THE PUBLIC EDITOR: On print deadlines, making time for sources and sketching the elephant

By JACOB TOOK | November 21, 2019

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A firm press deadline can feel like the end-all be-all for News-Letter reporters in the run-up to Wednesday night. The news editors wrap up their section and head home sometime early Thursday morning while the Editors-in-Chief send the pages off to print. If they’re lucky, the news team will have time to breathe over the weekend until Wednesday starts to loom again.

Before the editing and layout that dominates production night, though, there’s an even more important step that shapes coverage — brainstorming who to reach out to for comment.

This step sometimes comes before the exact scope of the story is clear, something Assistant News Editor Jake Lefkovitz likened to the parable of blind men using their hands to picture an elephant — it’s hard to imagine the full story from just one part. For long-term features in the works for weeks or even months, Lefkovitz has time to flesh that elephant out thoroughly.

“You can feel what’s immediately at hand, so you can know what you’re familiar with, but at a certain point, you have to start guessing,” he said. “I have to ask myself, do I think there’s more out there?”

The perennial challenge for news editors is to sketch the most thorough and accurate elephant picture possible. For Lefkovitz, voices build a story. Finding diverse voices for a story lets The News-Letter not just report on what’s happening, but demonstrate why the story matters to readers.

“What’s important for us to represent is what’s happening and why it’s significant, but we are not the ones who are making those claims,” he said. “We want to represent the claims that the people involved are making and show those to the campus community that we report for.”

Unfortunately, though, editors don’t always have time to let a piece develop at its own pace. When a big story breaks early in the week — think a major University announcement or an unexpected campus protest — editors need to get a piece on the page with a quick turnaround. 

News Editor Rudy Malcom observed that this process can get more complicated with more contentious stories, where different perspectives can be difficult to thread together. When stories get more complicated, Malcom said, he and his fellow editors just work harder, spurred by the imperative to create a representative historical record of student opinion.

Take last month’s story titled “Hopkins will convert Blackstone into hotel next year,” an announcement which came on a Wednesday.

“It happened to be that I saw the announcement during break in a class,” Malcom said. “I had class with someone who lived in the Blackstone, so I was like, ‘Can we just do an interview now?’”

The piece ultimately featured seven undergrads, a pretty remarkable number to bring together in just a few hours. Malcom explained that the team collaborates to speed things up — his fellow editor Will Edmonds wrote the piece.

While some pieces with a tight turnaround can feature a lot of students, a story’s complexity can affect its scope. When the University drops a major report on a Tuesday afternoon, how many Hopkins students have time to read it by Wednesday morning? And even if News-Letter reporters do find students who can speak on the issue, those sources may be less confident in their words if they have less time to prepare.

To ease this issue, News-Letter editors could start to transition reporting away from the weekly print cycle as part of a larger shift toward web-first publishing. Normally, a piece is finished when it goes to print. What if that became more flexible?

If sources feel rushed into interviews, that can compromise the quality of their contributions. If news editors are pulling complicated stories together during sometimes chaotic production nights, they may be more likely to make mistakes or misrepresent sources.

Let me be clear — this is not the norm. Complicated stories that develop under such tight timeframes are unusual, and even when they do arise, readers can trust the news editors to do their best to maintain a high quality standard.

But editors can also work to accommodate sources by softening the deadline for interview responses. Why not run a brief one week, which might show only the part of the sketch where the elephant is most clearly identifiable, and then follow up with a fully-reported feature? This would allow sources to take an extra day when schedules get tight, and not face the choice between either sharing before they’re ready or having their voices excluded entirely.

These pieces could be separate, or the second could simply be a thorough update of the first. When the University makes a major announcement on a Tuesday, news editors could plan to run a brief in print and update the story more fully online the following Friday or Saturday when they’ve had more time to finish reporting. Depending on the story, updates could go to print the following week.

Pieces for which critical sources can’t — or don’t — comment before presstime usually include a note. These could be more specific to explain why key voices are missing and help readers understand the details of the reporting process.

Take an old clip of mine, “How do Bird and Lime scooters impact Hopkins,” which includes a note that “neither Bird nor Lime responded for comment before press time.” I worked on that piece for weeks and sent more than enough emails to both companies. But shifting the language to suggest that they failed to respond in a timely manner after repeated requests for comment, and even indicating how soon before the print deadline those requests began, would have helped readers better understand why they failed to appear.

A solution like this can’t become a cover for laziness, giving editors leeway to put off reporting to the detriment of coverage. And editors should maintain the authority to set a firm deadline for sources who might be unreasonably dragging out the process. Many stories are pressing, and publishing pieces in a timely manner lets the paper stay on top of the news on campus.

Take one look at the proactive energy and dedication of this year’s news editors, though, and concerns about laziness will disappear. Shifting away from an unforgiving weekly print cycle could help editors produce their best, most lifelike elephant portraits while giving them time to make sure they can accommodate sources whose voices are so crucial to the paper’s mission.

We want you to be part of this conversation! We encourage our readers to email publiceditor@jhunewsletter.com with questions or comments about our practices and published content.

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