The Trouble With Fixers
As an editor, are you a coach or a fixer?
Do you take the time to talk with and listen to your reporters? Do you check with them throughout the reporting and writing process?
Or are you too busy to fuss with such things? Do you wonder who has time for conversations when you have so many mistakes to fix and so much rewriting to do?
The difference between these two attitudes is the difference between an editor who helps reporters and an editor who frustrates them.
The coaching editor makes progress by enabling reporters to write better stories. The fixing editor never makes progress because he is too busy fixing the same things over and over.
Which one are you?
If you're not sure, look at the following common mistakes made by fixers. Do any of them describe you?
1) You play "Who’s got the monkey?"
Donald L. Wass offered this time management idea in a 1974 Harvard Business Review article, but it still applies to today's newsrooms.
When a reporter turns in a poorly organized story, the first monkey jumps from her back to yours. When a second reporter has to be told who to call, his monkey jumps on your back, too. When a third reporter can't find a lead in a mess of notes, you get a third monkey on your back. No wonder you never go home.
Your solution is to throw back the monkeys, or stories, and demand better work. That sounds great. But if the reporter can't organize complex material because she doesn't know how, you still will have to fix it at some point. To avoid repeatedly fixing the same problems, you have to face the fact that reporters need to learn what to do, and they need to practice. As Don Murray once said: You can't order good writing the way you can order a Big Mac.
Now just imagine if you had talked over the story idea early. Imagine if you had chatted with the reporter often as she reported and wrote the story. And imagine, too, that you had used terms like "focus," "voice," or "structure" and the reporter knew just what you were talking about.
These conversations, time wasters in the fixer's mind, are actually the heart of coaching. In the long run, they probably will turn out to be your best time investments.
Will coaching keep all of the monkeys off your back? No. But fewer monkeys mean you'll get home a lot sooner.
2) All of your reporters are on editor welfare.
Since you are the boss and you fix everything, reporters are totally dependent on you -- whether they want to be or not. They soon stop coming up with story ideas. Or, they seem unable to organize their stories without your help. Inevitably, they can't even nail down a crucial interview without your guidance.
Reporters don't start out that way. But in many newsrooms, it's the safest way to behave. Reporters start out wanting to learn. But, if you have to put your stamp on everything, you will get what you really want from your staff: Mindless obedience.
Many reporters simply give up, thus setting the stage for a confrontation at evaluation time. Some rebel by performing a little sabotage here and displaying a little passive-aggressive behavior there. Others slip into safe routines, wrapping themselves in cocoons and never trying anything new.
If you have all of the answers, if you always "know" the real story without talking it over with the reporter who was on the scene, then you are putting your reporters on editor welfare.
But it won't happen to all of them. The best ones will leave for other papers.
3) Remember, "E is for elephant."
This is a logical consequence of editor welfare. You tell the reporter to get A, B, C, and D. He does as he is told. But he ignores E, which turns out to be an elephant sitting on the interviewee's sofa.
Look at it from the reporter's viewpoint: A, B, C, and D are safe. His rewards will be meager but certain, and punishment will be avoided. E, however, could turn out to be a problem and that could spell trouble. If you never let a reporter take a chance, if you always have him stick to a formula, pretty soon that reporter's vision will be severely limited.
If you, the office-bound editor, insist on dictating the approach and tone of every story, then you will never see any sofa-sitting elephants in your newspaper. And neither will your readers.
4) You communicate in grunts and groans.
Even when it's civil, fixing is rarely a conversation. It's more of a one-way lecture, sometimes kind, sometimes cruel. In fixer newsrooms, the vocabulary shared by editor and reporter is crimped and one-sided. Story criticism is limited to "I like it," or "This sucks." I remember one editor who approached copy by bellowing, "All right, let me blow some of this crap away." Reporters knew what they were worth in his eyes.
Fixers may not realize it, but they are communicating values –- usually bad ones. Reporters learn to stick to the safe and dull. As Don Fry points out, if a reporter or editor knows only the inverted pyramid, that's all the readers will get. Since fixing editors don't show any curiosity about other story shapes, their reporters won't either. Since fixing editors are too busy to talk about reporting and writing, their reporters won't either.
It's one-size-fits-all journalism. The humor and drama of everyday life never appear in stories. Readers soon start looking elsewhere for lively writing.
5) You edit behind the writer's back.
Some editors may not admit it, even to themselves, but they are afraid of their reporters. Why else would they radically change copy or rewrite leads without telling their writers?
Is it because of deadline demands? That happens once in a while. Perhaps the reporter wasn't available? Occasionally, that happens, too. But some editors start rewriting the moment the writer walks out of the room. Jack Hart of The Oregonian calls this "stealth editing."
The stealth editor is afraid to confront the writer or, worse, is unable to explain why the copy needs to be changed. Writers know this. They aren't stupid. The good ones fight. The weaker writers give up. It's not their story any more.
Stealth editors fool only themselves.
Recognize any of these problems?
Don't despair. We all stumble now and then, but if you find yourself mired in one of these situations, make some changes.
Stop thinking you have all of the answers. Develop a good set of questions that you will ask of every story. Then listen to the writer's answers.
Talk before, during, and after the reporting. Talk about the focus and structure of the story. Learn different ways to tell a story, and share those approaches with the writers. That way you will be setting the standard while the writer starts taking more responsibility for the story.
Most important of all, follow the advice offered by Chip Scanlan, Roy Peter Clark, Don Fry, and other coaches: Treat the writers as your colleagues.
The result will make your readers happier.
And who doesn't want that?