run a story on a gunman who wasn’t described as a disaffected loner. Yet here I’m seeing all this coverage of a “popular,” “freshman homecoming prince.” What gives? Signed, Perplexed.

Dear Perplexed: News writing is done under ever-tighter deadlines, so we must make allowance for omissions. Furthermore, the Law of Journalism doesn’t say (despite many misperceptions) that a gunman must be described as a disaffected loner, or as a quiet person whom neighbors said always kept to himself. Sometimes the neighbors won’t answer the phone, or the reporter didn’t have enough time to ask enough people who may or may not have known the gunman. What the law does say is: “Just because someone’s dead is no reason not to psychoanalyze him.”

“I have no idea what his motive was because yesterday at football practice, he was all fine, talking …. having a good time,” he said. “And then today, just horrible. I don’t know what went through his head or what caused him to do it.”

By all accounts, Fryberg was a popular student. Just a week ago, he had been named as the high school’s freshman homecoming prince, according to a YouTube video of the ceremony and accounts provided by students to CNN.

Fryberg’s multiple social media accounts depict him frequently hunting and using rifles. Those accounts say he was a Native American and a member of the Tulalip tribe.

Luton could not confirm reports that Fryberg had been bullied. But two weeks ago, according to Luton, Fryberg got into a fight after somebody said “something racist” to him.




Oh, shut up (or just chill)

When the editor in chief of High Times hands you a joint, you are probably going to get very stoned.

“Are you trying to … talk?” asked Dan Skye, the editor of the ganja green magazine, who was clad in a pot-leaf patterned dinner jacket. We were standing on the smoking balcony of Lower East Side lounge The DL last night at the marijuana mag’s 40th anniversary celebration. We giggled. A lot. Were we trying to talk? We suppose. When you really think about it, aren’t we all just trying to talk, man? The line between thoughts and words was already getting blurry.

Out on the crowded smoking balcony, past someone painting edible gold on the celebratory cake and a woman hula hooping and twirling a baton with trippy lights, the smoke rose, fragrantly, into some really far-out shapes. Whoa … have you ever thought about, like, shapes? Dude …

Bouncers came out at regular intervals to remind the crowd that the smoking section was just for cigarettes—total buzzkill. But people laughed, then lit up some more. It was, after all, a party for a magazine has been subverting authority for four decades, fighting The Man by just getting groovy, brother.

High Times, which started in 1974 as a Playboy parody, has shown surprising stamina, transforming from something the kids read with stoner high school pals while blazing some chief dank, to this righteous revolutionary thing, brah, tackling issues of legalization and decriminalization. Like the industry it covers, High Times has gained cultural acceptance over the years.

But it can still throw just the chillest party.


We asked Rick Szykowny, who is the copy director at The Nation and freelance copy edits High Times, about the house style. Although the magazine uses New York Times style, there are a host of words that the paper of record’s style manual doesn’t use too often, despite the Times’ new pro-pot editorial stance. Marijuana strains are a particular sticking point, especially a variety known as “Purple Urkel.” But that’s what copy editors are for. Wait … are we being copy edited right now?

What if all our lives are getting edited for house style? We’ve got to master the house style of planet earth, man!

(New York Observer)


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Today’s news quiz

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From a profile of:


1. The neighborhood undertaker?

2. The nurse at the local Ebola ward?

3. A Buffalo News police reporter?


Today’s humbuggery

Okay, America. You’ve wanted a Grinch headline before Halloween. Here’s a Grinch headline before Halloween.* If the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild is kicking itself in the fruitcake for not thinking of it first, boo-hoo.



(CNN Money)


* Not the first one, of course.


News you can use



Including this not-safe-for-lunch factoid:




(ABC News)




Photo funnies

This image, no kidding, won China’s National News Award, its top photojournalism prize. Two questions: 1. Who finished second? 2. If Xinhua can finagle a Columbia University Pulitzer judgeship, will it win that prize, too?


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The reviews are in!

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But here’s the thing. While some of the Bradlee essays were outstanding – the crisp writing of David Carr and the insights of Charlie Pierce really stood out — a lot of the pieces put an accidental, ironic exclamation point on the passing of journalism’s 20th Century glory days — by showing off some of the worst habits of 21st Century writing. Far too many of the pieces were lazy, hitting simplistic, pre-determined narratives in ways that were sloppy at best and inaccurate at worst.



