From the newsroom


Raji Chacko

Midst the cacophony that is a newsroom on any given day, one manages to absorb a few editing tenets

Although I have been editing for over a decade now, only about 25 percent of my professional life was spent in newsrooms. However, a newsroom is where I embarked on my career as an editor so the lessons I learnt there were both invaluable and indelible.

Study: I put this right on top because it remains relevant even outside the newsroom. I have discovered by dint of foot-stompingly frustrating experience that reporters and writers don’t take very well to “because I say so” or “it doesn’t feel right” as a valid excuse for an editorial change. However, grammar rules delivered in a no-nonsense tone seem to help. On a more serious note, the many mutations of the English language mean that people, including editors, often forget that usage is governed by rules. To cite these rules, you have to be well-versed in them. Like any other craftsperson who keeps their tools in good shape, you need to brush up on your skills. So, keep studying the language. I learn something new every time I dust off the old grammar texts.

Read: Like any other profession, journalism too has its share of work shirkers. As the quality control personnel in the newspaper, editors often have to pick up the slack when that happens. Sometimes, it’s not the reporters’ fault. They spend the day chasing a story and its principal characters and come back to file the piece, not realising that someone else in a different organisation has beat them to the juicy reveal. In which case, the responsibility to put a different spin on the story and justify its inclusion falls on the editor. Whatever the reason, an editor has to be well read and I don’t mean fiction. The greater the variety of news sources you can browse through, the greater the value addition you can provide to a news report or feature when it arrives at your desk for editing.

Question: No reporter, however skilled or experienced is infallible; for that matter, neither is an editor. However, the editor is the last checkpoint before publication and with that kind of power comes great responsibility, to paraphrase from Spiderman. So, don’t hesitate to clarify something seemingly incomprehensible or illogical. Sometimes, the reporter is too close to the story and cannot employ the distance needed to question something. Sometimes, the reporter has a lot of information and has to make a call on what to include and in doing so, leaves out something that might be relevant. Sometimes, freshers just miss the obvious. As an editor put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask the questions that they might.

Talk: When I first started working, I realised that most of the reporters writing for an English newspaper had been educated in a different language. English as a medium of communication is, therefore, not easy for them to navigate. I am told this is changing and that more English-speaking young people now write for English newspapers. Be that as it may, I learned that sometimes it was difficult for our reporters to translate conversations they had conducted with people in an Indian language into English. It helps, therefore, to call them up or sit down with them and talk to them to discover what they want to say. Some young reporters find that having editors as sounding boards helps them craft their reports better.

Customise: Editing is by no means a simple discipline. You will find that a news story needs a different editorial touch from a feature. Similarly, a tabloid needs a different editorial style from a broadsheet. A senior reporter might be mulish and as a result, his/her work might be difficult to edit the way you would like to. A younger or less delusional reporter might be more susceptible to persuasion allowing you a freer hand while editing. The ability to customise your editing according to different needs, to take a call on retaining a writing style that is effective but not necessarily perfect while rewriting something that doesn’t work at all, these are skills every editor must develop.

Manage: If you’ve played a time management game on the computer, you probably have an idea of what a newsroom is like as deadline nears. You will be editing a story while one of your colleagues flows a story you’ve just edited onto a page. You might be called to tweak the story so it can fit in the available space on the page, while your boss asks if you have edited the other story and you still have to chase down the photographer so you can get a caption for the photo he/she submitted. All this while an imaginary hourglass empties over your head. Time, temper, and blood pressure management are critical skills in the newsroom.

Be aware: These days there is a surfeit of news channels on TV. Some of these have taken to providing background scores for news reports. It leaves me horrified. When I started editing, a popular lament was that I had missed the generation of editors that could have really taught me a thing or two. Yet, I managed to learn enough to know that there was no room for adjectives or drama in a news copy. Similarly, political correctness can make for great jokes but it has relevance in the newsroom because news copy must be unbiased. Maybe a refresher course for some of our present-day news persons wouldn’t be remiss.

Check: I don’t mean check copy for grammatical or factual errors, because that goes without saying. However, a disturbing lesson I learnt in the newsroom was that Internet makes it easy to copy-paste and pass off something as original work when that is far from true. I learnt to keep an eye out for any change in the usual style of writing and to Google for possible plagiarism. It’s not pretty, but it is real.

A newsroom is an exciting place to be. The adrenalin rush is amazing. However, with daily deadlines, opinionated people, and your errors in print for millions to see, it makes immense sense to invest in a few stress-relieving techniques. That is, probably, one of the most important lessons of the newsroom.

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