Friday, July 28, 2017

Momma, don't let your babies grow up to be micro managers

   It's kind of a given that copy editors make mistakes. In many cases, a copy editor is the last line of defense from errors, but when correcting an error, a copy editor might introduce a new error, for instance, when rewriting a caption, he or she might misspell a word or name. Often, there is a reason a mistake was made or might have been avoided. I remember a time that a colleague of mine was called on the carpet, had the riot act read to him, and got reamed (figuratively, not literally) because a story he edited had the phrase "Jew Jersey" which appeared in the paper.
   How could that have happened?
   A little forensic copy editing would have shown that there was a recent rule passed by someone who enjoyed making up rules, kind of like our current embarrassment of a president, that, and I forget the exact wording of the edict, but that we on the copy desk were no longer to use N.J. in certain circumstances and had to write out New Jersey. Not a big deal, but the copy editor in question was simply following the rules.
   A forensic examination of the keyboard, however, will reveal that the letter "J" is above the letter "N" and 50 percent to the right. I believe the term is catty corner.
Oops, wrong catty corner 

Okay, correct keyboard. Note the position of the n and the j.
   So ... when following the new rule and thinking he was acting correctly, he accidentally depressed the "J" rather than the "N" and the result: Jew Jersey, for which said copy editor got his ass handed to him over a nothing little mistake that never would have occurred in the first place had a supervisor not been micro managing.
   That was then. This is now.
   The newspaper where I work has gone through a succession of managing editors in the few years I've been there.
   An email that arrived, addressed to the entire copy editing staff, particularly got under my skin. It contained the phrase "How did this happen" when all the managing editor had to do was ask me, as said managing editor knew that I had laid out the page, and I would have explained how it happened, but the point of sending the email to the entire copy desk was to reassert said managing editor's control by humiliating the alleged error maker.
   If this were the first "how did this happen" email it would have been like the proverbial water off a duck's back, but this is a pretty regular occurrence, so I decided to ask Mr. Google what are the characteristics of a micro manager, and the answer, although I am sure there are variations, fit this micro manager to a T.

   I've made my share of mistakes, some of them clunkers. And I don't humiliate easily, so I wasn't humiliated by this particular email. But I did have my eyes opened to what is at times a stifling workplace environment. I'm not enough of an expert to say micro managing is any worse in a newspaper environment than it is in a corporate environment. But copy editors are often creative people, and micro managing in a newsroom stifles that creativity. The article points out that there is often a fine line between micro managing and effective leadership. There is also sometimes a hairline between an excellent, creative headline and a clunker of a headline, but if you don't consider the clunkers, you may never write the great ones.

PS: Thank you Victor Sasson for the kind mention in your excellent and evolving blog "The Sasson Report."

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Copy editors don't get no respeck

