Mae Cheng, regional editor at Newsday, president of UNITY: Journalists of Color, and former president of the Asian American Journalists Association, collected capsule reports from a diverse group of frontline editors, who described lessons they’ve learned in doing their daily work.
As an assistant city editor, I have to work with all different types of people: eccentric freelancers, irritable staff reporters, and production people bellowing about missed deadlines. No matter whom I talk with, good communication is crucial but not always realized when the number of stories I have to assign, edit or rewrite is on the rise and the time I have to do this fleeting. So when stories get lost, deadlines get missed, and wires don’t just get crossed but downright tangled, I often turn to humor to smooth the situation out.
Take the case of one freelancer, who is good at gunning for facts, and unfortunately at editors, if he hasn’t gotten paid or God forbid his story doesn’t run.
"When is my story going to run?" an irritable voice said to me over the phone. His approach was rude; still I understood his angst. His feature story had been slated to run three weeks ago, but breaking news had forced me to hold it. What was worse was that I still had no idea when it would run.
"Well?" he demanded. "When is my story going to run?"
"I don’t know," I said pathetically. "I just don’t know."
He continued to badger me, so much that I could feel myself becoming agitated. Still, I didn’t lash out. Instead I began to sing. That’s right, sing, singing the phrase "I don’t know" as lustily as I could. I started with a quavering soprano then switched to an alto. I paused.
"Sing it with me," I said cheerily. "I’ll take the high part, you take the low."
I could tell by his silence that he was flabbergasted, which emboldened me to sing even louder.
"I don’t know," I sang. "I just don’t knooooooooooooooow."
I could hear him suppressing laughter.
"Okay," he said. Another escaped giggle. "I’ll wait for you to call me until you do know."
— Tania Padgett, staff writer and former assistant city editor at Newsday
When I started my job as an assistant city editor, I was the newbie, but supervising a former department head, former bureau chief, and other seasoned veterans. Just one person was younger than I was. At 28, and in my first editing position, earning their trust and making them feel like I was their team coach instead of team water girl was a challenge.
But I remembered this advice: Don’t give drive-by praise. You know you’ve heard it: "Good job on that story." That doesn’t tell your reporter anything. Look for the exquisite detail your reporter has used or applaud a turn of phrase. Don’t just say "Good job." Be specific.
It sounds simple, but it’s true. Writers crave attention. That attention to detail is important. As line editors we don’t have the luxury of time to take our reporters out on a half-day retreat to build team rapport. They have stories to write for the paper, a version to file online and, in some cases, television appearances to promote the brand. Simple things like offering specific praise or asking "How are you today?" and taking the time to listen means a lot. It shows you care.
— Kristen Go, an assistant city editor at The Arizona Republic
For years, I’ve thought that I could organize a staff, plan news coverage, and produce interesting stories and pages. My chance to prove this came when I became business editor of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer.
Challenge 1: Take what had been an anemic business page, triple the reporting staff (from one to three), and create a three-page section with themed local centerpieces five days a week and add a Sunday business page that had not existed.
Problem 1: I had no input on the selection of the staff, including a swap of staffers four months into the year.
Lesson Learned: A good game plan can work with any team. The coach has to let every person know his/her role and the expectations. I talk daily with my reporters about what they are working on, and we maintain a two-week schedule of stories we have budgeted for our themes. I’ve coached my reporters to understand they are partners in our section.
They regularly consult with our other teammates in photography, graphics and me on planning the entire package, not just their words.
While I certainly had expected to be able to help shape my team, attention to planning and organization have allowed us to rejuvenate the business section. If you’re the boss, even if it’s just over one section or group of reporters, clearly communicate the goals and keep the staff working toward them.
Challenge 2: Reduce our stock-market listings from two pages to one to gain space for more local business news reporting. There were production issues to work out with the stocks provider, as well as the public relations end with readers who aren’t computer savvy and still wanted to see the daily listings of the stocks in their portfolios.
Problem 2: Angry readers’ phone calls. Troubleshooting the niggling errors in the page from the conversion, such as wrong fields flowing into text boxes and wrong headers over columns.
Lesson Learned: Anticipating the topic, if not the tenor, of complaints. We were honest about our reasons for making these changes and offered to meet our readers halfway by requesting a limited number of their favorite stocks be included in the report each day. Despite a few threats, we lost no subscriptions because of the stock page changes.
Challenge 3: A spot-news rotation was developed for reporters throughout the newsroom to spend a week at a time covering other beats or general assignment stories; this would allow other reporters time to work on enterprise projects.
