Bergantino issues sharp letter to Putin after detention in Russia

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino is safely back home in Boston but he is still steaming over being detained in Russia and fired off a letter to Russian President Valdimir Putin. “Was it really necessary to replay a scene from a tired, old cold war movie?” the letter said.

Bergantino, the head of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting was invited by the U.S. State Department to Moscow and St. Petersburg to teach investigative reporting techniques to Russian journalists.

As Bergantino told last week, he had just started teaching the class when Russian immigration officers walked into his classroom and demanded to see his passport and visa. A few minutes later, they came back to the classroom and ordered Bergantino and colleague Randy Covington, director of Newsplex to come with them. After hours of questioning and being hauled before a judge, the two Americans were told they had the wrong visas and would have to shut their journalism workshop down.

Bergantino dashed off a note to Putin Sunday saying, “Among our “subversive” topics: how to be fair and balanced, ethical and thorough, and how to use data to be more precise and accurate.” He continued, “The 14 journalists in the room in St. Petersburg were eager to learn. Instead they were recipients of a not-so-subtle message of power and intimidation, and a reminder of the obstacles they face while you’re in charge.”

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Bergantino said even while he and Covington were being investigated, Russian authorities publicized the detention:

In the interest of fairness, I should note that your immigration service posted our names and the charges against us on its website while we were being detained. You can be transparent when you choose to send a message, which in this case was ‘We’re showing Americans who’s boss.’

And when a Russian TV crew unexpectedly arrived to interview us, your agents offered us tea and cookies.

Bergantino said he believes Putin is trying to send a message to NGOs not to come to Russia to teach journalism. Journalism training groups like Poynter, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting often work abroad training journalists how to strengthen their interviewing skills, how to be tough but fair and how to use government records in their reporting. Bergantino said he has taught in China, Vietnam and Serbia with no problems.

You’re clearly playing by the bully-strongman playbook.  Strip away freedom of the press and do whatever you please because no one’s holding you accountable. It’s easy being ‘leader’ when those who dare to question you face intimidation and punishment.

Bergantino told me last week that the judge told him that he could return to Russia if he could get the proper visa next time.  Most likely, this letter to Putin lowered the chances of that happening. Read more


Friday, Oct. 03, 2014

What topics do reporters need to get smarter about in 2015?

The Poynter Institute will be conducting free workshops to quickly get reporters up to speed on important issues in 2015 and we are asking our readers for workshop suggestions.

To help reporters get smart fast on key topics in the news, The Poynter Institute conducted workshops this year on subjects like the Affordable Care Act and the Common Core State Standards for education. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation funds these workshops, called McCormick Specialized Reporting Institutes. We will be crowdsourcing what topics will warrant these workshops in 2015.

We’re asking you to help pick next year’s training topics. What subjects do you predict will be in the news next year that reporters would benefit from learning more about? Poynter will carry out three of these news-driven workshops next year, and McCormick and Poynter will select three other organizations to carry out three additional workshops. One will be on the Iowa caucuses.

Tweet your suggestions (hashtag #news15) or fill out a brief survey. Tell us one or two topics important enough to your audience that a reporter should go to a two-day workshop to learn more, then return to the newsroom to report and write.

In November, we’ll accept applications from training groups interested in conducting the workshops. In January, we’ll announce the workshop schedule and describe how to apply. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

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Lauren Bacall and the value of reading your old stories

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself."   (AP Photo/Press Association)

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself." (AP Photo/Press Association)

A couple of days after Lauren Bacall died, I ran into an old friend who remembered that I had once interviewed her for the St. Petersburg Times. To my shock, he even quoted a line from the story: “You wrote that she could scratch your back with her voice.” There was a lesson here about the power of the written word, that a reader could remember a story that the writer had mostly forgotten, and that the language of that story could stick with the reader for 35 years.

With the help of the good folks at what is now the Tampa Bay Times, I unearthed my profile of Miss Bacall. The exact date of publication was March 16, 1979. I had been writing and coaching writers at the newspaper for two years, and was in the middle of a stint as a substitute film and theater critic.

During my watch, Robert Altman came to town to make a movie called HealtH, a star-studded dud of a flick, meant to be a parody of national politics, that, in spite of the efforts of Miss Bacall, James Garner, Carol Burnett, and Glenda Jackson, never saw the light of day.

For me, though, covering the film was a professional bonanza. Over three months, I wrote more than two-dozen news stories, profiles, and features. I learned a lot, and I am about to learn something more.

I’ve come to believe in the value of re-reading your old stories. At the age of 66, I am asking myself today, “What can you see in yourself as a 30-year-old writer that was invisible back then but may be useful to you now?”

Before I can answer that question for you, I’ve got to read the my story again, and I hope you will read it too.

