Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, Newhouse School, Syracuse University. Editing for print and digital, new media journalism.

Wash, rinse, don’t repeat

By · Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

An embarrassingly number of times, the following has happened to me: Go to washing machine, set all of the dials, start water, open lid — only to find not an empty washer, but instead a washer full of clean clothes, already washed, rinsed and spun. And now those clothes are being showered with water.

The result when the load is washed again?

The reason this happens?

All it would take to prevent this scene:

These very solutions also apply well to editing for accuracy, which would avoid embarrassing errors getting published. Finding errors is an editor’s job by definition — and needs to be everyone’s job by necessity.

Consider the following published material — mistakes such as transposed letters and numbers, wrong information, misspelled names — which are examples in our “Think Like an Editor” book:

We encourage one extra look to possibly spot that something is wrong; one more call to verify; an extra second it takes to take care with the publish button.

It all starts with the basics, and here are 10 quick ways to ensure accuracy before publishing material:

  1. Check names
  2. Check addresses and phone numbers
  3. Do the math
  4. Check dates
  5. Check numbers in the lead (to ensure they match the rest of the story)
  6. Use your resources
  7. Check previous stories
  8. Use common sense
  9. Check your own work
  10. Ask the reporter (when in doubt about accuracy of any kind)

No one likes to make a mistake. No one likes to miss a mistake. And there’s a big difference between a mistake happening in the privacy of your laundry room and one that is out there for all to see.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Think golf. That’s it. Just think golf.

By · Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 · 1 Comment »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Golf has topped the agenda of one of these two profs (you know which one) this past summer. So it is not surprising to reflect back on Strategy #3 of our “Think Like an Editor” book and to recall how golf is used as an analogy to explain how reporters can “manage up” when working with editors. As an editor, how can you be seen as a help, not a hindrance?

The idea, as in golf, is to do the opposite to get the result you want.

To get the ball airborne, for example, hit down on it. Don’t try to lift it. Likewise, editors are encouraged to share with reporters ideas for what the reporters can do to manage them, to anticipate their questions and to make the entire reporter-editor process less stressful, more efficient and even fun.

As we say in the book:

 “In the business world, consultants make a lot of money coaching employees on how to flourish in a work model where not everything flows from the top down, where the staff ‘manages up.’ This is especially important in ‘lean’ environments where there are fewer bosses, employees and support staff — less of everything.”

Editors would do well to make sure reporters, who are their partners, know they don’t mind giving up some power. Then the idea is to coach reporters on how to seize that power.

Here’s an easy start:

As we say:

“We advocate sharing power because we know the end product is a shared responsibility. You can’t share one without sharing the other.”

Don’t have an editor? You can still think like one, and you’ll find that coaching yourself regularly — just as a golfer does — will improve your results dramatically.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

‘Just enough’ isn’t good enough

By · Wednesday, September 5th, 2018 · Comments Off on ‘Just enough’ isn’t good enough

not teaching,
still THINKING …

When a special occasion comes around and we order a roast to entertain, we always order more than the suggested number of pounds per person who will be seated at the table. Usually the standard is given as 1/2 pound per person. We make it 1 pound per person. The thinking goes:

That practice of ordering more than we need has gotten us through many a meal without worry — well, at least about the roast.

“Just enough” isn’t good enough. It’s the same with storytelling, too.

As editors, we always encouraged more quotes in a reporter’s notebook than might actually be published. And for those quotes to get in the notebook, we encouraged reporters to interview more people than only a couple or a few.

Why? Because you always want more than you need.

Today with digital, which offers links and options to read more or less, it’s even easier to offer more, and it’s less likely that material won’t be published for space reasons.

As we say in our “Think Like an Editor” book:

“When you read and write stories, you listen for and hear voices. They humanize our work. That’s why there’s a premium not just on collecting good quotes, but also on placing one or two of the very best ones high in a story, in the opening paragraphs. We all know good quotes when we see them or hear them, and we intuitively know how important they are to our work.”

Not a writer or an editor? You’re still a reader, and you intuitively have high expectations for stories that you read.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Everyone: Embrace these 3 traits

By · Wednesday, August 29th, 2018 · Comments Off on Everyone: Embrace these 3 traits

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Three traits that can motivate anyone — not just journalists — are:

Courage: to pursue all stories, not just the easy or familiar ones; to ask tough questions; to approach sensitive issues with confidence and care.

Patience: to wait for the best source of information, not the usual go-to person; to take time asking questions; to accept weakness and failure in yourself and in others.

