Amy Kuebelbeck joined the Star Tribune as a copy editor in 2018. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press in Minneapolis, including covering the Minnesota Legislature, and was a regional election stringer coordinator for the AP, organizing hundreds of election-night vote reporters in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. She also has reported for the Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times and Grand Forks Herald and copy edited for Better Homes & Gardens magazine. A native of St. Joseph, Minn., she graduated from the College of St. Benedict and has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She and her husband have two grown daughters and live in St. Paul.
Q: People might think that copy editors fix commas and spelling, but that’s only the beginning of your job. Can you explain what is expected of copy editors for each story?
A: Copy editors have a dual role — we are advocates for readers by considering readability and whether a story makes sense, including facts, word choices, narrative chronology, and consistency in style. And we are a safety net for reporters who often need to work quickly under deadline pressure. Copy editors aren't as close to a story as a reporter and the reporter's team leader, so we can read a story with fresh eyes and can catch mistakes or unclear phrasing that may have been missed. (Many of us on the desk are former reporters, so we appreciate the value of a careful edit from a reporter’s perspective too.) One task we routinely do is double-check, or "cq," every proper name of a person, organization, title, etc. Getting names right is Journalism 101, and we realize that getting a name wrong can make a reader question everything else in a story.
Q: What does the copy editing process look like at the Star Tribune?
A: Local reporters and their supervising editors send their stories to the copy desk, where they are ideally read by two people, first the rim and then the slot. (Those old-fashioned terms are taken from how desks used to be arranged in the era of pencils and typewriters.) The editors read the story carefully (and, because of deadlines, often quickly), making sure the copy adheres to our standards for accuracy and fairness. We watch for unanswered questions, incorrect names, numbers and dates that don’t add up, unclear sentences, jargon, misused words, incorrect grammar and misspellings. We check names, websites and phone numbers. Copy editors also trim stories and write headlines, summaries and photo captions. Writing headlines is trickier than it might seem, as we want to be compelling and complete, sometimes in just a few words. The slot editors, especially, look at the story in the context of the entire page and often revise headlines in consultation with top editors.
National and international stories go through a similar process, with our Nation/World editors selecting, formatting, and editing the stories, writing headlines and captions and sending them to the slot.
After stories are edited, they get one more read on a full-size page proof. This is a last chance to catch a story that might have been inadvertently cut short, an incorrect photo caption, or a headline that feels off.
Q: Given the fact checking that goes into your job, how do you respond when people question the truthfulness of media?
A: First, I would say there's no such thing as "the media." Some media organizations have high standards for fact-checking and editing and ethics, while others play fast and loose. Responsible journalists and media organizations do not intentionally transmit news that isn't true. I think that to be informed citizens it's important for all of us, whether in journalism or not, to obtain news from a variety of sources and a variety of perspectives while also critically evaluating the content — are assertions attributed on the record? If not, is there a good reason, and does the organization have a clear policy about anonymous sources? Can the claims in a story be independently verified? Does a story make a good-faith attempt to fairly represent more than one perspective on an issue? Is the media organization consistently reliable?
There's a saying that journalism is the first draft of history. First drafts are not always perfect. According to our print design director, a typical Star Tribune Sunday edition might contain roughly 900 inches of copy (approximately 27,000 words) in the A section, 400 inches (12,000 words) in the B section, and 600 inches (18,000 words) in Business. Daily papers are somewhat smaller, but that's a lot of copy to edit, day in and day out. Most evenings, we have five copy editors and two wire editors. When mistakes do find their way past us into the paper, it's a sinking feeling for all involved. But issuing corrections, both online and in print, is important for our credibility and for earning readers' trust.
Q: As some newspapers around the country have downsized, the copy desk has often been the first casualty. Or at large companies, they consolidate so a single copy desk handles stories from different parts of the country. What impact has that had on the industry?
A: I think this is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It weakens newspapers’ safety net and jeopardizes their credibility with readers. Especially given the current political polarization, it's crucial to have news organizations that continually work to earn the trust of the public through checking and re-checking of facts. It's also important to have copy editors with a depth and diversity of experience as well as knowledge of the region. On the Star Tribune copy desk, we are fortunate to have people with many years of experience reporting and editing in the Twin Cities as well as experience elsewhere. The copy editors here truly care about accuracy and precision in writing, in addition to having a fondness for and a commitment to Minnesota. This is our home too.