Short Features: When and How to Edit
by Joe Marren
Special to Poynter.org
My mentor in daily journalism was a former city editor at The Buffalo News (I didn’t work there, he did) who told me -- when I was a young copy editor still green behind the eyeshade -- "When you’re done at the end of the day, make sure you’ve edited so that no reporter wants to go out and slit your tires."
Baltimore Sun editor Jan Winburn is better than that. She’s the kind of editor a reporter would go out and buy tires for -- golden tires. I can’t say that from first-hand experience, but it's the impression I get listening to her at the annual Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism.
"Narrative stories are powerful and can bring readers into newspapers," she said.
Training yourself -– and your editor –- to look for those stories requires two things: tension and meaning.
Tension refers to what is at stake or who is at stake. In other words, who will benefit or suffer from what you’re reporting about?
Meaning is answering the question, "Why does this matter?"
In feature stories, perhaps 80 or even 90 percent of a reporter’s time can be spent choosing the right subject. A reporter, an editor and the reading public want to read stories about human nature that are universally interesting.
Oh, sure, well that's easy, you’re supposed to blurt out now in a sarcastic tone. Go ahead, do it, I’ll wait for you.
Here’s why a smart reporter would go out and find those golden wheels for Winburn: As a good editor should, she provides the tools.
Examine the power of going back. Revisit old stories or keep a file of stories that should be looked at again from a new point of view after a certain length of time. Often, a reporter can see possibilities for enterprise stories.
"The passage of time particularly can offer a new beginning," Winburn said. "Give subjects time to digest what happened and then get them to talk about it."
For example, who caught Roger Maris’ 61st –- and record-breaking –- home run ball in Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1, 1961? The answer is Sal Durante, and he relived his moment in time as Mark McGuire got closer to breaking that record. A good reporter could visit Durante and paint not only a picture of that moment that helped define his life, but also put it in context with the present and future.
Asking yourself, "Who caught that ball? What happened to it? What happened to that person?" is a great starting point for stories.
"News is not just what happened, but also what you don’t know," Winburn said.
For the record: The ball is in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Another tool is to look for enduring topics. What is in the news today? Abortion. War. Crime. Politics. Find a fresh perspective and you will have the beginnings of a good story.
A third tool is to reposition the camera, metaphorically speaking. So much of journalism looks at life from a wide-angle lens when perhaps what is needed is a zoomed-in close-up of an issue or a personality. That tool helps not only with features stories, but also with the daily slices of newsroom life that reporters have dreaded since time began. Of course I’m talking about the evergreens: "back to school" stories, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Arbor Day stories, and county fair stories.
"Find a way to learn and grow" from those stories, Winburn said. "Even short pieces can use narrative techniques."
In short, find chronology with meaning and you may even convince your editor to let you get started on shorter pieces of narrative that he or she will be eager to pitch in the daily budget meeting.
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at email@example.com.