All the news that’s fit to edit: A chat with the NYT’s Cielo Buenaventura

Cielo holds up a copy of The Times Culture section showing an article she has edited. Photo by Grace Labaguis

Cielo holds up a copy of The Times Culture section showing an article she has edited. Photo by Grace Labaguis

By Cristina DC Pastor

For journalist Cielo Buenaventura, getting into The New York Times and now holding the title of staff editor for the Culture section, was a combination of “audacious dreaming and dumb luck.”

In 1988 while on a scholarship at Ohio State University, one of her professors, a former Times editor, suggested that she try to apply to the paper after completing her master’s degree in public-affairs reporting and acquiring experience from small and medium-size papers . She said to herself, “Wow, the NYT was like Mount Everest, the mountain I’ll never be able to climb.” But he planted the idea in her head.

After five years working in two dailies – the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut and New York Newsday – she began climbing the peak of a publication that began as a hometown newspaper of New York City in the 1850s and is now one of the world’s greatest newspapers with 1.4 million readers daily, 57 million unique website visitors each month, and 114 Pulitzer prizes.

The Albay-born Cielo is one of two Filipinos at The Times newsroom. The other is restaurant critic Ligaya Mishan, whose mother is a Filipino immigrant.

“I learned on the job,” Cielo shared during a June 26 Kapihan forum organized by the Fil-Am Press Club of New York, where she was the guest speaker. “I didn’t have the Harvard, Yale and Ivy League credentials that other people had. But I found that The Times is a collegial place. ”

Without any local reporting experience, she applied for editing jobs in all the newspapers. In 1996, she became a copy editor on the metropolitan desk, where she also slotted stories for the weekend and regional editions.

As one of about 20 staff editors in the Culture section – which covers books, dance, film, music, photography, television, theater, and other cultural events — Cielo offered a peek into what the exacting editing process is like in her department.

A writer or reporter, she stressed, must have the patience and stamina to face at least two rounds of editing . Sometimes she and her colleagues deal with reporters based in Paris or Rome or other cities overseas. The time difference is just one hurdle. “The reporter in Paris is ready to unwind after a long day, and here you are, peppering them with questions,” she said.

Her editing done, Cielo moves the article to the slot, the supervising editor, who gives the story another look and may have questions, too. Additional queries can come as well from the assigning editor or the news desk, and senior editors who give final approval before the paper goes to print.

“Editing has many layers. The writer must be prepared to be edited again and again,” she said. The editor, she added, looks for problems in grammar, usage and style. “Because your job is mostly looking for problems and fixing them, tact is very important. And you don’t just make changes in the copy; you change it to improve it. And you do this without killing the writer’s voice.”

The stressful part of the process is when the story needs to go on the website,, ASAP where it seems the deadline is 24/7.

The Internet has disrupted everything in the newspaper industry “for good or ill,” she said.

“Our way of doing things has changed,” said Cielo, who began her journalism career in Manila, with Malaya newspaper and WHO Magazine, using a Selectric typewriter. Where traditional journalism puts a premium on speed and accuracy, the Internet expects news to travel even faster “to feed the beast with nonstop breaking news.”

She sees nothing wrong with digital news sites and blogs if they provide “good, solid” reporting , well-sourced stories and smart analysis.

The Times has a staff of more than a thousand editors, reporters, and photographers coming from all kinds of backgrounds and political orientation, said Cielo disputing a common notion the paper is run by liberals.

“The paper is being called liberal, but we are not orchestrated to be liberal,” she said. The Times, as she has known it, has often been “on the side of the voiceless.”

Asked for her thoughts on BuzzFeed, a popular news site specializing in listicles and quizzes that pass for entertaining information, she said: “It’s a new kind of digital journalism, but it’s not my kind.”

With members of the Fil-Am Press Club and guests after the Kapihan forum. Photo: FAPCNY

With members of the Fil-Am Press Club and guests after the Kapihan forum. Photo: FAPCNY

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