Dear new editor,
Not long ago, I wrote a column encouraging young journalists to keep their chins up and pursue their dreams of working in a newsroom, even though many of those newsrooms have become difficult places to work. Several readers suggested that editors – especially those just starting out – needed encouragement, too.
And so I am thinking of you. Congratulations on your new position. You must be thinking: Now what? And maybe: What did I get myself into? And also: How do I get my old job back?
Those are the very questions I asked myself during my first two years of editing. And that was at a time when the news industry wasn’t nearly as tumultuous as it is now. I can only imagine the doubts and pressures you face today.
And I hesitate to imply having any wisdom on how to be a good editor. I can honestly say that I don’t live up to any of my editing aspirations — on a daily basis, in ways both big and small. But I have learned lessons along the way. In that spirit, I’ll share five things I think are important for new editors to embrace.
Focus on your relationships.
We can talk all we want about the craft of editing, but the hardest part of the job is building and sustaining trusting relationships with your colleagues – not only your reporters, but your bosses and your peers. I often become so focused on the work – the stories, the schedules, the finances – that I forget how important these newsroom relationships are. I’ve learned the hard way that while trust is built over time, that same trust can be damaged in an instant, with an emotional outburst, thoughtless act or callous remark.
As you begin your journey as an editor, take time to get to know your reporters and the other journalists you work with as the human beings that they are (or that you hope they are). Side note: This is the part where you want to avoid telling a reporter, “Do it because I said so.” That might work once or twice, but it damages your relationship in the long run.
Learn to listen.
When I was a reporter, the best editors that I worked with had something in common: They all knew how to listen. That didn’t mean they weren’t stressed or harried, or that they always agreed with me. But it meant that they would actually stop what they were doing. They turned away from their computer, ignored the phone, made eye contact and absorbed what I had to say.
They demonstrated that they were paying attention by taking notes, asking me relevant questions and repeating some of what I was saying. It’s important to listen and to seek to understand. Too often, we’re already formulating the next argument in our heads, and that gets in the way of listening. It’s also difficult because the rhythm of an editor’s day – lots of juggling and multitasking – makes it hard to find that moment of calm in order to truly listen. As an editor, you have to find, and maybe even foster, that moment of calm.
Lead by example.
When you become an editor, people in the newsroom start to watch you closely. If they see you frown, they wonder whether layoffs are on the way. If they see you hunkered down in your office with the door closed, they speculate about personnel issues. If someone says hi and you’re distracted and don’t reply, they wonder why you’ve become such a jerk.
So you need to be aware of what signals you’re sending, not only through what you say but through your body language. At the same time, you have the opportunity to set a positive example. That means you have to be willing to jump into the things that you demand of your staff. If you are asking them to use social media to report on and promote their stories, then you have to do the same thing.
See the big picture — and find ways to help your whole news organization.
I remember when editors used to succeed by focusing inward – on their staffs, on their territories, on their resources. As a reporter, it was frustrating, and even somewhat fascinating, to watch grand turf battles rage on. Lord knows, those turf battles still go on. And I’m not naïve enough to think that you shouldn’t advocate for your staff and compete for resources.
But I also know that, to succeed in today’s newsroom, you must be mindful of the larger picture. What are the greatest needs of your newsroom? How can you use your team’s expertise to help other teams across the newsroom? How can you collaborate with other teams on large projects? How can you include other journalists in your story planning, including those on your multimedia, photography and graphics teams?
Find your resilience.
This is the part where I say, “Better eat your Wheaties.” These editing jobs are among the hardest in the newsroom, and they aren’t for the faint-hearted. You’re going to have some really bad days, the kind that discourage you and make you want to crawl in a hole. On those days, you’re going to have to find your resilience – the spirit within that helps you go home, get some rest and then get back to work the next morning.
Think of those athletes who experience a devastating loss in one game, find a way to shrug it off and then play hard the next game. That’s the kind of editor you need to be. It also doesn’t hurt to have a life outside of the newsroom – one that allows you to have the proper perspective.
If you are devoted to your reporters and dedicated to improving your news organization, you are truly doing God’s work. Yes, it can be a thankless job – you’ll often get criticized from management, from your peers and from your reporters. And even though you may think you’ll gain more power and control as an editor, you’ll quickly realize that’s an illusion.
But then you’ll watch a cub reporter grow as a writer; you’ll watch a veteran dive into a new role and enjoy it; you’ll watch a staff come upon a killer idea in a brainstorming session. And it will all be worth it.
Simply put, we need you in the game. Having been a reporter for many years in several newsrooms, I know that good editors can be hard to come by.
You owe it to yourself to see whether you have it in you to be one of the good ones.
If you are interested in learning techniques for sharper line editing, as well as strategies to coach your reporters and help them brainstorm ideas, check out the Poynter Editors Bootcamp, April 22-23. Kelley Benham of the Tampa Bay Times and I will help you build an editing toolkit, including time management, social media and ethical decision-making. Learn more.