Insert a Style Pun Here

One of the hardest things I’ve done as a copy editor is explain to non-copy editors what a stylebook is.

Last month, I was charged with updating POLITICO Pro’s rather outdated stylebook, which includes a longer general section and then smaller sections for each of its 14 verticals. It was a fun and challenging project to work for; I also view stylebook maintenance as a “rite of passage” for all career editors.

I told my parents and friends about the work project, and then set out to explain what it was I was doing. So much of it seems minute or arbitrary, and some of it is. But what matters is consistency. It doesn’t matter if we spell out the Environmental Protection Agency or not of first reference, so long as it’s the same in all of our stories. It makes for better, cleaner copy and a crisper, more consistent product.

I went through the old stylebook line by line and kept what I thought we needed and discarded anything that was outdated. I included points that I thought were important and had to come down on one side or the other for some items. It took me about two weeks of fairly consistent work, but it was finally finished.

Is it wonky? Definitely. Boring as hell to anyone who isn’t a Pro editor or producer? Probably. Is it still very important for us to produce high-quality copy? Yes.

Did I have a blast doing it? You bet.

Advice I’d give my younger self in J School

Last night, I had drinks and caught up with one of my friends from university who also lives in D.C. As is our habit whenever we get together, talk inevitably turned back to the college days, when we were on the student newspaper. I remember my last semester, when I worked a second time as the Kansan.com managing editor instead of being editor-in-chief. At the time I was disappointed but ultimately accepting. Looking back at where I’ve been since, it may have been a blessing in disguise at best, and irrelevant at worst.

So I’d tell my disappointed 21-year-old self, “Don’t sweat it. It will work out.”

While I learned a lot at the Kansan about production, teamwork, ethics and judgment, and made some amazing friends there, many of whom I still keep in touch with now, it was my internships that ultimately propelled my professional career, now that I look back. No one at The Columbus Dispatch cared that I wasn’t the editor; they liked my Dow Jones internship, which I earned by passing an editing exam and essay, not because of where I was on the Kansan staff. No one at The Kansas City Star cared, either; they liked my previous two internships. And POLITICO ultimately valued my three internships, my knowledge of online publishing (which I polished as Kansan.com editor and wouldn’t have had much of a chance to work on as editor, where most of my focus would have been on the paper) and my master’s degree.

My friend was in much the same position. After not being chosen for editorial leadership, she took up internships at smaller Kansas newspapers and eventually ended up in D.C. as the editor of a political news website, and will soon be a White House reporter for the bureau of a major publication. Another fellow alumna works at The Hill after having interned there. Just about everyone I work with on production at my current job had impressive internship experience that stands out. Two of my friends who are copy editors for major, large-market daily newspapers were “only” ever copy chiefs at the Kansan, but they each had strong summer internship experience. Another close friend had mid-level editorial leadership experience but branched out to editing and social media work for the university city government, and now does travel writing.

It’s probably only because I’m a few years out of university that I can look back with clearer eyes. To be blunt, I don’t see much of a correlation between the professional success of my fellow students and what positions they held on the campus paper. The ones who’ve gone the furthest (in terms of the relative size/prestige of the publications where they now work, if they work for one) made the best use of internships and outside-of-school reporting/editing opportunities, regardless of whatever work they did for the Kansan (which, to be fair, provided many of us with our first clips). That isn’t to say that former Kansan editors don’t or haven’t achieved substantial professional success (I know a married pair who’ve both gone extremely far, including a Pulitzer), just that there’s not really much of a link, from where I’m sitting. Being editor of the Kansan is not a guarantee of professional success, and not being editor of the Kansan isn’t going to keep you from professional success.

So that is what I would tell myself, if I could go back: Enjoy the student newspaper. Have fun, learn the process and make friends. But it is a stepping stone to other things that are stepping stones in and of themselves. In the professional world, no one will care all that much. I have fond memories of the Kansan, but the environment, pace and workload of my job now resemble it about as much as a Nilla Wafer resembles a wedding cake. And that’s fine, and doesn’t have to diminish the value of my campus newspaper experience. It just puts a lot of things into perspective, and I’m glad to have it.

