Santul Nerkar is a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight, a website that focuses on the intersections of data and politics, sports and other topics. He is a 2019 graduate of Georgetown University, where he majored in government and economics, and worked for student media. In this interview, conducted by email, Nerkar discusses editing and headline writing at FiveThirtyEight, and he offers advice for student journalists who are interested in careers in editing.
Q. Describe your job at FiveThirtyEight. What is your typical day like?
A. I’m a copy editor, which can mean a host of different things depending on the publication or site, but at FiveThirtyEight that means I’m responsible for editing our content for accuracy, grammar and style. Basically, I’m responsible for catching factual, grammatical and stylistic errors, not just for our stories, but for the visual elements that go into them (charts, tables, etc.).
As it relates to the content we put out, no two days are the same, so the structure of my day really depends on the news environment – which, as you know, has been all over the place in the last year. During the 2020 election cycle, for example, I would sometimes start my day editing a story by one of our sportswriters about, say, the Los Angeles Lakers’ run in the bubble, before jumping onto an Election Update story by one of our elections analysts around noon.
Depending on the “newsiness” of either story, I’d prioritize working with our writers to publish the one that’s most salient to the current moment. So if the Election Update was in reaction to a batch of polls of the Senate race in Maine that had just dropped, I’d focus on that one first.
Other days, though, look completely different. If I’m editing a story that’s particularly involved or needs to be edited in pieces (e.g., the underlying data, the charts, an accompanying video), then my task for the day might be pretty static. And then, of course, you have something like the current political moment, where as a site you may have to shift your coverage away from a historic Senate victory for Democrats to a riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Throughout all that, we as copy editors have to stay vigilant and make sure our style, tone and accuracy are impeccable. Those standards don’t dissipate in times of crisis; in a sense, it’s even more critical to adhere to them.
We do have some recurring stories or columns, like Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup, or the Riddler (which I solo-edit), that are more or less baked into our coverage budget. But other than that, the changing news cycle more or less dictates what I’m going to be editing on a given day. That uncertainty can be challenging, particularly around fast-changing stories like the election, the storming of the Capitol or the early days of the pandemic, but I also do appreciate the opportunity to help our site publish thoughtful journalism around such tough subjects, in a really difficult time.
Q. How does headline writing work at FiveThirtyEight?
A. Headline writing is one my favorite parts of working at FiveThirtyEight. Typically, the copy editor assigned to a given story drops it into our headlining Slack channel, where anyone at FiveThirtyEight can then suggest different headlines and deks for the piece. With guidance from the assigning editor, writer and our social editor, the copy editor has the final sign-off on a given story’s headline.
We definitely have a particular style for our headlines (snarky and wonky), and it’s always fun to fire off and hear different ideas, including suggestions from FiveThirtyEighters who didn’t necessarily have a hand in the story. In part because of the site’s collaborative culture, I felt comfortable suggesting headlines even before I was fully copy-editing stories by myself, right after I came on board.
I didn’t appreciate just how important a key headline is to a story before I started at FiveThirtyEight. As a reader, you are subconsciously drawn to certain words, phrases, formulations, etc., in headlines. So when thinking up headlines, I have to keep that in mind while also staying true to our site’s style and idiosyncrasies.
Q. While a student at Georgetown University, you worked in student media and had an internship at a magazine. What did you learn from those experiences?
A. I had vague ideas of getting into journalism entering college, but I didn’t know how to develop my ideas, let alone help others. The Georgetown Voice, the school’s newsmagazine, allowed me to be creative about pitching ideas for feature stories, but more importantly, it did that by valuing the input of each of its members, even those who didn’t hold senior positions.
I think that camaraderie in turn made me a better writer, since I felt more comfortable sharing my reporting pitches, and editor, since a key part of the job is to provide feedback to the writer in a way that engenders trust in that relationship. I also got a better sense of the stories I wanted to pursue as a writer and editor – ones that are at the intersection of politics, sports and social inequality.
My experience at Chapel Hill Magazine was instrumental to building my skills in fact-checking, as well as reporting and editing more broadly. My main job was to edit, chiefly fact-checking, as well as report out some local stories that meshed with the thematic elements of the particular issue we were about to publish.
I certainly got better at interviewing and asking questions through my reporting, but learning how to check claims, especially for a medium (print) where corrections are far harder to come by, really built my editing skills beyond just looking for grammatical errors. I also gained a much better sense of the importance of communication in editing: Always ask questions, and never assume!
Q. What advice do you have for college students interested in jobs and careers in editing?
A. Be open to different experiences, specifically as it relates to editing stories that span a diverse range of subjects. There have been a boatload of stories and projects that, when I first started their fact-check or research process, really intimidated me. I still feel that way. But I do feel now that I have built up a decent amount of domain knowledge across the subjects we cover, whether it’s in our coverage of politics, sports, science or economics.
Another thing I would say is that it’s important to build up a good number sense, with so much of reporting tending towards data journalism. That might be some of the FiveThirtyEight speaking, but I do think it is important to have at least a grasp of probabilities, empirical assertions and so on. That doesn’t mean you need to be a quant whiz or anything (I’m certainly not). But one of the things FiveThirtyEight has taught me is to be cautious when it comes to making empirical claims; as an editor, you could be responsible for fact-checking a claim that relies on methodology that hasn’t been vetted, and whose dissemination could be fairly influential. I think that sort of editing only gets better with practice, so if you have the chance to report, edit or contribute in any other way to empirically minded journalism, that’s a huge plus. Getting familiar with different sorts of data sets/databases, e.g. U.S. Census Data, is also a terrific way of building those skills.
Beyond the obvious advice to look for internships, freelance gigs and other editing opportunities wherever they may be, with the caveat that it’s a really hard time in the industry right now, my final bit of advice would be to think of editing more like research, rather than just reshaping some writing. Some of my best growth as an editor have come from taking a more active role in the story than I’d initially envisioned. That might mean writing a graf here or there, researching some additional information, and so on. (Of course, you want to make sure that the writer is on board with what you’re doing here.) The more editors and writers think of themselves as collaborators, the better it is for your editing and, accordingly, for journalism.
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