The Look of Lauren Bacall
By Roy Peter Clark
March 16, 1979

Lauren Bacall plays the ancient grand dame of HEALTH, a national health food organization. Her name is Esther Brill, an octogenarian who does not look her age because she has spent her life eating health foods and avoiding sex.

She espouses the belief that “sex is a killer” and campaigns under the slogan “The Pure President.”

“I play an 83-year-old virgin, which I am,” said Miss Bacall at a press conference Thursday in the Don CeSar Beach Resort Hotel. She was dressed in a striped blouse and a long, purple skirt.

“How do you validate your age and your virginity in the film?” I asked shyly.

She laughed. “Well, honey, if you can suggest a way that I can validate my virginity, I’d be most happy to do that.”

Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.

I heard in that voice the echoes of To Have and Have Not, her first film with Bogie where she made the promise that all men dream of: “If you want me just whistle.”

Or maybe it was the look in her eyes, eyes that were still youthful, bright, intelligent, full of good humor, yet profoundly alluring.

It was Lauren Bacall, all right. The Look.

The Look that launched a thousand magazine covers, that offered a generation of moviegoers some sweet unspoken promise of love.

Lauren Bacall may be the most seductive actress in the history of American films. There are few scenes in this age of cinematic explicitness that rival the torrid intimacy of her famous love scenes with her husband Humphrey Bogart. They stroke the imagination years after we’ve seen them.

“I think for everyone to see everything is boring,” she said. “I think to use your imagination is more exciting. When you see a love scene and you imagine what might go on is more stimulating than to actually see it. That’s the thing about films: you see these enormous people – you know the size of us on the big screen is ridiculous – and you can be kind of encompassed by these characters. You can lose yourself for that period of two hours.”

Lauren Bacall understands the movies. They have been her life, a life that she describes with humor and passion in Lauren Bacall By Myself, the best-selling nonfiction book in the country.

Her affinity for films may have begun in the womb: “As the nine months came to a close,” she relates in her book, “Mother went to a movie one hot September evening, started to feel the anxious creature within her make her first moves to push her way out, left the movie house, and at about two o’clock in the morning…I was born.”

She wrote the book herself, in an easy intelligent style.

“Writing the book was almost like childbirth, in a way. I almost had post partem depression when I turned the manuscript over. It was a tremendously cathartic experience. It’s much easier to write about something than it is to talk about it. What I wrote, I wrote. And that is self-explanatory. So I certainly don’t feel obliged to talk about any of it in detail. And I also have kept one or two things to myself.”

Miss Bacall punctuated her answers with hearty, unaffected laughs and projected a warmth that could melt the most stone-hearted of interviewers.

Her director, Robert Altman, has said that he cast Miss Bacall in HEALTH “because I like her and it’s the only way I could get close to her.”

She returns the affection: “We all feel very much together on this film. It’s a very happy combination of people and personalities. None of us have ever worked together before. But there is much more of a sense of unity than is normally on a film. Bob Altman is very open to actors’ ideas and suggestions. An actor could not work in a more open or easier atmosphere.”

Born in New York City, her real name was Betty Joan Weinstein Perske and everyone on the set still calls her Betty. It’s a plainer name than Lauren, but it fits. Because beyond everything else, it takes only a few minutes with Lauren Bacall to understand that she is a wonderful, down-to-earth woman, who has not let fame cloud her sense of herself.

She explains in her book that she learned her values from Bogart: “To be good was more important than to be rich. To be kind was more important than owning a house or a car. To respect one’s work and to do it well, to risk something in life, was more important than being a star. To never sell your soul – to have self-esteem – to be true – was most important of all.”

I know there are writers who never read their old stories. The reluctance, I believe, stems from the impostor syndrome, that all of their insufficiencies and fallibilities will surface in the re-reading. They will look at their old stories the way I look at videos of my golf swing and opine, “Man, I really do suck.”

When I go back to look at an old story, my response is usually different. I may cringe at this phrase or wish I had revised that, but my overwhelming impression goes something like this: “Hmm. This stuff is pretty good. The kid can write.”

I’ll ignore, for the most part, the elements in my profile that I’d wish to change. There is a star-struck quality to the prose that I would have toned-down a bit. And who can know for sure if Bacall was really a “wonderful” person or merely a good actor? In the age of Snark, my profile might look like a puff piece.

But let me dwell on the good stuff:

  • I can see and hear myself in the prose. Without the byline, I could still tell it was me. This is a quality we call “voice,” that illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader. I can trace a governing intelligence in the prose, a quality that poet Peter Meinke calls “wit.”
  • I was clearly prepared for the press conference – a format that can be deadly to writers – by having read her autobiography, a best-seller at the time. Not only could I derive ideas and questions from the book, but more of her own language as well, including the anecdote about her birth and her powerful mission statement about life and work that I save for the end.
  • I remember going into the event with a theme in mind: that at a time when more and more explicit sexuality was being revealed on the big screen, Bacall and Bogart had set a different – and better – standard. After she fielded some boring questions from a local TV guy, I asked her, “Miss Bacall, can we please talk about sex.” To which she replied, “Oh, let’s do.” The fact that I was writing about sexuality will come as no surprise to my friends and colleagues. It has been a trademark of my work and life and I have, on occasion, toed the danger line. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
  • Finally, I admire in my own work a not yet fully developed playfulness with language. “The look that launched a thousand magazine covers” feels slightly derivative but works in context. And I can also admire the passage that would be remembered by an old friend three decades later:

“Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.”

