Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, Newhouse School, Syracuse University. Editing for print and digital, new media journalism.

You can try, but you won’t succeed

By · Monday, January 16th, 2017 · Comments Off on You can try, but you won’t succeed


Just finished folding a set of sheets, including the dreaded fitted sheet. Actually, folding sheets was an exercise for students during one of their editing classes at the end of last semester.

Two students were given a flat sheet. Two students were given a fitted sheet. Their instructions were simple.

Those on the sidelines were eager to assist, and they pitched in when asked.

As might be expected, the one team produced a perfectly folded flat sheet so neat that it looked like it had come straight from the new package the students had just opened. (And they didn’t cheat by folding on the creased lines.)

The other team produced a not-bad-looking fitted sheet that had only a bit of excess material cleverly tucked in the folds here and there. It was not perfect, but it was mostly neat. And it was folded.

Everyone judged the flat sheet a success, but not the fitted sheet.

Imagine their surprise when I concluded the opposite. And then the protesting started about the neatly folded flat sheet.

What do you mean we didn’t succeed? Look at this!

I know. But you were told to try to fold the sheet neatly.

We did!

I agree. You folded the sheet neatly. It looks great. But you didn’t follow the instructions. You were told to try to fold the sheet. If you had tried, you wouldn’t have succeeded.

What? We can try and also succeed.

No, you won’t succeed if you only try.

I tossed a highlighter on the floor and invited anyone to try to pick it up — not an original idea, but one I had learned years ago from two motivational speakers. One student and then another and another reached for the highlighter and grabbed it off the floor.

No, I didn’t say to pick up the highlighter. I said to try to pick it up.

Then one student quite dramatically reached for the highlighter, coming oh so close but never touching it.

I’m trying. But I can’t pick it up.

Even this on-the-mark demonstration did not sway them. It was only when I shared another example that they started to get it.

Picture yourself excitedly talking to a friend, I told them.

You: “A bunch of us are getting together tonight. Come over.”

Your friend: “Hey, thanks. I’ll try to come.”

What do you think will happen, I asked everyone. “They’ll show,” answered one, optimistically. “Nah, they aren’t coming,” concluded another, realistically.

A new semester in a new year … we all must do more than merely try.

Be a cautious skeptic — especially now

By · Friday, October 7th, 2016 · Comments Off on Be a cautious skeptic — especially now

Look no further than the rash of stories about creepy clown sightings around the country to understand how important it is to be a healthy skeptic. The topic of healthy skepticism is timely, with good reason.

Journalists get paid to ask questions, and the aim has always been to ask the right questions to get the right answers before readers ask those same questions. Our job is to educate, enlighten and inform.

In today’s world of easy and timely access to news and information of all kinds, it’s no surprise that readers are getting to ask questions in real time. That means journalists have to keep ahead of every story even more now than ever.

That’s difficult to do, especially in context of a story such as the clowns, which seems to be a messy mix of half-truths, outright falsehoods, urban legend and repurposed pictures.

Coverage has varied: tips about how not to dress for Halloween; what to do if confronted by a costumed clown; the genesis of creepy clowns; and maps showing sightings around the country.

Where does healthy skepticism fit in? It’s our job as journalists to question the veracity of every story about every sighting in every place. A good start is with some key bullet points we attribute to now-retired Reid MacCluggage, who began his career at the Hartford Courant, and who created a list of ways to develop a healthy skeptical habit:

No one likes to be fooled. Journalists, especially, don’t want to inadvertently fool the audience with stories published haphazardly.

That’s why we purposely have not included photos of clowns or links to clown stories in this post. We don’t want to pass along what we cannot verify. But we invite you to check them out — either stories happening in your area or happening elsewhere.

Apply MacCluggage’s tips as you read. And then take care with your own “publish” button before you tweet, post or share. Be a healthy skeptic. Your audience will thank you.

Gawker 101 — its history and influence

By · Thursday, August 25th, 2016 · Comments Off on Gawker 101 — its history and influence

If you don’t know what to think about the recent shutdown of, then you must read Farhad Manjoo’s column, “Gawker’s Gone. Long Live Gawker.”

It is rich — full of history and examples that bring context to the development and decline of the digital service.

Here are a few tidbits from the column:

If you think this says it all, think again. And read the full column for a clear understanding that to know where we’re headed, we need to know where we’ve been.

Think first, then tell the truth

By · Monday, August 22nd, 2016 · Comments Off on Think first, then tell the truth

No good comes from a lie.

