Can This Relationship Be Saved?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1997

Can This Relationship Be Saved?   

Writers (those prima donnas) and editors (those butchers) have long been at odds in the nation's newsrooms. Here are some ways to get beyond the tension and build truly collabor-ative teams.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Related reading:
   » A Winning Team
   » How It Works

When writer Gary Dorsey met editor Jan Winburn, sparks crackled – the good kind.

Dorsey was completing an article for the Hartford Courant's Northeast Magazine where Winburn was deputy editor.

"I thought I had done a horrible job," Dorsey remembers. "But she just said, 'This is fine, and the next one's going to be better, and the next one's going to be better than that.' And they were."

"He was a nervous wreck," recalls Winburn, now the enterprise editor at Baltimore's Sun. So she patiently helped Dorsey build both narrative style and confidence, teaching technique and cheerleading for him at the same time.

Today, the two journalists are married, dramatizing once again how precious good editors are to writers. "You find a good one," sighs Dorsey, "you don't let them go."

But why is finding a good one so hard?

Writers (those prima donnas) and editors (those butchers) have been nemeses long enough to know, in infuriating exactitude, why they enrage each other. They can even prescribe the remedies, like mutual respect, stronger communication and more focused discussions about approach and style.

And journalists aren't stupid. Most writers would give the vowels on their keyboard for a good editor. "Editors become happier people," says Winburn, "when they engage with writers."

Yet here they are, a set of smart, can-do people confronting a chronic problem whose solution seems obvious – and still grinding on each other like forks on fine china.

Something more, it seems, needs to be done.

Granted, progress has accelerated in recent years. Pioneers like Donald Murray, Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry have introduced "coaching" techniques into newsrooms everywhere. Publications, organizations, online sites and books devoted to better writer-editor relations have emerged.

"Overall," says Bill Luening, senior editor for writing at the Kansas City Star, "the relationships between editors and reporters have improved over the 23 years that I've been in the business... Even though I don't see as much wonderful coaching as I'd like to, I don't hear editors say, 'That sucks, kid!' nearly as much any- more."

Still, the feuding does endure. As a writing and editing coach myself, I visit newsrooms frequently. While there's always at least one outstanding editor-writer team, I have found few if any newsrooms where good coaching was the predominant model. The most common complaint from writers is lack of quality attention from editors. A recent inquiry via the Internet turned up plenty of agreement.

"It's astounding," notes Jane Harrigan, a former managing editor and now a professor, "that years after nearly everyone has theoretically accepted the concept of coaching, plain old bad editing and big-time writer distrust of editors are still so widespread."

Maybe the very notion of teamwork collides with the maverick personalities of journalists. Put any two together, it seems, and the ego wrestling begins. Over 500 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg and his partner quarreled over whether to print Bibles or more lucrative ecclesiastical indulgences. They landed in court, and Gutenberg lost his print shop.

The contrasting roles of writers and editors lead to a special friction. The editor represents insider power, presumably a recipe for moderation and control. The writer is the untamed outsider, maneuvering cherished artwork along a hostile assembly line.

As Jon Franklin, an author and two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist, puts it, "It's sort of like with dentistry, I guess. I have much respect for dentistry, and I like many dentists, but I don't relish them drilling holes in my teeth."

While good coaching techniques can overcome these natural tensions, they take time and energy that many editors find scarce. Donald Murray, the legendary teacher, writer and founder of the coaching movement, says editors tend to be judged on their production and administrative achievements, not on nourishing writers.

"You have to look at what you're rewarding," Murray says. "If you have an editor who's got to produce, you don't get much editing."

Luening phrases the problem even more starkly. "Just about everything in a news operation militates against good relations between editors and writers: power, talent, competition, the writer-as-lone-wolf disorder, the editor-as-gatekeeper disorder, insecurity, deadlines, space, money, profit motives, the mindless grind of feeding the beast...

"Coaching? Hell, everyone's in a meeting. And the emphasis on these busy desks is not quality editing. It's production and control."

Despite the best efforts of the coaching movement, newsrooms still resist its basic message – that editors and writers, working together and communicating regularly throughout the writing process, can produce better copy and save significantly on time and aggravation.

Coaching isn't easy, of course, especially when editors face so many daily production demands. "It takes maturity, it takes talent, it takes a lot of people skills," says Joel Rawson, executive editor of the Providence Journal-Bulletin, a paper long associated with good writing and editing. "I've got 40 or 50 editors on this paper, and a half dozen can do it well, and the others have to get the paper out."

ýo break down the resistance and move the writer-editor relationship to its next level, several key conditions must be addressed. They include the basic talent level of editors; pay and status; mounting work demands; and the overall culture of the newsroom.


Talent

To some observers, the problem begins with a simple proposition: There aren't enough editors trained in the delicate art of coaxing good work out of brittle writers. "Editors don't do much coaching because they've never developed the analytical skills or vocabulary necessary to coaching," says Jack Hart, senior editor for writing and staff development at Portland's Oregonian.

"So many editors have just had zippo training," agrees Jane Harrigan. "The less confident they feel, the more they act dictatorial."

And editing isn't easy. "I don't think it should surprise us that there aren't more great editors," says Christopher Scanlan, an award-winning writer who now directs writing programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. "Think of what we're demanding. We're talking about Christ-like figures, for God's sake."


