OLD Media Moves

Jargon, alphabet soup and numeracy problems all bug style guru

August 20, 2013

Posted by Chris Roush

Paul Martin retired at the end of July from The Wall Street Journal, ending a 53-year stint at the business newspaper.

He had spent the last 27 years running its “Style & Substance” report, which dissected Journal stories for their word usage and phrasing.

Martin, who joined the Journal in 1960 as a copyreader, became the paper’s copy desk chief in 1972 and compiled and edited “The Wall Street Journal Stylebook” since its first internal publication in 1981.

He began editing the Business and Finance column in 1969, and became a senior special writer for Page One in 1975.

He moved to the national desk in 1988, where he led a team of editors working on inside features and stories for special pages. In 1989, after serving as an editor for the Journal’s Centennial Edition, he returned to Page One. He was named an assistant to the managing editor in March 1990, responsible for fielding reader complaints and editing letters to the editor, in addition to his Page One duties.

In January 1993, he was named an assistant managing editor. At the end of 2001, he retired as a full-time staff member, but retained his duties as style arbiter and awards coordinator.

In 2000, Martin received the Elliott V. Bell Award from the New York Financial Writers’ Association. The Bell Award is given each year to the person the association deems has made a significant, long-term contribution to the profession of financial journalism.

Martin, a graduate of Dartmouth College, spoke with Talking Biz News via email recently about his career and the importance of style in business journalism. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you first get interested in journalism, or more specifically, business journalism?

I was a newspaper carrier from age 12 to 18, morning, evening and Sunday, in my hometown of Lancaster, Pa., and I never seriously considered anything but journalism for a career. I wasn’t specifically interested in business journalism until I was offered a job at The Wall Street Journal in 1960.

When I joined the copydesk, the managing editor, Warren Phillips (later chairman of Dow Jones) told me to approach business articles like all others: “If you don’t understand them, it’s your job to make them understandable.” I think that’s still good advice, but the challenge is greater because Wall Street and its arcana have become ever more arcane over the years. Does anyone really understand credit default swaps?

What attracted you to The Wall Street Journal back in 1960?

The Journal at the time was one of the few papers anywhere with journalists in the top corporate positions. That was important to me and many other journalists. Also, the Journal promised me I wouldn’t have to stay in New York if I decided later I wanted to work at another bureau or production plant. I didn’t think I’d like New York in the long term, but I was so wrong. And the editors in New York were unbelievably nurturing for young journalists.

p_martin_headshot (2)What were some of the bigger issues with business journalism in the 1960s and 1970s in terms of making it understandable to all readers?

As the Journal in that era was becoming a national newspaper with international ambitions, the energy crisis and Watergate took center stage. Business news was viewed in the larger context, but it remained the Journal’s bread and butter. Every term or concept was to be made clear to the lay reader, (Airline articles even condescendingly and redundantly defined a revenue passenger mile as “one paying passenger carried one mile.”)

Industry statistics and companies’ earnings reports were covered far more assiduously than today, filling page after page of the paper, and great care also was taken, for instance, to make one company’s profit calculations as comparable as possible to those of other companies. Presentations in press releases were view with suspicion.

How did the paper teach better writing and better style?

As at many papers, I think, it was largely a matter of osmosis. But the Journal had some of the best writers, particularly on page one, and they took time to work with reporters on their drafts. Bill Blundell, one of the paper’s best writers, also gave seminars on feature writing. And bureau chiefs and department heads took time to tutor newcomers.

When you became the copydesk chief in 1972, what were your daily responsibilities?

The copydesk chief oversaw the 12 or so editors who cleared the copy for the entire paper except for the page-one features and the opinion pages. The chief did the hiring and firing and was the night “slot” editor, checking the work of all the “rim” editors before it went to the typesetters.

Why did you decide that the Journal needed its own stylebook?

Aside from needing a reference to define some business and financial terms that weren’t included in other general style guides, we had a host of rules that were peculiar to us – we didn’t abbreviate Texas, Maine and Idaho after city names, for example. These rules had been passed along orally for decades. Training new copy editors would be far simpler with a stylebook, I realized, so I got to work on the Journal’s first one. But compiling it and getting it cleared by the managing editor took years, so, as luck would have it, I had moved on to the page-one desk before it was published in 1981.

There were a lot of major business stories in the 1980s such as LBOs and inflation and the 1987 crash. Did that make style and usage more important?

Style and usage are constantly evolving, which is a good reason for having the stylebook online. Business writing is perhaps more prone to permutations than most, but consistency of style is always important. The faster the economy and the markets change, the more editors need to strive to remain on the same page.

What do you see as the biggest improvements in business journalism style and usage in the past 50 years?

Technology, technology and technology.

Fifty years ago, an old fellow called Pop Harris, wearing a green eye shade, was still calculating the Dow Jones averages and entering them by hand in ledger books as he had for ages at the Journal headquarters, at 44 Broad St. in New York.

But the Journal even then was becoming a pioneer in introducing new technology, going from hot type to offset to facsimile production that used satellites to transmit the paper’s pages to remote printing plants across the country.

Still, the Journal was one of the last big papers to computerize its newsroom. The top editors feared that computers would short-circuit the layers of editing the Journal was famous for and greatly weaken the final product. That fear was well founded, especially in the short term. Fewer eyes on reporters’ drafts meant more unplugged holes in the stories. But with constant adjustments, the electronic system became a great benefit, speeding up and smoothing out the process and helping to standardize style and usage.

What still needs to be improved upon?

Too much reporting on business and the economy is analysis or conjecture masquerading as news. Distinctions should be kept clear. Clear sourcing is also important. Readers need to know as specifically as possible who is providing the information in articles, to help them discern its credibility.

What are your biggest pet peeves in business writing today?

In a word: jargon. Everyone and everything has become iconic, everyone is going forward instead of looking ahead, every executive is tasking everyone to transitively grow the company.

In three other words: acronym alphabet soup. Quick, what is AMPAS? It is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of course, but in an article mentioning it, “the academy” is the better second reference.

Numeracy problems also pop up like whack-a-moles — an assertion, for example, that something is 10 times smaller than something else. If it is one factor smaller, it is nonexistent. What is usually meant is that it is one-tenth as large as that other thing.

The biggest crime involving numbers, however, is mixing up millions, billions and trillions. It leads to more corrections than any other category, it seems. There’s no magic cure, but recognizing the hazard is a start.

Then there is the casual use of superlatives like “biggest” without providing the measure. Is a company the biggest in capitalization, sales, or revenue or what? And can we prove it. If there is any doubt, just call it one of the biggest. This simple step can save millions or billions of corrections.

Does the general American public know more about the business world today than they did in 1960, and what does that mean for a business journalist?

The average reader is probably more sophisticated today, but unless you are writing for the Harvard Business Review, the business-page writer would do well to follow the advice I was given in 1960: If you don’t understand it, it’s your job to make it understandable.

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