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Common Sense Journalism

An extension of the Common Sense Journalism monthly column by Doug Fisher, former broadcaster, newspaper reporter and wire service editor. From new media to old, much of journalism is just plain common sense.

Updated: 2018-01-19T11:45:15.186-05:00


Screw transparency - two lessons in hidden government and the piggy bank


I'd call your attention today from two stories from Columbia, S.C., that show how public officials do their best to hide the money that flows from the government "piggy bank."Our first exhibitA story from The Nerve on how EnginuitySC appears to be quietly stepping away from its much-touted nuclear initiative now that the V.C. Summer nuclear project has collapsed. But of even more interest to me is the info, deep in the story, that this government-backed nonprofit  has contracted out its management to a firm, Sagacious Partners, run by Engenuity's current and former directors.(Also interesting to me is that Sagacious manages to neglect to mention Engenuity anywhere in its partners' bios that I can see (a search on the page turned up nada). And, yes, EngenuitySC is a quasi-public agency - it's often referenced that way in government reports and budgets, and it has received millions of state money, which makes it subject to the FOIA.)The effect of contracting out management is to hide the actual salaries under a lump-sum payment to Sagacious (though an FOIA for the contract might be revealing, but not necessarily -- see the next entry). I invite you to tool through Engenuity's Form 990 tax return that The Nerve helpfully has linked to.Our second exhibit ...Comes from the investigative site Quorum Columbia, where investigative reporter Ron Aiken dropped an open records request on Richland County for details of what it's paid in legal bills recently.The total? About $5 million.Except the county won't say what it paid for. It redacted all the details. The site is by subscription, but here's an excerpt: Quorum’s review of the County’s legal spending from May 2016 to August 2017 showed payments to:McNair Law Firm (governmental affairs), $354,689Gignilliat Savitz & Bettis (employment and labor law), $252,125Attorney Malane S. Pike (governmental affairs, property tax/assessment issues), $260,933Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough (governmental affairs), $45,104Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein (governmental affairs, accounting and finance compliance), $207,979Willoughby & Hoefer (governmental affairs), $3,874,488.The amounts are easy to discover.The work performed for them is not.For this story Quorum asked for both the latest invoice and copy of the contract between the County and each of the firms listed. In the 44 pages provided, any and every mention of specific work performed by a firm on invoices submitted was completely redacted. The only information even hinting at the nature of the work came in generalized summaries in the original contracts between the firms and the County, some of which were signed long after the firm or individual was receiving large, regular payments from the County.Here's an example:As pointed out in the story, there's a real question here about flagrant abuse of the attorney-client privilege exemption, not to mention that taxpayers footed these bills for outside counsel when the county also has a well-paid legal office. (Aiken also provided a link to a PDF of the full county response. It's a beauty of redaction to behold.)Just a reminder that even when a Legislature says clearly that the public's business is supposed to be ... well ... public, that's open to creative interpretation.[...]

Our media paranoia runneth over


This was a note in today's Connecting, the daily email newsletter for AP retirees and others who are interested. For copyright, I won't post the photos, but have given the links. (This is the Connecting archive, where a PDF of the issue should eventually show up thanks to Paul Shane, the indefatigable editor.)  

Was this AP photo 'sanitized' by cartoonist?

Here is HPD SWAT member Daryl Hudeck as he carries Catherine Pham and her son Aiden to safety:

Here is the Indianapolis Star's Gary Varvel's version of that photo (note, this is a collection page, so the cartoon may start moving toward the bottom after a few days). A

And This is what someone wrote in to Connecting:

OK, we've officially gone bonkers.

Yes, cartoonists are supposed to provoke strong reactions. But to accuse Varvel of "sanitizing" the photo with his editorial cartoon? Artists simplify for a reason -- to make a point. Should Varvel have put "SWAT" or "POLICE" on the cap? (That wasn't on the original that I can see, though it's hard to make out what is there.) Perhaps, but then can't it be argued that would marginalize EMS,  firefighters, and all the volunteer rescuers who have headed to the area to help?

Varvel's interpretation celebrates the idea that all of humanity, no matter or race, our occupation or our political persuasion, pulls together in times of such crisis.

He didn't put the person standing in the back in either? Should all the other rescuers be annoyed? He didn't put the submerged car in either - should the automakers be pissed? He didn't put the highway in. Should the road builders be ticked off? 

We have become paranoid -- looking for a bogeyman  and perceived grievances under every (media) rock.
This writer, and others, apparently, who share his views, have  tried to take what I consider a noble image, both the original and Varvel's, and  turn it into yet another point of divisiveness. Fortunately, I think Varvel's will prevail.

Flyer: AP finally bends to common usage


The pressure became too much to bear.

