Posted tagged ‘New York Times’

Finding Nemo—and other interview subjects

December 3, 2013

Have you ever read those “how they met” articles, the ones about engaged or married couples and how they came to be? The Washington Post and its Express spinoff started two such series several years ago, seemingly modeled after the popular Vows column in the New York Times. I love reading these. They’re a glimpse into other people’s lives via such esoteric details and bits of luck, real and created, and full of both surprises and “aha” moments.

Finding people to interview can be a bit like those stories or like movies such as Sliding Doors (I haven’t seen it, but it seems emblematic of a range of rom-coms in which people almost didn’t meet). Often, of course, one tracks down the right person through research or is simply assigned to go talk to so-and-so. But then there’s that element of chance. Just for fun, how have I discovered good interview subjects? Let me count some ways:

• Sitting next to her at Thanksgiving dinner. Just last weekend, I struck up a conversation with my tablemate, who turned out to have an interesting job. Naturally, I thought of a series on people who have interesting jobs and asked whether I could pitch her story. Bet the editor likes it—this woman works for a popular, upscale establishment in a cool, unusual capacity.

• On a date. A few years ago, I had brunch with a fellow who was training in Spanish with the Department of State. The date didn’t go anywhere; I liked him, but he was soon to be shipped to Guadalajara. Several months later, though, came an assignment for which he would be a perfect source. He’d mentioned his last name. That and “Guadalajara” weren’t much to go on, but I managed to track him down through State’s training facility, and the story was a success.

• Through a lead that didn’t pan out. This one’s pretty common. As one example, I was researching medical mysteries for Washingtonian and source-hopped to someone at the Wilmer Eye Institute, who told me an amazing story about a boy born blind who connected with the one doctor who would take a chance on an experimental surgery. Nope, my editor said; out of our territory. “Darn,” I thought, and then, “Oh, good! Now I can pitch it to Baltimore!” Where it became a feature to be proud of.

• Getting lost. Or just wandering around. Dennis and I were poking across an obscure Greek island, off the tourist path, when we passed by an open first-floor window and saw a woman tossing a shuttle through a wooden loom. Inside, she showed us her handiwork—and I reached for a pen. Dennis got out his camera. The result: an international travel story in the Washington Post.

• Saving string. Ever keep something around because “this will be useful someday”? I tell my students the story of reading a profile of Heloise, the hint-meister, many years ago and finding a half-sentence in the middle identifying her as a vegetarian. In Texas—that was interesting. Not knowing what would come of it, I kept the article. Two years later, my subconscious set to work on it and … aha! Off went a query to Vegetarian Times, which led to a fun Q&A with Heloise on the back page about how she survives in carnivorous cowboy-land and how everyone thinks she’s her mother. It’s one of my favorite clips.

• (Re)discovering someone. I met “Chuck” back in the ’90s through work. Later I met his wife, Georgiana, and over the years we built a friendship. Later still, I learned she was a wedding officiant—who by the late 2000s had performed more than 2,500 weddings! “The woman who’s performed 2,500 weddings” seemed an irresistible tagline, and soon an editor found her as delightful as I did. I should take my own advice and pitch her story again elsewhere.

• Through failure. If at first you don’t succeed … but too many writers stop there. A quote from the director of a crisis hotline had stuck in my head for years after my boss at Washingtonian turned down a pitch: In the small, dark hours, it’s “so quiet that the ring of the phone is shattering,” she’d told me. “Suddenly there are only two people on the planet, just you and the caller. There’s an intimacy level with the client that doesn’t exist in daylight. You can hear the person sucking on a cigarette.” (Isn’t that an awesome image?)

More than a decade later, having an plum assignment elsewhere, I spent a year researching and writing it only to get slammed: “This is not the kind of story ______ would ever publish,” my new editor said. Ouch! So, round three: I sent the completed piece to Washington City Paper. It ran on the cover—at one-third the size and for less than one-third the pay, but it ran. I got my cover story, the organization and the director who’d so inspired me got their press, and the public got educated about a vital human health issue. Ultimately, that’s worth it.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Teh need for copyedotirs–that is, the need for copyeditors

April 8, 2013

“Doris Truong, a multiplatform editor on the Universal News Desk at [the] Washington Post, was named the eighth winner of the American Copy Editors Society’s Robinson Prize during the national conference banquet Friday, April 5, in St. Louis,” according to the society’s website.

The day before, during (I assume) her absence from work, the Post website’s front page ran this headline for an upcoming chat: “Brad Hirschfield: Thanking God in Pubic Speeches.” As Dave Barry used to write, I am not making this up.

Would Ms. Truong have caught that? Is the website even in her domain? It should be in somebody’s. I understand the need, the need for speed, online (see “Should blog posts be edited?” two posts ago), but somebody has got to be second eyes at the very least. Why? Because everyone makes misteaks. Even—gasp—editors.

The irony here is too good to pass up, but the overall problem is sadly common. Former Post copyeditor Pat Myers had a conversation the other day on the aptly named Style Conversational blog that started with this question from a miffed reader about a different error: “Can’t the Post afford a preafrooder?” Excerpts follow (all sic):

—Someone at TWP got the massage. It’s gone from fuxed to fixed.

