Thankless jobs. Have one?
This question came to me today as I was leaving what I’ll generically describe as a lawn mower retail and service store. I was there on a mission to pick up newly sharpened lawn mower blades. They were not ready, so I chose to wait while they were sharpened — about 20 minutes.
During that time, I watched in a bit of fear as what looked to be a hornet — a huge one — flew around the small store, mostly from ceiling light to ceiling light. When I had arrived, the man behind the counter had asked, ducking, “Is that a bee?” after the hornet had buzzed past him.
So while the man was in the back sharpening, I walked to the front door and opened it. The fresh air drew the hornet my way. But it hopelessly kept bumping itself against the adjacent window instead. I closed the door and waited. In time, the hornet dove to the floor by the door. I opened the door, cautiously, and the hornet finally found its freedom.
A short while later, the man emerged with the blades. As he packaged them up, I told him that while I was waiting, I let the hornet out the front door. A couple of customers near the counter chuckled. And then the man said, “A lot of good it will do me. I’m allergic. I would have killed it.” Hmmm, I thought: It’s not good enough that the hornet is NO LONGER IN YOUR STORE TO STING YOU!
But that thought stayed in my head — right there with the long-held notion that a lot of jobs are thankless, especially the role of an editor.
Editors, though, have a built-in tolerance. We don’t expect praise for catches and fixes (that’s our job). We expect to make improvements without inserting errors (that’s our intention). We brace ourselves when we fail. We keep moving when we succeed.
That’s why it was easy to walk out the door of that store with a smile and a thank you for the blades. Our jobs are thankless only when we perceive them that way.
Perfection. Attainable? Desirable? It depends.
Consider the following perspectives. Then see what you think.
- No one’s perfect. True enough. When we use this standard to assess others, we can safely overlook reasonable shortcomings in favor of realistic expectations. But when we use this phrase to explain away our own inadequacies, we risk being perceived as uncaring or not careful.
- I’m doing the best I can. A worthy assessment. When we examine our own conscientious efforts, this outlook can comfort us in times of stress, such as in deadline situations. But when we use this comment to account for our lack of attention to any task at hand, the phrase can sound more like a halfhearted excuse than an honest explanation.
- So-and-so is a hard worker. Often used as a compliment. Perhaps we think of ourselves as hard workers. But we should want to be known as more than hard workers. Where is the value in working long hours, not taking vacation time, never calling in sick? What good does it do to miss out on life and the living? We should want to maximize our value in our pursuit of perfection. We should strive to find value in the answers to these two key questions: What did that hard work produce? How did that hard work benefit others?
Perfection. Attainable? Desirable? It depends on how you define it.
A relationship with benefits.
That’s how we used to define the mutually attractive agreement between reporters and editors. A reporter would tell a source: “I have to ask this question. My editor will want to know.” And an editor was happy to be blamed because, in all likelihood, the question was a legitimate one that would end up being answered.
Everyone benefited, especially the audience.
Dwindling are the days when that’s the case.
With fewer editors in newsrooms, reporters are losing the partners who have had their backs. It’s all on them.
That’s why it is comforting to watch young reporters embrace the essence of what it takes to be a good editor — an advocate for accuracy and for the audience. Editors follow three key steps:
- Check everything
- Know your resources and use them
- Ask the reporter, who is the primary person “in the know” when questions arise about a story
Oh, wait, no … that’s the one key step that is out of step when a reporter takes on the role of editor. There’s no one else to ask.
That’s a shame, in one sense. And it’s a loss for anyone who has ever enjoyed that mutually beneficial relationship of reporter and editor.
Up-and-coming reporters: You don’t know what you’re missing. And that’s a shame, too.
Do a good job, and you’ll never know.
But fail as an editor, and you can be sure that editors will be back.
I recently read about an internal report at The New York Times that maps its plan “to accelerate the (digital) transformation while maintaining a commitment to high-quality journalism.”
Not surprisingly, the headline on its own coverage states: “New York Times Study Calls for Rapid Change in Newsroom.” Haven’t we been experiencing rapid change for some time?
Yes — in the journalism profession and with the journalism curriculum here at the Newhouse School.
But what prompts me to call attention to this report is a line that should resonate with all journalists, not just editors. And, with all readers, not just journalists. The story explains that in a note to the newsroom, Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn “went beyond the report,” referred to as the 2020 report, which “did not identify specific areas to be cut.”
(Baquet and Kahn) more bluntly addressed the need for staff cuts, saying that moving away from “duplicative and often low-value line editing” would lead to reductions in the editor ranks.
“Let’s not be coy,” they wrote. “The changes will lead to fewer editors at The Times.”
And those changes could lead to scary times for us.
Editing is not a one-step operation. By nature, it is “duplicative.” That doesn’t mean plodding. Have you ever witnessed editors in action on deadline? Let’s not forget that long before this evolving digital world, The Associated Press wire service — and its competitive peers — turned out real-time and well-edited copy around the clock. Newsrooms across the country and around the world depended on speedy delivery of that copy — high-value editing at its best.
But Baquet and Kahn do have the right idea, which means the times ahead of us might not be so scary after all. While we mourn mention of fewer editors anywhere, we do embrace that all journalists — no matter title or role — must become active editors on all copy. That means more self-edits, more fact checking, more questioning, more care.
There’s a direct correlation between editing copy and publishing final versions that are free of errors and missteps of all kinds. Call them what you will, but it’s likely that more journalists, not fewer, will make up the “editor” ranks in our 2020 newsrooms.
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.
- The two students with the flat sheet were told: Try to fold the sheet neatly. You can ask others for help.
- The two students with the fitted sheet were told: Fold the sheet neatly. You can ask others for help.
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.
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.
Look no further than the rash of stories about creepy clown sightings around the country to understand how important it is to be a healthy skeptic. The topic of healthy skepticism is timely, with good reason.
Journalists get paid to ask questions, and the aim has always been to ask the right questions to get the right answers before readers ask those same questions. Our job is to educate, enlighten and inform.
In today’s world of easy and timely access to news and information of all kinds, it’s no surprise that readers are getting to ask questions in real time. That means journalists have to keep ahead of every story even more now than ever.
That’s difficult to do, especially in context of a story such as the clowns, which seems to be a messy mix of half-truths, outright falsehoods, urban legend and repurposed pictures.
Coverage has varied: tips about how not to dress for Halloween; what to do if confronted by a costumed clown; the genesis of creepy clowns; and maps showing sightings around the country.
Where does healthy skepticism fit in? It’s our job as journalists to question the veracity of every story about every sighting in every place. A good start is with some key bullet points we attribute to now-retired Reid MacCluggage, who began his career at the Hartford Courant, and who created a list of ways to develop a healthy skeptical habit:
- Challenge conventional wisdom
- Distrust unanimity
- When there’s a push to get stories published right away, take a second look
- Watch language. When stories report “surges” or “trends” or “waves” or “epidemics,” be especially careful. Check it out.
- If a story bothers you, stop and think about why it bothers you. Don’t let it be published until you feel right about it. Your gut instinct often gives you the best advice. Take it.
- Question stories you can’t check out in time for deadline
- Question stories everyone in the newsroom thinks are terrific
- Question the herd instinct
No one likes to be fooled. Journalists, especially, don’t want to inadvertently fool the audience with stories published haphazardly.
That’s why we purposely have not included photos of clowns or links to clown stories in this post. We don’t want to pass along what we cannot verify. But we invite you to check them out — either stories happening in your area or happening elsewhere.
Apply MacCluggage’s tips as you read. And then take care with your own “publish” button before you tweet, post or share. Be a healthy skeptic. Your audience will thank you.