The One-Minute Editor

par
27 juin 2008 dans Journalism Basics

Most editors promise themselves (and often their reporters) that they will have weekly brainstorming meetings on story ideas, frequent coaching sessions on writing techniques and daily post-story critiques to identify and reinforce the lessons learned. Those are worthy goals, and the editors who meet them no doubt are some of the best editors. For many editors, though, the daily grind does not allow that. Sometimes you'll make time for a few of those sessions, but never enough. You do, however, talk to your reporters every day, a minute here, a couple minutes there, five minutes when it's really important. You need to learn to use those few minutes to help steer the reporter on a path to learn for herself how to improve. Even if you succeed in making time for longer sessions with reporters, much of your most important editing still is done in these brief daily encounters.

Ask, don't tell. If you ask, rather than tell, you guide the reporter in learning reporting and writing techniques. Don't tell a reporter to check with a news subject's previous employers and employees and check the courthouse for any criminal or civil actions. Ask the reporter how he's going to find out about the person's background. If the reporter doesn't provide the specific answers you want, ask more specific questions: How do we know this person hasn't been arrested somewhere for drunk driving? Use this technique at every step of the storytelling process. At the idea stage, don't just give an assignment. Ask the reporter how you should follow up on a situation. Ask how we can find out what similar projects have cost in other cities. In the reporting process, ask how it's going. If the reporter isn't checking all the bases, ask a question that directs her to the neglected area. In the writing stage, ask what the main points are going to be. Ask how he's going to explain a complex issue. Ask what the story is about. The answer may guide the reporter to her lead. In the rewriting process, ask how the reporter can make a particular passage simpler. Ask if the reporter can help you see the scene.

Ask about story elements. Reporters think in terms of answering basic questions: Who, what, when, where, when, why, how. You will answer those questions if you encourage reporters to think in terms of story elements: plot, character, setting, theme, conflict, resolution. Ask reporters about the elements in their stories: What’s the plot? Who’s the main character? How are you going to develop the characters? Can you make the reader feel as if she’s in the setting? What’s the conflict? What’s the resolution? If the conflict is unresolved, can you help the reader feel the passion of the quest for resolution or the frustration over the lack of resolution? Hope for a story that exceeds your expectations. Don't shackle the reporter or the story with your preconceived notions. Share with the reporter the excitement and surprises of discovering the story.

Suggest that the reporter write as he reports. An early start on writing focuses the later stages of the reporting effort. It gets more of the story written while the interviews are fresh. It results in more rewriting and better stories.

Identify one skill for the reporter to work on in each story. It may be a weakness. Or you may challenge the reporter to improve in an area where she is already strong. This is how good reporters become great reporters. Make it a specific challenge: Try to use more active verbs in this story. Be more demanding of your quotes this time. Paraphrase and tighten where you can, using quotes only when the words are particularly strong or where it's important to have a character speaking.

Try to give one specific piece of feedback on each story. "Good story" doesn't help the reporter identify what made it a good story. "That description of the kitchen really made me feel like I was there" identifies exactly the strength you want to reinforce. It tells the reporter you read the story and helps the reporter know why it worked, if he doesn't already know. If your feedback is criticism, make sure it also is specific. And ask yourself whether you can balance it with a specific piece of praise as well, or with a challenge on how to address the criticism in the future. If you identified a skill for the reporter to work on, make sure your feedback includes some assessment of the use of that skill. Note the active verbs, the sparing but powerful use of quotes, whatever you challenged the reporter to improve in. If you didn't note improvement, be candid and discuss with the reporter why this skill is important and how she might have done better in that particular area on this particular story.

Every now and then tell the reporter, “Make this story special.”

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