Monday, March 02, 2015

In memoriam: John Shurr, journalist and AP bureau chief

I had the opportunity to work with three great AP bureau chiefs who had my back in my 18 years with the wire service, the last being John Shurr, with whom I spent nine years in Columbia.

So I was saddened to hear of John's passing tonight.

It, unfortunately, was not a surprise; those of us who knew John knew he was in declining health, quite possibly from the Agent Orange he was exposed to during the Vietnam War.

John and I dealt with the craziness of Susan Smith, the madness of the James Jordan death investigation, women at The Citadel, numerous hurricanes, video poker, lowering the Confederate flag, the Republican wave that took over state government ...

Fun times, those.

And through it all, I knew I could always go to John for advice and support. It helped that we both had been in charge, at separate times, of the AP's Rhode Island office. In recent years, he and I would often exchange emails chortling at the continued parade of buffoonery by R.I. politicians and lamenting the slow, painful decline of the Providence Journal, at one time one of America's best local papers -- but sometimes overlooked as it was in the umbra of the major-major metros of the East Coast.

He's best known in South Carolina for his efforts on behalf of freedom of information, an indefatigable defender of the right of the public to know what its government is doing. And I would hope that in his honor, the Legislature this year would finally pass many of the needed changes to South Carolina's FOI law that include a quicker review process, more reasonable costs and a clear and certain window in which time records must be produced. (And, of course, there is the need to overturn the state Supreme Court's troubling decisions on meeting agendas and autopsy reports.)

And as a result of his dedication, in the late 1990s the AP coordinated the first statewide FOI audit in South Carolina that found, as we put it at the time, agencies would get no better than a D if graded on the public schools' grading scale. We found all sorts of obfuscation and harassment, including police demanding IDs from and running the license plates of those requesting records. Sadly, things have only gotten worse.

That was John's public face.

But in the bureau, he was about as good a CoB (AP lingo for chief of bureau) that you could get. He was no more than 15 feet away in his glass-walled office, complete with the picture of his sailboat, his pride and joy, tossed onshore by Hurricane Hugo. (John got a replacement -- "another hole in the water into which you throw money" -- and he tried several times to get me to crew with him. But I always managed to avoid that -- his reputation as Captain Bligh was not entirely undeserved {grin}.)

 But John always gave you enough room to do your job.

Oh, there was no mistake he was paying attention, as evidenced by those occasional "got a minute" calls from the inner sanctum. But you could always count on the fact that when you needed the resources, John would blow out the budget and ask permission (or forgiveness) from AP's headquarters later.

Then there were the years when the AP bureau was like Switzerland, caught in the middle of the Columbia-Spartanburg-Greenville-Charleston newspaper war. There were some strong personalities involved, and afterward he and I would often joke about the S.C. Press Association meeting where the editors started challenging each other -- one had a tight grip on a chair he looked as if he were about to throw -- and John and I just knew, in horror, we were going to have to break up a fight. John, in his way, was able to calm everyone down.

And when the folks in New York thought they knew their jobs better than you, John never hesitated to remind them that -- under the old AP -- a CoB ultimately held the stronger hand and to back down.

That went so far as the AP's managing editor. A former ME who shall remain unidentified here (but every ex-APer knows) used to write a weekly review, a sort of after-action report, called "Dialogue." It was pretty much a one-way conversation, however. It praised "good" work and took bureaus to task when the ME or the general desk felt they had fallen short (often, as my fellow news editors observed, without asking for explanations).

After one winter ice storm, we got blasted. Long story short, our "story" was on the coast, where we knew high winds were blowing salt spray inland, shorting out numerous electrical transformers and leaving thousands dark. We had ice and some snow in the Upstate, but not as many people were affected - the storm that was panicking New York, which was expecting a direct hit, gave us only a glance. We were shorthanded, and I decided it would be foolhardy to call someone in on overtime and make them drive into those conditions. So we concentrated efforts on the coast and used the phones to gather some great material from the Upstate, so good that New York used two of the quotes in its national story. But we got nailed for not enough effort.