The less things change, etc.

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(Jim Romenesko, 2014)

Hinckle’s “violent tastes” were evident in the April 1970 issue of
Scanlan’s. The cover read, “You’ve Read Too Much About Atrocities. Now
Listen to One on Page 3.” The eighty-page issue included a bound-in record
containing testimony from the court-martial trial of an Army lieutenant who
was charged with deliberately killing a South Vietnamese soldier. April’s
issue also featured articles about the influence of the Mafia in Jersey
City, New Jersey; a Studs Terkel piece about the wives and girlfriends of
the jailed Chicago Seven; Pan Am Airlines’ role in U.S. military
interventions; an astrological portrait of President Nixon; and a second
installment of the “Dirty Kitchens of New York” series.[39] In “What
Obtains?,” the editors attacked both Arab terrorists and Jewish-American
organizations and also outlined their letters policy, which charged writers
25 cents per word, or $1 per word for letters “which we find particularly
dumb, boring or offensive.”

(“The Scanlan’s Monthly Story.” Warren Hinckle III’s muckraking magazine appeared in 1970-71.)


Today’s layout problem



(CHCH, Hamilton, Ontario)


Today’s testiness

The Times, like everyone else, offers up a news summary, probably because everyone else offers one up. That’s bad enough; then it says

Good morning.

Here’s what you need to know:

followed by news briefs (Ebola, Ben Bradlee, the midterms and whatnot). Sometimes there’s feeble humor (the story on the Swedes’ search for a Russian sub is The “hunt for Reds in October” resumes), but even that can’t take away the bad taste of that “need to know,” which sounds like military-speak.


This and that

Leon Panetta risks having his copy editors earn a free trip to Gitmo.

Former CIA director Leon E. Panetta clashed with the agency over the contents of his recently published memoir and allowed his publisher to begin editing and making copies of the book before he had received final approval from the CIA, according to former U.S. officials and others familiar with the project.

Panetta’s decision appears to have put him in violation of the secrecy agreement that all CIA employees are required to sign and came amid a showdown with agency reviewers that could have derailed the release of the book, people involved in the matter said.

Panetta was reportedly paid $3 million for his book, and it was promoted as a title for the fall book season. It was released Oct. 7.

One person with inside knowledge said that “Worthy Fights” went to press in August while disputes with the CIA remained unresolved. The final approval from the review board came on or around Sept. 1, according to that person and others familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A review copy provided to The Washington Post bears date stamps of Aug. 11 on each page, as well as markings indicating that it had gone through three copy-editing cycles by that point. That bound copy was delivered to The Post on Sept. 12.

(Washington Post)



Help wanted

If you happen to be English, there’s room-temperature beer. So that’s a plus.

We have an immediate opening for a copy editor. Until we find one, we’ll continue to let commenters correct our terrible spelling and grammar while we try and fail not to get defensive about it. It’s the Observer way.

The ideal candidate will have one of those brains that allows him or her to see all the errant commas, embarrassing homonym mishaps and missing words that plague most of the stories I edit, and will possess deeply held beliefs about the overuse of em dashes, the role of the serial comma and the Superiority of Title-Case Headlines. A willingness to delete bad jokes and identify specious arguments is a plus. (Don’t worry Schutze — we won’t let her near your stuff!)

Interested candidates should send a friendly email explaining their interest, a résumé and some writing or editing samples to me at This is a full-time job with both benefits (medical, dental, 401(K), cubicle near the free-stuff pile) and drawbacks (not many food options since Herrera’s closed, freakishly cold conference room, beer fridge is broken).

(Dallas Observer)


Today’s listomania

33 Struggles Only Copy Editors Will Understand

I got 99 problems but a serial comma ain’t one.




Agree: ## 5, 12, 19, 20, 24, 29, 33. The rest: Meh.



From the dead beat

Fox News puts a regional paper in perspective. Bonus: Howie Kurtz, with the Titanic-ship’s-cat’s view of things. Kurtz remembers to mention Jason Robards, that other famous newspaper editor, as well as Howie Kurtz’s role in history.


