Congrats on your award! Now thank your editor.

Three years ago, I wrote a post called “Editors Often Left out of Journalism Awards Bonanza.” Another awards season is upon us, and the situation is pretty much the same.

Kudos to PRNDI for trying to change things with its first-ever Editor of the Year Award. Nominations are due TOMORROW (April 14) at noon. If you know a great editor, a nomination is the perfect – and let’s face it, pretty much the only – way to send some recognition his or her way.

Continue reading “Congrats on your award! Now thank your editor.”

Congrats on your award! Now thank your editor.

How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

I’ve written plenty about the importance and craft of editing – about how it’s a collaborative process that starts with helping the reporter shape the pitch and plan the story, continues through the reporting process, and doesn’t end until the facts and audio have been checked and the text and photos in the digital piece are in place.

I’ve also written about how editing tends to be undervalued. After all, it happens behind the scenes, and managers rarely understand how time-consuming and labor intensive it can be.

I now have data that sheds light on the time question.

Continue reading “How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.”

How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

A little over a year ago, I voiced serious concerns about the ever-increasing demands on journalists to be multi-platform – to create more content for more types of media and to promote that content on all types of social platforms.

I argued that this push for content volume, driven by a panicked rush by news organizations to grasp at every bright shiny digital object, had caused a collective loss of focus on basic reporting and real journalism.

Somewhere along the way, we got so worried about the “content” a reporter can “create” that we forgot about the need to tell meaningful stories.  We got so excited about re-Tweets and Facebook likes and web hits that we lost focus on our mission to inform and enlighten.

I also argued that news organizations were demanding too much of their journalists, to the detriment of the content itself.

When you have to file for three major platforms and “engage” on whatever social media are en vogue at the moment, it’s easy to forget about finding the crux of the story.

Last week, my concerns were echoed in an excellent post by Erica Berger, formerly of the Economist and Storyful.

“Many newsroom writers and editors feel that they are bumping up against their maximum output,” she writes in the online news site Quartz, “even as their bosses demand ever-more productivity.”

Continue reading “Journalists aren’t superhero content machines”

Journalists aren’t superhero content machines

5 Tips to Tame the Daily Beast: Relief for the Depth vs Daily News Dilemma

My daily beast
My daily beast

Judith’s website

Want to know the number one question my clients ask me?

Even in this age of viral podcasts, multi-media series, social media engagement, and impact journalism, the universal newsroom dilemma is the same one that’s been bedeviling news leaders for decades:

What’s the proper balance between depth and daily news, and how do I achieve it?

Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a public radio news director who lamented, “I know everybody wants to spend all their time on beautiful, in-depth features, but we still have a responsibility to provide robust daily news too. We can’t ignore that.”

Panic! Daily News!

In my experience, there’s a lot of unnecessary panic that goes along with daily news, especially in public media. I always get this mental picture of journalists running around screaming, with their eyes shut, throwing newscast spots into a huge chasm.

I think this panic often stems from a lack of planning and intentionality. Daily news is the thing we all feel obligated to do, but we don’t feel like it’s part of our higher public media calling. So we do it, but we don’t put any planning or resources into it. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t end well.

Daily is part of the mission

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big advocate for quality and depth over quantity and frequency, and I agree that in-depth features, impactful investigations, and beautifully produced stories are at the core of public media’s mission. But I also agree with that news director I quoted above.

There are a couple of reasons news organizations, public or otherwise, can’t ignore daily news:

  1. It’s part of your service to the community.

    Despite the allure of those bright shiny objects I listed at the beginning of this post, and despite their mythical powers of audience multiplication, if you work for a news organization, your job is still to give people the news.Certainly you can and should find creative, engaging, and even entertaining ways to do that, but sometimes those types of stories take time, and the news, by definition, won’t wait.

  2. You need a consistent presence.

    Whether your aim is to produce the next Serial podcast, expose an environmental scandal with a major investigation, or create a beautiful multi-media presentation on a local art exhibit, that project is going to take weeks or months to complete.You can’t stop all production and reporting during that time. You need to maintain a consistent presence so your audience knows you’re still around and that you can be trusted to monitor and report on anything they need to know.

The fact is, most newsrooms acknowledge and even embrace these truths. They want to do depth and daily journalism. But most of them have limited resources and can’t go all-out on all fronts.

The key, as I said before, is to add intentionality and planning into your daily news effort. Believe it or not, by giving daily a little love, you’ll actually give your staff more time for depth projects.

