Sharing the writing life with Chip Scanlan.

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How text-to-speech technology can help journalists avoid copy errors

You’ve run spell-check and closely studied your story. Your editors have done the same and the copy desk — the last line of defense against mistakes — has scrutinized every word and line to ensure error-free copy.

And then the worst happens. You pick up the newspaper or open your online story. A mistake, perhaps several, jump out: misspellings, repeated words, missing ones, sources’ names spelled differently on second reference, any of several embarrassing screw-ups have made their way into publication.

You’re not alone.

Spell and grammar checkers are designed to flag misspellings, dangling modifiers, misshapen clauses and run-on sentences, but they’re far from infallible. Mistakes are easy to ignore on the page, but even more elusive on the screen where everything seems pixelly perfect.

There’s another, much more valuable, tool to cut down on creeping copy errors: Text-to-speech. TTS, which converts text into synthesized speech, adds another sense — hearing — that improves your chances of catching mistakes that your eyes miss. It’s a technological antidote to the mistakes that bedevil writers and editors, and make us look lazy, or worse, stupid. The feature is built into most computers’ operating systems. There are also third-party programs that provide the same function.

Meet “Alex,” a TTS voice that lives inside my Macbook Pro. I just select text I want him to read, hold down the control key and then tap the g key. Alex starts reading what I’ve written, or what I think I have, while I follow along on the screen. I usually plug in ear buds to block distractions.

In the three years that TTS has become part of my editing toolkit, Alex has improved my writing, bolstered accuracy and made my stories more graceful. Text-to-speech lets me hear my stories, simultaneously comparing them with the written version, allowing me to detect flaws of word choice, pacing and grammar that I can change on the fly.

When I listen carefully to Alex, he tells me when “know” should be “now.” He guides me to unnecessary sentences and paragraphs. I still rely on Word’s spell and grammar checker, but Alex always manages to find lingering mistakes. I relied on him for every word in my latest book that already had the benefit of a first-rate copy editor. Alex still found missing words, homonyms, such as “then” and “than,” and things I revised but then neglected to delete my original mistake. These days, I let Alex “edit’ my copy before I even activate spell-check.

Both Macintosh computers and computers running Windows operating software provide text-to-speech, but with varying simplicity. Text-to-speech on Macs requires selecting one checkbox in System Preferences and two keystrokes to make Alex talk.

Computer users running older Windows XP and Vista software need to select multiple options before the feature is ready to work. Fortunately, “Microsoft’s solution has improved significantly with Windows 7 and up,” Omar Schwanzer, a former member of Poynter’s technology staff, said via email.

TTS matters because copy editors are under attack by newsroom cost-cutters who have slashed copy desks and often transferred their crucial duties to editing “hubs” that process copy from multiple news outlets. These losses undermine the commitment to accuracy that news consumers demand.

Even small errors can affect a news organization’s credibility and cause readers to lose trust in us.

But it’s not just journalistic sloppiness at work. The brain conspires to keep us from getting things right. We make unconscious errors based on our kinesthetic memory that preserves motions and explains why we can ride a bicycle for the first time since childhood and, after a few wobbles, confidently pedal away. It stores keystrokes as well, which is why I habitually spell judgment with two e’s.

Procedural memory remembers rules — grammar, style, and punctuation. Writing “it’s” for “its” — those maddening misspellings on signs, menus and supposedly professional copy means that writers and editors don’t know the difference between a contraction and a possessive pronoun.

Inattention is another culprit. When we read, our eyes skip forwards and backwards over words, rapid movement known as visual saccades.

Typically, psychologists say, the brain sees the first and last letters of a word and automatically fills in the blank. That explains “then” instead of “than.” And “though” for “through.”

TTS fans include lawyers, novelist, screenwriters and educators who work with dyslexic children.

“I love the idea,” Vicki Krueger, author of News University’s “Cleaning Your Copy” course, said by phone. She believes that TTS “is especially valuable for those whose primary communication is not writing: photographers and other visual journalists, programmers and the millions who write for social media.”

Carolyn Jewel, a romance novelist, said in a testimonial to Text Aloud that hearing her work read aloud keeps her from “supplying meaning that isn’t really there. … Lots of writers recommend literally reading one’s work aloud because it’s a great way to catch clunky phrases and repetitive bits. I tried that once, but it’s pretty hard on the voice, and it still doesn’t solve the issue of your eyes and brain conspiring to ‘fix’ typos for you.”

More newsrooms would benefit from using TTS. Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, said she’s not aware of any newsrooms using it. But it’s time, NewsU’s Krueger and other copy editors say, for them to make friends with my digital editor Alex.

“We already use or should use, a dictionary, stylebook, spell checker and reference books,” Frank Fee, Jr., a veteran copy editor who taught the craft at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ohio University, told me when I introduced him recently to Alex. “Why shouldn’t we add another tool to help us when the safety net of copy editing is frayed or vanishing?” Read more


Monday, Mar. 04, 2013


How journalists can become better interviewers

Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.

Interviewing is the heart of journalism. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. “No one ever teaches the journalist how to conduct an interview,” Courtney Herrig, a student at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, complained in a 2007 blog post. For most journalists the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.