—[Another recent column read,] “The awe and wonder that accompanied Harper at 19 hasn’t abetted at 20.”

—I see so many errors in the online Post that I’ve started sighing and moving on. If I had my druthers, nothing would go out—in print or in bytes—without a copy editor eyeballing it first. But I have resigned myself to the temporal imperative of online journalism.

—[Pat:] I’d like to get the egregious errors fixed if possible. I don’t mean typos as much as ones that at least appear as errors of ignorance—ones where it looks as if the person didn’t know the right word (though if you’re anything like me, inadvertently typing a homophone of the correct word is becoming a more and more frequent occurrence).

—I acknowledge and applaud your desire to minimize TWP’s instances of egregious buffoonery.

Is there any more egregious buffoonery than “pubic affairs” and the like? But maybe I’m beating up on my hometown paper too much. Let’s run an experiment, a look at the online front pages of five U.S. newspapers, and see what shows up …

New York Times. The word “donuts.” I don’t know the paper’s style guide, so maybe that’s kosher, so to speak. Same for a few headlines I would have fixed, such as “Wearing a Badge, and a Video Camera” and “Slaking Region’s Thirst, and Cleaning Its Beaches.” “Scuttlebot,” in a technology headline, appears to be a pun. First (and seemingly only) mistake: “At Home With Jill Mccorkle.” A look at the story shows that her name is McCorkle.

Boston Globe. “Treasury head visiting Europe, to stress growth.” I guess the comma is there to show that these are separate ideas, not one. “Career-defining moments of three top women executives.” Agh, “women” is not an adjective! But that’s widely accepted these days. First mistake: “Thrown by plot in ‘Game of ‘Thrones.’ ” Possible mistake: “Understanding the hopes, fears, disappointments, and dreams of patients can make better doctors in the process.” Newspapers usually avoid the serial comma, but I can’t see enough evidence before the paywall to decide whether this is the Globe’s rule.

Chicago Sun-Times. First mistakes: “Fans, friend and family of Roger Ebert streamed into Holy Name Cathedral Monday morning to share their memories and love of the film critic at his funeral mass.” Roger had far more than one friend, and “Mass” is a proper noun. “Chicago Police program protects kids targeted with gang violence.” I believe that should be “by,” not “with.” Pet peeve: “Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dead at 87.” This is correct according to AP, but Washingtonian and I say “prime minister” should not be capped after “former.” “View point: Wrigley Field rooftop owners were there first.” “View point,” two words?

Miami Herald. First mistake: “Mayoral candidate says someone is using Vodou on her.” AP, at least last year’s version, says the spelling is “Voodoo” (except lowercase for a use like “voodoo economics”). Maybe the Herald, understandably, has its own preference—but regardless, the mistake is either here or in a subhead, “The case of a vodou curse, drugs and rape heads to trial,” because either up or down is right. Pet peeve: “Water pressure impacted in Northwest Miami-Dade due to repairs.” Teeth are impacted; the water pressure is affected.

Los Angeles Times. Questionable use: “Goodwill, other nonprofits fight over used clothing.” The mental image alone is enough to suggest a rewrite. Correct use (yay): “Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, dies at 87.” First three mistakes: “Closing Arguments Set in fake Rockefeller?s Murder Trial,” “Autopsy Underway for Pastor Rick Warren?s Son,” “Annette Funicello, Former Mousketeer, Dies at 70.” (The Times apparently uses a mix of u&lc for heads, depending on the section.)

And just for kicks, today’s Poughkeepsie Journal, the paper I grew up with. First mistake: “Margaret Thatcher, ‘The Iron Lady’ dies of a stroke at age 87.” “Army: No improper relationship for West Point head.” “By” would be better than “for”; this headline sounds like he’s not allocated one. “Philip Levine Poet Laureate of the US to Read at Storm King Art Center.” Commas, anyone? But here’s a whopper: The story itself informs us that he was poet laureate in the year 201112. (The story has so many typos that I wonder if part of the problem is transmission/formatting.) “Traffic, news, gas prices, lifestyle and things-to-do for those people who travel to get to work.” Maybe all those missing commas morphed into hyphens.

Now, this may not be a useful experiment so late in the day, when one hopes mistakes have been discovered and corrected. Also, there are probably a lot more and worse mistakes in stories than in front-page headlines. But there’s a big difference between a simple typo and, as Pat said, the sort of error that suggests ignorance or laziness on one or more people’s part. A misplaced punctuation mark is one thing; factual errors and bad grammar are another.

To clarify: I’m not so worried about typos, even worse ones than those noted here. But the bigger stuff—the stuff that makes journalists and newspapers look bad and depletes readers’ trust and faith—has to be fixed. Preferably before it gets into print.

I showed Pat the screen shot I took of last week’s Brad Hirschfield headline and the further mistake below it (“What do you think about public figures address God in public speeches?”). She replied, “I guess it’ll take a really damaging error before they decide it’s worth hiring more people, or slowing down the process, to have a cleaner page.” As Hirschfield might say, “God forbid.”

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.