Copy editor: John Oudens, The New York Times

On Wednesday, Feb. 25, armed with a computer, projector and downloaded AOL instant messenger, we experimented with an in-class interview. The brave subject: John Oudens, recently returned from a stint on the International Herald Tribune (owned by the Times) and now back on the metro desk of The New York Times in Manhattan. Here's how it went:

LJThornton (9:45:57 AM): testing, testing!

JOudens (9:46:16 AM): Yes, your mike is on.

LJThornton (9:47:46 AM): All rightie then!

LJThornton (9:48:06 AM): Go have a cup of coffee and we'll begin in about 15

JOudens (9:48:31 AM): I'm tinkering with the typeface. This is Times New Roman. Figured I should give it a try, at least. -- Standing by with very good coffee.

LJThornton (10:03:20 AM): Hi, my name's Dave. I'm going to be the transcriber for the class.

JOudens (10:03:46 AM): Hi, Dave.

LJThornton (10:04:13 AM): Do you like being copy editor for the smaller or larger newspapers?

JOudens (10:05:26 AM): Oh, larger, I think, because smaller newspapers are likelier to need you to handle a broader array of tasks: text editing, designing and so forth. I am a text editor at heart.

LJThornton (10:06:06 AM): What do you like best about text editing?

JOudens (10:07:45 AM): That's almost difficult to articulate because my love of the written word is about as old as my memory. I can't imagine forgoing this immersion to writing for any stretch of time.

LJThornton (10:08:34 AM): Are you a writer, as well as an editor?

JOudens (10:09:25 AM): Um, that should probably be "immersion IN writing." -- No, I am an editor. To be a good newspaper writer, you have to be a good reporter as well, and I was never as comfortable in that role.

LJThornton (10:09:59 AM): What is your advice for "wanna-be" copy editors?

JOudens (10:11:22 AM): Read as much as you can. Not just about newspapering, though that's certainly worth your time; read fiction, nonfiction. Just as long as it's good. Or as long as most of it's good, anyway.

LJThornton (10:11:52 AM): Define good...

LJThornton (10:12:22 AM): i.e. what do you enjoy reading?

JOudens (10:12:34 AM): It also does help to have been a reporter at one time or another. I did work as a reporter for a number of years, and I know it gives me a broader perspective. -- Yes, I knew that "good" sounded subjective.

JOudens (10:13:50 AM): You almost have to find what's good on your own. Some of it's obvious, like E.B. White (yes) and Danielle Steel (no).

LJThornton (10:14:07 AM): Any advice for reporters in aiding copy editors?

JOudens (10:15:29 AM): Double-check everything, or as much as time will allow. And try to remember that the vast majority of copy editors have great intentions at heart: They are there to help you.

LJThornton (10:16:13 AM): What was your worst mistake as a copy editor, or, if you're infallable, the worst mistake you've seen?

JOudens (10:18:10 AM): Oh, I need not venture outside my personal memory for this. My worst as a copy editor in an any role, I think, was using a wrong mug shot with an endorsement that ran on a regional editorial page at the St. Pete Times. (Two candidates had very similar names.) MORE ...

JOudens (10:19:35 AM): My worst mistake as a text editor was substituting the day for the date in an advance on a school board meeting and getting it wrong by several days. So the newspaper had to run a particularly embarrassing correction the next day. Both of those tend to come back to me in the middle of the night.

LJThornton (10:20:25 AM): What differences do you see in the editing of sports copy and metro copy?

JOudens (10:20:32 AM): And the funny thing is they're both perfectly avoidable. Just look twice and a third time, if needed.

JOudens (10:21:52 AM): Far and away, sports copy editing assumes that the reader has a specialized knowledge of the language. So squeeze play and three-pointer and 3-4 defense need no explanation. You have to explain a lot more in Metro.

LJThornton (10:22:35 AM): What do you do at The Times?

JOudens (10:22:46 AM): And sports copy editing tends to crunch most of its work into a frighteningly short time. So sometimes the work feels more like the meatball surgery of "MASH."

JOudens (10:24:09 AM): At the Times, three days a week I'm a copy editor on the Metro desk, reading assigned stories -- thoroughly, checking all facts and style matters -- writing headlines, reading my own proofs, reading other assigned proofs. Two days a week I'm copy editing for The City, a Sunday-only section distributed only in the five boroughs.

