Simon Poitrimolt / McGill Tribune
Simon Poitrimolt / McGill Tribune

The story behind the story

a/Editorial/Features by

How do you measure a year? Maybe you do it in days, or maybe, like every other student at McGill, in the number of all-nighters left before the first day of summer vacation begins. The Tribune does it in words; 832,000 of them.

Each week, the 20 editors of the McGill Tribune come together to put out a newspaper. The very same paper that started off as an eight-page ode to student life now rounds out at over 20 pages a week, with eight sections that reflect the disparate interests of this school’s student body.

How do all of these different parts come together to tell a coherent story? Each piece begins with an idea, a vague goal, and a week later becomes part of the mosaic of stories that reflect the life of the McGill community. From concept to paper, each passes through many hands before you pick them up every Tuesday morning.

Monday: the pitch

The pitch is the most important part of the publishing process. How a story is planned dictates the article’s tone and direction. If it’s well-conceptualized, the logistics of writing, interviewing, and editing all fall into place. If the story’s intended contribution is unclear, the end result will sometimes be unpublishable. My first piece for the Tribune, a reflection on a speech by Angela Davis given in September 2009, suffered from this affliction. Unsure of what to emphasize, I provided a play-by-play of the night’s logistics, coloured by my own conceptual musings on the event. Oddly enough, this was not deemed worthy of publication.

It can be hard to come up with (roughly) 36 stories every week. Sometimes, they’re determined by routine—for example, every second Thursday, the News team covers the events of the SSMU Legislative Council and reports on what Councillors have been doing. Pitches also come in response to out of the ordinary events, like a special sports event, a renowned guest speaker on campus, an outstanding McGill production—or a flood on Rue McTavish.

The List

Once a story has been pitched, planned, and discussed, it makes its way into the week’s story list. Contributors come to weekly meetings in Shatner 110 to pick up a story that captures their attention, or to pitch their own. After negotiating deadlines, sources to interview, and events to attend, each story idea finds a writer, and each writer finds a mission for the week.

The Process

[pullquote]“The best sports stories aren’t those written about what happens on the field, but the stories that show the tenacity, the struggle, and the inspiration of the athletes themselves” —Sports Editor[/pullquote]

Contributors leave Room 110 with a story burning in their back pocket, or stuffed in their backpack with other worries and assignments. At home, waiting for them, is a follow-up email from the editors that shares an in-depth vision for the piece: who the contributor should talk to, and what reporters should keep in mind when writing. At the end of this email is always a friendly reminder that the story is due Friday at midnight.

Juggling this deadline with schoolwork and procrastination, the writer shoots off some emails to potential sources, hoping for a quick reply, or—hopefully—schedules in enough time to attend, cover, and reflect on an event. Once interviews are set up and a plan is made, the story sits quietly on top of the contributor’s agenda, waiting patiently among the rest of the week’s stresses.

The Research

Before writing, contributors do some background research on the topic or event, ideally steering clear of Wikipedia. Each writer outlines each of the key issues, identifying who’s involved, as well as the different sides to the story. If it’s a sports event, writers must look back over the team’s season and identify the issues that plague the squad. If it’s a speaker on campus, they must reflect on how this event will contribute to discussion at McGill.

With a close deadline looming, the writers work hastily to find the answers that piece all of these questions together. All the while, they hold the reader at the back of their minds: what will students get out of this story?

Putting the Pieces Together

Integral to this contextual process are the interviews, where contributors learn firsthand about the issues from direct sources. This is the most interesting part of writing for the Tribune. It is also the most important, as it offers the opportunity to explore subjects that they would not have the chance to know about otherwise. The questions asked determine how the interviewee responds, which in turn dictates how the story is written. Notepad in hand, writers jot down the quotes they find the most interesting or powerful and record the conversation to later on tease out all of the different elements in the story. Often, it turns out that the story is not what’s immediately evident, but is rather what’s not being said.

The Writing

[pullquote]“People often say ‘you had to be there’. Our job is to make you feel like you were” —A&E Editors[/pullquote]

Once the interviews have been collected and the framework has been sketched, the contributor works diligently to juxtapose a broad collage of information in order to present a story, making difficult choices along the way. Information can be contradictory. Interviewees’ quotes may be vague and hard to decipher. The final verdict to an event can be difficult to determine. Sentences must be crafted with the utmost attention to the smallest detail. And length constraints are hard to reconcile with the amount of information that a particular issue merits. Among the unavoidable confusion that defines the writing process, the author’s underlying vision must shine through, shedding light on what needs to be said. After hours of hard work, some intensive writing, and quite a few cups of coffee, a story finally surfaces.

The Weekend: section edits

Over the weekend, the piece goes through the section and managing editors. Each editor evaluates it from the reader’s perspective: what information is missing? What demands further explanation? The section editors exchange versions of the story’s draft, leaving each other notes in the margins. Once satisfied, stories are sent to a section’s managing editors for further review, and by Sunday night, the story is sent into the Tribune’s design editors, who create a clear and visually appealing layout for the story.

Monday: Production

[pullquote]“Week in and week out, we portray the life of the McGill community as best we can throughout both, its eventful and uneventful weeks.” —Photo Editors[/pullquote]

Every Monday, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., we work to make that week’s issue our best issue yet. Monday morning, a story is printed and read a total of six times: four times by other section editors for clarity, grammar, and general feedback; once by the copy editor, for grammar, punctuation, and style; and once by the Editor-in-Chief for final approval.

Alongside this editing process, the design editors collaborate with our photo editors to create the layout of each section, skillfully arranging up to 24 pages of colour, text, headlines, images, photo-spreads, infographics, text boxes, and advertisements. Stories are then designed, laid out, exported to PDF format, and sent to the publishing company. There, each issue is printed, cut, and folded overnight. And the following morning, the outcome of a week’s worth of hard work is distributed on campus by the Tribune’s publisher.

Friday: Post-mortem

After Monday’s intensive work, the Tribune wastes no time. By the time the week’s issue hits the stands on Tuesday, the planning of a new issue is already underway. The editorial board meets every Friday to digest the week’s work. If mistakes have slipped through the cracks of the editing process, they are generally dissected here. Each section says one thing they’re proud of, one thing they’d like to change, and then presents the next week’s story list, defending the story’s content, timeliness, and relevance to students. A significant part of the meeting revolves around the next editorial. Through hours of debate and consideration of every possible angle, a consensus is made on the content of this opinion piece. By this point, stories have already been assigned to contributors, and the wheels are set in motion. The process begins anew, and another 30,000 words are jotted down in preparation for the following Monday.

Photos by Simon Poitrimolt