Editing Is At The Heart And
The Core Of What We're About
Journalism, racked by challenges to its integrity and credibility and the demands of a post-9/11 world, is at a crossroads. The direction in which journalism turns depends in large part on the integrity and credibility of its editors.
John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today, opened the "Future of Editing" conference with that message and a call for editors to act accordingly.
"You've got your hands on the most important information instruments in the history of humankind," he said, adding that "people learn about themselves" through the written word.
"You - we - are gatekeepers, and how you perform is important to the institution, but beyond that, it is so important to a world beyond. We've known since 9/11 that McLuhan's words were not a cliché. We are a global village, and we've got to be well understood," he said. "We're only going to be well understood if those of you who are about editing, who are committed to improving editing, to improving the quality of life of journalism by quality editing, remain committed to the job of gatekeeper."
Seigenthaler said that "great editors make great reporters," not the reverse.
"I was good because great editors had the sense to challenge and question what I wrote and who my sources were and where my information came from and what my slant was and whether I had a bias," he said. "Editing is at the heart and the core of what we're about." Seigenthaler said one of his proudest moments came when he was cited as one of America's 10 best editors, along with Bob Maynard, founder of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and the first African American editor of a major metro when he took over The Oakland Tribune.
"I was so proud to be standing beside him when the picture was taken and to have him say that what we do as editors is the most important thing that can happen to American journalism," he said. "It's not just good for us, not just good for the reporters, not just good for the publishers, not just good for the institution, not just good for the bottom line - it's so good for every reader that editors of intellect, intelligence, insight, vision, character and integrity watch over every word."
John McIntyre, assistant managing editor, copy desk, The Baltimore Sun, underscored the importance of copy editors - not always heralded in newsrooms.
"Newspapers are run by people who used to be reporters," McIntyre said. "To a reporter, working on a copy desk is like an Edwardian gentleman going into trade. It's unthinkable, unspeakable."
Writers, he said, "are not the best judges of their own work (and) the degree to which we become production units will not eliminate the need for editing."
"Some copy editors are told only to check spelling, write a head and format the story." If all a copy editor does is mark paragraph indents (with the L-shaped editing symbol), he said, "you are a graf hooker, a drone. It will corrode your self respect."
"We aim for accuracy. We aim for clarity. We aim for balance - and, when we can get it, elegance of expression. We need to have the independence to point out these things."
"You are dressed for the opera or a reception at the publisher's house. Someone tells you you're dragging a streamer of toilet paper with you on your shoe. It's not welcome news - but you need to hear it," McIntyre said.
"Let my people edit."