Time to update those style quizzes. From today's ACES meeting, AP finally bends to common usage:

"AP style now uses flyer with a Y for frequent flyer and advertising flyer. An exception is 'take a flier,' as in take a risk"

The full AP entry:

Flyer is the preferred term for a person flying in an aircraft, and for handbills: He used his frequent flyer miles; they put up flyers announcing the show. Use flier in the phrase take a flier, meaning to take a big risk.  

Another SC FOIA audit has too many failing grades


 It's nice to know that in South Carolina, the more things change, the more things stay the same, at least when it comes to state agencies' arrogance over the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.When I supervised the first statewide FOIA audit at the AP almost 20 years ago, we found widespread violations (and even creepier stuff, such as police or sheriff's offices running license plate checks on those asking for basic information that is routinely supposed to be public, even without a request).During the years, my reporting classes have routinely tested local police and sheriffs, with the same scofflaws, led by Columbia, at the bottom every time. The SC Policy Council recently ran its own limited test. First, the conclusion because it is important and because I don't want it to get lost at the bottom:There simply aren’t that many FOIA requests for agencies to deal with. One of the most popular arguments against tightening the state’s FOIA law goes something like this: If you require agencies to respond more substantively to requests, those agencies’ public information offices will do nothing but respond to fishing expeditions by people looking for scandal. Our study doesn’t support that conclusion. Only the Department of Transportation received a significant number of FOIA requests; other agencies received far fewer. As for DOT, a $2 billion agency with a robust public information office should be able to handle 400 or 500 requests in a year. So here's what the Policy Council did: On November 8, 2016, we asked for: ► the number of FOIA requests the agency has received in the past three fiscal years;► the number of FOIA requests to which the agency the responded by producing documents over the past three fiscal years;► the names/identities of those who have submitted FOIA requests to the agency in the past three fiscal years;► an itemized list of each FOIA charge for the past three fiscal years; and► an itemized list of each FOIA charge that was collected in the past three fiscal years and a detailed summary how the funds were spent.The state agencies were these: Clemson University, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Education, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), the State Ports Authority (SPA), Santee Cooper, the South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA), the University of South Carolina (USC), the South Carolina House of Representatives, and the South Carolina Senate.The results -- and keep in mind that South Carolina's law has a 15-day limit for the agency to acknowledge the request but no actual time limit on when the agency must produce the records (the grades are mine based on something similar we did with the AP audit): Clemson: Said it got the request, never provided the records. Grade: DCommerce: Generally provided the information, but cited 52 cases of exemptions. However, Commerce does have a broad exemption for economic development deals in progress. So, even though I'm always somewhat skeptical because that exemption has been abused, give it a good-faith effort. And it did supply requesters' names, so it earned a B.Transportation: Provided most of the info, but refused to supply the names, citing the law's privacy exemption. Because that privacy claim is doubtful (more on that later), a C+.Education: Said it got the request, never provided the records. Grade: DMUSC: Said it got the request, never provided the records. Grade: DPorts Authority: Responded fully. Grade: A.Santee Cooper: Responded fully. Grade: A.Research Authority: Responded fully except for one request. Again, because it deals in areas where the economic development exemption could creep in, grade it A-.University South Carolina: Did not even respond. Grade: F.S.C. House: Responded fully within the law's constraints, except that five members pulled the "legislative memoranda, communications, etc." card from the deck and blocked their specific information. Does th[...]

Buried treasures in Trump's orders


The coverage of President Trump's executive orders has been intense and informative.Yet I can think of no other time that it is incumbent on us as journalists -- and just as citizens or plain old human beings -- to read the texts of those orders (I'd encourage you to bookmark that link) and ponder (and seek a range of informed guidance on) what they really say. This means every journalist because, as we've seen already, the tentacles of these have the potential to  reach into almost every community.I know, it is a lot to ask in a world already demanding too much of our time and mental processing power. But while the media coverage (and what we filter from it) gives us the most salient, emotional points, these orders are filled with gifts that have the potential to  keep on giving (tongue firmly planted in cheek, lest you interpret that as an endorsement).For instance, in one of Trump's immigration orders (there are at least three, if you count the one primarily dealing with the border wall) is language prompting our typical sky is (well could be) falling stories.The alarm is well-placed, but you also need to put it in wider context and understanding of the system. Such stories tend to rouse the populace for a relative instant, but the process is a long grind that requires constant vigilance. What usually happens is that the emotion subsides, we move on to other things, and the long, slow engagement is left to the lawyers and lobbyists (and a few journalists, if we are lucky) whose natural habitat is deep in the muck (that swamp Trump said he wants to drain?).Now, more than ever, to follow that usual pattern is to wake up one day and go WTF?The screening system order - perspective Yes, you should be concerned about this proposed screening system (if nothing else but for the retaliation it could invite on the world stage).But as with all such things (including most laws passed by Congress), the devil will be in the administrative details. What needs to be watched closely, of course, is the agency rule making under this authority. I agree the language is very broad. So is a lot of legislation. Definition of irony - the same process has been used to promulgate many of the regulations across government that the Trump administration finds abhorrent.Here is the language (you'll have to scroll down to Section 4): "This program will include the development of a uniform screening standard and procedure, such as in-person interviews; a database of identity documents proffered by applicants to ensure that duplicate documents are not used by multiple applicants; amended application forms that include questions aimed at identifying fraudulent answers and malicious intent; a mechanism to ensure that the applicant is who the applicant claims to be; a process to evaluate the applicant's likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society and the applicant's ability to make contributions to the national interest; and a mechanism to assess whether or not the applicant has the intent to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States."The "such as" standard does not not mean, for instance, that in-person interviews would have to be done for every person. "Uniform" as used in law does not necessarily mean the exact same thing for everyone. It means you can set up a series of exemptions, but the policy has to be applied uniformly, not arbitrarily, and there must be clearly stated (and constitutional) reasons for the disparate treatment.Don't read this as my endorsement. Far from it. It's scary what could be done under this language. I'm suspecting the ultimate end is to create a vast database, far more intrusive than now. (And with just a few legal gymnastics, well, we'll extend that to U.S. citizens who have traveled to whatever countries we think are baddies -- or house baddies -- because, you know, you might have picked up the germs and we can never be too careful and ...Think I'm be[...]

