A brash notice of reporter openings by Dolan Media of New Orleans got some attention in the trade last week. Here is what my colleague Bruce Holtgren had to say about the request in it for aspirants to mail examples of their best work:
I would hope you are well aware that all clips have been edited. Great editors, time and again, elevate stories that came in as pretty good to great, or from great to awesome; or even mediocre to fantastic. They catch gaping holes and save reporters' shoddy work; they suggest angles that the reporter didn't think of. Editors fix horrendous errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, facts, local history, even prominent people's names. They clarify points both fine and raw, often without the reporter present, or even ever realizing it was done. Editors artfully move words or whole paragraphs around in seconds, making the story read far more clearly. They spare readers uncounted reams of cliches, rehash and irrelevant boredom. They cut the story by just a few words or by several lines, often right on deadline, to make it work as best it can. And speaking of deadlines, editors repeatedly take stories that are filed an hour (or hours) late, and do all those things in just minutes - and then put beautiful headlines on the top, making sure the entire package is absolutely accurate, fair, and won't libel anyone. Then, when the reporter enters a contest, it is she who wins the prize(s) because her name is on that story - and when she applies for a job, it is she who says, "Yes, that's an example of some of my best work."
I'll get to the credit part in a moment, but first I want to point out that the work Mr. Holtgren describes is not always recognized and acknowledged even within the walls.
When I worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer, there was a reporter who described the process his copy underwent at the desk was "running it through the dull machine." His originality as a writer consisted mainly of mixed metaphors and non-Euclidian uses of the comma. When I came to The Baltimore Sun, I encountered a reporter who described the process his copy underwent as "running it through the Dullatron." This artist was given to metaphors so grotesquely excessive that he was known on the copy desk as "the Purpleizer." (I've used examples of his oeuvre on The Sun's brutal applicant test.)
So we know better going in than to expect gratitude. Neither do we expect credit, and we don't care about that.
You may have concluded from the sharp things I occasionally say about reporters that I envy them. Far from it. They spend the day going around town or working the phone, trying to worm useful information out of people who are inarticulate or hostile. Then they have to do the writing, and difficult a craft to master as editing is, writing is harder. They do the original work, and for that credit is due. (They are also right to object when some ham-handed, tone-deaf editor botches their work; it does happen.)
No, I satisfy my native sitzlust with a full shift at the paragraph factory, contentedly performing those tasks that Mr. Holtgren describes, confident that even if I do not achieve excellence every time, I leave each item of copy better than it was before. Sometimes I even know enough to leave it alone. And I am happy to join in the applause when the plaques are distributed and the domestic sparkling wine is poured, even if I may indulge in a sardonic glance with a fellow copy editor. We saw the first version.
I'm content to leave to the editors who hire reporters their touching faith in clips, a faith that stoutly persists despite repeated disillusionments.
The troubling thing for editors is not the lack of credit, but the lack of awareness of what we do that makes it possible for the people upstairs to dispense with it, to conclude that editors are expendable, that shoddy work is good enough.
We don't want bylines or shirttail credits. The occasional award would be nice, but that isn't why we sit down at the desk every day. We have a craft, and we live to exercise it. Our reward lies in knowing that when the publication is launched into the world, we have done everything in our power to make it watertight, shipshape and Bristol fashion.
What we want: Let us do our jobs.