A mistake

I made a mistake last week. More than one, actually (see last post), but one I’ve just realized.

I printed a letter to the editor that had no news value to our readers whatsoever. Is was a letter with the sole intention of publicly humiliating someone else, or a group of other people. It was a letter that should’ve been a phone call directly to the person in question, not a public rant about a personal enemy.

It’s really easy, when you have a dispute with someone, to write publicly about it. This is the main problem with the blogosphere. Nowadays anyone with a personal issue with a neighbor, a former employer, the government, the Devil, God, mother/father/sister/brother, you name it, instead of calling that person on the phone or meeting for coffee, the offended party starts a blog and airs his or her dirty laundry for the world to see.

It’s much more difficult to go to the person or call the person and try to work it out. It takes guts, and it takes respect for one’s opponent — which is probably part of the problem. Once you confront a person directly, you might realize he or she is a human being, and not the monster you have created in your imagination.

So anyway, now I had to run a response to the letter I never should’ve run in the first place.

Next time I’ll know better (I hope).

Causes of editorial baldness

Back after a few weeks, now that my home computer is up and running again. Hopefully I’ll blog a few times a week again.

One missing hyphen ruined my day today. It was in a bad place: the lead headline on the front page, above the fold.

Note the difference between

Closure –
finally

and

Closure
finally

It’s a complicated story that has to do with fonts, points sizes, leading, tracking and other journalistic minutiae. Suffice it to say that I did something clever that backfired because it disappeared in the process of production, and now we have a mistake on the front page of 5,000 copies.

I got a haircut today, which is good, because I’d be tearing it out if it were long enough to grab by the handful.

I’m extremely anal about details. My goal is a newspaper with no typos and spelling errors. I am as devastated by a typo as I am by an irate reader or a factual error. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

I will be miserable about it for a week, until another edition of the paper replaces this one at the forefront of my consciousness.

Jounalism pet peeves

Number 1: statistics. Journalists are notoriously bad at numbers. The other day on the news, a reporter was talking about the new study linking alcohol use to breast cancer. She was talking about a 10 percent increase in the risk as if it were shocking. I was convinced she believed a 10 percent increase was a ten-fold increase. A 10 percent increase means if the risk was five percent, it’s now 5.5 percent. A 10-fold increase means if it was 5 percent, it’s now 50 percent. Huge difference, completely lost on most journalists.

Number 2: cliches. Journalists embrace cliches so quickly that the real story gets lost behind the cliches. Elections are one example. You rarely see a campaign story about issues anymore. It’s all about the horse race — neck and neck, come from behind, squaring off, facing off, underdog, likeability, electability. It’s all poll results and speculation about why someone’s ahead or behind, and it’s all based on cliches. Writing with cliches is like falling off a log. It’s easy, because the cliche is the first thing that comes to mind. What’s sad is when the cliche is allowed to create the story.

Case in point: the recent Wisconsin shooting. Star Trib uses the headline “crime of passion.” The mayor of the town calls it “a love triangle.” Others call it a “lover’s quarrel.” Nobody says what it really is: domestic violence in the extreme. Even during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, nobody calls this story what it is because they’re drawn in by the cliches.

I learned that lesson years ago when covering a murder for the Messenger. I wrote my story and got a call from the director of the local domestic violence group. She was disappointed that I hadn’t told the story from that angle. She was right. It was the story of a man who killed the boy friend of his ex-lover. Domestic violence.

This “love triangle” or “crime of passion” angle minimizes the crime. It becomes understandable that way. But it’s actually completely inaccurate. Killing six people has absolutely nothing to do with “love,” and the word “passion” muddies the waters because there’s good passion and bad passion. Murder is murder. It’s violence. Horror, tragedy, mental illness, maybe, but journalists should leave love and passion out of it.

Skunks

I’ve seen five skunks since I’ve been taking my morning walks during the last month or two. The first was out in the field north of the house, when I was walking down the driveway with the black lab Lucy and Rob’s dog Ruby, early in the morning. The dogs started running up to it, but they must’ve known it was not something to mess with, because they both backed off when I yelled “Nooooo!” The second was on the east side of the property. I was walking along the row of shrubs on the property line and heard a hissing sound. I looked down and a skunk was about 10 feet away, hidden in the shrubbery, looking at me. Lucy didn’t even notice. I quickened my pace and the skunk didn’t have time to turn and fire.

Today I saw three. This was on the north side of the horse pasture, about 50 yards from the house. It was barely light enough to see, but the black-and-white stands out pretty well in the moonlight. Two of them were out in the pasture, and Lucy ran towards them, but stopped short. A few seconds later I saw a third one out in the pasture, farther to the west. It crossed the trail that runs along the pasture, and I was afraid it was hiding in the bushes and would spray me when I walked by, so I crawled under the electric fence and walked through the pasture.

I had a college professor, an anthropologist, who said “skunk” is a four-syllable word in Japanese, because there are no consonant clusters in Japanese. Suh-kuh-nuh-kuh.

Not sure if that’s true.

Good Minnesota books

I’ve been working my way through two interesting books about the history of Minnesota. One is called Naawigiizis, The Memories of Center of the Moon, by Jim Clark, who is a Mille Lacs Band member. It’s a great look at the last century from an interesting perspective of a guy who grew up in a fairly traditional Indian setting and culture during the Depression, then went off and joined the military during World War 2. It has a foreword and afterword by Louise Erdrich, the great novelist who often writes about her Ojibwe heritage. We have some copies for sale at the Messenger office.

The other book is called Creating Minnesota by Annette Atkins. It’s one of the most readable history books I’ve ever read and gives you a real feel for the history of the state — the personalities, the setting, the emotions, the cultures. There’s one section that’s written in the form of a play, which didn’t work for me, but most of it is fascinating and easy reading.