Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Poll power

Polls are a funny thing. We love to decry them as useless and way off the mark, and yet we still love to vote in them. Well, I do, at least.

Most, though not all, newspapers now offer online polls at their Web sites, and the Stowe Reporter isn't any different. As the dude who - most of the time - thinks up the poll question each week after a deluge of deadline writing, I find it interesting to watch for what kinds of questions people yawn at, and which ones they scramble for. Sometimes I'm surprised.

Case in point: We had over a 300-percent increase in poll participation from last week's question to this week's. The difference? The latter asked people how many yard sales they've been to lately, and the former whether they thought the school board should reconsider its controversial decision to replace French with Chinese. OK, maybe we didn't need to poll to tell which is the hot topic. In Stowe, lately, it's been all Chinese, and there aren't any signs the debate will let up. It's as hot as community issues get.

In that spirit, I just posted this week's poll question: If the election were held now, whom would you vote for in the race for Stowe’s seat in the Vermont House of Representatives? Hmmmm... polling a full 4.5 months before the general election? If it gets another 150 people clicking, why not?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Globe-trotting

Yesterday, I took a trip to the southside of Beantown. I was at The Boston Globe for a morning newspaper critique session, sponsored by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. I joined the "writing" table with a handful of other copy editors and longtime newspaper people, from the The Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, Foster's Daily Democrat of Dover, N.H., among others.

And, like the bad blogger that I am, I forgot to bring my camera. Oops.

If you haven't been to the Globe (I hadn't) I can assure you the place is huge. That's huge as in mega-mall huge: Escalators, a cafeteria, and cubicles as far the eye can see. Hell, they even had a department labeled "Ideas."

Back at the table we talked about, you guessed it, writing. The Stowe Reporter's critic was Len Levin, a former longtime copy editor at the Providence (R.I.) Journal who's now at the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass.

I didn't get the kind of hard-nosed criticism I had hoped for, but I got a few good suggestions here and there. Much of Levin's advice echoed that of William K. Zinsser, the author the classic "On Writing Well." Zinsser's thesis: "...the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word..."

Amen.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Lede vs. lede

If it bleeds, it ledes.

At least that's the old rule, especially on TV news stations, that basically gives explosions, shootings, police chases and other related violent happenings the top attention.

But sometimes it ledes if it moos, too.

In this week's Stowe Reporter, I wrote a little nugget, Rustic vs. rude: crossing cows irritate driver. Though I must admit: I struggled to come up with a lede for the story. A lede (also spelled 'lead') is, according to Wikipedia, the "most important structural element of a story." Basically, the first sentence or two.

Anyway, I thought it'd be interesting to toss out two different ledes to the story for your reading pleasure. First, the lede I ended up using:

Vermont’s clash of cultures, rural vs. city, seems to be intensifying. Witness what happened a couple of weeks ago in Stowe.

Here's the first lede that sprung to mind, but I didn't end up using it:

Yup, that’s a cow being led across the road up ahead. And — yes — that’s legal … even in Stowe.

Locals would advise that you stop your car, wait patiently, and let the cow get to the other side. But that’s not always what happens.

Just ask Beverly Lemery.

Pretty different. I don't think either will help me win a Pulitzer any time soon, do you? Anyway, I often come up with two or three or four different ledes to any given story and then try to settle on the one that sets the best tone for the story. Sometimes after I do that Editor Tom Kearney chimes in with his two cents and I settle on something different.

In general, I think ledes should be short, plainly worded, and emotionally MOO-ving (sorry, I couldn't resist). Depending on whether it's a hard news story or a feature, the lede's mission and length will vary. I think this story from the New York Times in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has one of the most amazing examples of an engaging, brooding lede: "In the downtown business district here, on a dry stretch of Union Street, past the Omni Bank automated teller machine, across from a parking garage offering 'early bird' rates: a corpse. Its feet jut from a damp blue tarp. Its knees rise in rigor mortis."

What do you think? What kind of a lede are you looking for in a news story?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hyped Bird-Flu story of the week

This week's winner is the Associated Press. Reporter Margie Mason probably didn't come up with this headline today, "Bird Flu Explodes in Indonesia", because reporters don't generally write the headlines — editors do. At any rate, the hype is front and center. Explodes. Sounds scary.

We learn in the story's horse-race-like lead that Indonesia "averaged one human bird flu death every 2 1/2 days in May," which apparently puts the archipelago of 17,000 islands with a population of 220 million people "on pace to soon surpass Vietnam as the world's hardest-hit country." On pace, huh? Better hurry, Indonesia, or you'll miss out on the first place prize.

Buried in the story's 12th paragraph is the meat and potatoes: "Indonesia has logged at least 36 human deaths in the past year - 25 since January - and is expected to soon eclipse Vietnam's 42 fatalities. The two countries make up the bulk of the world's 127 total deaths since the virus began spreading in Asian poultry stocks in late 2003."

OK, let's review: 36 dead in Indonesia in the past year; 42 in Vietnam; 127 worldwide since 2003. About 13 of those deaths have occurred in Indonesia in May (a death every 2.5 days). Sounds pretty dire. Indeed, it's as the Bird Flu as exploded in Indonesia. I don't know about you, but when think of "explodes," I think of like a bomb going off, or something; shrapnel and debris flying every which way, engulfing a large area.

Thing is, this explosion may not be all it's cracked up to be. According to the World Health Organization, there haven't been any new cases of the H5N1 infection there since May 22. "This finding is important," the WHO's Web site says, "as it indicates that the virus has not spread beyond the members of this single extended family." The WHO (what a great acronym, huh?) also notes that the last guy in the recently infected "cluster" started showing signs of symptoms on May 15 and died seven days later because he refused to be treated at the hospital.

So, you be the judge. Is "explodes" right on, or is it hype?

Behind the stinky news

Stowe had a stinker on its hands Tuesday.

At about 9:30 a.m. — as cars slowly made their way through the village because of roadwork and Main Street began to fill with spectators for the Memorial Day parade — a dump truck accidentally dropped its load in the northbound lane of Maple Street (Route 100). A bunch of sludge (treated sewage goodness) spilled onto the road, and crews scrambled to get the mess cleaned up. I wrote a story about the mishap in this week's Reporter.

What people may not know after reading the story, though, is that I used to live in the apartment adjacent to the site of the stinky mess. Sure am I glad I moved two months ago...

Fortunately for those folks living along Maple Street, officials have since cleaned up the stuff and covered it with lime. Though word is the smell still lingers, especially on a hot afternoon.