I wrote a lengthy challenge. But John summed it up with a short, pointed note to the ME: "Please cancel my subscription to Diatribe."

That was the kind of person, boss and colleague John was. He will be sorely missed. Karen's and my thoughts and condolences go out to his wife, Debbie. And I'm proud to have worked with a journalist's journalist.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

At times of trauma, pay special attention to layout

The State in Columbia, S.C., did yeoman's work in covering last week's murder-suicide at the University of South Carolina.

But the front page the next day points out why in times of trauma, everyone has to be on high alert for issues in every part of the paper and website.

Might have wanted to rethink that lower hed:

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Data journalism: Cool site on counties' economic recovery

The National Association of Counties has put out a cool site that looks at economic indicators for every county throughout the country, and the picture is not great -- aside from the great oil swath in the middle of the country.

counties economic map

Click on the counties in your area. This definitely could lend itself to more reporting.
More from Governing Magazine.

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Friday, January 09, 2015

CSJ: Are you ready for journalism education without 'journalism'?

My latest Common Sense Journalism column. The importance of this was brought home to me again today when reading a student's description on her blog: xxxxx is a senior at the University of South Carolina studying journalism.

She may be in the journalism school, but she is studying public relations. The increasing conflation of these distinctly different things, especially in our students' minds, is dangerous.

For years, growing enrollments at journalism and communications schools have meant a steady stream of young, fresh-faced and motivated applicants willing to work for less than they might have made by taking their degrees elsewhere.

There have been dips, usually associated with the overall economy's problems, but enrollment eventually recovered and often grew stronger.

"What is different this time is that the economy is in a weak recovery, but enrollments are dropping," according to the latest study by Lee Becker and his team at the University of Georgia in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator.

Overall enrollment has dropped for the third straight year, and some reduction is probably a good thing, given the industry's sharp shrinkage that has been offset only partially by growth in digital.
But of much concern to Becker and his team is that advertising and public relations enrollments – areas that had largely withstood the storm – have also dropped.

Journalism "is not a growth area in terms of enrollments, and a focus on journalism as practiced in the past is not likely to attract student interest," they write.

That's a fair challenge to both the industry and education: Evolve or die. Unless you've been under a rock, that shouldn't be a surprise.

But then Becker and his team write this: "The data even hint that a focus on journalism as the curricular core of the field, as the common title of the field – journalism and mass communication education – might be dysfunctional from the point of view of attracting students.

Let that sink in for a moment. Schools might do better if they removed "journalism" from the name.

Don't think administrators aren't aware of this as they look at enrollments at a time when they are under increasing pressure to show their students are getting jobs.

Well, you might ask, as long as we can still teach the core components and values of journalism, what does it matter?

As the ad and PR pros among us know, out of sight is out of mind. Just ask those teaching journalism in a "communications" program or as part of an English department. There are exceptions, but I hear the frustrations from those folks at every journalism educators' meeting I attend.

In the same issue is a note from editor Maria B. Marron, "Content Creation Spans All Aspects of J-Programs."

It's a "new era of storytelling," writes Marron, journalism college dean at the University of Nebraska. It's time, she continued, to acknowledge that journalists, PR professionals and other communicators "all share a concern for the First Amendment freedoms and that we have similar ethics – seeking truth, being honest and accurate, and having a mutual desire to serve the public interest."

PR students should be taught to dig and to push their companies to make "ethical and socially just decisions," and journalists should stop using derogatory terms about PR people, she writes.
Then she delivers the coup de grace: "The ideal calls for a j-school education that places all forms of storytelling – brand journalism as well as in-depth reporting – on equal footing. ...

"Given the numbers in advertising, public relations, and strategic communications, in many of our academic programs, and the growth in opportunities related to content creation or storytelling, both curricular and cultural shifts are important."

Permit me to demur.
Despite the shared goal of storytelling, journalism is a fundamentally different enterprise from advertising, strategic communications or public relations. PR's underlying theme is, essentially, "trust us." Journalism's is "if your mother says she loves you, check it out."

This contrast is clear in the lead article of the recent issue of another journal, Mass Communication and Society. It is about "adjudication," the idea journalists should do more reporting to determine the validity of competing positions and fewer he said-she said stories.

