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.
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.