This story turns out to have a highly personal kicker. At the time of the interview, my wife Karen was pregnant with our third child. If it turned out to be a girl, we would call her Rene. Months later we got tired of that name, and I came forward with a suggestion, “What if we called her Lauren, after Lauren Bacall.”

[Try this exercise: Go back and find a story you wrote three months or three years ago. The older the piece, the “colder” it will feel to you, enabling you to read it more objectively. Ask yourself these questions: What pleases me? What would I now change? How would I describe the voice of this writer? What important lessons about writing have I learned since?] Read more


Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Restore the semicolon to journalism; before it’s too late

Maybe it’s the oppressive Florida heat and humidity, but I find myself in a mischievously contrarian mood these days. First I flew the flag of the Oxford comma. Then I raised the roof on behalf of the passive voice. So why not try for a trifecta: a proposal that we restore the undervalued semicolon to its proper place in journalism – ahead of the dash.

It could be that I’ve been shaped by the influence of one of my favorite writers, more importantly, the richest writer in the world: J.K. Rowling. If a woman now worth more than the Queen of England peppers her prose with semicolons, why should we deny their power and influence.

Writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling has given us The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective mystery with her flawed and injured hero Cormoran Strike. Check out this passage:

An overdose had simply seemed consistent with the trend of Leda’s life; with the squats and the musicians and the wild parties; with the squalor of her final relationship and home; with the constant presence of drugs in her vicinity; with her reckless quest for thrills and highs. Strike alone had asked whether anyone had known his mother had taken to shooting up; he alone had seen a distinction between her predilection for cannabis and a sudden liking for heroin; he alone had unanswered questions and saw suspicious circumstances. But he had been a student of twenty, and nobody had listened.

For the record, that’s six semicolons in a paragraph of 101 words, about one every 17 words. Let it be known, that no language was injured in the making of this paragraph.

If you’d like to brush up on your semicolon skills, please follow this argument, which I have adapted here from a chapter of the book The Glamour of Grammar:

Come to think of it, the semicolon does look a little like a colon with a polyp. In truth, it is probably used more often these days in winking emoticons ;-) than as an alternative to the period or the comma. Maybe because a period sits atop a comma in the semicolon, it sends off a “neither here nor there” aura, threatening me with its indifference.

Whenever I’m having unsettled thoughts about punctuation, I turn to the work of Tom Wolfe. It was in the 1960s, after all, when Wolfe and his buddies began to bust the boundaries of conventional nonfiction. Among those innovations was a tendency to use punctuation like hot spice in a Cajun stew. A little this!…A little that*!*!…Bada boom!!!

So on a whim, I pulled out a copy of Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full, and thumbed through it until my eye caught this passage on page 262:

Outside, Conrad threw the newspaper away in a receptacle on this corner. He now had two twenty-dollar bills, a five, a one, two quarters, a dime, and a nickel. He started walking again. Over there – a telephone. He deposited a quarter. Nothing; dead; it was out of order; he couldn’t get the quarter back; he jiggled the lever; he pounded the machine with the heel of his hand. A panic rose up in him, and now his extremities seemed to shrink and grow cold. He walked all the way back to the first telephone he had found. His heart was beating much too fast. Gingerly he deposited his last quarter – and placed another collect call to Jill – and told her the whole sad story.

I admire this paragraph for many reasons, but especially for the ambitious varieties of punctuation, including ten periods, seven commas, five semicolons, and three dashes. I am especially intrigued by the unusual use of the semicolon in that central sentence:

Nothing; dead; it was out of order; he couldn’t get the quarter back; he jiggled the lever; he pounded the machine with the heel of his hand.

I admit that I would have been tempted to replace each semicolon with a period. In its current form, the sentence seems unparallel and out of joint. But then, isn’t that the point of the sentence? In a panic, a man without a cell phone needs coins and a working pay phone to make an important human connection. By means of those semicolons, Wolfe describes a frantic series of actions that proceed in chronological order and together form a single sentence, a complete thought.

Abandoning Wolfe (and fiction), I went from author to author looking for semicolons and was surprised to see the radically different preferences of writers, scholars, and critics. A collection of essays by 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt revealed very few among hundreds of pages, while cultural critic Greil Marcus relies on them again and again, especially when he is trying to connect/divide two short important points: “Innocence is the colorless stain on the national tapestry,” he writes in The Shape of Things to Come. “It violates the landscape; the only way to kill it is to cut it out.”

