Update: If you read this when it was posted initially, or after I updated Tuesday night with lots of responses, I have added more responses, plus my own recommendation.
When I was visiting the St. Paul Pioneer Press newsroom recently, some copy editors asked a perplexing style question: If we are creating content first for digital platforms, and trying to make a print product efficiently from that content, how do we handle references to “today”?
“Tomorrow” can be problematic, too. Newspaper journalists have traditionally avoided “yesterday” and “tomorrow,” making them “Monday” and “Wednesday” if you’re publishing on Tuesday. So it’s probably still a good idea to avoid “yesterday.” But “Wednesday” should really become “today” when that digital story is published in the next morning’s newspaper.
Is there a good solution that doesn’t involve changing every “today” reference between digital and print?
Unless you count a quick Google search as research (I don’t), I haven’t had time to research whether the American Copy Editors Society or AP Stylebook has provided guidance on this issue. But the Pioneer Press copy editors indicated they had no guidance, and they handle a lot of wire copy, and I think they mentioned that they had looked. If you know of guidance from ACES or the stylebook (or hell, even @FakeAPStylebook), please share it.
For now, I’ll crowdsource this (and I’ll share the link with some ACES leaders and other copy editors I know). What’s the best way to provide date clarity? I’ll discuss pros and cons of different approaches, and then I’ll provide a ballot. I’d appreciate your vote:
- Always use the day of the week, for instance, Tuesday, if I mean the day I publish this blog post. Pro: You always know which day of the week you mean. Con: Someone reading the story on Tuesday might think “Tuesday” means last Tuesday or next Tuesday, because who says “Tuesday” on Tuesday instead of “today”?
- Use a dateline with an actual date, then use “today” in the story (yes, online stories have a time-stamp; but that’s often not on the screen, when “today” appears in copy; and online stories aren’t always read the day they are published). Pro: It’s clear to people who read the dateline. Cos: Do people actually note the dateline? Do we want to make them look back to the dateline (which may not be on the same page in print).
- In the copy, specify the day of the week: “today (Tuesday).” Pro: It’s clear. Con: It’s clunky.
- In the copy, specify the date: “today (March 6).” Pro: It’s even clearer. Con: It’s clunky.
- Use “today” online and fix it every single time for print. Pro: It’s the clearest solution to the reader. Con: It’s time-consuming, and, if you’re not 100 percent successful in fixing, you’ll have errors in print.
So what’s your advice? (If I’m leaving out an alternative, please share your idea in the comments.)
The poll (and results so far) are below.
Update: I got much more response on social media than on the poll. Thanks to Mark Loundy for Storifying the Twitter discussion (I’ve also embedded some tweets below).
Thanks also to consultant Merrill Perlman, former copy desk chief of the New York Times (and a Des Moines Register colleague from years ago), for this response by email:
IMHO, day of week should replace “yesterday,” “today” and “tomorrow.” Taking it a step further, it would make long-term sense to use the date, so that the time reference is always unmistakable, but that looks awkward both in print and online unless it’s already a week old. And no one has the resources to go back and change time references as they age …
Further thanks to John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun who sent this response by email:
At The Sun we edit each article as a “platform-neutral” text. In this form the day of the week is used instead of “yesterday,” “today<” or “tomorrow,” and that is the form that goes on the website, typically on the day before the print publication. In the version for the print editions, we change the day of publication to “today.”
Also responding by email was ACES President Teresa Schmedding of the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill.:
We would use today online since our web pages have a date published stamp on them — if it’s today. And today in print if it’s today.
No tomorrow or yesterday in either.
I should also say our CMS (Saxotech) makes thus a 2-second fix. While clarity is kind, I admit I’d probably vote for the day if it meant an extra 15 minutes of time for someone to hand fix all those references.
Sue Burzynski Bullard of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln added:
I’m for using day of the week instead of today, yesterday, tomorrow. Just makes more sense that way.
Thanks also to Joe Hight of the Oklahoman and NewsOK.com for this answer on Facebook:
We actually have a style guideline, created by The Oklahoman’s Standards Team, that reads as follows:
“All content in The Oklahoman and on NewsOK.com will carry the day of the week that an event is occurring, rather than today, this morning, this afternoon, this evening. This rule ends confusion that can be caused when stories are placed online before print publication.
“WRONG: The action will be considered today by the Oklahoma City Council.
“RIGHT: The action will be considered Tuesday by the Oklahoma City Council.
“AP Style actually advises: ‘Use only in direct quotations and in phrases that do not refer to a specific day: Customs today are different from those of a century ago. Use the day of the week in copy, not today or tonight.’ ”
Carl Lavin, also on Facebook, added:
I’m with Joe. The world has changed. Even in print someone may be reading on a different day than the day the paper was published. Online that is certainly true. Quotes can’t be altered of course, but references should be to the named day of the week. I’ve long advocated avoiding “today,” “yesterday” or “tomorrow.”
And on Google+, I got this response from Susan Crowell:
It gets even trickier when your “print” is a weekly. We have no specific policy and are probably all over the board, too, in practice. I lean toward “today (March 6)” even online with a date stamp at the beginning of the posting because people gloss right over that, and I guess I don’t assume they’re reading it “today.” Eagerly await the crowdsourcing response…
Also from Google+, The Reporter, a Digital First newsroom in Lansdale, Pa.:
Our online editors are required to read every in-house story before posting. I’ve spotted this “Today” issue a couple of times. I just change the wording.
On Twitter, as with the poll and other comments, the most popular answer is to use the day of the week in all instances:
Some tweeps favored changing between platforms:
Some favored other approaches:
A couple general observations:
And, Twitter being Twitter, my request drew some humorous responses:
My recommendation: Stop using “today” as a matter of routine in news stories (fine in social media and SMS alerts). Use the day of the week, adding “today” or the date as needed for clarity. And use good news judgment in allowing exceptions: a constantly updated breaking story that’s being updated constantly and is going to appear in print as a heavily edited write-thru in print, a page-one print advance of the president’s visit to town that day where the editor handling the story decides “today” reads better than “Wednesday.”
Where a content-management system can automate a change (and get it right without fail), I’m all for using the CMS to customize content to platforms. But if you get some automated changes that shouldn’t have been changed, I’d prefer to stick with day of the week.
And I do like the idea of dynamic date tags (Adrian Holovaty described the idea in his 2006 blog post mentioned in a tweet above) that would change “Wednesday” to “March 6” after a week, so the archived version would always read correctly. Does anyone know of a site that’s doing that?
One final note: This blog post is a great example of how misleading metrics can be, if you only look at one measurement, or if you place exaggerated importance in a single metric. This post only has 310 views so far, decent traffic for a first day, but many posts do better. I had a couple posts do better last week and a couple do about as well. But this one generated great engagement. The responses above on multiple platforms and the comments below are all part of how you measure the value of a post, and this one got people talking. Successful engagement sometimes generates vigorous conversation, but sometimes in small niches.