‘I want to edit with more authority’

Marc Duvoisin’s post-mortem tips for line editors

Line editors get almost no attention in the baren world of newspaper professional development. Many of the people who make their way up the ladder were not necessarily good line editors in the first place; they’d rather deal with other editors than have to spend their day cleaning up after a bunch of whiny reporters. Even organizations that want to train their line editors struggle to find ways of communicating standards; the relationship between line editor and reporter is mysterious, intimate and changes with every reporter–and with almost every story.

'I want to edit with more authority'

'I want to edit with more authority'

So at the risk of sounding like a “this-Bud’s-for-you” commercial, this week we’re going to throw those hard-working line editors a bone. I’d like to introduce Mark Duvoisin, my newspaper’s new assistant managing editor for writing and projects, who joined us last year from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

What follows is a handout Mark used at a session last week for a couple dozen line editors to emphasize editing for a stronger tone of authority. Here’s Marc:

Authority is an essential quality of good news writing. All newspapers aspire to it, or should. We all know it when we see it. It’s that sense of sure-footedness, confidence and clarity that tells the reader: You’re in good hands. We know what we’re talking about.

Formula writing robs a story of authority. It suggests that we don’t have anything original to say or, if we do, we haven’t quite figured out what it is. A common formula is to frame a news development in terms of conflict between “critics” and “supporters.” Often, the conflict is artificial, a writer’s construct rather than a representation of reality.

IN THIS PORTRAIT OF Slovak president Rudolf Schuster, the writers relies on anonymous critics to express an idea he could have expressed himself–that Schuster, for all his surface openness, will not abide dissent.

The story also tends to introduce characters in terms of whether they are critics or supporters of Schuster. This lends an air of artificiality and patness.

…Although many politicians in Eastern Europe are, like Schuster, former Communists, few have his flamboyant touch.

Proving that a onetime apparatchik doesn’t have to be colorless has served Schuster well politically. But critics charge that beneath his outgoing personality are old attitudes harmful to this fledgling democracy–in particular, a lack of respect for a free press.

Schuster’s flair goes back at least to his days as mayor of the eastern Slovak city of Kosice in the mid-1990s, where he organized dance festivals in the streets and the collective baking of a record-size cake. He also drew attention by decorating the outside of his house with Christmas lights, common enough in the U.S. but unusual in Slovakia.

But critics say Schuster showed his true colors last year when he pressed criminal libel charges against Ales Kratky, a commentator for the Novy Cas daily.

Kratky had ridiculed Schuster’s annual state of the nation speech as self-centered. He called it a “state of the soul” address from “a puffed-up egomaniac who last experienced real life during his early childhood and who now smiles at thunderstorms under the illusion he is being photographed.”

Schuster’s effort to see Kratky imprisoned for up to two years under a law forbidding vilification of the government or its leaders triggered a parliamentary effort to repeal the Communist-era statute that fell a vote short. But last month, the Constitutional Court suspended the law on the grounds that it “could threaten freedom of expression.”

…[Schuster] was elected mayor of Kosice in 1994 and reelected in 1998. By that time he was a popular figure on the national scene, partly because his city’s downtown core had undergone extensive restoration.

After Schuster became president, however, it became widely known that the city had borrowed heavily to finance the upgrade. Today, opinions vary sharply over whether Schuster benefited the city–which faces debts of $38 million–or only himself.

“I assess the work of Mayor Schuster from 1994 to 1999 very positively,” said Zdenko Trebula, Kosice’s current mayor. “If you came to our city before 1994, you would have seen that it was in rather poor condition, and he really improved it. The city gained a completely different image.”

Trebula added that “the debt is manageable.”

Jan Suli, the head of Kosice’s Old Town district, was far more critical.

“When he started to work in the city, everybody was jubilant that finally something was moving forward,” Suli said. “Then he left in 1999 for the presidency, Kosice woke up, and we had to pay for it. . . . I think that Mr. Schuster did it consciously. He wanted to be president, and he used it as an electoral campaign.”

But Schuster still has plenty of fans. Robert Fico, a populist politician and a candidate to be the next prime minister, praised Schuster as “a very experienced man” who “knows the practical life.”

HERE IS ANOTHER STORY that squeezes the news into the critics/supporters template.

NEW YORK–Federal regulators proposed rules Wednesday that would force companies to disclose vast new amounts of financial information and to release that data much sooner to the public.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, under heavy congressional and public pressure to restore confidence in a financial system shaken by the scandal-tainted collapses of Enron Corp. and Global Crossing Ltd., said it wants companies to notify investors more promptly about changes in their financial condition.

