We Asked You: What Makes A Good Editor?

Jun 22, 2017

At PRNDI 2017, we’re celebrating editors, those unsung heroes of the newsroom. The folks who lurk in obscurity, tirelessly slaying superfluous “that” use and reminding reporters to write with the “fewest and most powerful words,” stronger verbs and active voice. The people who - at their best - inspire, challenge, and nurture their staffs. This one's for you guys.

This year is also the first conference where PRNDI recognizes an Editor of the Year. The new annual award goes to editor nominated by their newsroom for, quite simply, being really good at their job. The inaugural honor goes to Phyllis Fletcher of Northwest News Network. You can read all about her here. The comments from her reporters show why she’s a perfect person to be PRNDI's first EOTY.

What Makes An Editor Excellent Editor?

A few months ago, I was tasked with writing the Editor of the Year award call for nominations. That’s easy enough, right? But, staring at a blank page, I couldn’t find the words to describe the person we were looking for. What do good editors do, really? Flowery, aspirational language aside, how do these rare beasts actually behave in the wild? What are the qualities we look for in our best story-sharpeners and newsroom ship captains?

So, I did what many of today’s finest and/or laziest writers do: asked Facebook. Specifically, I posed the question to the Public Media Journalists Facebook group. To my delight, the prompt garnered so many insightful responses I decided to compile and share them with all of you.

The attributes broke down into four main categories. 

They Know Editing Is A Collaboration And Starts Long Before The Story Is Written

There was near universal praise for the pre-story conversation. We’ve heard it all before, but (be honest!) in the rush to get newscasts and cutaways filled each day, it sometimes falls to the wayside.

"A good editor understands that editing is a SOCIAL skill. It requires good communication. It doesn't matter how insightful your thoughts are about a story or coverage if you can't communicate them."

“For me, best editors help me crystallize a story and what it needs BEFORE I report. For features/longform anyway.” Ryan Kailath, reporter at Marketplace Business News

“This helps experienced reporters, too. It’s easy to lose focus and get bogged down after you've gathered tape and done enough research that takes you down a million rabbit holes. And all of a sudden, everything seems important!” Gigi Douban, news director, WBHM Birmingham

And, just as the editing doesn’t start with the final script, it doesn’t stop at the initial conversation. According to Liz Reid, health and science reporter at 90.5 WESA in Pittsburgh, a good editor is “With you from pitch to air.”

“When you have questions about what direction to go in, when an interview falls through and you need to retool, when you are rethinking your angle. They are responsive, available to answer questions, and help you get your thoughts organized. They ask lots of questions, not just when you turn in your script, but during the entire reporting process," Liz Reid

 They Have High Standards

“John Maxwell says that ‘leaders care but never compromise.’ That's what I need in an editor: someone who holds me to a high standard, treats me with respect and always drives me to raise my game,” Joshua Johnson, host of WAMU’s 1A

“Someone who is laser focused on what will make the audience care about your story, who is willing to gently give you the bad news if you aren't there yet and who will draw out your (further) good ideas to get the story to that magic place,” Kelley R. Griffin, vice president of news, Colorado Public Radio

They Recognize Reporters As Humans, Not News-Generating Robots

While this is especially important to younger professionals, newsroom employees of any age want to feel valued and nurtured in their jobs. They want editors who are “mentors, guides, and help a reporter elevate their work without changing their voice,” as Michelle Faust, health care reporter at KPCC, wrote.

“Someone who treats you as an equal and brings out the best in you. Someone who doesn't try to compete with you, but gives you everything you need to make the best work you can. Someone who recognizes your skill and pushes you until you recognize it, too,” Ann Marie Awad, Colorado Public Radio

Reporters value knowing an editor cares about their professional development. John Dankosky of New England News Collaborative described it as “thinking beyond the story at hand. What makes this reporter better?”

They Gots The Chops

Reporters value an editor with demonstrated reporting and writing skills who communicates clearly and consistently.

“A good editor conceptualizes well, writes well, and above all sees the story freshly to help craft it better than I could myself.They have a realistic sense of what's working and what isn’t,” Jason Lopez, Central Coast Public Radio

"Someone who is laser focused on what will make the audience care about your story."

“Some who helps whack away all the crap when you're deep in the weeds,” Ann Heppermann, Pineapple Street Media

“Someone who can understand what your reporting can say even when you can't anymore. A master of the Socratic method who leaves you feeling it was all your idea to begin with,” Grant Blankenship, Georgia Public Broadcasting

“A good editor understands that editing is a SOCIAL skill. It requires good communication. It doesn't matter how insightful your thoughts are about a story or coverage if you can't communicate them. Also, a great editor makes tweaking or re-shaping a story feel like a fun challenge rather than a chore or punishment,” Alison MacAdam, NPR

They Aren't Afraid Of Compromise, New Ideas Or Contributors

Adam Ragusea, host of "The Pub" podcast from Current, says there are two often under-discussed aspects of being a good editor: being able to find and retain contributors, and being good at receiving pitches.

“A good editor is constantly working to expand her network of contributors and is making a special effort to find people with underrepresented voices; a bad editor keeps going back to the same network of known quantities. A good editor maintains a pleasant and mutually beneficial working relationship with her contributors; a bad editor alienates her contributors by being unpleasant, unreliable, exploitative, etc. A good editor responds to pitches promptly, clearly and decisively; a bad editor just leaves her contributors hanging.”

Ragusea also notes that a good editor approaches pitches with an open mind, and doesn’t toss aside ideas that don’t fit the mold.

“A good editor is on the lookout for unpolished gold because many great story ideas are hidden inside problematic pitches,” he said.

WESA’s Liz Reid seconded Ragusea’s call for editors to be open-minded. As she put it: “Not. Set. In. Their. Ways.” Reid’s ideal editors are good listeners and “open to your arguments about why a story should be reported a certain way. Willing to entertain perspectives different their own…an important quality for all journalists, really!"

Now Go Forth And Strive To Be Like This

I hope you’ll keep these comments in mind during the PRNDI conference this week, and take them back to your newsrooms when you return. May all editors do their best to be someone who, as Erin Hennessey of KNKX put it, “Uses their ears, brain, and heart.”  

And, one final note from Brian Bull of KLCC: “A bowl of M&Ms on the desk can't hurt.”

The above comments have been edited slightly for length and clarity, especially in places where folks were being all "social-media-casual" with their commas and capitalization and whatnot.