06/16/14: Yes, it matters if you leave out the comma in a compound sentence

“OK, now go ahead and edit this story. Do what you need to do.”

Such a proposition would normally be child’s play; my face would light up as the words chimed in my ears. I’m the girl with a sign that reads “CAUTION: I’m judging your grammar” on my bedroom door in Chapel Hill (yes, by the way, it really does matter if you leave out the comma when it’s a compound sentence; you can thank me later).

Two weeks ago I started as an editing intern at the storied Philadelphia Inquirer. Its bank account has seen better days, but it is still a highly respected regional newspaper with a circulation of about 315,000 when combined with its sister paper, the Philadelphia Daily News. It has 20 Pulitzer Prizes to its credit, the highest award in journalism. I was already a bit starry-eyed when I walked into that newsroom for the first time.

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And those words, to “edit this story,” were what my supervisor left me with after giving me a whirlwind 30-minute training of how to use the paper’s complicated computer editing system. I stared at the screen, the story staring piercingly back. I scrolled down the page; it was a long one, at least 28 inches (or about 900 words).

How much editing was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to make it fit into a certain space on the page? What if I had a problem with the lede (the first sentence in an article)? Was I allowed to make serious changes or just edit for grammar and style? How was I supposed to track the changes I did make … he told me, damn, what was it, CTRL + F9 or something? Where even was the CTRL key? I hadn’t used a PC in three years, how did they even work? Oh, right, I was supposed to write a headline, too — where the hell was I supposed to find that?

Questions racked my brain at rapid-fire pace. I sat there in a sort of daze.

Then I realized my boss was still standing behind me, watching me.

“You good?” he asked. I snapped back into reality with an “oh yes, of course” and began reading.

He walked away, but I still felt like a dozen eyes were judging the job I was doing, wondering how good this new girl hailing from “wait, you’re from where?” was going to be. It’s the first day that’ll make or break your summer, warned Dr. Ed Trayes, my internship program director, before sending me and a dozen other editing interns off to work at The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major East Coast publications.

I read six or seven paragraphs before I realized I hadn’t processed anything I’d just looked at. I couldn’t focus, and I was afraid to touch the story. Who was I to tell this reporter, a 16-year veteran of the Inquirer and a 2012 Pulitzer winner, that I could improve her writing?

“After you finish that, you’re done for the day,” said a voice behind me after about 45 minutes. It was the head copy editor for that day.

Wait, what? My shift was 2:30-11:30, and it was barely past 6 p.m.!

I made a few small edits, fixed a name, and clarified a fact, but my confidence was completely shot. I thought I’d ruined my whole summer, and I wasn’t even sure how. Had I done a bad job? Did I take too much time? Not enough time?

Once I got home I sat in my room for a good hour, my head swimming with uncertainty about my abilities in this job. But I knew there wasn’t much I could do except come in the next day and quietly try to remedy whatever I’d done wrong.

And somehow, things got better — fast. I was allowed to handle both of the front-page featured stories for the next day, including edits, headlines, read-ins, and photo captions.

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That felt more like my first real test. With a sigh of relief, I decided that, for the time being at least, I had passed.

I had good days and bad days that first week. Once I handled 13 story edits on my own and barely had any headlines or photo captions rewritten, but the next day about two-thirds of my headlines ended up changed. I’m still getting the hang of Philly style — Montco and Delco for Montgomery and Delaware counties, but only in headlines; the Philly mayor doesn’t need a first name, just “Mayor Nutter” on first reference; there’s PennDot, SEPTA, and far too many Pennsylvanian townships (1,454 to be exact) to possibly keep straight.

Turns out the Inky, as it’s known around town, is also the ONE daily paper in the country that uses the Oxford comma (in a list, it’s one, two, and three; not one, two and three). Anyone reading this who is also a journo will understand why that is, like, really weird.

And two Fridays ago, in a seemingly innocent list of “things to do this weekend” or whatever it was, I let it slip by that “the gallery features their photos from Africa after they spent six weeks in the country.” Yes, the COUNTRY of Africa. The main copy editor told me gently and laughed, though I was pretty mortified.

On the flip side, I somehow ended up with stories involving marijuana three days in a row last week — and all of my weed pun headlines made it to print. Proud moment.

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I wouldn’t call editing “more difficult” than writing news by any means, but it requires a type of concentration, commitment to detail, and ability to switch rapidly back and forth between topics that I haven’t had to use in a newsroom before. Until midnight every day, too. Writing is something that my journalist friends and I know how to do, and well, without second thought (and the hours are, occasionally, a little more mainstream).

It was also tough at first to gauge exactly what the paper wanted me to be doing as an editor, though I think I’ve got it down now. Some newspapers want editors to preserve the longer, context-filled style (the NYT, for example), while others prefer them to cut articles down and keep ‘em short, sweet, and to the point. Some only want them to fact-check and leave the rewriting to a section editor, others (like the Inky) expect the copy eds to do everything that needs to be done. And the AP stylebook might be known as the unofficial journalist’s bible, but every paper has its own style and weird “regionalisms,” and if you’re the editor it’s your job to catch them all. The learning-the-quirky-computer-system curve is an added bonus.

But really, I like this job a lot. Though I miss the writing aspect, I can tell this constant editing is already making me a better-rounded journalist. It’s a fun office atmosphere, too; I’ve bonded with UNC graduates, fellow horse racing lovers, sports fans (we’ve had quite a time watching the World Cup since it started last week), and avid state and national politicos. Also notable is that everyone who works with me has lived with the paper through its ownership and management upheavals and mass job cutting since 2008, and they’re just grateful that the Inky — and their jobs — are still around.

As legacy print media continue to struggle, I know I’m pretty lucky to be here, too. From what I gather from coworkers, the Inquirer’s philosophy is that, while the web is a growing and important part of the paper’s DNA, the print product is what it does best — and it’s still what matters the most to readers. Call it a strategy of the past, but as someone who is stubbornly a lover of “old” journalism, I don’t mind at all.

And despite five ownership changes in eight years (including the immense tragedy of a co-owner dying in a plane crash the day before I started working there), that paper has been in the boxes every single day, without fail, no matter what. It’s been in print continuously for 185 years. Tenacity definitely counts for something.

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