Bannon and the NSC - as a journalist, make sure you read the law


Amid all the hand wringing about Steve Bannon and the National Security Council, there has emerged a shorthand (that Bannon is "part of the National Security Council") and a meme (that Bannon somehow will have to undergo Senate confirmation).

Both are ill-advised and remind us again why it is important to read the law

As I understand it, he twas not appointed to the NSC but invited to attend meetings of the principals committee, an interagency working group. The distinction is important.

If you look at the U.S. Code, his position does not actually qualify for appointment to the council, since his is not a secretary or undersecretary (and I don't know of any appointment provision subject to Senate confirmation beyond this). To fit him into those specified categories would be a stretch:

"The Secretaries and Under Secretaries of other executive departments and of the military departments, when appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to serve at his pleasure."

The other members of the NSC specified by law are the president, vice president and secretaries of state, defense and energy. Other people may be invited to attend, but they are not members of NSC just by attendance. Trump's executive order is fairly careful in parsing this out.

The principals committee, on the other hand, as an interagency group, contains a wider array, such as the attorney general, treasury secretary and homeland security adviser. No Senate confirmation to serve on it is required. It is at the president's discretion.

There are also several other committees (see the executive order) that can have fluid membership and do not require confirmation.

The joint chiefs were never, by statute, part of the NSC (though the president may invite them to sit in). And while Bannon will have great influence over national security policy as part of the principals committee -- and that is properly the subject of much agitated debate -- we need to be precise in what we are talking about.

AT&T's massive outage shows how not to do customer service in social media age


AT&T's U-verse service (disclosure, I'm a customer) has had massive outages across the country -- apparently -- for a day or more. The company's response shows how not to do customer service in today's social media world (or one that, just in general, relies on that internet pipe).I say "apparently" because AT&T has been less than forthcoming in what it's telling people.  You won't find anything on the company's much-touted @ATTCares account on Twitter.Its @Uverse account is nothing but marketingWhat few statements have come from AT&T PR folks have been opaqueThe tech support site has a canned statementAnd canned chatThe best info is coming from third-party sites like downdetector.comThis probably should be taught as a textbook case study in business and communications schools about how not to handle things in 2016. (I'm also fascinated that it seems few news organizations seem to have picked up on how widespread these problems seem to be.)[...]

When we call something "public," let's be precise


So this arrived in my inbox this morning
"Ga. journalists arrested for filming during open meeting; may face jail time"


And it links to this, with the headline:

Georgia Citizen Journalist Facing Criminal Charges for Recording Public Meeting

And, yes, there should be lots of outrage over this. Watch the video (I've included it directly here as well).

allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400">

And I very much hope Tisdale wins her lawsuit and bleeds them dry.

But we need to be accurate when we call something a "public" meeting. This was the note I wrote to the SPJ official, Sharon Dunten, who sent this out:


With all due respect, and very much acknowledging that the officer's behavior here seems beyond the pale.

A political rally on private property is not a "public" meeting. Whether it was advertised as such and so she was there by invitation, and thus the trespass is bogus, is, unfortunately, a matter to be adjudicated (or, one might hope, dropped by a sane prosecutor, which does not seem to be the case). Whether it was advertised as "public" is a point of evidence and perhaps law in that adjudication -- once one invites the public, may one then decide to kick part of the public out? But inviting the public  does not mean that one relinquishes the right to control numerous aspects. (e.g.: "No shoes, no shirt, no service").

Yes, there should be outrage directed at the deputy. Yes, it's BS to invite the public to a rally like this and then expect a reporter with a camera not to be there (if she had just had a notebook, would she have just blended in and  been ignored? - serious duplicity for which the organizers should be called to heel).

