Beth Hughes

Final project

National Fellowship for Copy Editors

University of North Carolina

Spring semester 1999

 

 

 

 

 

Style matters: What AP isn't telling you

 

 

 

 

 

 

     It's all a matter of style. 

     A story in the New York Times said:  "The President said he had consoled officials in Colorado and had spoken with Representative Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Democrat whose husband was one of several people shot to death by a gunman on a Long Island Rail Road train in 1993."

     In the same story moved by the New York Times News Service, a few stylistic changes were made: "The president said he had consoled officials in Colorado and had spoken with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was one of several people shot to death by a gunman on a Long Island Rail Road train in 1993."

     Most copy editors will recognize that the news service essentially took New York Times copy and re-edited it to conform to Associated Press style. Why? Because most of the newspapers that constitute the New York Times News Service's clients use AP style, explained the news service's day editor, Gary McCardell.

     While the news service changes the Times'  style on such things as courtesy titles, capitalization and political affiliation, McCardell is quick to point out that the news service does not change copy to AP style when "it has to do with what we regard as the voice of the New York Times."

     "The news service will retain anything that encourages clarity and ease of understanding," he said.

     Nonetheless, that changes are made at all speaks to how widely used AP style is -- and how heavily many newspapers rely on it for guidance on matters of style.    

     "It's the standard of the industry," said William G. Connolly, a senior editor at the New York Times.

     Yet newspapers that follow AP style often bolster their house stylebooks with entries that are neither local nor regional because the Associated Press Stylebook doesn't offer them guidance on those issues.

A style survey

     In an informal survey of copy desks at more than 100 newspapers, ranging in circulation from about 5,500 to more than 1.7 million, 70 percent said they follow AP style. All but a handful of those respondents said they also have a local stylebook.

     More than 20 percent said they have a comprehensive house stylebook but added words to the effect that it "is based on AP,"  "incorporates a lot of AP," "is heavily steeped in AP" or "is not too dissimilar from AP."  

     Among the newspapers that don't use AP style are five of the nation's top six, ranked by daily circulation: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News. Among the others that don't use AP are the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press and the Providence Journal.

    The New York Times, however, will be moving closer to AP style with the publication of its new stylebook this year. Connolly, who has been working on the project for the past three years, noted that one of the newspaper's challenges is to train newcomers -- most of whom are familiar with AP style. In working on the revision, he considered: "Is there a good reason to deviate, or should we go along with the rest of the world?"

    Connolly said the Times will soon follow AP -- "and everyone else" -- on ordinal numbers (22nd instead of 22d), on the use of lowercase for a.m. and p.m., on the abbreviation of lieutenant (Lt. instead of Lieut.), and on the use of lowercase for official titles when they stand alone.

    But because one function of style is to reinforce the personality of a publication, it was decided to keep things that are "uniquely and quirkily the New York Times," Connolly said. For instance, he said, the Times will still abbreviate far less than AP does because of a belief that it makes for easier reading. The Times will also continue to use courtesy titles for men and women, discourage the use of contractions except in quotes and keep other grammatical niceties, he said.

     The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage had been the basis of the Charlotte Observer's house style before it was switched to AP in 1995. Roger Mikeal, the Observer's night copy desk team leader, said that in reorganizing the newspaper's stylebook, he came to the realization that it didn't make sense for newly hired copy editors to spend six months learning "a Byzantine system" when they already knew AP.

     In addition, he said, most wire stories follow AP style -- including copy from the Knight Ridder Washington bureau -- so the copy desk saves time when it does not have to make a multiplicity of minor changes.

     Editors at several newspapers said their local stylebooks have few exceptions to AP for that reason. "We try not to conflict too much so as not to complicate our lives," said Brooks Dareff, the copy desk chief at the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C.   

     The Miami Herald  has its own comprehensive stylebook, but "with the use of more and more wire copy, we try to keep some of AP style," said Jeff Kleinman, the A section copy desk chief. "Otherwise, it's making a lot of work for copy editors and wire editors."

     But not every newspaper puts that value on the ease or usefulness of following AP style.

