Don’t even try to get that story on A1

Pullquote from a bit of morning reading at the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog:

“I once consulted at a well-respected metro newspaper where several writers told me they tried to avoid pitching their stories for the front page because the ‘serial editing’ of these stories was such a hassle for them and damaging to their stories.”

That’s Michele McLellan writing about Rupert Murdoch’s claim that the average Wall Street Journal story passes across the desks of 8.3 editors.

How often have you heard from reporters who hold on to a solid story idea because they’re afraid their editors will “just ruin it” ?

8.3 is a big number, too many pairs of eyes for even the WSJ, but in many cases, I think even the three or four editors that a story at a small paper might run through are too many.  To be honest, sometimes one editor can get the job done — if it’s the right editor.

A note to my fellow graduate students: Agenda-setting is real, and it matters who edits a story last and who looks over the copy editor’s shoulder while they put together headlines, but inefficiency outweighs bias most of the time.

Unrelated bonus link: Pullquotes.org, a fun little database-powered Sunlight-type project that lets you guess  which political party a quotee belongs to.

11 Replies to “Don’t even try to get that story on A1”

  1. Sort of (but not really) along the same lines: At newspapers that still strictly link digital and print publication schedules — which is still surprisingly common for enterprise and other non-breaking news — a reporter writing a certain type of web-friendly story has a strong incentive to keep it off the weekend budget. The inclination of many (most?) editors is still to put their best reads into the Sunday paper, but it seems like more reporters I know are catching on to the fact that that certain type of story is better off appearing on a weekday, when the number of unique visitors is likely to be anywhere from 35 to 75 percent higher. As ever, it remains in reporters’ interest to manage up.

  2. Even at a small metro it’s not unusual for a story to get processed by at least seven eyes (counting headline writers, proofers, etc.)

    My contention? The number doesn’t matter. What’s important is that every editor understands his or her role in the process, and I’m sad to report that this is seldom the case, particularly if a newspaper’s copy desk sees itself as a rival to the assigning desks and top management fails to define those roles clearly.

    Copy editors who assert a responsibility to raise assigning-editor questions on deadline; editors with other jobs who “pitch in” with editing suggestions (to the boss); frustrated veterans working out their psycho-dramas; clueless new hires who haven’t even figured out what they don’t know yet; terrified senior editors who can’t figure out the new landscape and are simply trying to avoid error and criticism.

    These are all symptoms of a lack of professional discipline within an organization. And when you’ve got these problems within your editing ranks, everything you do will suffer.

    Disciplined editing-by-role covers the bases and produces a strong product and a professional organization. Editing-by-committee produces pablum, political infighting, low morale and lousy ethics.

    Take your pick.

  3. @Dan – That’s awesome – I can picture one of each of the editors you describe.

    I used to end up wishing that the “copy editors who assert a responsibility to raise assigning-editor questions on deadline” started their days earlier so they could ask those questions at 11 a.m. instead of 6:30 p.m.

  4. Newspapers should really look into the point at which having additional eyes look at a story begins to weaken it’s quality. I’m willing to be that at any newspaper that point comes before 8.3. This will obviously vary depending on the paper and its size, but humans are prone to error and editing by committee can produce, well, committee results.

    So, yes each additional set of eyes could find more mistakes and make a story tighter, or that set of eyes could introduce some inaccuracies, sloppy wording or other mistakes.

    I just can’t imagine a situation where 9 people have to work on a story (8 editors and a writer). I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked to reedit a story on the Web by a reporter because some print editor edited in an error, unclear wording, etc.

    I don’t really think it’s any one editor’s fault. Rather, editing by committee seems to produce copy with mistakes that the writer never made, while also producing unclear wording and headlines that often aren’t completely factually accurate.

    A Web first publishing model would solve many of these problems for a news organization (being Web only would be even better). We know that shorter chunks of information work better on the Web, and these pieces are much easier to edit. It’s understandable that a 2,000-4,000 Sunday feature in the WSJ might need a bunch of editors to look it over. But a 300-word blog post could probably be edited by 1 person, if the writer produces reliable and clean copy.

    Over the course of a day, a writer might produce 5 300-word blog posts, which would be much more difficult to edit if they were one big story. Many stories — especially breaking news — work much better in this format than in one big story. After those individual chunks have been edited, it will be much easier to put together an in-depth analysis piece for the print edition.

    To make a long story short, I think too many eyes can make a story worse, not to mention it costs a lot of money.

  5. I’m not sure I agree that less is more. I feel that in most stories, accuracy is the most important thing. If another set of eyes ensures accuracy, and you have the resources, you should use that set of eyes. I also feel that if reporters are worried about editors “damaging to their stories,” they should work with the editors during the editing process. The outcome will be a much more well-rounded story.