But let's not weaken the case and diffuse what should be focused outrage by calling it a public meeting. Let's save that for when this kind of stuff happens at real public meetings where the law is crystal clear so that so we have an even clearer case. It is entirely appropriate for us to be outraged at this. It is not good for us to bandy about the term "public," thus weakening, not strengthening, its meaning. Bad cases make bad law -- and bad statement of the facts makes bad practice.

Doug Fisher

The nuance of headlines


The headline this morning on the story of our dean, Charles Bierbauer, who announced yesterday he's leaving that job at the end of the academic year in June, got me thinking about the nuance of headlines.Headline writing is tough. Don't believe me? Just try summarizing that nuclear disarmament story in a nine-count, three-line, one-column hed in print. (That would be a total of roughly 27 characters for those of the Twitter age, and probably one or two fewer because with print fonts, capital letters are wider and count as 1 1/2 or two, m's and w's are wider, some lowercase letters only count as one-half, etc.)It's not a lot better online. Sure, you don't have to worry about those pesky line breaks, but even online heds have their limits -- abut 65 characters if you want to make sure it displays properly in those search engine results or on a mobile screen. Again, still less than your normal tweet.There are a lot of ways things can go wrong.This discussion isn't about the laughingly off tone, like "DOJ launching Fannie probe" (referring to an investigation of the Federal National Mortgage Association, more commonly known as Fannie Mae).Nor is it about "Their ship has come in" -- a glaringly tone-deaf headline atop a story about a memorial for the hundreds of sailors who died when the USS Indianapolis sank. (Their ship is never coming in.) Or the awful "xx Mississippians gone with the wind" (I forget the exact number) on a story about hurricane deaths.This is about those tiny but important nuances that journalists must face every day. They are ever present in reporting and writing. They become more glaringly so when translated to a headline.So today there is this headline on a story on The State newspaper's website:OK. It's serviceable. Nothing really wrong. But as we've learned time and time again this political season, there is right -- and then there is more right. With headlines, it often comes down to verb tense and word connotation and order.Tense In headline writing, there are some rules, or at least guides, when it comes to verb tense. The present participle (stepping) indicates current ongoing action or sometimes action to be completed in the near future. The present tense is used as "historical present" to represent action recently completed. The future speaks for itself. The past tense is rarely used; it is supposed to signify new information about something in the past not previously known (say, for instance, you just got a 5-year-old report showing that the Justice Department investigated Fannie Mae but no one knew till now. Then you might write DOJ probed Fannie ... OK, maybe not. But you get the idea.)So using "steps" in this headline really means the dean has done the deed already. Yes, he's announced it, so one could argue he sort of kind of stepped down. But he's not really leaving till June, and this is August, so the nuance is wrong. "To step" (or will) is the better choice. That is the tense used in the university news release (though it is interesting to see the URL uses "stepping").UsageAll words have denotation and connotation. So the denotation of "step down" is fine -- it is what he is doing in the broad sense. But the connotation gets us to nuance again. When we hear an official has stepped down, the mind wonders a bit why? Did something wrong? Retiring? Health?In other words, while the phrase is technically correct (denotation), it is broader than needed and leaves itself open to questions and multiple interpretations, not all of them flattering (connotation). In headline writing, whenever the count allows you to be more specific, it's almost always better because it gets connotation out of the equation. And our job, after all is to try to perfect communication -- make sure the message sent is most likely the message received.So what is Bierbauer really doing? Well, after almost 1[...]

SC Newspaper Circulation - the bleeding continues


I've written before about how South Carolina's capital city newspaper, The State, has been bleeding circulation. The new numbers in the S.C. Press Association handbook paint an even more troubling picture statewide.

Not that this isn't happening almost everywhere, of course, but it's useful to know the numbers, especially since most have dropped under 50,000, which used to be the cutoff for a metro daily.

Updated: I found 2008-09 SCPA figures, which paint an even starker picture.

The State43,67596,759112,051
Greenville News45,60170,04687,609
(Spartanburg) Herald Journal28,38039,22746,738
(Charleston) Post and Courier62,08196,00599,829
(Myrtle Beach) Sun News35,76047,28251,731
(Florence) Morning News18,84228,63131,163

Another dramatic drop is the Times & Democrat in Orangeburg, which has slipped under 10,000 to 8,468 from 20,345 just seven years ago.

As with much of the industry, so far, from what I can tell, the online numbers aren't filling the gap.

This AP story on Pokemon got a little ahead of itself


It's kind of an axiom of news writing that the first example you use in a story should back up the lede.

This AP story on Pokemon Go trips over that test ... unless the woman quoted owns the museum.

It's easily addressed. Just extend the lede with a second graf, something perhaps like:  And some people, like xxxx, are so miffed by some of the players' conduct that they're trying to harness the power of online crowds to back up those requests.

