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Page 1 editor: It’s fast-paced job with loads of responsibility

By Frannie Sprouls
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Pat McFadden is the page 1A editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota. McFadden worked  in LaCrosse, Wis., New Mexico and Detroit before getting a job as the nation/world night editor at the Pioneer Press 12 years ago.  In this interview, he talks about his job as Page 1A editor, a position he’s held for seven years.

Q: What does a typical workday look like?

A. Well, I work Monday through Fridays. We’re a morning paper, so I come in around 3, 3:30. When I come in, there’s a general outline for what’s going to go on Page 1.  I take a look at that, I take a look at the wires, I take a look at the overall budgets. I make suggestions for additions, subtractions, graphics, art, sidebars. I go into a meeting and come out of the news meeting with 1A pretty much pinned down. I assign the stories to rimmers, I work with the 1A page designer to get the page together. I make sure everything comes together for the cover and go home early. I’m out of here by 11, 11:30, just depending on makeovers, that kind of thing. I see the first two editions put to bed and then I clear the final editions. Pretty much when I go home, the paper is done for the night. It rarely changes after I go home. I’ll pass off 1A responsibilities to somebody. If I don’t think anything’s happening, I’ll take off, but if I know something’s happening, a late election, I’ll sit in and babysit it till everything’s done

Q: What do you like the best and what do you like the least about your job as the 1A editor?

A: There are a lot of things I like best. I like that I look up, it’s 10 o’clock and it’s almost time to go home. It keeps me busy. I like working with the words, developing Page 1. It’s ultimately my responsibility. What I like least is any … number of things. It could be little things: mistakes, chronic mistakes. Nothing that I could put my finger on that I want to put in black and white.

Q: What are some ethical issues you face as the page 1A editor?

A: A couple weeks ago ( Sept. 26, 2011), we had a story about an event happening here called the SlutWalk. One of our reporters (Richard Chin) did a story advancing this and the story was pretty balanced. He set it up, what it is, why it is, who’s sponsoring it, who’s going to participate. Then (Chin) got into the issues of is something like this good or bad for women. It was a nice story.

So I worked with the designer and I put the headline “Who are you calling a slut?”  The designer (Ben Ramsden) did a design of an attractive woman and put the type inside that. It was a bit of a different package. The designer and I had a disagreement on how large to play the word slut. He wanted to scream it. I said the point of the story is who are you calling slut, not SLUT. I kind of lost out on that and we ended up downplaying (the question).

But I thought here’s an interesting story.  I’m going to put a provocative headline on it. I am going to try and sell the front page. That generated some backlash, from readers, from the publisher. (laughs) Ultimately, I was trying to sell a paper, in your face but not … I didn’t want to offend people. I knew I was tiptoeing close to the line. If we’re going to put that story on front page, I’m not going to be embarrassed or hesitate to put a headline on it that says, “Hey! Read me.”

I work within the restraints but I try to push the boundaries and so does (Ramsden). We try to make our front page interesting and inviting and provocative. The ethical issue there was how large to play the word slut. I thought that (it) had the wrong first impression. If you see it screaming at you … the question gets lost was my argument. But the designer felt, if you use the word slut, people are going to pick up the paper.

Q: What are some of the most difficult decisions to make as an editor?

A: The most difficult decisions are ‘Does this deserve to be out on Page 1?’ Stories, pictures; those are the most difficult decisions. But that could be from an ethical point of view or plain news judgment or this is a poorly written story and it doesn’t deserve to be out there. I actually can’t say I consider ethics a whole lot. It’s not that I ignore them, it’s just that I’m not confronted with that many decisions.

Q: Did you always want to be an editor?

A: No. Basically, I got into newspapers because I wanted to write….  I was a reporter and reporting is hard work, you know. Then I just kind of fell into an editing position. I went from reporter to being a city editor out West in New Mexico. Then because I …  knew how to copy edit, copy editing at that time was a real marketable skill. So I really began to market myself as a copy editor and that helped me to move, to get to better newspapers, bigger newspapers. It was kind of an accident that I became an editor, but after a while, I kind of liked it. When the opportunity arises to work with reporters and work with copy editors and work with headline writers,  I kind of like that. So no, I didn’t always want to be an editor but it turned out OK

Q: Do you have any pet peeves as an editor?

A:  Reporters who write too long. Reporters who are fast and loose with the language. Copy editors who don’t rein that stuff in. Reporters and editors who don’t acknowledge that readers don’t have an hour to read their stories, so they don’t realize that they don’t know how to break up stories into sidebars, graphics, bullet points. 18- inch stories … I got a lot of pet peeves. (laughs) Headline writers who write crappy headlines. Those are some of my pet peeves.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who want to become editors?

A: Working in newsrooms, there’s a lot of egos and feelings and power things going on. So as an editor, you have to learn how to deal with that stuff. You have to be comfortable with dealing with that. You have to remember that you’re part of a team and what you’re all here for is to put out a good newspaper…. keep all of that in mind and keep your final goal in mind. Don’t take stuff too personally, but still know what has to be done and should be done, you should be OK. Remember ultimately, you are part of a team. I think that gets lost a lot. That might be one of the toughest things about the newsrooms, the strong personalities from reporters, fellow editors, managers. You just have to learn how to deal with that and accept that. And still assert yourself. You have to have confidence in what you know, confidence in what you’re doing is good and right and being able to get that done, too.

After the interview, McFadden explained the best ways to catch mistakes when editing.

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