Journalism has an editing crisis, but we can do something about it
In my early days as a producer at "All Things Considered," I set up a meeting with one of NPR’s newsroom leaders. I was in my mid-20’s, trying to advocate for myself.
I told this person, “I want to be an editor.” Was there a pathway for someone like me?
The answer was no. Or at least, that was the implication. The executive offered no advice except that I was too inexperienced to be focused on editing. Go back to your cubicle and focus on your current job.
At the time, I accepted the response, though it was demoralizing. I understood the need to pay dues. But now, 13 years later, I look back on that conversation and feel anger. So few journalists aspire to edit these days; news leaders should take the handful that do seriously.
For many reasons, journalism organizations have taken editors for granted, and now, we’re in a crisis. I frequently hear from friends and colleagues about how hard it is to find and hire strong editors. Screaming "EDITOR SHORTAGE!" is not a great way to go viral, but in my view, it is the most significant challenge facing newsrooms right now.
Editing may not be sexy. It may not nourish the ego. But (do I need to say it?) great editing makes every story more distinctive and memorable. Editors give stories structure, they elevate characters and they hone focus. We now create far more content that any reasonable human being could ever read, and journalism has to work harder to get noticed. We can’t do that without editors.
How did we get here?
We could spend hours laying out the reasons for the lack of qualified editors: The decimation of newspapers — where future editors were once developed; the increasingly fast pace of news — in which real editing can be seen as slowing down the race; and the digital transformation of journalism — which leaves many experienced editors struggling to catch up with younger, Twitter- and Snapchat-fluent newcomers. And so on.
But media organizations are not victims of circumstance. On the whole, we have been lazy and short-sighted. We failed to value editing as a craft in itself — a craft that young journalists might aspire to and train for. (I’m sure there are exceptions to this, and I’d love to hear about them!) How many news organizations actively search for editing talent within their ranks? How many have systems for developing editors, separate from efforts to develop reporters?
Too often we have created systems in which editors bear huge responsibility but receive little institutional support, feedback, or rewards; they are critically needed but perennially ignored.
Can we build new pathways for editors?
I recently asked NPR’s Vice President of News, Mike Oreskes, whether he could articulate how editors were cultivated at NPR. He’s only been in the job about a year. “There doesn’t seem to be a pathway,” he said. “I think we need a structure and a path, and I don’t see either.” (More on NPR’s efforts to change this, below.)
We have to do something about this.
But first, we have to define what makes a good editor.
Must an editor have extensive reporting experience? Oreskes told me this: “I would not say that being a reporter is the crucial requirement for being an editor. The crucial element is the editor’s ear, the editor’s eye. It’s not reporting. It’s a different skill.” To be clear, Oreskes, a former reporter and editor, is not suggesting that reporting experience is irrelevant. In fact, he puts a premium on an understanding of the subject matter and the challenges of finding sources and ferreting out stories. But what he and other media leaders also understand is that editing requires other skills and instincts.
Several editors spoke to me about this in psychological terms: Editing requires an ability to sympathize with the reporter’s and/or producer’s struggles, while maintaining enough distance to offer meaningful critique. You should be able to tell your reporter that his story is a hot mess, while making him feel excited about fixing it. Sometimes, editing is like therapy.
Editing also requires an ability to structure stories — and to maintain perspective, to step into the audience’s shoes.
Editors must also be coaches and talent spotters — with an eye and an ear out for new, distinctive voices.
These skills are (hopefully) timeless, but editing also demands new knowledge, things we couldn’t learn at journalism schools or in newsrooms even five years ago:
- Editors must understand audience-centric thinking. Who is our audience? What do they want? Where do they find us? We can now measure and understand our audience(s) to a degree of specificity that is both exciting and terrifying. And suddenly audiences are a fractured concept: We’re not publishing a newspaper for St. Louis or a radio program for the “general national audience”; we’re “creating content” for 25-34 year-old women or Latino millennials. Editors need to have tools for understanding audience and strategies for translating that knowledge to stories.
- Editors must understand distribution channels. If our stories can now exist on mobile apps, social platforms, website, podcasts, etc, editors can’t afford to only grasp one of these channels. Editors need to develop an ability to cognitively toggle between formats.
- Editors must have an eye or ear for longform (and shortform and everything in-between). These new channels mean that important journalism can take the form of a 140-character tweet, a 15-minute podcast episode, or a stunning, audio-visual “event” that takes 30 minutes to experience. We can’t be experts on everything, of course, but only mastering one kind of story is no longer enough.
So what can news organizations do to find and cultivate editors?
Here are several ideas — as a starting point.
- Articulate what skills and qualities an editor in your organization needs to succeed. Don’t just think about it or talk about it. Write it down. Circulate it among your staff so managers know what they’re looking for and aspiring editors know what to reach for. And identify the different kinds of editors you need since, like I said above, not everyone can be expert at everything.
- Design detailed pathways for editors. For example, imagine a young digital producer shows promise. If s/he could become an editor in, say, three years — what experiences does s/he need? In the same way that promising reporters are sent abroad or to the White House to build up experience, what opportunities and, yes, tests can you give aspiring editors? Give them real chances to learn, to fail, and to prove themselves.
- Invest in training. Prominent newsrooms can no longer ignore the need for training infrastructure. As much as we admire the masters of the past, we can no longer learn everything we need to know from them. Besides, as technology changes and newsrooms refine their missions — editorial goals and needs change. No carefully crafted executive memo will result in the great new stories you envision; you have to put in the time and money to guide people in the direction you want them to go. (Disclaimer: I work for a training unit, so naturally I would care about this.)
- Understand the value of a good editor and staff accordingly. How much time should an editor be expected to spend with one story or project? I’d argue we undercount that by a lot. If editors aren’t allowed the time to help shape projects and to usher them through the creation process (whether that lasts one day or one year), they become air traffic controllers. They are overworked, overwhelmed, uninspired and unable to provide true editorial guidance or comprehensive coaching. No wonder people don’t want editing jobs! But when good editors are given the time to properly edit (and the salary that fairly accounts for their value), they make stories better and more impactful. It’s worth the money.
- Find more ways to celebrate editors. As all editors know, their best work is invisible. You serve behind-the-scenes while the byline belongs to someone else. Neither your colleagues nor the audience will see how you shaped a story, navigated its pitfalls, or gave it nuance. Therefore, it’s hard to judge editors or hand them awards. (No one wins a Pulitzer solely for editing. Why not?!) But colleagues know what an editor has done. Producers and reporters can tell news management what role an editor played — especially when it is quietly heroic. Newsroom leaders should regularly seek out that information and use it to reward editors, both privately and publicly.
As for me, I did become an editor. After five years as a producer, I began editing "All Things Considered." A Yoda-like NPR editor helped to train me (he’s not old, small or green; just wise), and my boss (not the same person I mentioned above who told me no) believed in me; in fact, he often referred to the moment when I told him I wanted to become an editor. It was so rare, he said, to hear that aspiration.
Now, NPR as a whole — and the Editorial Training team I work for — is trying to cultivate more editors. We are designing workshops for editors in the public radio system. NPR has created an in-house editing fellowship. It’s all a good start.
But journalism has a long way to go. If you lead a newsroom, stroll over to that whiteboard and start mapping out your aspirations. Draw a stick-figure editor in the middle of your picture, not on the periphery. And then start looking around your newsroom for the editors of the future. The quality of journalism in the 21st century depends on them.