You ignore the work on structured stories at your own risk


If you are a journalist (or PR writer), you should read David Caswell's latest about his research into structured stories and follow the links, especially to the structured stories database.Here's a definition from one of Caswell's earlier atricles: Structured Stories is a form of structured journalism, an approach in which reporting is entered directly into a database and then extracted as needed to create digital news products. Early examples of structured journalism, such as PolitiFact and Homicide Watch D.C., are limited to fixed news items in narrowly defined subject areas. Structured Stories, however, attempts to encode any journalistic news — from any subject area — into structured events and narratives.Articles are not obsolete in a structured journalism approach but instead are organized within much larger journalistic structures that provide context, coherence and flexibility. These narrative structures are then used to make news stories intelligible to computers and, therefore, available for a variety of digital applications.This is a not-so-nascent-anymore corner of journalism thought that says, essentially, that the beautifully crafted narrative you just wrote is nothing but data. That fire story you wrote? The address is data, so is the amount of damage, the cause, the type of house, etc. And it's data insurers and others might be willing to pay for.Adrian Holovaty famously proposed this disaggregation of journalistic stories in 2006. Matt Waite extended it seven years later. Caswell has now been testing the idea on an operational scale in New York, Los Angeles and Missouri (Where he's a Reynolds Fellow). You risk not paying attention to this at your own peril. Let me put it this way, how many of you scoffed not that long ago at the concept of computers "writing" journalism stories? How's that worked out?  (A search on "Automated Insights" will fill you in a bit more, such as the AP's wide use of the software, if you haven't been paying attention. Here's some more on AP.)Now, if you go to Caswell's Structured Stories site and look at some of the work, to those steeped in "storytelling," the examples don't look like much. Bullet points, cards, etc. Certainly not an eye-pleasing "story" (and, let's be honest, we misuse that term a lot anyhow; much of what we do is factual exposition, not story).But what you are seeing is Holovaty's vision beginning to be turned into reality. And here's why it's important:When you break stories into data, you can repackage that data in many ways and resell it, meaning more streams of income in an era when that's guaranteed to get executives' attention (after all, what other business do you know that leaves more than half of its raw material on the shop floor?).This inevitably means changes in workflows, training and, perhaps, the romantic notion of the storytelling journalist. From another of Caswell's articles: Working with structured information enables the journalist to become like an air traffic controller for news: coordinating, routing, verifying and organizing news as well as identifying gaps in knowledge and filling them by assigning journalistic resources to conduct original reporting. This level of coordination is an impossible, even meaningless, task in a media environment based on text articles, but in a structured media environment it becomes easy and valuable.Caswell says he's shown in real operational situations that structured journalism can be done.  Finally, if you scoff that "people will never read this stuff," I want you to think about two things. First, much of this is not designed to be read by people; it is designed to be read and repurposed by machines. Second, go to the top of any one of those story databases on the S[...]

SC legslators suggest Wikipedia will do over those expensive databases


(Update: 1:40 p.m. 3/26: Ron Aiken of The Nerve says the language was stricken in conference committee last night but that the sponsor, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, says he'll bring it up again next session.)S.C.'s State Library apparently is up in arms about some legislative budget engineering that would put some requirements and restrictions on the statewide DISCUS system, the free digital library available to everyone in the state and probably one of the state's best (if somewhat hidden) resources.First there was a House budget proviso that would have prohibited the library from licensing electronic sources "where the same information is easily found in free online products such as Wikipedia." (Oh, there's a reliable source, eh?) It also would have prohibited licensing databases of articles "from mainstream newspapers and magazines, as these can almost always be accessed free online and are easily discovered through Internet search engines."That same proviso also would have prohibited the inclusion of scholarly articles as not "intellectually accessible to the general population," but that was stricken -- as was the whole proviso.But now the House has amended the Senate version to insert a new proviso that says no database DISCUS buys can have more than 20% of material freely available online.There also are a bunch of technical requirements, such as that all databases must have responsive design that allows them to be viewable "down to the smallest smartphone size" and that there be an extensive geolocation service for all users. Video would also have to be delivered as H.264, MPEG-4 AVC format.So in theory the responsive design requirement is a good one -- but will that put valuable databases/info off limits?If you are out of state (or even on the border and your cell signal is being picked up by a tower in Georgia or NC) does that mean no access?Sure, H.264 AVC is the advanced standard now, but things don't change much in tech, do they? So how quickly, if this is specified in state law, will it become outdated?Generally, the success of legislating specific technology requirements has not gone well through the years.To see the State Library's take on all this and the source docs:[...]

Wishful thinking, newspaper edition


From the wishful thinking dept. at Editor and Publisher.:
Returning to print shouldn’t be seen as taking a step back. Many readers still rely heavily on the print edition. A Pew Research Center study found that around half of newspaper readers in three U.S. metropolitan cities (Denver, Colo., Macon, Ga., and Sioux City, Iowa) only read in print.

