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

Busted! How to deal with the unexpected

By · Wednesday, October 16th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

This “F” goes to a busted water heater.

It is not so much that this much-needed appliance broke — or even that it leaked water onto the basement floor at an alarmingly steady rate. This broken water heater earns an “F” because of how it totally upended the normal routine of a Sunday evening.

Kind of reminds us, in retrospect, of how breaking news does exactly that same thing to journalists.

Journalists can be burned by breaking news because it tends to happen when they are planning something else. But they can — and do — overcome the challenge when they have a plan in place to deal with it. Plans vary depending on the news organization, size of staff, type of breaking news.

Yet despite any differences in plans, one thing is universal: A positive attitude helps.

Just as things will always break, we will always experience breaking news. Don’t let the unexpected become a frustrating interruption. Instead, put all your energy and effort into dealing with it.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Choose lively language with these 3 tips

By · Wednesday, October 9th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

(Image via teamsupport.com)

Lively language. The way we put words together makes a difference in how our message is received. One way to achieve lively language is to choose strong verbs. Substitute a strong verb for a weak one. Choose verbs that show action. Avoid “there is” and “there are.”

Here are some simple tips:

Make it a priority to achieve lively language. Your message depends on it.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Look up! What stories will you tell?

By · Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Take time each day to do some blue-sky thinking. (Emilie Davis)

Blue-sky thinking is a must for writers — whether they are interns, newcomers or veterans. That’s because pitching stories is still THE top request of writers at digital-first operations and print publications.

If you think it is difficult to come up with ideas no one has thought of already, then the following questions might help you broaden your thinking. You never want to be in a position to say, “I don’t have any ideas.”

  1. Who are the people affected? This question will yield personal accounts that will make a story idea real, entertaining and engaging. These stories usually come not from bureaucrats but from the ordinary people who do their day-to-day jobs unnoticed.
  2. How are people affected or how might they be affected? The answer to this question will spark reader interest in the story. Stretch the story idea beyond today. Think about how people will be affected in a few weeks, a few months or in a year.
  3. Why would I write this? You should be able to succinctly explain why your story idea would be important to anyone. A bit of research might be required to answer this question. Then, finish this sentence: “This story is important because ….”
  4. Who are the bureaucrats? People in authority have a role in stories even though you are looking for ordinary people to bring stories to life. Identify them. Plan to interview them last, after you have been informed by what the ordinary people tell you.
  5. What are the key questions? Determining key questions for each person you plan to interview is a way to further develop your story idea. You’ll want to elicit examples, anecdotes and details that are specific to each person.
  6. What research must I do? Knowing what led to an idea will help to shape it. How did we get here? Why did we get here? You want your research to help you identify a fresh angle even if the story has been written about in the past or has been a story elsewhere.
  7. Where can I go? Get out and use all of your senses. You’ll see things differently when you meet people in their homes and where they work. When you think about the setting for interviews, you’ll be able to better define your story idea.
  8. What am I missing? This is where you get to practice “blue sky” thinking. Ask yourself: “Who else and what else?” Think beyond the obvious.
  9. How can I be creative? This is a fun question. Stretch your imagination. Ask yourself: “How can I approach this story differently from other stories? How can I take a new approach to a recurring story? How can I make an ordinary story interesting?”
  10. What is my vision? Imagine what your idea will look like. Take a personal interest in your idea.

It’s never too late to start pitching ideas, and blue-sky thinking will help. If you don’t pitch, your value will be diminished — no matter how good you are at what you do.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

3 ways to test your trust in today’s news

By · Wednesday, September 25th, 2019 · Comments Off on 3 ways to test your trust in today’s news

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Now is a good time to share, again, some key ways that news consumers can test whether they can trust the information bombarding them about serious national issues in today’s news.

Try any — or all — of these three simple exercises.