     Alexander B. Cruden, chief editor of the copy desks at the Detroit Free Press, said the newspaper has not moved toward AP style. But, he added, "it doesn't diverge from it that much."

     And Kay Mallett, the news editor at the Denver Post, said the newspaper is "ditching AP" and is in the process of creating a new stylebook based on an amalgam of the New York Times' and the Los Angeles Times' stylebooks and the Post's local stylebook. Mallett said the decision was made because the Post  "tends to run exotic wires, and AP was gumming up the works."

 

'The journalist's bible'

     Referred to on AP's Web site as "the journalist's bible," the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual has been a staple of  newsrooms and journalism classrooms since its first printing in 1977. Now updated annually, the stylebook will be in its 34th edition this year.

     Norm Goldstein, the stylebook's editor for about a dozen years, said he receives suggestions for additions and revisions from AP staff members, editors and reporters, journalism instructors and students, readers ("now that they've found our Web site") and organizations making their case to be included or identified in a distinctive way.

     Goldstein described decisions on what to add, delete or change in the stylebook as "cooperative."

     Each year, Goldstein compiles a list of suggestions for revisions and forwards it to the AP staff members who handle copy the most. "It's kind of a committee decision," he said, adding that in the rare case of a major dispute, the executive editor or the president of the Associated Press has the last word.

     There is ground on which the AP Stylebook does not tread. The stylebook, for example, has no entry on "abortion," despite widespread coverage of the issue and a host of thorny issues of terminology. Goldstein said that an entry has been considered several times but that he and his colleagues decided to leave any ruling on the matter to the individual newspapers.

     Generally on controversial issues -- in which it might be considered more of an editorial question than a style question --  the AP's guidance to newspapers is to be as specific as possible and avoid weighted labels, Goldstein said.

     Goldstein said that he always encourages newspapers to produce their own stylebooks.

     "We're looking at it from the national point of view," he said. "They're better able to address local questions."

 

Decisions, decisions

     In determining house style, several newspapers favor the "pseudo-democratic process" of a stylebook committee.

     At the St. Petersburg Times, a seven-member committee has been meeting weekly for two years to revise the paper's 1992 stylebook, said its chairman, Daniel Puckett, a wire desk copy editor. The committee, which for the most part is made up of copy editors ("the only ones who seemed interested"), has been reviewing the stylebooks of 15 to 20 major newspapers as it works to complete the revision next year, Puckett said.

     If decisions on style are required in the meantime, he said, the committee gets the approval of the managing editor and the executive editor before sending a message to the staff.

     Pam Nelson, the day news editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., said the newspaper used a stylebook committee about five years ago for its last big revision. But now if someone proposes a change or a style issue comes up, she will usually be the one, after some deliberation, to make the call.

     Karen D. Cater, chief of copy desks at the Seattle Times, said she gave up on stylebook committees years ago because "it took too long to get anything done." When style matters arise, she said that she might ask the opinion of other department chiefs or sometimes the slots before making a ruling, which will then be sent out to the newsroom by electronic message.

     The Detroit Free Press  has used a stylebook committee for previous revisions, but it did not this year. Cruden  said he produced a draft incorporating issues that had risen since the previous update in 1995, and he also surveyed the staff on several style questions, such as whether to use postal abbreviations; whether to use Inc., Co., Ltd. and Corp. with company names; and whether to capitalize "Games" (for the Olympics) and "Cup" (for the Stanley Cup) on second reference. In reporting the style survey results, Cruden told the staff: "As best I can, I'll incorporate the majority views into the draft for the next stylebook, and put the whole thing before you soon."

      After considering staff comments on the draft, Cruden revised it and ran sensitive portions past the newspaper's top editors. In the finished stylebook, an asterisk marks new entries or changes from previous style.

      Connolly said that when he and a researcher began work on the revision of the New York Times' stylebook, they "sought suggestions from everyone on the staff, and we waded through literally hundreds of memos and notes issued since the last revision in 1976."

     "There were many committees made up of staff members who have special knowledge in various areas, and we got help from editors, writers and critics with expertise in such fields as the arts, business, religion, science and sports," he said.

