Thinking like an editor with Bill Elsen

Being a news editor takes a lot of time and dedication. Coming up with story ideas, editing reporters’ work and putting the paper together are only the basic functions of editing. Writing some of the more intense stories, cutting and rearranging others’ articles while trying not to step on anyone’s toes and long, long, long nights are just a few of the extras. When I saw that Bill Elsen, recently retired from The Washington Post, was leading a session about how to “not drive yourself crazy,” I jumped at the chance to learn a few tips for being more organized and effective as an editor.

It turned out that Elsen’s session was geared toward editors-in-chief much more than section editors like myself, so much of his advice did not seem particularly applicable to me, as it involved working with other leading staff members rather than directly with reporters. But, he did have some great advice and I didn’t walk away from the session totally unchanged.

One of Elsen’s most interesting tips was to never, under any circumstances, allow reporters to submit stories by e-mail. He said to always sit down with them and work on editing the story together. Then, if anything needs to be changed or revisited, they know exactly what to do and can just get right to it.

At The Pendulum, we always have reporters e-mail their stories and I can see now where that plan is flawed. Often, deadlines are easier to miss and avoid entirely since e-mail is instant and there’s the hope–and sometimes the assumption–that the editor won’t check his or her e-mail right at the exact deadline. Doing things in person forces the deadline to be met.

Elsen also encouraged that staffs make a localized stylebook in addition to using AP Style. This is something we’ve already been talking about, and is a great way for college newspapers to put specialized rules and codes of ethics in writing to be used as a reference. How should the paper report profanity? Should “college” or “university” be present in the first mention of the school? When is it okay to quote an anonymous source?

Elsen also encouraged us to make sure we assign stories to reporters best-suited for the topic and to never give negative criticism over e-mail to avoid misunderstandings. Positive feedback when warranted, he said, should never fall to the wayside.

-Kassondra Cloos


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