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Whose story is it?

I was conducting one of my seances on editing at a faraway newspaper, and one of the workshops involved a mixed audience of reporters, assigning editors and copy editors. A reporter — almost certainly the one I had been warned about — raised the question: “What about when the copy desk changes our stories?”

“Well,” I said mildly, “maybe we should consider that they aren’t exactly your stories. They get bylines to indicate the primacy of the reporting and writing, but they are the paper’s stories. The paper holds the copyright. And the copy desk is charged with maintaining the paper’s standards and protecting the paper’s interests.

“If a story under your byline had led to a libel suit, you wouldn’t much like it if you were called into the editor’s office and told, ‘I see you have a problem with your story. You should get yourself a lawyer.’ You want the editor to say, ‘We stand by our story, and we will defend it vigorously.’”

All the assigning editors and copy editors nodded at this set of truisms.

Then at lunch I was told that word was running like wildfire through the newsroom:

“He says they’re not our stories!”

Just so.

Newspaper journalism is a collaborative endeavor, nearer to the production of a film than of a poem or novel. A lot of people are entitled to get their hands on a text, to make sure that it is focused, structurally sound, accurate and consonant with the standards and intentions of the publication. (Sometimes that means taking hands off the keyboard instead of meddling — but not often.)

The final, published text is what matters. No one — trust me, no one who is not paid to do so — wants to examine successive draft versions of newspaper articles. We go to some trouble to make the articles publishable. The writer has his or her place, but so do the rest of us.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:07 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

If a journalist wants to make a story his, tell him to become a novelist.

It seems like a silly notion for a journalist - even a novice one - to consider what they write entirely their own when they hand it over to so many people to be approved and signed off on.

Does novelist even fit, given the presence of editors in that field too?

Maybe "poet" is the true calling for the mine-mine-mine crowd.

On the one hand, a sense of ownership promotes a sense of pride in the work. Taken too far, though, and it's destructive. Happens a lot, it seems, in this industry. And not just with reporters. My headline. My photo. My graphic. As more parts get added to the mix, we often seem to have more trouble working together.

While losing a job as a technical editor four years ago, I was told: "Some of the project managers you change what they wrote." Gulp. I hope so. And this was in a context of writing queries in the margin (handwritten, not keyboarded) more often than outright edits, with the "subject matter expert" having complete veto power over edits. Yikes.

I thought the "my" in a news story was supposed to be *MY REPORTING*, not "my writing." And certainly never "my deathless prose."

I work on magazines, not newspapers; when I was at McCall's, I used to warn writers, "If you can recognize two actual sentences as being the ones you handed in, you're doing pretty good."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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