Courtney Rukan is deputy multiplatform editing chief at The Washington Post, a job she has held since 2010. She previously worked as a copy editor in the sports and features departments at the Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Rukan discusses her job and her transition from print journalism to digital.
Q. Describe your job at the Post. What is your typical day like?
A. In my job, I help oversee a team of 50 copy editors. I typically arrive between 8 and 9:30 a.m. (depending on the day and/or circumstances)
Monday: I try to start the week off by dipping into our editing system and handling a few web files, to get the week started off right. My boss and I meet after the daily 9:30 morning meeting (the daily planning meeting for digital and print) to catch up on business. We talk about what’s happening that day, as well as short- and long-term projects we’re undertaking and any other things we need to deal with.
If I don’t have any emails that are of pressing concern, I make a pass around the room to get details about what was talked about at the morning meeting and what might be brewing for the Sunday paper. I also make sure to stop by to say hi to my copy editors who work in the morning, because it’s always a good thing to know how everyone is doing.
Then I make assignments for our weekly Real Estate, Sunday Arts and Sunday Business sections before turning my attention to overseeing the daily print product. On Mondays and Tuesdays, other copy editors in my department “run the day” because we want to make sure folks in our department get a chance to take on leadership roles. (I’ll detail the print duties on Wednesday, which is the day I run.) In between making sure everything is running smoothly, I will handle any other matters with respect to production, personnel, etc.
Tuesday: In the morning, I turn my attention to doing a weekly schedule, which takes about an hour. I walk the floor quickly to get a handle on what’s coming that day.
This is the regular day for our weekly enterprise meeting, at which we find out about the big projects we’re working on for that week or farther out. My boss and I try to marry the right copy editor to the right enterprise projects based on timeline, skill level, interest, etc. Then I connect the assignment editor, designer, copy editor and any other interested parties in an email to coordinate the project. After that, I oversee print production.
Wednesday: I make the final assignments for our weekend sections and coordinate with the Weekend section editor on our proofing strategy for the day. Then I try to squeeze in whatever administrative duties and additional meetings I can before the print cycle starts.
This is the day I run print instead of supervising it: Prep for the print product includes greeting each editor as they come in (if possible), parsing our booking process for what will run in print and what is online-only content, communicating with assignment editors and copy editors, checking our messaging system for changes, making assignments, slotting when necessary, determining which pages we will proof early (before deadline), assigning the remaining pages to proof and assigning and late-moving files. Once we’re in a good spot (typically between 6:30 and 8 p.m.), I head home where I monitor email until about 9:30 p.m.
Thursday: My boss and I slot Real Estate, Sunday Arts and start slotting Sunday Business. We coordinate with the section editors to ensure smooth closure. Then we have our weekly meeting with the managing editor in the afternoon. I make sure our weekend enterprise plans are moving in the right direction before turning my attention to print.
Friday: This is the day I’m my boss, who’s off Fri-Sat. So I attend the morning meeting, make my rounds, coordinate everything for the weekend while making initial plans for the following week. Then I slot most of Sunday Business, attend any necessary meetings, get print started for that night, attend the afternoon A1 meeting (at which A1 is debated and our digital stats are parsed), and finish off Sunday Business once the market stats come through. Once print is under control, I leave around 6:30 p.m.
Any number of things can interrupt the normal flow of my workday because curveballs pop up all the time, but that is what a typical week should look like.
Q. You started your career as a print journalist. How have you made the transition to digital?
My transition to digital was gradual from 2004 until 2010, at which point I worked in the sports department and we were a guinea pig for washingtonpost.com. During those six years, our digital education mainly consisted of learning the needs of the digital world. We evolved slowly, reverse publishing some content from web to print. Then after a couple of years, we started to write SEO web headlines. But since 2010, the transition has been much quicker.
From 2010 to 2013, we started writing our own web heds with digital summaries and learned how to pull photos for digital presentation in Methode, our CMS. Then we added editing in WordPress in 2013 as a complement for the bloggers and for special digital presentation.
We also have special systems and build-outs for databases, graphics, video, design, etc. This year we rolled out ARC, which allows us to publish copy to the web in a more streamlined way, which has continued our unofficial “new year, new tool” pace.
I think the transition from print to digital is more a mind-set more than anything: Typesetting and publishing content have never been easier, and yet new tools can throw people off-balance, so it’s important to remember all of the tools we’ve worked on in our careers and how much harder those tools were when it was print-only work.
ATEX required editors to hard-code headlines, captions and text; the new systems only require us to make sure everything is right within the code that is provided for us. We do have more steps to worry about now, but if you can keep things organized in your head you can succeed easily in the digital world.
That said, we provide a lot of training for anyone who needs it. Personally, I think we should embrace change and continue to do so. Evolution is necessary to succeed over a 30-plus-year career.
Q. The Post uses a “content testing tool” called Bandito to assess headlines and other elements on its site. How does that affect how human editors do their work?
Bandito allows for dissent and certainty, which is great for editors and journalism. If two or more people have different ideas about the direction a headline should go it, you can use Bandito to prove which one is the best.
We get a lot of guidance on how our voice should sound on web heds, and there is a lot of discussion about digital presentation in various channels in Slack. And sometimes the best headline might just be one that has more of a “print” sensibility.
Bandito allows us to take it right to the source, our audience, to see how we can best proceed. So I don’t think it affects how human editors do their work so much as it helps us by opening a world of possibilities that are proved or disproved in real time; Bandito gives us the chance to think both inside and outside the box.
Q. Editing at the Post sounds like a cool job. What advice do you have for students who are interested in that kind of work?
Working at The Post is great, and we try to create a collegial and supportive working environment. I’ve never had a desire to do anything else because of the feeling that we’re making a difference each day and my excitement when I’m in the newsroom.
Even on my worst day at work, I have more fun at work than a lot of my non-journo friends have on their best day at work. We work with so many intelligent and funny people, colleagues who care about the state of the world and the state of the people in the newsroom.
But working at a major daily newspaper isn’t for the faint of heart: The hours can be long and unpredictable, there is a lot of stress associated with the unpredictability of the news cycle, and working nights and weekends can be part of the job for many years. Case in point: I worked 15 years before getting a traditional Saturday-Sunday weekend, and although my shifts are mostly days now, there are still instances when I’m at the office until 9:30 or later (excluding big-event nights like an election). And for 10 of those 15 years, I had a midweek weekend and worked past midnight.
We have more opportunities for daytime work now, but anyone who wants to work at a newspaper needs to think about unusual hours and days off and whether they can sustain that life for a decade or more. But doctors, lawyers, nurses and so many more people have strange hours, too, so if you really love journalism you should do it.
Passion is what matters most: How passionate are you about the First Amendment and the press’s role in it? The answer to those questions will guide you.