By: jodi B. cohen
PORTLAND OREGONIAN WRITING coach Jack Hart opened the recent Associated Press Managing Editors workshop by asking attendees, “What makes a great editor?”
Respondents offered that it’s someone who gives freedom with limits ? a goal setter who communicates his or her vision, who is humble and full of energy, makes suggestions rather than gives orders, and is a good listener.
Hart agreed, but said the description is a far cry from the traditional stereotype ? the Jack Daniels-drinking, cigar smoking, loud and abrasive czar of the newsroom.
“Editors are supposed to yell, slam phones down, smoke and are supposed to be hung up on their macho conception of themselves,” said Hart. “Yet, our description is directly opposite of the stereotype, almost a diametric opposite description.”
He said the stereotype was based on the editor in the 1920s, when hardly anyone in the newspaper business had a college degree, most were military-experienced men and the conditions in the newsrooms were primitive with assembly line production.
Today, Hart said, “virtually all are college educated and couldn’t get away with that behavior because of a whole transformation in terms of gender and styles that would not jibe well.”
Hart cited two studies which revealed that the number one priority for line editors and reporters is better communication and that respondents expressed hatred toward overbearing managers.
“Journalists are united with being upset with people who set out to manage them,” Hart said. “We have to think about structuring our newsrooms and developing management practice in a way that serves the fundamental newsroom goals, and at the heart of that is the relationship between editors and writers.”
Bruce DaSilva, Associated Press enterprise editor, discussed a training program for editors to help build better relationships with reporters.
Among DaSilva’s suggestions:
u Editors need to understand how power works in newsrooms ? the more you use it the less you have.
“The source of the power, the real power, comes from the people who work for them and it’s really important for editors to know that,” he said.
u Risk in the newsroom should be redefined.
Trying something different with a story or lead should not be considered risky, but should simply be considered a different approach, DaSilva said.
“We need to create environments that no evil responses come from trying something different,” he said. “The main reason people don’t open their mouths is because they think people will think they are dumb.”
u The real enemies of change must be identified because change is scary to many people.
DaSilva said an internal award program at General Electric, where the company rewards employees for the best unused idea, should be adopted by newsrooms.
The writing process
Hart and DaSilva also discussed the writing process, which he said involves five steps: the idea; hypothesis; reporting ? carefully thought out in advance; focus ? the axis the story is written on; and the draft ? which is handed over to the line editor.
“The importance of this process has been recognized everywhere but the newsroom,” Hart said.
DaSilva agreed, stating that today most editors give a reporter an assignment and do nothing until the finished product is delivered. Then, they “mess with the words.”
“It is our belief that editors need help and training in order to understand and work more effectively with writers through the entire process, so they work less in the end,” DaSilva said. “This gives us better stories, better reporters and a better relationship in the working newsroom.”
Problems editors encounter too late in the process are superficial reporting, buried leads, lack of organization, incorrect information, no transitions and poor organization to name a few, according to Hart.
“But the core of the problem is they still have to have contact with the editors,” said Hart. “And reporters get three words of training, ‘sit over there,’ a problem in any stage of the process.”
To alleviate this problem, Hart offered six points that an editor can follow to become a good “coaching editor.”
u Assignments, which lead to a formulation of an idea.
u Feedback, acting as a sounding board.
u Assistance, helping the reporter to find a focus.
u Guidance, structuring and collaboration.
u Impact Editing, which involves consulting before changing, and structure editing.
u Copy editing.
“You cannot confuse teaching with evaluating,” said Hart. “You have to be motivating, patient, invite the reporter to explore it on their own. The main bitch we heard with editors in the field about why they don’t teach is time.”
To alleviate the problem of time, Hart suggested “short coaching,” which takes place in 30-second and three-minute bursts.
“These short bursts are the most important thing you can do in the newsroom,” said Hart. “It’s our equivalent of the One-Minute Management strategy.”
DaSilva agreed, emphasizing that coaching is the heart of an editor’s job.
“What happens is editors don’t know how to talk to the writers about story organization even though they know how to do it instinctively,” DaSilva said. “We want to give some concrete help on how to do all of this more effectively and solve the problems before the story is written.”
The writers’ workshop is an annual event at the Associated Press Managing Editors conference, but this year marked the first time it was held the entire day ? from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
An estimated 300 people filed in at the session’s start and by 4 p.m. close, around 200 people were still there.
?(“Journalists are united with being upset with people who set out to manage them. We have to think about structuring our newsrooms and developing management practice in a way that serves the fundamental newsroom goals, and at the heart of that is the relationship between editors and writers.”) [Caption]
?(? Jack Hart, writing coach, Portland Oregonian) [Photo & Caption]
# Editor & Publisher n November 23, 1996