At the National Writers Workshop in St. Louis two years ago, a group of young reporters caught up to me near the elevator one night and asked if I’d join them for a drink in the hotel bar. Even at the end of a long day, the reporters, all of them in their early to mid-20s, were full of energy, thrilled to have been at the conference where they had the opportunity listen to some of the best writers and editors in the business.
As we made our way to a corner table, they told me that they all worked at small and mid-sized daily papers scattered through the Midwest. Over the first round of beers they talked excitedly about reporting and writing, peppering me with perceptive questions about stories and structure. But as the night wore on, they grew quiet, nearly depressed. By the time we paid the tab, each of them glumly said that come Monday they knew there would be no way they’d get the chance to put into practice what they’d learned over the weekend.
At the next writers’ conference, I ran into another group of young reporters, all of whom voiced the same concerns. It’s a pattern that’s been repeated at every conference I attend: a sugar high on Friday and a crash that comes Sunday as they clear out of the hotel and head back to the real world.
While veteran reporters at the best big-city papers in the country may grumble about mythical editors who stand in their way, conversations with these young writers at papers across the United States led me to believe that something more was at work here. At the most basic level, their complaints intrigued me.
Although I’ve been at The Oregonian for 23 years, I have a soft spot in my heart for the men and women who work at small and mid-sized newspapers. My own journalism roots go back to a small weekly in Eastern Oregon, and then to a mid-sized daily in Eastern Washington.
So I began corresponding with many of these writers, reading stories they sent me, offering advice when I could and trying, in telephone calls and e-mails, to pinpoint the source of their angst.
They shared common characteristics. For the most part, they were working for their first or second paper out of college. They weren’t complainers, and they were willing to pay their dues by working the night shifts and tackling mundane assignments. All wanted to improve. And all of them felt their greatest roadblock came in the form of a specific kind of editor.
In most newsrooms, the mid-level editor works in the shadows. These are the assistant city editors, the assistant bureau chiefs. Top editors set the tone, priorities and direction of the paper, but mid-level editors determine what gets in the paper. They are editors who have the most contact with the young reporters, shaping ideas and shepherding stories from the notebook to the computer screen.
As I talked with these young reporters, what eventually became clear to me is that the weak link in many small and mid-sized daily newsrooms around the country is the relationship between the reporter and the mid-level editor.
Each year, small armies of young reporters attend writers’ conferences around the country. They study on their own, know Jon Franklin’s seminal work – “Writing for Story” – by heart. They use the Internet to seek out the work of experienced writers. The quality of young writers working at small and mid-sized newspapers is as good as it has ever been.
But a gap has developed between this next generation of potential narrative writers – the writers who will attract readers to our papers – and the editors who supervise and shape their work.
This gap makes it difficult for good work to appear in many mid-size papers. It’s why much of what appears in papers – not projects, but daily or two-day pieces – is flat and doesn’t resonate with readers who hunger for stories about the people who live in their communities.
Reporters I talked to while preparing this article agreed to talk if they were allowed to remain anonymous.
“This kind of reporting is new to me. I asked my editor for things to read, good journalists to study, and I got no feedback. I’d love to improve, but everything I do is self-taught. The things I want to discuss – point of view, scenes – are like a foreign language to my editor. All he likes are anecdotal leads.”
“My experience is that it’s hard to find an editor who has been in a situation of developing an actual story. I can’t think of any mid-level editor at my paper who has read ‘Writing for Story.’ “
“I had an editor tell me to find a story for a narrative treatment. The editor sees stories in other papers and responds to them like a reader. He likes them. But as an editor, they are a mystery to him. He has no concept of structure or mechanics. He even admitted to me that if I found a narrative story, that editing it would be a blind process for him.”
“I came back from a writers’ conference and tried my first narrative. I had no guidance at all. My editor said it sounded like a good idea and go ahead. We had a small discussion when I started to write, but it didn’t help because she didn’t know how to help me.”
“It’s not a matter of resistance from the editors; it’s that there is a severe lack of familiarity with what goes into these stories. If an editor has no concept of storytelling techniques, there is no way to speak and encourage writers.”
“Why are newspapers afraid to give readers what they want – great stories? I covered a breaking story, tried something different, and my editor rewrote the first eight paragraphs of the story and gave it a hard news lead that gave readers all the same information they got all day long on Saturday from radio and TV.”
