11 ways for editors & reporters to communicate better when working from afar

Working with reporters from afar is something I’ve often struggled with. Not seeing each other on a daily basis makes it harder for the editor and reporter to communicate. E-mails get misinterpreted. Periods of silence — we all get busy — can create anxiety: Have I done something wrong?

It’s even more complicated if you don’t know the other person very well. You may not understand when he or she is being serious or joking. You may think a curt e-mail signifies frostiness rather than someone trying to meet a deadline on another matter.

While on the phone, you may need to talk through an idea at length, while the other person may need time to think. Such differences in communication styles can lead to misunderstandings, especially in long-distance editor-reporter relationships.

As an editor, chances are you’ll eventually work with reporters in distant bureaus or with freelance writers based elsewhere. I’ve come up with a few tips for editors who face this situation, and I also asked for advice from two Dallas Morning News colleagues who are especially good at working with reporters from afar — Janie Paleschic, deputy business editor, and Ryan Rusak, state government and politics editor.

Whenever possible, use the phone instead of e-mail.

There’s nothing like the human voice (even if it’s disembodied) to create a better connection between people. Plus, you can pick up on the nuances in a phone conversation better than in an e-mail exchange. Even better, you may want to explore using Skype, the online video/phone tool.

“Taking time to reach out and to listen when you are not on deadline helps establish the trust that a reporter and editor need to be an effective team,” said Paleschic, who worked on the foreign news desk for several years. “Knowledge and understanding of a reporter’s situation is crucial. An editor may need to provide the calm center in a turbulent world.”

Make sure to talk to the reporter not just about assignments, but about what’s going on in the newsroom.

“Take time to explain newsroom management’s thinking on various topics, the current vogue for certain kinds of stories, the push for more graphics…” Paleschic said. “This helps the reporter avoid the paranoia that can grow in a small bureau when people feel isolated.”

Use e-mail for quick updates and for sharing drafts.

When I’m editing a draft, I typically write my suggestions in bold in the text and use double parentheses around proposed trims.

I call the reporter, ask her to read through the draft as I talk to her about my suggestions, and ask her to revise the draft herself. I only revise the draft myself if we are on deadline. Bonus tip: Avoid using sarcasm in your e-mails. It doesn’t translate well.

Use conference calls to patch the reporter in to staff meetings. Also include the report in discussions with photo, graphics and online editors about the reporter’s stories.

While it’s good to use the phone, don’t overuse it.

If you’re like me, the number of tasks you have to accomplish as an editor in any given day can be overwhelming.

Avoid getting drawn into long phone conversations by setting up a weekly call (ranging from a half-hour to an hour) to chat about short-term and long-term issues, plus story ideas and challenges on the beat.

Let the reporter know when your meetings and busy periods are.

For example, if you have news meetings at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, the reporter ought to know it will be difficult to reach you at those times. If Wednesday is your production day, it will probably be hard to have an in-depth conversation on that day. Similarly, if you know that a reporter is in writing mode or on deadline, you probably won’t want to call her unless it’s urgent.

Respect time differences.

“If a reporter is in another time zone, do what you can to accommodate them on deadlines and on work/life balance,” Rusak said. “Similarly, they should understand that deadlines for the publication are what they are – and plan accordingly.”

Ask the reporter to e-mail a short progress report at the end of each week.

The report should explain what the reporter has accomplished and what’s on the horizon. This can help you keep track of stories and get a heads up on any emerging issues for the next week.

Take advantage of visits.

When a reporter is in town, make sure to schedule lunch, dinner or coffee. You’ll want that face time to get to know each other. On occasion, Paleschic would even accompany reporters on shopping trips.

“Foreign correspondents often needed time to shop for basic items not easily found in their country,” she said. “Sometimes I would go along, and this helped our bond. I still encourage Washington bureau staffers to get to Dallas at least once or twice a year.”

During the visit, arrange for the reporter to meet with other staff members to help him feel more connected to the newsroom. In turn, if you have the funds (I realize resources are strapped these days), schedule a visit to the reporter’s bureau to get a better sense of his work environment.

Consider using social media to stay connected.

Not everyone is comfortable with this, understandably so. If you do decide to friend your reporters on Facebook or follow them, and be followed by them, on Twitter, you’ll need to be careful about blurring professional and personal lines. At the same time, social media is an effective way of staying in touch with colleagues who work elsewhere.

Realize that distance can also sometimes be an advantage.

“When you have a disagreement and need some space,” Rusak said, “it’s not hard to come by.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.