Q&A with Scott Butterworth, editorial copy chief at The Washington Post

by andybechtel

Scott Butterworth is editorial copy chief at The Washington Post. He has also worked as a night editor and copy chief of the newspaper’s Style section. In this Q&A, conducted by email, Butterworth talks about his job managing the Editorial copy desk at the Post.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I lead a team of seven multiplatform editors (the Post’s term for what used to be called copy editors) who deal solely with copy from the Editorial department. Collectively, we edit, fact-check, headline and publish some 50 articles daily, material that includes op-eds, columns, editorials, blog postings and letters to the editor.

We staff from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the day begins and ends with blog postings. Editorial has six blogs that are updated several times through the day. Letters to the editor are typically ready for editing by 9 a.m., op-eds and columns beginning at noon, and editorials at 5 p.m. We start laying out the editorial and op-ed newspaper pages at mid-afternoon and distribute proofs by 6:30 p.m. We typeset the pages around 7:30 p.m.

All of this material is published online as soon as it is ready, with one exception: Syndicated columns, which make up the majority of our op-ed pages, are generally embargoed from the Web until 8 p.m.

(Separate from the multiplatform crew, Editorial has a day online editor who triages the incoming copy, monitors what online audiences are gravitating toward and suggests what should be prioritized to address this appetite, and an online producer/editor. Together, they craft a plan for presenting and promoting our pieces.)

My day runs from noon to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday. I assign articles to the MPEs so that we wind up with neither backlogs nor editors twiddling their thumbs, I slot all stories headed into the paper (blog postings are not slotted), and I grab blog postings as I can.

I also handle longer-range duties: managing team members’ performance; looking ahead for opportunities our department should pursue and threats we should mind; and representing the desk in discussions throughout the department and the newsroom.

Q. How is editing opinion pieces different from editing news?

A. The gist of the job is the same: We are the reader’s surrogate. It is our job to untangle clunky or confusing sentences and to clarify what the writer intends to say. We also challenge the facts in each piece with the recurring question: How do you know that?

We follow the guidance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” Any good editorial or op-ed is, at its heart, an argument supported by facts. If the foundation proves less than sturdy, the opinion becomes rickety and unpersuasive. So it is in both our interest and the writer’s to ensure that the facts are as she describes them.

The twist in the job comes when the writer segues to her opinions. Our interest in plain speaking continues, but we must take care that, in clearing away brambles, we don’t cut away something more significant. So rather than rewrite first and ask later, as news desks may do on deadline, we raise questions with the writer (often proposing alternative language) and wait for a reply before taking out the shears.

We also aim to channel the writer when writing headlines. The goal is a headline that summarizes the article not only in a like spirit but also in such a way to entice even those who oppose this point of view to read it.

Q. How has the rise of digital media changed headline writing for opinion pieces?

A. It requires us to get to the point quickly — to be direct and descriptive — with our online heads. Often, nuance goes by the boards. Web audiences are hungry for smart, well-founded opinion and analysis, but they do gravitate toward starkly worded headlines, full of superlatives and usually beginning with one of the five W’s or the H.

That recipe can feel mighty limiting sometimes, especially when (for SEO purposes) you add a proper name to the front of the headline and you keep it all to less than 60 characters (at which point Google loses interest). So why do it this way? We don’t always, but we’ve found that resisting this formula creates a headwind in getting online attention.

We encourage our MPEs in writing Web heads to focus less on what happened and more on what it means. Where it makes sense, we also “steal” a writer’s lead or kicker — an approach that is bad manners in print but has proven particularly successful in attracting online aggregators such as the Drudge Report and RealClearPolitics.

Our content management system also allows us to write different headlines for different audiences. For example, we routinely write four heads for columns: one that aims primarily at Google search, one for Google News (whose spiders scrape differently than do main Google’s), one that goes out to social networks and our RSS feeds, and one for print. All four will be closely related, and one or two might be identical, but this way we have the ability to offer more directly what a given audience might want.

Q. In an increasingly digital world, what do you see as the role of opinion writing at large news organizations like the Post? What does the future hold for the syndicated columnist?

A. These are good questions, and they tie into those threats I mentioned earlier.

Opinion writing certainly faces the potential of being commoditized, as news reporting has been already. After all, “Opinions are like belly buttons: Everyone has one.”

Through blogs and social media, technology has lowered the bar to publish and draw attention to opinion pieces, in a manner similar to what we’ve already seen with YouTube. So now you can find an almost endless stream of commentary on any issue you might name. (Khoi Vinh makes an interesting argument for punditry’s vulnerability to disruption.)

The Post defends against this by relying on such differentiators as authority and reputation, which readers have shown they value when deciding where to click. (An analogy might be Tiffany’s vs. Internet jewelry sales.)

We also have a built-in advantage: our location. We’re fortunate to be in a city where the battle of ideas is waged daily; if you’re interested in serious analysis of these issues, or in influencing the debate, The Post’s op-ed page (whether print or online) is an essential read.

This gives us a platform from which to suggest to thinkers and statesmen that they might want to write for The Post. This, in turn, gives us a leg up online in competing for readers, at least for that subset of readers that pays attention to the byline before clicking.

Column writing is underappreciated as a differentiator. If you asked a random passer-by to name a writer at The Washington Post, odds are you would hear George Will, Charles Krauthammer or Gene Robinson named, rather than one of our news reporters.

This stems in no small part from their television appearances rather than their written work, to be sure, but the invitation for those appearances rests on the authority of being a Post columnist, of implicitly being someone in the know. The Post benefits, too: Its reputation grows as the place to get more of such smart analysis.

So I’m very optimistic about the future of opinion writing at The Post and at the handful of other organizations that also see it as a core part of their business. It enables us to develop and maintain loyalty among our primary readership and, when Drudge lights the siren over a given piece, to expand our audience further.

I’m less certain about the future of syndication. The economic model still makes sense for client papers: It is cheaper for the Houston Chronicle to pay to run Kathleen Parker’s columns than to find and develop an in-house columnist for that space on the print op-ed page. And holding the rights for certain syndicated columns remains no less important in some markets than having certain comic strips.

As long as newspapers continue to provide op-ed pages, I see syndication playing a large role in filling that space. But I worry about how long that relationship will continue: Op-ed pages would seem to be an easy target for publishers looking to cut news hole further.

And the Internet has broken down the presumption of the syndication model for sponsoring papers: cultivating exclusivity through the sale of rights. Now you can read most syndicated columnists at a variety of web sites, so why should I go to The New York Times — where I have to pay money — to read Maureen Dowd?

I don’t know how this story ends, but there clearly is trouble on the horizon.

Follow Scott Butterworth on Twitter.

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