I was out of town one day last summer when I happened to pick up the local paper sitting around in a restaurant. Deep inside the pages I came across a feature story that I thought had the potential to be a great narrative. This was the type of story that could be reported and written in a couple of days. It wouldn’t have been a series or a project, two types of stories so often associated with narrative treatment. Done well, it would have been more than a traditional feature, the kind of story that would move readers and bring recognition within the newsroom to the writer.
When I finished the piece, though, I realized that the reporter had missed a wonderful opportunity. It was clear she had good reporting and writing skills, but something was missing. After returning to Portland, I tracked her down and asked her to tell me the history of the story.
She was 23, working at her first paper out of college. She’d paid her own way to attend writers’ conferences with other reporters in her newsroom. She mentioned that not one editor at her paper came to the conference. The story I’d read began with a tip from a caller. Right away, she felt the story had the potential to be more than just a profile or run-of-the-mill feature.
“I sensed something there,” she said, asking that her name not be used, nor too many details of the story be revealed because she didn’t want to get on her editor’s bad side. “At writers’ conferences, the speakers talk about finding stories, and I felt this was one. I interviewed this woman for four hours, watched her interact with people, and I knew I had something. But I didn’t know what. I went to talk with my editor, and the conversation went nowhere. I wanted to talk about scenes, things I’d seen during the interview, and things I’d heard about at the conference. He had no idea what I was talking about. All he wanted to know was how long the story would be and when I’d turn it in.
“I did the best I could,” she said. “The editor said he liked it. He didn’t even change a word. I don’t remember most of the stories I write. They’re pretty dry. I still remember this one. There was something there. I just wished it could have been better.”
Mid-level editors I spoke with realize there’s a problem. They’d like to infuse stories with narrative elements that make them not only more readable, but memorable. But they complain they have received no help from senior editors in trying to grow as editors.
“There is a gap. No question about it. I’ve never had anyone talk with me about tone, point of view or story structure. It’s frustrating to look for guidance and find nothing. I get reporters coming to me for advice, and I’m not sure what to tell them.”
“How am I going to give my reporters any answers when no one has ever shown me the way? When it comes to learning about editing, all I’ve really been taught is how to line edit – learning that on the job – and putting stories on the budget and figuring out all the computer codes. I’ve never been taught anything about the process of creating one of these stories.”
“When I made the move from reporting to editing, I went to one training session. And that was for line editing. ‘Writing for Story?’ No, I’ve never heard of it. Is it a book?”
“There is some effort to improve, but that only happens for the big projects and then the editing is all handled by the top editors. But the daily stories that we all edit? Just get them in the paper. The story comes in, and I start working on it. At my paper, that’s considered editing.”
“I’ve had reporters come to me and ask about structuring and scenes, and I have nothing to offer other than the most basic advice.”
It became clear to me that the gap exists during the earliest, and most critical, stage of story development: During the reporting stage, many reporters founder while trying to find the heart of the story. What happens at this stage determines if a story succeeds or fails. No amount of brilliant editing, or even writing down the road, can salvage what’s not well thought out and reported with a story theme in mind.
For the most part, however, this stage of the creative process remains a mystery to many mid-level editors. It’s one thing to look at a story on the computer screen and tell a reporter she needs to show, but not tell. Or to build something scenically. But what does that mean out in the field where the reporter is confronted with hundreds of things she could show? What should she show, and what should she ignore? How does she capture a scene in which there seems to be no natural beginning and ending?
Young reporters making the leap from beat reporting, straight-news stories and feature writing grapple with these issues, often losing their way when they realize that narrative writing requires new and different skills and techniques. In too many mid-sized papers, it seems, they look around the newsroom to seek help and find none.
The mid-level editor may want to help, but it’s similar to a new guitarist asking for advice on what kind of scales to use. He needs to ask another guitarist, not a listener, who has no real concept of how the scales work. He knows what sounds good, but can’t help the budding player create his own music. A mid-level editor may be a superb line editor, but if he doesn’t understand the reporting stage of a narrative story, he can’t help writers find, develop and write the kind of stories that attract readers.
During my 26 years in the business, I’d heard of editors teaching editors, writers teaching writers and, occasionally, editors teaching writers. But I’d never heard of a writer attempting to teach an editor how to think like a writer, to see a story through the eyes of the person who creates the product. That’s what I wanted to do.
Every mid-level editor I talked to told me that while they may have story conference with the writers they supervise, they believed the real work began when the story showed up on a computer screen. I wanted to take an editor deep into the heart of where a story is born.
I ran my plan by high-end narrative writers I admire, including Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer winner who is now a professor at the University of Maryland; Tom French, a Pulitzer winner at the St. Petersburg Times; and Ken Fuson, a writer at the Des Moines Register who has won the American Society of Newspaper Editors nondeadline award and the Scripps-Howard Ernie Pyle award for human interest writing.