With the saturation of news, the toxicity of online harassment, and the amount of poor Web experiences, readers will soon want to come back to print. This resurgence must take place if we want to keep print around for many more years, and publishers can accomplish that by immersing readers—not with virtual reality headsets—but with ink on their hands.
That's at the bottom of a mishmash, way-too-long piece that tries to make the case that poor woeful newspapers are being victimized again by technology, this time ad blockers (BTW, there's an easy way to get around Forbes' ad-blocking message and many other publishers').

That Pew statistic? It's a nice way of deception. Remember, it says half of all newspaper readers. It doesn't say what's happening to the overall number of newspaper readers (in other words, if there are still two newspaper readers and one reads only in print, you've met that stat -- but it's hardly a viable business model).

I'm a big fan of "newspapers" if you mean the term to refer to robust news orgs. If you mean it to refer to ink on paper, however, I'd like to introduce you to the dozens of students I interact with every semester. You know, the future higher income, higher educated readers your advertisers want. "Newspaper" is not in their daily universe.

This, of course, from the same people who have been telling themselves for years that as people age and buy houses, have kids, etc., they'll start reading newspapers -- despite every bit of solid social science research that's debunked that.

So how's that working out?

Let it be stated -- stop using that word


In the flurry of coverage over the blowup in the investigation of corruption at South Carolina's Statehouse, an ugly little verb of attribution -- stated -- seems to be cropping up like spring flowers. (Just one example.)

Why ugly? I'll let Jack Cappon, one of the finest AP features editors ever (and a pretty damn good writer too), explain from his book on writing (which, BTW, should be on your desk). The bold emphasis is mine:

Asserted, stated, declared are often indiscriminately used for said. All are stronger and much more formal. ... Stated shouldn't be used at all; it is the instant mark of a wooden writer. (It fits if you're quoting from a deposition, but still looks dusty.)
 It also has connotations of increased veracity.

So let's put stated in its proper place -- on the top shelf, out of reach, to be looked at occasionally as we grab the easy-to-reach said. That way, we don't have to risk injuring our writing by reaching too high for it.

Your neighborhood dollar store wants to sell you booze


OK, technically beer and wine aren't booze, but many a moment of havoc has been carried out in their name.

So it's always interesting when I ask classes what they think make up the biggest share of alcohol purveyors (I'm careful not to say liquor) just by sheet numbers: Bars, restaurants, clubs, liquor stores, supermarkets ...?

Invariably, it's bars or liquor stores that come to the front.

But take a year's worth of permit applications, as I did, from the paper's legal ads and you'll find it's convenience stores (in blue on this map)* that overwhelmingly hold the permits, most for beer and wine for off-premises consumption.

That's brought concerns from some neighborhoods who see their areas being overrun.

Now, a new entry is crowding the field -- your local dollar store.

As I was wrapping up that track-the-permits project, I noticed a steady stream of permit applications from Dolgencorp, the operating arm of Dollar General.

Now, in recent editions of my local paper, I see Family Dollar seeking beer and wine applications for 15 of its Columbia-area stores.

This is a good little story worth noting. And doing depth/enterprise reporting projects like this -- especially on a beat -- isn't hard with modern tools like Google Fusion Tables (and maps) if you just take them a day or week at a time and methodically compile the data. The resulting maps or other graphical presentations yo can produce may give you a whole new take on the data.

And much of that raw material already is in your paper or in the documents you routinely pick up on a beat.

*Green is grocery and other stores, like dollar stores. Red is bars and clubs, yellow is liquor stores and orange is restaurants. White is for things like stadiums, banquet halls, etc.

Some interesting AP style changes


Some AP style updates came out today, and while they aren't likely to create the furor that allowing "over" for "more than" did, there are a few interesting things:

Here are the changes and a few of my thoughts:

media Generally takes a plural verb, especially when the reference is to individual outlets: Media are lining up for and against the proposal. Sometimes used with a singular verb when referring to media as a monolithic group: Media is the biggest force in a presidential campaign. (adds reference to use as a singular noun)
This will drive some of my colleagues nuts. What can I say? Welcome to a long-needed recognition of modern usage (and if you want to double up on that Advil dose, remember, data is also allowed as a singular in some uses).

mezcal Clear liquor from Mexico made from a variety of agave plants. (new entry)
Two liquor entries in one update (see whisky below). Is this an acknowledgement that AP style will sometimes drive you to drink?

horchata Spanish and Mexican drink made by steeping nuts, seeds and grains, and served cool. (new entry)

nearshore waters (new entry to show nearshore is one word)

notorious, notoriety Some understand these terms to refer simply to fame; others see them as negative terms, implying being well-known because of evil actions. Be sure the context for these words is clear, or use terms like famous, prominent, infamous, disreputable, etc. (new entry)
This is AP oh-so-carefully edging toward the reality of modern usage. However, just as the enormity/enormousness distinction has been pretty much erased in modern conversational usage, it's always good for professional writers to observe the niceties.