The agency also wants corporate officers and directors to disclose personal purchases or sales of company stock immediately rather than a year after the fact, as is sometimes the case now…

Securities experts praised the basic thrust of the SEC plan, which is to have companies present a far more complete overview of their financial conditions–and to do so on a timely basis so that problems can be spotted before they balloon into market-shaking events.

However, critics cautioned that the SEC plan would be only one step in improving a financial infrastructure whose gaping holes have been laid bare by the Enron debacle. They also pointed out that it would take the SEC several months to write its new rules and invite public comment. The final version could differ markedly from what is initially promised, experts noted.

This device is especially ineffective in this last graph because we are relying on critics to make self-evident points–namely, that the SEC plan is only one step and that, like any change in federal regs, it doesn’t take effect instantly.

Among the changes the SEC proposed:

* The “significant-event” forms that companies are required to file notifying investors about major developments would be expanded to include many more types of events. For example, the plan calls for the filing of these so-called 8K forms to disclose a credit-rating downgrade or a “lockout” of transactions in a firm’s 401(k) retirement plan. The forms would have to be filed within two business days.

* Companies would have to file quarterly and annual financial reports more quickly. Quarterly reports, for example, would be due within 30 days of the end of a quarter, rather than the current 45.

* Companies would be required to give a more thorough explanation of significant issues in the portion of financial reports where management gives a written analysis of the company’s condition. The goal is to have companies go beyond pure numbers, which critics say can be used to obscure reality.

* Disclosure of stock purchases or sales by corporate officers, directors and major shareholders would be revamped. Currently, their disclosures typically come up to 40 days after a trade is made, and in some cases can be filed a year later….

The ideas drew some criticism. “I would have hoped that a more comprehensive analysis would have been done after the whole Enron situation had played itself out, because nobody knows the full story today about what happened and who’s responsible,” said Ira Lee Sorkin, a New York securities lawyer and former SEC official. “I’m not saying [the SEC plan] is bad, but to do it piecemeal after every new revelation is not the way to go.”

Others defended the plan, saying it was a good proposal that would yield immediate benefits to investors. “My reaction is, hats off to the SEC,” said Richard Breeden, a former SEC chairman. “They’re saying, ‘Right now, there are some holes and we’re going to step out and fill them.'”

In Washington, some members of Congress praised the SEC announcement, but also made it clear that they plan to press ahead with legislation.

Indeed, House Republicans on Wednesday introduced bills that would mandate increased financial disclosure by corporations and provide for greater oversight of accounting firms.

“We’re addressing the core issues that will prevent future Enrons, but we’re not going to crush the entire business sector by putting government in the boardroom,” said Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

But the bills drew criticism from Democrats who said they didn’t go far enough.

THIS EXCELLENT STORY ON the LAPD disciplinary system starts in too hesitant a vein, as if we’re afraid to state clearly and vividly what the piece is about.

An odd thing happened during Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks’ overhaul of the LAPD.

Phones began ringing at the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The organization typically fields complaints about LAPD officers. But now, cold calls were coming in from LAPD officers–charging that their own civil rights were being violated as a result of new discipline policies.

For good or ill, something had definitely changed in Los Angeles. The Police Department legendary for resisting change was being rattled to its bones by its new ramrod-straight chief.

Whether that change has resulted in improvement is a matter of fierce debate.

The LAPD’s rank and file officers keenly feel the effects of the new system. Their union is waging an all-out campaign to unseat Parks, who announced Thursday that he will request a second five-year term. Some civilian critics, meanwhile, question whether scores of personnel investigations concerning small acts of misconduct are the most effective means of dealing with more serious problems, such as those revealed in the Rampart Division corruption investigation.

But supporters say the LAPD is doing something it never did well before: listening to the powerless.

Before we’ve explained to readers what the piece is about, we’ve barraged them with partisan spin. Only in this next paragraph, the 8th, do readers begin to get a feel for what the argument is about.

To understand why discipline is playing such a central role in Parks’ future, it is necessary to understand only one aspect of his complicated and controversial system: its magnitude.

Now, the writer distills the point of the story in clear, forceful–and yet neutral, fact-based–language. The story would have been more effective if it began here…

But simply, many, many more LAPD officers are subject to disciplinary proceedings these days than before. Parks himself calls it “a profound change,” one that alters “about 50 years of history.”