  1. After you have followed your normal routine for consuming the daily news, go back to a story that interested you. Look at the attribution throughout the story. Attribution tells you where information came from, and it makes the story transparent. Ask yourself some questions. Is the attribution properly placed? How does placement of the attribution help your understanding of the story? Or, if it is misplaced, how is that a problem for you as a consumer of news?
  2. Follow some media outlets on Twitter. Pay attention to how news and information is shared by them. How is it attributed? Watch for key phrases, such as “exclusive” and “we just learned.” Likewise, consider whether the tweets point elsewhere to the source of information. If links are included, click on them. Do they take you to the primary source? See how quickly you can get to the primary source — or, whether you never do.
  3. Check in with your social media favorites and look for information that has been retweeted, shared and liked. Is the information attributed, sourced and substantiated? Sources indicate that others — not the reporter — provided information, and sources make the story credible. Substantiation gives support to information in the story, and it makes the story strong. In what ways is the information attributed, sourced and substantiated? As a news and information consumer, are you satisfied? If not, what is missing? Where will you go to find it?

Journalists want their audiences to trust them. They need that trust to exist and to thrive. When you try out these exercises yourselves, you are holding them accountable for keeping your trust.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Fears and tears? Write through them

By · Wednesday, September 18th, 2019 · Comments Off on Fears and tears? Write through them

not teaching,
still THINKING …

This memoir represents years of tedious writing and emotional perseverance. (Emilie Davis)

Memories. That’s what “the Goodbye Diaries” is about — a mother-daughter memoir published almost 20 years after the death of mother Sally Bardach. Writing began during her illness in partnership with daughter Marisa Bardach Ramel, who just published the book these many years later.

Marisa invited us to attend her book-signing event last week at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she graduated in 2004. She had been a student in Steve Davis’ class.

For more than an hour, Marisa casually — yet passionately — described her journey as a high-school teen learning of her mother’s pancreatic cancer, rejecting her mother at times, loving her, writing with her, learning from her and missing her. Marisa also interacted with the dozens of students in the audience, sharing her writing tips and advice — especially for those interested in writing a memoir someday.

These are our four takeaways from Marisa’s conversation:

  1. Write something. Don’t wait for the perfect thought to be perfectly structured before writing. Just write. You can — and will — perfect your story later. This will happen sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and chapter by chapter. Writing is a process.
  2. Listen to others. Seek advice from fellow writers and editors, from trusted friends who know you well, from professionals you connect with through networking. Then adjust that advice to your personal circumstance. Don’t be quick to change your thinking. You must be comfortable with suggested changes to your writing and to how you are telling your story.
  3. Be brave. It is not comfortable at times to look at yourself and to write about yourself. You must be willing to let others see you as you were and as you are — everything. Your story will be true only if you are truthful.
  4. Don’t rush it. The passage of time can be a good thing. Sometimes you need space between the events in your life and your writing about them. Take that time, even if it means not writing at all. You will write again, and your story might benefit from your perspective later in life than in real time.

Listening to Marisa brought back many memories of writing and editing classes at the Newhouse School — and of the many students in those classes. We learned a lot from Marisa. You can learn more from her, too, by connecting with her on her the Goodbye Diaries website.

Marisa Bardach Ramel and professor emeritus Steve Davis reunited. (Emilie Davis)

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Turn on and stay on — all the time

By · Wednesday, September 11th, 2019 · Comments Off on Turn on and stay on — all the time

not teaching,
still THINKING …

If you pay attention, you can see the difference. (Emilie Davis)

Spaghetti supper one night recently turned into a lesson relearned in how we need to be “on” all the time.

The spaghetti saga starts with two cooks in the kitchen. Cook 1 boiled the water. Cook 2 added the pasta. Easy enough. But a simple meal took a nasty turn in the amount of time that it takes to cook pasta — al dente or not.

In a household where gluten-free eating is not a choice but a necessity, two cooks who were not paying attention almost ate gluten-laden thin spaghetti rather than gluten-free spaghetti.

They weren’t “on” at the stove.

As with any type of situation where quality control is essential, these two cooks failed miserably. The only thing that saved them was luck. Once the thinner, less yellow pasta was dumped into the colander, filling it to the brim, only then did they notice all the differences. But it was close.

Close calls are common in a deadline-driven profession of gathering, producing and publishing news and information. That’s why one of our mantras has always been: You have to be “on” all the time.

We acknowledge that it is a bit embarrassing to share this personal experience. But, then again, we also recognize that we learn from one another’s mistakes.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)