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The facts of (media) life

August 17, 2009 – 12:37 pm5 Comments

A screenshot from All the President's Men (1976), directed by Alan J. Pakula

Gary Mallin, sub-editor at The Age, outlines the newspaper’s editorial process.

The criteria for what makes a story for the newspaper is subjective: what one person believes to be a good story, another might consign to the spike. Objectivity is often a casualty, and that’s the way it will always be, because those who run newspapers are human (some would argue that journalists do not fall into this category, but I beg to differ).

There are universally accepted topics — sex, the royal family, children and animals, for example — that are guaranteed to get a run in most newspapers on most days. This can be because it is what readers want or they simply accept what is dished up by the editors. A little of each, perhaps.

For a morning broadsheet, editorial planning meetings are held in the morning and afternoon, at which the strength of running and breaking stories is assessed. For The Age, the nitty gritty is discussed and the tone of the paper formed at the afternoon conference. This conference is attended by the editors of the various sections — news, business, sport, foreign, arts — who sell their best stories to the editor in chief or his deputy, the executive news editor, the night editor and the chief sub-editor.

About 6.30pm, and before the individual pages of the paper are laid out electronically, the editors meet again to decide which of the stories and pictures should be in early general news or remain in their various compartments (foreign, sport, business). This is where the page one story is chosen.

From about 7pm to 9pm (the page one deadline) all early general news, sport and business pages are laid out, stories edited, proofed, read and delivered to the printer. It is an intense pressure period in the newspaper, in which hundreds of decisions are made and tens of thousands of words are read in under two hours.

Once a story’s placement has been selected (that is its page) a layout sub-editor will draw up or design the page, and give instructions electronically on a desktop publishing program to another sub-editor (quaintly labelled a down-table sub-editor).

The down-table sub-editor will:

* make the story fit in the space assigned to it, and cut the excess

* write a headline that is in context

* write a caption if there as photograph

* check the spelling, syntax and grammar

* ensure the story has no legal implications

* check that the story is factual and believable

* ensure that the story has been written to the newspaper’s style — for example, The Age style is to say “street” and not “st” as in the Herald Sun.

Once these processes have been completed, stories are proofed, read twice and errors corrected. On most occasions this is done before the first edition deadline. Sometimes, because of time contraints, corrections are not made until the second edition (deadline 11pm). If an error is particularly egregious it will be corrected immediately as the paper is being printed.

By the way, the written word (newspapers, magazines etc) appears to me to be under more scrutiny than that of television or radio news. Perhaps this is a sign of our throw-away society — out of sight, out of mind. Shame, really, because television and radio (and I am speaking mainly of commercial stations) commit some dreadful howlers to the airwaves and rarely take responsibility for them. Often in the bid to be first with the news, they throw any old rubbish at the viewers and listeners, with few, if any, consequences. I can recall a Melbourne TV news service interrupting its bulletin to report that a third bomb had gone off in Jakarta. It was a hoax. No apology, no correction.

At least with newspapers, the newspaper itself inadvertently provides you with a hard-copy proof of its error. How convenient for the reader… and irritating for the editors.

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