…Or here.

Imagine a workplace in which many if not most employees are facing the possibility of discipline at any given time, where nearly everyone knows of someone who has been punished, and where bosses devote almost as much time to discipline as to supervision. That is the LAPD under Parks.

There are nearly 6,000 complaint investigations initiated yearly against the LAPD’s 9,000-officer force–two for every three officers. The number of penalties being meted out each year totals on average almost one per every three officers. In any given LAPD roll call today, there is likely to be someone in the room who is entangled in some way with the disciplinary system.

IN THIS ENRON PIECE, Jerry Hirsch and Tom Mulligan show the power of forceful, declarative writing.

Enron Corp.’s slide into bankruptcy, the largest in U.S. history, met little resistance from the safeguards that represent the first line of defense in the U.S. financial system for investors, employees and the general public.

Traveling its meteoric rise and crash, Enron employed loopholes in accounting regulations to hide debt and in some instances obtained the passive approval of its auditor, Arthur Andersen, which was supposed to root out such practices, accounting experts say.

The story of how the company’s problems escaped scrutiny is based on a wide range of interviews with top accounting industry executives, Wall Street analysts, leaders in the credit-rating industry, former senior federal regulators and corporate governance experts, as well as an examination of Enron’s regulatory filings.

Having identified their sources and established their authority, the writers announce their point without the slightest hesitation.

The review shows how Enron hoodwinked Wall Street analysts and investors with stories of creating a “new” business for the new millennium. It convinced credit-rating agencies, which were supposed to pass judgment on the risk of Enron’s debt, that the energy trader deserved a solid rating.

And Enron won the acquiescence of a board of directors, which looked sophisticated enough to pick up warnings about the company’s business but had its own conflicts of interest, according to corporate governance experts. In one instance, a director was put on the payroll as a consultant and on several other occasions the company made large contributions to nonprofit groups that directors were involved with.

Enron’s practices were orchestrated by company Chairman Kenneth Lay and former Chief Executive Jeffrey K. Skilling, who dazzled Wall Street with explosive growth but disclosed little about the company’s businesses or practices. They recruited a cadre of executives, attorneys and outside financial advisors, who set up business deals so complex that outsiders were both mesmerized and blinded.

THIS HENRY WEINSTEIN STORY projects the same authority and assurance. It clearly explains the substance of a court ruling, and tells us who will be affected and why – without once taking recourse to critics or supporters.

A federal appeals court Thursday struck down two lengthy sentences imposed under California’s three-strikes law, saying that a 25-year-to-life term for petty theft constituted cruel and unusual punishment….

The ruling almost certainly will affect 340 individuals now serving 25-year-to-life terms for petty theft under the state’s three-strikes law. And it could also affect a number of the other 6,400 people in California who have received 25-year-to-life terms under the recidivist statute, which was enacted in 1994.

THE PHRASE “RAISE QUESTIIONS” appears frequently in our copy. Rarely is it clear what the questions are or who is raising them.

Compare these two stories on a key moment in the Enron scandal. Here is the L.A. Times version.

WASHINGTON–Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth L. Lay was warned last summer by a company vice president that the energy company’s financial practices might cause it to “implode in a wave of accounting scandals,” congressional investigators said Monday.

The vice president, Sherron Watkins, complained in an August letter to Lay and other senior Enron executives that a “veil of secrecy” surrounding the company’s “funny accounting” of complex partnerships had not been adequately disclosed to the public and merited further investigation, according to excerpts from the memo.

The seven-page memo was found by investigators sifting through 40 boxes of Enron documents obtained from the company after it filed the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history Dec. 2. The investigators said it raises troubling questions about the extent to which Enron officers and the company’s auditor, Andersen, were aware of the financial transactions and accounting practices that contributed to the energy giant’s fall.

Now, see the crisp, forthright way the New York Times crystallizes the importance of the same development.

WASHINGTON–An Enron Corp. employee explicitly warned the company’s chairman last August that several years of improper accounting practices threatened to bring down the company, congressional investigators said yesterday.

“I am incredibly nervous that we will implode in a wave of accounting scandals,” the employee wrote in an unsigned seven-page letter to Kenneth L. Lay, Enron’s chairman and chief executive. Excerpts of the letter were released yesterday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of five congressional committees investigating Enron’s collapse.

The seven-page letter suggests Lay knew about the company’s accounting problems at a time when he was assuring employees and the investment community that Enron’s stock would rebound.

