August 11, 2009

Rookie professor: Jumping from newsroom to classroom

A laid-off editor teaching students to edit seems ironic. But Christofer Machniak, who worked at The Flint Journal for 11 years before accepting a buyout, has turned the experience into three articles up on Nieman Reports.

I remember stumbling across the class blog, JRN 375. where I learned that students got extra credit for finding mistakes. More on that later.

Chris expected to keep working for the newspaper. He had just become the interim opinion editor, he had been blogging, he was picking up new skills. But two days before Christmas, he learned those skills, those attributes were not enough.
"I was valued, but there wasn’t going to be a chair for me when the music stopped. If I didn’t leave voluntarily, my boss advised, I’d come to regret it."
That notice came just weeks before he was to become an adjunct journalism lecturer. You can read about his experience, including the struggle of managing two jobs for awhile.
The Michigan State University graduate is working toward a master’s degree in English at the University of Michigan-Flint and will return to the classroom. He will even teach the News Editing class again, the one that included this blog.

The blog was part of Chris' expectation that he had to do something different:
"I knew I couldn’t teach them a curriculum based solely on Associated Press Style, editing a newspaper story and crafting a snappy, yet accurate headline."
Yet, he found teaching was harder then expected:
"Looking back, given my lack of teaching experience and the long hours I was still putting in at work, my ambition exceeded my grasp. Teaching turns out to be way more work than one imagines in preparing for it, and it demands more time (not to mention energy and persistence) than one budgets in the beginning."
I admire the work and the thought that Chris put into the class. The articles explain some of the process and I encourage those thinking of teaching read them.

I stumbled across the editing blog in March, uncomfortable that the editing students were getting extra credit for finding typos and other mistakes on the websites of local media.

After reading Nancy Nall who was in the midst of a website design and shared a milestone in journalism to explain her frustrations I understood better my reaction to the class assignment.

Nancy remembers how a breaking news story showed her something important had shifted:

"In olden times, the top edi­tors would come out to the city desk and stand behind the edi­tor as the story was writ­ten and pol­ished, read­ing and mak­ing sug­ges­tions. Then one day I looked up and they were all stand­ing behind the design edi­tor, watch­ing the page being laid out. Their main inter­est in the story was how long it would be, if we could break out the back­ground grafs into a side­bar and whether we had a loca­tor map."

Nancy wrote in that post:

"Design is a pack­age. The pack­age must be attrac­tive or no one will pick it up and unwrap it. But equal atten­tion must be paid to the con­tents of the pack­age, and that got pushed aside dur­ing this era."

The newsrooms reflect society where looks becomes more important then what's inside.

It is fairly easy to find the surface errors, the wrong word, bad grammar, etc. But a computer program can find typos and even grammar mistakes.

I want editors who know when a story leaves unanswered questions, too little explanation or heaven forbid too little background.

(Updated 8/30/09 - I was wrong to use this example: ... For instance, in my back yard a restaurant, Blackstone's, opened in what once was a clothing store. In between, the building housed the Greater Flint Arts Council.

A trip to downtown Flint, Michigan, showed me the error:Blackstone's is at 531 S. Saginaw and clearly not the building at 420 S. Saginaw that held the Greater Flint Arts Council after Roberts David Allan closed and never a Blackstone's even. Both carried men's clothing.

No substitute example coming.)

I want editors who can coach writers and reporters, who can add links to archived coverage on and off the home site, who recognize a trend while wading through a variety of sources.

I want editors, not computers. Instead of searching for typos, let them look for the holes, suggest ways to appeal to multiple audiences or reflect on the timing of a story (Was this story published at the right time? Why was this story published now?)

Easier said then done.


  1. Hi Maryann,

    Thanks for the links. I also appreciate your critical thoughts on the extra credit I offered, although I'd like to explain my thinking behind it to provide more context because in no way was I trying to emphasize that grammar and style trumps asking relevant questions about content.

    I agree that finding content holes is the biggest job for an editor, and students could earn points for asking questions about what appeared to be missing. What I was hoping to achieve with the extra-credit contest was to change the students' view of stories so they would think more critically about them. Editing in a journalistic sense was new to many of them and I was hoping the contest would encourage them to apply the skills we were learning in the class and to give them a reason to pay more attention to local news and issues.

    In practice, the students focused more on style and grammar because those errors are - especially in this day and age - easier to find.

    Still, your perception does give me some pause and more reason to make sure I drive home the point that well-edited content (and I mean high quality, not change for change sake) is king.

    Thanks again for your insights and the plug.

    Hope all is well with you.

    - Chris

  2. The insights help so thanks for replying.

    It is difficult to teach critical thinking skills, skills all should have but especially those charged with editing.

    Good luck.