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Larry Lough

Editing merely a series of decisions

“Every editor needs an editor.”

That’s the mantra of this editor.

It means that:

1) Everybody makes mistakes.

2) Self-editing is the most difficult kind.

3) Publishing a newspaper is a team exercise.

We’re all in this together.

That includes you readers.

DIFFERENT EDITORS do different things to make a newspaper.

But they perform the same function – making decisions.

Assignment editors, working with writers, decide what we report – and what not to report – as well as how to report information: What questions must we ask? What sources must we seek? What relevant data must we include?

As the people who put the newspaper together, copy editors make the final decisions on what articles say and how they’re displayed.

All editors make decisions about story content, tone and length.

So we’re making thousands of decisions each day, everything from what stories go on Page 1 to whether to use a semicolon or a period to stop the reader at the end of an independent clause.

And then we do all it again tomorrow.

LET’S BE PERFECTLY honest here: Most decisions we make are pure judgment calls.

That subjectivity opens virtually every decision to criticism by people who have different experiences, interests and standards.

Our decisions are based on what we believe people want and need to read.

We once published a guest column from a state’s attorney who was critical of our judgment in failing to put a story on Page 1 that he thought deserved that prominent placement.

He might have been right.

But as with most judgment calls, there is seldom a right and a wrong that everyone agrees on.

That’s part of what makes our job fun – and frustrating.

ANOTHER confession: Some of our decisions are completely arbitrary.

For example, who are we to tell people how long their letters to the editor can be?

Well, editors edit, and that includes editing for length.

We really have only two things to manage in the newsroom: How to use our limited space on the printed page, and how to use the limited hours of our editors, reporters, photographers and editorial assistants.

Our Opinion page never gets bigger, so we have to put some reasonable limits on what we print, including readers’ submissions.

Guest columns on matters of community interest are limited to 500 words.

Letters to the editor have a 300-word maximum, and we sometimes tell people who want a guest column that they will have to settle for a letter.

Those letters that involve political proselytizing can be only 200 words.

For religious proselytizing, 150 words. (How’s that for separation of church and state?)

Racist letters get no words.

And we enforce the limits.

IN CASE YOU wonder who established those limits, this editor did.

The buck stops here.

They are, however, guidelines. Another editing decision is when to relax guidelines (which rarely happens) in certain circumstances.

Don’t ask what those circumstances are. We don’t know until we face them.

Those limits also are maximums. A letter writer may be allowed up to 300 words, but he isn’t entitled to 300 words.

If his letter covers the topic in 200 words, and the rest is repetitive “filler,” we’ll probably cut the letter to 200 words.

People who want to express themselves online have more flexibility.

But print has its limits.

NOT EVERYONE WILL agree with our editing decisions, as we noted earlier.

We’re not going to make everyone happy – ever.

A reader recently objected to our letters policy.

“When a newspaper limits what some people can say because of what some other people think about their religious topic, I believe that amounts to discrimination and censorship,” she wrote. “It attacks both freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

For starters, an editor cannot be impeached for messing with the Constitution.

Second, he’s not messing with anyone’s free exercise of religion or speech. Nor is it discrimination (all letters are judged by the same standards) or censorship (you have alternatives to be heard).

If you want to preach, you have lots of avenues, and the newspaper cannot stop you: Scream from a soapbox on a downtown street corner, walk door to door to hand out leaflets that express your beliefs, invite your friends and neighbors to a meeting in a public park where you can talk as long as they will listen.

But no one has a constitutional right to have a letter of any length published in a newspaper.

Editing decisions are protected by the First Amendment’s right of a free press.

That’s what we do.

WE TRY TO BE AS democratic as possible in opening the Opinion page to the thoughts and ideas of readers – even those that disagree with ours.

As loyal readers know, we frequently publish readers’ criticisms of this newspaper.

If we remember correctly, the guest column by that state’s attorney was longer than the 500-word limit, but we published it all because we thought the writer and his topic deserved it.

That’s the discretion involved in exercising editorial judgment.

In other words, that’s editing.