Contrary to fears of some journalists that this could promote views of bias, the researchers found that adjudication tended to improve the perceived quality of the journalism. Of course, the adjudication would be needed less if politicians and their PR aides weren't trying to "shape" stories.

Some of the best PR professionals I've worked with have embodied that truth-telling ethic Marron calls for, even at the risk of their careers. And some of the worst journalists I've known have seen it as a mere inconvenience.

I want to turn out journalists who understand they live in a "content creation" world and how to navigate it. And I want budding PR people to develop the moxie to tell their bosses they're being stupid and not looking out for the public interest.

But the reality is they operate in different philosophical worlds.

I fear journalists may have become so used to the surplus of bright, young talent that they are inured to what is happening. But the table is being set in some places to remove "journalism" from journalism education. If you sit back and do nothing, don't be surprised when you find it missing.

 Past issues of Common Sense Journalism can be found at

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Ledes: Zig left, zag right - constructing thin air out of ... thin air

You don't have to be spot on the bull's eye when writing a lede, but it is nice if you kind of open somewhere in the general neighborhood of the story.

It seems to be of fashion these days for writers to indulge their fantasies in ledes that start out with a faux anecdote -- one that is about as close to the actual point of the story as, say, Greenland is to Antarctica (well, yes, they're both cold) -- only to give the perplexed reader whiplash as it snaps back the point.

Our latest exhibit:

On Sept. 13, 1899, Henry Hale Bliss stepped off a streetcar at 74th and Central Park West, and walked right into the path of a taxicab, and into the record books. He was the first person in the Americas to be killed by a car. Getting killed by a car was a new thing, and very big news.
The Ooyala Q3 Global Video Index is the opposite of that. 

For several quarters in a row, Ooyala and other companies have been reporting growth--ridiculously large increases--in online video viewership or other up-worthy stats.  Ooyala is  doing that again this morning and it’s news only in that the numbers are growing at such a absurdly fast clip, all around the world, so that now the thing to do is find the biggest crazy number, and note it.

 What's even worse is when you're on a mobile device (or even on a desktop reading a digest) and the summary line actually gives you a sense of the news -- only to click through and have to wade through this to get back to the original point.

No one's suggesting you have to be sparse about it, but a little less self-indulgence, please.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

AP style: 'Justify'

AP has issued one of its periodic style updates, and one might be of interest to usage mavens:

Justify: Smith justified his actions means Smith demonstrated that his actions were right. If the actions are still controversial, say Smith sought to justify his actions. 

It's much like refute (proved) and rebut (sought to prove). I like it, but as with all usage issues, AP is splitting hairs a tad. For instance, Merriam-Webster's entry first lists to provide or be a good reason for (something) : to prove or show (something) to be just, right, or reasonable, to provide a good reason for the actions of (someone).

To "provide" is a tad less than the AP's take, which would fall more under "prove."
AP is in more line with its master dictionary, Webster's New World 5th: to show to be just, right, or in accord with reason; vindicate.

American Heritage is similar :  To demonstrate or prove to be just, right, or valid.

M-W is always considered the more liberal. And in the digital age you've got to deal with the reality that many people are going to get their usage sense from places like Your (The definition of justify is to provide an explanation or rationale for something to make it seem OK or to prove it is correct or OK.) or (to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right; to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded), both of which are less restrictive.

So be aware.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

How to annoy your readers, McClatchy style

McClatchy has apparently found a new way to torture readers who go to at least some of its websites -- the ad intercept screen that has no ad on it and asks you if you want to read a story that's not the one you clicked through.

Is it any wonder that McClatchy's stock (MNI) is in the tank?

McClatchy keeps talking about how digital is its future (PDF). But I've yet to see this company really show that it understands how online works -- except to annoy readers with websites that don't display or print correctly, or have so much underlying crap code they slow down browsers.

For a while, I thought MNI was sort of getting it with its redesign (though the design still is about five years behind where forward-looking operations like The Guardian are going). And then this stuff crops up.

