June 18, 2014

I was once asked by a top newspaper editor if I could help make his reporters more productive. Now they were responsible for three stories a week. Could I coach them to produce six stories a week? My answer was: “I could, but I won’t.”

I did not want to enable the ownership — which was cutting staff — to tell the big corporate lie: that they could do more with less. My reluctance, while principled, now seems hopelessly naïve and nostalgic. We’ve lost journalists by the thousands. Those who remain on newspapers, even as they cling to their jobs like cats on a clothesline, are being asked to perform miracles.

Their jobs, in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, are about to get harder. The Courier-Journal, once a great American newspaper, has fired some key editors. The paper’s editor, Neil Budde, says he is using these losses to re-imagine the structure of the organization, not an unusual managerial move in the digital age.

Several editors will be replaced by a “content editor” who, Budde told WFPL’s James Miller, will serve as something of a “coach”:

There is a role in this organization labeled as content editor. In some ways I might think of it more as content coach. Somebody who will be working with the reporters, helping them shape their stories and their ideas along the way — probably, less hands-on editing. Although, obviously, some part of it will be editing. But I think in the past we have had editors who were fairly aggressive in reworking stories for reporters. There is a little more expectation that the reporters are more independent and produce stories that are in better shape and with some work, a lot of that is also in the coaching process.

To unpack this statement, it appears as if:

  • A content editor will assume some of the roles of the traditional assigning editors.
  • That this content editor will do more front-end work with reporters.
  • That this coaching of reporters will help them produce stories that require less repair on deadline.
  • That reporters will be asked to act more independently, assuming responsibilities and making choices that were once directed by editors.

I certainly know some reporters who might be tempted to raise the roof in exultation at such developments. Reporting without editors? Halleluiah! Who needs a ball and chain?!

Such a reflex, we know, is misguided. (That’s what happens when you have no guides.) In fact, reporters will now have fewer mentors in crafting the truth in the public interest. Gone with their editing titles and bigger salaries and fixed costs are news leaders who best know the community. Who will remind the reporter to get the name of the dog? Who will remember that the name of Nat ‘King’ Cole once appeared on the marquee of the Lyric Theater in Louisville?

But let’s look at this in a productive way. How can a coaching editor – with whatever title – best contribute to an industry experiencing such unsettling change? When I was hired in 1977 by Gene Patterson, editor of the St. Petersburg Times, I became one of the first writing coaches in American journalism. With Don Fry, I would write the book “Coaching Writers,” which is now out of print. The purpose of the book was not to replace editors with new-age coaches, but to persuade editors to coach their reporters not just direct them in an old-fashioned command-and-control, assembly-line process.

Editing should be consultative. Coaching reporters in the long run was better than fixing copy. Coaching was the human side of editing. “I didn’t know editing had a human side,” said one editor. He should know.

“Coaching Writers” makes this distinction between coaching and fixing:

  • The editor coaches the writer. The editor fixes the story.
  • The editor coaches through the process. The editor fixes on deadline.
  • Coaching develops the writer. Fixing gets the story in the paper.
  • Coaching builds confidence. Fixing undercuts the writer.
  • Coaching builds on strengths. Fixing identifies weaknesses.
  • Coaching unites writer and editor. Fixing divides them.
  • Coaching fosters independence. Fixing creates resentment.
  • The coaching editor inspires risk taking. The fixer leans on convention.
  • The coaching editor questions and listens. The fixer directs.
  • The coaching editor shares control. The fixer takes control.

I’m guessing there are plenty of reporters out there thinking: That would be nice, but I don’t have any kind of an editor. No coach. No fixer. The way I write it is the way it goes in the paper. There is no chapter in the book titled: “How to coach yourself.” Maybe in some future electronic edition there should be. If a re-imagination of the newsroom in difficult financial times results in a place with far fewer editors, then reporters will have to create new ways of growing in their craft. Until that new chapter is written, here are some preliminary thoughts:

  • Good front end coaching will result in copy that requires less fixing.
  • The most important points of consultation are two: before the reporting takes place and just after, before the lead is written.
  • If reporters want more coaching, they should seek it out. If you sit at your desk waiting for it, you’ll be waiting for a long time.
  • If there are any copy editors left at your newspaper, cultivate them, feed them, adore them. They are your lifeline on deadline.
  • In the absence of editors, create a system among reporters in which you edit each other’s work and offer feedback.
  • With less backup, strengthen your system of fact-checking. (Remember: if more mistakes get in the paper as a result of fewer resources, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT, even if you are blamed for it.)
  • Find coaches and editors outside of your news organization who might be willing to look at your stuff and suggest ways you can get better. These helpers can focus on your craft or on the content of your beat.
  • Praise good editing and good coaching when you get it.
  • Ask your content editor or coach how you can help them.
  • Take responsibility for the development of your own career.
  • Keep an updated resume and look for an escape hatch.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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