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

No tips here — and that’s the story

By · Wednesday, February 6th, 2019 · Comments Off on No tips here — and that’s the story

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Perfection. One definition: “extreme degree of excellence.”

That’s what consumers expected from their Hershey’s Kisses, whose tips have been missing since December. It’s a human interest story generated by a disappointed baker, and we can learn a lot from it.

Every day in Hershey, Pennsylvania, 70 million Kisses are made.

Every day around the world, millions of stories are conceived, reported, edited and published. We rely on the perfection of journalists and the feedback of our audience. We use — and respond to — social media responsibly. When we make mistakes, we correct them as quickly as possible.

And that’s the story.

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

7 ways to decide what’s news

By · Wednesday, January 30th, 2019 · Comments Off on 7 ways to decide what’s news

not teaching,
still THINKING …

We probably could all agree that we often are on information overload. Journalists know this, and one of their roles is to develop a sense of news judgment.

News judgment determines whether:

Here’s a simple guide on how journalists can decide what’s important. Anyone — not only journalists — can use these tips to judge for themselves what’s news.

  1. Be methodical. Ask yourself what is the news, why the news is important and what is the best way to report it. Did the news just happen? Will the news affect people in some way?
  2. Be aware. Consider what people want to know. What questions might people still have that your story could address? Strive to provide not only the freshest details but also story angles that address what people might be confused about, what they need to know, or “what else” has not been reported.
  3. Be a listener. Take into consideration the opinions of colleagues. Each person looks at a story coming from a different background, having different values, possessing different ideas of what constitutes news. What is news to one person might be something another person knew last week. Or what seems minor news to one person might be something of major significance to another person.
  4. Be flexible. It is acceptable to change your mind after you make a news judgment. A breaking story might overtake another one. A colleague who joins the conversation might make a convincing point you had not heard previously. New details might develop that you decide should replace existing information in the story.
  5. Be a broad thinker. Think of your entire audience — the elderly, the young, the retired, the working class, the affluent, and people of all religions, races, genders. While no one story can appeal to all people, your decisions should be made after thoughtful consideration of everyone.
  6. Be a futurist. Think about the impact of the story today, tomorrow and beyond. Let the effect of the news guide your decisions as much as the news itself.
  7. Be a risk-taker. If you are inclined to make safe decisions about what’s news, be open to taking a risk. That does not mean being reckless. But be willing to make a decision that reflects a new approach. Sometimes the risk backfires. Other times the risk is a welcome change. With each risk, learn from the experience.

If we have confidence in our abilities to determine what’s news, we won’t be on information overload — we’ll be informed over and over.

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

Marital affair? Take special care

By · Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019 · Comments Off on Marital affair? Take special care

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Transparency. Journalists strive for it. The audience craves it. We all need it.

Residents called for it recently at a school board meeting about an issue that has been in the news: “West Genesee residents ‘outraged, embarrassed’; want transparency over superintendent”

What’s the story?

These lead paragraphs from that story, published Jan. 16 on syracuse.com explain:

CAMILLUS, NY – More than 100 residents jammed the West Genesee Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, many saying they want the board to be more transparent with the community about an investigation into Superintendent Chris Brown.


The school board’s lawyers are investigating allegations made on social media that Brown was in a relationship with an employee he supervises. Brown’s wife, Rachel Gough Brown, posted on social media in early January that Chris Brown told her he wanted a divorce and that he was in love with the female employee. She later took the social media posts down.

The superintendent, who took personal time off, told syracuse.com that he “did not have a romantic or sexual relationship with any employee in the district. He has said the woman was a good friend who he confided in. He has said he and his wife are divorcing.”

News continued to break.

This story involves multiple layers, including: ethics, public vs private figures, social media, what/how/when to report details, welfare of students, and consideration of stakeholders — residents, faculty, staff and students.

By its nature — and human nature — it’s a story that drew a lot of interest and a lot of questions. Some were addressed in the Jan. 16 story about the residents.

One parent asked at the board meeting: “Where is the communication?”

Another speaker at the meeting said teachers are fearful to speak out.

One resident summed up what ultimately will define this story: “The trust is broken, and that doesn’t get fixed.”

At the time it was announced that the superintendent was leaving, the story included an outstanding question: Did the district’s law firm finish its investigation and, if so, what did it find?

The teachers association statement focused on hope for the future.

For journalists, the future will always hold stories with multiple layers and the need for a principled approach to covering them.