    Now, it’s amusing that I feel this way, since I just instituted a new copy flow at my paper in which we cut out the copy desk on Web content in order to get it up faster. However, I read everything that goes up, and I am (or was) a copy editor, so you’re still getting that critical set of eyes on everything.

    Of course, we’re nowhere near 8 people per story, but it is still important to make sure what you publish is correct. And, in these days of shrinking news hole, which we are feeling quite a bit at our paper, stories need to be as concise and to the point as possible. It may seem like this slimming down of stories kills the writer’s craft, but it really provides the reader with the information they need, and not a lot else. It actually falls more in line with what Pat was saying about shorter blips of news online.

    I’m not saying that editing mistakes don’t happen … I’m definitely guilty of that on one or two occasions. But the amount of mistakes I might add compared to the amount of mistakes I keep from making it in the paper is no contest. And part of working as a writer is constantly having your work criticized and picked apart. If you’re not okay with that, you’re probably in the wrong profession.

    This turned out sounding a lot snobbier than I intended, and that is part of the problem: Copy editors tend to have a holier-than-thou attitude with reporters and other editors. I don’t know how to fix that. But it doesn’t change the fact that most are experts at what they do, and are there for a reason.

  6. What bugs me as a reporter is when someone changes a word and doesn’t tell me. It’s likely there is a reason I picked that specific word. If you are editing for clarity, tell me why you are changing it. You could be changing the meaning of what I intended. And talking about it with me will help me write more clearly in the future. Granted I understand deadline pressure. But when there is time, there is no excuse. At least let me read it before it goes on the page.

    Most of the corrections I’ve written are because of either bad headlines or errors introduced by editors.

  7. @Dan: A small observation: Perhaps those copy editors wouldn’t have to be raising assigning editor questions had the assigning editors raised them first.

    The copy desk still is the best surrogate for the readers. I know too many assigning editors who don’t quite get that.

    You’re right, management needs to clarify roles, but too often it seems the role of the copy desk is forgotten.

  8. Dan, I have to agree with Doug. I don’t feel that I’m in a competition for power with assigning editors, but if he/she hasn’t caught some error or whole in the story, who else will do it but the copy desk? I suspect as more papers focus on being web first, the copy desk’s hours will be adjusted to reflect that.

  9. @Doug and @Holly:

    I’m not talking about basic accuracy, fairness or context red flags. If you’ve got an assigning desk that doesn’t appreciate a copy desk that raises those questions, then that’s a lousy assigning desk.

    But what, exactly, constitutes a bona fide hole in a story?

    Well, if I’ve got a piece about a new illegal immigration law and it shows up on the copy desk and I haven’t attempted to get good figures that show the scope of the problem, that’s a hole.

    But is it a hole if the story doesn’t specify what percentages of immigrants come from various countries? And should this person’s insistent belief that this is “a HUGE HOLE!” be allowed to trump all the work that’s been done up to that point?

    That’s what I’m talking about. I think this attitude is inexcusable and a copy editor who displays it ought to be subject to immediate counseling by the copy desk chief. But once a newsroom turns toxic, this attitude runs rampant.

    Another example: A budgeted enterprise piece that’s been available for reading and discussed at meetings for weeks. These things have typically been read and massaged and processed to death by multiple editors long before they show up on the copy desk.

    If the Saturday night copy desk crew shows up and suddenly starts peppering the night metro editor with foundational questions (“Why doesn’t this include a Summerville example? Why didn’t you explore whether there’s a film industry connection? How tall is the mother?”), then the copy desk simply doesn’t understand its role and is having fun playing assigning editor.

    If that Summerville angle really should have been in the story and if it’s really that crucial, then the copy desk chief needs to get on the phone to the executive editor and make the case for pulling the story and replacing it with something off the wire.

    Editing pieces like this is insanity, and it creates a cascading effect that produces rather than eliminates errors.

    If copy editors want to be more involved in developing stories there’s a great way to do it: Become assigning editors.

    You too can start earlier and work later. You too can experience all the glamor and excitement of clashing with prima donna reporters, nasty public affairs offices, wacked-out senior editors and the constant barrage of random phone calls from the public, each of which must be dealt with politely.

    And at the end of the day, after you’ve fought your way past all that, you too can deal with some out-of-line, out-of-touch copy editor who assumes that you never thought of whatever bizarre question just popped into her head.

    And when you try to politely deflect that irrelevant question, your reward is you get to listen to a lecture about responsibility in journalism from somebody with a lot less responsibility than you have.

    This isn’t about accuracy. Accuracy is a different discussion.

  10. I’ve removed a comment from this thread that contained a personal attack on someone other than myself.

    Seriously, people, keep that bullshit on your message boards and off my blog.

    I don’t put up with people calling each other names on the Internets, unless the person on the receiving end runs a newspaper company, or maybe a mid-sized nation.

    Comments are now closed on this post.

Comments are closed.