PONDEROUS CONSTRUCTIONS ARE a tell-tale sign that we’re not sure what we want to say. In this story about an unplugged metal detector at LAX, we lapsed into an especially windy formulation that included that old “raised questions” standby.

The entire south side of Los Angeles International Airport was shut down for several hours Thursday morning and at least 10,000 passengers were evacuated after security employees discovered that a metal detector in Terminal No. 4 had been unplugged.

The machine, known as a magnetometer, wasn’t working for at least an hour during the morning rush at the world’s third-busiest airport, allowing dozens of passengers to pass through it without being screened, officials said.

The shutdown delayed about 400 arriving and departing flights from 6:30 to 10 a.m.

The security breach–among the first to occur at a U.S. airport since the federal government last month assumed screening contracts traditionally held by the airlines–raised the question of whether the airlines and the federal Transportation Security Administration have devised protocols for employees who work at screening checkpoints.

Once again, it’s not clear who raised the question or what the question is. What’s a protocol, anyway? Deep in the story, our meaning comes into focus: The feds and the airlines haven’t worked out whose job it is to make sure the metal detectors are turned on each morning. Couldn’t we have just said that?

It was not immediately apparent who had unplugged the magnetometer. Nor was it clear why screeners did not notice that the machine, which routinely beeps when it senses a metal object, was not functioning. Brian Jenkins, a senior advisor to the president of the Rand Corp. and a former member of the White House Commission on Aviation Security, said employees should have noticed.

Isn’t it obvious they should have noticed? Do we really need Brian Jenkins to tell us that?

FREQUENTLY, WE USE ADJECTIVES to paper over a shortage of facts. “Troubling” seems to be a staff favorite. But as this story on polling-place snafus shows, the word can be troublesome.

Election officials scrambled Tuesday to staff, reopen and resupply more than two dozen polling places where voters were turned away or faced long delays because a troubling number of poll workers didn’t show up.

A “troubling number”–how many is that? And who was troubled by it? Better to let the facts speak. Did half the workers fail to show? Ten percent? One percent? Give the reader the info and let her judge whether it’s troubling or not.

The shortages forced officials to dispatch election workers and emergency supply kits containing ballots, voting rosters and other equipment to 27 of the 4,865 polling locations throughout Los Angeles County, from Valencia to Long Beach to Montebello.

“We normally have cancellations, but this was unusually high,” said Conny B. McCormack, the county’s registrar-recorder/county clerk. “This election was tremendously complicated anyway, but this time an unprecedented number of precinct inspectors didn’t show up.”

At a polling place in Los Angeles’ Mount Olympus district, would-be voter Joann Leonard was locked out and indignant.

“We get constantly told to go out and vote, go out and vote. And when people turn out to vote, what happens? No ballots. This makes you feel disenfranchised,” she said.

Officials were dealing with a number of election complications: changes in the primary system; new rules reducing by almost half the number of days to register voters; and redistricting that eliminated the polling places of 11,626 voters who were told they would be forced to use absentee ballots this time.

The first indication of problems came over the weekend when 150 poll workers opted for various reasons not to work, McCormack said. “We scrambled to replace them, but it wasn’t easy.”

This is the closest the story comes to quantifying the no-show phenomenon, and it’s not close enough. Not knowing the total number of poll workers, the reader can’t judge whether 150 is a lot or a little.

DON’T HIDE THE BALL FROM THE READER. Watch how this story, about nastiness in the Oscar balloting, plays hard to get.

The lead tells us the story is about a smear campaign against “A Beautiful Mind.” The second graph restates this, without telling us the substance of the smear. The third graph records various parties’ denials. The fourth makes historical references to famous smear campaigns of the past. The fifth graph is an uninformative quote. The sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th graphs analyze the reasons for Oscar-season one-upmanship.

Not until the 12th paragraph does the story tell us what the smear was.

As the Academy Awards race heads into the final stretch, the campaign for best picture has turned increasingly nasty, much of it centered on an alleged smear campaign against best picture nominee “A Beautiful Mind.”

The Universal Pictures film, an early favorite to win Oscar’s top prize, has been under attack by what the studio says are cheap shots, falsehoods and innuendo designed to sway academy voters.

Behind the scenes, in a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, studios have been accusing one another of spreading damaging stories to the entertainment media. Those accused include 20th Century Fox, which is promoting its best picture nominee, “Moulin Rouge,” and Miramax, which is promoting “In the Bedroom” for the top award. Both studios vigorously deny the allegations. Voting for the Academy Awards ends Tuesday.