 online petitions Be cautious about quoting the number of signers on such petitions. Some sites make it easy for the person creating the petition or others to run up the number of purported signers by clicking or returning to the page multiple times. (new entry)
Sage advice. File this under the general guidance: Take most things you find online with a grain of salt, a derivative of the almost legendary (yeah, so smite me, I used that word): If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

spokesman, spokeswoman, spokesperson Use spokesperson if it is the preference of an individual or an organization. (adds spokesperson to entry)
Inevitable, really. So now we get to the weasel "preference" language. Just one more thing in the heat of battle that reporters will forget to ask and later rationalize. Just say "spokesperson," for all its ungainliness, is acceptable in all uses, let it go and leave it up to local style.

voicemail (now one word)
Welcome to 2016.

 whisky, whiskey Class of liquor distilled from grains. Includes bourbon, rye and Irish whiskey. Use spelling whisky only in conjunction with Scotch whisky, Canadian whisky and Japanese whisky. (adds Japanese whisky to those spelled whisky)
Have to amend one of my favorite quiz question. But really, if you say you want to be part of a profession with a history like ours, shouldn't you know the niceties?

Headlines and prepositions


My friend and very talented designer, Ed Henniger, has a rant up complaining about seeing headlines ending their first lines with prepositions and articles.

This is one of those things that, while once considered a sign of good craft, has become largely a non-issue on most publications.

My note back to Ed:

Sorry, Ed, but it's long ago been declared a nonissue on most desks and at ACES. And readers' panels at ACES through which we tested headlines made clear it was not an issue to them. As one woman pointedly said when questioned rather severely from an audience member: "You really lose sleep over that?"

I remind folks of it as craft the first couple of times, but I don't push it anymore.

Time to declare it a shibboleth and move on.
It's especially true in an era when headlines often have to do double duty in print and online -- where how it is displayed is a function of many things, including window size.

 I know this will be a hard one to swallow in some quarters, but there are far more important things to worry about these days. Nothing we have indicates any reduction in comprehension.

Breaking news -- making sure you do it together


There's nothing like having a caption like this atop your 6-hour-old story.

Does anyone down on Shop Road talk to each other?

With S.C. flooding, some dam resources


 (Updated with story from The State)Another dam has been breached after the torrential rains in South Carolina, this one in Forest Acres, A close-in Columbia suburb, prompting a mandatory evacuation.As I noted on Twitter and Facebook,  I wonder if this gets state officials to finally effectively address and fund the issue of hundreds of small, marginal dams.It's not a new thing:"Even more troubling, six states reported all of their state-regulated, high-hazard dams as “not rated” for structural soundness in 2010. These states are Texas, South Carolina, Hawaii, Florida, South Dakota, and Alaska. Not having a state dam-safety program, Alabama also did not report condition information on their high-hazard dams in 2010."From NY Times: 4,400 dams nationwide "susceptible to failure."'s dam safety details The State newspaper followed up on Tuesday, reporting, as others have, that the state spends about $200,000 a year on its safety program.) And the Army Corps dam database has 2,439 dams in the Army Corps database, 671, or almost 28%, high or significant hazard. interactive map will let you search by state and county or by ZIP code. sure under "Layers" you expand "Corps of Engineers Data" and click "ALL NID Dams." Here is part of Richland County near Columbia. All those little squares are dams, many of them less than 25 feet or lower, privately owned and earthen. (I can't give you a direct link to the map - drill down through the database above.)Here is Lexington County:To get details on an individual dam, click on the address option on the tool bar (highlighted in red) and then on the dam's square.Here are a few selected screenshots of the data that gives you a sense of the issue[...]

Should the correction be proportionate to the original article?


This debate still continues.

Newspapers tend to bury their corrections. (Of course, broadcasters just tend to ignore most of them -- there's always the next newscast to get it right.)

 The argument, at least one of them, goes that putting the correction in that small box on the same page every day means people will know where they are and can find them.

The counter is that people tend to look where they look every day, not necessarily at that page with the corrections box.

I can buy the same-place argument for your run of the mill brief or below-the-fold copy.

But when you banner something across the top of your business page and the central fact of your lede is wrong

Should the correction be done like this?

And when you make a strategic change in wording on your website, shouldn't the correction be noted, even to helpfully (assuming you caught it quickly online) to say it was wrong in some printed editions? (I don't see any note at all on this page giving readers any hint.)

And we wonder why the latest Gallup Poll shows a record low of trust in the media?

Columbia, S.C.'s daily newspaper is bleeding ...