To achieve that intentionality, try these 5 Tips to Tame the Daily Beast:

  1. Do the math.

    Radio newscasts are not black holes. They won’t swallow up everything you throw into them. Sometimes they even throw some things back because they just don’t have enough room.I can’t tell you the number of newsrooms I’ve worked with that over-produce for their radio newscasts because they’ve never sat down and figured out how much sound they actually need to make their newscasts engaging and not overly repetitive.My general rule is two pieces of sound per cast, with each piece of sound on a 90-minute rotation. When stations do the math, they usually find they need a lot less tape than they thought.

    Websites, on the other hand, can be black holes — but they don’t have to be. Most of my clients don’t aim to have comprehensive breaking news sites. Of course, they do want their sites to be relevant, so they need to have several posts per day.

    The exact numbers will be different for each newsroom, but the key is to set those numbers and stick to them. Unless there’s a big breaking story, don’t keep throwing stuff into the daily hole after you’ve met the need.

  2. Get more out of each daily story.

    I advise my clients to produce two audio versions of every daily story they cover – usually that’s a wrap and a cut with copy. Most daily stories can also lend themselves to a web post too.I find the magic number for most newsrooms is 3-4 daily stories per day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? The great thing is, that allows you to …

  3. Be picky.

    Now that you’re clear on how many daily stories you need – probably less than you thought – you can be more selective and intentional about the stories you choose. Don’t cover a story just because you got a press release about it and it’s easy. Decide on the most important stories of the day, and cover those.

  4. Track your dailies.

    Once you’ve decided how many daily stories you need, and you’ve committed to being selective about them, you can be more intentional about assigning, scheduling, and tracking them too.I give my clients and trainees a tracker tool for daily stories. You can make your own. The key is for it to be in a place where everyone in the newsroom can see it, whether physically or online. This will help alleviate the fear that there won’t be enough material, and it will help reduce the urge to overproduce.

  5. Consider a rotating “Reporter of the Day.”

    The RoD, as we called it in one of my old newsrooms, can be assigned to any story that needs to be covered and isn’t already assigned. S/he can also fill in any holes that might exist on the spot tracker.Here’s the key – while this system does chain one reporter to daily duty for a day (or a week, if you prefer a longer rotation), it frees everyone else to work on in-depth stories during that period of time.

Most newsrooms that employ these strategies report a lot less panic about daily news and a lot more time available for depth reporting.

Give them a try, and let me know how they work for you!

5 Tips to Tame the Daily Beast: Relief for the Depth vs Daily News Dilemma

The Story Pitch: Three Basic Rules

http://judithsmelser.com/

I often start my editing training courses by asking people when in the life of a story the editing process begins. Usually someone says what I believe to be the “right” answer, namely, editing begins at the pitch stage.  But then I ask about the pitch processes in their newsrooms, and the answers are often something like this:

“Oh, reporters just say what they’re working on in our editorial meetings.”
“Well, we kind of have informal conversations about story ideas.”

I’m all for conversation about story ideas and communication about what reporters are working on, but if you don’t have a formal pitch process, how can editing begin with the pitch?  A written pitch is an important part of the pre-editing process.

Pitches don’t have to be long or fancy, but they do have to be focused and compelling.  And while you certainly don’t have to report the whole story before you pitch it, you have to do enough reporting to be able to convince your editor that the story is worth spending time on.

Often, we only give thought to the pitch itself when we’re proposing a story to an editor outside our own newsroom – but we shouldn’t sell our own newsrooms short.  As an editor, I often get pitches that don’t do much to get me excited about the proposed story.  They’re vague, they’re not very timely, and they don’t tell me what the end product will look or sound like.

The next time you get ready to pitch, ask yourself these three basic questions before you hit “send” on that pitch email:

  1. Am I pitching a story or just a topic?

    Topic: I want to do a story about invasive frogs.

    Story: The wildlife agency says it’s counted 20% more invasive frogs this year than last. My story will investigate why, the effects of the increase, and what’s being done about it.

  2. Am I pitching a timely story that’s relevant RIGHT NOW?

    Not timely: I want to profile the local homeless shelter’s tutoring program (that’s been going on for ten years).

    Timely: The local homeless shelter is considering expanding its tutoring program to include high school as well as elementary students. I’ll profile the tutoring program but also look into other shelter programs that might have to be cut if the expansion goes forward.

