Jojo Malig

How many style guides do journalists really need?

I remember a fellow journalist telling me how her J-school professor once ordered students to write out the entire AP Stylebook by hand as part of a class project. The exercise, I was told, was designed to help the students memorize the Stylebook entries.

I still wonder how these students reacted after they became professional journalists and found out that not all newsrooms use AP style.

If they went to work for a magazine, they probably had to learn the Chicago Manual of Style. If they work for an online media company, they may have had to learn the Yahoo Style Guide, which covers the basics of writing for Internet and mobile audiences. In most other cases, they would have had to master the various in-house styles that most media companies have and use to ensure uniformity in their content.

Do journalists really need all these style guides?

To shed some light on this question, I interviewed several editors via email for their insights.

Various style guides show that ‘style is subjective’

David Minthorn, AP deputy standards editor and AP Stylebook co-editor, said differences in style guides are not generally a problem. He explained that style variations are similar to differences in word spellings and usage found in dictionaries and lexicons.

Minthorn said although AP staffers have to adhere to their company’s style and usage, their editors also consult the stylebooks of other news organizations and occasionally reach out to the editors of these organizations for input on some style issues.

Writer and editor Erin Brenner of and The Writing Resource agrees with Minthorn. She explained that style differences often come down to preference based on practical reasons.

“For example, AP style does not use italics because italics become garbled over the AP wire. It’s the only style guide I’m familiar with that doesn’t use italics,” Brenner said. “The Yahoo Style Guide offers specific guidelines for creating text links that help the reader and the search engines, while AP doesn’t even cover that. And why would it? If it’s a guide for print and broadcast, it doesn’t need to,” she said.

Brenner generally recommends mastery of least two style guides. She said editors and writers can use the Chicago Manual of Style for their publication’s print copy, for instance, but also often follow The Yahoo Style Guide for Web copy.

On the AP versus Chicago debate, Brenner said the issue should not be seen as “a one-or-the-other, winner-take-all competition.”

“Publications should choose a style that best fits their needs and not worry about the rest. There’s no one right answer for everyone, nor should there be,” she said. “This is style. Style is subjective, and we all need to realize.”

A style guide doyen on the other side of the Atlantic also has a descriptivist view on variations in style guides.

David Marsh, the Guardian production editor and style guide editor since 1999, said that while all guides adhere to basic rules of English grammar, punctuation and spelling, we are unlikely to find a guide that will advise us to spell words in whichever way we want to. “Beyond that, however, the language offers users considerable latitude, and that is where different guides will make different choices,” he said.

Marsh and Brenner both cited the use (or non-use) of the serial or Oxford comma. Marsh said no one can say with authority that the serial comma is right or wrong. “One style guide may advise using the serial comma, while another one does not. Either way is correct,” Brenner said.

Marsh said that aside from grammatical issues and linguistic variations, different publications have different values, which are reflected in their style guides. While most news organizations censor expletives, for instance, the Guardian publishes F-bombs and explicit language in full when quoting sources.

“Our readers prefer this to the use of asterisks or euphemisms,” he said.

Different audiences call for different style guides

Mark Allen, an American Copy Editors Society member, said variations in the English language, as well as differences in audiences, demand various style guides.

He said the variations have deepened his understanding of usage issues, and help him when he shares advice on his blog or on Twitter.

“No word czar runs the English language,” he said. “The important thing is to be consistent, and that’s why house style guides are important.”

Andy Bechtel, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, believes that different style guides and editors can all get along — or become “friends with benefits,” as the Chicago Manual of Style’s Carol Fisher Saller wrote in April.

“We need to recognize that what works for one medium or one publication may not work for another. Therefore, we have more than one stylebook,” Bechtel said. “It would make no sense for the Guardian newspaper to switch to the Associated Press Stylebook. It’s all about the audience.”

And, in many ways, it’s all about consistency. It seems a little ironic, then, that there are so many different types of style guides. Why not have just one to avoid confusion? Bechtel said he likes to pick one stylebook and stick with it.

“I’m curious what other stylebooks have to say on some topics, but in practice, a mish-mash would be confusing, especially in journalism classes,” he said.

As for making students submit handwritten copies of the AP Stylebook? Bechtel can’t say he’s ever asked his students to do this.

“I am clear with the students that the AP Stylebook is just one of many options,” he said, “and that they may encounter other stylebooks in their careers.”

