Whose story is it?

I was conducting one of my seances on editing at a faraway newspaper, and one of the workshops involved a mixed audience of reporters, assigning editors and copy editors. A reporter — almost certainly the one I had been warned about — raised the question: “What about when the copy desk changes our stories?”

“Well,” I said mildly, “maybe we should consider that they aren’t exactly your stories. They get bylines to indicate the primacy of the reporting and writing, but they are the paper’s stories. The paper holds the copyright. And the copy desk is charged with maintaining the paper’s standards and protecting the paper’s interests.

“If a story under your byline had led to a libel suit, you wouldn’t much like it if you were called into the editor’s office and told, ‘I see you have a problem with your story. You should get yourself a lawyer.’ You want the editor to say, ‘We stand by our story, and we will defend it vigorously.’”

All the assigning editors and copy editors nodded at this set of truisms.

Then at lunch I was told that word was running like wildfire through the newsroom:

“He says they’re not our stories!”

Just so.

Newspaper journalism is a collaborative endeavor, nearer to the production of a film than of a poem or novel. A lot of people are entitled to get their hands on a text, to make sure that it is focused, structurally sound, accurate and consonant with the standards and intentions of the publication. (Sometimes that means taking hands off the keyboard instead of meddling — but not often.)

The final, published text is what matters. No one — trust me, no one who is not paid to do so — wants to examine successive draft versions of newspaper articles. We go to some trouble to make the articles publishable. The writer has his or her place, but so do the rest of us.



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