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By Howard Kurtz

Ben Bradlee will always be remembered as one of the heroes of Watergate, steering his paper with the panache of a Jason Robards, but there was much more to the man.

He was charismatic and yet sometimes bored and detached. He was too close to JFK and yet alienated Jackie by writing a book about their friendship. He turned the Washington Post into a major-league newspaper but also presided over the hugely embarrassing journalistic fraud committed by Janet Cooke.

Bradlee, who died Tuesday at 93, ran the Post for a quarter century, and I not only worked for him, I wrote the story when he stepped down as executive editor in 1991. Until his final years, he continued to come to work every day, often eating in the cafeteria from a cardboard tray with whoever happened to be around.




The Tulip Mania

Anyone can buy a paper. The trick is to sell the paper.

The Courant’s 30-year practice of allowing employees to buy stock in the company — as well as the requirement that employees who left or died had to offer the stock back to new employees — had an unintended effect that altered the newspaper’s future.

When the settlement of longtime editor William A. Foote’s estate put more than 22,000 shares in The Courant back into play in the late 1970s, hundreds of employees submitted intents to buy the stock. As a result of the sale, the number of individual shareholders edged past 500 for the first time in Courant history. Under Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, The Courant was now required to file annual reports, revealing what had — until then — been private financial data. The first report, dated February 1978, noted that The Courant had posted the best financial year in its history, with pre-tax income jumping 126 percent.

The Courant’s fat balance sheet made the stock market sit up and take notice, especially growing media conglomerates. Among them was Capital Cities Communications Inc., whose chairman and CEO, Thomas S. Murphy, had transformed a small Albany broadcasting venture into a multibillion-dollar media empire based in New York City. In 1977, Capital Cities purchased the Kansas City Star and Times — which, like The Courant, had been largely employee-owned — for $125 million. And Cap Cities, as it was known, badly wanted The Courant and was willing to pay between $70 and $100 million.

The Courant’s board knew that it had to handle the offer carefully, or it could risk Cap Cities’ going directly to the shareholders — who would have received $133 a share, or 400 percent more than they had paid for the stock just a year earlier — and attempt a hostile takeover.

What was clear was that President Ed Downes was adamant against selling The Courant at any price.

“In my 39 years in the newspaper business, nothing has broken my fundamental belief in local ownership,” Downes said in urging rejection of the offer. “A newspaper must be an integral part of its community.”

Shareholders ultimately agreed, prompting The Courant’s board on Oct. 27, 1978, to unanimously reject the Capital Cities offer, with an abstention. But, in an unusual board-initiated advisory poll, most shareholders indicated that they would be willing to consider future offers.

The board of directors subsequently asked Courant executives to list the best potential partners. The list they grudgingly delivered in the late spring of 1979 was topped by Times Mirror and Affiliated Publications, owner of The Boston Globe. Within a month, both companies had made offers to buy The Courant.

When Times Mirror privately notified Courant directors in late June 1979 that it was willing to pay $105.6 million for the newspaper, the equivalent of $200 a share, the board immediately sensed that The Courant’s fate was sealed. It wasn’t necessarily greed coming into play, said Vice President Richard E. Mooney. “At that price? It was more: ‘What kind of idiot am I to turn this down?’”

The directors believed that if The Courant had to be sold, Times Mirror was a perfect fit, and a deal was made within weeks. Employees learned of it on July 10, 1979. A key factor, Downes noted, was Times Mirror’s “excellent reputation for maintaining high standards of journalistic excellence, local editorial independence and enlightened employee relations.”

The Times Mirror sale was essentially completed on Aug. 16, when the company announced that it had secured 82 percent of The Courant stock, giving it ownership control.

The sale made instant millionaires of dozens of Courant employees who had accumulated 5,000 or more shares. They came from virtually every department, from chief executive Downes on down through the organization. Many of the newly rich were gone within the year. Shareholders typically used their proceeds for new homes, retirement getaways, cars, exotic vacations, college funds or nest eggs.

