Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Copy editors vs. reporters

Alex Cruden, chief editor of copy desks at the Detroit Free Press, spent a few months working on the city desk recently. In the "Lessons from the City Desk" session, he told us how he came away with the understanding that, as much as copy editors wish it otherwise, news is messy.

We want everything to be black and white, cut and dry. But that's not the way news works; there are always mysteries and equivocations. And as long as there are deadlines, there will be questions left unanswered.

He also stressed that the culture on the city desk is different from that of the copy desk. Reporters have endless pressure to get the scoop, meet the deadline. They're so competitive, Cruden said, that they must show no weakness. They have a fear of appearing fearful. They are simultaneously proud and insecure.

How should copy editors respond? Cruden stressed that we should ask only questions that can be answered. The more you help move toward a solution, the more you'll be recognized as a great copy editor.

Some other suggestions:
  • Ask your questions as early as possible, but save them all for one call or e-mail.
  • Be flexible. Provide alternatives. Note what can be deleted without harm.
  • Fix what you can yourself. Sharply spotting a problem doesn't then mean sharply demanding a solution.
Teresa Schmedding, who oversees copy editors at the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, couldn't make the session but had also recently spent some time on the city desk. She sent some notes along.

She noticed how much time reporters actually spend going down blind alleys, trying to track down the story and waiting for calls back from sources. It's not laziness that brings stories in at deadline (or later) every night.

Here are a few of the vows she made when her five-week stint was up:
  • I'll never assume it's laziness or a lack of caring that leads an editor to forget the "little" things like refers and captions. I'll bear in mind that while I'm focusing on tomorrow's papers, editors are juggling stories, photos, captions and planning for sections weeks in advance.
  • I'll never shake my head in snide amazement at editors who push to get timeless stories in when space is tight or they haven't had an advance edit. Excitement about a story and an eagerness to see it in print should be applauded.
  • I'll never blindly defend a headline for the sake of defending a headline. I'll recall the headline that I thought destroyed a story I cared deeply about and respond honestly and not defensively.


At 2:59 PM, April 25, 2006, Blogger tom said...

The older and crankier I get, the more I tend to side with Blanchard, who has, as I recall, discouraged copy editors from these kinds of city desk forays.

If you do your job well you shouldn't need the experience of having been a reporter to be an editor. (Granted, this is a huge if).

At 3:21 PM, April 25, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

I like the idea of cross training. I'm alwasy curious about the inner workings of jobs, especially at a newspaper.

The more people I get to know through such opportunities, the easier everyday dealings with them are.

And the more I know about how other parts of the paper work, the easier it is to foresee pitfalls before they occur.

I see your (and Blanchard's) point on this. It's not necessary. But I'm not sure it should be discouraged.

At 12:43 AM, April 26, 2006, Blogger aparker54 said...

The best copy editor and headline writer I've ever known (a guy who came to my former midsize daily after a nasty war in Little Rock) ended up as an assignment editor on the metro desk. I was amused to see how his firm principles on style and usage began to soften. Finally, I asked him about the change. Dealing with writers and writing made the guy unbend a little, it seems.

He's no longer in the news business.

At 6:36 AM, April 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A digression on the common claim that copy editors need to have had experience as reporters:

When I, a bookworm from the larval stage on, was growing up, I was repeatedly lectured on the need to be "well-rounded." That meant taking part in sports. I noticed early on that no one ever nagged the athletes that they were not "well-rounded" because they never read books.

While I agree entirely with Alex's point that it is helpful for copy editors and reporters to understand each other's circumstances, I'll take more heed of the need for copy editors to be well-rounded when I hear reporters being given the same advice.

(For the record, my entire experience as a reporter was six summers on the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette, Flemingsburg, Ky., 1968-1973, and fully half my time there was spent as a copy editor.)

John McIntyre

At 5:26 PM, April 27, 2006, Blogger Chris said...

My apologies for going on a tangent, but after seeing Alex's moves at the ACES closing-night party, might I suggest that he lead a session next year on "Lessons from the Boogie Desk"?

At 8:40 PM, April 27, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

Alex is one of the best dancers I've ever seen. It's a sin that I didn't take pictures at this conference.


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