     At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "there is no committee and there are no meetings," said Paul Sevart, who was  the newspaper's stylebook editor before becoming senior editor/weekend news.

     Sevart, who was formerly senior editor/copy desk, said that he would assign desk members to research and draft entries and that they would report their findings back to him. He said he brought some of the more contentious issues up for electronic bulletin board-style discussion with the copy desk and, on rare occasions, with the senior editors.

     Liz McGehee, copy desk chief at the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina, said style decisions at her paper are "not just one person making rules. ... There's a lot of thought and input from different people."

     Usually when an issue arises, McGehee said, she and the assistant managing editors for production and news will put their heads together on what style to follow. "A lot of times it's common sense in context," she said. To ensure that everyone knows about any style change, a note is sent out to the staff and an entry is put in the paper's electronic stylebook, McGehee said.

     At the Baltimore Sun, the newspaper's electronic stylebook is often updated as new style questions become apparent: whether to use Kosovo Albanians or Kosovar Albanians, for example. John E. McIntyre, chief of the copy desk, said that either he makes "curbside rulings" that stand because no one challenges them or the issues go to the editor, who has the final say. Changes in style are usually announced in the newspaper's in-house newsletter, Publish and Be Damned, but they are sometimes posted in electronic memos to the staff.

     In addition to the local stylebook, the Charlotte Observer  has specialized computer files that are created for specific events such as the Olympics or a papal visit, Mikeal said.

     At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where the stylebook is updated about once every two years, most desks have their own style sheets for terms that they deal with over and over, said Jim Smith, the newspaper's copy desk manager.

     The Orlando Sentinel's new stylebook will direct editors and writers to electronic files in which they can find more extensive information, said Kathy Roe, the newspaper's business copy chief. For example, she said, the entry for Disney World will have a reference to an electronic file that lists all of the park's rides and can be updated as needed.

     A frequent need to update is one reason some newspapers have turned to an electronic stylebook.

     In St. Petersburg, the new stylebook will have online access only. While Puckett said he can understand the attachment of some copy editors to a book, he recalled that four items in the Times' 1992 stylebook were obsolete  three weeks after it was printed.

 

Variations from AP style

     In addition to local and regional information,  house stylebooks for newspapers that rely on AP usually specify any exceptions to AP style and offer guidance on proper word usage and other topics not covered by the Associated Press Stylebook.

     One key exception to AP at many newspapers is the matter of courtesy titles, which AP uses for women only. Most of the newspapers surveyed said that if they use courtesy titles  -- either in all copy or in specific cases, such as obituaries -- they use them equally for men and women.

     In another major exception, several newspapers said that they don't use a middle initial unless needed for clarity, or if the individual prefers it or is better known that way: George W. Bush, William F. Buckley Jr., Edward G. Robinson.

     Editors at some newspapers said that they use "not guilty" instead of "innocent" in court pleas and verdicts, rejecting the AP Stylebook's concern about the word "not" being dropped inadvertently.

     Several newspapers use "teenager" without a hyphen. But Mikeal at the Charlotte Observer said that while he thinks "teen-ager" looks archaic, he decided against dropping the hyphen because he wanted to keep exceptions to an "absolute minimum."

     Newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have made a style change that reflects the switch in their areas to local 10-digit telephone numbers. Instead of using parentheses, the area code is attached to the seven-digit number with a hyphen: 555-555-5555.

     "It's funny how many  have to do with parentheses or a hyphen," said the Journal-Constitution's Smith. In addition to the exceptions on telephone numbers and "teenager," the Atlanta papers hyphenate all forms of "fund-raising" and set off party affiliation with parentheses instead of commas.

     Some newspapers have broadened the list of cities that stand alone in datelines. The exceptions to AP are often regional but not always. The Seattle Times, for example, uses Amsterdam and Cairo without a country, and Albuquerque, Anchorage, Memphis, Nashville and Orlando without a state, Cater said.

 

More guidance, please

     Many of the entries in the Winston-Salem Journal's stylebook are basic grammar guidelines that have been compiled from sources such as "The Elements of Style" and "The Careful Writer,"  McGehee said.

