Sunday, June 01, 2008

From the copy editing trenches

The news is not good.

A correspondent to the American Copy Editors Society discussion board reports this from one of the midsized Media General papers that just laid off three in the newsroom, including a copy editor and has left five other positions vacant:
Well, we've had newsroom meetings and copydesk meetings the past few days, and we finally got the high sheriffs to admit that future circulation declines will mean more staff cuts. ... Their advice: learn as much as you can to make yourself more valuable so you can stick around longer. And have a "Plan B" in place.
And Jock Lauterer of the University of North Carolina, in one of his summer jaunts around the Tar Heel State, writes this on his blog after a visit to the Shelby Star:

And it’s a brave new world that requires risk-taking.

Editor Jon Jimison recalls “it was kind of scary” when the Star put up a drug bust story “completely without editing.” But Jon thinks this is just a new dynamic newsfolk may have to get used to. “There’s not always going to be an editor around,” he says.

Uh huh. We'll just let that hang there and let you all comment on it.

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At 6/1/08, 10:34 AM, Blogger Brian B said...

Does Jimison mean "straight from the reporter to the Web"? That would be scary.

My former employer frequently put things online before they had gone through the copy desk, often with just a quick glance by an assigning editor. Some things may have gone direct from reporter, but surely nothing real big unless it was breaking, in which case they knew they'd be backfilling in short order anyway.

I guess the question is, then, does the Shelby paper intend to skip editing completely on some stories, or just save it for after the story goes live? (I'm guessing they don't have the staff to put a copy editor on the day shift for such stories.)

At 6/1/08, 7:49 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Good points. I've e-mailed Jon with these questions and asked him to e-mail me or just post a comment here:
1) It sounds as if no editor at all, even an assigning editor, was involved before posting, that the reporter put it up directly. Is that interpretation correct?

2) The evolving model, of course, seems to be post, then edit. Was any editing/back checking done eventually? Was it done by a copy editor, an assigning editor or someone else?

3) If an editing check eventually was done, can you give us a sense of when the original post went up vs. when the item was checked?

4) If it eventually was edited, were any changes made?

5) How prevalent do you see this becoming as an operational model? (The sense I get is that this was not the typical post it then get to edit it within a few minutes or so kind of situation, so I'm wondering if that "gap" influences anyone's thinking. Likewise, does the subject matter? That this was a drug bust, and not a "routine" story I think generates the interest (of course, it's actually the "routine" stories that come back to bite us, right?).

At 6/2/08, 12:49 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Here is Jon's very informative response:

I'm not sure I want to wander into this minefield, but it looks like I'm already in it. The comment came during a lunch discussion about The Star Car, the Star's mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. It gives us the ability to report live from events and we tout that fact. In this case it was a story about a drug bust announcement police had made. We had just gotten the car and we were learning how to use it. We assigned a reporter to cover the story in The Star Car. When he got back, I asked, "Did you get the story?" He said, "Yes, it's already online?" I was like, "What? Wow. Welcome to the future." At that point I went in immediately and gave it an edit, but the reporter had done a good job and it didn't require much editing. This was somewhat of an extreme example. But it did happen. It sticks out in my mind because it was the story the drove home just how much The Star Car was going to change how we go about covering breaking news.

We do have the ability to report live from the scene of events. We coach reporters to call an editor with any questions they might have or if they are unsure of anything to leave it out until we can discuss it. We do have some instances where things go on the Web site first and then receive editing. For instance, we sometimes blog live from trials, particularly murder trials. In these cases, we go back in and edit after a post has been made (otherwise, it's not live blogging). We also blog live from some public meetings and high school sporting events. Also, we are working toward a 24/7 model of news reporting. We're not there yet. However, we rotate in reporters at 6 a.m. to cover early cop news. Again, we coach them to call an editor if there is a question about anything. When something is posted, an editor reads through it and edits as soon as they arrive at the paper. The Internet has changed how we go about reporting breaking news. We now report in facts and paragraphs as information becomes available on breaking stories. In some cases, we might have 25 updates to a story before the reporter puts the pieces together for the print product. Our readers like the fact that we update frequently on breaking news. It drives Web traffic.