The editor of my paper, Sandra Mims Rowe, encourages the staff to find new ways to grow and learn and supported the plan. I selected Kathleen Gorman, at the time an assistant regional editor who happened to sit near me. Over the years, Gorman had asked me about my stories, often asking questions about particular passages.
I proposed the project, and she agreed. I began by giving her reading assignments over the course of a month. Franklin’s book, of course, and then works of both fiction and nonfiction. I selected specific examples – magazine articles, award-winning narratives and the opening to “Goodbye Darkness,” William Manchester’s memoir of WWII. Each assignment dealt with a particular writing technique: tone, pacing, a strong narrative voice and focus. I analyzed the pieces, asking her why she thought the writer took the approach he did.
I wanted her to think about what questions the reporter had to ask in the field, what observations he had to make to structure the piece in the way he did. She needed to understand just how important reporting was to the story. As an editor, I wanted her to be able to have the skills to be a reporter, to be able to interview her writers when they worked on stories. She needed to learn what question to ask, questions that had nothing to do with story length and more with finding the meaning and theme in the story.
Meaning and theme emerge only out of reporting. So we dissected many of my previous stories. I focused only on stories that took a day, or just a couple of days, to report and write. I read her passages from my notebooks, explained why I asked the questions I had asked. I then explained what I did with those answers, and the observations I’d made during reporting. At that point, I moved to how I put it all into play in my story.
An editor must know story vocabulary. Some of my best stories have been assignments or suggestions from Therese Bottomly, the managing editor for news at The Oregonian. Over the years, Bottomly has developed a keen sense of what could be a story. Even though she doesn’t specialize in narrative editing, Bottomly can discuss narrative techniques. Most of the suggestions she gives me are quick turn-around stories that work because they are written in narrative. I asked Bottomly why we work so well together.
“The key, it seems to me, is deciding early on what the story is about,” she wrote me in an e-mail. “You always come back and say a little about what you have learned and then you say, but ‘it really is a story about’ and you explain the larger theme: mothers and daughters, losing a husband, letting go of a dream, etc.
“An example I go back to is the story we never got to tell,” she continued. “The double obituary on the mother and her daughter. The mother was 83 and the daughter 64. The daughter had Down’s syndrome, and her mother cared for her until she died. The day after she died, the mother died. They were buried in the same casket. The obituary had those simple facts, but you immediately saw the larger, more compelling story. It was about motherhood. It was about a mother’s work finally being done, and it was time to rest. It was about infinite love. Seeing those larger themes is what makes all the difference.”
Once Gorman learned the vocabulary, I took her out on several of my stories to let her watch me at work. It was a strange process, one that at times made me uncomfortable. Although I have story conferences with my primary editor – Jack Hart, one of the best narrative editors in the industry – I found it strange to have someone watch me report, searching for the meaning and a story.
The first story I took Gorman on was the result of a rumor that one of the actors on the old “Leave it to Beaver” television show was a heroin addict and living on Portland’s streets. I learned his name was Stanley Fafara and that he lived in an apartment in the city’s old town, a section of Portland where prostitutes and drug addicts hung out.
I went to interview Fafara and had Gorman come with me. I told her that the reporting starts right away, that the writer must use all his senses, jotting down feelings in the notebook as guides to help shape the reporting. As we stood outside the building, I told her what I was thinking and feeling, and told her what I would be looking for during the interview.
I did the same thing when I took her with me when I started early interviews at a neo-natal unit, letting her in my head and explaining why and what I was writing in my notebook and how I used that information to guide me on the next step of the journey.
As much as I hope I taught Gorman, I, too, learned some things by having to think about what I did, why I did it and then explain it to someone else. The gap can be closed between writers and mid-level editors, but it is up to the writer to help guide the editor into the process. By doing that, it’s possible to create partnerships that lead to great work.
I continue to be interested in how mid-level editors and writers train. Anyone interested in contacting me can reach me at email@example.com
Tom Hallman Jr., 48, is a senior reporter at The Oregonian. He won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. He was a feature writing finalist in 1999, and a beat reporting finalist in 1995. He has a twice won the ASNE nondeadline writing award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for feature writing and the National Headliners Award for feature writing. A former Livingston Award winner for young journalists, he has won the Scripps-Howard Ernie Pyle Human Interest Writing Award and the Scripps-Howard business writing award. His book, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask,” was just released in paperback.