How the Sunday Times issue shames all of journalism

Sunday Times apology

The apology page in the Sunday Times, October 14, 2018.

This last weekend, the editor of the Sunday Times Bongani Siqoko issued an apology for the reporting done by the newspaper on the Cato Manor death squads and the Zimbabwe rendition saga.

And two years ago, the same editor apologised for the SARS “rogue unit” reports.

The latest apology has led to a range of commentary and opinion, and a lot of outrage about the state of South African journalism in general, and about the Sunday Times and its reporters in particular.

I too am outraged. But not for the same reasons as everyone else. Mine are specific to the traditions of the craft which has been my lifeblood for almost 35 years.

Filter, filter, filter – the key to email organisation

Picture of full inbox, empty outbox (email)

Picture: pxhere.com

Organising your email is probably one of the most written-about topics there is.

There’s a reason for that: unlike snail mail, email is cheap and instant – so people send lots of it. It’s also a way to keep tabs on things, and to record important conversations, and so on. But mostly it is a way to have a world of trivia appear on your computer screen, all day and every day.

Many approaches to email self-help focus on how to control the emails that have landed in your inbox. A good article that covers much ground in sorting out email overload problems is this one: Email overload: here are 6 approaches I’ve found useful for managing my inbox. (And read my tips on how to write good emails.)

THE FIRST STEP

That article touches on an important step to take before you start dealing with the avalanche: get the system itself to do most of the work. You can use almost any email system to take an incoming mail and put it in a place, or a folder, where you deal with it if and when you want. And you can sort the important messages (from your boss, or clients) from the unimportant (newsletters that you want to scan at some point).

Why businesses need editors: it’s in the details

Editors like to say that their work is invisible. An editor should leave things better than they were before, and no one should know they were there. Because that is true, most people don’t really know what editors do, or where they work. I would guess that the general public thinks of an editor as someone who works at a publishing house, or at a news publication – and indeed you will find editors in those places.

But wherever there is the written word, there is the need for a second eye, an editor who checks what has been written and applies a particular set of skills. Don’t believe me? Dear reader, I will now demonstrate.

CASE STUDY ONE

A local supermarket in my Cape Town suburb has a sign above the area where you find bread, cake and pastries which says “Confectionary”. It was put up two years ago as part of an extensive and expensive revamp.

sign with word confectionery spelled wrong

The wrong signal?

It does the job – it tells you from across the shop where to find your sugar fix.

But here’s the thing: that’s not how you spell the word, and it is dubious whether it describes breads and cakes at all. It should be spelled Confectionery, which, strictly speaking, refers to sweets and chocolates. There is a United States reference that says pastries are included in the definition. Confectionary is either not recognised as a word at all (in my premium version of the Oxford English Dictionary), or it means the place where confections are created, or it is an adjective. What would I have recommended? The word Bakery, which accurately describes that part of the shop.

CASE STUDY TWO

I belong to a closed Facebook group in which editors commiserate with each other about their jobs, and sometimes share instances where they wish an editor had been employed. (An aside: There’s not a sense of laughing at other people’s mistakes – rather there’s irritation and outrage and a desire to have seen the thing fixed.) A member recently shared photo of a web page for UK bistro, which was enticing people to join its Loyatly programme. The page in question has been amended, but here’s the evidence:

Loyalty spelled wrong

Picture used with permission.

 

CASE STUDY THREE

Infected by the editor in its midst, our family scrutinises the flyers that drop in our postbox and rates them by the number of mistakes. This one arrived recently, prompting speculation as to what precisely a dump wall is:

Postbox flyer

Postbox flyer

WHAT’S THE FUSS?

There’s an argument to be made that in the grander scheme of things these things don’t really matter. The shoppers or potential customers understand what is meant, and no harm is done.

So why not leave things as they are?

You could, but I think that from a business point of view there’s a reason not to make small mistakes like this. In all three examples above, good money was spent on producing branding material of one kind or another. And it was spent on something that was not quite as good as it could have been.

And at least some of a business’s customers will spot an error and possibly dismiss that business as one which does not pay attention to detail, or which was too cheap to get it done properly. In today’s competitive world that’s not what any business wants.

WHAT EDITORS CAN DO FOR BUSINESSES

That local supermarket has a core business, which is to sell goods to customers. They are not expected to understand the finer points of a word like confectionery. But if they had employed a professional editor, they would not, two years later, still have sub-standard branding in their shop.

