Thursday, January 17, 2008

What are editors for? Advice from Times news editor Richard Berke

Today, wise words from the The New York Times's "Talk to the Newsroom" feature by Richard L. Berke, the Times's assistant managing editor for news.

Who Needs Editors?

Q. Why do stories written by reporters need editing? Editors are in a
newsroom, not in the field. Why would an editor know better than a
reporter what is true and correct about a story? Yes, I know, stories
need to have correct spelling and grammar, but beyond that it seems
editors should keep their hands off the material. If editors are so
important, why isn't their byline on the story too?
--Alex Newberry, Sarasota, Fla.

A. Many reporters here would say, Amen! Some reporters pride themselves
on filing their stories so close to deadline that editors are left with
no time to meddle with their work. (It's not a practice we encourage.)

When I was a reporter I would sometimes chafe at what seemed like
batteries of editors trying to tamper with my prose. But usually I was
grateful for the help. If really smart people can weigh in and make
suggestions that improve your article -- and make you look smarter --
you'd be foolish not to appreciate the help.

Now that I'm an editor, I have an even clearer perspective. First off,
while some reporters produce perfect copy that barely needs editing,
you should see some of the drafts from other reporters. I won't name
any names, but let's just say that some of our most enterprising and
dogged reporters aren't necessarily as talented in the writing
department, while some of our most skillful stylists aren't always the
most successful reporters. Not everyone can do it all, especially since
the reporting and editing process is demanding work under intense
deadlines. (Plus, the workload is only getting more challenging, with
reporters contributing to our Web site around the clock.)

Editors can bring a fresh eye to an article. They can remind a reporter
to step back, and explain to readers why the particular story is
important. They can prod a reporter to do a little more interviewing
and a little more work to make sure they get the full story. They can
tell reporters who are in love with their own prose that actually, if
you trim 200 of their precious words out of an 1100-word story, it
might actually make the story tighter and easier to read. They can
suggest to the reporter that maybe the anecdotal opening is a little
slow and that they should come up with something snappier. While most
of the best ideas come from reporters -- they are the ones out in the
field, talking to people -- editors can sometimes see a bigger picture
and suggest ideas that aren't as obvious to reporters in the thick of

Broadly speaking, editors can also be advocates for a particular story
to actually get published, and try to cheer on the reporters, while
pushing them to do their best work. But successful editors know not to
go overboard. Even when changes are necessary, they know to work with
the reporters to retain as much of their writing styles as possible.
And they need to trust the reporters and give them the freedom and
encouragement to do their best work.

That said, I don't want to overstate the role of editors. One some
articles, we don't need to do a thing.

So if the effort is often collaborative, why don't editors get bylines?

Because for all that we do to try to make pieces even better, the heart
of the story -- the reporting, the writing -- is the work of the
reporter. Maybe the byline is in a part a reward for dealing with all
the torment from editors!

You give up that instant ego gratification when you become an editor.
But you learn to live vicariously though others. This may sound silly,
but sometimes I still run to the front door to pick up the morning
paper when one of our reporters has a story on A1 that I particularly
liked or that I in some way helped to get out front. Even without my
own byline, I can still get a thrill out of seeing a terrific story pop
up on A1. (And as an editor, I don't have to actually report or write
the story, only to be tormented by demanding editors. It's easier being
the tormenter!)

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