Thursday, December 6, 2007

There are editors and then there are hacks

First of all, I don't hate editors. I don't hate anyone.

Most of the editors I have known have been decent, kind people who are kind to their children and pets. My beef with many editors is not the kind of people they were, but the kind of editors they were.

In my 30 year newspaper career I had dozens of editors, some better than others, but several who were horrid. What follows is mostly about them.Not wanting to embarass anyone I will not name anyone in this blog, but if a few look in and recognize themselves, so be it.

There were those select few who knew how to edit and how to manage reporters. Specifically, three of my favorite editors were men and three were women, so there is no issue of gender here. In fact my all-time favorite editor was a woman many years younger than I, so it's not an age thing either.

Like Stonehenge and the Bermuda Triangle, the promotion of most editors is a mystery. Editor jobs are rarely posted and circulated among the newsroom. One day there is an opening, the next someone is beamed up out of the reporting ranks into an editor's chair.

If a government agency chose its leaders that way, a good newspaper would write about the secretive and unfair process. Editor hires, in most cases, is not about who was a great reporter and writer, often it was the opposite.

The best editors in my career were both great reporters and writers, but most great reporters and writers don't really want to spend their days reading the writings of others and mangling them. Hence the dearth of what I would call excellent editors.

Some bad reporters escape to editing positions to save a newspaper career in danger because of their ineptness at reporting or their desire not to work so hard. No doubt some of it is a power trip.

Reporting, especially that of breaking news, is difficult and stressful work. Many first and second line editors became editors because they didn't like or were not good at the down-and-dirty work of real news reporting. I have known more than a few editors who became editors with only a minimal level of real reporting experience. They were usually the worst editors.

Reporters, like good soldiers, respect those who have been in battle and who don't ask others to do things they themselves would not do themselves.Too many reporters who did short stints as political or government reporters have become editors without first spending four-five years mucking it up with police officers, firefighters, ambulance crews, lawyers and judges.

When bad editors worked as reporters they avoided stories where they had to approach angry and grieving relatives. But as editors they are quick to send the people they supervise into difficult circumstances with little or no knowledge of what they are asking.

Once good reporters and writers complete the hard work of gathering information and putting it together into a story, it falls to these hacks to put their inexperienced spin on it. Trust me, as much as the public dislikes the finished news product many times, we reporters and writers sometimes recoil and react with horror when we see what has become of our stories.

It is always important to remember, editors are people who didn't meet with the sources, didn't go to the scene or meeting, didn't make any of the follow-up phone calls, but despite all that, still believe they know more about the story than the person who did all those things. It is simply a display of incredible arrogance.

They take the writer's final product, rearrange, remove quotes or important paragraphs and basically change the meaning of the original work. The best editors, and as I said I have had a few, take the time to work with the reporter and change copy only when it is required or when there is an agreement between reporter and editor that the changes improve the story.

The best editors often help out and make a phone call or two to help in the process. A few of the great editors I had chipped in and did a little reporting of their own. Many editors would benefit from being assigned to cover a meeting or story occassionally to keep them sharp.

Too many hacks move around paragraphs, leave off important facts and quotes and basically change the meaning of a story to conform with what they want, and not what actually was.

Those editors are like the parent who lives through the athletic, musical or academic success of their children. They are nothing more than annoying stage parents armed with an expensive computer. If these hacks would stick to fixing grammar, spelling and news style - and we all need help with that - and leave the creative style and substance to the writer there would be no beef.

But for hacks, sitting at their desk all day simply repairing a mistake or two doesn't feed their need to feel important. What does feed their need to feel important are meetings. Long, boring meetings where nothing is accomplished except they get to run them and feel important.

"Feel" being the operative word. In the end, good reporters who are out on their beat will recognize and find stories of interest to the community they report on. Hack editors will only find and recognize stories of interest to themselves. This is why, in my humble opinion, newspapers are in the poor shape they are in today.

Reporter driven newspapers are interesting, informative and well-read. Editor driven newspapers are "award-winning," but ultimately boring, unread and likely failing.
I'll have more to say on journalism contests later.

My favorite "Shoe" cartoon had a great quote from the Professor who was talking to someone on the phone: "I'd like to do a story of interest to my readers, but first I must finish a story only of interest to my editor." That sums up what many good reporters feel.

Again, so as not to be misunderstood, editors are a vital link in the news gathering process, that is why it is so frustrating that so many of them are uniquely unqualified for the job.