If you want the stark reality of what is happening in the newspaper business, the decline -- in hard numbers -- of  The State of Columbia, S.C., will help.The state capital newspaper, for all the times I poke it for kind of dumb things, does good work.And while papers like the Post and Courier in Charleston do some great work -- as evidenced by this year's Pulitzer Prize and this week's deep dive into how S.C. legislators stretch the limits on their spending accounts, There still is no substitute for a strong newsroom in the same town looking over the pols' shoulders.So take a look at these figures.Here is The State's circulation from 2008 as found in an archive on McClatchy's website. It was close to 100,000. This next archive is from February 2013. the date of the page on The State's own site, though I can't be sure if those are 2009 or 2013 figures. There was a drop of about 10,000 (which would be pretty darn alarming if it were year over year).Now, the numbers have fallen off the table to about half what they were in 2008 - about 53,000. That's down more than 2,400 from a year earlier or 4.4 percent Interestingly, you won't find those circulation figures in the "about us" part of the current website, nor how many counties the paper circulates in. This was a paper whose owner, McClatchy, used to boast that it circulated in 23 of the state's 46 counties and was the state's largest paper. ( McClatchy's site does have circulation figures, but none of the other bling. You can read between the lines on that.)Sunday circulation does seem to be holding its own and even growing. But I can also say from years of taking the paper, the ads appear to be down. (And there is some question whether those circulation numbers include people who don't take the paper but are delivered the inserts anyhow. It's allowed by the industry's circulation auditor, but is sketchy at best when talking about true circulation.)You can spin this anyway you want, and McClatchy certainly has been hyping its digital efforts lately, even if the company was about five years late to the game on some best practices (like putting summaries on top of stories). But I know The State's digital circulation has not made up for this drop -- and there always is the problem of exchanging digital dimes for print dollars.I'm not so much in love with the actual paper as with the ethos of a "newspaper" newsroom to uncover and dig. This is one of our biggest challenges, I think -- will we be able to somehow preserve that ethos when there is serious question whether local news will "scale" in a digital age.Update:This is in the American Press Institute briefing today. Real-time bidding offers media companies opportunities for new sources of revenue, with projected growth to reach $20.8 billion by 2017. Premium content that attracts a specific audience will be important because programmatic buyers serve ads based on data about the individual visiting the page, according to Christian Hendricks, vice president/interactive media for The McClatchy Company.  It will be interesting to see how that plays out and what kind of tensions it presents between the traditional ideal of covering the community versus focusing coverage on niches. Nationally and internationally, a case may be made for niches. But if one proclaims oneself to be a community voice, what does "community" mean in the digital age?[...]

Refute/Rebut -- we should get it right


How difficult is it to remember the correct usage for refute versus rebut?

Very difficult, apparently, for The State newspaper, which consistently makes the wrong choice.

Rebut means simply to present a counterargument. Refute carries a much greater weight, the connotation that someone has proved the point.

Nothing could be further from the truth in this story, where the referee's story is being disputed even by the NFL's VP of officials. So the referee "rebuts" but hardly "refutes."

Usage - amid/against a backdrop


First, I want to point you to an excellent investigation by the Post and Courier of Charleston and the Center for Public integrity into spending by S.C. legislators and candidates.

But I also wanted to point out a usage issue in this sentence because I increasingly hear and read it:

Amid this backdrop, The Post and Courier/Center for Public Integrity's investigation found questionable spending under the state's ethics laws to be pervasive and unrelated to party affiliation or geography.

The preferred phrase is "against this backdrop." That's the point, the backdrop is literally or figuratively in back of the thing projected against it. You're not in the middle of it.

McClatchy earnings shows limits of automated stories


There's been a lot of ballyhoo about AP's use of computer algorithms to generate hundreds of earnings stories.

Among AP's reasons was that it could provide much wider coverage. Reporters would still handle the major stuff, the wire service said.

At some point, however, the question of quality vs. quantity was going to raise its head. And here's an example of where the automated system fall short. Here's the AP's auto-generated story on McClatchy's recent earnings.

Pretty bare bones stuff. But this isn't a plain-vanilla situation. In fact, there's some serious insight here. This is one of the old-line pure-play media companies and in many ways is a barometer of how midmarket newspapers are likely to fare. And there are, after all, about 62 million shares outstanding, with Yahoo Finance saying that as of the end of March, 119 institutions held shares. That means more than a few people have these shares in their retirement and other accounts (and may not realize it).

Here's another version that, I think, is more reporter generated:

Those second, third and fourth grafs contain some important context. It's not just that the company eked out a profit. It's that the stock's price has plunged about 60 percent since February as it became apparent those earnings -- any earnings -- were generated largely through throwing the ballast overboard on a very leaky ship. So if you read the AP story, you come away with "they made money -- a small bit, but still a profit." Read the other one from American City Business Journals and you'd come away with more understanding and, perhaps, many more questions.

There are, I think, going to be a lot of these kinds of stories in the midrange of companies not really big or sexy enough to draw the AP's resources, yet large or important enough in their own way that they deserve more contextual treatment. So, even more so, investor beware and understand the limitations of what AP is doing