Wednesday, October 27, 2021
Oct. 27, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Here’s how I edit stories

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about how I write a feature or news feature story. Obviously, in my current job, I spend way more time going to meetings than I do writing stories. But I still do a fair amount of editing, and I thought you might be interested in how I approach that.

But first, another disclaimer: I don’t edit most of the news stories. Like I said, I go to a lot of meetings!

I would say that I personally edit about 25 percent of the local stories that appear on A1 or on our Clark County cover page. The person who has the most responsibility for editing those stories is Mark Bowder, our metro editor, assisted by Jessica Prokop, Will Campbell and occasionally Micah Rice or Erin Middlewood, who have primary responsibility for Sports and Life. I help when I have time or when they are on vacation.

I know a story is ready to be edited either when the reporter says so or when the story status is marked “Edit” using our content management software, NewsCycle Content, aka Saxotech. We do the actual editing using Adobe’s InCopy software.

When I open the story, the first thing I look at are the mechanical details. Is the byline and bio (the part at the bottom that lists the reporter’s phone number) attached? Are the paragraphs and subheads in the right fonts? Are the paragraph returns in place? Are there too many spaces between words? Does the story need hyperlinks?

After those are fixed, I start with the lead paragraph. Is it too wordy? Can it be simplified? Does it have a “hook” that makes me want to read the story?

I always try to remember that while I am paid to read this story, you are paying to read it. We need to show you that reading it is worthwhile!

Next, I look for what we call the “nut graf” of the story. This paragraph, which explains what the story is about and why it matters, should fall somewhere in the first half-dozen paragraphs, before the story jumps to an inside page.

Here’s a good “nut graf” from Anthony Macuk’s Sunday, Aug. 8 story about smoke from wildfires. He opened with two paragraphs reminding us how bad the smoke was last September, then wrote: “The ordeal was a stark illustration of how quickly wildfire smoke has become a major concern in Vancouver and Portland. Wildfire seasons are growing longer and more intense, prompting local residents to wonder if they should expect similar massive smoke events moving forward.”

Traditionally, journalism schools taught that news stories should be written as an inverted pyramid, with the biggest, most important facts first, tapering to the least important. But I prefer to think of news stories as a tree. The nut graf of the story is the trunk. Create a sturdy trunk, and then you can support as many branches and leaves as you need.

Anyway, back to the editing. As I continue to read through the story, I look carefully at names. Are they spelled correctly? I usually search online for names that I don’t know (LinkedIn is a good source for names of people.) As I verify the names I click them, so that if they are misspelled later in the story the software will flag it.

I’m also looking for context. Does the story have enough background to make it complete? If not, I will add the background if I know it — I’ll kick it back to the reporter if I don’t or if a lot more work is needed.

Is the story fair and complete? We want to make sure that various viewpoints are represented as well as we can, given the constraints of time and access. But, you can’t convey the views of someone who doesn’t respond to an interview request.

After I make it to the bottom of the story, if there’s time, I go get a drink of water, or check my email. I want to be distracted for a few minutes. Then I read the story again, looking for anything I missed. I also try to remove extraneous words on the second pass.

OK, I’m finished. I check the story in, check its taxonomy — the subject matter tags we put on to make sure the story will be mapped to the right spot on our website — and go on to the next story. Or on to the next meeting. I go to a lot of meetings.

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