It has taken the passing of a local sports legend and icon of the Syracuse, New York, baseball scene to revive our Think Like an Editor blog, which has been on sabbatical for what was supposed to be a semester — but extended into another half a semester.
Anthony “Tex” Simone — former chief operating officer/ executive vice-president of the Chiefs — died at the age of 86 on Friday, March 6, 2015.
What does Tex Simone have to do with journalism? Actually, plenty.
Here’s the background: For 50 years, Tex Simone’s daughter, Wendy, has been my dear and close friend. My first memory of Wendy is when she and I were walking into school at Our Lady of Pompei, wearing identical spring coats. We were 7 years old. Girls wore spring coats in those days. As I recall, Syracuse actually had spring weather, too.
Any current student or former student in any of my news writing courses at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications would not know this connection. That’s because I have never shared it. Why?
It’s because the Chiefs and Syracuse baseball are always a topic of interest to journalism students, especially those who want to cover sports. Any time students would be given an assignment to write a profile or to pitch an enterprise story, the Chiefs would be top of mind with them. Not once did I mention my connection. Not once did I offer to make a call. Not once did I do anything to help them get the story — except to encourage them to get it.
Our “reporter-editor” conversations sometimes included general statements from students, such as:
- I heard they’re hard to get
- I don’t know who to call
- No one has gotten back to me
Usually, I would counter with: Did you go there?
I can say this with certainty:
- Those students who took the initiative to go to the stadium and “make the ask” got the story.
- Those students know how much time and effort and personal commitment it takes to get a story.
- Those students know the thrill of victory, and the empowerment of making things happen on their own.
It is with sadness that I share these memories, knowing that my friend and her family are grieving. But I also carry with me life lessons from that family, starting with Tex Simone. This blog is all about sharing. Now, you know, too.
Known: The media profession is evolving.
Known: Technology is enabling new ways to communicate.
Known: Newsrooms are changing.
Known: Some news organizations are laying off a lot of talent.
Known: Some layoffs include every copy editor in the joint.
Now, let’s bust some myths about the role of those editors.
Busted: They are not “just” proofreaders.
Busted: They do not lean over shoulders.
Busted: They do not hold up progress.
Busted: They do not tell reporters what to do.
Busted: They are not out of touch with the audience.
What, exactly, do those editors do?
Good ones do proofread, and they catch a slew of mistakes and missteps.
Good ones do keep an eye on the clock, which is just as important now with all-the-time digital deadlines as it was important when trucks were lined up outside the loading docks.
Good ones do move copy along, and the only thing they hold up is the integrity and credibility of the entire news organization by their good saves and healthy skepticism.
Good ones do communicate with reporters, and they do it as a conversation about what information needs to get out there — and how.
Good ones do know their audience, and one reason is because they are a part of the local and global community and, importantly, because they care.
The point here is not an attempt to stop progress. When, really, has the media world not been evolving? Kudos to any media organization that is looking for ways to salvage, save, improve, create, invent, reinvent, revisit and remake what it has — and what it could have — to stay in business and to keep people informed and connected.
But let’s also stay true to the truth when disseminating the news about new models in the media world. Welcome the new ways without disrespecting the former ways. Choose words wisely. Report what you know. Verify what you don’t know. Be sensitive about making generalizations.
Isn’t all of this what any good editor would do?
Summer is still with us in full force, but hints of the fall semester are creeping in around us via emails, schedules, requests for syllabi and interactions with incoming students. At Syracuse University and the Newhouse School, the welcome mat is being rolled out for freshmen and returning students.
As we reflect on what’s ahead, here are three key traits for everyone to keep in mind. We can’t promise success, but we can vouch for these three concepts as being essential for building good relationships and for creating a solid foundation for your careers.
Collaboration. Working with others doesn’t refer only to a team of people. Collaboration between two people is just as important. The one-on-one relationship between a professor and a student is a prime example. How well communication happens at the beginning — both ways — sets the tone for the rest of the semester. In journalism, the same relationship between a writer and editor is vital to having a shared language for a shared vision. This is how the best stories get covered, uncovered, created and published.
Consistency. Whether the issue is a point of style, grammar or accuracy, consistency brings order out of chaos. That’s why journalists follow The Associated Press Stylebook; why they check and recheck everything; and why they learn local style, too, so their audience members are treated to content that is free of any errors or missteps. And consistency refers to more than content that is clean and clear. Be the person who consistently communicates: Reach out and reply back.
Conscience. This trait will bring you to higher levels in anything you do. When ethical standards rule, how can you go wrong? When you follow your inner compass, you will make wise decisions. When you know right from wrong, you are already ahead. Personal decisions aren’t only about you; they usually involve and affect others, especially colleagues in your profession. Think twice and examine your conscience often. Keep in touch with your inner self. Be true to yourself and to what’s best for the common good.
Enjoy the rest of the summer, and we’ll see many of you soon!
Institutional knowledge. It’s essential for journalists.
It can be lost when people leave a place, creating an information void, and that’s always unfortunate. Worse, though, is when institutional knowledge goes untapped.
This could happen easily when:
- A newcomer does not recognize the value of an old-timer.
- A newbie doesn’t care about the past, only the present and future.
- Constant digital deadlines get in the way of any thoughtful reflection about anything.