How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?

Get smart.

If you want to flop as an interviewer, fail to prepare. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of question scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing. When former New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito interviews experts, “I try to know almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting,’ ” she said by email. A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling’s knowledge, Shoemaker opened up.

Craft your questions.

The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” They’re conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that produce an abundance of information needed to produce a complete and accurate story.

Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the company’s money? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.

The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled (even tripled-barreled) questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.

Craft questions in advance to ensure you ask ones that start conversations rather than halt them in their tracks. Stick to the script, and always ask one question at a time. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself. More than once, I’ve stopped myself in the middle of a double-barreled question and said, “That’s a terrible question. Let me put it another way.”

Listen up.

The 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House. At one point, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, is on the phone with a Nixon fundraiser. Woodward asks how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then remain silent for several agonizing moments, until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out incriminating information.

The moral:  Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.


A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy — some understanding of their plight — they’re more likely to open up to you. “Interviewing is the modest immediate science of gaining trust, then gaining information,” John Brady wrote in “The Craft of Interviewing.”

“I am a human first,” says Carolyn Mungo, executive news director at WFAA-TV. “People have to see that journalists are not just a body behind a microphone. Even if you have five minutes, don’t rush, let them know you care,” Mungo said by email.

Look around.

Good interviewers do more than listen.

“I always try to see people at home,” says Rhode Island freelancer Carol McCabe, who fills her newspaper and magazine feature stories with rich detail gathered during interviews. “I can learn something from where the TV is, whether the set of encyclopedias or bowling trophies is prominently displayed, whether the guy hugs his wife or touches his kids, what clothes he or she wears at home, what’s on the refrigerator door,” McCabe said in a 1985 interview for “How I Wrote the Story.”

Capture how people talk.

The most powerful quotes are short, sometimes just fragments of speech. In a story about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters traveling to visit each other, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times used simple quotes that illustrated what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.”

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

Just 11 words in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims.

Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; it’s dictation. Put your bloated quotes on a diet. Quotations, as Kevin Maney once said, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

Don’t just settle for quotes: Listen for dialogue, those exchanges between people that illuminate character, drive action and propel readers forward.

Establish ground rules.

You’ve just finished a great interview — with a cop, a neighbor, a lawyer — and suddenly the source says, “Oh, but that’s all off the record.”

That’s the time to point out that there’s no such thing as retroactive off the record. Make sure the person you’re interviewing knows the score right away.

When a source wants to go off the record, stop and ask, “What do you mean?” Often a source doesn’t know, especially if this is their first interview. Bill Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes exposing police abuses in Philadelphia, read off the record comments back to his source. Often, he found that many sources changed their minds once they’d heard what they were to be quoted as saying.

Be a lab rat.

Record your interviews. Transcribe the questions as well as the answers. Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor? To be the best interviewer you can be, study yourself and let your failures and victories lead you to rich conversations and richer stories.

This column was adapted from “News Writing and Reporting: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” by Chip Scanlan, co-authored with Richard Craig and due out from Oxford University Press this spring. Read more


Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013


How brain science can make you a better writer

A TV ad for features an unscrupulous doctor manipulating a patient’s exposed brain, turning him into a puppet who flails away at a keyboard hunting and pecking for online travel deals. It’s funny to some, offensive to others, but it illustrates a larger point that is important for writers. The brain influences the way readers respond to words, for better or worse.

A growing body of research reveals that different parts of the brain respond to language in unique ways. Neuroscientists learned this by observing brain scans as subjects read. Writers can take advantage of these findings to connect with readers in deep, intimate and lasting ways. And you don’t have to be a brain scientist to do it, just apply the same kind of techniques that writing teachers have been preaching for years.

The science of  “this is your brain,” “this is your brain on stories,” is relatively straightforward. It starts with a geography lesson, based on the principle that the map of the brain locates multiple areas that control the way we move, see, hear, taste, smell, touch and remember.

It’s long been understood that the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain that separates humans from all other species, interprets language through the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. But their powers are limited: they enable us to understand words, but nothing more.

That’s why traditional news articles with their passive verb forms, collective nouns (“officials said”) and clichés have so little impact on readers. Flabby prose turns off readers because it doesn’t turn on the brain. Neuroscience shows how carefully chosen words and the tools of storytelling activate parts of the brain other than those that process language to make reading a deep, resonant and lasting experience.

A fascinating essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul, details these developments.

She describes how researchers at Emory University earlier this year discovered that the phrase “he had leathery hands” aroused the sensory cortex that activated the sense of touch. Spanish researchers found that words like “cinnamon” and “soap” triggered a response from the olfactory cortex which processes smells.

A French team learned that action verbs, such as “Pablo kicked the ball,” fired up the motor cortex, which governs how the body moves. Not only that, but verbs that involved different parts of the body, such as the arm or leg, activated the parts of the brain that controls those specific limbs. Evocative language also reaches into the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory, and plays an important role in the way the mind turns language into meaningful experience, a goal for all writers.