Here’s a gentle reminder about the basics, which journalists surely followed in the reporting of the West Genesee story:

Lastly, as an aside, any journalist wants to cover the news, not be a part of the story. So while covering the personal and professional lives of others, remember that your own actions — personal and professional — have consequences for you, your careers and your colleagues.

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

Show, don’t tell — keep us interested

By · Wednesday, January 16th, 2019 · 1 Comment »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Comedians might “tell” jokes, but they do so with such a “show” of explicit details and colorful anecdotes that listeners can visualize what they are hearing. And that is how comedians get their laughs.

Journalists, too, use the same approach. They include anecdotes, examples and details in their storytelling because these are the elements that keep readers interested. These elements also keep a story from becoming just a recitation of statements and quotes.

Here’s a quick example of how easily it can be done.

Consider this story about a college student who came upon a quacking mother duck who was upset because her ducklings had fallen through a sewer grate. Firefighters used two “massive” crowbars to pry off the grate, but the firefighters were “too big” to fit down the opening. The student volunteered to go down, and he rescued all nine ducklings.

It’s a cute story. It could be even better.

The answers to these questions would elicit even more colorful detail to an already good story.

This example brings up another important point about the all-important anecdotes, examples and details. They naturally come out when a reporter does three key things:

Anecdotes are short stories that help readers to visualize information.

Examples and details add information, description and support; they answer questions that readers raise as they are reading.

Storytellers were using these colorful essentials to bring vivid images to their work long before this became such a visual world. Now it’s your turn to keep us interested.

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

10 dangers when you trim a story

By · Wednesday, January 9th, 2019 · Comments Off on 10 dangers when you trim a story

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Journalists and surgeons have something in common. Trimming a story is like performing delicate surgery. A surgeon wants to leave no evidence of a scalpel or sutures. Journalists, too, aim to trim stories without drawing attention to what has been deleted.

But trimming someone else’s copy comes with risks. Writers put their words together in particular and individual ways. Stories are full of nuances. When you trim, you might gain space. But you also might lose something else. Whenever you trim copy, ask yourself: “What, exactly, did I just lose here?”

Keep in mind these 10 dangers when you trim. There’s a danger that:

  1. You take out too much background, confusing readers who don’t know important history of the story.
  2. You eliminate the first reference to a person or thing.
  3. You eliminate follow-up to a critical point made earlier.
  4. You lop off a strong ending.
  5. You lose beginning or ending quote marks.
  6. You take out important qualifiers, either single words or short phrases.
  7. You “cheat” on attribution, losing it where you really shouldn’t and confusing readers about the source of some important information.
  8. You run sources’ quotes or comments together, creating confusion about what information came from which source.
  9. You shorten too many quotes, creating a stew of ellipses.
  10. You eliminate the lone critic or other view represented in the story.

Remember, too, that these dangers can apply when you trim your own work — not just when you handle the work of others. And you still must ask: “What, exactly, did I just lose here?”

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

6 ways to keep people honest

By · Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019 · Comments Off on 6 ways to keep people honest

not teaching,
still THINKING …

It’s not always easy to know “the right thing” to do, but these tips about honesty can help. They were written from the perspective of editors working with reporters in their all-important relationship. But, realistically, they can apply to just about anyone doing anything in any profession.

  1. Educate them. When it comes to plagiarism (taking credit for work that is not yours) and fabrication (making up information), be sure that people working with you know those definitions — and the consequences of plagiarizing or fabricating. Some good ways: new-hire orientation; training and re-training; brown-bag lunches.
  2. Give them enough time. Allow realistic time for work to be accomplished. For reporters, this means gathering information, checking it and writing it. Don’t pressure others to meet unrealistic deadlines. Be open-minded when people tell you they need more time.
  3. Control their workloads. Help others to pace themselves; work with them to prioritize; ask them from time to time how they are coming along. Be ready to step in with suggestions if they are having trouble. Be aware of — and sincere about — others’ personal lives, especially during any change in their lives that can cause stress.
  4. Give them feedback. Tell others when they are sloppy or careless, but be constructive. Set a standard, make others aware of it, and acknowledge when they reach or surpass that standard.
  5. Encourage teamwork. Do not foster a competitive atmosphere by recognizing only a few achievers. Instead, encourage camaraderie among co-workers.
  6. Tolerate shortcomings. When others don’t deliver what was planned, let them feel comfortable telling you. Set the proper tone by treating others with respect and reacting to them in a civilized manner.

When people fail at being honest, it’s usually because of a lack of time, a lot of stress, or undue pressure. But helping others to avoid these pitfalls can also help them to do “the right thing.”

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