A Guide to Style Guides

Dec 16, 2013

Some might see a person's face. A trained copy editor would see the shorthand for the following taken from The Associated Press Stylebook (from top to bottom): insert quotation marks, remove or insert a period, hyphen and dash.
Credit Ki-Min Sung


Public radio member stations have been honing their sound and style for decades. Now, with the incorporation of text and image-based digital news, radio practitioners are addressing questions about capitalization, ellipses, captions and hyperlinks. This is leading many stations to consider their own style guides.

The Associated Press Stylebook is the foundation for many news organizations, including NPR Digital News. Most news outlets develop their own style guides to address their specific needs. For example, while the AP style recommends the word "percent" to indicate a percentage, business publications, like the Wall Street Journal, use the symbol "%". Some stations are even getting additional help with their digital content by hiring part-time copy editors. 

With so many styles to choose from, where does one begin? Lisa McLendon of the American Copy Editors Society offered some tips to get started. 

1. Be consistent. Whether you’re building your style guide on AP or something else, "which one you pick isn't as important as being consistent," says McLendon. "If they're noticing your inconsistencies, they're not noticing your content." 

2. Identify recurring issues. Who are the people, places and things that reappear in your areas of coverage? Have your journalists come up with their lists, decide on a convention, write them down and update your guide on a regular basis. Identifying local issues is especially important because some style guides, like the AP, are designed for content with a more national and international reach. The conventions of others may not apply universally to your content.  

3. Make accessing the document easy. Journalists need to access style guides from anywhere. Consider creating a Google doc or a Wiki page where a digital style guide can be easily accessible. 

4. Make it a living document. Be ready to debate the issues and update the style guide accordingly. Make it someone's responsibility to update the style guide as needed.  

5. Don't reinvent the wheel. There are several existing guides to build upon or be inspired by. Here are several worth checking out:

The Associated Press Stylebook
The AP Stylebook is a building block of journalism. The most recent print edition was published in 2013 but you can get updates with a digital subscription. The AP can also host your in-house style guide on its site.

The Yahoo! Style Guide
This guide, published in 2010, covers news and general content that could be helpful for purposes outside of journalism. It also goes into technical details that can be helpful for coding and design. 

AP Style Primers
If you need a CliffsNotes version, here is an AP style primer from the University of Kansas. Several other universities have AP style highlights, including Brandeis University, San Jose State University, DeAnza College and the University of Wyoming.  

Northwest News Network (N3)
This member station collaboration provides content for several stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The N3 Style Guide from 2010 covers basic style issues and addresses specific needs that apply to radio scripts, like the use of capitalization and mixing directions. The N3 Style Guide covers region-specific issues and departures from AP style.

KUNC Colorado
Adhering to consistent formatting and categorization is also a practice of good style. KUNC's one-sheet checklist helps the staff maintain consistency across all posts. Check out the directions on this guide created by digital media manager Jim Hill. He notes exactly where to put the audio and the tease break, and includes a guide for what constitutes a proper tag. (Michigan Radio keeps a guide for tagging content.) Also on the KUNC list is a reminder to add related content to the post so people will have more to read when they get to the end of the story. 

BuzzFeed Style 
Yes, the same BuzzFeed that brings you clickable lists of adorable puppies has a style guide. The guide is geared towards the types of content BuzzFeed is known for, like lists that make you nostalgic for a certain era. That topic is covered with this entry:

Why look at BuzzFeed? If you're incorporating multiple media into a post (especially by embedding assets like Tweets, videos, Facebook posts, photos, gifs, etc.) there are standards that can be inspired by BuzzFeed. Take a close look at the economy of words built into messages and captions. You also see that scroll-perfect format in Storify posts that have become helpful for reporting news stories. Check out WNPR’s Storifys for some inspiration.

WBUR Style Guide
WBUR will have a style guide available in 2014. Check with Tiffany Campbell for updates.

What About Ethics?
As you continue to develop your standards for journalism, it may also be worth taking another look at the NPR Ethics Handbook. Not only will you find sections on fairness and accountability in NPR’s journalism, you’ll also find guidelines on anonymous sources, attribution, social media and participating in speaking engagements. For a broad list outside of NPR, the Pew Research Journalism Project has compiled a list of several news organizations’ ethics code.