The long slow death of the copy desk

My first journalism job was on a copy desk. I still think it’s great training for anything else you could do in journalism and other careers. Some megablogs (Bleacher Report) have actually recognized the value of having experienced editors around. Some have not.

Sure, I would’ve reorganized things a bit. It was a shock for me to go from my student paper, where the first copy editor went over the story with the reporter, to an isolated desk where we had little interaction with the people who wrote what we were editing. (And this was in the days before cell phones, so we couldn’t always reach reporters with questions.)

But we were the last line of defense against serious errors. That was a big responsibility.

My fellow News & Record alum Lex Alexander always appreciated the desk folks, and reacts to news of the Bay Area News Group’s massive swipe of the ax with typical righteous indignation.

I would, though, point to one factor — a copy desk spends a lot of its effort making things fit on the printed page. Copy desks usually overlap with page design, which is why an artistically lacking guy like me wound up doing “design” work. We fight to make stories fit to the precise line, and we struggle to make headlines fit. (Damn you, page designers and your one-column, 40-point headlines.)

Trimming the paper and doing more online should free up more resources to edit. Not just trim stories to fit and struggle with headlines.

If that means the line between “assignment editor” and “copy editor” gets blurred, that’s OK. I liked direct interaction with reporters, and I got a little bored arguing arcane points of AP style and comma usage.

But readers are noticing that their newspapers are a lot sloppier than they used to be. And it’s not a good thing.

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The Guardian analyzes its comments

One thing I learned from this piece: I have a higher threshold for what comments to block than The Guardian does. But maybe that’s why USA TODAY’s comments were never as clever as The Guardian’s.

One thing I unfortunately already knew: There are a lot of sexist, racist pigs behind computer keyboards.

Source: The dark side of Guardian comments | Technology | The Guardian

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Reporting with the enemy: AP and Nazi Germany

It’s an age-old question in journalism: What sort of trade to you make for access?

We see it in relatively mundane situations like the recent Ariel Helwani news, where Helwani — whose full-time gig is with MMA Fighting, and he’s excellent at it — was let go from his part-time gig with FOX, and it’s pretty heavily implied that he, like many an MMA journalist before him, was doing things the UFC did not like.

I’ve also seen it in local news “scoops.” One of my old papers had a bureau in a neighboring town, and they reported truthfully, whether it embarrassed the local government or not. The smaller paper based in that town was much “friendlier.” Guess which paper got the PR releases first?

I wrestled with it when I was breaking news frequently in the saga of Dan Borislow vs. WPS. Borislow didn’t agree with everything I wrote by any means, and he would certainly share his complaints with me. But he trusted me. Looking back, I think I handled things well, and I think I was fair to all parties. But I also didn’t want to be seen as too close to him. Whenever you’re getting inside info, sharp readers are bound to ask what the reporter has done to earn such trust.

Deadspin, the snarky but occasionally informative sports blog, generally operates without access. Some people think that’s better. They’re not affected by the prospect of going into a locker room and facing the athlete they just criticized. I’d argue their perspective is a valuable addition to our media, but it can’t replace the information reporters get from being closer to the action. It’s not either/or. It’s both.

Those are all a hill of beans, in Bogart’s words, in the world at large. But we also see it in situations of grave importance.

Here’s the story bringing this issue to mind today: Revealed: how Associated Press cooperated with the Nazis | World news | The Guardian

I think most people’s initial reaction is horror. “Cooperated with the Nazis” is never a good look. But is there a value in getting information, however tainted it may be, from an otherwise closed world?

And it’s certainly relevant today. AP is one of those rare news organizations that reports from North Korea. No one’s under any illusion that the reporters are on a tight leash.

If you ran AP, would you pull your reporters from Pyongyang? Or would you continue to take the reports for what they are, knowing that other reporters will be able to put it in perspective?

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Does advertising work? Ask Joe Izuzu

The biggest issue facing journalism today is simple: How will we get people to pay for content? Particularly quality content that requires things like “reporting” and “research”?