Based on these findings, we can take advantage of this three-pound organ with its 86 billion nerve cells to enrich our writing. Here are five ways:

  1. Create scenes. The combination of characters in action, dialogue and evocative settings lies at the heart of what novelist John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream” that captivates readers.
  2. Dig for details, the more specific the better. If you want to get a reader’s mind to visualize what they’re reading, a “cherry-red ’67 Mustang convertible” does a much better job than “a car.” “The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose,” Tom Wolfe wrote in “The New Journalism.” “It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
  3. Choose vivid action verbs. “Michaela grabbed her umbrella and dashed into the rain” triggers the motor cortex. Strong verbs are not just words on the page. They represent action in the reader’s mind.
  4. Avoid passive verb forms. “The body was found” is not only a flabby word choice that robs the verb of energy and fails to ignite the brain. It usually signifies weak reporting. “A seven-year-old newsboy found the body” heightens the senses.
  5. Cultivate a “a nose for story.” Consider the power of the scented details in this sentence by Anne Hull of The Washington Post: “Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon.” The brain’s olfactory bulb not only lets us smell. It also triggers memories in the hippocampus. “Hit a tripwire of smell,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” “and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

Neuroscience offers profound lessons on the power of story. You can use this knowledge to bring stories alive in readers’ minds. For writers and readers, the brain is a terrible thing to waste. Read more


Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012


A multimedia journalist’s holiday wish list

Technology has filled the journalistic toolbox with an array of innovative gadgets that enable journalists to gather and deliver the news with speed and sophistication. But which ones does a multimedia journalist need? It’s an apt question to ponder given the time of year. That way, if family, friends, perhaps even a wise boss, ask, “What do you want for the holidays?” you’ll be prepared.

In the spirit of gift giving, and receiving, I asked three leading multimedia journalists and a college professor who teaches multimedia journalism to build a “holiday wish list for multimedia journalists.” Their admittedly subjective suggestions for hardware and accessories range from the reasonably priced to the wildly extravagant. Note: Prices vary. In this post-Black Friday market, these experts advise hunting for bargains but always stick with reputable sellers. Be sure to read customer reviews.


Smartphone. With still photo and audio/video capability, wireless access and the right mobile apps, a smartphone is the Swiss Army knife for multimedia journalists. Says Sara Ganim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter who recently joined CNN as a correspondent: “I call my smartphone my mobile newsroom, because it really is essential to how I gather news daily. I can shoot, edit and post video to the Web. I can get photos up almost instantly. I’ve even had people tweet during a press conference, giving me questions they want answered.”

Buyers have lots of choices as wireless providers compete by offering deals for feature-laden models in exchange for usage contracts. Ganim’s pick: the iPhone5. “I’ve had several but none were as fast and efficient.” Price: Without a provider contract, the cost is $649 for the 16-gigabyte model. If you already have wireless service, it can be as low as $199. Another contender is the Android Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a bigger screen than the iPhone. Price: $600 and up. With service contract adding $100 or less.

Computer. Naka Nathaniel, a multimedia journalist who has traveled the world’s hotspots with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, recently updated his gear. His choice: the 13-inch retinal display MacBook Pro. It’s light, quick and ideally suited for editing and producing audio and video stories. Price: $1,700. Macs are not the only option; deals abound for less expensive Window-based personal computers.

Digital camera. For the serious multimedia journalist, these professionals agree on a full-featured Digital Single Lens Reflex camera to capture high quality still photos and video.

Nikon’s D5100 with a variable zoon lens is a good option. Price: $550. But Casey Frechette, who teaches multimedia journalism at the University of South Florida, prefers the entry-level Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP CMOS. Price: $600 for the body and a 18mm-55mm zoom lens.

Video camera. DSLRs may be a replacement in many circumstances, but video cameras remain viable for “run and gun” style shoots, when it’s important to be mobile and constantly reframe and refocus shots in fast-moving environments. Check out the Canon VIXIA HF G10. Price: About $1,100. Or the Sony HDR CX160. Price: $319.

Portable Digital Audio Recorder. Smartphones and digital cameras can capture sound, but a high-quality audio digital audio recorder is “a must-have for the multimedia journalist” to capture voice-overs, interview soundbites and on-location sound, says Frechette. His choice: the Zoom H4N, which features on board mics and jacks for three external mics and can record to four tracks simultaneously and independently.” Price: $250.

iPad. Multimedia journalists who use the iPad prize the device for its versatility and small footprint to conduct live interviews from Times Square to the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. For iPhone lover Ganim, the iPad is the only other device she carries. Google’s Android and the new Windows Surface tablets offer video output and USB ports for greater connectivity, but as New York Times techno-gadget guru David Pogue notes, they are still woefully shy of the iPad’s 275,000 tablets designed apps. IPad Price: $399 for 16-gigabyte model. Note: You’ll need a wireless contract to connect on the road.

Remote Controlled Helicopter Video Camera. For the 1 percenters out there, Mark Briggs, director of digital media at KING5-TV in Seattle, is high on the $8,000 radio and GPS operated HexaKopter XL equipped with a Go Pro Hero 3 video camera for $300. It can fly up to 500 meters high for 22 minutes (demo). “It would be amazing to fly this over protests, parades, sporting events and so much more,” he says. “Journalism is so often about access and this would provide the kind of access we’ve never seen before.”                      