Everyone is ‘Friends of Hamas’

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I think just about every working journalist has heard that bit of wisdom at some point. Today’s dose of political journalism schadenfreude ties into it nicely.

Here’s what happened, as near as I can tell. Dan Friedman of New York Daily News called a Hill worker to look into allegations that Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel had questionable, anti-Israel ties. Friedman, thinking he was quipping, asked his source if Hagel had ever given a speech to “Friends of Hamas” (the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France” was also name-dropped but it was “Friends” that stuck).

Fast forward to about two weeks ago when Ben Schapiro of Breitbart.com ran an article claiming that White House officials were dodging questions about Hagel’s association with the group.

Friends of Hamas, of course, doesn’t exist. It’s not a real organization. Friedman had been so sure that his questions were easily spotted as hyberbole that it never occurred to him that someone might run with it. And it wasn’t just Breitbart — other conservative publications picked it up, too.

Dave Weigel of Slate saw all this and decided to take 20 minutes (his own estimation) to do what hadn’t occurred to anyone else: actually do some research to see if Friends of Hamas was an actual group.

This all resulted in pretty much everyone in my Twitter feed trading quips about Friends of Hamas and wondering what the hell Schapiro was thinking when he ran with a scoop without verifying it. Schapiro posted a follow-up, but all it really does is blame everyone but Schapiro himself for what happened. He also suggests that the impetus is on Hagel to disprove all of this. Something about when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Knocking Schapiro at this point is superfluous. But this can be a cautionary tale to other journalists. A reminder that “interesting if true” has the word “if” in it. A reminder to always verify what your sources tell you (Schapiro goes from having plural sources in his original article to a single source in his update, so which is it?). A reminder not to go in with a political agenda, looking for things to validate an opinion you already have. And a reminder that if you’re ever caught doing this, have the grace and dignity to admit you screwed up instead of just digging in deeper.

Lose your copy editors, lose yourselves

I’m a copy editor. It’s been my jam since I passed the Dow Jones editing test way back in 2007. That test led me to my first internship, at The Indianapolis Star. And, barring my master’s work, I’ve never looked back.

I am extremely lucky to be able to make a living as an editor, and lucky to work at a place that still sees the value in keeping a dedicated copy desk. I’ve had crash courses in fracking, the Affordable Care Act, patent law, defense contracting and countless other topics. It makes me better-rounded, and every time someone thanks for me improving a story, finding a better word or correcting a potentially embarrassing error, I feel glad to have come in that day, that what I do matters.

As such I — and many other friends and colleagues in this business — was distressed to see that the number of working copy editors has fallen by about 46 percent in the past decade. By comparison, reporting positions fell by 26 percent, according to Poynter. Apparently, when newsrooms need to bust out the scissors, we’re an easy target.

However, I argue that dismissing the copy desk will in the long run exacerbate problems, not solve them — the same problems that trimming the copy desk were supposed to solve in the first place.

This Steve Myers entry on Poynter last spring sums up exactly what I mean. Myers writes about the dismissal of the Denver Post’s copy desk and the assignment of editing duties to other staffers across the newsroom. Rather than comment on this one way or the other, he simply shares a single headline from the Post: “Downward sprial continues.” Oh yes, yes it did.

What do readers think when they see a newspaper (or website, magazine, whatever) riddled with spelling, grammatical and factual errors? Reasonably, they probably assume that this newspaper is bush league, that it doesn’t care enough to get things right and that it isn’t worth the reader’s subscription dollars. Readership falls, advertising follows and before you know it, the relaxation of financial tensions caused by neglecting the copy desk starts to tighten again.

A quality news organization, no matter the medium, is one in which copy is clean, concise, factual, logical and, yes, spelled correctly. And that requires an investment in copy editors. Take care of them and they’ll take care of your product, and the rest will follow.