Related: “Cleaning Your Copy,” a News University online course. Read more


Journalists learn what works (& doesn’t work) on Tumblr

Tumblr’s “media evangelist” Mark Coatney recently announced the arrival of big names in the industry that have launched their own tumblelogs, including The Los Angeles Times, Al-Jazeera English and The Guardian. In the past year, more than 160 media organizations, as well as individual journalists, have started using Tumblr.

So why has the media become so enamored with the micro-blogging platform?

As more journalists use Tumblr, they’re starting to see how it can help them engage with users and reach new audiences. For insights, I interviewed journalists via email about what’s working (and not working), and highlighted some of their key takeaways.

Ease of use

The platform’s primary asset is its simple ease of use, said Michael Cervieri, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Cervieri, co-founder of media strategy firm ScribeLabs, has a personal tumblelog and leads the Future Journalism Project, a multiplatform documentary on American news media.

He said Tumblr users can easily publish multimedia content — text, images, audio, video, quotes, links or chats – in just a few clicks after logging in.

“With WordPress or Drupal, for example, the process is more complex and requires greater user commitment when actually publishing content,” Cervieri said. “This isn’t a knock on them since their purposes are different, but users of those platforms are accustomed to filling out a number of fields that include the content viewers will actually see, as well as metadata that surrounds that content. Tumblr strips all of that away to reduce publishing friction.”

Making content sharing more social

Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa says community is the big difference between Tumblr and other blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger.

“There are really smart people posting great content in different areas and they all seem to work well with each other, reblogging something someone else in their peer group posted to fill in the gaps in their own coverage, and providing a fuller picture. Posts can become viral in a short amount of time and get a lot of attention,” he explained.

Matthew Keys, aka ProducerMatthew, a journalist who aggregates content on social media sites, also believes that Tumblr is unrivaled in social blogging. Recently, he created a “Tumblr for journalists” guide.

“People endorse and give their own voice not only to their own content but to the content of the people they follow,” he told me. “It’s one of the few blogging platforms used by several national and international news organizations as a way of bringing visibility to their own content and stories.”

Josh Sternberg, a communications company owner and guest writer for The Huffington Post, Mashable, and Mediaite, is also impressed with Tumblr’s social media impact.

“The biggest difference is the social factor,” he said. “Other blogging platforms like WordPress or Squarespace are solid for content and making a home on the Web, but having the social aspect (the notes, reblogs, etc.) has been a helpful tool in growing reach, relevancy and influence.”

Benefiting from a visual platform

Tumblr may disappoint traditional bloggers who have gotten used to either WordPress, Blogger or LiveJournal. Long and wordy posts on Tumblr can get overshadowed by infographics, Internet memes, or memorable short posts and quotes.

On Tumblr, standalone images with captions tend to work well. Each Tumblr user’s dashboard has a “Radar” section highlighting most-liked and most-reblogged image content.

“Tumblr is mostly about visuals. I’m a word guy, and even I’m a bit put off by Tumblr posts with no art,” said Mark Dodge Medlin, assistant news editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune. “A short video or some photos go a long way toward getting my attention, even if the post is mostly about the words.”

With so much information vying for our attention on the Web, it’s sometimes easier to consume shorter posts or images.

Building a loyal brand

Journalists and news organizations looking for an audience on Tumblr may also do well to heed Boing Boing Co-Editor Cory Doctorow‘s social media adage that “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.”

“Like other social media platforms, Tumblr should be seen as a space where engagement and conversation can take place,” Cervieri said. “If you do it well, you begin to build brand eminence and loyalty.”

He added that audience engagement is key to having a successful Tumblr presence.

“It’s providing a human face behind the news brand and delivering worthwhile content to the specific audience on Tumblr that makes your news organization matter to them,” Cervieri said. “You have to give to gain attention and by give, it’s to understand what your audience is looking for.”

He explained that giving attention to the audience means entering into a conversation and interacting with them.

Throwing in personal touches can help create a more conversational tone. “While my day job is as communications professional, I infuse my Tumblr with posts about baseball, music, politics — topics that are relevant to my life,” Sternberg said.

Growing a community

While users can embed links and use third-party apps like Apture and Wibiya to share Tumblr content and drive traffic elsewhere, journalists who use Tumblr say that the platform itself is already an ideal medium to secure an audience.

Medlin said he’s found that Tumblr is a good place to engage with a demographic that newspapers and other media organizations may not be able to otherwise reach.