Headphones. You’ve got to hear what you’re recording to ensure quality. Pick up the Sony MDR-7506. Its closed ear design makes it easy to monitor sound and the fold-up design fits easy into your gear bag. Price: $100.

Tripod. Effective video requires steady hands, especially during interviews. Enter the tripod, the three-legged stand that secures your camera for jiggle-free shots. Look for the Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod. Price: $115 with mail-in rebate. Or the Canon Deluxe Tripod 300 Tripod. Price: $40.

Monopod. Says Frechette, “Tripods are useful, but they’re bulky. Monopods are a terrific alternative. They’re telescopic and can be used in lots of different positions — anchored to the ground, hoisted above head and anywhere in-between.” He recommends the affordable and sturdy Manfrotto 679B 3 Section Monopod with Head. Price: $60.

Shotgun microphone. Built-in camera mics are usually ill-equipped to capture high-quality sound. Multimedia journalists work around the problem with a shotgun mic attached to even the smallest video cameras. Nathaniel and Frechette suggest the Rode VideoMic Mini Shotgun. Price: $149.

Wired and wireless microphones. Lavalier mics, tucked in a subject’s shirt or lapel, are the best way to capture high-quality interview audio. They plug into your camera or audio recorder and “are affordable, custom made and feature great construction and sound quality,” says Frechette. His choice: Giant Squid Mono Omni Lav. Price: $40. Wireless mics enable the subject to move around and still transmit high-quality sound. Naka Nathaniel likes the Sennheiser EW 100-ENG G2. But it comes at a stiff price: $779.

Lights. Lighting is a critical component of quality video, especially for interviews, but that doesn’t mean you have to lug and set up complicated equipment. LED lights are bright, require little power, don’t heat up and are affordable. The 160 Dimmable LED Camera Light easily mounts to a camera or light stand and the lights can be dimmed, too. Price: $40.

Backpack. Multimedia journalists need something to carry all their gear in. The Lowe Photo Backpack is big and sturdy enough for a DSLR camera, lenses, accessories, even a laptop and a tripod side pocket. Price: $150.

Storage. Taking stunning photos and videos won’t matter if your device runs out of storage space. Nathaniel recently upgraded his stock of 8-gigabyte SD cards with 32 and 64-gigabyte versions. Prices: $20-$75. For larger files and editing on the fly, he relies on 2-terabyte Passport portable hard drives for Mac and PC. Price: $140.

USB 3.0 card reader. If your computer doesn’t feature a card reader, you’ll want one to copy files from your media cards to your computer for display and editing. It’s powered by the USB port on your computer, no batteries needed. Version 3.0 supports the fastest transfer speeds. Price: $16.

Batteries. There’s nothing worse than running out of power at a critical newsgathering moment. Stock plenty of extra batteries as well as a battery charger to keep them primed.

Blank DVDs (under $10 for a 25-pack) and a Power Strip (under $10) are good to keep handy. Check out the Pivot Power-Articulated Power Strip. $30.

I wish all you multimedia journalists the gift-happiest of holidays. But remember: Your gadgets are essential — and cool — but nothing substitutes for reporting and writing skills, curiosity and tenacity.

“At the end of the day, no gadget can tell you how to report,” says Ganim. “Those things only help make you better and more efficient. The most important tool is your head.”

Chip Scanlan’s new book, “Reporting and Writing: The Complete Guide for Today’s Journalist,” co-authored with Richard Craig, is due out this spring from Oxford University Press. Read more

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Monday, Jan. 09, 2012

Storytelling on Deadline: A Bookbag for Reporters and Editors



A Bookbag for Reporters and Editors
Suggested by Chip Scanlan, The Poynter Institute




“Aim for the Heart: A Guide for TV Producers/Reporters,” by Al Tompkins. Bonus Books, 2002.


“The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on the Wall Street Journal,” by William E. Blundell. New York, NY: New American Library, 1988.


“Becoming a Writer,” by Dorothea Brande. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981. (reprint of 1934 edition published by Harcourt Brace.)


“Best American Sports Writing series.” 2002 volume edited by Rick Reilly. Boston: Houghton Mifflin).


“Best American Sportswriting of the Century,” edited by David Halberstam (Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


“Best Newspaper Writing,” edited by Roy Peter Clark, Don Fry, Karen F. Brown, Christopher Scanlan, Keith Woods, Aly Col�n. St. Petersburg, FL: The Poynter Institute and Bonus Books, 1979-2004.


“Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together Across Media Platforms,” second edition, by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry. New York: Bedford, Freedman & Worth, 2003.


“The Complete Book of Feature Writing,” edited by Leonard Witt. Cincinnati, OH: Writer�s Digest Books, 1991.


“Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction” by James B. Stewart. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1998.


“How I Wrote the Story,” edited by Christopher Scanlan. Providence, RI: The Providence Journal Co., 1989.


“Read to Write: A Writing Process Reader,” by Donald M. Murray. 3rd. ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.


“Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century,” by Christopher Scanlan. Oxford University Press, NY 2000.


“Speaking of Journalism: 12 Writers and Editors Talk About Their Work,” edited by William Zinsser. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994.


“A Treasury of Great Reporting,” edited by Louis L. Snyder. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1949.