“Advertising” would be the easy answer. We can target ads in much more refined ways than we could in print or broadcast. On this Guardian story about declining ad revenue, I have ads for … dealing with Type 2 diabetes? Do they know something I don’t?

One quirk of online advertising is that it’s measurable — or so we think. In the early days, everything we heard was about “click-throughs.” If a reader didn’t click an ad, conventional wisdom said, it was useless. I always tried the counterargument that companies shell out tons of money to slap logos on race cars, and I’ve never seen anyone “click through” a NASCAR hood to get more info on Tide.

So we may find that online advertising doesn’t give you a big bang for your buck. But does any form of advertising do so? (With the exception of ads that we intentionally seek out, like the Sunday newspaper inserts with coupons that pay for your newspaper purchase many times over.)

Case in point: We all remember Joe Isuzu, the smarmy liar at the center of Isuzu’s clever ads. But as this Mental Floss story points out, people loved the character but often didn’t get around to buying the car:

Isuzu’s popularity had a troubling consequence. After the 1986 spurt in sales, the company sold roughly the same amount of vehicles in the first half of 1987. (Actually, 50 fewer.) Both Isuzu and advertising industry experts expressed concern that Isuzu was such an entertaining persona that people were actually paying more attention to him and less attention to the product he was selling—the car.

So have we been fooling ourselves for decades into thinking clever ads will pay off? If so, how will we pay for … anything? Journalism? Sports?

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Telling the truth about depression

Powerful read here in the Post: I told the truth in my sister’s obituary, so that others might choose to live.

The truth was that her sister didn’t just “die unexpectedly.” She suffered from depression and took her own life.

A lot of obituaries hide the cause. Sometimes, it’s a massive stretch. When I was working in Wilmington (NC), we covered a story of a shootout between a couple of drivers who kept going back and forth until one finally got the other. The funeral home’s take on the man’s death: “Natural causes.” Right. He was in a gun duel while driving, so naturally, he died.

The surviving sister in this case, Eleni Pinnow, didn’t want to hide. She wanted to speak to others who feel the way her sister did. And she gets it exactly right:

I told them that her depression created an impenetrable fortress that blocked the light, preventing the love of her friends, her family, and any sense of comfort and confidence from reaching her.

Depression is irrational. You might know it’s irrational, and yet it’s something you can’t just shove aside. Negative thoughts are not like food from which you can make healthy choices. You can choose what goes in your stomach. You can’t always choose what goes in your brain.

You can get a few tools — and perhaps medication — that helps you deal with what’s in your brain. You can weaken that “impenetrable fortress.”

But you have to understand that it’s real. Our brains can be marvelous things, and yet, they have the capacity to torture us.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen the fortress and gotten through it. Like the author, I’ve gone to the house of someone I care about and found a note. I was just a teenager. But the person in the house survived. The obituary would wait many more years, and when it came, it could honestly say “natural causes.”

Pinnow’s obituary is full of good humor — “She did not love France (they know why) and William Shatner (who also presumably knew why)” — and a stark call to action:

If the family were to have a big pie in the sky dream, we would ask for a community-wide discussion about mental health and to pull the suffocating demon of depression and suicide into the bright light of day. Please help us break the destructive silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.

I don’t know why mental illness is so prevalent today. It could be that our “fight-or-flight” mechanism is underutilized in our more civilized world in which we’re not hunting for our own survival and dodging diseases that made childhood a lottery. (While I’m preaching — get your kids their damn vaccines.) It could be our food. It could be our air.

Just know that it’s real. And if it affects you, get help.

And treat other people like they matter. You never know what they’re going through. You might just spread a bit of positive energy. Or maybe you’ll be able to weaken the walls of a fortress around someone’s heart.

 

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Meg Gunn Dure: 1947-2016

File_000“The last of the Southern belles.”