Perseverance: to politely pursue difficult-to-reach sources; to ask a key question more than once — in different ways — when an answer is not forthcoming; to tolerate change.

When we say these traits can motivate “anyone,” we mean all consumers of news and information because they are at the receiving end of journalists’ work. Consumers end up, we hope, being fully informed; being educated; being enlightened; and being entertained.

It takes courage, patience and perseverance for people to trust the news and information they consume. These are tough times for journalists, and they must not give up or despair.

Consider action taken earlier this month by The Daily Orange, the independent news organization run by students at Syracuse University. Following an “industry trend,” the D.O. is “cutting a day of print production to better focus on digital storytelling.” No more editions will be printed Tuesdays. Print versions will be available on racks Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (Friday print editions had been eliminated previously). And the D.O. will “continue 24/7 online news coverage.”

Sam Ogozalek, editor-in-chief, says in the story about this change that “the paper’s staff on Monday nights will focus on digital content, such as podcasts, photostories and interactive web applications.” His quote illuminates the decision:

“I think everyone sees where the news media industry is and where it’s going.”

Yes, we all see it. And we must embrace it with courage, patience and perseverance.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

We all need a compass for True North

By · Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018 · Comments Off on We all need a compass for True North

not teaching,
still THINKING …

For the first time in roughly 20 years, these two profs will not be in the classroom at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School when the fall semester starts. Call it retirement or the start of a new adventure, we won’t be teaching. But we’ll be thinking.

Our credos. The same mantras we followed the past 20 some years and the 20 some years before that, in our first careers as journalists with the Gannett Company.

“Do the right thing. Not what’s comfortable. Not what’s convenient. Not what’s painless. Not what’s popular. Remember: Be true to yourself. There is no such thing as an act or a decision without consequences.” (Steve Davis)


“Trust your gut. Be firm but not stubborn. Be flexible but have conviction. Take responsibility for your decisions. Make the right decisions for the right reasons. Be nice. There’s nothing wrong with being nice.” (Emilie Davis)

As we say in our “Think Like an Editor” book, credos are not feel-good words but rather practical undertakings. They are simple mission statements. And you don’t have to be an editor or a journalist to have one.

Credos help people balance competing interests and conflicts that can — and do — arise, on the job and in life.

What’s yours?

Encore: Try, but you won’t succeed

By · Monday, January 22nd, 2018 · Comments Off on Encore: Try, but you won’t succeed


This post originally was published Jan. 16, 2017, reflecting on the end of the fall semester’s editing course. As we begin the spring 2018 semester, now is a good time to reinforce — at the start of the editing course — that we all must do more than try.

Just finished folding a set of sheets, including the dreaded fitted sheet. Actually, folding sheets was an exercise for students during one of their editing classes at the end of last semester.

Two students were given a flat sheet. Two students were given a fitted sheet. Their instructions were simple.

Those on the sidelines were eager to assist, and they pitched in when asked.

As might be expected, the one team produced a perfectly folded flat sheet so neat that it looked like it had come straight from the new package the students had just opened. (And they didn’t cheat by folding on the creased lines.)

The other team produced a not-bad-looking fitted sheet that had only a bit of excess material cleverly tucked in the folds here and there. It was not perfect, but it was mostly neat. And it was folded.

Everyone judged the flat sheet a success, but not the fitted sheet.

Imagine their surprise when I concluded the opposite. And then the protesting started about the neatly folded flat sheet.

What do you mean we didn’t succeed? Look at this!

I know. But you were told to try to fold the sheet neatly.

We did!

I agree. You folded the sheet neatly. It looks great. But you didn’t follow the instructions. You were told to try to fold the sheet. If you had tried, you wouldn’t have succeeded.

What? We can try and also succeed.

No, you won’t succeed if you only try.

I tossed a highlighter on the floor and invited anyone to try to pick it up — not an original idea, but one I had learned years ago from two motivational speakers. One student and then another and another reached for the highlighter and grabbed it off the floor.

No, I didn’t say to pick up the highlighter. I said to try to pick it up.

Then one student quite dramatically reached for the highlighter, coming oh so close but never touching it.

I’m trying. But I can’t pick it up.

Even this on-the-mark demonstration did not sway them. It was only when I shared another example that they started to get it.

Picture yourself excitedly talking to a friend, I told them.

You: “A bunch of us are getting together tonight. Come over.”

Your friend: “Hey, thanks. I’ll try to come.”

What do you think will happen, I asked everyone. “They’ll show,” answered one, optimistically. “Nah, they aren’t coming,” concluded another, realistically.

A new semester in a new year … we all must do more than merely try.