What strikes me about such uses of the semicolon is their arbitrariness, as if the semicolon were a mark of choice rather than of rule. Let me demonstrate the array of options inspired by the Marcus sentence:

  • “The Swede is the good son; Jerry is the bad son.”
  • But why not, “The Swede is the good son. Jerry is the bad son.”
  • Or “The Swede is the good son, but Jerry is the bad son.”
  • Or “The Swede is the good son, Jerry the bad son.”

If none of those possibilities is incorrect, then what impulse governs the writer? It sounds to me as if the writer is left with a musical decision. To the ear of Marcus, the semicolon without conjunction creates a balance achieved by simultaneous connection and separation.

What kind of object connects and separates at the same time? I supposed there are a number of correct answers, including the Cross Your Heart bra, but I’m thinking more of the swinging gate. That’s how I see the semicolon in my own writing, as a gate that stands between two thoughts, a barrier that forces separations but invites you to pass through to the other side.

Flickr Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy

Flickr Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy

New York standard bearers went gaga when reporter Sam Roberts found a semicolon in this subway sign: “Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.” Roberts wrote in the New York Times: “Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period, much less in exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.”

But one person’s pretentious anachronism may be another’s timely solution. So when would I use the semicolon in my own writing? My choices are governed more by sight than sound, especially on those occasions when the run of the sentence threatens to overflow the banks established by weaker forms of punctuation (for example, I do not think the Rowling passage would hold together if you replaced the semicolons with commas; periods would be blood clots in the flow of the sentence). Consider this autobiographical passage:

Growing up a baseball fan in New York in the 1950s was to be engaged in an endless debate with neighbors on who was baseball’s greatest center field: Duke Snider of the Dodgers, who was a sturdy defender and one of the most reliable sluggers in the league; or Willie Mays of the Giants, one of baseball’s first great black superstars, a man who on any given day could astonish you with his bat or his glove; or my idol, Mickey Mantle, the Yankee heir to the crown of Joe DiMaggio, who, when he was healthy, could run faster and hit the ball farther than anyone who ever played the game.

If I used only commas in that rambling and energetic sentence, there would have been ten of them, too many to help the reader keep track of its parts. When I substituted semicolons, the parts became clear. You can see them with your eye: a topic clause, followed by one part Duke, one part Willie, one part the Mick.

Just walk through the swinging gates to get from one part to another.

MORE: Copy Editor Essentials — What You Should Know in Your Sleep Read more


Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Man reading a newspaper

How I might have responded to Clay Shirky’s student

Is it unfair to steer journalism students to jobs in print publications?

That question rumbled in my mind like a storm cloud after reading a provocative recent essay by Professor Clay Shirky. I learn a lot from his work and was eager to learn more.

Shirky described a recent moment in which he addressed about 200 students in a college journalism class. One student asked him, “So how do we save print?”

Shirky answered: “I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession….This was a room full of people who would rather lick asphalt than subscribe to a paper publication; what on earth would make them think print was anything other than a wasting asset?”

Shirky concluded that adults were “lying to them.” Those lies, according to the professor, included futile efforts to save print by various revenue generating schemes.

I am no expert on the business side of journalism. But I know something about journalism students and their aspirations. If that young woman had been my student, I think I would have responded differently, not in terms of the literal language of her question, but in terms of its spirit.

I sense that this student is no “nostalgist” about print, to use Shirky’s language. But I’d bet that she sees something worthy in her experience over time that she associates with print. Perhaps she’d like to see her name on the cover of a book or magazine – or on the front page of a newspaper atop a powerful investigation or suspenseful narrative.

I would frame my answer to her in terms of something that Neil Postman once told me in my only personal conversation with him. He said that every technological change carries with it two competing forces: the creation of new benefits and the loss of things we treasure. He said that it was our job to take full advantage of the benefits and to compensate for the losses.

So I would think that the question “So how do we save print?” was at its essence a question about how we preserve the best things we have associated with the print tradition, which formed, in a nutshell, would include good writing, reporting, and editing in the public interest.

If she asked me about jobs, I would have told her and her colleagues that if they wanted to imagine a life for themselves as storytellers in the public interest, they might still give print – even newspapers – a try.

Given the shrinking resources of newspapers, reporting jobs are hard to come by. But consider this: In the glory days of fully-staffed newsrooms, young reporters had to wait a long time to land a big story. There were hoops to jump through, a series of beats to cover before you got to “enterprise” work.

With smaller staffs, with the replacement of older higher-paid employees with younger cheaper recruits, the “cub” reporter can now hit the ground running. There are fewer editors to guide this reporter, to be sure, but also fewer forces to rein her in.