Here are a few screenshots from Myrtle Beach and Rock Hill. (I already had tripped The State's cookie by the time I decided to see if this was at other MNI sites, so I'm not getting the screen there right now -- but I will as soon as I sign out and clear session cookies.)

Rock Hill and Myrtle Beach screens that appear when you try to click through a story. Notice "skip this ad" in upper right - but there's no ad. So why annoy readers? Upper left is a suggestion to read a story -- one that's different from the one you clicked through to read.
Update 11/14
Matt Derienzo expounds on the Nieman blog about how newspapers in general are ditching the idea of customer service.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Alice Fraser takes a comedic look at modern journalism

Australian comedian Alice Fraser takes a wonderfully sardonic look at modern journalism in her "Why journalists don't fact check anymore."

This is the way news works now. Speculation regurgitated as fact, swallowed as news, excreted as statistic, rehashed as opinion and commented on as though it were a completely different article about something else entirely. Since the 100% true story from history of that emperor who wasnt wearing any clothes but everyone agreed that he was wearing clothes because the SMH had picked up a picture of some clothes from Reuters, news has been full of circle-jerk hearsay, the kind of drippy dribbling mouth to mouth communication that coughs itself up into a  foetid phlegm of hot, secondhand, coagulated lung fluid. Or so I hear. Ill have to check Wikipedia. Lets just agree to agree that the News is as fukt as the world or that Ikea table I shouldnt have just tried to sit on, and I dont know that we can fix it. Just, maybe dont trust it with your full bodyweight. 

Read the whole article. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

When prescriptivism scrapes the railing: plethora

I love the Testy Copy Editors blog overseen by Phil Blanchard. It's one of my daily go-tos.

But occasionally, as is always going to happen at places that ruminate over usage and other editorial matters, the danger is that things take on a "get off my lawn" tone. It happens in this space too, regrettably, though I try to avoid it.

So from TCE today comes this:
Shannon Serpette of Henry is our new copy editor. She comes to the BCR with a plethora of writing experience. Her smiling face is a great addition to our department, and she’s also going to continue doing some writing. If you get a phone call from Shannon or have the opportunity to chat with her, please help us welcome her into the BCR family.
(Bureau County Republican, Princeton, Ill.)

Once Shannon is through her probation, she can put on her big smile and tell the boss to look up the meaning of “plethora,” which the boss probably thought was a compliment.
 And, true, the classic definition of plethora means an overabundance, an excess, of something.

Bryan Garner, still considered the leading authority on American usage, hews to that side of the word, though his latest volume, now at the ripe old age of 5, is starting to age a bit in these digital times when usage changes have gone from glacial to, at least, climate change proportions.*

So posts like TCE's need to acknowledge that maybe some change has crept into the conversation. No less than the Oxford Dictionaries is now suggesting usage has changed.

usage: Strictly, a plethora is not just an abundance of something, it is an excessive amount. However, the new, looser sense is now so dominant that it must be regarded as part of standard English.

We must not become so pedantic that we don't stop and take a deep breath before pulling the trigger.

* While Garner says, "Although W11 [Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed 2003)] seems to countenance this meaning, it is unrecorded in the OED and in most other dictionaries. And it represents and unfortunate degeneration of sense."

But things change. Here is the latest entry from the Oxford English Dictionary online (this is the big boy, available only through very expensive subscription, not the slimmer sibling I linked to above):

Usu. with of. Originally in pejorative sense: an excessive supply, an overabundance; an undesirably large quantity. Subsequently, and more usually, in neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety. (emphasis mine)
So, yes, the careful writer will take note. But the peevers among us should also.

Otherwise, why not open up the shopworn debate on "decimate" while we're at it?

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Friday, October 03, 2014

From the brevity files -- how to sound like a tool (again)

Today's superfluous wording from The State (though the TVs thoughtlessly do this all the time):

Lexington County Coroner Earl Wells said Ethan Payne, 13, of Lexington, died after sustaining a single gunshot wound.

Or, in plain English: died after being shot once.

Do we really want to sound like a tool of the authorities that much? Are we that insecure?

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