  3. Have I identified the types of voices and scenes I expect to include in the piece?

    Example: I hope to go with a wildlife officer on a frog-counting expedition. I’ll interview him/her about the invasive frog problem and record frogs croaking and general outdoorsy sound.  I’ll also talk to a scientist from the local university who’s developing a new way to trap invasive frogs and a state lawmaker who’s introducing a bill to make it illegal to import frogs.

There are more tips I could give on how to make your pitches stand out, but first, practice those basics. Your editor will thank you for it!

The Story Pitch: Three Basic Rules

The Magic of the Pre-Edit: Focus Your Story, Change Your Life

judithsmelser.com

Pre-editing changed my life.  Seriously.

When I became a news director and started editing stories, I’d often get a reporter’s script, get about halfway through the first edit, and have the sinking realization that things were missing.  Big things.  And I was going to have to ask the reporter, who thought his work was almost done, to go back and do more reporting.

Sometimes, a whole side of the story was left out, to the point that an additional interview was needed.   More often, though, the scripts were simply unfocused – one might go in five different directions, another might wander aimlessly around a topic without ever telling a story.

I got more and more frustrated with my reporters, but here’s what I didn’t realize at the time:

These script problems were as much MY fault as theirs … and they were almost entirely preventable.

No Surprises

Fact is, I should’ve started editing long before the script hit my desk.

Very fortunately for me, I had this revelation early in my editing career, thanks to the annual Public Radio News Directors Inc (PRNDI) editing workshop.  The trainers, including Sora Newman, formerly of NPR, and Martha Foley of North Country Public Radio, first taught me about pre-editing, and I’ve never looked back.

I’ve written previously about editing as a collaboration between reporter and editor – well, the editor’s part of that deal includes helping the reporter shape and plan his story before he ever gathers his first scrap of tape.  If I do that properly, he’s super-efficient in the field because he knows exactly what he’s looking for, and there should be no surprises for either of us when that first draft comes along.  We get to work on polishing the story, not refocusing or re-reporting it, and usually nobody ends up hating anyone. That’s the magic of the pre-edit.  

The fancy name for this process is “story visioning” or “story mapping.”  Many smart journalists who’ve come before me have developed this concept and written about it; every good editor adapts it and makes it her own.  A good place to start is with this story visioning worksheet from PRNDI’s Public Radio News Directors Guide, written by Mike Marcotte.  It includes a list of great questions to ask during the pre-editing process.  I’ll highlight the ones I think are most important in these …

Four Key Questions for the Pre-Edit

1. What’s the Story About?

It seems simple enough, right?  Actually, it’s one of the most profound, powerful, and difficult questions to answer.  It’s also the secret to a tightly focused piece, and that’s why it’s the first and most important question in the pre-editing process.

To put an even finer point on it, the question is this:

What one thing is this story really about?

Many story ideas start out like this silly example I made up for my last post about lead-writing:

Well, it’s a story about cats, you know, and how they can bring down your blood pressure …  but it’s also about how they need different types of food depending on whether they live indoors or outdoors …  and I also got some great tape with a guy talking about the proper shape of a litter box and I really want to get that in!

There may be many directions you could go with a story, but you have to pick the best one.

Other story ideas might be just as big but less specific:

It’s a story about population growth in the metro area.

Wow that’s a documentary, not a 4-minute piece!  What one aspect of the story are you focusing on and …

2. Why Now?

This goes back to the idea of news pegs, which I’ve written about before.  The process of defining why the story is relevant now will help you narrow your focus too.

3. Who’s Affected?

As you answer this question, the reporter and editor should agree on a list of voices you’ll need in the piece to represent those different points of view.

4. Where’s the Action?

Stories come to life in real places.  If at all possible, the characters in your piece should appear in their natural environments, not as disembodied voices floating around in space.  This question is aimed at helping you envision those “scenes” – places with good sound possibilities and visuals too, if there’s a video or digital element.

Pre-Editing = Time Saver, Not Time Waster

If you’re not used to pre-editing, you probably think it sounds really time consuming.  Quite the contrary!!

It doesn’t take much time for the reporter and editor to go through these questions, especially if the reporter knows her story.  And if she doesn’t know her story, pre-editing is a huge time-saver.  Going through this process before she starts gathering tape (or pictures, or quotes – because this process works for any medium) keeps her from having to do two rounds of reporting – the initial one plus the extra reporting when the editor realizes what’s missing.