I hope I am not a “nostalgist.” I believe in Poynter president Tim Franklin’s vision of helping print institutions build a bridge to a digital future. I am not looking for a return of some golden era of newspapering, and I don’t know anyone who is.

My residual good feeling about print is sparked instead by a recent experience as a judge of a writing contest. This was the Best American Newspaper Narrative competition, sponsored by the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, home of the prestigious Mayborn literary conference.

The contest included 46 narrative entries. Every one of them was exceptional in some way and worthy of praise. Every one of them advanced the public interest. They covered most of the important issues and stories of the day: mass shootings, terrorism, mental illness, immigration, education, catastrophic weather and other natural disasters, drug abuse, soldiers coming home from war, unemployment, urban renewal, child neglect, and much, much more.

Some of the best work came from the biggest papers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. The bigger regional papers also submitted outstanding work: The Arizona Republic, Tampa Bay Times, Detroit Free Press, The Charlotte Observer, The Dallas Morning News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Virginian-Pilot, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Asbury Park Press. While all of these papers have lost resources and staff, you can see in the quality of the submitted work, which I read in digital form, a continuing commitment to outperform their resources, to do the best possible job in both narrative and investigative modes.

And lest we think that such quality is a big dog’s game, let’s hear it for the Wausau Daily Herald, The Galveston County Daily News, Archer County News, Opelousas Daily World, and The Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

At a lunch at Poynter years ago, my colleague Don Fry declared that newspapers in print form would no longer exist by such and such a date. In front of witnesses, I bet him $1,000 that he was wrong. That date passed a while back, but I haven’t collected and don’t feel I deserve to. Taking the long view, Don was right. As is Clay Shirky. But no one practices journalism in the long view. It’s called journalism, after all, from the French word jour, meaning the day– this day — today.

Taking a job in a newspaper remains, I believe, one of the best investments a young journalist can make.

I agree that the young writers who write great stories for newspapers may not even subscribe to the print publication that supports them. It doesn’t matter. They have a chance to learn their craft, to practice the discipline of finding things out and checking them out, to write stories about the great characters who populate our towns and cities. They have the chance to right wrongs, pursue their creative vocation, and get paid for it.

And guess what, if their newspaper closes its doors tomorrow, they will be prepared for the next job – in or out of journalism – in whatever medium and platform it is expressed. They will possess the skills and the sense of mission and purpose they need for the next challenge. If I had been that journalism student, I would have hoped for something like that in reply. Read more


Monday, June 30, 2014


Time clarifies: Ruined images in D-Day video were photo illustration

After two stories questioning the authenticity of what looked like ruined images in a video for Time, “Robert Capa’s Iconic D-Day Photo of a Soldier in the Surf,” Time has added photo illustration credits, Daniel Kile, vice president of communications for Time Inc., told Poynter in an email.

“TIME’s video and story have been updated to include a photo illustration credit. The film now includes a prominent label on the negatives and on the end credits (see attached for screen grabs). Our story has been updated to include an editor’s note about the change.”

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A.D. Coleman wrote about the images on June 26 on his blog Photocritic International, with a guest post by Rob McElroy, entitled “The ‘Magnificent Nine’ Faked by TIME.”

As a professional photographer for the past 34 years, with a wealth of experience developing film, I could not explain why the “ruined” negatives shown in the video looked the way they did. Then, after carefully scrutinizing all the negatives shown in the video, I figured it out.

I had just discovered a journalistic no-no, a breach of trust, a total fraud. TIME had faked nine photographs in their documentary video and never explained to the viewer what they had done.

Coleman wrote about the images again on June 29, calling for an ethics investigation by the National Press Photographers Association.

“I’m glad Time has owned up to the fact that the negatives were indeed fabricated by them,” McElroy told Poynter in a phone interview. “As a former journalist, when I’m misled by something, I’m extremely disappointed.”

Poynter’s Kelly McBride said it sounds like Time did the right thing in adding the photo illustration credits, but they weren’t transparent about them before “and that’s unfortunate. It sounds like they’re trying to make the situation right.”

Even if Time didn’t specify that the images were real, McBride said, if the audience looking at the package might assume they’re real, then transparency is required.

“They’re certainly taking this very seriously, and I appreciate that,” Coleman told Poynter in a phone interview. (He’s also written extensively about Capa and questions about the photographer’s work.)

Read more


Monday, June 23, 2014


AP Style should adopt the Oxford comma

It’s great to see that Nate Silver’s 538 is finally hitting its stride. Stepping aside from the conflicts of politics and sports, the data site has decided to weigh in on a controversy that truly ignites the passion of partisans. Forget Red States versus Blue States, campers. Forget Brazil vs. Argentina in the World Cup. Want to see the fur fly? Debate the Oxford comma.

