Production in Print: An Inside Look at the Argus, Part I

This is the first in a three-part series by Alison Cies ’11 examining and explaining the inner workings of The Argus. Part II will be published on May 29 and Part III on June 3.

On many occasions, I have found that the campus community can be quick to criticize The Wesleyan Argus, despite knowing little about the process of producing it. How does a story translate from an idea to a publishable article? Who’s involved in this process, and how does it work? On the occasion of my last production night as executive editor of The Argus, here’s a brief overview of what goes in to producing “the nation’s oldest bi-weekly.”

Production night at The Argus is almost always an eventful affair. Writers, photographers, editors, and all-around ruckus-makers pour into the office in the late afternoon. For many of us, a stop downstairs at the Red and Black café for a cup of black coffee precedes the chaos that awaits us in the newspaper’s office upstairs. Once inside, writers make their way over to the mismatched couches placed haphazardly around the periphery of the room, carpeted by a green rug stained with many years of spilled coffee and who knows what else.

The familiar ebb and flow of the office atmosphere tends to distract most of us from one of the room’s highlights—its walls. Here, one finds the history of the Argus—in photographs, posters, quotes, and captions. Our walls are why we avoid showing the office to our parents and professors. It’s the Ampersand on steroids. One section is devoted to embarrassing and inaccurate headlines and captions from years past (recall the HIV fiasco, anyone?). Some of what’s displayed here predates my arrival on campus, whereas some I remember quite clearly from my freshman year, including a headline that reads: “Seniors blow cocks,” and a caption that reads: “Fat kids suck.” It hasn’t gotten much worse, but, as some may argue, it hasn’t gotten much better.

After filing into the office, staff members on the editorial and production sides of the process get down to business. On the editorial side, editors and writers edit articles together. Although editors assign articles to writers, editors rarely know much about the topic beyond who the writer should consider contacting. More often than not, the content of the article is just as much of a surprise to the editor as it is to the reader. Given this knowledge gap, editors try to collaborate as much as possible with the writer while editing, although this only works when the article comes into the office on time (i.e., before 7:30 p.m.). If the article is late—which commonly occurs in the News section, since most of this coverage is done last-minute—or if the writer cannot come down to the office, the process is less collaborative, and, quite frankly, less thorough. This is most often when the biggest editorial mistakes happen—editors edit the article for clarity and accidentally change its meaning; the article is missing sources, but in a rush to make deadline, editors overlook the article’s bias and publish it anyway; questions arise about the tone or intent of an article (or, more often, an opinion piece or Wespeak), and editors must hastily decide whether or not to publish it. For anyone familiar with the concept of “groupthink,” it should come as no surprise that our last-minute decisions are often the riskier ones.

On the production side of the process, the editors-in-chief work with the production manager and layout staff to put together the newspaper. This part of the process cannot happen until editors know which articles are actually going to be submitted that night. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for writers to drop a story or for a story to fall through at the last minute. Additionally, editors may, after reading an article, decide to cut it or push it to another issue (this can occur for a whole host of reasons, including biased reporting and missing sources). Once section editors have a sense of how many articles will be going in the issue and how long each of the articles will be, the editors-in-chief work with the production staff to design the front page (hand-drawing it on a whiteboard first) and to estimate the newspaper’s length, which averages 12 to 16 pages. Sections that finish earlier, such as Sports, are laid out first, whereas News is often laid out last. During this time, photo editors are also reviewing and editing photos for the issue, and other sections, such as Ampersand, are laying out their pages.

As the night progresses, section editors continue to edit articles, which are then given to executive editors (often former editors-in-chief) for more editing. Every aspect of the newspaper is then run past the editors-in-chief, who edit every article both on the computer and by hand, after it has been laid out on a page. After completing this process—around 4 a.m. during my reign as editor-in-chief—the newspaper is then burned onto a disk, which is picked up by the printer several hours later. The final printed product is delivered to campus and distributed by staff in the late afternoon.

Alison Cies ’11 is an Executive Editor and former Editor-in-Chief of The Argus.

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