Error-free signage, brochures and promotional materials are a matter of hygiene: no one will notice if you get it right, but some people will notice if you get it wrong. That matters. The cost of having a professional editor look over your material is negligible when compared with the cost of printing the brochure, or having the sign made.

Don’t be afraid. No one likes having mistakes pointed out. But a professional editor will not make you feel small: they will be glad to have been asked, they will make your words beautiful and they will be discreet.

Editors rule, OK?

PS It is possible that you will find mistakes in this article! Editors make mistakes too. Please let me know, either in the comments below or via my Contact Page.

A tip for working with multiple tabs in a browser

Last week, I wrote about my system for getting things done.

This week, I thought I would share a tip for keeping a lid on PC chaos – specifically, how to stop browser tabs from multiplying to the point of madness.

It is apparently possible to have 9 600 tabs open in a Chrome browser. That’s too many!

Message saying too many tabs open

Picture: davidak, Flickr

When your job involves looking at multiple sites or using multiple browser-based tools, it’s easy to end up with so many tabs that you can no longer see what they are. That means you may end up clicking many, many times to find what you want.

This is my system.

I know that there are certain sites I will use often. I open them in the same order every day, and keep them in the same place. So email is always in the top left hand corner. Then Twitter and Facebook pages manager. As I open sites relating to a piece of work (writing a blog post for instance) I open them all to the right of those first three. And when I am finished that piece of work, I close all those tabs and start again.

As simple as that.

 

A system for getting things done

Moleskine diary on desk

My Moleskine diary for 2018.

I have a working system for getting things done. It wasn’t always that way.

Years ago, going back to work after three years at home with a baby/toddler, I was overwhelmed.

I am widely thought of as an organised person, but being a working parent meant I needed to up my game. I started out with complex task lists in the systems that come bundled with Windows, and added similarly complex calendars that linked to my email and was still swamped (and spending a lot of time just maintaining the lists).

I went looking for help and Google found me Bill Westerman and his GSD system.
He says of his system:

I wrote it up and gave it a name: “Getting Sh-t Done”, or GSD. It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it doesn’t require a lot of preparation, special materials, or rigorous thinking.

Pragmatic journalism – how to balance quality and speed

laptop with coffee

My desk at 6am.

Every day I get up early and, coffee in hand, report for virtual duty at allAfrica.com*.
The first order of business is to identify important developments on the African continent that have happened since the end of the last shift the previous evening, find those stories in allAfrica’s network of partners and get them up on the site, with speed.
This is a variation of an early morning routine I have done for many years – and speed is always part of the equation. There is always some new story, or a development on a running issue, that just has to get “out there” as soon as possible.
Working at speed in this way is popularly supposed to mean a decline in quality, as expressed succinctly on the Slow Journalism website:

“Today’s ultra-fast news cycle rates being first above being right. It tells us what’s happening in real time, but rarely what it means.”

Farewell to Shiloh of the Ears

Dog with stick

Shiloh and the very first fabric toy stick that we bought for her. There are more pictures at the end of this post.

This Friday it will be three weeks since the death of Shiloh of the Ears.
Our dog, who was only eight years old, succumbed in the early hours of the morning of Friday August 17 to a horrible cancer, of the spleen thought the vet. We had an appointment to “put her to sleep”, as they say, but death came earlier, and I was glad of that. Better to go on her cushion next to my bed than in fear at the Horrible Place.
She and I had spent a lot of time in the Horrible Place in the run-up to her death, trying to find out what was wrong with her, coming and going with packets of pills and fear and hope in my heart. In her heart there was just fear. She would sit on the vet’s scale in the hope that being a good dog would make me take her home again (because she would always sit on it to be weighed, so obediently, not like other dogs who wriggle and bounce).
She had not been our dog – my dog – for long.
This coming September 24 will be the second anniversary of the day she came to live with us, a gift from a family emigrating to the United States and unable to take her with them. The Snymans posted her picture on Facebook, and since we had been looking for a new dog, and they said “good with cats”, she seemed perfect for us. And she was (good with cats, and perfect).
Her predecessor, our first dog Indiana, taught me the Way of the Dog, to like them, to understand the joyous and irritating and noisy and fun ways that dogs are are nothing like cats.