Monday, January 23, 2006

What an Editor Should Know and Understand

I spent 36 years in the newspaper business, most of it at the Inquirer, where I was a copy desk chief, a features editor, an assistant to the executive editor and an assistant managing editor. More recently, I was director of publishing systems for the Inquirer and Daily News and then director of publishing solutions for Unisys Corp.)

From Bill Stroud,
President, Penguin Photo, Inc.


Here are 20 things a newspaper editor needs to know and understand. None is original with me. Some were learned from great editors such as Eugene L. Roberts Jr. and Gene Foreman at the Inquirer, the late Evarts A Graham Jr. of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Martin Ochs of the Chattanooga Times.

1. Get the facts straight and spell the names right.

Check and double-check your facts. Be a nuisance about confirming your information. Never make assumptions about how a name is spelled or take a guess to fill in a missing bit of information. When in doubt, leave it out.

2. Be a reliable source of basic information for your community.
Provide a dependable bulletin board in print, listing public events, street closings, traffic- pattern changes, zoning hearings, elections and meetings.

3. Don't report what you don't understand thoroughly.
If you copy or relay information without understanding exactly what it means your readers will be as confused as you are. Reporting requires explaining. Never be shy about asking someone to read what you have written and tell you whether it makes sense.

4. Answer the questions your readers are asking.
What is happening with the Commerce Bank building site? Does the proliferation of neon signage on Germantown Avenue indicate that there has been a policy change regarding aesthetics? How is for-profit ownership changing the character of the hospital? Hang out at Starbucks, Killian's and the Farmers' Market and listen to what people are asking.

5. Remember that the truth seldom lies halfway between opposing points of view.
Acknowledge differing opinions, but don't make your publication look ridiculous by giving equal space to both the reasonable and the nonsensical.

6. Understand the technology your publication uses.
If you don't master the technology, you waste your employer's money and your co-workers' time and you put yourself at the mercy of people who use "It can't be done" as an excuse for not doing something that involves a little work.

7. Be consistent in style, layout and positioning of regular features.
Your readers' familiarity with the way you organize and lay out your paper are assets to be valued. Changes, even small ones, should be made rarely and after careful deliberation. People don't want to figure out where to find things every time they pick up a new edition of the paper.

8. Employ diverse, creative and independent people who are smarter than you are.
No one person has all the skills necessary to publish a great
newspaper. You need staff members who are strong where you are weak, who represent the diversity of the community you serve and who have the freedom and courage to tell you when they think you are wrong. In hiring, always ask, "Is this person going to bring strengths that we do not already have?"

9. Remember that it is not about YOU.
When the editor is the center of attention, something is out of whack. You are doing your best work when your writers and photographers shine and you are virtually invisible. Do not publish personal stuff that you know would not make it into the paper if you were not the editor.

10. Every decision you make has the power to build or destroy trust.
You will be urged and tempted to shade the truth to help someone, to spare feelings or to mollify an angry reader or advertiser. Some of the compromises you will be tempted to make may seem small, but if they hurt your credibility, you cannot afford them.

11. Trust is the most important asset you can have.
Can people believe what they read in your paper? Can they trust you with a confidence? Will your newspaper accurately and fairly report what is said and done? Do not promise confidentiality to a news source if you can avoid it, but once your promise is given it should never be broken, even if it means going to jail. And don't make promises about how or where a story or photo will be reported or played.

12. Never publish what you write in the heat of anger or euphoria.
The best writing is done after cool reflection. Writing in the heat of anger or in a moment may be good therapy, but it is usually bad journalism and more often than not it will make you seem a little nuts.

13. Do not foolishly damage, insult, denigrate or condemn readers, news subjects or advertisers.
Freedom of the press affords incredible power to ordinary people, with no minimum standards of intelligence or training. You can wreck lives and careers with what you say in print. Be fair, accurate and even-tempered in your presentation of news and opinion. Consider everything from the vantage point of the persons who will be affected. Publish the truth, but don't off-handedly injure organizations, institutions, businesses or people.
Example: If the new scoutmaster is a registered sex offender, it is your duty to report that. It is not necessary to point out that he is fat and bald as well.
If an airplane crashes, you report it, but you don't put the story on the same page as an airline ad.

14. News space is scarce and valuable. Don't waste it.
There is always more news and information that needs to be published than there is space to put it. Printing unedited handouts, filler press releases or mindless personal musings indicates a lack of effort, not an oversupply of space.

15. Never suppress or alter news to serve a special interest, even your own.
Always ask, "If it happened to someone else, would I print it."

16. Avoid puffery. Fulsome praise and flowery adjectives bore readers.
Let the facts speak for themselves. Help your reporters and photographers tell their stories in vivid, concrete terms, so readers can supply their own adjectives.

17. Limit yourself to one play on words every six months and one pun a year.
And, if you can help it, avoid puns altogether. Your readers will thank you.

18. Admit and correct errors immediately.
You will screw up. Admit your errors, correct them and accept responsibility without shifting blame and making excuses.

19. Be sensitive to words and phrases that may be considered dismissive or bigoted.

Not many years ago, it was common see women referred to as shapely or matronly. The hearing impaired were described as deaf and dumb and a black person might be described gratuitously as articulate, as if being well-spoken set him apart from others of his kind. Editors need to be keenly aware of words and phrases that are likely to give offense. Avoiding them is not a matter being politically correct, it is a matter of simple respect.

20. Maintain a personal go-to-hell fund.
Sooner or later every good editor has to choose between principle and authority and I have seen editors prostitute themselves because no matter what is demanded of them, they cannot afford to quit their jobs. If you have enough money in reserve to survive the loss of your job, you will feel much more confidant when you have to stand your ground.

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