We have seen that most recently with the made-up story involving four Olympic swimmers in Rio de Janeiro. The fabrication was that they were robbed in a taxi — by police, at gunpoint — when, in fact, they themselves had vandalized a public restroom.

The only money they had lost was the reimbursement they paid for the damage.

But they lost much more than money.

Why not tell the truth? Reasons can range from fear of failure to rash decisions to lack of conscience. We all know what it feels like to be fearful of something. But doing the right thing must prevail.

That’s why we encourage “thinking in advance” by always asking: What’s the consequence?

For journalists, this could mean, “What will happen if …”

All of these could lead to loss of credibility. And when credibility is lost, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to gain it back.

That’s why in our classrooms, the consequence of any of these is an F for the assignment and possibly for the course.

It’s a harsh reality — as difficult to give an F as it is to receive one. But an F now might mean all the difference later.

The truth always comes out. It could take hours, days, weeks, months or even years. And, inevitably, one lie or untruth will lead to another.

Think in advance. Think of the consequences. Think.

Think now or think later — but think

By · Thursday, August 18th, 2016 · Comments Off on Think now or think later — but think
Image via

Image via

During a routine trip to the grocery store today, a conversation between two college students — the cashier and the bagger — caught my attention. The bagger said he had not yet registered for the one course his adviser told him he “must take” this fall. The cashier told him that she had registered for all of her classes on the first day of registration.

Two students. Two schools. Two approaches.

As an observer, it was amusing to listen in on the banter.

As an adviser to college students, it was just a bit disheartening.

Registration can be a stressful time for students in any year and any major. There are so many moving parts: days and times that might conflict; caps on the number of students allowed in each class section; courses that might be offered in only the fall or spring semester, but not both. Then there are other considerations: plans to study abroad; work-study obligations; jobs off campus; and, understandably, having time for a life outside the classroom.

With all of these variables, why would a student not register for a course at the first available opportunity? It’s a question that confounds us.

It could be procrastination. Or inattention to details. Disorganization. Complacency. Unwillingness to focus on the future. Confidence that it will all work out. All of the above. Or none.

While we have helped many a student figure out a mere semester’s worth of courses or an entire four-year plan, we haven’t figured out why or how some end up in difficult scheduling situations with no easy solution.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with our mantra to Think Like an Editor, then focus on the all-important element, which is to think. As we’ve said before, the ability to think is underrated. But it is an empowering trait and an all-important one for journalists of any age and at any stage in their careers.

Judging from the conversation in the grocery store, that bagger is thinking now. Good for him. Sometimes the most powerful lessons learned are the ones that cause the most angst at the moment.

And in a nod to youthful exuberance, it should be noted that that bagger was not disheartened at all. Although behind on his registration, he was just as pleasant and jovial, happy and content, responsible and respectful as that cashier who was on top of her game.

Two students. Two schools. Two approaches. Two good kids.

6 ways to impress at a new job

By · Thursday, October 15th, 2015 · Comments Off on 6 ways to impress at a new job

If you’re starting a new job or an internship at a news organization, take a moment to learn these six simple ways to stand out as a professional member of the team from Day One.

  1. Dress professionally. This doesn’t necessarily mean full-blown business attire. But it does mean dressing appropriately for the position. A reporter covering breaking news? Be sure your shoes will take you where you need to go. And don’t follow the veterans in the crowd. They might wear jeans and T-shirts, but that’s not for you. At least not yet.
  2. Know the policy for corrections. We all make mistakes. Before it happens to you, be proactive and ask about the proper procedure for bringing a published error to the attention of your news organization. Is there a particular person to tell? Who makes the correction? Is there a form to fill out? How do you inform your audience?
  3. Know local style. Even if your news organization follows Associated Press style, you can be sure there are local exceptions. Again, ask. And find out where the local style guide resides. How can you access it so you can learn it and use it?
  4. Know what to do if you’re ill. Before the day comes when you are too sick to go to work, ask about the proper procedure for alerting your supervisor or news organization. And, how? Some prefer email, others text message, others a phone call.
  5. Know the policy for sharing your work on social media. Is sharing required? Expected? Desired? And, how often and how much?
  6. Know the policy for engaging with readers who post comments on your stories. Should you end your story with a question to your audience, as some news organizations suggest, as a way to encourage civil engagement? Should you post answers to questions that are raised? Should you remain silent?

First days — anywhere — are memorable ones. Make yours memorable for the right reasons. And you’ll make a good impression.