The Oxford or serial comma (which I prefer) is the one that comes before the “and” in a series such as: “Kelly, Al, Kenny, Ellyn, Jill, Butch, and Roy teach at Poynter.” AP style, which Poynter follows, omits that final comma, leaving “Butch and Roy” attached like “Siegfried and Roy.”

I devote a chapter in my book “The Glamour of Grammar” to my preference for that final comma, and now believe that AP style should now include it. Here is a condensed version of what I had to say. Since I’m quoting from a book, the serial comma will be preserved throughout.


Advocate use of the serial comma

I have spent my career navigating between literature and journalism, trying to learn from both worlds. From my training and experience as an English professor, I carried into the newsroom the power of close reading, a respect for narrative, and a theoretical understanding of the writing process. From years of working with reporters and editors, I’ve gained a sense of craft, a respect for readers, and a compass that points me toward mission and purpose.

Though I embody these two language traditions in equal amounts, I have preferences, and some of them are passionate, even about the little things. So I say with the certainty of inevitable contradiction that when it comes to the serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the literary folks have it right, and the journalists have it wrong. The reader needs that final comma before “and” in a series. I need it.

Despite their common heritage in language, analysis, and storytelling, journalists and the literati belong to two different “discourse communities.” I learned that phrase from scholar Carolyn Matelene, and have found it one of the most useful concepts for understanding language. A simpler way to think of a discourse community is as a “language club,” a place where members share the same lingo.

Philosophers form a language club; so do baseball players; so do jazz musicians; so do trial lawyers, tax lawyers, and estate attorneys; so do medical doctors and witch doctors; so do scientists and Scientologists; so do drug dealers and gang bangers; so do straights and gays; so do Buddhist monks; so do kindergarten kids; so do runway models.

Believe it or not, we are back to the serial comma. For three decades, I have included that final comma in a series only to watch helplessly as my journalism editors pluck it out with tweezers. The absurdity of this situation will become apparent:

  • I will write an essay like this one, inserting serial commas wherever necessary.
  • Mallary Tenore, my former editor at the Poynter Institute, which follows AP style, will take them out for our website.
  • Tracy Behar, my editor at Little, Brown, which favors serial commas, will put them all back in for the book version.

When Mallary writes for her blog, she includes them. “I like them,” she says. “They make things clearer.” So the editor who took out my serial commas fights to keep her own. It’s like being a Yankee fan married to a Red Sox fan. You can’t win.

To own a preference is one thing, to peddle it another, so let’s test the value of the serial comma in a paragraph that contains two of them, from author Michael Paterniti:

But the Mississippi isn’t open for baptisms today. A momentary upriver thaw has set it loose with high water, and by the time it’s made St. Louis, by the time it’s been birthed from its first trickles out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, picked up speed and caught the blue pulse of the St. Croix River south of St. Paul; after it’s already borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri, it’s one pissed and frothy mother rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre- history. (from Driving Mr. Albert)

I count 97 words in that passage. The first sentence contains only eight words. That means the author is asking the reader to manage an 89-word sentence, a clever, flowing description, the length of which mimics the actions it describes. Just as a river needs banks, a sentence like this needs just the right punctuation to keep the meaning from flooding our ability to comprehend. That semicolon in the middle provides visual relief and lets the reader take a quick breath. The commas help the author organize two great lists: “borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri” and “rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre-history.” Deleting the serial comma leaves holes in the trousers of the story. When I see that final comma followed by “and,” it alerts me that I’m coming to the end of the list and prepares me for the next one.

Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post thinks there’s more at stake here than just a few missing squiggles on the page: “If all this involved only grammar, I might let it lie. But the comma’s sad fate is, I think, a metaphor for something larger: how we deal with the frantic, can’t-wait-a-minute nature of modern life. The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes PAUSE. It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and then move on. We don’t have time for that. No pauses allowed. In this sense, the comma’s fading popularity is also social

An alternative view comes from the punk band Vampire Weekend when they ask the musical question “Who gives a f— about an Oxford comma?” The answer, boys, is “I do.”

Apparently, so do the readers of 538. A majority voted to include it. There is hope for this democracy yet.

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Friday, June 13, 2014


Lessons from London: fact-checkers have passion, but need more checks

Poynter’s inaugural Global Fact-Checking Summit attracted a diverse group of journalists to a London classroom this week.

Two Italians explained their creative ideas for earning money from their work. An energetic editor from Argentina talked about how she uses crowdsourcing to help her reporters. And two young journalists from Ukraine showed how they’ve used digital tools to find manipulated photographs in the Russian media.

Attendees at the Poynter’s Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. (Photo by Shannon Beckham)

The journalists shared something big in common: a passion for fact-checking.

As international conferences go, the Global Fact-Checking Summit was a small one — about 40 fact-checkers, a half-dozen academics who study this growing new form of journalism, plus a handful of representatives from the foundations that paid for the conference. But what it lacked it size, it made up in spirit.

