Q&A: How the N&O edits opinion pages

My interview with Burgetta Wheeler, conducted by e-mail, offers a look at the editing that goes into the editorial and op-ed pages of The News & Observer. Wheeler is the letters editor and page designer for those pages. In her two decades at the Raleigh paper, Wheeler has also served as copy desk chief and assistant editor for Q, the paper’s Sunday perspective section that folded last year.

Q. Describe your role and responsibilities at The News & Observer.

A. I’m the letters editor, the page designer, the copy editor, the blog birther, the online thinker and producer and the nugget finder. I occasionally also write an editorial.

As the letters editor, I read all of the letters that arrive by e-mail, fax, mail and hand delivery — more than 16,000 this year through Nov. 30. If that sounds like an overwhelming number, it is. We have room to print only about 280 letters a month. In 2008, we also have put almost 800 letters online-only, first just on the opinion Web site and then on the blog starting Oct. 1. So the blog has created even more letter work for me.

From this gush of letters, I pluck which ones to edit and put into the basket to run. Occasionally, a runnable letter just dies from old age before I can get it into the paper. As the page designer, I package the letters (and find and place any applicable art) in the available space on the editorial page each day (and in Sunday Forum each week). I also find any nuggets we put at the top of the page (Worth Noting, Your Comments, etc.). I occasionally am called upon to find art and “design” the actual editorial space.

On the Other Opinion page, I take the columns and Points of View that the op-ed editor has chosen, read them, brainstorm art ideas with myself, find the art, then massage the page the best I can to what I hope is maximum appeal. I like to try to have at least one other entry point for each item other than the main headline. I write all of the headlines and copy edit the local pieces. I proof both pages.

And because every cutback at the paper in the past year has some ripple effect, part of page designing now also involves trying to image my own art a lot of the time. I also create art sometimes. And because we also cut out the archivers in news research, designers have to copy each page and save it in a multi-step process. And because we no longer give newspapers to schools and offer the paper to them online-only, designers also have to follow the pages along in an online e-edition system and approve them as .pdfs at some point.

I spent a lot of time this year getting our opinion blog designed and launched. I’m not the master of the blog, really, but as its mother, I try to make sure at least one thing gets updated each day. Sometimes it’s just the quote on the side; sometimes it’s the cartoons. So I do have the responsibility for what’s down the left side, what online letters there are and any cartoon roundups that are posted.

I also attend the editorial board meeting each day, at which the editorial writers discuss what they’re going to write about. I try to think about graphic or art elements that will enhance the editorials or ways to include the Web, either in what we can refer to or what we might put online ourselves. Given all of my other duties, this doesn’t get as much of my brainpower as maybe it should.

As a member of the editorial board, I did vote on several endorsements in 2008. Part of my role is to be a different voice in the meetings each day, to maybe add another perspective to what gets written by the three editorial writers, who are all older men. I have written five or six editorials since I started this job in March 2007 and would write more if I had the time. I also compile the Notable Numbers that appear on the Editorial page each Saturday.

Occasionally, I even eat lunch.

Q. How is editing opinion and analysis different from editing “regular” news? What about similarities?

A. It’s probably more similar than different. You’re still editing for grammar and style and punctuation. You still don’t want the reader to strain to understand. I do allow more tortured language in letters than I might in stories because I do want letter-writers to have as many of their own words as possible. In opinion pieces, you’re still looking for holes and failures of logic as you would be in a news story.

Even when I was assistant editor of the Q section, I was editing opinion every week — frequently opinions from those in academia. And that was very much like editing reporters, in that the ease of it completely depended upon the writer. Some professors were extremely offended if you wanted to change a word, and others were extremely thankful if you could make the gobbledygook they wrote more readable.

Q. You also blog at The Opinion Shop on the N&O’s Web site. What is that experience like?

A. I just wish I had more time to be thoughtful about what we’re doing. Right now, I’m just basically throwing nuggets out there, hoping to start conversations. The experience, for me, is somewhat nerve-racking because, as a copy editor for two decades, I’m not really used to having my name out there. But I don’t care if someone takes shots at everything I say. That’s what makes it dynamic.

With the blog, I want to be able to extend the reach and import of what we already do on our Editorial page and our Other Opinion page and with the letters we run and the Points of View we accept. There’s a miasma of opinion out there these days, and in the daily paper we’re able to offer readers a thoughtful, digested and edited package of what’s relevant.

Part of what a newspaper gets criticized for is a lack of personality, so the hope is that the blog will allow us to offer readers a less institutional face. Or two. Or five.

Q. People are worried about the future of newspapers, including copy editing. What changes do you see for our field?

A. As newspapers try to get by with fewer and fewer employees, there are going to be fewer journalists who can get by with mastering one skill. When I started at The N&O in 1987, we had a universal desk from which copy editors edited and designed pages. The desk split eventually into a copy desk and a design desk.

Now, at The N&O anyway, the trend seems to be to explore having people again who can do both. I guess it would be more accurate to say that we’re exploring ways to get the most bang for the buck from everybody. You’ve got reporters taking pictures and audio and video and posting online. You’ve got editors writing stories. All sorts of people are blogging. Maybe I don’t have a good view from my particular chair where I’m doing about 30 things at once myself, but I don’t see a world ahead in which “copy editor” is an eternal job title.

Like anything else, though, it depends on the standards of quality a newspaper wants to set, what its priorities are. As long as a newspaper makes quality a priority, a good copy editor will be worth her weight in gold.

Not to mention a good headline writer. What good is all of the time and energy and expertise a newspaper puts into its newsgathering and writing if readers skim over the final product? A good headline will always be critical, which is true even online. You want people to click on it.