“The Art of Fact,” edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda.  New York, NY: Scribner, 1997.


“The Sound On The Page: Style and Voice in Writing,” by Ben Yagoda. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004.


“Telling Stories, Taking Risks. Journalism Writing and the Century�s Edge,” edited by Alice Klement and Carolyn Matalene, Belmont, Calif. Wadsworth, 1998.


“A Writer�s Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, From Vision Through Revision,” by Kenneth Atchity. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.

“Writing Broadcast News–Shorter, Sharper, Stronger”, by Mervin Block. Bonus Books, 1997.


“Writing in Flow: Keys to Enchanced Creativity,” by Susan K. Perry.  Cincinnati, OH OH: Writer�s Digest Books, 1999.


“Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner,” by Jon Franklin. New York, NY: Plume, 1994.


“Writing for Your Readers: Notes on the Writer�s Craft from the Boston Globe,” by Donald M. Murray. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1992.


“Writing to Deadline, “by Donald M. Murray. Portsmouth, NY: Heinemann, 2000.

“Writing Under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process,” by Sanford Kaye. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.




�Narrative Journalism:Reporting and Writing in a Different Voice.� Nieman Reports, Fall 2000. A collection of articles by Tom French, Laura Sessions Stepp, Roy Peter Clark, Gerald Boyd, Rick Bragg, Madeleine Blais, Mark Kramer and others.


�Storytelling on Deadline,� by Christopher Scanlan, Best Newspaper Writing 1995.  pp. 355-365.


�Tom Wolfe�s Revenge,� by Chris Harvey. American Journalism Review, October 1994, pp. 40-46.


�Return of the Narrative� by Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry. Quill, May 1994. pp. 10-12.


�The Art of Storytelling,� by Jack Hart, The Coaches� Corner, March 1992, p. 1,4,6.


�A Nonfiction Writer is a Storyteller,� by James Cross Giblin, The Writer, April 1988, p. 13-15, 46.


�A New Shape for the News,�  by Roy Peter Clark, Washington Journalism Review, March 1984, pp. 46-47.


Bob Baker’s Newsthinking

The Power of Words, writing lessons from the Providence Journal

No Train, No Gain: Training for Newspaper Journalists

Writing Matters



  Read more


Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Rhetorical inventory of Obama’s budget, deficit speech reveals talking points, strategy

The torrent of news stories, analyses, editorials, columns and blog posts about President Obama’s speech on his budget plan focused, appropriately, on the numbers.

But there’s another way to look at it: analyzing the speaker’s words in ways that reveal as much about the content as the dollar signs that pepper its paragraphs. This approach employs a tool that linguists rely on in their study of human language. It’s a concordance, an alphabetical list of the principal words in a text that can be sorted by the number of times they are used.

President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Before computers, generating these rhetorical inventories was such an arduous, time-consuming project that they were limited to literature’s big guns: The Works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Koran and the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

Now digitized texts and software make a concordance just a few keystrokes away.

One of the simplest concordances are those that crunch word frequencies to view patterns, like the one that the British newspaper The Guardian produced in 2010, comparing Obama’s first State of the Union speech with those delivered by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt,  John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush “to see where president’s focus lay.” There are also other ways language lovers can aim a spotlight on a politician’s rhetorical skill or lack thereof.

Word frequencies (selected ever-so-carefully by speechwriters, spin doctors and political consultants) offer another prism to examine the messages behind Obama’s attempt to seize control of an issue as vital — and polarizing — as reducing the federal deficit and the path the President wants to take to achieve that goal.

Here are three examples.

Spread the Wealth: Income and class
Words Frequency of use in speech
Wealthiest Americans/Wealthiest 2 per cent of Americans/ Wealthier/Wealthy/Most fortunate 9
Millionaire/Millionaires 4
Billionaire/Billionaires 3
Seniors 11
Middle class 8
Poor children/Poor families/Less fortunate 5
Working families/Working Americans 3
The Vision Thing
Words Frequency
Believe 27
Future 17
Vision/Visions 15
Talking Points: The Focus of the Speech
Words Frequency
Deficit/Deficits 28
Reduce/Reducing/Reduction/Reductions 23
Spending 23
Pay (verb) 17
Debt 17
Medicare 18
Tax cut/cuts 11
Social Security 11
Medicaid 10
Taxes 7
Defense/Military 5
Tax breaks 2

As in any speech, what isn’t mentioned is often as revealing as what is. Here are words that President Obama did not use in his speech:

  • Entitlements
  • Rich
  • Welfare
  • Redistribution
  • Hope

This concordance was created using DEVONthink software. Read more


Tuesday, Oct. 07, 2008

Putting Voters in the Analyst’s Seat

Political analysis of campaign debates has long been the business of the chatterati: news analysts, commentators, spin doctors. That won’t change, at least not in the ’08 presidential campaign.

But now the digerati — computer wizards — have teamed up with journalists to put voters in the analyzer’s seat, too. The vehicles are innovative, with interactive features that include:

  • Debate video and transcripts, posted in near real-time
  • Keywords that enable voters to leap into the debate to see and/or read candidates’ stands on issues ranging from “maverick” to “surge”
  • Fact-checking pop-up windows
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I know of four such offerings, which I’ve listed in the sidebar to the right. unveiled its “Debate Analyzer” for the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 as part of its “Decision ’08 Dashboard.”

