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New journalism rule: Use AP style except when something else works better

April 14, 2010
AP Stylebooks

Source: allaboutgeorge's Flickr page

The AP is now recommending that journalists not abbreviate state names (California instead of the former Calif., for instance). It makes sense when we have unlimited space online and as some have already observed, the intent of the switch is probably to emphasize SEO (no one’s typing in “Calif.” when they Google California), but I don’t really see a reason news orgs should tie themselves to AP style anymore anyway.

The intent of the AP has been, for a long time, to establish some measure of consistency across news publications with regard to spellings, capitalizations and other small references. Consistency in little details like that has been devalued to a great degree, though, as news has moved online and everyone has gained the ability to publish. I’m not saying journalists should just shrug and lower their standards (god forbid), but chill out a bit—in the grand scheme of things, Osama bin Laden versus Usama bin Laden is not something we’re going to live or die by. (Note: It’s a type of confusion that could be easily addressed, too, if more news orgs would maintain wikis or topic pages. Or link to ones that already exist.)

In a lot of cases, journalists would be better served by ignoring AP style than by following it. Perhaps that ought to be the rule: Use AP style except when something else works better. For instance:

  • Feel free to use digits in headlines—sometimes people are more likely to click on them.
  • Write in first person if you feel like it.
  • Start sentences with lowercase letters (iPad, etc.) and digits (Two-thousand ten or Twenty ten is just weird when 2010 is available) if you have to.
  • Refer to people by their first name if a surname seems awkwardly formal.

Remember: You’re not writing for the AP, you’re writing for your readers—use whatever rules work best for them.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2010 1:46 pm

    Oh wow, I don’t know how I feel about this! I feel like most journalists are AP Style purists, I wonder how this will change the way we write datelines…

  2. April 14, 2010 2:27 pm

    A lot of journalists are AP style purists…sometimes to a fault, which is what I was getting at. It’s unfortunate because we’re in a place right now where efficiency is everything—our ranks aren’t as full as they used to be—and we’re spending our time worried about state abbreviations. I haven’t seen anything from the AP on how to link out properly or how much quoting (from a different site or blog) is too much, for instance. They should be leading journalists into new media instead of just now catching up on best practices that bloggers have known about for 10 years.

  3. June 2, 2010 10:27 am

    Paul, I love this! You are right on…love the rules, especially the one about digits. Article marketers and others are doing it anyway (10 Ways to Lose 10 Pounds TODAY!). They are definitely more likely to grab your attention. Great stuff ~ Dana

  4. June 2, 2010 10:41 am

    @Dana- Thanks! Traditional journalism conventions have their place sometimes, but in some cases AP Style is actually working against journalists who are trying to get their stories seen by readers.

    On a related note, the just-announced new social media guidelines strike me as unnecessary. To be fair, I haven’t read any of them yet, but the idea that there are 42 different “guidelines” to be followed in the social sphere is likely to just overwhelm and disinterest journalists who are still on the outside. (Solution: One guideline: Be sociable and act professionally.)


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