Monday, January 09, 2006

Your Newspaper and You

I am, by trade, a copy editor for a newspaper (well, I do a lot of other stuff too, but that's my official title).

When I tell people this, however, their eyes usually glaze over. Granted, it's not all sexy women and fast cars (it's just about 74% that), but it's not as boring as it might sound initially. It's not JUST making sure the grammar is right (though that's a lot of it, sadly enough). There's plenty more to it.

The problem, however, is that people don't really have any idea what goes into the newspaper on their doorstep every morning (decreasing numbers of people have those newspapers on their doorstep every morning, but that's a topic for another post). I am largely convinced this is because there has never been a wildly successful television show set in the world of journalism. Lou Grant was about as good as you got, and that show was never very popular. Meanwhile, lawyers had L.A. Law, Law and Order and The Practice, doctors had ER, and police officers had every other show on TV. Even firefighters have Rescue Me while teachers had Boston Public. Of all of the white collar jobs out there, people know the least about being a journalist. But EVERYbody thinks they know ALL about being a cop. Forensic science is delivered to you nightly through your coaxial cable. Step right up!

Most people have vague ideas that the local newspaper is biased and filled with no-good liberals (or conservatives, if you swing the DailyKos way). They also sort of know that a reporter writes stories, which he or she has researched to some degree. They also know that some of us have made things up.

But here's where it gets tricky. Newspapers have a huge share of problems, to be sure, but they're the same problems the rest of the media has (namely, the idea of access journalism, which is tearing us to bits as we try not to step on important toes so we can keep getting little bits of information dribbled to us).

But when you look at questions of bias and prejudice, it's MUCH harder to float them in a newspaper than in virtually any other medium. Does bad journalism happen in newspapers? Of course! But newspapers are also a medium that has a built-in self-correction method. Many people see the retractions and corrections newspapers run almost daily to be signs of shame, but they do the opposite. They actually INCREASE credibility. When's the last time a talking head on Fox News or CNN sat down and admitted to everything they've gotten wrong?

Of course, the process of getting a story in a newspaper is such a convoluted one that if you know how to work the system, there are cracks you can flit through. This is how we get the Jayson Blairs of the world (by the way, if you follow that link, you get Slate's Jack Shafer, who might be the best press critic working. . .and he really knows his way around a newsroom).

But most of you don't even understand how all of this happens in the first place (this includes my mother). So. . .here's how a story gets from "hot news tip" to the front page.

Every story, of course, has to start with an idea. Most of the time, the reporter will get that idea himself or from a source (here's one of the biggest cracks in the system. . .I'll let you figure out how to exploit it yourself). Occasionally, an editor or someone in upper management will take a shine to an idea and make sure it gets promoted. Often, something will come in over the police scanner. Or maybe someone will call in a news tip (or to tell you about the afternoon tea the Girl Scouts are hosting Friday). For purposes of this simulation, we'll assume someone's got a hot news tip. Aliens have landed in Armour, S.D., and our newspaper, the South Dakota Town Crier, is JUST the newspaper to cover the story.

We get the news from Jared R. Clark, who's visiting Armour for the weekend and happened to see the ship land. He's got photos. He even puts the alien on the phone to speak with us. Most likely, the phone was answered by an editorial assistant (sometimes known as a news assistant). Our pal the EA (who is happy to answer the phone, as he's been writing wedding notices and obituaries all afternoon) decides that the science editor would probably be just the person to handle this story and transfers the phone call over to her.

It might seem like editorial assistants are the secretaries or receptionists of the newsroom, and they are, kind of. Except they're not really at all. They DO answer the phones, usually, but they also do all of the piddly stuff that most reporters don't want to do. As jobs get pruned in an increasingly unstable climate (the position of obituary writer is fast becoming an obsolete one), they just keep getting added to the job description of the editorial assistant. For the most part, this makes good business sense for the newspaper: The EA is usually a college kid who needs the extra dough (and experience) and is willing to work part-time.