The 1978 Newspaper Strike Daily News knockoff
   Recently I had occasion to flash back to the Great Newspaper Strike of 1978. I always thought it lasted 78 days, but memory is funny, a google entry pegged it at 84. Whatever. My supervisor at the News at the time, Chuck Slater, got a job as the sports editor of the "interim" Daily Press and brought me along. It was a way smaller staff, if I remember correctly the entire sports department was five or six people, but it might have been less.
   But the thing I remember most about that time was riding in the elevator one day with a couple of colleagues. The Daily Press was in an office building, unlike the Daily News, which had its own Art Deco building on East 42nd Street. There were a couple of secretaries or receptionists in the elevator and one of them asked one of my colleagues if we worked for that newspaper. He said yes, and one of the secretaries said something to the effect of Oh, that must be so exciting.
   At the time she was right. But she might also have said Oh, that must be so depressing, and she also would have been right. Because people who work for newspapers don't work normal hours, which might be called office hours, and if you do that for a certain number of years, like a lifetime, that can be pretty damn depressing. People who work for corporations, of course there are variations, but if you average them out, they come into the office at 9 in the morning and leave the building at 5 p.m. So the elevators are crowded, the subways are mobbed, the lunch lines are long. I often think of the rare time when I was in my twenties and got a weekend off and went to a movie on a Saturday night. The people on line were cursing the lengthy wait to get into the movie. Me, I was loving it, doing something normal on a weekend instead of leaving the office at 11 p.m. and wondering what am I going to do now, then going home and watching old movies on TV until I fell asleep.
   I flashed back to 1978 because the newspaper where I work part time moved last week. It's a pretty old newspaper, and once had its own building in town with its own presses. Then it moved into a four-story building a couple of blocks away that it shared with an engineering firm, the newspaper on the fourth floor and the engineers on the second and third floors, until the engineering firm went out of business and the second and third floors were vacant. But it was still basically a newspaper building. No corporate nine to five types coming and going. Some departments of the newspaper left at five like normal people but they had relatively normal jobs, selling advertising, secretarial positions, things like that, and because the main office was right by the elevator and the newsroom was around a corner and down a hall, their five o'clock departure wasn't very noticeable.
   Last week, the newspaper moved again, into a modern three-story office building, modern at least for the town, which hasn't seen any significant new office construction in about a decade. The main tenant in the building is a mortgage company, which is one of the more prominent members of the town's Chamber of Commerce. Before the move there was a tour of the new office, which I didn't go on, but my colleagues were raving about the breakroom, which they said had three or four of those single serve Keurig coffee things and vending machines and tables, they said it was really cool.
   The actual move was less traumatic than anticipated, and the staff's lone IT guy not only didn't have a nervous breakdown but is probably weighing offers from Marvel to star in its next movie.
   We've been in the new offices for a week now.
   My first day there is when I flashed back to the "interim" paper of 1978 because this was very much a corporate building. The newspaper is on the third floor, along with the mortgage company. On the first floor there's a cardiology practice, which explains why the fifteen to twenty handicapped parking spaces outside the building were all full when I showed up at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday for my first shift in the new building; and a probate court (the building is right next to the Superior Court building); I don't know which tenants are on the second floor, except one of them is a lawyer with an LLC after his name.
   When I arrived, the large parking lot was almost full, meaning I had to park out in what I used to affectionately refer to as god's country. On the other hand, walking is good for you so I shouldn't complain.
   Then five o'clock came around. I was busy editing copy and laying out pages, so I didn't notice the exodus, which, I should add, included a large portion of the newspaper's staff. But when I looked out the window, there were only a few cars left in the parking lot, so far off you could hardly see them.
   And that fantastic, luxurious breakroom? I paid it a quick visit and there were indeed a lot of coffee pots, it would be a great place to have AA meetings on weekends, except I don't think they use Keurigs at AA. And then the word came down from our nice neighbor the mortgage company: No one from the newspaper was to enter the breakroom after 4:30 p.m. This was very bad news for my copy editing neighbor to the right, who is a diabetic with a two can of Diet Coke and a pack or two of chips from the vending machine a night habit. The news meeting ran late a day or two ago and he glanced at his watch and said he hoped the meeting would end by 4:30. It ended at 4:45.
   The next harsh reminder that copy editors don't live normal lives came at sundown. At the former building, staffers parked in a large municipal garage about a block from the paper. The town's infrastructure never quite caught up to its municipal garage capacity, so that while there weren't many cars in the garage when people left work at 11 p.m., they didn't have to go to the fourth or fifth floor to find their car.
   At the new building, come 5 o'clock the parking lot empties out except for the handful of reporters and editors whose cars are in the farther reaches of the lot. And as the sun goes down, the lights that are spread in rows throughout the lot don't come on. It's pretty eerie looking out at the empty lot with the shadows of a couple of cars way off in the distance, or a single car parked in a far corner of the lot. And on a moonless night, the parking lot is pitch dark. Sure, it costs money to turn on the lights, but did anyone consider this when hammering out the terms of the lease? Just like the availability of the break room, another reminder that copy editors and reporters are second class citizens, although reporters at least get out of the office once in a while.
   The other night, after a few days in the new office, the colleague to my left began getting a headache near the end of the shift. His eyes were bothering him, too. So he asked Mr. Google "What is the proper distance from a computer screen for your eyes?" The answer came back 18 to 20 inches. The new desks are very narrow, whereas our former desks were pretty wide, with drawers even, never mind that an occasional mouse liked to forage in those drawers for the occasional stray piece of Halloween candy, but I digress. So he got out his Stanley tape measure -- the office is located in New Britain, after all, birthplace of Stanley Tools and still home to Stanley Black & Decker -- and counted nine inches from his nose to the screen. Then he wheeled his chair back so that his nose was approximately 18 inches from the screen, only to discover that he couldn't reach his mouse. So, like Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen," when he emerges with numerous leeches on his body and Katharine Hepburn has to burn them off with a cigarette, then after the Queen gets stalled again, right back into the river he goes, so went my colleague's nose back to nine or ten inches from his monitor.
   I was lucky in that I got laid off in 2008 before the Bergen Record moved from the spacious "Record building" to new, smaller headquarters in a corporate building in another town, which they had to do because the presses that took up the whole first floor of the Record building were no longer used and the staff which once filled the fourth floor was decimated.
   I wouldn't call it post traumatic stress because there's nothing particularly traumatic about such a move, but flashbacks are flashbacks, and I'm very much not liking this move because it's served as a glaring reminder of how far from a normal career my career as a newspaper copy editor has been. On the other hand, I'm still a couple of balloons short of throwing a pity party.