Two pieces published recently bring to mind the feel-good outcome of looking back.
- The Poynter Institute just shared the stories of staffers at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer who were among the 50 who were laid off a year ago. They not only look back but also ahead, and they share their accomplishments and visions of their new adventures.
- Columnist Sean Kirst of Syracuse Media Group just wrote about the historical day in August 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson gave his Gulf of Tonkin speech — “the speech that launched the Vietnam War” — at the dedication of the S.I. Newhouse Communications Center at Syracuse University. The building was the first of three at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Kirst brings his audience back to the day, through grainy photos and gritty quotes from people who were there.
In both cases, people are invited to share their remembrances. Poynter says it could not get every story and would like to hear from staffers it did not reach. Kirst is looking to hear from people who remember the president’s visit and also from anyone who recognizes people in the photos.
Layer upon layer, it’s all institutional knowledge that contributes greatly to our present-day understanding of things. And remember, too, that each one of us makes up a part of another’s institutional knowledge in some way. That’s an awesome responsibility.
Three elements in stories keep the audience interested and prevent a story from becoming just a recitation of statements and quotes.
How you use these in stories will make a difference in the end. More important, however, is capturing them in the first place. It takes time and patience and lots of follow questions.
Consider that a reporter plans to write a profile about full-time college students who also work full-time jobs to pay for tuition. How could the reporter show the story, not merely tell it? Following is a suggested process to elicit details, examples and anecdotes.
Details. During interviews, ask follow questions to get rich detail. If the student works and studies “long hours,” how many hours a day is that? What time does the student wake up? Go to sleep? How many of those hours are spent working? Studying? And where does the student study — in the library, in the residence hall, on a bus? What is the student’s job? What does it entail? Is it physical work? Does the student get a break? For how long? What does the student do during the break?
Result: Answers to these questions will provide details that show the long hours spent working and studying.
Examples. After these details are in hand, probe further to elicit examples. Ask about a typical day. Account for every hour of the student’s schedule at work, at school and at home. You might hear a great example such as the following one.
There was one day last week when the student slept for only 90 minutes in the student lounge after classes ended and before the job began, and another 90 minutes after the eight-hour shift ended. Getting by on those three hours of sleep, the student freshened up in a restroom, put on a clean shirt, grabbed a muffin and coffee, and crammed in some studying before a test.
Now ask more for more details, which will provide color and description for that example — a kind of cascading effect. Where was the restroom? Exactly what did the student do to freshen up and how often does this happen? Where was the clean shirt and what kind of shirt was it? What color? Was it in good shape or was it wrinkled? What kind of muffin? Where did the student eat it? How many minutes or hours did the student study for the test? And in what subject was the test?
Result: You can show the story by utilizing memories from personal interviews — what you saw, heard, experienced or asked.
Anecdotes. These are like little scenes — vignettes — in a movie, and they involve readers in the story.
Result: Good anecdotes support the story’s vivid details and examples. A classic anecdote for the story about the sleep-deprived student would be a vignette about …
… the time the student fell asleep in the front row of a lecture hall, forehead touching the tabletop, quietly snoring in front of 83 fellow students and the professor, whose voice gradually lowered to a whisper in mid-sentence until — wham! — the professor yelled out the student’s name and asked the student a question. Startled, the student’s head sprang back, and a cup of coffee spilled.
How would you even get this anecdote? By asking. This means asking question after question, seeking detail after detail, and using every piece of information that will show, not tell. Everyday people usually are not in the habit of talking in specifics; they tend to share general information until a reporter asks. Three key questions will get you started on capturing those specifics.
- Do you have an example of that?
- Can you recall a story that illustrates that?
- Tell me about the time you …
Put yourself in the place of the audience. Ask yourself: What would I want to know about this person? Can I visualize this person’s busy life? Keep asking questions until you can see it.
The Washington Post just announced the start of a new storytelling site: Storyline. Jim Tankersley, editor of Storyline, explains.
Today we launch a new destination on Washingtonpost.com, dedicated to the power of stories to help us understand complicated, critical things. We’re focused on public policy, but not on Washington process. We care about policy as experienced by people across America. About the problems in people’s lives that demand a shift from government policymakers and about the way policies from Washington are shifting how people live.
Any storyteller should be excited about what this site promises:
- We’ll tell those stories at Web speed and frequency.
- We’ll ground them in data — insights from empirical research and our own deep-dive analysis — to add big-picture context to tightly focused human drama.
- We’ll invite you to join in the storytelling experience, by clicking a button and sharing your story with us and your fellow readers.
- We’ll tell all kinds of stories, because, as my mother the school librarian loves to remind me, people learn in all kinds of ways.
- Some stories we will tell in chapters, across days and months, collected under themes that we call storylines.
- Sometimes we’ll let our visuals — our short documentary films and photo galleries and charts — do the talking. Sometimes we’ll push the boundaries of traditional narrative journalism, weaving those visuals together with text in fun new ways.
Stories are fundamental to communication, and journalists are trained storytellers. In an evolving profession, journalists are learning to tell stories in different ways, on multiple platforms. The constant is why they do it — to enlighten, entertain and engage.
These themes also are paramount to an evolving audience — people who want more and expect more, who want it now, who want it their way.
Let’s watch and experience what it’s all about as The Washington Post gets started.