One of the hardest things about the job of an assignment editor is having to say "no" _ and there are a lot of reasons I have to do just that on a near-daily basis.
Sometimes people ask us to do stories about things happening outside of the area. A very nice woman from Fort Stanwix called me Friday, eager to send me news of the many interesting goings-on at the monument, which is in Rome, N.Y. She seemed incredulous that The Daily Star's calendar of events is limited only to those things that are happening in or near the newspaper's coverage area.
The nice woman argued that many of the fort's visitors are from the Oneonta area _ which I don't doubt. But if that were our sole criterion, where would it end? People from around here routinely travel to Albany, Binghamton, New York City, Florida _ the list goes on. My job, as I see it, is to make sure we tell the world about what's going on here. We're proud to be a member of The Associated Press, and to bring you news of state, national and world significance. But I'm more proud of our commitment to the local community. And in this digital age, there are nearly infinite ways to find out what's going on in the rest of the world.
Another reason we sometimes have to say "no" is because what matters dearly to one person may not be of abiding interest to all of our readers.
Several weeks ago, a woman came to me in tears, asking if we would do a story about her lost dog. It felt cruel to tell her "no," but I did, after not finding a satisfactory answer to the question, "What makes this lost dog different from any other?"
When my reporters pitch story ideas to me, they have to fill out a form that includes several questions. Some of them are practical considerations, like how long they expect the story to be and whether there will be an opportunity for us to get a photograph to illustrate the story. The most important question, and sometimes the hardest to answer, is, "Why do we care?" If we can't answer that question, we figure our readers will wonder the same thing.
Some of you may be thinking, "I might have cared about a missing dog." But what happens the following week when another person's dog is missing? And the week after that? How do we tell that person "no" when we told someone else "yes"? And would you keep caring about missing dogs if you were reading about them every day?
As hard as these questions are to answer, they're not the sort of thing that keeps an editor awake at night, staring at the ceiling. That category is reserved for errors.
Mistakes make an editor's blood run cold, because we know that each and every one of them calls our credibility into question. The logic goes like this: If we're so incompetent that we can't even take down a lottery score, catch obvious spelling errors or other simple tasks, why should we be trusted at all?
It's a harsh analogy, but one that I understand. I blanch when I see typos in the New York Times, and I scoff at misspellings on official documents. That's why I sit down every day with my boss, editor Sam Pollak, and the members of our copy desk, and talk about all the things we screwed up the night before.
It's not a particularly fun conversation, but it's an extremely important one. Much as we want to excuse away our mistakes, we can't. All we can do is try to avoid them in the future.
Emily F. Popek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. She can be reached at 432-1000, ext. 217, or firstname.lastname@example.org.