Wednesday, February 09, 2005

How to get fired as a copy editor

I wrote about former copy editor Dawn Eden a couple of days ago, when Women's Wear Daily wrote about her being fired from the New York Post. There seemed to be more to the story then, but Eden said she was going to wait a few days to correct the record.

Well, today, the record was corrected in a feature about Eden in the New York Observer. And Eden's the worse for wear. I'd say her firing was justified, from what I can tell.

But the WWD piece was still wrong.

Here's a long excerpt from the Observer piece. It's the stuff that has to do with her job. (And background, for it to make sense: Eden is very conservative and makes her beliefs know on her personal blog.)

The Post hired her for a tryout on the copy desk in early 2002. She also began her blog: She wrote about music and having a boyfriend, but it got more political when she attacked Planned Parenthood—she tends to compare the organization to the eugenicists of Nazi Germany. Suddenly her blog was approvingly linked on National Review’s online forum.

The Post hired her full time in 2003. She loved editing and writing punning headlines. But she landed in hot water after giving an interview to Gilbert, a G.K Chesterton magazine, in which she talked about her faith and working at the Post.

She said her boss, chief copy editor Barry Gross, chided her, telling her, "Some people already think the Post is conservative, and we don’t need New York readers also thinking it’s a Christian paper and that there are Christians working there."

"I don’t recall saying that," said Mr. Gross. "But I can’t swear that I didn’t. I mean, there’s no question people think we’re conservative." He added that he did caution her to cool it a bit in the future.

There was another chat with Mr. Gross after Ms. Eden resisted working on an article about a murdered porn star. She’d made it clear that she was disgusted with the cheerful, lurid commentary.

But Mr. Gross wasn’t around on Jan. 8 this year, when Ms. Eden was given a story by Post reporter Susan Edelman to copy-edit. The story was about women with terminal cancer who want to have babies: Through in-vitro fertilization, multiple embryos are fertilized and implanted one at a time until as many as 12 survive.

According to Ms. Eden, she was repelled by what she interpreted as a "cavalier" attitude about the embryos in Ms. Edelman’s story: "Treating them as a manufactured commodity that don’t have significance as human life," Ms. Eden said. (Ms. Edelman declined to comment when reached by The Observer.)

"I got choked up," Ms. Eden said. "How are people going to ever understand the complex issues involved here, if the story they’re reading reduces it to ‘Oh, isn’t this nice? We can just make lots of embryos and not worry about whether they live or die.’"

Ms. Eden read a line in the draft of the story: "Experts have ethical qualms about this ‘Russian roulette’ path to parenthood." She saw her opportunity: She added a phrase: " … which, when in-vitro fertilization is involved, routinely results in the destruction of embryos." And where Ms. Edelman had written that one woman had three embryos implanted "and two took," Ms. Eden changed that to read: "One died. Two took."

Ms. Eden said she thought she was performing a service for the reader, since she believed that the Post had been "notoriously oblivious" to the nuances involving embryonic life.

"In retrospect, my first loyalty should have been to my employer," she said.

The article, with Ms. Eden’s alterations, came out on Jan. 16. Post editors were furious. Mr. Gross told her to apologize to the writer, Ms. Edelman, which Ms. Eden promptly did, calling her own actions "unwarranted and wrong."

Ms. Edelman replied with an e-mail under the subject heading "SABOTAGE":

"Dawn You are the most unprofessional journalist I have ever encountered in all my years in this business. A disgrace. Sue Edelman."

Things soon got worse, as editors at the Post discovered her Dawn Patrol blog.

She waited. Mr. Gross came over to tell her she couldn’t blog on company time anymore.

Mr. Allan called her into his office and fired her.

"Probably the second most surprised person in the office the day she was fired, after Dawn, was me," said Mr. Gross. "I’m still not pleased about it, but the call wasn’t mine."

"I thought it was miraculous that I hadn’t cried," Ms. Eden said. "I wasn’t going to say goodbye to any of my co-workers, but one of them ran up and gave me a hug. Then I started crying.

"I thought it was terrible from the point of view of losing a good person," she added. "And I also thought that, given the circumstances of it, [Mr. Allan] couldn’t expect it to go unnoticed. I thought he really was opening himself up for some serious criticism by doing this."

There are so many lessons in here, I'm not sure where to start. So I won't.

But I think it's funny that Eden was so aghast that the WWD piece said she's editorialized an editorial. Sure, they got the "editorial" part wrong, but that makes it even worse. She editorialized a news story.

