News Leadership 3.0

June 02, 2008

Newsroom confidential:  The reality of frontline editors

The job of the assigning editor
goes well beyond dealing with stories

Rupert Murdoch says a “ridiculous” number of editors—8.3 to be astonishingly (or perhaps facetiously) exact—deal with an average story in The Wall Street Journal. I’m not sure what “deal with” means. Counting a couple of assignment editors (one launches the story, another plays cleanup later in the day), a copy editor and a slot, multimedia editors, and perhaps someone who posts to the Web, it’s easy to see how the number who briefly touch a story could add up. On the other hand, if 8.3 editors are routinely revising and tweaking a single story, that does indeed seem like a lot.

It is true that newspapers by tradition have let too many editors massage too many stories too much, often to with little or no improvement. I am big on the idea that a good line editor (a job I had for about 25 years) approaches every story with a skeptical eye and aggressively challenges facts, omissions and underlying assumptions. But I think editors sometimes try to put their own stamp on the story or there is perfectionist editing by committee—and that can spell death to any personality and creativity the writer has brought to the piece. The unintended message to writers is that they should give up taking chances or figure out a way to avoid editing. I once consulted at a well-respected metro newspaper where several writers told me they tried to avoid pitching their stories for the front page because the “serial editing” of these stories was such a hassle for them and damaging to their stories.

What a message. “Don’t try.”  A good editor must always be ready to pull a story back from a precipice. But she also must encourage the reporter or photojournalist to step to the edge of the cliff and look up, down and sideways.

Murdoch’s editor-to-story ratio tells only part of the story. A sad reality of newsrooms is how little time many line editors actually get to spend on editing. So the more important issue for newsrooms in transition (and I am thinking more about the many local newsrooms that are crossing the digital divide than the few national ones like WSJ) is to fully understand the wide-ranging and powerful role assigning editors can play in fostering change and innovation as they work 14-hour days six days a week, decide what gets covered and what gets left out, deploy and coach the staff, field calls from readers, learn about audience and multimedia, tend to administrative details such as scheduling, foster creativity, put out the daily fires of poor planning or interpersonal disagreements, attend overly long daily and weekly meetings, encourage young journalists, keep the newsroom trains running on time, counsel colleagues in crisis, and, yes, edit stories.

In “News, Improved: How America’s Newsrooms Are Learning to Change,” we devoted a full chapter to the job of the frontline editor and, in particular, to this editor’s role as the guardian of newsroom culture. We wrote:

“This editor touches virtually everything and everyone in the newsroom, and that touch can push change forward or hold it back.
More than anyone else, these editors translate their understanding of a newsroom’s mission into its daily work. They can foster honest give-and-take. They can open the door to culture change and creative risk. They can be evangelists for staff development and drive newsroom goals into the news itself, into both print and online. Or not.”

A complicated role continues to change and deepen and that translates into a steep learning curve for many editors from a print background.

“In the old culture, editors trimmed stories, editors held stories and editors exercised something called ‘news judgment’. In the new culture, we need editors who can enhance stories, editors who can speed stories along and editors who can present readers with a wide variety of choices,” says Bob Rose, deputy managing editor for presentation and online at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “It’s too early to say whether the new job is more demanding. It’s worth acknowledging that both types of editing require a great amount of skill. It’s also worth noting that those skill sets don’t necessarily transfer over.”

Steven A. Smith, editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., says he is searching for ways to help editors in his fast-evolving newsroom because they are critical to the newsrooms ability to deliver news in multiple ways.

“The burden of the cultural transition falls mostly on the editors, particularly the line editors,” Smith says. While reporters and photographers learn to use new technology to cover the news, the demands on editors are more challenging. “The editors have to be constantly thinking about how this content may play across platforms.”

This is a moving target. But for now, perhaps, the best strategy is to encourage frontline editors to tinker (in the traditional sense of editing) less, less, less and experiment, learn and grow more.

I think that’s a more productive approach than Murdoch’s editor-to-story ratio. You tell me. How are you helping frontline editors in your newsroom learn, cope and grow? Please add your thoughts in comments.




The unintended message to writers is that they should give up taking chances or figure out a way to avoid editing.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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