Sunday, February 20, 2011

The day job

It has come to my attention that many newspaper readers (God bless you for continuing to subscribe!) do not understand how a newsroom works. So before you pick up the phone to speak with a staffer, read this. You might end up with a better idea of whom to talk to about your concern and what that person does:

Any given newspaper has a newsroom and an editorial department. The two departments do not mix. The editorial board and columnists are paid to express opinions. It is the editorial section that gains a newspaper the label of liberal or conservative. The reporters and editors of the newsroom are paid to produce unbiased articles that present both sides of any issue. Personal political leanings (which run the gamut in this newsroom) do not play into their professional work at all.

Despite the physical separation of the departments, their stories traditionally end up intertwined in the newspaper, and therein lies some confusion. Columns run on the same pages as news articles. The editorial pages are usually situated in the back of the nation/world or local news sections. Still, keep the distinction in mind. When you read a column or editorial that gets up your ire, know that the newsroom reporters who cover that same issue have not and will not express any opinion on the matter. They are professional journalists who do their utmost to make sure the coverage you read on the front page and in the nation/world, local, business and sports sections is fair and balanced.

Now a second major reader misconception: positions in the newsroom.

The most well-known positions are those of reporters and photographers, and the editors who give those staffers their assignments. I don't think those require any explanation. Then come the staffers whose names do not get into the newspaper, the behind-the-scenes folks: copy editors, page designers, online editors, photo technicians.

Three days a week, I work on the news copy desk. Copy editors, as you might expect, edit copy. We correct grammar and punctuation mistakes, fix factual errors, and write headlines and photo captions.

The other two days of the week, I fill in as wire editor (while the primary wire editor has her days off). The wire editor reads the nation and world stories received from our wire services (The Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) and decides which stories to put in the newspaper, how long to run them and where in the section to run them. The wire editor is not in charge of an army of reporters, spread across the globe, writing stories exclusively for your newspaper. Those reporters work for the above-mentioned wire services, and your newspaper buys the rights to print their articles. The wire editor also does not write articles and is limited in what she can publish by what the wire services choose to cover.

Several times a week, I take calls from readers with complaints about bias in our coverage. Some of those readers are quite passionate and do not realize (or don't care) that the person they are speaking to cannot do anything about their complaint. If you think you've found bias in an article, you might be reading a column or editorial. If it's a news article, check whether the article was written by a local reporter or originated with a wire service, so you know whom to talk to. If you're calling to ask that such-and-such get more coverage, know that your request must be balanced with the requests of other readers and with the good judgment of editors on how to allocate limited resources.

Most of all, keep in mind that we journalists are not in this business to push an agenda. We believe in the importance of an informed public armed with the facts and knowledge of both sides of an issue who can form their own opinions. Please remember that before you talk to a reporter or editor. We are not the enemy. Yelling at us won't get you anywhere.

No comments: