Comments on the 10-8-08 issue of the Statesman
Thanks to Chris Julin for starting this public discussion of the Statesman. Here's my thoughts on the Oct. 8 issue. I have also given the editor-in-chief a hard copy with a more detailed edit.
- John Hatcher
STUFF I LIKE
There's a lot to like about the Statesman this semester. The redesign is bold and signals a new leadership and direction for the paper. I've enjoyed watching the front page evolve and take on a personality. It gets your attention and I think this week's front page is the best of the semester so far. It's clean and professional looking. It uses white space effectively, has a dominant photo and headline and -- most importantly -- the decision of what to run is made based on a decision about an important news story. It is also a powerful front page because the colors of the photo are the ones used throughout the page - which is not going to be the case with every issue if you stay with the UMD-themed colors.
The challenge with using big art on the front page is that the best art may not always be with the strongest story. Last week's leaf photo was a great photo, but if leaves turning color is the strongest news in the paper... it's a slow news day. The curious thing about this front-page story is that it doesn't get the same kind of play in the sports section, which is a little puzzling. In this issue, I think you could have also argued for the Safe Walk photo to run on page 1. More on photos below.
OK, I'll also say this: I HATE ALL CAPS. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU ARE YELLING AT ME.
Stories worth reading
There are a number of stories that are compelling and interesting this week, and I think that the staff has done a nice job responding to Chris Julin's lead challenge:
- Veronica Wilson does a nice job with the story on Safe Walk and starting it off with a real person facing a real moment that backs up the need for this service.
- I especially like Kristen Krebs' story on the coffee shop that isn't. Too often a reporter will be given something like this and just come back and say, nope, no story. Instead, she explores the myth and delivers on a story about something that isn't there. Not an easy thing to do.
- Both opinion pieces on page 11 are strong and show that columns must be more than rants. These opinion pieces are backed up by reporting so readers can make up their own minds on the issues.
- The Superior accordions is a very interesting story topic and a piece with a lot of potential. I hope A&E will keep exploring places in Duluth that aren't obvious to everyone. Maybe I missed it, but I would like to know where the museum is so I can go visit it. Am I looking past the address? I also would love some real people in this story and maybe a little more of a visual. This page, however, is a cleanly designed page and looks professional. Nice dominant art with another contrasting photo below. Well done.
...for including the e-mail addresses of editors and reporters. This shows accountability and accessibility. Well done.
... for no longer capitalizing university. That always drives me nuts.
... for no longer using AP copy as filler. We're a community newspaper and no community newspaper worth its salt (I don't know what that means) uses wire copy.
STUFF TO CONSIDER
The comma and when to use it
Overall, I found the paper to be clean. Few typos or misspelled words. However, I gave up counting the number of misplaced commas in this issue. The use of them seems almost random and it's crucial that we know when to use a comma and when not to. In general, their use seems to occur when there is a question as to whether to use a period, a comma, a dash or a colon. Perhaps a workshop for editors on the use of commas would be a useful thing. Until then, this Web site has a nice overview.
Big questions add context
There are some strong stories in the paper that could be stronger by asking a few questions that would put things in perspective. In the story on Rosh Hashanah: How many Jewish students attend UMD? In the endowment story: What is the size of the university's endowment overall and how can I get a scholarship if I want one? In the Safe Walk story: How often has the service been used? I think we may allow sources to kind of dodge this particular question -- and the answer may be that it isn't used at all. Still, I think we have to say that.
Elements of photos
Tyler Sweeney (fellow surfer) and his photo crew have done a great job with images this semester. I think the challenge is to use those images on inside pages to their full strength and to keep striving for people in pictures. Also, I wonder if the two pictures on page 3 are staged photos or photo illustrations. If so, we probably need to tell the reader this. A rule that should be stuck to is that any photo of a person needs identification or it can't run. The page 3 person walking at night is a solid photo, but either we say it's an illustration or we say who that is. The page 2 photo also must have identification. Also, cutlines for photos (aka captions) must have more information. Assume that some readers will only look at the pictures and the cultines. As such, we have to give them more of the story.
Sports and the UMD Web site...
Sports writers face two challenges here on campus. First, they are writing stories of events that can be more than a week old so they have to use second-day leads that give us something new to read -- ideally the focus more on what is to come than what has happened. Second, they are competing with the UMD Athletics department which invests heavily in writers who cover the different teams and put those stories up immediately. I suspect that those who have a strong interest in a team won't find much new to read on our pages. That becomes even more apparent when most of the Sports stories use the UMD Web site as a source. I begin to wonder how we can add something new to this coverage and how much we rely on the Web site for our information. I think I'd use the Web site only as a last resort and make it clear in our reporting that we do our own work. However, I'll also say that I'm very glad the sportswriters let readers know from where they got the information, which is the right thing to do.
Don't hyphenate words ending in -ly
I put this in here for my editing class students, who would be disappointed if it wasn't in here. There is an example of this on the bottom of page 11.
STUFF I WISH FOR...
I wish that we would return to our coverage of campus crime and especially incidents involving alcohol abuse. I hear too much as I walk the halls about arrests and police busts and students hospitalized because of alcohol poisoning. It's disturbing and I can't help but think that if we documented publicly just how much of this kind of stuff happens the reality might become more apparent.
I wish our paper had more of a community discussion. I'd like to have a community section in the newspaper and I would love to see more letters to the editor and guest essays. There is a lot happening on our campus and many diverse viewpoints. I wish I knew the secret to bringing more of them to our campus paper. Letters are the barometer of the community's engagement in your product.
- 30 -
(That's newspaper talk for the end)