(Hartford Courant)


Money don’t mourn

Total, the big French oil company (market cap: about $130 billion), moves on. Note to self: Add “plow on airport runway” to macro of potential career-enders. Also, big public companies don’t automatically wind up and go out of business when the boss dies, but instead move quickly to press ahead with their goals; who knew?


Total SA (FP)’s Christophe de Margerie died when his airplane struck a snowplow on a Moscow runway, ending a career in which he oversaw the biggest expansion of oil reserves at the French energy giant in at least 15 years.

(Bloomberg News)

PARIS: Total, left without a leader after the death in a Moscow air accident of chief executive Christophe de Margerie, is a top global oil group and the biggest company in France in terms of sales and profits.

A major player on global oil and gas markets, the group moved quickly on Tuesday to announce that its board would meet on finding a successor, and that it would press ahead with its goals.

(Economic Times, India)


This and that

You read it right, Gannetteers: Christmas comes early. A day late, but still early. Or that was the only day the company could schedule the trucks to haul off the furniture. Bonus: Like that other splendid business model, Tribune, Gannett will Solomonically split the corporate baby into money-printing (broadcast) and not-money-printing (print), the better to give the losers even more time off in the future. Hat tip: Jim Romenesko.

Dear Colleagues:*

I wanted to share some news in case you missed today’s employee Town Hall meeting.

The holiday season is fast approaching and I want to thank you for all you have done to help this company grow and thrive. The past three years have been fast-paced and exceptional as we continue to transform the company’s business and chart a new course. Without your hard work, this company would not be in the terrific condition it is today.

Because of this, I want to give everyone a special holiday surprise: This year, the day after Christmas, Dec. 26, will be a paid day off — a companywide holiday.

Of course there will be some of you who, like on any other holiday, will work that day because as we all know, the news never sleeps, or takes a vacation for that matter.**


Meanwhile, on a different note, we are taking positive steps toward what we initially announced in August: the creation of two publicly traded companies, one exclusively focused on our Broadcasting and Digital businesses, and the other on our Publishing business and its dynamic digital assets.

* You do remember what I’ve been telling you about the good that can come from a memo from the boss that starts with “Dear Colleagues”? (Spoiler alert: none.)

** Yes, it does. S’matter, never been in a city room between Thanksgiving and New Year’s?


From the self-love beat

Getting the news of the day in a spirit of camaraderie and shared respect


Bill Archer and I stand behind Charles Owens, tag-teaming dictation of a “lead” in a soon-to-be-breaking news story. Charles types frantically as Bill and I parley words and phrases. In a three-foot-by-three-foot space behind one glowing computer monitor are three journalists with more than 60 combined years in the biz.

“Behind”? All that experience, and they don’t know that the screen is on the other side?

Thirty feet from Charles’ desk I pause by Obit Clerk Barbara Lewis when she answers a ringing newsroom phone. It’s Greg. She’s hands me the receiver and I ask the all-important question: “Do you have it?”

Excitement laces Greg’s voice as he tells me he has confirmed all the details in our story. The entire newsroom is listening to the conversation. I smile and nod to Bill, Charles and Copy Editor Gayle Dunn. Gayle grins in response, and picks up her role in the drama. She quickly grabs the copy, posts it under breaking news on our website and sends out social media alerts on Facebook and Twitter.

How did the readers recover from all this excitement?

(Bluefield, W.Va., Daily Telegraph)






Because I felt like it, that’s why

Spare the reader the throat-clearing and get on with it. Write in a way to pique the reader’s interest; the reader doesn’t, and shouldn’t, give a rap about your interests, except as they affect the reader’s interest. If FedEx moved freight according to the principles of writing espoused by the ombud, there would be nothing but brown trucks on the road.


Readers of this blog may know that I’m particularly interested in the situation involving James Risen, a Times investigative reporter, who is at risk of going to jail to protect a confidential source from his 2006 book, “State of War.”

(New York Times)


This and that, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America.

O.K., I know that was kind of abrupt.

Then why did you say it, so that we all spilled our breakfast orange juice and ran screaming into the street?

But I wanted to get the central point out there right away, because discussions of Amazon tend, all too often, to get lost in side issues.

Oh. Okay. Just remember, if you write a column and get the central point out there right away, you risk losing your column-writing license.

(Paul Krugman in the New York Times)