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Monday, May 12, 2008

"Love ya, Megan, but..."

Reader-submitted complaint: scare the crap outta me. Writers write, editors correct.

You are quite right. Newspapers need multiple lines of defense, and that is why news stories should go through at least three sets of hands before they get to print. The reporter does all of the research and writing, the editor makes sure it is complete, and the copy editor checks the grammar, spelling and other details. When all three people are working together well, the result is usually very good. When they're not, I cringe.

A reporter who doesn't do his or her job is usually lazy, not stupid. There are tell-tale signs, the most common being:

  • The same interviewee you've heard a hundred times saying the same old thing. (GREAT! No need for extra research!)
  • Lots of cliches. (Why bother coming up with a new way to describe the search for the germ that will cause the next pandemic when you could just say it's like a time bomb? Another day, another dollar!)
  • "More catchy, less true" journalism. (The editor doesn't know what's true, right? All he cares about is the way you describe it!)
  • Believing a source without questioning him or her. (She says the city's new bylaw is unconstitutional, but you don't have the energy to actually read the Constitution to find out if that's true. Just put "unconstitutional" in quotes and you're covered!)
Reporters are usually pressed for time. They have to file a certain number of stories every day, so they rely on these little shortcuts that end up wrecking their credibility. Not in the newsroom, of course: their editors usually have no idea that their reporters are screwing up so badly. If you really want to know if a beat reporter's doing a good job, ask someone who works in that industry.

Editors sit in the newsroom barking orders at reporters and turning down bad story pitches. Well, the good ones turn down bad story pitches. Lousy editors will just check to see if there's a news hole. Editors are responsible for catching all of the reporters' mistakes:
  • When they see the same tired old quotes from the same tired old sources, they are supposed to ask the reporter to interview someone else.
  • When they see cliches in a story, they are supposed to remove them or ask the reporter to rewrite the story.
  • They are supposed to know that no story is simple enough to sum up in five words. Catchy copy needs extra scrutiny.
  • If a source is saying something really crazy, editors are supposed to hold the story until it can be confirmed, not just put quotes around the weirdest stuff.
They also look for logical inconsistencies, unanswered questions and sections that are really just diversions from the main point. They pull things into sidebars and oversee teams of journalists. A good section editor will understand how to use photography, layout and writing to tell a story.

Although many people think of editors and reporters as being in competition, they should be making each other better at their jobs: an editor can shape the final product and provide guidance to a reporter who's not sure how to proceed.

Editors are usually pressed for time, too. The idiot reporter has spent HOURS trying to write a story about the break in the sewer line downtown, and of COURSE he filed it late! And now HOW is the editor supposed to fix this mess? This is a true crisis! Is this quote from the mayor or from the director of public works? Who can tell? WHO FUCKING CARES IT'S ALMOST PRESS TIME! That reporter's ass is MINE in the morning!

And that's when the copy editor gets the story. The copy editor is the last person who can fix grammatical mistakes or factual errors before the paper goes to press, and he usually gets only a few minutes with each story. The editor is furious, and the reporter's throwing a tantrum because the headline had to be changed at the last minute, and now it seems that there was NO BREAK IN THE SEWER LINE AT ALL! FUCKETY FUCKETY FUCKETY FUCKETY WHY AM I ALWAYS THE LAST PERSON TO HEAR THESE THINGS???

Copy editors (or "sub-editors") are angels who work behind the scenes. They clean up bad grammar and lousy spelling, and they fix minor factual errors. They may be the poor chumps who give the editor the bad news that the story about the sewer line needs to be spiked or completely rewritten. At some publications, they lay out pages and write headlines. You will never know how much work the copy editor puts in: the reporter and editor usually take all of the glory. The copy editor is responsible for making them both look good and keeping them out of my Little Miss Know-it-All columns.

But, dear reader, this is all in the context of newspaper reporting. I do not expect average folks to have copy editors for their blogs. Please do not allow my occasional criticism for professional journalists to keep you from your creative writing.


Torq said...


Tis a crazy thang! Them thar crazy foo Writers and them thar Editors who don't do nuttin nair way!

Tell you what, Abiyoyo would eat the whole lot right up!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, we can be nice and sloppy with grammar on our blogs. I love the freedom to be able to just let the words flow straight out of my head- the sentence structure may be crap but sometimes the message is stronger for not being adulterated for once by worrying about such things.

I just have to be careful to make sure I don't do that when I write things for work!

I rather like grammar and spelling nazis!

Karen said...

So - do you keep scaring new people, or is it the same person who just can't let go? I need you to check your proxy server meter thingee and let me know.

And I believe the proper quote is, "FUCKETY FUCKETY FUCKETY FUCKETY FUCK". you left that last part out.

Gifted Typist said...

Multi-platform journalism is coming - soon everyone will be doing all jobs

A. said...

For some reason, this makes me want to bring out my CP Style guide and edit one of my posts.

It must be the sleep deprivation...