Here's an actual example of some updates on a recent arrest of someone featured on America's Most Wanted:

Updated 10:11 a.m.
Capt. Alan Norman, of the sheriff's office, regarding the arrest:
"It goes back to Deputy Hamrick having a rapport within that neighborhood and being able to call on local citizens to help him in locating the wanted individual..."

Updated 9:52 a.m.:
Deputy U.S. Marshal Otis Hamilton:
"He had been on the run for approximately one year. A warrant had been signed out of Lauderdale County, Ala."
Hamilton said the U.S. Marshals office received a tip from an informant in Cleveland County who recognized Sloan as being wanted in other media.
"Within 24 hours of receiving the tip, the suspect was apprehended. ... He seems surprised that we found him."

All our reporters have the training and ability to post directly to the Internet. The vast majority of these pieces would get an edit first. A few might receive editing after they are posted. All are eventually edited as soon as an editor can look at it. If we're trying to get something posted quickly, an editor might look at the story over the shoulder of the reporter (if the reporting is done at the newspaper). In an alternative that we call "almost live" reporting, the reporter would send the text in live from the scene to the newspaper where an editor would look at it and then do the online posting.

This might sound funny, but we probably end up with more editing in the end than we did before. In the case of this America's Most Wanted story going up in pieces, we probably had three editors reading through and making changes online throughout the day. Then the story is then put together from the edited pieces for the print product. It then gets another edit or two before even going to a copy editor (who also looks at it). I've had reporters call me at home to have me read something during these early morning shifts. We teach them to show good judgment and call with any questions. We also teach them to go ahead and post things immediately that they feel good about. In these cases, we go back in rather quickly and edit. You have to hire people you can trust and then train them to show good judgment. If people you employ don't show good judgment or if you can't trust them, then you need to get new people. It's worth pointing out that any reporter with a laptop and a wireless card can at least post text directly to the Internet.

In the case of The Star, if a story is big enough we'll send out an editor with the reporter to the scene of a crime. In these cases, we have live reporting and live editing. Finally, with Onset, our online posting system, we have the ability to write something live but mark it not to appear on the Web site until an editor reads it and then marks it to go live. We use this function for particularly sensitive stories. There are still some stories where I won't allow anything to get posted until it's edited. These are typically not breaking stories, but the in-depth, investigative pieces that are written in the more traditional manner.

If newspapers are going to compete with broadcast and other newspapers online in a breaking-news world, they have to pick up the pace and become more rapid-fire in their online posting. The good-old days of spending hours gathering facts for a story, slowing putting together the story and then sending it through three editors through the course of an 8-hour day might be coming to an end. We are counting on universities to prepare journalists to be ready for the changing nature of journalism.

Actually, USC is doing a good job. Other universities need to put more emphasis on multimedia as they prepare journalists for the working world. In the case of The Star, we expect the same reporters who are covering breaking news to also shoot and edit video, record and post audio interviews and sometimes take the pictures as well. All our reporters are multimedia journalists. Most of them love the variety of what we are asking them to do.

At 6/2/08, 2:16 PM, Anonymous Jim Thomsen said...

I'm satisfied with Jimison's explanation except for one immutable truth: Reporters are rarely the best judges of when questions need to be raised about their own work. Just because they don't think to ask an editor a question before posting a story doesn't mean that questions don't need to be raised. That's why we have editors in the first place — reporters are too close to their work to be able to step back from it and see it clearly through the eyes of concerned readers. I think his paper puts just a little too much faith in the judgment of reporters. They can't anticipate everything ... nor should they be put in a position where they have to. We want them gathering news, and we want other people worrying about the news once it's gathered. The traditional model, as staff-intensive as it may be, still works — and still works best.

That said, I'm glad Jimison still sees the need to edit most stories before they go live online — particularly "sensitive" ones.

At 6/4/08, 11:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a former print journalist now working for an online web site. I'm glad to read your posts here as I thought I was behind the times in being aghast that my stories get posted as is, that I write the headline and that I have to catch every single error. I'm good, but not perfect, and I miss that second or third set of eyes. I also get the sense I'm bugging the person when I send edits in that are important to me but not so necessary in their eyes.

At 6/6/08, 10:34 AM, Anonymous Keith said...

What is the corrections policy for stories that get posted first, then edited later?


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