Archived Story

What does a newspaper editor do anyway?

Published 9:39am Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Pothole Prairie by Tim Engstrom

What does the editor of a daily newspaper do all day? Does he or she sit at a desk and pore over copies of the pages of the paper’s various publications all day, each and every day, making red marks on paper?

No. Not really.

Typically, at small or mid-size daily newspapers, the editor edits the locally written news stories on a computer after the reporters turn them in. That’s about the same across the country. At metro newspapers, the stories often go through a series of editors, but not always.

Another aspect that is the same across the board is editors are coaches. We spend plenty of time teaching journalists how to be better journalists. We teach them to interview, to write, to report, to paginate pages, to proofread, to photograph, to upload content to the web, to contact sources, to become good at covering their beats and making their pages without needing constant direction. We coach them to no longer need coaching.

Editors typically deal with newsroom fiscal budgets and aim for maintaining appropriate payroll and expense levels.

Editors assign stories. That said, most the stories in the newspaper come from reporters working their beats. They decide to write stories and file them for an editor to edit. But there are occasional stories the editor wants accomplished and will assign to the appropriate beat reporter.

Editors safeguard the newspaper from hazards such as libel, unfairness or cruelty.

Editors — more than anything else — make sure the newspaper comes out each and every day, no matter what.

Editors report to a publisher on what’s happening with the news staff. They advise the publisher on content plans, fiscal goals and staffing. Editors sit in on management meetings and provide advice on general operations.

There are some tasks that editors at some papers do and some at others don’t. Some editors are good at website coding and can work on websites. Some can’t. Some editors know how to make videos and teach others to make videos. Some can’t. Some editors know photography and can coach others to become skilled at it. Some can’t. Some editors know how to paginate pages. Paginate basically means to arrange text and images on pages using a software program such as Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress. Some can’t or some have a staff that does it for them.

There are probably oodles of other tasks that vary. Some editors are rather involved in the community. Some aren’t. Some editors have a paper route. Most don’t. Some editors publish magazines, too. Some do not.

Let’s have an example of what happens with a crime story at the Tribune.

These are written, usually, by reporter Sarah Stultz. She has the crime beat. She knows the people who work in the local justice system and knows how to tap into documents in the state and federal systems in a few keystrokes. If the story is breaking news, she writes it, edits the copy herself if I am not available — of course, she knows there are some sensitive stories that must be edited by me, even if they are breaking news — then posts it on the Tribune’s website. If it isn’t breaking news, she files it on a web-based drive for me to edit when I arrive at work in the early morning, typically between 6 and 7 a.m.

Editing at this point is what’s called substantive editing. Substantive means I might do open-heart surgery on her writing. I might do nothing at all. Perhaps I feel she buried the lead or perhaps a crucial question is missing. Sometimes she has to track down a piece of information because I want to know it. For example, police reports often say “vehicle,” so that leaves the public with a minimal description, and I want the story to say a more detailed description, such as blue 1999 Buick Regal. She’ll call the police, get the color, year, make and model and plug it into the story.

I have a news budget — publications call their content planners “budgets” even though it plans content, not money — to allocate what goes on which pages. Look up “newsroom” on Wikipedia, and it explains “budget meetings.” Dictionaries sometimes list the news use as a second definition of the word “budget.”

On my budget, I assign Sarah’s crime story to the Front Page. The Tribune has an emphasis on local or regional news on the Front because national and world news can be found in so many other places these days. We specialize in local.

When I am all done editing stories and creating my budget, I begin to paginate — also called “lay out” — the Front Page. The Tribune uses Adobe InDesign software. On most weekday mornings, Colleen Harrison handles pages 2 and 3, and Hannah Dillon takes care of the other inside pages. Meanwhile, Sarah goes to the cop shop to gather and write the PM Report for Page 3.

It is while paginating the Front Page that I will give Sarah’s crime story its headline. We cannot make headlines bigger or smaller to fit a space. We have to find the right combination of words that fit the space available and, when using multiple decks, break them in appropriate ways. It becomes an interesting exercise in wordsmithing. For instance, it is poor headline writing to divide an infinitive (i.e.: to run, to throw, to perform) on separate decks because infinitives act like a single word.

Man plans to

run for Congress

Doesn’t splitting “to run” look bad? There are many rules or guidelines regarding headlines and various times when rules may be broken.

When the Front Page is done, I print it on an 11-by-17 sheet of paper for proofreading — also called line editing. Red pens in hand, they check for grammar, spelling, dates, AP style, red flags and so on.

The changes are made. The page is made into a PDF and sent to the pre-press room, where it is paired with its opposite page (you know, like how the front and back pages are connected). The paired pages are run through a plate-making machine. The plates are fitted onto presses. The presses print, and the early copies come to the managers at the Tribune, who have one last chance to catch major messups.

Let’s consider an obituary. These usually are written by the funeral home, then sent by email to photographer Colleen Harrison. Colleen has been trained by Sarah and me on how to edit obituaries, mainly for consistency. We don’t want okay and OK, adviser and advisor. We stick to AP style. (By the way, it’s OK and adviser.)

She then lays out the obituary on Page 2. When she finishes the pages, she prints it. At our proofreading table, it could be combed over by anyone on our team. Sometimes, it is me. Often, it is not. Yes, that means an obituary typically gets in the newspaper without going before my eyes. It is the same at most newspapers. There isn’t the time for the chief editor to read obituaries or the entire newspaper before printing. But that’s why they coach staff members to handle the job.


Albert Lea Tribune Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.