Tag Archives: communication

The Impact of Editing

I get the print version of three daily newspapers, mostly because I’ve been doing it for so long that my morning coffee would feel weird without them, but also because I like the way I read the print version versus online. Something about the ability to skim headlines, the way the layout of the paper causes my eyes to move from item to item, I find to be a better experience than the digital version. That’s why I was reading the print version of the Wall Street Journal this morning and came across an interview with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Chancellor Dr. Carol Folt. In it she came across to me as a little too PR-y, skillfully responding to questions with what I call “mush-mouth” replies. I thought I’d send the article to some journalist/ex-journalist friends to get their reaction, but when I pulled up the online version of the article I noticed some small differences between it and the print version that altered my opinion.

Here’s an example of one Q&A that was edited down for the print version. First the print version:

WSJ: Does the tension between athletics and academics need to be addressed at all schools?

Dr. Folt: People want to know if you can have big-time athletics and education, and if students that participate in athletics can still be considered credible students. That is the broader question.

If you look at the revenue sports [like football and basketball], I think something like 95% of students do not go on to become professional athletes. Even if you go on and play in the NFL, you’re going to spend most of your life not as an active football player. We are preparing students for a lifetime career. 

That’s why the reforms [in academic advising] could help everybody. We could do a better job in our advising, do a better job in helping them be successful in developing throughout their career.

Now the digital version:

WSJ: Does the tension between athletics and academics need to be addressed at all schools?

Dr. Folt: People want to know if you can have big-time athletics and education, and if students that participate in athletics can still be considered credible students. That is the broader question.

If you look at the revenue sports [like football and basketball], I think something like 95% of students do not go on to become professional athletes. Even if you go on and play in the NFL, you’re going to spend most of your life not as an active football player. We are preparing students for a lifetime career. To the student who comes in fencing and wants to go to the Olympics, we can say ‘Great, but what do you want to be [after]?’ That’s the tension.

That’s why the reforms [in academic advising] could help everybody. We could do a better job in our advising, do a better job in helping them be successful in developing throughout their career.

The two sentences that are in bold type were edited out for the print version. To me they didn’t really change the substance of her answer, but they did serve to add some context and that second sentence, “That’s the tension” to me was particularly important because without it she almost seems to be dancing around the question. It’s a minor thing, but boy did it highlight to me the impact that what is, or is not, included in a story can truly change the reader’s perception.

How You Say It

Something interesting has happened over in Greensboro. There's a fellow there named George Hartzman who has become pretty well known to the Greensboro City Council for his comments from the floor during council meetings (check out this for just a taste). He's also well known in the online community for writing in such an incomprehensible manner that you suspect he knows what he's talking about, but you're hard-pressed to figure out what it is. He does it in his own blog posts and in comments on other peoples' blogs or sites.

If there's ever been an argument that how you say/something is as important as what you say/write, I think we've found it in Mr. Hartzman. That became clear when his story was told on the blog of Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. That caught the attention of everyone in Greensboro, and in particular it caught the attention of the reporters who have talked with Hartzman over the years. Check out these comments from Ed Cone's blog post about Taibbi's piece on Hartzman:

Greensboro News & Record reporter Joe Killian:

Definitely give Taibbi his due.

As someone who has talked to George about a lot of things he wanted me to write about — some of which I did, some of which I didn't — I can tell you that getting him to explain himself in a way that is understandable, finding a narrative through-line, making sense of it all and then boiling it down to something people can easily understand on first reading — all while avoiding libel — is not easy.

Taibbi seems to have done the smart thing and used some of the more relatable, human stuff for this blog post. That's not the stuff George is usually trying to get people to write about — or it's a very small part. Taibbi's larger piece in the latest issue of Rolling Stone is also well worth reading for a broader look.

Yes! Weekly editor Brian Clarey:

Hartzman's story hinges on the secret bailouts Taibbi uncovered in this month's RS, which thwarted his short bets against the market on behalf of his clients.
Still and all, very good coverage of what Hartzman has been screaming about for months.
I feel like we at YES! Weekly have a bit of egg on our faces — though we do not pretend to provide exhaustive business and financial coverage, and have no one on staff with the kind of expertise necessary to make sense of this crazy stuff.
That being said, I'm probably gonna write something about it for next week. I doubt I'm alone.
Congrats George. Enjoy your moment. It's been a long time coming, and paid for with great sacrifice.

Economist, contributor to the Triad Business Journal and frequent online commenter Andrew Brod:

When I read Taibbi's column, my first thought was, "So that's what George has been trying to tell us for months."

Hartzman's story is reminiscent of Chicken Little. He squawked so often and in such a strident and often incomprehensible manner on so many issues that the locals started to tune him out even when he had a compelling story to tell. It became easy to dismiss what he was saying, to shrug your shoulders and just say "There goes George again off on one of his rants…"

To be fair to the local reporters it's pretty easy to see how they wouldn't need or want to cover Hartzman's story, and how it was more likely that Taibbi would get at the heart of the matter. First of all he wasn't burdened by any preconceived notions of Hartzman. Second he was covering an area that's really become his beat – the economic crapstorm created by the too-big-to-fail banks and their treatment by the government – and Hartzman's story fit nicely into that narrative (something Killian points out in the comments on Ed Cone's blog). 

Now that Hartzman's story has gone big-time there's some hope that it will be heard, but given his approach to addressing the city council I'm not sure anyone will want him to testify before Congress unless of course Taibbi's there to translate.

Finally, a sad little side story based on some other comments at Cone's blog – the challenge faced by local media in covering big-picture stories like this and how they affect people like Hartzman:

Killian - Brian:

I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. If you could give Jordan a month or so to concentrate on just this story with the resources Taibbi has, I'm sure he could have gotten the job done.

Hartzman's story fit nicely into a much larger and more complicated national story he was working on for what looks like a very long time.

That's not egg on your faces. That a reality about modern local media and the allocation of resources.

Clarey - Exactly, Joe.

I just don't have the resources to commit to something like this, though I sure wish I did. I haven't spent a month on a story in years.

Killian - You and me both.

In today's media environment would anyone have the attention span to pull off a Watergate?

Update 1/14/2013 – the editor of the Greensboro News & Record chimes in on the Hartzman story:

Perhaps understandably, Hartzman doesn’t see him-self as naive or a rube. I don’t think he’s either. Still, he is hard to understand.

But he’s also madden-ingly difficult to keep on topic, as when quizzing him about details of his case. Talking to him is like wrestling with a big, wildly flopping snake.

Taibbi describes him as “easygoing,” which is accurate only if you’d use that adjective to describe a locomotive gone off the rails.

Also, Don Quixote-like, Hartzman tilts at lots of big ideas, often with more belief than evidence.

He’s always pressing some case of underhanded dealings by local government, often at a local blog, where he writes in a strangely staccato manner that resembles free verse without the grace of real poetry.

He duns government with public records requests, and he tries to sell local reporters and editors on the merits of what he’s pursuing.

Occasionally he’s right. More often, he’s not provably so.

The inevitable result is rolled eyes from journal-ists, probably more often than he deserves but not altogether without justification.

Perhaps, for local journalists, Hartzman is the boy who cried wolf too many times.

No Email Will Replace a Kiss

During his keynote address at the National Apartment Association education conference last week Tom Brokaw emphasized the increasing importance of in-person communication as people, especially young people, have come to rely more and more on digital forms of communication. He truly hammered his point home when he said, "No email will replace a kiss. No Tweet will replace the whisper of 'I love you' in your ear."