For this edition of The Style Guide, I interviewed Courtney Rukan, deputy multiplatform editing chief, and Jesse Lewis, multiplatform editing chief, of The Washington Post.
Alison Krug: What is the workflow of the copy desk like at The Washington Post?
Courtney Rukan: (Editors) pull the story up and edit it, and then you either publish it to the web or you’re doing a backread on it, so you would republish it to the web once you’ve made some changes.
Sometimes the editor who handles those stories during the day for the web might also handle it for print if the print specs are done early enough before their shift ends. And then at night the stories are generally assigned to copy editors, and then they will handle those for print and put print specs on them. And then if they have not been published to the web, they will make a web channel copy and publish them to the web. If they’ve been up on the web all day, they’ll input their changes into the digital version and then republish to the web so we can have the very best story as possible out on the web.
After that, for print, we will proof the pages and make any changes, and we still do that in a pretty traditional manner, just like you would do it at The Daily Tar Heel.
AK: What is the difference in how stories for online and for print are treated in the editing process?
Jesse Lewis: Well, there is no distinction in the editing process. The whole point is that as soon as the story is done, it goes up. So if we have a story at 8 o’clock in the morning, we’ll put it up immediately, and we’ll update it through the day.
As long as the originating desk says the story can publish, we’ll publish it any time, so there’s no distinction in the editing process. It’s just they may decide that they want to publish it, for example, like on a Monday morning but then decide not to run it in the paper until Wednesday. So it’s a matter of what the decision is in terms of how we’re going to present the story. Of course breaking news stories and news stories are going to be the same day, but feature stories … we could publish a feature story on a Friday and not see it in the paper until Sunday.
AK: How do you decide where The Washington Post’s style guide differs from the AP?
CR: We adhere to our own style. Some of it matches AP, but a lot of it doesn’t. One of our very popular stylebook entries is our different style entries versus AP, which we encourage new hires to look at. It’s evolved over many, many years, much like the AP style guide. We have our own sensibilities. We also have a lot of exceptions to Webster’s New World dictionary that we use because sometimes the dictionary doesn’t quite keep pace with what makes sense.
Much like the AP, we use the evolving world around us to make sense of things. With the advent of cyber, for instance, 20 years ago hardly anybody used anything for cyber, and now there’s cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare, cyberkinetics, cyberspace, cyber everything. And you have to figure out what makes sense as a solid word, what makes sense to hyphenate and how you render it. I think the bottom line is what makes it most clear for the readers and what’s keeping up with the times … so you know we can’t just sit on it and say we’ve done that for years, let’s keep doing it that way.
And I think that we just have our own voice and our own sensibility. Like when AP made the decision to put states and countries with all datelines instead of having breakout cities anymore, that’s something that we could have done if we’d wanted to, but we made the decision not to because we trust readers to know where certain places in the world are. Our dateline list has also evolved over the years. We have cities now in the world that we put countries with that we didn’t 20 years ago because they were in the news more often. Likewise, we now have cities that stand alone in our dateline list that did not 20 years ago.
JL: One thing I would add to this is that AP style is, I think they’re forming (the style guide) because they have a global audience and just a reference to, you know, putting states with cities in terms of datelines. A reader in Pakistan isn’t going to know where Atlanta is or where Milwaukee is, but readers in America know that.
So that’s the kind of thing where AP is appealing essentially to a different and broader audience, whereas we are right now a domestic audience.
CR: We’ve also had to change certain things too for the web. When Marty Baron first came in as editor here, he wasn’t familiar with the area, and we had a story about a plane crash that happened in a town in Virginia that is very well known in the area to people. It’s one of those suburbs that people know about. And Marty said, “No one outside the Washington area is going to know where this place is.” So I think we also have a different sensibility for what we put into print and what we put online as well.
And the other thing too about AP, Jesse made a great point, and another thing too is I think AP also listens to their clients, whereas we’re not beholden to selling anything to anybody except the product to our readers.
AK: Do you have a formal process for amending your style guide?
JL: Well, as formal as it’s going to get is where someone says, “We don’t like this style,” and then I’ll talk with the slots and if necessary consult the executive editors and decide whether to do this or not. So there’s no committee meeting — someone makes a request, and we review it and discuss it among ourselves and also with the department that’s most affected by it. Then we determine whether we’re going to do it or not.
AK: How do you communicate with the staff about style changes?
JL: They’re sent through email; we have regular staff meetings where we bring up some of these developments; and the style book is updated so it’s on the web and everyone has access to it. We also have this new software that does proofing, and it contains information in the style book, so when we run the software, it flags things that are in the style book. And that’s another way to convey the information.