A Plea from Minority Journalists: Give Us Some Feedback
By Jerry Ceppos
Jerry Ceppos is Knight Ridder's vice president/news.
I left Unity '94 – held in Atlanta in July – angry and depressed.
The first joint meeting of four minority journalists' organizations was invigorating in many ways. But I also discovered that we are failing many of the folks we've been working so hard to bring into the fold.
I was one of 40 members of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association who volunteered to critique clips. After talking to some of the 130 or so journalists who asked for critiques, and after checking with colleagues, I'm convinced that reporters and editors don't talk much to each other before or after stories are published.
Depending on your career path, you are probably saying to yourself: No surprise there, or minority reporters exaggerate as much as white reporters do.
Maybe I'm naive. But to me, the problems are surprising because they're so widespread.
Take the case of the arts writer in her 30s. Her short pieces of arts criticism, written for a small daily, are focused and informative; one story about an author's battle for a national audience could have run in the New York Times Book Review.
I couldn't believe that this same reporter had also written a meandering, dull lifestyle piece. My notes on her clip even said, with what turned out to be unusual alacrity, "Did you talk about this with an editor?" (This same reporter's cover note had said, "Be brutally honest – please!") I explained that writers and editors should talk before reporting begins, during editing, after it's finished, and after publication.
She laughed. "It's basically a day-to-day, slap-it-together" process – even though this was the first long feature she had ever written. "They're trying to fill a hole and the editor is happy that it's not wire. There's no hands-on. There's no planning."
I told her to leave the paper.
"We all heard the same thing: 'I signed up for this because I'm not getting enough of it where I am,' " Alex MacLeod, managing editor of the Seattle Times and mastermind of the critique project, told me. "There is pent-up demand out there that we're not meeting in our newsrooms."
I talked to a young man who had written a complex story on an educational problem faced by young blacks. His 80,000-circulation paper ran the piece on Sunday page one. In the business only a year, this reporter had hooked readers with an unusual seven-word lead and a careful explanation of the problem in seven compelling sentences.
Suddenly, though, two clumsy sentences – one of them 39 words long – appeared, citing a Time article on the same general topic. I gently said that Time didn't need to be cited for ethical or factual reasons, that the citation at least could have been lower and that a quote would have been better than the long paraphrase.
The writer politely let me finish my diatribe. Then he told me that his editor had insisted on inserting those sentences.
My advice was to fight harder when he thinks he's right, a tough concept for someone so new to the business.
As we concluded, the reporter asked if I could look at one more lead, from his current paper, a respected daily with 150,000 circulation. Though it started in a trite fashion not unusual for inexperienced reporters, it communicated the news.
We talked about the lead some more until he said, "My own editor should be telling me that, shouldn't he?"
His diagnosis could have gone further: Too many of us expect assigning editors to handle 15 reporters, which isn't possible. Too many of us spend training money on reporters and not editors.
A few years ago, a versatile reporter left my newspaper for personal reasons. He moved to a paper with a circulation of 250,000. But he took to calling our metro desk for suggestions before turning in stories because he felt he got no direction at his nes job. I'm sure that we could have made a profit from this service but decided not to push the idea when the desk told me that his calls weren't collect.
Two weeks after Unity, I spoke to professors about alliances between J-schools and newspapers. I was so bothered by my Unity experiences that I suggested this: Offer to critique clips of your recent grads. There's a good chance that no one else will.