The analyzer “really gives users the ability to explore specific concepts within the context of the entire debate with a level of detail previously unavailable,” Paige West, director of interactive projects at, told me in an email interview last week. (West previously worked for Poynter’s NewsU as senior interactive learning producer.)

I wanted to know why a news organization would go to such trouble to create something like this, what it took to make such a feature a reality, and most important of all, what impact it could have on a participatory democracy as ours. Whether you’re a geek, a political reporter or a voter, I hope you find our exchange fruitful.

Scanlan: What is the “Debate Analyzer”?

West: The debate analyzer is a special interactive feature that allows users to experience the debate in a much richer way than a typical linear video player. … Video search, which is what this interactive is powered by, is definitely a new and exciting technology that we’re pioneering.

How would you describe the “Decision ’08 Dashboard� and its place in coverage?

West: The Dashboard is the main entry point to our political coverage this election season. It provides an amazing variety of information in one place, in whatever format a user might want — video, text, data, maps, etc. We needed a way to surface the vast amount of content we have and we wanted to do it in an innovative, visual way that grabbed people’s attention. Lists of headlines just aren’t intuitive and interesting enough to get people to dig in and find out what is available to them; and it doesn’t do justice to the variety of content that we have.

How does the “Analyzer” differ from traditional post-debate coverage?

West: This really puts the user in the driver’s seat. They can focus on the issues that are important to them, and they can compare and contrast how the candidates addressed those issues within the context of the different topics introduced by the moderator. Typically, analysis is pretty general (Who won?) and unidirectional, from reporter to users; the audience primarily sees the key moments that are replayed over and over again without the context of what was said before and after. This allows users to get past that and dig into the meat of the debate.

What are its features?

West: Users can watch the whole debate from beginning to end or skip around as with any regular video player, but the interface also shows users when each question segment started and what the question was, when Obama or McCain spoke and for how long, and where specific keywords and phrases were used. For example, users can jump to the specific part of the debate where McCain mentioned “Iraq” when answering the third question, which was about the economy, actually. Editorial analysis and fact-checking of statements made by the candidates is also time-aligned and juxtaposed against the question, speaker, and keyword information.

How were they created?

West: The transcript was time-aligned to the video and the different start and stop times of the questions, speaker segments, and keywords were recorded in a database. The interactive itself was built in Flash using our embeddable video player; the time line interface was drawn dynamically based on the time-in and time-out values for the different elements. Just by linking the Flash application to a different set of data, we can produce the same experience for all the debates — or any video, really.

What did it take: technology, reporting, personnel, skill sets?

West: The skills necessary were mostly technical and interface design-related. The Flash application was designed and built in about two weeks prior to the debate. A lot of thought and effort went into the interface design in order to make it intuitive; when introducing a new feature like that, people aren’t familiar with how it works, and you want to make it as easy to interact with so they don’t get frustrated and leave. Once we had the video and full transcript in hand, it was just a matter of time-aligning them, searching for the relevant time-in values, and wiring up the data and video with the application. All the politics editor had to do was send the transcript and a list of keywords that she generated from listening to the debate. We used the fact-checking analysis from the live blog posts on NBC’s First Read. The editors really didn’t have to do anything outside of their normal work flow — which is important during a live event like that.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

West: There were elements of this in lots of other projects. It just required we pull together the right things.

Could you give a bit of the “back story,” how and why it came to be?

West: We knew we wanted to do something special for the debates and we’d just entered an agreement with a partner that is helping us develop video search for our site. We decided to do a test of the technology in a limited capacity by using it to analyze one video and a set of associated keywords.

How did you decide on the particular keywords and phrases?

West: The politics editor sent a list of keywords and phrases that she derived just by listening to the debate and identifying terms that were spoken quite often or that had a good deal of significance. We compared that to a computer-generated list of the most frequently said words and phrases to produce the final set of keywords. Amazingly, the two lists were quite similar.

Can users add their own?

West: Not in this application, but in future evolutions of this technology on our site, users will be able to search for any term or phrase they want across multiple videos.

Black circles locate the keyword almost immediately. I’m a bit confused by the empty circles — what do they signify?

West: That’s the NBC News analysis — fact-checking points, basically. NBC reporters identified statements or facts that were mentioned by the candidates and they fact-checked them or provided some relevant background. For example, Obama cited Henry Kissinger, a McCain adviser, as saying that the U.S. should meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions. The NBC analysis provides some deeper background info, including a statement released by Kissinger after the debate clarifying his position.

What other uses can you envision for this technology? Do you plan to use it for every debate or major speech from now on?

West: We’re using it for all the presidential and vice presidential debates this month. After that, we’ll explore where best to apply this technology in other areas on the site.

What is its importance in a democracy, and specifically, in a presidential election?

West: It lets people study the candidates’ answers to the debate questions and draw their own conclusions. Giving people the tools to make up their own mind is what drives my thinking behind all the politics interactives we do � like the Candidates + Issues Matrix we had during the primaries or the Data Explorer that’s live now.

