Associated Press Stylebook Reflects Evolving Zeitgeist

As an online subscriber of the Associated Press’ Stylebook Online, I regularly get updates about new and updated entries. The timing of some of them makes sense. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, for instance, the AP sent an update about how to correctly pronounce “Port-au-Prince.”

But what about the recent e-mails alerting online subscribers to a new entry for Cash for Clunkers, the change from “Group of 20″ to “G-20,” or my favorite, the correct usage of Parmesan cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese?

The cheese update stemmed from a list of food-related terms that AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch recently sent the Stylebook editors for consideration. “California roll,” “artisanal,” and “organic” were also on the list.

“These are terms that have cropped up with increasing frequency in the mainstream discourse about food,” said Hirsch, who admits he loves Parmesan cheese. “The public discourse about food has become so much more mainstream and so much more nuanced and so much more popular in the U.S. in the past 10 years, so it’s important to make sure our terminology is up to date.”

(If a gang of rough-looking copy editors accosts you this weekend, you may be able to soften them up by noting that Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese refers to an Italian Parmesan cheese produced in specific regions of Italy.)

Just as the Stylebook shows what body of knowledge the AP believes journalists need to know in order to effectively report on the world around them, changes like these show how that body of knowledge is changing — a journalistic sign of the times.

For instance, for some time after 9/11, many journalists included language like “the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” sometimes noting that two planes flew into the World Trade Center and another crashed in Pennsylvania. In recognition that everyone in the U.S. — nearly everyone in the world — knows what happened that day, the Stylebook accepts the use of 9/11 and Sept. 11 as a shorthand.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported on the AP’s decision to use “Great Recession” to describe the economic downturn that started in 2007.

Such changes are based on recommendations from AP writers and editors as well as other journalists.

“We get a good number of suggestions from readers of the Stylebook who are not shy about making suggestions,” said David Minthorn, one of the Stylebook’s three editors. “We entertain them all, but ultimately we have to decide what’s most appropriate for AP newswriting at a certain time.”

Minthorn and the other two Stylebook editors — Sally Jacobsen and Darrell Christian — talk regularly about which updates should be made to the Stylebook. They meet a couple times a month as they start to finalize content for the print edition, and exchange frequent, even daily, messages about one issue or another.

Minthorn gets ideas for updates from questions submitted to the “Ask the Editor” feature, which he runs. The three also keep track of the questions that Twitterers send to @APStylebook (not to be confused with @FakeAPStylebook).

Updates are e-mailed to AP Stylebook Online subscribers throughout the year. There has been a flurry of such e-mails lately in preparation for the printing of the 2010 Stylebook, due out in May.

Some of the updates to the online version don’t make it into the print edition. Colleen Newvine, head of market research for the AP and product manager for the Stylebook, said there’s just not room for them all.

“I would say it’s a little bit art and a little bit science, but we’re mindful of the fact that we don’t want the Stylebook to be a 9,000-page thing that hits your desk with a thud,” Newvine said. “With the Stylebook Online, you get all of the ‘Ask the Editor’ resources … all of the audio pronouncers and a few things like some of the more extended food listings or some of the more detailed company listings.”

She noted that online version has a smaller audience than the print version. In 2009, the AP sold about 50,000 copies of the spiral-bound Stylebook, compared to 24,000 online subscribers.

In December, the AP used Twitter to ask its 35,000 or so followers what tech and social media terms they wanted to see in the 2010 Stylebook. Based on the responses, the Stylebook editors compiled four pages of terms, including “app,” “smart phone,” “Blu-ray” and “metadata.”

“It’s a really cool thing to take something like the AP Stylebook, which is such a traditional, maybe a little stodgy, piece of reference material and match that with Twitter and just give people the opportunity to talk about it,” said Lauren McCullough, manager of social networks and news engagement at the AP. “We thought it’d be a cool thing to open up this process.”

Plenty of people do criticize the AP Stylebook for being too traditional when it comes to terms such as “Web site,” which is written as a single word elsewhere. Last week, Todd Gill, co-publisher of the Fayetteville Flyer, tweeted: “It’s 2010 and, therefore, I refuse to publish ‘Web site’ anywhere on my website.” @charlesjurries agreed: “I’m always typing ‘web site’ whereas 99 percent of earth puts ‘website.’ *sigh* “

Minthorn said he and the other Stylebook editors still believe in using “Web site” because Web is a shortening of “World Wide Web.” “It’s been under discussion for almost three years,” Minthorn said. “It’s not something we’ve rejected, so stay tuned.”

Sometimes the AP Stylebook editors do reject requests. Minthorn said several military officers recently contacted them and asked that the AP start using all-caps abbreviations of military rankings. The AP uses standard capitalization.

“Some of them got quite emotional, as is often the case with language issues,” Minthorn said, “so we took those quite seriously and we launched some research.”

Minthorn said he checked with the Pentagon and the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., to see how they treat titles. Both, he said, use AP style. “We don’t want to be dismissive, but the system we use seems to be broadly accepted and is also a system that’s easily adaptable and can be easily modified by individuals and individual services.”

As for “Great Recession,” Minthorn said the editors decided to adopt it because “it’s being used by political figures and economists and people who specialize in and study the phenomena.

“It’s just come into newswriting prominence. We were asked what our position on this is and we decided, yeah, the time is right.” 

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