What makes a good assigning editor? Knight Ridder has offered more than 20 seminars for assigning editors during the past seven years and, at the start of each class, we ask every participant: "Who is the best assigning editor you’ve ever known, and why?" They always cite the same qualities, using many of the same words: She trusted me. She pushed me. She believed in me. … He was patient. He cared about me. He helped me. … A great coach. Set clear goals. Could see the story. … Demanding. Generous with her time. … Energetic. Passionate. Confident. But in almost every group of editors, someone stands and says, "I’ve never known a good assigning editor."

I always want to apologize for that. We should be ashamed of how many assigning editors are not good enough-not good enough to help our reporters do better work, not good enough to grow readership. It’s a tough job, getting tougher all the time. Every problem seems to land on the desk of the assigning editor. Yet doing the job well is critical to the success of the newspaper. Those of us involved in the Frontline Editors Project want to increase the odds of success.

Our goal is two-fold:

  1. We can help prospective assigning editors determine whether they are well suited for the job.

  2. We can help assigning editors identify their most critical developmental needs.

Exploring the Job’s Fit

Through the Poynter Institute’s News University, which offers online training, journalists will be able to learn more about the frontline editor’s job and whether it would be a good fit for them.

To give a realistic preview of the job, working assigning editors have been videotaped talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the work, telling what surprised them most, sharing their passions, and warning about pitfalls. We also plan to provide samples of raw copy and offer case studies on management and editing issues. For those who want to take the next step, we will tell how to go about shadowing an assigning editor in their newsroom and how to apply for cross-training in that job.

Originally, we planned to provide a self-assessment questionnaire, specifying desirable traits for this job, with questions such as, "Do I like giving honest feedback?" "Am I a good teacher?" "Well organized?" "A problem solver?" Can I juggle several tasks at once?" "Do I meet deadlines?" "Am I comfortable with tension and conflict?"

Then we wondered if job fit could be even more accurately predicted. Psychologists say there is a scientific way to predict success. If we are able to accurately describe an assigning editor’s critical tasks, attributes and competencies, a sophisticated software program will be able to tell an individual just how good the fit will be.

In October, we asked Dr. Leslie Krieger, a consulting psychologist and president of Assessment Technologies Group, to meet with about a dozen assigning editors to start to develop such an interactive "job fit" tool. The group spent hours analyzing and describing how they do their job, and this information was digested by a computer. Its software then produced the first draft of our instrument.

Krieger said that in 30 years of research he had never encountered a job with such intense problem-solving demands. The assigning editors were not surprised to hear this. Based on their input, the report generated by the computer listed three essential attributes for the job (all involved problem-solving), seven important ones ("detail-conscious," for example) and 16 that are also relevant ("tough-minded" and "conscientious" are just two of these). Each attribute was scored from 1 to 10, and a shaded area marked on the scale where the ideal candidate would score.

Of course, that session was just the start of a process to create a credible instrument. Additional sessions in Atlanta, Kansas City, and San Jose will repeat the exercise of defining the job, to vet the instrument and gain new insights. Our target is to offer this "job fit" tool to all journalists by fall 2006. Once it’s available online, prospective editors will be able to respond to a series of questions and receive a confidential report showing how they scored on these essential, important and relevant attribute scales and see how their scores compare with those of the ideal candidate.

Obviously, there is no such thing as an ideal candidate. But the right "job fit" tool could help journalists see how well suited they are for this demanding job. By showing how their strengths differ from those of the ideal candidate, it will help them identify developmental needs. It could also help the industry determine training priorities.

Having such a tool could avoid the harm done by having the wrong person in the assigning editor’s job or having an assigning editor who doesn’t clearly understand the demands of the job and the consequences of performing poorly in it. And it could decrease the chances that an experienced journalist would ever say, "I’ve never known a good assigning editor."

Marty Claus, a former vice president/news for Knight Ridder, was an assigning editor for more than 12 years at the San Bernardino (Calif.) Sun-Telegram and the Detroit Free Press. She is now a consultant, specializing in recruiting and training.

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