(A copy editor, for example, could have told Cindy Adams that Georgetown is actually in Washington, D.C., proper, and that it is no longer 1991.)

Welcome to 2013

I have, unfortunately, been delinquent at practicing my own writing while editing the writing of others. Shame on me. Right now, I’m taking a break in between holiday on-call shifts, posting news and updates about the dreaded fiscal cliff. I fluctuate between thinking that what I’m doing is important, and wanting to never, ever hear or see the phrase “fiscal cliff” again.

I will not miss 2012, or at least, I won’t yearn for it the way I still do 2011. The second half of it, at least, was exciting and interesting and challenging: moving to a new city, meeting new people and starting a job I love. But that just leads to a continuation of that in the new year.

I already have a lot planned for 2013. I’m celebrating my birthday a week late, when my best friend comes to visit and I expose her to the awesomeness that is The Passenger’s cocktail menu and Founding Farmers’ brunch. Sometime in late February, if the weather isn’t atrocious, I’m planning another long weekend in Boston. I’m playing restaurant hostess for my parents again in late March, and hoping to visit Europe again (I’m thinking Stockholm) in June. And of course I’m hoping to see how POLITICO Pro keeps on trucking and growing, and maybe try my hand at some reporting.

I feel like I’ve grown up a lot in the last few months, and I’m hoping to spend enough time in Washington to feel settled. Since I graduated high school, I’ve never stayed more than a year in the same place (although England the last time was about 14 months all told), and I’m at a point where I want to just stay still for a while.

So that’s where I am now — working and still getting the hang of a truly wonky city. Stay tuned.

A two-month anniversary update

Tomorrow, Oct. 6, will be my two-month anniversary at my job. It’s been very rewarding (and busy, as you can tell from my lack of updates). We’ve added three new sections: defense, financial services and tax. Every day I’m editing stories about budget issues, the health-care reform law, infrastructure, cybersecurity, oil and natural gas production, lobbying and all kinds of other topics. I’m learning a LOT.

I’m also enjoying living in D.C., venturing into new neighborhoods and trying new restaurants and meeting some new people (or rediscovering old ones).

I will not be quite as active on here as I was before I started working, but things are going well and I’m pleased so far with my new capital life.

Paresh Jha debacle is a teachable moment for editors

There are probably three hard-and-fast rules when reporting the news: Keep your personal opinion out of it, don’t steal another person’s work and don’t make things up.

Paresh Jha, a reporter for the New Canaan News, in Connecticut, apparently didn’t adhere to that third rule and paid for it with his job. Craig Silverman, who writes the “Regret the Error” blog for Poynter, has done a great job with following the story as it develops. As of today, Silverman says at least 25 stories of Jha’s have been scrubbed from the paper’s website and there may be more to come.

Many of Jha’s stories feature people with odd names who are unlisted on Facebook and the white pages, teenagers who are just a little too eloquent and sources who are just a little too convenient for the nature of the story. Eventually, when Jha’s stories were put under the microscope — as they should have been before they even ran — they failed to pass muster. Cue sacking.

Much of the focus is on the reporting craft, with this episode used as a morality tale to scare cub reporters away from cutting corners. But I’d say that it actually offers more of a lesson to editors and fact-checkers. Namely, check everything. Ask questions. Verify sources’ identities. Based on the falsehoods that have been pointed out, most of these stories would have been undone by a 5-second Facebook, Google or phonebook check. Benefit of the doubt goes only so far. If something looks too pithy to be true — a driving instructor with the surname Retrede, really? — look into it. Hell, look into it anyway.

This incident isn’t just a reporting breakdown; it’s a failure of the entire editorial process. It shows why papers and news outlets should invest in quality fact-checkers and copy desks (there’s some rumbling that the staff was simply too undermanned), and it exposes the weakness in just taking someone’s word for it.