That’s how Dad described Meg Gunn when he broke the news that he had asked her to marry him after a “whirlwind courtship” (Miss Meg’s words) in 1997. She certainly had the requisite grace and charm — and the accent. At her funeral today, the great Southern storyteller Milton Leathers let on that all the boys of his and her age had a little crush on her at some point.

But we can be more precise than “Southern.” Meg Gunn Dure was from Georgia. G-E-O-R-G-I-A. The Bulldogs. A fridge stocked with “Co-Cola.”

To be even more precise, Athens was her home. It was her town. From the pages of the Banner-Herald to her morning TV show to countless civic groups and social circles, Miss Meg was Athens, through and through.

The great film When Harry Met Sally had a conversation about journalists. Sally, fresh out of college, confesses that nothing has happened to her yet. But she’s going to go to New York and be a journalist.

“So you can write about what happens to other people,” Harry scoffs.

Miss Meg defied that stereotype. She was at the heart of her community, a descendant of a proud Athens family. Like her father, she was a pillar of a great college town.

ajc-meg

(Click to enlarge)

One legacy of her Athens attachment: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a story about her family’s seats at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. This wasn’t a fancy suite. But it was a perfect view. Soon after she and Dad married, I visited Athens and went to a Georgia game with her daughter, Mackie. We walked by the end zone and asked Mackie how far it was to our section.

“Oh, about 50 yards.”

Smack in the middle of the stands. Beautiful. And as Meg’s brother Rusty put it, his grandfather had made the perfect choice to get whatever shade could be had in the stadium.

“Once I get seated in the stadium, I can look across the field at the president’s box and see the sun is in his eyes and know that my seats are better than his,” Rusty said.

Miss Meg lost interest in going to games, though. The people around her were no longer Southern gentlemen, sadly. They were drunk and boorish.

“Vulgar,” she would say, just as she said about so much entertainment that assaulted the eyes and ears. Not of any interest to her.

meg-grandsonShe and Dad were content to watch from home, anyway. From the house Dad designed circa 1990 to her old family home, which they delightfully scooped up when it came on the market a few years ago, they had a living room full of warmth and contentment.

She changed Dad in so many ways, helping him find more to life than coming home from work and being an old curmudgeon up on a hill. But she also adapted herself. She wasted no time becoming a Dure. She fell in love with Sanibel Island, our getaway spot, to the point that she and Dad almost bought a house there. She even hiked up Mount Leconte, a feat noted in her obituary as one of her proudest accomplishments.

The last few years were cruel to her. Dad’s health deteriorated. Soon after he passed away, a tree fell on her house, forcing extensive repairs. Her beloved brother Rusty was diagnosed with cancer that would take him away from us in summer 2015. And she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She managed a few months of good health after the first round of treatment, but it came back all too quickly.

The good news was that she still in good humor. Some people, including Dad, aren’t themselves in their last few months. But Miss Meg was on Facebook three days before she passed away, rejoicing in her wide community of friends and family, sharing her wit and charm with hundreds of people each day.

I didn’t grow up with Miss Meg. She was one of mom’s friends I saw on occasion, and I’d been to the Y with her son, Frank. I had vague memories of her from my childhood, but I didn’t really know her until she was part of the family.

But she was part of my roots. I’ve been thinking a lot about Athens in the past year or so, and driving into town Tuesday hit me like a punch to the gut. It was like traveling through time and knowing that so many people are gone, and it’s not really home any more. Now, for the first time, I don’t have any family there. And I feel like a part of Athens itself has died.

I’m sure she wouldn’t see it that way. She loved Athens the way it was but also the way it is and the way it will be. She leaves behind a community full of people who will love her as long as we live, whether we’re physically in Athens or just thinking about it on occasion.

And seeing all the people who crowded into her childhood church today to bid her farewell, I was reminded that Athens will be OK. Athens is Miss Meg. Miss Meg was resilient and graceful. Therefore, Athens is resilient and graceful. (See, logic class in college can be useful.)

