Friday, November 25, 2011

J-SCHOOL: Editors' choices

Years ago, a woman called the local newspaper and complained where we ran a story. She wanted to know who made the decision, and I told her it was probably the big editor. "Who does he think he is?" she asked. "He's the boss," I said. "It's his job to decide."

Actually, it wasn't always his job. Most copy editors make story placement decisions at one time or another. I did. In fact, I enjoy the choices part of journalism -- Where do we put this story? Should it go out front or inside? Should this story run at all?

We usually make the right choice, but sometimes good journalists get confused or lazy. 

In 1990, I had just finished covering a race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and settled down in a motel room to watch the TV sports news. They announced that Hank Gathers, the great All-American basketball player, had died, and I thought, "I know what will lead our sports section tomorrow." Amazingly, we ran that story in the lead of the sports briefs package. It was a matter of convenience, and, frankly, we blew it.

We did the same thing when a hockey goalie was in a car wreck and was effectively brain dead. It wasn't my decision; this was a great hockey player, and the story was bigger than the treatment we gave it. In both cases, there was second-guessing the next day at the budget meeting.

I think it was 1993 when Alan Kulwicki died. I was working the sports desk that night, and someone wanted to lead briefs with Kulwicki. It was the briefs syndrome rearing its head again, and I argued that the defending Winston Cup champion deserved better. Some papers would have put Kulwicki on the A front, not just the sports front.

In the end, we put Kulwicki atop the sports front, but it was a battle.

I don't want people to think I was always right; I wasn't. I made bad choices, too. But I did learn a lesson from all of those battles. I always left a "throwaway" spot on the sports front, at the top or bottom, in case someone died or another big story came in just before deadline. That story never jumped, so the important news story would have to stay on the front. But at least it'd make the paper, and we could follow it up the next day.

I wasn't going to put a great or important story in briefs.

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