LJThornton (10:25:18 AM): Could you explain the Metro desk, in terms of what kind of copy and work it receives?

JOudens (10:26:37 AM): It's pretty straightforward: hard news and features from New York City and New York state. Political coverage, schools, crimes, fires, offbeat tales.

LJThornton (10:26:50 AM): Could you explain "The City", too?

JOudens (10:28:36 AM): That's a bit different. Loosely put, it's a collection of feature stories -- some long, many 500 words or fewer -- that take place within the five boroughs of New York City. It's not intended to be a local section of record, all the local news that fits; though some stories serve to provide updates on longstanding disputes or problems.

LJThornton (10:29:01 AM): Could you explain your typical workday, in terms of a schedule, times, etc.?

JOudens (10:30:52 AM): On the Metro desk, I go in at 5 or 5:30 and I can expect to stay seven hours, sometimes a little shorter, occasionally longer. Dinner is when I can slip away for a break. On The City shifts, I go in at 10 or 11 and stay until 5 or 6 or 6:30.

LJThornton (10:31:39 AM): Also, how did you get your first job?

JOudens (10:32:51 AM): I worked summers home from college as a general-assignment reporting intern on the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, near where I grew up. The first summer I pretty much walked in, found the editor and said "Hi, I'd like a job." Once I was out of college, they took me on full time.

LJThornton (10:32:56 AM): Professor Thornton says to ask about "overtime"...

JOudens (10:34:41 AM): At The Times, overtime pays time and a half, and you get it for staying later than the end of your structured shift. Them's the rules here. You don't necessarily find that everywhere you go -- I've worked at newspapers where overtime began only after you'd worked 40 hours in a given week.

LJThornton (10:35:09 AM): How many editors do you keep on staff on a typical night shift?

JOudens (10:36:11 AM): On the Metro desk, including two or three copy chiefs (slots), around 16 or 17. That's on a weeknight when we're fully staffed.

LJThornton (10:37:17 AM): Is that about the typical headcount for a major metro paper? How many would a smaller paper have?

JOudens (10:39:03 AM): A smaller paper wouldn't be nearly that fully staffed. At my last newspaper, you might have that many people handling all the news except sports (which is almost always its own copy desk). As for the major metros, it's hard for me to say because this is the only one I've worked on. But I don't believe it's all that atypical.

LJThornton (10:40:08 AM): What kind of experience does The Times look for in copy editors?

JOudens (10:42:26 AM): Well, this may sound unlikely, but I'm not privy to the details there. But I'd guess three to five years, minimum. Some people come here with much more. I'd been a newspaper editor for 18 years when I arrived.

LJThornton (10:42:58 AM): What was the try-out process like?

JOudens (10:45:10 AM): Thorough. Very thorough. First I received, as a series of attachments, a take-home test of five stories to edit. And they were all, um, challenging. Then I came to the city for a four-night "live" tryout -- quotation marks because I worked on stories as though they were for publication, but they were not. During the four-night stay there were meetings and interviews.

LJThornton (10:45:58 AM): Is it the same way at the Observer or The St. Pete Times?

JOudens (10:47:12 AM): Not at all. The Observer flew me to Charlotte for a long test and a couple days of interviews. The St. Pete Times, as best as I can remember (this was 14 years ago), did pretty much the same thing.

LJThornton (10:47:55 AM): The JMC 413 class at ASU thanks you greatly for your time. We will be keeping this interview. Cool?

JOudens (10:48:24 AM): Sure. Thanks for having me.

LJThornton (10:48:33 AM): No prob.

Back to the 413 schedule

     The road to Manhattan

John Oudens, 42, has been a copy editor on the Metro desk of The New York Times since July 2003. A graduate of the University of Miami (the one in Florida, not Ohio), he began his career in 1985 as the assistant sports editor at his hometown paper, the Concord (N.H.) Monitor. He has also worked as a copy editor and page designer at the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. He was a copy editor, the national editor and a copy desk supervisor at the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.

In 2004, he spent five months on assignment on the copy desk of the International Herald Tribune, a New York Times-owned English-language newspaper based in Paris, France.

He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Dr. Susan Keith, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

He is a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. And life is good.