10 tips for working with reporters who are sensitive to criticism

Your first few months as an editor can be tough. A couple of things dawn on you. You realize that editing is really an art (perhaps even a dark art), not a science. And you realize that you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. The way you edit stories and offer suggestions might work for one reporter, but not for another.

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One question that comes up a lot: How do you work with reporters who are particularly sensitive to criticism? I still have my good days and bad days in this realm, but here are 10 tips.

Build your relationship first.

Avoid offering blunt criticism when you’re just getting to know a reporter. As a coach, you’ll want to develop your relationship with the reporter and read their stories over time to figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are. You’ll also want to figure out how your communication styles mesh. As with most relationships, you’ll be able to be more frank as you build trust.

Make it about the work, not the person.

Avoid using phrases like, “You need to [insert task here]”; “You neglected to [insert task here]”; “You should get better at [insert task here].” Couch your suggestions in terms of the story: “The story would benefit from X, Y and Z”; “We could strengthen the story by doing X, Y and Z”; “We could clarify this passage by doing X, Y and Z.”

Present yourself as the first reader of the reporter’s story, not as a supervisor or God’s gift to journalism.

Frame your conversation this way: “You’re the expert on this subject and understand this better than me. Reading the story cold, I didn’t understand X, Y and Z. Can you help me understand this better?”

Put your criticism in context.

I always like to point to the strengths of the story and let the reporter know that the foundation of the story is already solid -- we’re just talking about ways to get the story to the next level. So don’t forget to be clear and specific about what works in a story. At the same time, keep in mind that most reporters have good B.S. detectors, so don’t try to soften your criticism with a long preamble of praise.

Ask good questions.

Great coaches ask good questions that help the reporter think through what might be missing in a story. Rather than giving the reporter a laundry list of instructions, try asking a few open-ended questions: “What is the overarching theme of your story?” “What are you trying to achieve in this section of the story?” “How can we move through this passage more quickly?” “Why are you introducing the character in this section, rather than the next one?”

Be specific in your criticism.

When I was a reporter, there was nothing I found more frustrating than when an editor would say, “This part of the story isn’t working for me,” but couldn’t point to WHY it wasn’t working. That’s where the craft of editing has to come in. Is the lede not related to the theme of the story? Are the verbs not strong enough? Does a character need more development in one of the sections of the story? Figure out what specifically needs improvement, and then articulate that clearly to the reporter.

Plan on face-time.

If you have any time at all, try to talk about stories (especially at the front-end, rather than when you’re trying to fix the story) and offer your suggestions face-to-face, not via e-mail. Especially as you are building your relationship with the reporter, you’ll want to sit side-by-side as you go over the edit.

Ask the reporter to make the changes.

Offer concrete suggestions, but set the expectation that the reporter will figure out how to improve the copy and make the changes herself. The less you as the editor touch the copy, the better.

Pick your battles.

In your conversation with the reporter, focus on the two or three major areas where a story can be improved. Don’t get bogged down in nit-picks. Those can come later in the final line edit of the story. Also, as the old saying goes, “Tie goes to the writer.” If you and the reporter are arguing back and forth, and it’s not clear that your suggestion is going to significantly improve the story, then let it go.

Ditch the red pen.

This may seem minor, but give some thought to how you mark up the reporter’s copy, especially if you work on hard copy. A manuscript riddled with the scrawl of a red pen (along with double and triple question marks) can be daunting. Consider using a black or blue pen. Or even a classic No. 2 pencil, if they still have those in your newsroom.

  • Tom Huang

    Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program.


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