This year’s Oscar campaigning has been so nasty that it has invoked comparisons with some of the nation’s most infamous political campaigns, including Richard M. Nixon’s “dirty tricks”‘ and the tactics used by the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater to help George Bush defeat Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.

“It’s no longer a whisper campaign; it’s more a yelling campaign,” said Terry Press, marketing chief for DreamWorks, which owns the foreign rights to “A Beautiful Mind.” “I feel every day like we all need to take a shower, and I don’t want to feel that way.”

Among the reasons cited for the intensity of the campaign are the heightened influence of the Internet and the mainstream media’s increasing tendency to mine it for stories; the millions of dollars at stake for the studios, which profit mightily from an Academy Award; and the rabid competition to win the best picture title. Universal, in particular, has waged an aggressive, expensive campaign to promote the Oscar chances of “A Beautiful Mind,” including color inserts in home-delivered editions of the Los Angeles Times.

“The first time this happens [next year], whoever is being attacked should put their foot down and say, ‘Not again,’ ” said Terry Curtin, who heads publicity at Universal. “Everybody has participated in letting it get too far.”

For those outside Hollywood, the Academy Awards would seem to be a time of celebration, when the industry honors its own in a glamorous event viewed by a worldwide audience. But to the studios, it has become an increasingly serious business as Oscar ad campaigns have grown more expensive and the financial implications of the awards have risen.

Many Hollywood observers trace the growing nastiness to the 1998 best picture battle between Miramax (“Shakespeare in Love”) and DreamWorks (“Saving Private Ryan”)–a battle won by Miramax at great cost.

Jeffrey Godsick, vice president of domestic marketing for Fox, said the responsibility is shared by the Internet, the media that cover entertainment and the dozens of groups that give out awards.

“The reality is that for anything to change, it’s going to have to be self-policed,” Godsick said. “Maybe that is the evolution that will come out of this year. Maybe people will learn from this.”

This year’s campaign turned ugly around the time of the Golden Globe nominations in December. Reporters were alerted by a Miramax Oscar consultant about a Matt Drudge piece stating that scenes from Sylvia Nasar’s book “A Beautiful Mind” involving its subject, John Nash, and his alleged homosexual liaisons, had been taken out of the movie.

Bob sheepishly reflects: Two of Marc’s bad examples–the story about the security breakdown at LAX and the lack of poll workers–were stories I had line-edited on deadline. I came face to face with my sins while sitting in the workshop Marc did last week. It was humbling, but it was a good lesson. My immediate defense was that I had been unaware of the stories until they hit the editing basket at about 5:30 p.m. and, because of manpower shortages, I was asked to move them to the copy desk.

That, of course, is bullshit, but even the act of making the bullshit defense was a good exercise because it made me realize one of my own flaws: In emergency situations like that, when I am asked to edit a run-of-the-mill story in which I have no prior investment, I am too likely to accept some flaws rather than challenge them. Last week’s workshop made me vow to take one additional read through every story I edit–even on deadline–to make sure it reads with the required authority…and to send the reporter back for more details (as was the case of the poll-worker story) if language changes alone aren’t enough to do the job.

REQUIRED READING: I just finished Carl Hiaasen’s “Basket Case” and I cannot imagine any novel more fun for a journalist. Hiassen’s protagonist, Jack Tagger, a former investigative reporter busted down to obit writer for making intemperate remarks at a stockholders meeting, is in the middle of America’s newspaper ownership crisis, watching his paper grow thinner and less substantial as the corporation that acquired it seeks its 25% profit.

These bastards, Tagger observes, “have a standard gospel to rationalize their pillage. It goes like this: American newspapers are steadily losing both readers and advertisers to cable TV and the Internet. This fatal slide can be reversed only with a radical recasting of our role in the community. We need to be more receptive and responsive, less cynical and confrontational. We need to be more sensitive to our institutions, especially to our advertisers. We can no longer afford to shield our news and editorial operations from the pressures and demands that steer the business side of publishing. We’re all in this together!”

I got Mark Willes flashbacks reading that passage. Hiassen is simultaneously hillarious and horrifying. He made me think about how lucky I was to be doing this for a living and how much I would like to have brought a hand grenade to work when Willes and his empty-headed publisher, Kathryn Downing, were stripping the L.A. Times of its dignity. Okay, I’m babbling. Go back to work.