What kind of feedback have you received?

Everyone loves it! Editors want to reuse it for everything! At last count, the video player had close to a million video streams, and that was before the vice presidential debate, which should draw a lot of interest. Users have been actively engaging with this innovative tool and have sent lots of enthusiastic e-mails saying they want more. Read more


Friday, Oct. 03, 2008

Diagramming Palin’s Sentences

Forget politics. Anyone who’s interested in clarity should study this post on by author Kitty Burns Florey: “Diagramming Sarah: Can Palin’s sentences stand up to a grammarian?”

In her post, the novelist and copy editor says:

“There are plenty of people out there — not only English teachers but also amateur language buffs like me — who believe that diagramming a sentence provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator,”

OK, it’s political, since she’s taking on Sarah Palin’s tortured sentences from interviews blamed for a drop in her approval ratings. But a return to the lost grammar school torment of diagramming sentences — illustrated by sentence maps that look like an incomprehensible equation — is an enlightening journey.

Read more


Thursday, Sep. 18, 2008

Train Crash Leads LA Times to Create Django Database on Deadline

At 4:40 p.m., Friday, Sept. 12, a Metrolink commuter train collided with an oncoming freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. The crash, the Los Angeles Times reported, was “the worst in modern California history,” killing 25 and injuring 135.

The following afternoon,, the paper’s Web site, posted an interactive database of the first fatalities who were identified. The database enabled readers to learn more about each victim with fields sorted by name, age, gender, hometown, hospital, marital status, number of children, occupation, reason for riding, and the train car they were riding.

As the coroner began to release names, the database grew. It now includes all 25 people who died in the crash. A separate Web page is devoted to each victim, featuring a photograph, a quote from a friend or relative, a brief portrait and a link to the paper’s obituary. The database also accommodates poignant tributes from family, friends, even strangers soon followed. has created tailor-made databases before. They include California’s war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, a homicide database paired with its Homicide Report Blog, a K-12 guide to California schools including SAT scores, enrollment size and diversity; and on the lighter side, “L.A.’s Top Dogs,” tracks the most common canines in Los Angeles County – Chihuahuas named Princess topped the list Thursday.

I was struck by how quickly the crash victims database appeared and impressed by the interactive demographics that let me learn information about each victim by the field of my choice. It turns out, as I learned from e-mail interviews with Times staffers involved in the project, there’s an interesting tale of best practices behind this deadline database.

They told me this was the first database they produced on deadline, speed made possible by a decision to depart from the paper’s content management system, used to post text, images and multimedia elements, in favor of Django. 

Django is a free, open-source application that makes it easier and faster to build databases for the Web. Co-created by journalist-programmer Adrian Holovaty, Django is billed on its Web site as “The Web framework for perfectionists with deadlines.”

Django was used to create the schools database, Times staffers note. But, “this is the first time we’ve used the application on a breaking news story,” Megan Garvey, morning Metro assignment editor, told me. Garvey was one of several Times staffers I queried about the database. Most answers below are Garvey’s; answers from others follow their name and title.

Chip Scanlan: Why and when was the database created?

Megan Garvey: Shortly before 8:30 p.m. Friday, about four hours post-crash, (database producer) Ben Welsh sent me a message asking if he should start building a site for crash victims based on our treatment for the War Dead. I thought it was a great idea and he got to work, even as we were still scrambling to report the news. At that point, I think they had confirmed only a handful of fatalities or fewer.

Who made it happen, from genesis to posting?

Garvey: Ben and I had a quick discussion of what the database had to include (name, age, hometown, places for a quote, a picture and some biographical information) and he started building it right away.

By 11 p.m. Friday, he had the basic data form ready to go, but we had no names of confirmed fatalities yet.

That night from home, I started entering the names of injured that we knew about from our reporting, using stories that we had written, as well as information in our feeds basket where we send material on breaking stories.

On Saturday, Ben and I talked in the office about 7:30 a.m. about where we were and what else we wanted to try to collect (hospital, occupation, reason for being on the train). He started building a landing page and writing the code that determined which of the fields would be published and how they would be presented.

I was also handling the editing of our live coverage that morning so I sent out a message to the staff a little after 9 a.m. telling everyone what we were looking for and where to send it. Almost the entire Metro staff worked to make War Dead happen, so nearly everyone was familiar with the concept.

At that point I had one of the reporters in the office start going through the feeds basket and entering names and contact information — noting the injury as fatal, non-fatal, or unknown — so we could move quickly once names were confirmed. Ben set it up so we could filter what went live on the Web by extent of injury. At that point we knew of only one name of a fatality, an LAPD officer.

By late afternoon, we had two names confirmed through reporting and the database was live on our site with the overall numbers. It was linked to on the homepage within minutes of the coroner’s first release of names at about 6:30 p.m. Saturday.


What software was used to create it and how did it get up on the site?

Eric Ulken, interactive technology editor: We went off the reservation and used Django, because our CMS doesn’t support this kind of application.

