The reporter brain, assigning editor brain and copy editor brain

Reporters, assigning editors and copy editors need to work as a team, but those team members have different perspectives that can put teammates at odds.

Helping editors "bridge the divide" comes naturally for Jacqui Banaszynski, who spent almost 20 years as a reporter before becoming an assigning editor. And there is a divide, she told the gathered editors, one of whom sent her an e-mail suggesting a theme for her talk:

"I think you are supposed to be the voice of sanity from the real side of the newsroom," wrote the anonymous editor. "They need to hear that despite their good intentions, fine work and cynical outlook about reporters that without reporters none of us would exist. We'd all be panhandling, and badly, since passive-aggressive panhandlers all die hungry."

Banaszynski described her early days as a reporter, when editors "had permission to yell at reporters and make them cry. I had an editor once set fire to a story I wrote and drop it in a wastebasket look at me and say, 'You're better than this. Try again.'"

Banaszynski, associate managing editor of The Seattle Times and Knight Chair in Editing at the University of Missouri, said she came into editing "reluctantly," even though "there was not an editor I worked for who did not make me better." When she finally made the switch, she said, her first three months on the job "were a disaster, and I learned three lessons very quickly":

  • "Nobody wanted me to be the editor I wanted to be. They wanted me to be the editor they wanted me to be. Every individual reporter and writer I worked with had a distinct need that I needed to fill, and for each one of them it was different. So I had to learn to read each of those people differently and deal with them differently."

  • "My sight line needed to change. When I was a reporter, all that mattered was my story - my story, my sources and who's going to read my story. When I became an editor ... I needed to be as tuned into the reporter and their story as possible but I also had to figure out two other constituencies. One, the newsroom - I had never worried about the newsroom before - and two, the audience, the readers out there. So all of a sudden I had three equal constituencies. ... I needed to negotiate things differently."

  • "Overnight, I got stupid. ... I had been at the top of my game. I kind of knew what I was doing. I was doing some cool stories, I knew the community. I had sources. ... I walked in the next day when I became an editor and all that went away. Here's why: I was no longer out on the streets. I was inside the box that is the newsroom. I stopped having direct access to new ideas, to fresh ideas, the way things work in the world."

Banaszynski distinguishes the different perspectives of copy editors, reporters and assigning editors by "mapping" their brains as they design an imaginary front page. The reporter envisions a front page with a tiny masthead, a four-inch byline and all the rest of the front page devoted to the reporter's story.

The assigning editor's brain held expanded teasers at the top, followed by the masthead. The next third of the page is reserved for local stories - despite the dark suspicion that some copy editor would bounce the city council budget for a Middle East story and "make believe they work for The New York Times." Next comes a huge reader box with art and a two-column index to inside.

The copy editor's brain is a neat and tidy page with teasers, masthead, two big stories side by side, smaller stories underneath and a teensy space at the bottom for "flexibility."

"The assigning editor," she said, "bridges the gap between the reporter and the copy editor."

To make that relationship work smoothly, Banaszynski developed a Seven Deadly Sins lists: "I grew up Catholic. Those of you who grew up Catholic know you're always just one rosary away from the abyss."

SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF ASSIGNING EDITORS
(those transgressions that are fatal to spiritual progress)

  • Can we talk? Lack of communication and planning; failure to think online; failure to involve art, graphics and design until the last (expletive deleted) moment.
  • Invasion of the word people. Lack of visual thinking. A story comes in parts.
  • Does anybody really know what time it is? Busting deadlines, rewriting on deadline, not even knowing the deadline.
  • Size matters. Stories that read long and are long; disrespecting the page; disrespecting reader patience.
  • Trust me on this one. Lack of story sense; failure to front-end coach the story; failure to interview reporter before the story meeting; lack of urgency, timeliness and newsworthiness; wandering ledes, etc.
  • MIAs, KIAs and POWs. Sloppiness; the dog ate the dictionary, stylebook and the entire research library; failure to proofread or fact-check.
  • The buck stops anywhere but here. Valuing the reporter more than the story, reader or process; conflict aversion; blaming someone else - "the desk made me do it."

SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF COPY EDITORS

  • Rule-bound and hide-bound. Following the rule out the window; we never... and we always....
  • Is there a hyphen in anal retentive? Failure to see the story for the commas; questions for questions' sake; if you don't want to be seen as Comma Control, talk to me about my story or my lede. Read the story first with your hands off the keyboard.
  • Sit quietly and carry a big red pencil (or when passive aggressive becomes a verb). Wielding negative power; delight in finding errors and laying blame; better to bitch than fix.
  • Rigidity and righteousness. Inflexibility; unwillingness to change things on deadline; failure to communicate; changing without checking.
  • Laziness, theft and fatigue. Jumping the story without talking to the writer or editor; using the lede as a headline; cliches, libels and saying the obvious; news boredom - the "we've already read that" syndrome.
  • The BBI (Boring But Important) Factor. Resenting "local" news; hoarding the A section.
  • Byline envy. Martyrdom and paranoia; working weekends and night shifts.

THE SEVEN COUNTER VIRTUES TO THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

  • Prudence. Wisdom, carefulness, vigilance, thoughtfulness, discretion (get over the business of us v. them).
  • Temperance. Moderation, restraint, self-mastery.
  • Justice. Need to be reader's advocate first; fairness, impartiality, equity, rightness.
  • Fortitude. Resoluteness, strength, courage, endurance; the problems in the newsroom don't amount to a hill of beans to the reader.
  • Faith. Trust that I'm doing the best I can; loyalty, belief, conviction your role is important.
  • Hope. Desire, expectation.
  • Charity. Generosity - if you see a pattern over and over, tell me about it; helpfulness - if the lede isn't working, help me out. Mercy - just forgive me, I've got a hard life.

THE 10 COMMANDMENTS OF GETTING ALONG

  • Get off your butts and talk to reporters and assigning editors in the newsroom.
  • Sit on your hands. Read the story first without hands on keyboard.
  • Walk in my shoes. Spend two weeks as an assigning editor. You'll understand better that "your job is to serve an incredible dinner out of what you find in the refrigerator. My job is to go and get the food."
  • Open your mouth. Tell me where the problems are; don't keep your concerns to yourself.
  • Open your mind. Try to see what a story is trying to do. Maybe it's OK to break the rules.
  • Don't assume or presume. If you have questions, call me.
  • Give someone a stylebook for Christmas.
  • Show and tell (or tell and show). Teach me how to fix my mistakes so that they don't recur.
  • Read from the inside out. Look for the structure that holds a story together or, worse, doesn't.
  • If it ain't broke....

WHAT SENIOR EDITORS CAN DO TO PROMOTE CHANGE

  • Provide more resources. There has been more work and fewer bodies.
  • Develop a fact-checking system. For example, take a story and circle the facts.
  • Create a coordinator for big projects. This person would be a "translator" between story people and graphics and photo people and desk people, someone who isn't invested in any one of those systems.
  • Develop guidelines for using information from the Internet. We don't always know where it comes from or its reliability.
  • Talk to big journalism schools about their priorities. More technology or more writing and editing courses? They are getting mixed signals from newsrooms.
  • Develop story forms specifically for the Web.