The team I work on is getting a new editor. Although she sat less than 30 feet from my group, none of the reporters really knew her. So she stopped by the morning meeting to introduce herself and take questions.
That meeting got me thinking about the editor-reporter relationship. It’s the most important marriage in a newsroom, and the one that ultimately determines what work gets in the paper.
And yet, that relationship is either taken for granted — the old adage that any reporter-editor team works — or left to its own devices. While the top editors at a paper can set the broad course, it’s really the mid-level editor who determines what happens.
So what makes a good editor?
It’s a question that needs to be asked and answered by reporters and editors in the trenches. This can’t be a relationship that works on autopilot. Like any marriage it needs to be nurtured. But at many papers, that doesn’t happen.
At one point during our team’s meeting, I offered my definition of a good editor. It has nothing to do with competency, nothing to do with editing in the strictest sense of the word. That’s a given in the business.
I look at great editing in a broader sense of the word. I said that I viewed an editor as a coach.
Not just a writing coach, although that can certainly be part of the job. I mean more like a basketball coach.
The best NBA coaches know their players. They know their strengths and their weaknesses. They don’t have the best rebounder bring the ball up the court, or the guard scrap under the boards. They come up with plays to reinforce a player’s strength and hide a player’s weakness.
That’s the way an editor needs to look at reporters. No reporter can do it all: investigative, breaking news, beat coverage, features and narratives. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The best editors know that. They put reporters in positions so they can do their best work. But that can only happen if they truly know who is working for them.
That’s not easy. Getting there is something that makes reporters and editors feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.
I, for example, have a tendency to pack a lot of emotion in my work. I’ve told my editor that. My editor knows how to rein me in but still keep my heart on the page.
This happened to me just a few weeks ago. I’d been assigned to write an essay for the 100th anniversary of a Portland festival. I struggled, but finally got out about 15 paragraphs that I sent to my editor to show her where I was going. It wasn’t great, but it was servicable. In the hands of a timid editor, or one who no longer cared, it would have just been passed through to the copy desk.
Here’s the note I got back from my editor:
This is a good start … certainly the right ideas. This might be the kind of thing you have to keep writing sort of stream-of-consciousness before you click on just the right theme to keep pursuing …
What she’s telling me is that it’s not working. But notice how she tells me that. She knows reporters have fragile egos! She’s smart enough to realize that writing is often a series of false starts. But more than that, she offers some suggestions by thinking like a reporter.
Here’s the continuation of the note:
100 years is a long time; the city has grown and changed much during that time, but the essence of the festival is the same. What started it all, and what is it about the festival that has made it endure? That has people writing that they hope it lasts for another 100 years? What does it really mean for the city and its people? What is there to love about it?
Those were all good starting points, and got me thinking. I tore up the top, did more reporting and ended up with a 60-inch essay that was a breeze to edit. Look at the end of her note.
Keep on going. Go walk around the rose test garden. Go hang at the festival HQ and talk to those folks (some of whom have worked/volunteered there for more than 30 years!) See if you can tap into that a little more. You’re definitely on the right track. You just need to be in the right head space to do it. -S
Now that’s editing.