NatChat: You don’t know what you don’t know

During a design training session, the session leader said something that really resonated with me: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

It seems so “Duh,” but it’s so true.

As some of you prepare to start internships, take on new projects, move to new positions or begin your professional career, remember that it’s OK to ask for help when you need it, and it’s better to ask questions than not. As you make whatever switch it is you’re about to, you don’t know what you don’t know – and that’s not only OK but expected.

I had been drafting a post about things as a copy editor and designer I didn’t realize I didn’t know until faced with learning them on the fly – and I’ll include those here – but I’ll also add things I didn’t know about my experiences both during my internship and starting my career at Scripps. Hope you guys find them of use:

In general:

1. Find at least two places nearby that serve good food fast. Even if you insist on bringing your own food, you’ll find a reason to go out for your lunch/dinner break.

2. Even if you’re shy, go out with your colleagues. If there’s a party or an opportunity to hang out outside work, do so. It’s the best way to befriend people in the office and greatly improves the dynamic between you and others.

3. Learn the temperature of your office. The building I’m in, for instance, varies between the peak of Mt. Everest and hot tar in July. Leave a jacket at work and maybe a desk fan, too.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s worse to do it wrong because you were to afraid to ask.

5. Don’t be embarrassed about getting something wrong. I’m still being corrected. Partly, it’s because I’m still new to this. Mostly it’s because it’s hard for those around me to know what I don’t know (and to remember what all is specific to Scripps that I wouldn’t know.)

6. Learn the chain of command. If it’s sources, editors or supervisors, learn who has the title to say what’s what. This is especially important in the office because you will have two people tell you two contradicting things. Go with rank and ask for clarity.

7. Learn who to call in case you get sick. Seriously. I had to use a sick day less than three weeks after being hired and wound up calling all the wrong people.

8. You may not do everything perfectly, you may not work as fast as everyone else, but a good work ethic shows and is well-respected by your peers. When in doubt, do your best.

Copy Editing:

1. Learn how to trim stories. It’s unlikely you’ll be taking full inches out of local copy (stories by staff or freelancers) but it has happened to me before. However, you will be expected to trim wire stories to fit, and sometimes that’s meant taking a 50 inch beast and turning it into a 10 inch story with a beginning, middle and end. If you’ve read any AP stories lately, they aren’t always inverted pyramid, either, making it much harder to just “cut from the bottom” like the good ol’ days. Get some practice by testing your skills on AP stories. Take a 10 inch story and trim it to a brief (and give it a brief head), take a 30-50 inch and trim it to a 10 inch.

2. Learn how to write cutlines. Most wire photos I’ve seen in packages are the lede pasted into every cutline textbox. As a copy editor, you’ll be expected to rewrite the cutline to fit. If the cutline isn’t a repeat of the lede, you’ll be expected to make sure the text is accurate, to style, and fits the textbox.

3. Learn how to fact check a story without CQs. Sometimes a reporter will send a story through with CQs, sometimes they won’t, sometimes half of what should be CQ’d is. It’s still your job to ensure the accuracy of all content you read. If a source is federal or state, there should be paperwork online to back up facts and figures. If it’s a business or group, check online for press releases or fliers.

Pro tip: If you’re not sure where to look on a site, go to your URL bar and type in your search phrases then “”. For instance, if I wanted to search for a story about Student Congress president elections on The Shorthorn, I’d type “student congress president elections”. This is a quick and easy way to display that search on, say, google.

4. Spend time learning your local style guide. You may think AP is king, and for most style it is, but local markets are very particular about their own style. Pay special attention to proper nouns and cultural style (example: The Kitsap Sun in Washington state refers to “American Indians” as “Native Americans.”) This also includes broad rules of using or not using specific information (The Caller-Times, for instance, does not print the names of gangs to prevent growing their “fame”.)

5. Learn every deadline. You will probably be faced with proofing/reading two different things and will have to decide which is a greater priority. The almost no-fail way is to check the deadlines for each. The one due the soonest is the one that gets your attention first.

6. Learn the headline nuances. One of the papers I edit for – The Ventura County Star – has five editions for five different local covers because it spans such a large area. Because of this, headlines (or their kickers or deks) must include the city/town name to make it more geographically specific. Some of our papers care more that you don’t break phrases or end on prepositions than if you fill out a deck, others are the reverse. Each paper will be different, so learn the tricks to make the slot/local editor happy. (Think of it as learning how your professor wants you to write an essay and doing it that way to ensure an “A.”)


1. Learn the grid. Love the grid. Be the grid. You must learn how to design on a grid. Grid-based design is the foundation for news and magazine design everywhere. Once you’ve learned grid-based design, you’ll better be able to deviate and work in small surprises that can really make your work look fresh. But if there’s no order, it’s all chaos.

2. Learn how to choose and crop photos. It’s been my experience that the photo editor may wean the photos down to a manageable few, but it’ll be the designer’s call about half the time as to which art to use and how to crop it (wire stories only – don’t crop local art without talking to someone first, unless you’ve been given permission to.) Remember you want tomorrow’s art, not today’s or yesterday’s, and look for things that will read well played at the size you have set for it (for instance, a person’s face must be at least the size of a dime.)

3. Learn how to design based on headline hierarchy. Sometimes your “top” story’s headline isn’t at the top, left of the page. The reader will understand hierarchy more from size than placement. (That doesn’t mean put your least important story at the top of the page, though.) However, this opens up more opportunities in terms of dominant art being in a lower-importance story (play the art, not the headline, higher on the page.)

4. Learn design nuances. I’ve reported to four different people while designing now, and they each responded differently to what was probably the same or similar design layout. Doglegging around ads, bumping headlines, art looking off the page, widows/orphans, white space in headlines, etc. They each had things they didn’t care about and things they wouldn’t budge on. One person didn’t mind if heads bumped so long as they were more than 10 points different and spanned a different width of columns. Another would insist I use art or a pullquote or mug (or something) to break up the heads. It all depends, but it’s better to learn those nuances and train yourself to think around certain design “don’ts.”

5. Learn how to trim stories. There is a chance you may be asked to trim a wire story for one of your pages. You may even be asked to write a headline/cutline. Be prepared.

6. Learn deadlines and how to manage your time. When balanced several pages with different deadlines, it’s important to know how to track the stories on your page and deadlines for your pages. Often you will be able to choose when you take your lunch break, etc., so learn when the best time for that may be.

7. Learn how to use photoshop, illustrator and indesign to create graphics, skyboxes and more. You may be responsible for maps, charts and graphs if you don’t have a dedicated graphics team, and certainly the designers here are responsible for their skyboxes and cutouts of photos. So, learn.

8. Learn how to read dummies and runsheets. Dummies will show you where ads are, runsheets will tell you what the ad is and should include whether the page is BW, 1C or 4C.

-Also, learn the difference between 1C and 4C.

9. Learn the difference between black and white and color plates. Here, for instance, we try to send color early and then black and white closer to deadline. Also, when we fly a page, we can resend black only.

-May just be a good idea to have ADrew explain the whole press thing in general. It’s actually more intricate than I ever knew.


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