     Editors at several newspapers said they would like to see AP offer more guidance on grammar.

     Others suggested that AP should include more information on trademarks and government agencies, expand its business section, and give guidance on how to refer to unmarried partners in gay and straight relationships.

     Editors at the News & Observer in Raleigh and the Albuquerque Journal  said that they are struggling with ethnic identification such as Hispanic/Latino and that they would appreciate more help from AP.

     D'Val Westphal Cordova, the news editor in Albuquerque, said that AP "really offers no guidance" by suggesting that individual papers try to be as specific as possible. "In the Southwest, [ethnic identification] is not something that can be avoided," she said.

     The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Smith said he wished AP could simplify its "numerals" entry, which contains more than 40 separate entries. "You can understand why some people can't get it straight," he said.

     Goldstein acknowledged the problem. "It's something we have to solve," he said.

     But for some editors there is a more pressing concern:

     "The most helpful thing AP could produce would be a comprehensive list of changes made in each new edition and include them in the stylebook itself," said McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun. Currently, a list of changes from the previous edition is moved on the AP wire when a new stylebook goes into effect.

     Harold D. Freeman, a copy editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal, agreed. Freeman said that several years ago he began a long-neglected update of the paper's electronic stylebook, which incorporates the AP Stylebook. To try to ease his task, Freeman said, he asked AP for a list of changes it had made over the past six or seven editions. None was available, he was told.

 

Why 'cookie, cookies'?
 
   As the "standard of the industry," AP can be sorely lacking in some areas. It includes numerous word pairs, such as "adverse, averse," "affect, effect," "lay, lie" and "noisome, noisy," but neglects a host of others: "alternately, alternatively," "avert, avoid," "burro, burrow," "callous, callus," "careen, career," "champ, chomp," "climactic, climatic,"  "defuse, diffuse," "deserts, desserts," "disburse, disperse," "gentile, genteel," "loath, loathe," "sewn, sown," "sensual, sensuous."

    There is an entry for "Allegheny Mountains" but none for "Great Smoky Mountains" or the counties of "Allegany," "Alleghany" and "Allegheny."  

     "Rolls-Royce" is in there but not "Mercedes-Benz."

      Trademarks such as "Coca-Cola," "Frisbee" and "Seeing Eye dog" are included but not "GED," "Hula-Hoop" or "X-Acto."

     It list the "Seven Wonders of the World" but not the "Seven Deadly Sins."

     For whatever reason, there's an entry for "cookie, cookies,"  but none can be found for "ATM," "carjack," "Caesars Palace," "Kwanzaa," "Nasdaq," "U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees" and so many others that might give a copy editor pause.

    AP could do a great service by keeping its stylebook more current and by taking a critical look at what additions might make it more useful to journalists.

 

Plugging holes

       A driving force behind this fellowship project has been a desire to fill in some of the holes that the Associated Press Stylebook has not covered. To that end, I first compared the AP Stylebook with the electronic stylebook at my newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, and then with other style manuals to which I had access: the stylebooks of the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit Free Press, the Florida Times-Union, the Albuquerque Journal, the Chicago Tribune and the Winston-Salem Journal.

     Attached is a list of entries not included in AP that I think would be useful to many copy editors. My purpose is not to dictate style but to give stylebook guidance where there may be none. I have no problem if style decision-makers take exception with an entry that I have included, such as "chief of staff." I would only hope that they would provide an entry making clear that their style is "Chief of Staff."

     Entries not otherwise credited are from the Sun's electronic stylebook. It should be noted, however, that some of the entries adopted by the Sun over the years probably came from other newspapers' stylebooks and various reference sources. Newspapers often look at the stylebooks of other publications when compiling their own guidelines. In its 1998 revision, the Chicago Tribune's stylebook acknowledges the assistance of, among others, the Boston Globe Stylebook, the Wall Street Journal Stylebook, the Miami Herald Stylebook and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. The Winston-Salem Journal's electronic stylebook, which focuses heavily on proper language usage, took many of its entries from such reference sources as "The Elements of Style," "The Careful Writer" and "The Art of Editing."