So our story about the aliens has passed on to the science editor, who will be the assigning editor for purposes of this simulation. Only the very largest newspapers have science editors anymore, but most of them have city editors, nation/world editors, sports editors, etc. In general, if there's a section for it in the newspaper, there's an editor for it in the newsroom. Our assigning editor decides who writes what based on who's got things going on and who would be best suited to cover this particular story. The assigning editor decides that the science writer would be just the person to interview the aliens.

Here's where we get to the reporter. The reporter's job is just what you think it is. She gets the assignment from the assigning editor (if it's an idea she came up with on her own, she pitches it to the assigning editor to get approval). Then she goes out and gathers the facts (a talk with the alien, a talk with Jared, etc.). Then she comes back and assembles the facts into some sort of story that makes sense (we hope).

Meanwhile, the assigning editor is just so thrilled to have the story of first contact that she takes it in to the news meeting where ALL of the assigning editors tell upper management what their big stories are. The editor-in-chief or managing editor then decide (often in tandem) what's going to play where. The aliens story is a pretty big deal, so it's most likely going to land on page one. (Note: Whether the editor-in-chief or managing editor decides depends on the size of the newspaper and what sort of working relationship these two have. Maybe our E-i-C likes to delegate. Maybe not.)

So we know what's going where. From there, we can assign photographers, graphic designers and page designers to begin working on graphical elements for the biggest stories of the day. We're going to run four photographs and two maps with our aliens story, so we're going to need a lot of space. The page designer (or layout editor in some newspapers' parlance) starts deciding how it's all going to fit together graphically.

Meanwhile, our friend the reporter is back from Armour, and she's just about done with her story. The assigning editor takes a look at it and helps the reporter work out any bugs or unanswered questions. For this job, they're known as a source editor. Occasionally (especially if the story was started during the day but finished at night), a different editor will look at the story to help work out the kinks (there's usually at least one editor at a paper devoted to this job, and they're the night editor; many newspapers have several -- a night city editor, a night nation editor, etc.). From here, the story goes to the copy desk, and I have to do actual work.

Copy editors are finicky creatures. Their official job description is to check all of the facts (within reason), get all of the spelling and grammar correct, write the headlines and other display type (subheads, captions, etc.) and just generally be the last line of defense. Technically, the source editor is supposed to work out all of the problems in the story, but maybe they missed the huge, mathematical error in paragraph five. The copy editor is supposed to notice this, call someone with an answer and get it all fixed. This is why so many of us are cranky.

Meanwhile, the page designers continue to lay everything out.

Once the copy editor is done, everything goes to a slot editor. Copy editors like to say they are the last line of defense, but they're lying. Slot editors are. They're like super, mega copy editors who make sure everything looks okay and choose which headlines are good and which need another go. Once they sign off on something, it's going in the paper. However, they often have so much stuff crowding in on them (they do have to slot their entire section) that they find themselves with too much to do and must zip through things. This is why copy editors are important (or so we tell ourselves when we can't sleep at night).

But the process isn't over yet. From here, the page has to be sent to the printers, and before that happens, proofs are made, which the copy editors look over one last time (or often two last times) before the printers get hold of them.

Once the printers have it, you'd better hope there's nothing libelous in it.

And, honestly, I don't understand the four color printing process. Okay, I DO, but it's really boring and you probably didn't come here to read about that.

The next morning, you see the headline on the front page: ARMOUR MEETS ALIENS! Our work is finished.

So let's step back for a moment and look at that. Look at the sheer number of people who had their hands in that pot.

We have:

-the initial source
-the editorial assistant
-the assigning editor
-the reporter
-the managing editor and editor-in-chief
-the page designer
-the photographer
-the graphic designer
-the source editor
-the copy editor
-the slot editor
-the proofer

And what I just outlined is a situation where everything worked PERFECTLY. For a story with serious problems, even MORE people are going to get involved. And for a big story on the front page, you'd better believe that a whole host of people I haven't even TALKED about here (from assistant managing editors to copy desk chiefs to photo editors) are going to get involved.

