Interviewing the Interviewer
Looking back on a long career as a journalist, Geoff Yuda is finally finding the time to reflect during his final year at the Pennsylvania Bar Association. His career path brought him to the PBA as a strong-minded journalist in his 30s, then to the state Capital as an editor for a committee newsletter, and back to the PBA as the editor of the Pennsylvania Lawyer magazine. It has been a unique and rewarding journey, one that began with his first paid journalistic position at the Pocono Record newspaper when he was fresh out of college.
“First you have to have a great command of the AP style of writing. Second, you are fact checking everything, even cases of law,” Yuda declared while describing some of the main aspects of an editor’s role. “You always want to protect the writer,” said Yuda, and added, “This clientele is all lawyers and they are all writers, but they don’t write for space.” Lawyers may write a “brief” that can be many pages in length which will explain their position and defend against potential questions. Many times an editor will “distill” multiple pages into a few sentences without losing the concept of the original brief.
Working for attorneys will make an editor want to go the extra mile, verifying every fact, case citation, and quote. The editor is the “fact checker of last resort” for the magazine. The majority of the interviews he conducts are with lawyers and are almost exclusively performed utilizing email. There are many rounds of emails going back and forth between Yuda and his interview subject.
“The interviews are designed in this manner so there should never be a misunderstanding when quoting a lawyer,” Yuda stated. An editor is “honor bound” to get facts right the first time.
Even though Yuda is not a lawyer, he spends quite a bit of time verifying information within submitted articles using online legal research tools like LexisNexis. Lawyers, like writers, can make mistakes that get past their own eyes. A mistake in a magazine will be much more widespread than a mistake in a courtroom. The potential for a mistake can make a lawyer “anxious” after the article are submitted for the magazine because it is read and reviewed by their peers. When a writer’s mistake is found, Yuda will verify with two online sources, attach both sources to a paper copy of the article, and submit it to his boss. He will wait for the communications director to sign off on the correction before permitting the original article to go to press. “In our case, if you get something wrong, it’s wrong 26,000 times, and it is read by 24,000 lawyers,” he warned then added “That’s the terror hanging over you.”
As a contributing writer for the bimonthly lawyer magazine, he found that he always needs another “fresh set of eyes” on his own articles. He felt that “letting go” of his own work was sometimes the hardest aspect of his work, but he knows it is a critical for the success of a journalist. “There is a definite gap between the eyes and the brain, it’s why people make bad witnesses, it’s why you shouldn’t hold onto something you’ve written,” he added. When he writes an article, he has a minimum of two others in the communications department review his articles. Yuda’s editorial pieces go through the same editorial scrutiny so he finds himself in the same position as writers that need to “let go” of their articles.
The most difficult task of his job is to getting lawyers to submit their articles on time in order to meet the magazine deadlines. Yuda stated “Lawyers can be wordy and that doesn’t lend well to deadlines.” Lawyers who are on staff at the Bar, as well as attorneys who write guest articles, are guilty of being tardy with deadlines. As deadlines loom, he finds himself hounding the delinquent writers.
The inability to motivate writers to submit articles on time was the main reason Yuda left the state government. “They wouldn’t do it…that was frustrating,” he stated.
Yuda knew he was destined for a career in communications after his first journalism class at Shippensburg. During this class, he said it “just clicked.” His Journalism 101 professor was a free-lance writer who constantly encouraged his students by emphatically stating, “You can do this!” As a non-traditional student, he felt being older gave him an added advantage over his peers. He felt the other communications majors did not have any real world experience in navigating the politics in finding journalistic work that would pay money. This proved critical as he graduated in the mid-1970s during a recession. He believes his paid communication internship at a small public relations firm was instrumental in landing his first paying job “in print.” The practical “real world” experience benefitted him more than the theory he learned in the classroom. He would also like to see colleges have “better placement procedures for journalism majors.”
During his reflection, Yuda is amazed how much technology has changed during his tenure as an editor. “My first lawyer edition was laid out on a wax galley from the printer. Using a template, you would cut out the articles, arrange them onto the wax paper inside of the template cutouts, and this was a long, tedious process,” Yuda described. Today the same work is done on computers while the large computer files are passed back and forth utilizing an application called Dropbox. The old fashioned scissors and glue “cut and paste” has been replaced with the online cut and paste. One drawback to the new technology in journalism is the long hours spent staring at a computer screen. “The eye strain is one of the few things I dislike about technology.” Yuda is also tasked with being the state Bar’s web site editor which adds addition hours in front of a computer monitor.
As editor for the magazine, he is also charged with acquiring artwork for each article. “In the past, this required us to pay individual artists to design a cover,” said Yuda. “We had an art budget of $500 per edition.”
Now the communications department subscribes to an online art “clipping” subscription which is like “having the world at your fingertips.” This subscription allows him to quickly find art based on category and download up to 100 different images each month.
When asked if he had a chance to do anything over in his college or journalism career, he immediately declared that each section along the way has supplied him with the knowledge he would use later in his life. He emphatically admitted, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” After retirement, you should be able to find Geoff Yuda at his local water hole sipping on a cold Heineken beer.