Also, here's the graf that talks about what a good headline writer Eden is:
A 1960’s pop historian, Ms. Eden was obsessed with bands like the Zombies and the Left Banke. She’d read deeply in Christian writers such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. While at the Post, she’d won a New York State Associated Press award for her headline "Hurt in the Line of Doody" (after a toilet collapsed under a city worker taking a bathroom break). She’d had many Post headline triumphs, in fact. Remember when Bob Dylan did a commercial for Victoria’s Secret and the Post headline was "Dylan Sells Out for a Thong"? Dawn Eden. Remember the headline "Amazing Gross" when The Passion of the Christ hit No. 1 at the box office, and "Felon’ Groovy" after Martha Stewart’s broker took a vacation at a spa? Dawn Eden.
These aren't the kind of heads that win awards in these parts. (OK, the first two aren't so bad. But the last two aren't laudable.) Easy puns are just that -- too easy. (But those are also the types of headlines the Post is known for. You can't knock Eden for doing that part of her job right.)


At 5:06 PM, February 09, 2005, Blogger tom said...

Blogging on company time w/out the bosses' permission is grounds for a hard handslap and an order not to do it anymore; if you can't follow those orders, then you've got nothing to cry about when they boot you.

If she kept blogging on the clock after she'd been told not to, then tough noogies.

But the changes she made to the story in question -- if those are the only ones -- were not firing offenses. It's not like she introduced fact errors or controversial points into the story. Everything she wrote was true; her only crime was being a Christian conservative, and firing her just adds more fuel to the right's insistence that we're unable to cope with any deviance from our preferred perspective.

At 10:05 PM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I don't know the internal politics at the Post any more than you do, Tom, but I have to disagree on the severity of her offenses here.

Point 1: Blogging on company time isn't that huge of a deal to me. It's no different from writing a personal e-mail on company time or browsing the Web on company time. When there is work to do, you should be doing it. When there's not, employers usually leave you to your own devices. (And I've yet to hear of anyone being fired for browsing the Web on work computers.)

I think the real issue there is when you give the company a bad name while on the clock. Companies don't like that, and it's easy to see why.

At 10:13 PM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Point 2: On the other hand, the changes in the story bother me much more. And this has nothing to do with her political bent; it has to do with her motivation for the changes.

I only have the Observer profile to go on, but it shows a copy editor who disagreed with a story's tone and took matters into her own hands, saying: "How are people going to ever understand the complex issues involved here, if the story they're reading reduces it to 'Oh, isn’t this nice? We can just make lots of embryos and not worry about whether they live or die.'"

What should she have done if she thought it was unfair? Kicked it back -- to the editor or reporter, depending on protocol.

Another graf shows hints of vigilante editing: "Ms. Eden said she thought she was performing a service for the reader, since she believed that the Post had been 'notoriously oblivious' to the nuances involving embryonic life."

Neither offense -- blogging on company time or making the changes she made -- seem immediately fireable to me, but we have no idea if she had been warned before or was on probation. However, Gross' comments toward the end of that section make the firing seem like a surprise to him, and he's her immediate supervisor.

At 6:28 AM, February 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think she was rightly canned. Every newspaper I've ever read has a section where anyone - including copy editors - can agree with, disagree with, or "elaborate" on stories. It's called "letters to the editor". Ms Eden should have saved her commentary for that section, or asked the opinion page editor for space for her own article.

A colleague of mine was fired recently for browsing the Web on company time (porn sites - the company has a well-known policy that this will result in immediate dismissal). But blogging? Who cares?

At 8:49 AM, February 10, 2005, Blogger Michael Bates said...

Nicole: While she has defended the validity of her addition to the story, Dawn has also acknowledged that she overstepped her bounds as a copy editor in making the addition, apologizing profusely by e-mail and offering to apologize in person to the writer (according to a radio interview she did yesterday with Kevin McCullough). I think you're right in your interpretation of her boss's comment. There had not been any previous warnings or disciplinary action, other than a request that she not talk about working for the Post in connection with her faith.

At 9:02 PM, February 10, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

If anyone is still interested in this, check out the (now locked) thread at Testy Copy Editors.

Dawn wrote in:
* The alteration of the Edelman article was my first offense.

* When I began working at the Post three years ago, my boss specifically told me that when I did not have an assignment, my time was my own and I was free to use the Internet. Everyone on the copy desk used the Internet on their down time. My boss knew about my blog and read it.

* I had not been warned against blogging at the time when I made the blog entry that was cited as the reason for my firing. When my boss did eventually instruct me against blogging, it was only a few minutes before I was called in to be fired.

* The Post has no blog policy. A member of the Post's editorial board currently has a blog and occasionally blogs during his workday. At least two other Post employees that I know of have had blogs to which they posted during the workday.

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