So that's where claims of bias don't hold water with me. I can see claims of SLOPPY journalism arising from this (too many cooks and all of that), but when you have this many people with such different points of view, bias is going to get weeded out.

Those of you who know me know that I'm moderate, leaning towards liberal. Many of my journalist friends are even more liberal. Some are what my father would label "pinkos." And even some are extremely conservative. Every single one of the people I have known as a journalist has gotten a story changed because it was too biased toward one side or another, often toward a side they don't believe in. I've seen misogynists stand up for women's rights. I've seen Al Franken fans insist that an adjective that's not even necessarily derogatory be removed from in front of Rush Limbaugh's name because it makes Limbaugh look bad.

There are a lot of people working in a newsroom. And they're all interested in making sure whatever is printed is accurate and fair. Sure the Jayson Blairs and Judith Millers of the world take the BIG falls, but behind the scenes, other people have to take falls for not questioning them, for not catching on to their games (and, reportedly, copy editors had questions about Blair for some time).

Now, obviously, what I've described doesn't pertain to every newsroom. In fact, it doesn't pertain to the newsrooms of the two newspapers I've worked at in every way. This is an attempt to streamline the process to make it understandable.

Those who would claim newspapers as a haven for bias will probably point out the editorial department. This is another thing that sets newspapers apart. They're the only medium with a dedicated section JUST for the airing of opinions.

The reason I didn't mention the editorial department is BECAUSE it has nothing to do with the newsroom. It usually has an entirely different staff, with only the editor-in-chief having any sort of crossover. This is how the Wall Street Journal can have such a corporate-friendly editorial page while having its reporters break story after story about corporate malfeasance. This is how the New York Times can have a deeply liberal editorial page and still find itself misled on several crucial points in the buildup to Iraq.

The other major part of newspapers I have not mentioned is advertising. There's a good reason for that too. The ads and the news are kept separate. The only people who have to deal with both at all are the printers and the publisher, who is the ultimate authority at the paper, but usually deals with business matters.

So why are newspapers castigated by bloggers on both the right and left for not being objective? I think it's because true objectivity isn't what we want anymore. We wanted it in the days of Vietnam and Watergate, but now, we'd rather be told what we believe than what we probably need to hear. This is why Fox News and Air America have found audiences: People like to have their own beliefs reinforced.

Most of my journalistic colleagues bemoan these facts, but the truth is, journalism has been an objective source for a very short time. The idea of reporter as objective observer was really born as we understand it today in the 1950s. Before that, there was a multitude of newspapers in every major city from a variety of viewpoints. If you were a socialist, there was a newspaper for you. If you were an economic conservative, there was a newspaper for you. If you were an immigrant, there was a newspaper for you. And so on and so on.

But after World War II, as radio and television closed in on newspapers, consolidation began to take hold, and newspapers had to become all things to all people.

The problem is that we in America increasingly don't WANT all things for all people. We want some things that speak directly to us. And that's why we find left- or right-leaning blogs we agree with or just listen to certain talk radio shows or. . .

This leaves the newspaper in a precarious position. It's one of the few true MASS media left. But, I'm sure, it will adapt and shift with the times. It always has.

So there you have it. A brief, concise description of how newspapers work. I'm sure it's more than you ever wanted to know.

Please put your questions in the comments section.

At some point, I will write more on this topic, but not in the immediate future. But be on the lookout for more random media ramblings.


Andy said...

You said you've worked for two newspapers. . .but do you forget the years at Douglas County Publishing?

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Regrettably, I could not find a web site.

Also. . .their staff is a bit. . .smaller than the staffs of the newsrooms I have worked in at dailies.

I'm sure you understand.

Taur said...

Did you just write 2610 words about writing a news story because a man with a website featuring an imaginary shark as his best friend asked to read about the newspaper process? I want the last 10 minutes of my life back.

Todd VanDerWerff said...


My mom liked it too!