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Understanding the story behind the story

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By Jackie Torok, Managing Editor

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to the members of the Sea Trail Property Owners Association in Sunset Beach. I’ve got to apologize to them, though, for not being a better public speaker (I think I successfully demonstrated why I’m much better at addressing readers from behind a keyboard).

Speaking with the POA members allowed me not just to explain what the Beacon news staff does, but also how and why. I used last week’s edition as a reference. I explained that because stories about Linnie Ward’s slaying in 2012 were published on the front page — well before I took the helm as the Beacon’s managing editor nine months ago — the stories about her accused killer’s trial would also be published on the front page. I also explained that stories on issues that affect many of our readers, like flood and homeowners insurance rates and the proposed countywide sales tax increase, usually wind up on the front page, too. The front of our Towns section is reserved for the other top stories from our county and its municipalities, while our Tides section is designated for showcasing our area’s arts, entertainment and lifestyle stories.

I was able to show the POA members what a page dummy looks like. A page dummy is a lot like a paint-by-numbers canvas. No. 1 is for the ads that will be on a page. People pay for that space, so it gets priority. No. 2 is for the news stories that will be on that same page. These are pieces of timely information readers need and expect. No. 3 is for community news items, which, because they are published for free, get last dibs on the available space on a page. If a community news item is too big for that leftover space, it will be put on another page where there is room or held for another edition when space for it becomes available.

Several POA members asked me to elaborate on matters affecting the newspaper industry, like the use of the Internet and social media. It’s no secret the industry as a whole is suffering for a variety of reasons, but community newspapers seem to be holding their own better than most large or daily newspapers are. Many people once thought television would be the death of radio, but that turned out not to be the case. I think a similar analogy could be drawn between newspapers and the Internet. I believe there will always be people who want the tangible experience of reading a newspaper.

One thing I don’t think many people outside my business realize is that the pages of many newspapers these days are assembled by people outside the newspapers’ community. The Beacon is among the exceptions to this practice. But the page designers for the Morning News in Florence, S.C., where I spent 17 years, are located in the offices of The Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record. Page designers, or copy editors, are the people who write the headlines for news stories and determine where on a page they’ll be placed. The copy editors in Hickory also lay out that community’s newspaper, as well as many other newspapers in the region. The process is meant to be cost-effective, but it’s complicated and the potential for making embarrassing mistakes is exponentially greater.

One of the most famous horror stories involving a consolidated editing center, or copy editing hub, like the one in Hickory, is linked to one of my dear friends who worked for The Greenville (S.C.) News. That paper’s pages are put together by staff somewhere in Kentucky. One night, while my friend was the only member of the sports staff on duty, one of the copy editors in Kentucky was instant messaging a friend while laying out the Greenville sports pages for the next daily edition. As journalists are wont to do, this copy editor in Kentucky was using expletives while communicating with his IM friend. One of those expletives — the dreaded f-word — accidentally was placed in the third paragraph of a Greenville sports story, and the page went to press. My friend never got to see the page beforehand, but he saw an awful lot of it the next day. It was reasonable for readers to believe someone in the newspaper’s sports department made the faux pas. After all, they read it in The Greenville News. But now they — and you — know the story behind the story.

Thank you, Sea Trail POA, for letting me share part of the Beacon’s story with you.

Jackie Torok is the managing editor of the Beacon. Reach her at editor@brunswickbeacon.comor 754-6890.