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Working with reporters can be challenging for copy editors

By Kelly O’Malley
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Johnna Hjersman has been working as a copy editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for a year and a half.  In a telephone  interview, she talked about her life at the newspaper, her first job after college. 

Johnna Hjersman

Hjersman, a graduate of UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications,  was a copy editor at the college newspaper, the Daily Nebraskan. She also was a Dow Jones News Fund intern during college at a Florida newspaper.

Q: What is your typical day like as a copy editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette?

A: I go into work at 4 o’clock and the first thing we do is we move the early Business Section for the Northwest because we have another bureau in Fayetteville, which is in the northwest part of (Arkansas). We move their business stories first because they have earlier deadlines.

And then we move the obituaries. We don’t do a lot of editing on them because people write them for their families, so style isn’t that important. We do make sure that the ages are correct, the dates are correct and funerals are correct. Occasionally we’ll have to call the funeral home and ask, ‘Hey it says he died on the 13th, Tuesday, but it was actually a Wednesday, is that right?’

Then we start working on international and national stories and those come from our wire desk….  Then after that we do our local stories.

We want everything moved to the presses by 10:15 p.m. and then the city edition deadline is 12:15 a.m.

Days vary: Some days we are very busy where we’re reading stories back-to-back all night and trying to hurry. Other nights, we’ll edit the stories we have and have a lower page count and not very much content.

Some days are really crazy and some days are lazy.

Q: What types of stories are you in favor of editing and what stories are you not in favor of editing?

A: It depends on the day. When the days I’m not feeling (like editing much), I really like the international and national stories because they are from our wire services, which are usually, usually pretty good about grammar and style.

You don’t have to be so heavy-handed with them. They are pretty good about getting all the right information at the top so that it is easy to write a headline. You just read the first couple paragraphs and you are like, ‘OK, this is what I need in a headline.’

Where as with local stories, and I’m not trying to knock my reporters or anything, but with local stories, sometimes it’s hard to get all the grammar and all the style right. (The reporters) don’t always know all the style rules, especially when the newspaper I work at (uses its) own rules… (The rules) sometimes follow AP and sometimes just kick AP out the door and say, ‘No we are doing this instead.’

That rulebook is a giant three-ring binder. It is like a book and not all the reporters know all of those rules either.

I do have some reporters I favor because their stories are well-written and some reporters I definitely avoid. It’s because I know that either I don’t like their writing style or I just get frustrated. Sometimes when there are errors you have to call the reporter and ask about it. There are some reporters who are really cooperative and really glad you are there to help them and cover their butts basically.

There are other reporters who, once they pick up the phone and know it is a copy editor, get instantly on the defensive mode, saying such things as, ‘Whoa, this is what I meant,’ or, ‘It’s not wrong.’ It is really frustrating and after being here a year and a half, I’ve kind of figured out which reporters realize I’m not trying to pick on them or be mean to them. I’m trying to help them.

Q: What is the one biggest pet peeve in the difference between your newspaper’s rulebook and AP style?

 A: There is a really strange rule that we follow. We are not allowed to use the words ‘puke’ or ‘vomit’ ever, not even in a quote, just never, you are not allowed to use those words. We are also not allowed to say ‘congresswomen’ or ‘spokeswomen’ it’s always ‘man.’ It’s always ‘congressman’ or ‘spokesman.’

Q: What has been the most difficult challenge editing a story so far in your career?

A: I think dealing with the reporters who aren’t very gracious. You feel kind of trapped because I am not trying to be the mean guy. I don’t want to be your opponent, but to help you. We are on the same team, we work at the same newspaper and we have the same goal, which is to get the information to the reader.

Q: How is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette involved in the digital age?

 A: I don’t do a lot with that side. Online presence is completely separate. They are a separate publication but we are affiliated with them and post a lot of stories on the website. But they also post their own stories and their own content like videos and photos. From the beginning, you would have to have a subscription to see all their content. It is good they started that way because they didn’t have to switch it on their readers.

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