Welsh: Django is a toolbox that a reasonably skilled Web developer can use to turn around projects quickly using a number of shortcuts it introduces. It’s for computer programmers, not for your average reasonably savvy Web producer. Though it’s well-crafted enough that a committed amateur could educate themselves and learn how to do it in a month or so. And probably much less time if the person is already capable in the Python programming language. It’s is not an off-the-shelf solution, like, say, Caspio, that a typical web producer could pick up and start making things within a couple a days.
One of those great shortcuts is an automatically generated “admin” that allows for Web-based data entry instantly after the database is designed. Most other Web frameworks require the developer to invest a ton of time building things like that out, which means you’re doing a lot of work that will never be displayed on the public facing site. In the development community, the Django admin is often considered its “killer app” that separates it from competitors. Technical documentation that provides a good overview is found here

So once the metro staff got started on entry I could focus on building the user interface for the live Web site and we could work on two different tasks at the same time. Very efficient, and well-suited for projects like this.

What sources did you rely on?

Garvey: We relied on our reporting from the field and from information released by the LAPD, fire authorities and L.A. County Coroner. In some cases, if AP or another newspaper had information that we did not have yet, we used that and attributed it.

How did you settle on the fields?

Garvey: The basic fields seemed obvious and were somewhat cribbed from our work on War Dead. In addition, we decided it would be good to know which car the person was riding in and, if known, which direction they were facing. We added several other fields for resource purposes only, such as contacts for family and friends, details of the injuries and whether they were connected to the deadly 2005 Glendale train derailment.

We are also recording information on the injured for future stories [and given the severity of injuries of so many, in the event that they later die] but decided not to publish that on the Web.

In addition, we knew we wanted a way to link people to the actual stories written about the crash and the individuals. And, of course, we wanted a way to let people share their memories, which has been very effective on War Dead.

Readers have responded overwhelmingly to that opportunity and at this point nearly all the individual memorial pages have posts from close family and friends, as well as other people who just want to leave condolences or express their grief.

Welsh: To me the site started as simply a way to quickly disseminate the fatality list, was sketched in by our staff to become a collection of obituaries, and along the way flowered into a community conversation. We did our part, and then set things up so the readers could do theirs. The second wasn’t possible without the first, but I suspect that stories shared by our readers may ultimate be a larger part of the sites continued appeal than anything we did.
David Lauter, California editor: As of Wednesday afternoon, the database has received more than 850,000 page views, and users have left more than 1,500 comments. As Ben says, it has become a genuine community forum, which is pretty extraordinary in a place like LA.
And some of the responses from family members have been extraordinary. The parents of Christopher Aiken, one of the victims, left a note on this site that ended this way: “To all of those of you who have written to this Web site, his dad and I can’t tell you enough how very much your messages have helped us through this most difficult time in our lives. Friends, family, strangers alike. Thanks to so many for all your love and prayers.”
A friend of another family told us that the family members, who were still too distraught to talk directly with a reporter, were reading their son’s page on the database and “holding on to those comments like gold.”…

We plan to reverse publish some of the comments from the database in the printed paper, probably on Sunday. Read more


Friday, May 30, 2008

Whose Journalism Is It?

Journalists work hard to report the news and tell the stories of our time. They contribute creativity, energy, passion, critical thinking, doing their best to reflect their community’s diversity and behave in an ethical fashion. I’ve heard people making comments reeking of disdain of our profession, “It’s not brain surgery.” And I want to say, “Yeah, it’s harder.”
These critics should try covering an eight-hour council meeting or staying on top of a fluid election and producing a story that is accurate, fair, balanced, solidly reported and written with compelling clarity. News writing, as veteran author David Von Drehle once put it, “especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated — the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure.” Given those realities, it’s no surprise the process is called “The Daily Miracle.” It’s understandable, given all this hard work, that a sense of ownership takes over.
Especially when a book publisher or movie producer expresses an interest in buying the rights to reproduce a photograph, a graphic, or publish a magazine or book based on the journalist’s work. Heady as it may seem, the balloon quickly pops. For that’s when journalists discover, despite all their hard work, that they hold no rights to the material.
Their newspaper is free to sell the public reprints of photographs or special sections, or collect materials in a book. And what do journalists get? In a word: nothing. That’s because newspaper employees are governed by what’s known as the “work for hire” rule. That means everything you produce, collect, publish from notebooks to SD memory cards, and repurpose on the Internet, belongs to the company, which retains all rights.
You can read about the term “work for hire” and its implications at the Web site of the United States Copyright Office. It’s not any different for freelancers, says the writer advocacy group American Society of Journalists and Authors in a 2003 position paper, “RIGHTS 101: What Writers Should Know About All-Rights.”
“All rights” and “work made for hire” –- these contract terms sound simple enough. But what does it really mean when writers sign contracts containing them? In most cases, work-made-for-hire and all-rights contracts are a rotten deal for writers. 
There have been circumstances when journalists have been given the right to use materials in other settings, such as a book. In my experience, those arrangements usually reflect the relationship between the journalist and the company. After leaving The Providence Journal on good terms, for instance, I was given permission to use stories I had written for the paper in my textbook at no charge. 
But if you’re wondering, as some who have asked me, who owns your journalism, the answer is simple: not you.  
Who should own journalism, the journalists who produce it or the companies that publish it? Read more