20 hats of an effective editor
20 hats of an effective editor
How to be a full-service editor instead of a fixer
David Boardman, The Seattle Timesdboardman@seattletimes.com
REPORTER: You must be a journalist in your heart and soul. If you haven't been a reporter, even for a year or two, go be one. And even as an editor, there's plenty of opportunity to help your reporters out with a little reporting. While the reporters are talking to sources, surf the Web for good background information for them. Even if you don't have a direct hand in the reporting of a story, you can play reporter with your reporters. Be curious. Ask them questions. Most importantly, show plenty of interest in what they're doing.
COACH: Don't be like Bobby Knight, the basketball coach throws chairs and assaults his players. Be like Phil Jackson. A good coach puts players in the right position for their skills, clearly lays out expectations, provides the necessary tools and guidance, shoulders blame for failures and is free with praise for successes.
TEACHER: When you offer advice, do so in a way that helps your reporter take away something he or she can use in the future. Watch for patterns—too much reliance on passive verbs, too few quotes, imprecise language—and use those to teach.
STUDENT: Respect what your reporters know, and what you can learn from them. Let them know you're open to learning, and don't try to pretend you know things you don't. Develop a symbiotic student/teacher relationship that works both ways.
PSYCHIATRIST: Learn what makes your reporters tick. Some need a deadline to be productive; others get too nervous under pressure. Some need constant consultation and re-assurance; others like to be left alone. Understanding them and their motivations will help you help them.
MAESTRO: Think of the story as a song and yourself as the orchestra conductor. It is possible to edit extensively, to leave your own mark on rhythm and pacing of a story if that's necessary, and still to respect and retain the reporter's melody. You know which words and phrases reflect extra thought and effort on the reporter's part; if they work, keep your grubby hands off them. Hone your ear by reading good writing aloud.
READER: Read, read, read whatever you can get your hands on. Other newspapers, magazines and Internet lists for story ideas. Nonfiction for story ideas and research methods. Fiction for literary strategies and character development. Mystery novels for narrative techniques.
LIBRARIAN: When you find great stories elsewhere, share them with your reporters. Do the same with books.
DIPLOMAT: When you have to say something the reporter would rather not hear about a story, do it gracefully. Focus first on what works, then on what doesn't. And use precise, helpful language—"Can you think of a specific example to make your point clearer to the readers?" for example, not "This lead sucks."
PHOTO EDITOR: As much as you might implore your reporters to think about pictures to go with their stories, chances are they won't give it proper attention. And no matter how strong your photo staff, you're more likely to get the right pictures with your stories if you're heavily involved in the process. You shouldn't step on the real photo editors' toes, of course, but you should freely suggest photos that capture the essence of the story or provide information best communicated through photography.
GRAPHICS EDITOR: Again, you should be constantly thinking about what information can be presented graphically to enhance a story. Often, in investigative stories in particular, information is better presented in charts, graphs or maps than in text.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: A good editor is ready, willing and able to defend his reporters against any of the evil forces ready to attack them: angry sources, jealous colleagues, skittish newspaper executives, etc. Your reporters must believe you'll stand with them when the heat is on.
PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: Sometimes, you must play prosecutorattorney on the behalf of readers and put your reporters on the witness stand. After all, your primary responsibility—for your sake, your reporters' sake and your newspaper or station's sake—is to readers. Sometimes, that means giving reporters the third degree (in a respectful manner, of course, and liberally using the pronoun `ve"): How do we know this? Can we say this more clearly? Do we have statistics to support this conclusion? What's your best quote? What's our central point here, the one thing we don't want readers to miss? Is this fair? And so on.
HUMORIST: Keep it light. Yes, some stories can be matters of life and death. But even in those cases—in fact, especially in those cases—a well-timed wisecrack can ease the pressure and help maintain a good working environment.
EVANGELIST: Spread the gospel of good journalism up, down and across your organization, inside and outside the newsroom. Most importantly, help your bosses understand why it's worth their while to invest the time and money good reporting requires. Find good stories done by other papers or stations, show them around and start discussions on how you can do similar—or better—work in your newsroom. And if you get the opportunity to send your off for a month or two or six to work on a big project or investigation, you must be their public-relations flak inside the newsroom, especially with other editors and reporters complaining about the amount of time your folks are getting.
BABY-SITTER: Literally and figuratively. If your reporter's a dad or a mom who's up against a deadline and can't find child care, offer to watch the kids. Similarly, be ready and willing to do whatever you can to ease the stress of the conflicts of daily life for the people who work for you. In a figurative sense, you should babysit your reporters. Keep abreast of their daily activities, through daily conversations and a master electronic file. On long-term projects, have them give you a weekly synopsis or memo on the week's activities and developments.
CLERGY/CONFESSOR: Covet whatever or whomever you like. And if you pray to idols, that's your business. But there's one commandment you must follow: Thou shalt not lie. Never, ever deceive anyone in the newsroom; it will surely come back to haunt you. And always be especially straightforward with your reporters. Also, be someone to whom your reporters can confess their sins without fear of undue retribution or punishment. If they're unsure of a fact, concerned about a mistake, afraid of something, you want them to feel comfortable telling you.
HIT MAN: A great editor is not afraid to "pull the trigger," to be willing to publish a story that's likely to foment negative reaction and to take the heat when it comes down. There's another side of "pulling the trigger," also, one reporters don't talk much about but that's just as important: the willingness to cut your losses, to call it quits or to change direction on a story that just isn't panning out. If your reporters are doing meaningful reporting, it has to be OK for them to discover that there is no story, or that the story is different than you or they thought it was at the beginning of the process.
MIDWIFE: When a reporter's finally ready to give birth to a story, he or she needs a midwife to help with the delivery. That can mean anything from setting out a deadline schedule to buying him or her a burger and a beer in those tense hours just before publication. Most importantly, be there with and for the reporter.
RECRUITER: If you have the opportunity to recruit and hire, this is one of your most important roles. Don't sell it short. Build and maintain a network of quality journalists around the country and make that network work for you when you have an opening. The best thing any editor can do is to hire good people.