Mixing tenses makes me tense

April 28, 2004

I stopped by Side Salad‘s employer’s Web site to see if his co-workers provided any blogworthy offenses. Found something on the first try, just like the last time I tried this. Maybe I’m just too picky, but this annoys me:

TAMPA – A 59-year-old man threatens his mother and a health-care worker with kitchen knives, throwing one at a Pinellas County deputy’s head while being pelted with capsules of powdered pepper spray.

A day before, a 27-year-old man driving a stolen utility truck drags a Pinellas deputy’s patrol car beneath a boat trailer, ignoring commands to pull over.

Sunday, a 41-year-old man tries to burn down his home, threatens suicide and points a plastic-and-metal tool that resembles a gun at a Hillsborough County deputy at an RV park.

Monday, a 20-year-old man suspected of delivering rock cocaine tries to run over a Tampa police officer with a pickup truck, and then leads police on a 20-minute chase after being shot in the chest.

The lede was an acceptable (if a tad overused) example of present-tense storytelling; the ensuing graphs set me off: “a day before…” puts the sentence in past tense. Same thing for the next two sentences. Mixing present and past in the same sentence is not a crime against humanity or anything; it’s just ungainly, and unnecessary.

A bulleted list, with the past-tense stuff as bold-faced lead-ins, would’ve been a handy quick fix. It’d need a quicky intro preparing the reader for the list, then something like this:

  • Monday: A 59-year-old man threatens his mother …
  • Sunday: A 41-year-old man tries to burn down his home.
  • April 22: A 20-year-old man suspected of delivering rock cocaine tries to run over a Tampa police officer…

This makes the lead-in more like a headline, and lets the present-tense stuff stand on its own — preserving the writer’s intentions while assuaging my need for order in the universe.

There is, of course, another whole issue with this lede technique: It’s a second-day story illustrating how/why police shootings happen. If you bullet three items you’re four inches into your story before you get to the “what it all means” part. If you’re on the rim and you pick up this story, the first thought in your head must be “will the nutgraf appear before the jump?” If it doesn’t, you’ve got a battle on your hands because somebody’s gonna have to change something they don’t want to change. The sooner you get that over with, the sooner you can set time aside for more essential matters like reading somebody’s blog.

Definitions for non-newsies: “nutgraf” is what we call a sentence which explains why this story is running in today’s paper. Ideally this would happen in the opening paragraph (the “lede” if you haven’t caught on to that by now), but reporters often have other ideas and we indulge them to keep them on the job (more on this below).

The “jump” is the point where it says “story continued on Page x.”

Designers often build pages with no regard for where the nutgraf appears in the story (sometimes they don’t know, sometimes they don’t care), and we don’t want to force readers to turn to an inside page to figure out why they’re reading the story. So: if the nutgraf is several paragraphs down into a story and falls beyond the jump point, either the story or the design will have to change. Usually it’s the story because it’s the easiest fix — changing the design affects all the other stories on the page, and all their jump pages too.

Reporters generally have no clue to these complexities; all they know is the result: the desk is forcing them to redo something they considered done. It’s one of the reasons why reporter morale is usually worse than copy editor morale, even though they’re getting more pay and all the glory. One of the reasons many reporters become editors: it’s more fun doing it to somebody else than having it done to you.

5 Responses to Mixing tenses makes me tense

  1. KP on April 28, 2004 at 1:35 pm

    This is why I visit your blog… thank you.

  2. emil on April 28, 2004 at 9:17 pm

    And that–burying the nutgraf deep in the story–is why our esteemed ancestors invented the beloved inverted pyramid.

  3. wayne on April 28, 2004 at 9:29 pm

    At many papers, copy editors make more money than most reporters, yet have worse morale.
    I’ve heard reporters say copy editors should let them write the way they want to as compensation for the pay disparity.
    I’ve long believed that dayside copy editors tend to have higher morale than nightsiders — and know many drones of darkness (the name of the nightside copy desk “team” at one of my papers) who’ve switched to days for that reason. (Weekends and Monday holidays off are among the other reasons to crave day jobs.)
    Designers — well, that’s a whole other ball of wax left from cold-type days.

  4. wayne on April 28, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    Getting back to your point, Tom: I like the idea of splitting off items with bullets. It can be overdone, of course, but so can anything.
    Friends out the biz say they don’t read jumps unless the story really grabs them at the top. They don’t search for the point of a story.
    With so many young designers lacking reporting or editing experience, it’s important to teach (or order) them to read stories whenever possible before laying them out.

  5. Jeff on April 29, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    What you don’t see from the online version is any graphic treatment that may have made it easier for the reader to digest the bulleted information visually, rather than having to interrupt story flow to merely spit facts at them.
    At least the writer in this version attempted to set a rhythm and pace to the story.