Pulitzer Prize winner and St. Petersburg Times reporter Lane DeGregory spoke at the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors Conference in Florida earlier this month. She has made a name for herself as a reporter and a storyteller during more than two decades of newspaper reporting. Singing the praises of the editors she’s worked with – Ronald Speer and Maria Carrillo at The Virginian-Pilot, as well as Mike Wilson during the bulk of her tenure at the St. Petersburg Times* – DeGregory credited them with saving her again and again. “I’ve been really, really lucky with my editors,” she said. “I know that without them, I would not be here today. To all of you guys who don’t feel appreciated, know that you’re making a giant difference to a lot of scared and uncertain reporters out there. After 22 years, I’m still one of those.”
Here are DeGregory’s 10 practical tips for editors (condensed and edited):
Tip No. 1: Don’t laugh at your reporters. You have all been doing this longer than a lot of us, especially your interns or primary reporters. My best editors have said, “OK, yeah, I’ve heard that before, but what can you do differently?”
Tip No. 2: Run interference for me. Doing general assignment the last 10 years, it’s hard; most of my stories somehow actually end up on someone else’s beat. But Mike is masterful. He’s really good about saying, “Let me call this editor and see if that person is going to do that story, or how you could work with that person to do that story.” I don’t feel like I’m stepping on their toes, they don’t feel like they’re being robbed, and a lot of times it works out to be a really great collaboration between us.
Tip No. 3: Look into my eyes. I had never written first person before I came to the St. Pete Times. I had never wanted to write first person. My first story that I did, I had my 4-year-old in the back seat of the car on the way home from a wedding, and he was holding his little stuffed elephant out the window as we’re driving on the highway. He let go in the rain, and the elephant flew out on the highway. The next Monday, when I came into work, I was telling Mike and my coworkers, “Oh, my God. My stupid kid. We lost Bobo on the side of the highway. It was a three-hour ordeal to figure out how to get Bobo: Should I get Bobo? Should I teach the kid a lesson with Bobo?”
We were talking about it before our Monday meeting, and Mike said, “Lane, just go write that story.” I was like, “What story?” He said, “Write the Bobo story.” I had never conceived that me yelling at my kid about a stuffed elephant would have been a story. And that story got more response than everything I’ve done except “The Girl in the Window.” Over the years, I’ve found that whenever I have a story that I really start talking about in my life, he’ll go, “Do you want to write something about that?” And most of the time, it’s never even crossed my mind that, “Yeah, I want to write something about that.” But if you give people the opportunity, that’s when the really good stories come out, because it’s things they’ve lived or they care about.
Tip No. 4: Size matters. When I started working at the St. Petersburg Times, a good Sunday story was 100 inches. Now I hug on Mike if I get 50. Our sense of what a long story is, or what a big story is, has changed so much. I know I can do the big, long pieces. I have a really hard time with the little, tiny pieces. I usually write twice as much as I’m supposed to and then have to cut it in half, but Mike’s been awesome about challenging us to do that. We’ve done several group projects. It’s been really fun. We’ll throw out a topic, and then all four or five of us on the feature team will have 24 hours to find something and then write it in less than 1,000 words. I think he made us do it in 6 inches one time. He tells us ahead of time, so we know when we go out we’re reporting 6 inches, not 60 inches, and that helps a lot. Those little exercises really bond our staff.
Tip No. 5: Get me out of here. I know we used to have a lot more money to send people traveling than we do now, but sometimes you’ve just got to get your reporters off the phone and out of the desk. I know there’s types of reporters who don’t want to leave the office, and those are really the ones you’ve got to kick in the butt the most, because the stories you find on the phone are never the stories you find out in person. So save up for the good ones or a little bit of money and send people when you’re know it’s going to make a difference.
Tip No. 6: Buy a couch. You guys are half therapists at least; you probably feel like more than half sometimes. You need a place your reporters can dish to you. You need a place that’s not at your elbow at a terminal where you guys can have a heart-to-heart conversation about how you feel about things or what’s going on in their lives, not just “Can you get this to me by 4:00?”
Take notes when I tell you about my story. There’s a lot of times I’ll come back, and I’ll have everything fresh in my mind from an interview, and I’m so excited and spilling it all, and I forget what it was when I sit down at the keyboard. It gets lost sometimes between Mike’s office and my keyboard. So you guys can play reporter back to us, and that really helps, reminding us of the things that were important or fresh or exciting when we came back, before we get bogged down with “Oh, shoot. It’s 4:00 and I’ve only written 6 inches.”
Tip No. 7: Send me walking. It’s so easy when someone comes back from a story to go, “OK, go sit down and write it.” But if you make that reporter go get a Coke, go get a cookie, go take a walk somewhere for 10 minutes and look at the water, all that stuff starts gelling, and it makes it so much quicker and faster and easier to write than when you sit at that computer and say, “What the heck am I going to do with this?” I write almost all my leads walking, folding laundry, driving my car. I can’t think of my stories when I’m sitting at the terminal.
I don’t know if you guys have time for this, or if it works, but we talk about my story before I go report it, we talk about my story after I report it, and again before I write it – at least once, maybe twice sometimes – and then we edit it. But that time at the beginning (“What am I doing?”) and that time in the middle (“OK, I know this, but what is it?”) are the most important times to me. That’s even more important than the final editing.
Tip No. 8: Show your strokes. Show what you’re changing; don’t just change it. Show me what you change, because that’s how I learn. It helps to know to know why you’re changing something and how you’re changing something and how you want me to be better at it the next time.
The other thing that happens that really is helpful is to take my notes away from me. When I come back from a story, I get wedded to my notebook and feel like I’ve got to put in every fact or every quote, like, “I interviewed that dude for two hours, I owe him a paragraph.” No, I don’t.
I put my notes in my living room while I’m writing in my office. I don’t want them there with me because I get bogged down. I put things in brackets – like what color was their shirt, how old were they, how many years had they had that job – and I go back to fill in the facts. But if you tell the story with your brain and your hands instead of your notes, it comes out so much more clearly. The editor has to do that to you sometimes. It’s really fun to pretend you’re working when you’re just flipping through your notes, but it’s so much faster without them.
Tip No. 9: Save me from myself. Reporters try to put as much as we can out there, and we overdo it sometimes to try to impress you guys, and a lot of times it doesn’t work. I can’t see that my metaphors really stink, but when Mike reads through it, and I can see he’s marked something in there, I’m like, “Yeah, I kind of knew that didn’t work.”
And the other thing is about attitude: You know which of your reporters are overly cynical, and which ones are overly Hallmark-y. I’m way too Hallmark-y, and he edits the Hallmark out of me every single time I do a story. You need that give and take, that yin and yang of your reporter and editor. Help your reporter not be so sappy or not be so cynical, and find that middle ground.
Tip No. 10: Read my story out loud. This is the one directly from Mike. No one has ever done this for me before, and it’s changed my world. Read my story out loud. It does not sound the same when I read it to myself. I read all my stories to my dog, but I don’t get much feedback that way. Mike has a beautiful voice, and I love hearing my words when he reads them, and I can hear things like cadence, or this sentence is too long, or he got tripped up on these clauses.
And the endings – he’s always great about saving me on the endings. Your reporters probably do this, too. I always write about three sentences too many – at least two too many. My ending is buried somewhere up there, and you guys have to help me find it. Reading it out loud really helps, because you realize you hit that ba-dum-bump, and then you go bump-bump-bump-bump, and you dribble off at the end. You need somebody to help you erase the dribble off the end and have that really strong, dynamic ending.
*DeGregory also noted her appreciation of her brief stints with St. Petersburg Times editors Kelley Benham and Tom French.