De Rosa said tumblelogs that tend to do better are not used primarily to drive traffic to other sites.

“Once you establish an audience on the Tumblr, then you can be more generous with links to the main site, but you should first gain the appreciation and loyalty of the Tumblr audience, otherwise they may feel like you’ve only joined Tumblr to promote your other website,” he added.

“If a news organization is using Tumblr, or any social media platform, primarily as a way to drive traffic to their websites, they’re using social platforms incorrectly,” Keys said.

He explained that a news organization should use Tumblr to highlight some of its best content: “Social platforms like Tumblr should be about growing a community. If a news organization is focused on growing their community first, they’ll find their numbers will grow eventually.” Read more

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Readers, editors recognize (or recognise?) divide between American & British English

British newspaper editors occasionally receive emails from irate readers complaining about how American words and phrases have crept into British dailies.

David Marsh, Guardian production editor, author of its style guide, and the man behind its style guide account on Twitter, said words that have offended the sensibilities of some readers include “lawmakers” (Members of Parliament or MP for the British) and “upscale” (which translates to “upmarket” on the other side of the Atlantic).

The Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre has also found that Americans complain about “Britishisms.” Not long ago, he recalled a comment made on his blog regarding the word “whinge”:

“The good people of this country not only refuse to learn a little useful Spanish, not only allow foreign languages to drop from the school curriculum, but are also resistant to other variants of English,” McIntyre wrote.

I am a fan of the two and empathize with their predicament. I want to tell them that only a year ago, I was editing British-owned electronic dailies that strictly followed both American and British English style.

Some of the Asian editions that I edited, such as one for Singapore, adhered to a style guide that would make their former colonial master proud. The English language edition for Germany, although it was not colonized by the British but lost two world wars to, used a British style guide for one reason or another.

“Americanisms” in Associated Press copy were carefully tagged in red ink and  replaced with their proper British equivalent.

Lorries instead of trucks, petrol for gasoline, flat for apartment, and lift for elevator were just a few of the “proper” British words that replaced their American English synonyms.

Proper British English spelling and hyphenization was also a must. Some nouns ending in “-er” like meter, center, and theater have British equivalents like metre, centre, and theatre. British English also leans a lot toward hyphenization — cooperation becomes “co-operation.” The “z” in words had to be changed to “s” — analyze to analyse, organize to organise, and yes, even Americanization to Americanisation.

There’s also a waiting minefield in words like glamo(ur), labo(u)r, hono(u)r, colo(u)r, endeavo(u)r, and humo(u)r.

That is just half of it.

We also produced an electronic newspaper for the U.S. market and editions for countries like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines that used American English. When I had to use a Reuters story, I had to think like an American and replace British English with proper American words, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

The constant shift between American English and British English was eased by using automatic spellcheckers that shift from one dialect to the next at the click of a button. Spellcheckers, however, only correct spelling and do not show synonyms. They are also prone to runaway spellchecking notoriously known as the Cupertino Effect.

Lynne Murphy, a senior lecturer in linguistics and English language at the University of Sussex, has one of the best blogs on the divide between American and British English.

Murphy points out on her blog that aside from differences in vocabulary and spelling, American and British English clash on grammar.

In American English, a period or a comma is usually placed inside a quotation while British English users often leave the punctuation mark outside the quotation. American English also uses a period in abbreviations like U.S., U.N., and Mrs., while British English do not use one. British sportswriting also considers an athletic team as plural (Barcelona have won…) while American sportswriting sees a team as collective noun that has a singular form (Barcelona has won…) unless it has a modifier (The L.A. Lakers have…).

An American copy editor would scoff at the phrase “in protest at,” which a British subeditor would find gramatically correct.

Online media has made the differences between British and American English more noticeable. A reader may miss the subtle dialectal differences in the articles published in The New York Times and BBC News, but journalists who now have a global audience must be told that the word spunk may be acceptable in New York but is vulgar in London.

So why do readers get so irritated when they see that American words and phrases have crept into British dailies, or vice versa? It may be in large part because they don’t identify with the unfamiliar words or phrases of the other English variation, or because they see them as intrusions into their culture.

I look at it a bit differently, and try not to adhere to strict prescriptivism. American English and British English represent two different dialects, but when it comes down to it, they’re still one language. Language evolves over time, and when foreign words and phrases find their way into our mother tongues, they can only enrich our understanding of the world around us. Read more


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