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Norm Goldstein, keeper of AP style

by Doug Fisher

No. 66 for July 2007

For 18 years, Norm Goldstein has been the editor of the "Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law." He "retired" last year from the desk at AP's New York headquarters, but has stayed on as stylebook editor.

I talked with him as he was leaving the desk and thought that with the release of the 2007 stylebook, it's a good time to share some of that conversation about how he edits one of the most influential language resources in changing times.

The modern AP stylebook started in 1953 at 60 pages and $1. It wasn't alphabetized, dealt mainly with where the wire set a specific style, and relied on users to have a solid grounding in language and a good reference library. In 1977, Lou Boccardi, then AP's executive news editor and later president, said he wanted more of a reference work – a book more than 400 pages and now updated yearly and more often online.

CSJ: That almost puts a little more, I don't want to say burden, but responsibility?

Goldstein: Pressure is a good word, too. There's no question that it's changed in that sense tremendously in the last five years. …

I think the difference in the reference now is that there is more information available on the Internet, and I'm not sure and at least our executive editor is not sure how much of a reference book we ought to be anymore. … I think some of our historical background material like on previous hurricanes and earthquakes, that kind of encyclopedic material that's so easily available on the Internet now might be cut back.

CSJ: Boccardi wrote in 2000: "We thought at the outset it wouldn't be possible to please everyone. Of course, we were right."

Goldstein: I honestly don't consider it sniping. I like the input, and I like the fact that it comes from as varied editing as you can find, and that's always the good thing about the AP, too; it's small papers, it's medium-sized newspapers and it's large-sized newspapers, and now it's even more than that. It's blogs and Internet people, so the input has just expanded. …

You have the opportunity to make changes immediately, and we do that online. We take a second look at it when it comes to printing the book for the next edition and make sure all those decisions were right when they were made and if they are still viable, and if they're still important. … A lot of these new phrases, new words, new spellings, whatever, come in for a couple of weeks and they're gone. So they may not make it to the book, but they're online, and that makes a huge difference as to how we operate. We are dealing with things much faster than we used to and make decisions quicker. …

We'll get an e-mail, we'll get a phone call, we'll get a note or letter. A newspaper editor will question how we spell Hezbollah, for example, and we’ll go back to our own correspondents in the Middle East and make sure that what we are using is right. And very often when the news first comes up we will have some discrepancies; we will have some differences in spelling. And so we'll go back to them and make a decision on how we want to spell it, how we think it should be spelled on a consistent basis. And we'll put that online. And then we'll see when the book comes up whether that word, that spelling, is still the way it should be done.

CSJ: I've written that if the AP stylebook didn't exist, someone would have to invent it for the industry.

Goldstein: You just need to have some reference that makes it all consistent. Newspapers could do nothing worse than to be all over the ballpark with spelling of names. From Journalism 101 you learn "spell the name right," and it's most important to be consistent in spellings of names and usage all around.

CSJ: But it's also a profession where people like to say, "We're different."

Goldstein: But it's difficult to vary from it, it really is. … I think if you're going to be a good writer and if you want to be in this profession, two things you have to remember are that there are some rules, and you ought to know them, and the second one is, if you want to break them, have a good reason.

Goldstein said he would like to make the online stylebook more multimedia, with illustrations and possibly audio, and integrated to show differences in print, broadcast and, perhaps, online style.

"I can only say that when I joined the AP in 1963, they told me, 'This is the book you have to know,' " Goldstein said. "I still think that's true. Read it. Keep it around. It's still a good reference. It's 40 years or so that we're talking about it now. I probably look at it more now than I did then, and I wish I had more then."

The interview transcript can be found on the Common Sense Journalism blog, http://commonsensej.blogspot.com/2007/07/norm-goldstein.html.


Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at fisherdj@mailbox.sc.edu or 803-777-3315.

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