Clarity in the Kansan

The Kansan is off to a good start, but I’d like to point out a few things that I’ll group loosely under the category of clarity. All of these examples are from the first week of the fall semester.

Let’s start with a lede: Always make sure the meaning and context are clear to readers. In this case, how is the University expanding? In the number of students? In the amount of land it covers?

In this case, the expansion is in the number and size of buildings, but neither the lede nor the headline (below) tells us that.

Watch, too, for writing so general that it could apply to almost anything anywhere anytime. This example from the editorial page could apply to training at the Humane Society, training during sorority rush, training at the Kansan, training at – you get the idea. The words “individuals” and “situation” make this sentence especially problematic. Whenever you see “situation,” stop and ask whether there isn’t a better word that would add more meaning to a sentence, or whether the word is needed at all (“third-down situation,” “flooding situation”). Use of “individuals” isn’t wrong; it’s not particularly conversational, though, and it’s vague. The writer was talking about soldiers, so why not say soldiers?

This sentence falls into a similar trap of vagueness (not to mention awkwardness).

I’m not even sure what the writer was trying to say (“allows for students a place”?). The story focuses on the boathouse and mentions its importance in improving morale and making the rowing club more attractive.

So does this sentence tell us that the boathouse has a training room? If so, why didn’t we say that? If not, how can a building improve practices?

Think through the phrasing and meaning of every sentence. If a sentence doesn’t make sense, work on it with the reporter.

Never assume

The cutline above (and the story it accompanied) offers a different lesson in clarity. In this case, the story and the cutline generally did a fine job of telling a story. They both lacked one thing: location.

We point out the “iconic smokestack” in the background of the photo but never do we say where Boulevard Brewing is. The story mentions the Kansas City area, but Kansas City is close enough that we need to be specific. Give us an address and a section of town. The smokestack may be iconic, but I have never seen it. If I wanted to look for Boulevard Brewing next time I was in Kansas City, where would I go?

Another thing with cutlines: Always try to move beyond the obvious. We can see that McDonald is standing. Other cutlines in the last week have used similar phrasing. Put the picture into proper context, but don’t tell us things we can obviously see.

Reefers and headlines

Reefers and headlines need special care because they can draw readers into material that they might not otherwise read. That behooves us to be as specific as possible (what is new or different or entertaining about this story?) and as inviting as possible (with crisp language and meaningful words). Neither of these reefers did the job.

With the top one, think about how often the soccer team makes changes of some kind. Every match? More often? In the bottom reefer, the headline writer and the column writer assumed that everyone knew what UFC 102 was. I didn’t have a clue. The term was never defined in the Morning Brew column either, leaving me guessing as to what this was about. We have to write for two types of readers: those who know a subject well and those who know little or nothing about it. That’s especially tricky in sports. We don’t want to talk down to sports fans, but we shouldn’t leave casual sports readers in the dark.

In each of these reefers, the deck had better information. That happens often, so always look closely at headlines and decks. Has the provocative information been pushed into the deck? If so, how can we move it to the main hed?

Focus on the specific

Here’s another example of why specificity is important. Calling a house “narrow and historical” means little. And so what if it’s for sale? Why are we running this story?

Here’s the headline AP put on the story, and the headline that many publications used: “NYC’s ‘Skinniest’ House Has Fat Price Tag: $2.7M.” There are many other ways to tell that story in the headline. The Journal-World, for instance, used the actual width of the house: 9½ feet. Again, that specificity makes the headline – and the story – far more appealing.

An aside: We published this same story in Friday’s paper under the headline “Skinny vertical suite for / sale in New York City.” I know that each of you reads the paper thoroughly every day (hint, hint), but it’s always a good idea to review the day’s paper before you start work at night. That helps you see these sorts of problems.

The ‘real’ story

Specificity makes a difference not only in drawing readers into stories but in telling the “real” story. In this case, we stretched too far not only in the headline but in the story. Both make it sound as if there’s a growing threat of bed bugs in Lawrence, though the sources say otherwise.

Yes, we give a statistic showing that the number of cases of bed bugs nationwide has grown substantially. That makes the story worth doing, if only to alert students to the problem. Our approach to this story, though – the writing, the placement at the top of page 1 and the headline – conveyed the idea that there was an imminent menace in Lawrence. There isn’t. Let’s be careful.

We missed the mark in another health-related headline by failing to provide any real information. If the message about swine flu went campus-wide, we have to assume that most students, faculty and staff already knew about it.

So why tell them what they already know? What incentive is there to read the story? We certainly needed to report on the e-mail message, but what new information is our story providing? What other actions are being taken? What can we tell people that they don’t already know?

On a related note, I would be careful with the thermometer showing the number of cases of swine flu on campus. It’s colorful and adds an element to the front page (or to inside pages).

It also oversimplifies, adding to a drumbeat of anxiety that pervades the campus, the school system and many other places in the state and around the country. Again, we should be reporting on the flu and its effect on the University. We shouldn’t be feeding paranoia, though; we should be working to alleviate it.

What is the news?

Two other reefers offer examples of why we need to think about context and timing.

The Kennedy reefer is certainly accurate and to the point. It also provides old news.

Kennedy died late Tuesday night. The headline we used would have been fine on Wednesday morning. We didn’t have the story until Thursday morning, though. By then, nearly anyone who was interested knew about Kennedy’s death. All our reefer did was emphasize to readers that we missed the story on Wednesday and that all we had on Thursday was a stale story.

The Jayplay reefer did the same thing. The busker festival offered a marvelous opportunity for photographs. What point did those photographs serve five days after the fact, though?

Again, we gave readers little incentive to look inside the paper and reinforced many people’s belief that newspapers are tired, stale and outdated.

 Anonymous quotes

All of these issues of clarity also chip away at our credibility. One of the most egregious examples of this in the first week’s papers was this anonymous quote in a sports story.

We use anonymous quotes only as a last resort, when we have exhausted all other means of obtaining information. And if we do use them, we need to follow Kansan policy and procedures. That means that the anonymous quotes must be approved by one of the top editors.

In this case, the use of anonymous quotes was simply silly. The assistant coach we quote says nothing controversial or particularly illuminating. The KU coaches know that the defensive line needs to put more pressure on the passer. The fans know that. So why did we need to quote an anonymous assistant coach in the Big 12 South? We didn’t.

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