They came from across the globe — India, South Africa, Serbia, Poland, Italy, France, the United States and Chile. Russell Skelton, the head of the ABC Fact Check in Australia, endured a 22-hour flight from Sydney and won the conference prize for the longest trip — a kitschy Barack Obama snow globe.

The two-day conference at the London School of Economics showed fact-checkers are a unique breed. They’re smart and can do sophisticated reporting. They’ve disrupted the status quo by challenging the accuracy of their political leaders. And they’ve developed thick skin to withstand frequent criticism. They are eagle-eyed and even caught a mistake in their Poynter certificates, which said the conference was held in July.

The big news from the meeting was the unanimous decision to form an international association that will hold future conferences, promote fact-checking and help the journalists exchange best practices.

As the organizer of the conference, my big takeaway was the realization that in some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, impartial fact-checking can’t be done by newspapers and television networks because they are often controlled by the government or political parties. In those countries, it is being done by “media NGOs” — independent groups that play the role of the non-partisan media.

The meeting allowed the fact-checkers to exchange ideas and tips. Italians Alberto Puoti and Alexios Mantzarlis showed a glitzy TV fact-checking segment that reminded many of us of Dancing with the Stars. Paata Gaprindashvili of the GRASS FactCheck in Georgia played a video that used a wonderfully simple animation to explain a complicated subject.

But for all the great highlight-reel moments, there were plenty of reminders about some big challenges facing the London attendees:

  • Although fact-checking is flourishing in the United States and Europe, there are only a few sites in Africa and South America.
  • In many countries, fact-checking can be difficult because of the lack of reliable government data.
  • No one has found a sustainable business model for fact-checking.

That looms as the biggest challenge. Fact-checking sites don’t typically draw enough traffic to be commercially successful, so they have to get substantial support from large news organizations and foundations.

One of the most popular panels at the London conference was about finding new revenue sources. It began with gloomy comments from editors saying they were facing big funding cuts in the near future. But the conversation turned hopeful as the panelists offered some creative ideas to raise money.

Chequeado, a site in Argentina, hosts a big fund-raiser called “The Night of Chequeado.” in the United States raises about $80,000 a year from individual donations. Pagella Politica, a site in Italy, is exploring offering a variety of services that could bring in revenue, including selling its data and writing background briefs for television hosts about the fact-check records of politicians.

Mantzarlis, co-creator of Pagella Politica, said fact-checking takes a lot of time and effort, which means “there is definitely value in it.” So why not try to recoup some of that value?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the fact-checkers is changing their mindset, something the new association is likely to address. They are not just journalists any more, they are managers and entrepreneurs who must find a way to keep their ventures sustainable.

Laura Zommer, the executive director of Chequeado, said fundraising required a big change in her approach.

“The most important thing,” she said, “is not to be shy.”

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is the creator of PolitiFact.
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Monday, June 09, 2014


How Don Zimmer’s baseball card inspired my book on short writing

I was at a baseball game in St. Petersburg, Florida, Wednesday night when news filtered through the stands that baseball legend Don Zimmer had died. His death was not broadcast by the stadium announcer or flashed on the giant video screen.

Almost everyone at Tropicana Field seemed to have a cell phone, and, as the news spread on social networks, it also spread by word of mouth. A friend even showed me a photo on his phone of Tampa Bay Rays coach Tom Foley – who wears Zimmer’s number 66 as a tribute – crying at the news in the dugout.

Don Zimmer was a baseball legend fueled, not by his talent (he was a .235 career hitter), but by his longevity and the rich variety of his experiences:

  • He knew Babe Ruth.
  • He played with and befriended Jackie Robinson.
  • A pitch fractured his skull, rendering him unconscious for two weeks, ushering in the era of the batting helmet.
  • He played six different positions, including catcher.
  • He coached and managed several teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs.
  • He wore the uniform of six World Series champions.

But the best evidence that Zimmer was a baseball man for life was this fact: “He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 16, 1951.” How did I know this? Because I owned a replica, created in 1995, of a 1954 Topps baseball card. There it is as a caption on the back, right under a cartoon illustration of husband and wife, with his teammates in uniform standing around as witnesses.

I am holding that baseball card in my hand right now. And I am struck, suddenly, how it fits in my hand almost exactly in the dimensions of my cell phone. I decided to measure them, and it turns out that both baseball card and iPhone screen are 5 cm wide. The card is just a bit longer, 7.75 cm vs. 7 cm for the phones on which fans were reading the news of Zimmer’s passing.

Let me say it again for the record: that my iPhone and a replica of an antique baseball card have almost the same aspect ratios.

I can look at the images on my phone in either the vertical or horizontal position. Guess what? One side of my baseball card has a vertical colorized image of Don Zimmer, a head and shoulders shot with the Brooklyn Dodgers logo in the top right corner. A small black and white action pose sits in the lower right. But the back is organized horizontally. If you turn the card from front to back it has the same feel as if you switch the phone image from North and South to East and West.