Pre-Editing Can Be Transformational

I’m not exaggerating when I say that pre-editing changed my life.  It was transformational for me, as an editor and as a manager.  Almost immediately, it improved both the quality of my newsroom’s output and my relationship with my reporters.  I truly believe it is the most important part of the editing process.  If you’ve not done it, give it a try … and let me know how it works out!

The Magic of the Pre-Edit: Focus Your Story, Change Your Life

Editors Often Left Out of Journalism Awards Bonanza

judithsmelser.com

It’s awards season in journalism-land, a time when we honor our colleagues’ most outstanding work during the previous year.   As the scores of winners are announced in one contest after another, a few people in my circle of Facebook journalist friends have wondered “aloud” why there don’t seem to be any awards recognizing the work of editors.

It’s an interesting question.  Most of us who are involved in producing journalism seem to place a high premium on good editing, at least judging from the overwhelmingly positive responses in a public media journalism forum to this recent post on the value of an edit.  So, why wouldn’t we honor editors as we honor reporters and hosts?

Judging Editing – No Easy Task

One answer: it’s hard to know where the reporter’s work ends and the editor’s begins … and that’s exactly how it should be.  As one commenter in an online conversation on this topic correctly noted, “good editing is so transparent as to be invisible.”

A story that goes through the proper editing process is truly a joint effort by the reporter and the editor.  Some news organizations reflect that fact by listing editors’ names alongside reporters’ in award entries.  My old shop, Colorado Public Radio, did that, and I think it’s highly appropriate.  

The Worthy Argument

The argument could be made that no more needs to be done.  After all, editing happens behind the scenes.  Those of us who do it know we’re not going to get much glory or public recognition, and we’re generally ok with that.  Why, then, should there be a separate award for editors?

One reason is that, as another online commenter put it, “If we say that editing is important, then we should be in a position to recognize those who do it well and can be considered role models for good editors.”  

That’s good enough for me.  But it may not convince everyone, so I also give you …

The Cynical Argument

An editing award might just help convince station management that editors are important and worthy of investment.

During our long discussion about the merits of editing in the public media journalists’ forum, one commenter rightly pointed out that we were all just “preaching to the choir.”  By and large, good journalists – whether reporters, editors, or hosts – see the value of good editing.  But, by and large, they’re not the ones holding the purse strings.  

The question comes up time and again – how do we convince the top managers in our news organizations to invest in hiring and training good editors?  It makes sense that they’d want to invest in reporters and hosts – the people whose bylines, voices and faces they hear and see.  But, while there are notable exceptions to this, many top managers aren’t aware of how the journalistic sausage is made, and people like editors are simply not front-of-mind.  

Could an award or two add a little glamour to that unsung role and help editors get noticed by the folks with the money?  Might the existence of those awards bring awareness of the need for editorial capacity as well as reporting capacity?

Making it Work

Whether you’re convinced by the worthy argument or the cynical argument, or both, if there is to be an editing award, there remains the problem remains of how to devise one.  After all, we’d want it to be meaningful, even if part of its purpose were somewhat, well, mercenary.  

How do you discern and judge an editor’s work?  Do you ask news organizations to submit before-and-after versions of a story or set of stories?  That could be quite interesting, but original drafts aren’t always kept, and frankly, I wonder if anyone would want to air that much dirty laundry!

One online commenter suggested a nomination-based award, with nominees evaluated by a panel of judges.  I like this idea.  There would have to be separate contests for different types of media – radio/audio, TV/video, print, online – and probably further breakdowns within those categories.  Judges would evaluate each nominee’s body of work over a given year, talk to reporters they’ve edited with, etc.  It could be a challenge to find judges willing to put in that kind of time – the key would be to make the award significant enough that people would be honored to serve on the judging panel.

I wonder if this could be done under the auspices of a respected journalism institute or university, like Poynter or Missouri or Medill or Columbia.

Regardless of the challenges, I do think it’s an idea worth pursuing.  

One online commenter drew a parallel with the movie biz, noting that there’s no Oscar for producing.  I suppose he was making the point that editing is similarly behind the scenes and perhaps undeserving of its own awards.  Well, it’s true there’s no Oscar for producing … but when the Oscar for Best Picture is announced, who goes up to accept it?  That’s right.  The producers.

 

 

Editors Often Left Out of Journalism Awards Bonanza