Pay and status

It's an old sore, but still an untreated one. Newspapers don't reward talent like many other professions do, and good coaching isn't what brings fame and fortune in a newsroom. Harrigan sees problems with "managers not counting time spent talking with writers as real work time, or the hierarchy in general sort of scoffing at coaching as some version of 'women's work.' "

Editors see this, and so do writers. "I've never seen a journalist's journalist rise in management," says Gary Dorsey, who is now an established book writer. "Great editors don't get paid the big bucks."

"The competition for good editing talent is tenfold what it was a decade ago," says Dick Thien, a veteran newspaper editor who now teaches at the University of Nebraska. "From telephone companies to insurance companies to Microsoft...good editors are in demand, and they are being hired away above the newspaper industry's insulting pay scale."

That makes it all the more important, he adds, that "newspaper publishers put as many resources into the quality of their editing talent as they do into the speed of their pagination systems."


Ever-increasing demands on editors

"A huge number of editors – probably most of them – expend most of their daily energy meeting the publisher's demands, satisfying the top editor, slogging through the mountain of copy and, on occasion, keeping the troops minimally happy," says Kevin McGrath, assistant managing editor for writing at the Munster, Indiana, Times. "After that, they have little left for working with writers, and many can't be bothered. They feel like they've already given their pint of blood."


The newsroom culture

Even in the face of a powerful, positive movement like coaching, newsrooms change in painfully slow motion. Jay Rosen, director of the Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University, has become a student of newsroom culture as a leading advocate of public journalism. He's visited more than 30 newsrooms and given well over 100 seminars and speeches to journalists. His conclusion: "What's happened is that the practical demands, the production demands, have come to rule the intellectual life of the newsroom. We're talking about a system where nobody is reading, nobody is experimenting, nobody is lifted out of the routine... The organization isn't constituted as a learning environment."

Rosen has succeeded in popularizing public journalism by crafting a strategy for cultural change. That strategy could pay off for the coaching movement as well.

It requires, according to Rosen, at least three steps: getting the attention of top managers of a newspaper; linking a proposed reform to a recognized failing that the managers and their staff want to correct; and modifying the newsroom culture through specific routines and practices.

What does that imply for coaching?

To more fully install coaching as a newsroom norm, top managers have to acknowledge that bad writer-editor relations cost time, money and quality. Better coaching can have a direct impact on what may be newspapers' biggest problem today: luring readers with compelling content.

If managers accept this logic, they can move toward a series of changes in the behavior and habits that underlie the newsroom culture. Among those changes:

  • Reform the reward system. Pay for editing talent, and reward good coaches. To do so, managers must pay more careful attention to what is often an invisible process, the shepherding of stories by editors. Coaching skill should be a factor in raises, bonuses and promotions and a major criterion for performance reviews.

  • "As businesses, we don't value story very highly," says Providence's Joel Rawson. "Editors get rewarded for being clever in meetings."

    In the same way that managers monitor editors' performance on deadlines, budgets and story counts, says Donald Murray, "we need ways to measure an editor's worth by showing over a year or two what writers they have worked with and encouraged."

  • Reinforce the message every day. Newspaper managers are notorious for staying interested in some reform for a month or two, then jumping to the next project. Achieving real change, however, requires daily, long term attention. Coaching should be an object of regular reinforcement through public praise, posted critiques, personal notes, newsletters and house organs. If editors and writers know that managers are noticing their work, they'll make the expected adjustments.
  • Make someone accountable as the coaches' coach. You can't spread responsibility too broadly across a newsroom. Someone in power – a managing editor or AME, for example – needs both to support the editor-coaches and oversee them to make sure they follow through. If this isn't made somebody's specific job responsibility, it won't get done.
  • Train editors in coaching techniques and lobby journalism schools to do likewise. From Murray and others have come a variety of methods and terms that editors can use to overcome the built-in tension of working with writers. But too few editors have been exposed to these procedures. The more they are taught, the faster they will become an expectation.
  • Start with something easy. Team a top coaching editor with receptive writers working on important stories, and let them model good coaching for the entire newsroom. Gradually spread the model through the rest of the newsroom.
  • Consider structural changes within the newsroom. Consider creating a position called, say, story editor – an assistant city editor-level job specifically devoted to working with writers on key stories. Perhaps editors could rotate into the position for a few weeks at a time. Learn from papers that have successful front page and enterprise desks to put extra time and editing energy into certain projects.

  • Even consider designating a special place, away from the regular newsroom hurly-burly, where editors and writers can consult. Gary Dorsey, for example, remembers how one editor set up shop in "a dark corner near the sports department downstairs from the newsroom" where writers "would sneak off to spend an hour talking..about the stories we were working on."

  • Make coaching skill a top requirement for new editors. How do you measure coaching skill? Donald Murray offers this advice: "Ask the writers who they want to work with. Find the natural mentors, the people on the staff others go to."

  • The Oregonian's Jack Hart suggests interviewing potential editors about the writing process to determine how well they understand its steps and the points at which editors should offer help. Many writers suggest recruiting editors from magazines, where collaborative editing is more often built into the culture.

    Above all, as the writer Lillian Ross once advised, find editors who like writers.

    Gary Dorsey can still remember what attracted him – professionally – to editor Jan Winburn. She sought out writers, spent time with them (often going to lunch with them to discuss stories, for instance), considered herself a teacher and made them work hard.

    And Winburn can remember standing in a Hartford elevator one day, glancing at a man and wondering if he was the good writer, that Gary Dorsey, whom she had been wanting to meet and to edit.

    "I had admired his writing," she says, "the craft, the words, the ability to make something come off the page and live.

    "I loved him first as a writer."

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