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It was my first night working as an editor on the Print Hub, the team of New York Times planners, editors and designers who produce the daily print newspaper, and my first thought was: Is the job really so … easy?
Reader, I was quickly humbled.
This group of about 70 journalists is responsible for taking articles that have been published online and adapting them to appear in print. Print Hub editors give articles another copy edit (which is especially crucial for breaking news filed late in the day), write captions for photos and cut or rewrite text for the paper. They have to do it all before the unforgiving deadline of 5 p.m., when the first edition of the newspaper gets sent to the printer. (For context: Some articles are not filed until 4:30 p.m.)
One of the trickiest parts of the job is crafting headlines. Online, a headline has looser space restrictions. But a print headline must fit in a defined, tight space; even one extra letter can require a wholesale rewrite. There are some tricks: For example, there are many ways to say “Supreme Court” to fit into spaces of varying lengths (e.g., “justices,” “top court”).
The article I was assigned, a 260-word politics dispatch, seemed straightforward enough. I wrote a headline in five minutes: “Biden Says Re-election / Campaign Is in the Cards.” (The slash indicates where the headline breaks on a new line.)
If you are a print veteran, you immediately see the problem here. Kren Phillips, an editor for the Print Hub, certainly did, and she gently pointed it out: I’d split a phrase. Each line of a headline should be able to stand alone as a single thought, meaning any line other than the final one should generally end with a noun or an action verb.
I tried again: “Biden Says He Plans to Run / for Re-election in 2024.”
Except now, I’d violated another rule: The first word of every line needs to be capitalized. To make matters worse, the second line was short; headlines should fill the allotted space exactly.
“Does ‘For President Again in 2024’ fit?” for the second line, Kren wrote in a Slack message.
Of course it did. That kind of problem-solving happens nearly all night, every night, as Print Hub editors update later editions of the newspaper.
Life in the Hub is governed by a few rules: Generally don’t use full names in headlines, other than in obituaries. Always put “New York City” on one line (never “N.Y.C.”). These rules may seem arcane, but they keep the newspaper consistent — and hold The Times to a high standard.
All of this was a bit of a shock for me. I’m an editor on The Times’s digitally focused Flexible Editing desk, a pool of 18 or so editors who edit copy from across the newsroom, including some story forms, such as newsletters, Instagram posts and video captions, that don’t appear in print. Editors on the Flex desk, as we call it, also fill in on other teams, which is how I ended up on my three-month stint at the Print Hub.
In college and during my first journalism job as a digital producer and trending news reporter, I focused on digital-first skills like social media and search engine optimization — the process of writing a headline with keywords that people are searching for online. Newspaper terms like bulldog (the first edition of the Sunday newspaper) and A-hed (a one-column headline that appears on the top right of the front page) were old-school. And while deadlines on the digital report can be demanding, especially during breaking news, I learned that on the Print Hub, they’re dictatorial. They come on holidays, weekends and during power outages.
One of the most important tasks of a Print Hub editor is trimming text to fit in a limited amount of space. On the Flex desk, I’ll often streamline an article, but in the Print Hub, an article can easily arrive 400 words too long. Print Hub editors work through the copy, making small cuts — changing “according to” to “said,” for instance — and big ones, such as eliminating entire quotes.
I picked up other skills as well: Stacy China, an editor who often oversees the International section, taught me the importance of photo captions. A good one is specific and avoids vague language.
There was a lot to learn in a brief stretch of time. But I couldn’t have asked for better guides, who mentored me as I brought up the rear. Samantha Farlow, who oversees the print report at night, has a knack for taking a so-so front-page headline and making it sparkle. The editor Sean Ernst writes headlines that I could never match even after spending whole days brainstorming (he has deservedly won numerous headline writing awards).
Though the print world was new to me, I brought some skills from Flex that proved useful: Writing tweets for almost every article I edited had honed my ability to quickly summarize the essence of a story. My Saturday night shifts in Flex had resulted in a practiced eye at scrutinizing copy for outdated time references (e.g. “this week,” “today”).
And I brought some knowledge back with me. In the two months since I’ve returned to my day job, I’ve been industrious in trying to write compelling headlines. I’m more conscious of captions, making sure that they give readers context beyond what they can see in a photo.
And now I know: The job of Print Hub editors is hard.
They just make it look easy.