I recently wrote a book about the power of short writing, and I say with confidence that whoever designed the back of the 1954 baseball card for Topps would have been a genius in the digital age. The amount of information contained in about six square inches of space is truly phenomenal; not to mention the efficient use of multiple forms of communication. This is, by any definition, a multi-media production, and multi-sensory, if you include the bubble gum.

Consider these elements:

A bio-box in the top left corner:

Height: 5’9”
Weight: 160
Bats Right
Throws Right
Home: Treasure Island, Fla.
Born: January 17, 1931

A text block to the right

Don was leading the American Association in Home Runs and Runs Batted In, July 7, 1953, when he was struck in the head by a pitch, missing the remainder of the season. A sure-handed Shortstop, he entered pro ball at Cambridge in 1949, seeing action in 71 games. Don has aspirations to someday become a Major League manager.

The prose is straightforward and accessible for an audience of primarily young sports fans. In retrospect, those three sentences carry some historical weight. Don’s head injury led to the mandating of batting helmets – and it should not escape us that this may have been one of the earliest attempts to deal with the effects of head injuries in sports, an issue that we continue to face in 2014.

Data visualization
Long before the era of what is now called “Big Data,” few baseball statistics were made available to the public, except in box scores in newspapers. Topps aggregated baseball statistics and found visually compelling ways to display them, using color contrast and a variety of typefaces. Consider how much data is stripped across the middle of the Zimmer card. There is room for 13 separate categories of data on parallel lines. As a child, I learned reading from the text blocks, and I learned practical math from the stats.

Features and illustrations

Even with all this information – words and numbers – there is room for not just one but two captioned illustrations, a lovely blend of language and visuals. Under the logo “Inside Baseball,” we learn that “Don led the Pony League with 23 Home Runs at Hornell in 1950.” But the lower right panel provides the payoff: “He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 16, 1951.”

Thanks to a tip from Clay Luraschi at Topps, I now know the name of the designer of the early cards, including 1954. His name was Sy Berger, and this interview with him late in his life describes how he and an artist, Woody Gelman, designed the modern baseball card on his kitchen table. Not only did he imagine the images on the front, but he aggregated and curated the statistical information featured on the back.

Berger knew his audience: kids obsessed with baseball in the 1950s when families began to spread from the cities to the suburbs and when television brought baseball into your living room. The cards had to be colorful, informative, stackable, and portable. Kids would collect them. (My boss says he still has about 10,000.) But kids would also trade them and flip them in a variety of competitive games. One day, the kids would grow up and buy and sell them as part of a huge Baby Boomer collectibles market.

I don’t know how much money Sy Berger made in his many years with the Topps company, but I imagine he could have made another fortune working for Microsoft or Apple.

Back to Don Zimmer
A reference to Don Zimmer occurs on page 24 of my book “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” The chapter encourages writers to “Study short writing wherever it finds you,” not just in text messages or on social media sites. Pay attention to short writing in fortune cookies, on cereal boxes, on candy valentine hearts. And, yes, on baseball cards. I wrote:

It was from these brief texts in small print on the backs of pieces of cardboard that I learned not just the background of the players but the rules of the game, its history and traditions, and, best of all, its language and slang. A “blue dart” was a line drive. A “can of corn” was an easy pop fly. “Chin music” was a pitch up and in.

The chapter ends with this epilogue:

Just a few days ago I ran into Beau Zimmer, a young Florida journalist and a grandson of Don Zimmer. “Please extend to your grandparents my warmest wishes on their sixtieth wedding anniversary,” I said. “I know they were married at home plate in Elmira, New York.’’
“You must have owned his baseball card,” said Beau.

I once read a book by a rabbi who did not believe in an afterlife. He said that if you want immortality, there are three things you can do: plant a tree, write a book, have a child. I now think there may be a fourth: be on a baseball card. Read more

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

ergey Brin wears Google Glass glasses at an announcement for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences at Genentech Hall on UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in San Francisco, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013.

Live chat replay: Glass journalism and teaching when we don’t have all the answers

Robert Hernandez, one of Web journalism’s earliest, most influential innovators, joined us for a live chat Wednesday on Google Glass and a class he will be leading in the fall on “Glass journalism.”

Robert Hernandez

Hernandez teaches at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism as assistant professor of professional practice. He took questions on Google Glass as an emerging tool for newsgathering and storytelling. He also discussed how educators can grapple with a subject that generates more questions than answers — one of the challenges in teaching new technologies and evolving concepts.

This chat was a lead-up to Teachapalooza, Poynter’s college educator seminar scheduled for June 20-22 at our St. Petersburg institute. Hernandez will be among the teaching faculty. The deadline to register is Friday, May 16.

You can replay this chat at any time and visit to find an archive of all past chats.

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