Problem 3: The business staff had to give up five-week and four-weekend shifts to the spot system, but when a business reporter’s project was nearing deadline, there was hesitancy to assign a spot reporter to cover his beat.
Lesson Learned: Taxation without representation is still wrong. I had to demand that the spot system we had fed be used to backstop our daily expectations. I’m the leader of the business staff, so it’s my job to make sure we are contributing to the whole newspaper, but that in doing so we are not being taken advantage of.
— Jerry Morehouse, business editor at the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer
When I was promoted to editor, I started off with a brand-new staff. The last person hired was, in some ways, an act of desperation: The former editor’s retirement date was two weeks away, and he was reluctant to leave without a full staff in place. Alas, we had only one viable applicant.
Mistake No. 1: We settled.
Lesson Learned: If your gut is telling you this person won’t be a good fit for your newspaper, listen!
Mistake No. 2: As a new editor, I adopted the "let’s be friends" style of management. This was disastrous in the case of this employee, who is much older than I am and had not succeeded in management. I let her have control and tried to be nice in my criticisms.
Lesson Learned: People will take advantage of you, if you let them. Be the boss first and be a friend second.
Mistake No. 3: Allowing a nonperformer to coast. I made excuses and was afraid to be brutally honest with my boss about the situation for fear it would reflect badly on my capabilities as a manager. After four years, the problem was so bad the employee was threatened with termination. She improved ever so slightly, just enough to hang on. As an older woman, she also made veiled threats of legal action if we fired her.
Lesson Learned: Nip problems in the bud. You wouldn’t be in management if your boss didn’t think you could handle it. It’s not fair to you or your staff to allow a poor performer to hang on. The situation has improved somewhat, but I don’t think it will be resolved until this employee chooses to leave.
— Stephanie Taylor, editor at The Salem Leader and The Salem (Ind.) Democrat
Politics in a newsroom? You bet.
I’d been moving through a particularly trying period of dealing with different parts of the newsroom, each of which seemed to have its own goals that at times seemed shortsighted. Then I attended an Associated Press Managing Editors seminar in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which included a session by Edward Miller on situational leadership. Miller is managing director of the Newsroom Leadership Group in Marietta, Georgia. Though designed for those who are new to the job, Miller’s guidance works for anyone struggling with newsroom relationships: listen to other people’s ideas, build relationships, learn compromises, and spend time.
Sounds simple and, as I found out after applying it, it’s also very effective.
— Doug Peterson, assistant features editor at The Des Moines (Iowa) Register
When our newspaper changed ownership a few years ago, the new owners applied the industry staffing standard and determined we had a few more reporters than necessary. No one was let go, but the first three or four reporters who moved on were not replaced. At the same time, we were asked to produce more local copy.
Surprisingly, that happened: The reporters produced more stories. The difficulty with a smaller staff has been covering the many beats and communities. For example, we have a bureau in a nearby town of about 20,000 people. It had been our practice to have two reporters in the bureau, one dayside and one nightside. Now one reporter decides what to cover and adjusts his schedule to do so.
Reporters with increased territories or beats were encouraged to be more selective and spend less time on minutiae, such as local government subcommittee actions that would be voted on by the larger bodies. It’s probably good that we cover the more important stories, but it remains difficult trying to report on crimes promptly. Calling from out of town doesn’t yield the same results as dropping by the police department and shifting through the reports. Another challenge has been that with most reporters helping out on a story or two each day, no one is free to concentrate entirely on weekend features.
On the whole, it surprises me how much we are doing with a more compact staff.
— Brad Jolly, city editor at the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press
In my 13 years as a reporter and editor in the Midwest, I’ve found that lazy reporting habits can have their roots in fear and insecurity. It seems an astonishingly large number of reporters are introverted to some extent; many of them would rather sit in the office and contemplate a story than get out in the street and drum one up. Many reporters, too, loathe the idea of making a difficult phone call or crosschecking facts; they feel that they might hurt someone’s feelings or appear stupid.
My keys to helping such reporters include encouraging out-of-the-newsroom interactions while at work, planning stories while maintaining a loose grip, and drawing attention to positive examples. Allowing reporters — with a helpful shove out the office door — to wend their way through the many steps of completing a story, along with showing off their successes in the newsroom and explaining them, have resulted in slow but sure improvements.
— C.T. Kruckeberg, managing editor at The Washington (Iowa) Evening Journal