6 questions for reporters & editors who want to build their relationship

In a previous column I wrote about how, as an editor, it’s important to build your relationship with a reporter before critiquing his or her stories with candor. You want to lay down a foundation of trust, so the reporter knows that the criticism is about the work, not the person. You want reporters to know that you’re rooting for them.

Some editors exude not only competence, but compassion, and (at least to the observer) appear to forge their relationships with ease. Other editors stumble; they get wrapped up in their work or authority, holding staff members at arm’s length.

Then there are editors (often newly minted) who are eager to please. They forget to set boundaries with their staff and get drawn into one personal drama after another.

Here are three questions for the editor — plus three questions for the reporter — to help each gauge the relationship.

Three questions for the editor:

1. Do I know the names of my staff members’ partners and children?

I’m not suggesting that you pry into the private lives of your staff. But knowing these names is a sign that you’ve spent a little time talking about life outside of work. It means that you’ve listened when one reporter’s daughter has triumphed at the science fair, and another reporter’s spouse has moved a parent into a nursing home.

2. Have I asked my staff members what they hope to accomplish — and where they hope to be — in three to five years?

The way the news industry is going, it’s hard to know where any of us will be in three years. But you still want to get a sense of your staff’s goals and ambitions. As a boss, your job is not just to shape the work, but to develop people. You want to help them get to the next level, whether that’s a plum assignment in your newsroom or a job at another news organization. Yes, I know that last goal can be painful, especially when you can’t fill openings, but how can you truly develop people without expecting that some will leave?

3. How comfortable are you with the interplay of emotions in the editor-reporter relationship?

This is one of the hardest areas for me, and, I would imagine, for most editors. I’ve had reporters break down in my office as they struggled with personal issues. Others have showered me with love one week, then acted out with hostility the next. My general approach has been to try to be even-keeled — to calm them down by remaining serene (or at least serene on the surface).

At the same time, sometimes reporters need to see your emotions. Several years ago, on a day when dozens of people were laid off in my newsroom, I lost it. Consumed by anger and sadness, I walked into my office– and proceeded to trash it. A reporter later told me that it meant a lot to see that. Now, I’m not recommending that you trash your office. But for your relationships to thrive, your staff has to see you as a human being, warts and all.

Three questions for the reporter:

1. Have I invited my editor to an event related to my beat or a restaurant in the community I cover?

Editors get chained to their desks and their schedules. Sometimes they just need a nudge to remind them that there’s a real world outside the newsroom. As a reporter, you can show them a glimpse of your beat, whether it’s at a public hearing or a community festival. As you chat with your editor outside of the workplace, you might begin to see other facets of who he or she is.

2. Do I know what my editor’s passions and hobbies are?

As you build a rapport with your editor, don’t forget that you’re good at doing this; it’s how you cultivate sources on your beat. You chat them up, you find out what their interests are, you try to find common ground. At worst, you’ll have topics you can make small talk over. At best, you might discover that you both love the Jayhawks (not the University of Kansas basketball team, but the Minneapolis band) and start sharing music.

3. Have my editor and I talked about our favorite writers?

You and your editor can talk all you want about the craft of writing, but really, the main way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. That’s why it’s important that you and your editor talk about writers you admire (it doesn’t matter in what category: fiction, nonfiction, journalism, poetry, etc.) and share books, magazine pieces and news stories that you like. What worked? What didn’t? How is the piece similar to what you’re trying to produce? If your editor doesn’t have any favorite writers, well, you might want to start looking for another editor.

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