Besides — now, she and Dad (and Rusty, and her parents) can watch the Bulldogs from even better seats, without any “vulgar” people spoiling the experience.

Enjoy your new view, Miss Meg. And thank you for gracing Athens and the Dure family with your presence.

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Jim Sherman, rock and roll teacher: 1947-2016

We just stayed and jammed.

shermanI’m not even sure why Mr. Carter, a social studies teacher, was in the music trailer behind the gym. But he and I and Mr. Sherman, the merry ringleader of the eclectic “music” offerings in this trailer, were hanging around after school and playing — Mr. Carter on keyboards, me probably on guitar, Mr. Sherman on whatever. We’d always heard he played every instrument except harp and bagpipes, and he was learning bagpipes.

Ted Pecchio, now a professional musician, poked his head in the trailer and said he had his bass with him. Could he join in?

And that’s how the Athens Academy Jazz Band was formed.

Not that we really played “jazz” in any conventional sense. “Jam Band” would’ve made more sense. We took any old tune or just a 12-bar blues progression and played.

At our first performance, we had about five minutes left in a school assembly. We played considerably longer than that. Everyone was late to the next class. Everyone loved us.

We wound up adding a couple of people after that. I can’t remember who else joined besides Matt Sligh, who was our emcee of sorts.

All of our music had that ad hoc improvisational quality to it. We were a small school. Our “band” would be whatever permutation of people we could find. Some of us did lunchtime music in the cafeteria — one day, I played saxophone, though I could only play in one key because the fingerings in that key were identical to those on my clarinet. Picking up a new instrument wasn’t new for me — I wound up on stand-up bass because it was just the top four strings on a guitar, turned sideways. Right?

It would’ve sounded like a train wreck if not for Mr. Sherman, who could pick up any instrument at hand and save the day.

At times, he was the clown prince of music. He would play a saxophone with a rubber chicken hanging out. At graduation rehearsals, he would gradually morph Pomp and Circumstance into something else — maybe Take Me Out to the Ball Game or the Budweiser jingle.

His jolly demeanor masked a prodigious mind. He spoke several languages, having grown up in a diverse part of Chicago. He had trained to be a priest — on one road trip, he suggested he could do a quick Mass in the parking lot if anyone worried about missing church.

And he had impeccable musicianship, showing me how much more the human brain could process. I sat next to him when he played Christmas tunes for a holiday singalong. For some reason, we did Joy to the World twice. I noticed that he changed keys the second time around, transposing it in his head. He told me never to play the same song in the same key twice.

So I felt anything was possible in music. Play multiple instruments, including one you just picked up. Make people laugh. Get a “fake book” that gives a couple of chords and figure out a song on the fly from there.

That’s the life he lived. In addition to his position at the Academy, he gave lessons and performed. I remember going out to dinner at a nice-ish Athens restaurant and seeing him at the piano, cheerfully setting the ambiance. (I think he skipped Take Me Out to the Ball Game.)

My music teachers all meant the world to me, and they’ve continued their work for decades. Jane Douglas, who taught me piano and encouraged my interest in music theory, was still playing music in Athens in her 80s. Earl Ayers, whose band classes were the highlight of my Clarke Middle years, switched schools but is also still teaching in Athens. Rodney Wynkoop, the Duke Chorale and Chapel Choir director, was such a good teacher that I wound up majoring in music.

On Saturday, Mr. Sherman was at the piano at Piccolo’s Italian Steakhouse in Watkinsville. On Sunday, he passed away.

Far too young, of course. He had only been retired from the Academy for a few years. But I take some comfort in knowing he was making people smile in his last evening on this earth.

Now there’s probably a great jam session going on in Heaven. A departed Scotsman on the bagpipes. A harpist. And Mr. Sherman on everything else.

And I see his spirit in my son, sitting down at the piano or the drums and figuring out how to make something work. If I can pass along any of Mr. Sherman’s attitude, I’ll be as successful a parent as he was a teacher.

Thanks for the education. And the jam sessions.

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