Photo of two hands holding jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit together.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The interview with Mike Wilson of The New York Times is another in our occasional series “What makes a good editor” and will be followed by his annotation of a story by Chicago correspondent Jonathan Weisman, about the political rift in a Colorado mountain town.

By Carly Stern

Mike Wilson was first scouted for his editing prowess when an editor on deadline tapped him for a witty headline suggestion. But Wilson, then in his late 20s and a reporter at The Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine, didn’t care to stray from writing. It was several years before he stepped formally into an editing role as a features editor for the St. Petersburg Times (now The Tampa Bay Times).

Wilson, now 63, has spent the last two decades as an editor, primarily helping writers shape ambitious features and enterprise work. Some career highlights include editing “The Girl in the Window,” a story which won Lane DeGregory the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2009. Three other members of Wilson’s feature writing staff were finalists for Pulitzers in feature writing during his tenure at the Tampa Bay Times. He later became top editor of The Dallas Morning News for six years, where he edited “Standoff,” for which Jamie Thompson won the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing. In 2021, he joined The New York Times as deputy editor for sports enterprise and investigations.

Mike Wilson, deputy editor of The New York Times "Good Reads"

Mike Wilson

Wilson now acts as deputy editor for “The Great Read,” which serves up one curated story a day that’s handpicked for The Times homepage — meant to surprise, delight and engage readers through narrative storytelling. In announcing his move to the Great Read, editor Claire Gutierrez described him as “a nurturing editor who took time to make every reporter better, no matter where they were in their careers.”

Storyboard reached out to Wilson to discuss how editors navigate a complex orbit of relationships, his hands-on approach to coaching writers and shaping language, and how editing has driven his personal growth as a human, friend, parent and partner. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to editing after so many years as a writer?
When I started my career, I wasn’t interested in editing at all. I was purely interested in being a writer. I’ve never stopped thinking of myself as a writer to some degree — even though for the last 20 years or so, I’ve made a living almost exclusively as an editor. At the Miami Herald, I had a couple of editors who were so helpful to me, so inspiring, that I started to see the value of what an editor could offer as a collaborator. I felt like they were partners on my stories — that it was impossible for me to publish anything terrible because they were with me. On my own, I could definitely publish something terrible — but with them, I couldn’t. When I started thinking about editing, that’s what I wanted to be for other people.

What prompted you to start thinking about it?
The editor of Tropic magazine when I was at the Miami Herald was Gene Weingarten, who went on to win a couple of Pulitzers as a feature writer and then editor of the Washington Post Magazine. There was one day when Gene was writing a headline for Tropic about how the NRA was marketing weapons to older people. And he said, ‘Wilson, I need a headline for this story. Here’s what it’s about.’ I thought for a second and said, ‘Granny, get your gun.’ And he shouted, ‘Oh, my God. You’re an editor!’ I think he just wanted me to feel good, but he was recognizing that I thought conceptually about things in a way that is helpful for editors. Actually, my reaction to him was, ‘To hell that I’m an editor. I just want to write.’

Later, I was firmly mid-career as a feature writer at the St. Petersburg Times. The person in charge of the department moved to another position. I raised my hand because I thought I could make a difference. I thought I had a good idea of what a good story sounded like. I was excited about talking to other writers and editors about that.

Do you think it’s important for a good editor to have writing experience? Does being a strong writer affect how you conceptualize stories and frame them as an editor?
Writers and editors need both writing and editing skills. From a pure craft perspective, it’s good for me to be able to write good sentences. Because when I’m editing other stories, I’m writing in their stories — not because I want my words in them, but because I want to try to provide the connective tissue between one idea and another. If the language I choose is in the right style and sound and works for the writer, that’s fine. If it’s not, then they can fill it in with their own sound — but it’s still bridging the same gap.

Can you talk about the section that you currently edit at The New York Times? What makes those stories sparkle, and what’s your mission and mandate in this role?
‘The Great Read’ is featured on the homepage of The New York Times every day except Saturdays. It goes up during the week at noon (Eastern time) and stays up for about 12 hours. On Sunday, it goes up at 6 a.m. There’s a high likelihood the story will be well read because we have nearly 10 million subscribers around the world, so a lot of writers and editors want their pieces to occupy that space.

The idea of ‘The Great Read’ is that it’s the best thing, or one of the best things, The New York Times has to offer as a reading experience that day. It’s a little bit distinct from even a very rich news article about an important subject. It’s not just about the delivery of information, but the experience of reading that information — the telling of a story within it. It’s where we tell our stories that are narratives, where we publish richly written profiles that are full of scenes and characters and dialogue. It’s a bit of a cousin to what we do as journalists every day.

It almost feels like you’re describing a really elaborate dessert. Maybe it has more nutritional value than dessert, but it’s something that readers can really look forward to and relish in.
I love that. It could be dessert, or it could hopefully be a five-star chef’s meal — super nutritious, but also unlike anything you ate last week.

When you think about some of your favorite writers to edit, what qualities do they embody or share? And what kinds of stories?
The first includes writers who have a deep commitment to the work. That crowds out some of the things that can be an obstacle — like my ego as a writer, or my fears as a writer or editor. I think there’s good chemistry if both people involved are trying to get the best outcome for the story and for the reader.

There’s a dynamic that I’ve noticed in editing relationships, where the reporter goes out and marshals this massive amount of information — 80% or 90% of which will never be in the story. It’s their responsibility to try to sort that out, and in the initial go around, leave out what doesn’t need to be there and what does. And, of course, to know the name and age of everybody in the story, the spelling of their name, and every little detail. The editor has the luxury of not being so steeped, so awash, in those details. The editor has the ability to sit back and ask, ‘What are we trying to say in the big picture? Are we getting at it?’

I often can’t even remember the names of characters in some of my writers’ stories. It becomes ‘a mother’ or ‘the left wing in hockey.’ But I’m looking for a reporter who knows the story cold, and who is really invested in understanding it and pouring everything they can into it, so that I can come in after the fact and try to add some perspective to the whole thing. I’ve had very few experiences where the reporter was so ‘word proud’ that they didn’t want you to change anything.

How would you describe your process, particularly when you’re assigning a story or conceptualizing an idea?
I have to be honest for any journalist reading this — there have been plenty of times in my career when the approach was, ‘Oh my God, we need a fast profile on this person in the news. Can you get it to me by three o’clock tomorrow?’ There’s hardly any discussion and everybody runs around with their hair on fire because that’s what journalism is like.

When we have a second, then it doesn’t really matter who has the idea, as long as the reporter and I agree that this is a story we should be doing. Usually it starts with a conversation about what we know about the idea, what we think the reporting tracks might be to realize it fully and what core questions that we want to be asking. Maybe there’s even some conversation about what doesn’t matter. Like ‘We know we’re not doing X here because that’s been done, or readers won’t be interested in it.’ But we are doing Y, and how do we get to Y?’

Walk me through the process when copy reaches your desk.
The reporter goes off and starts working, and I go to 100 meetings and talk to other reporters and do dumb things that editors do. The reporter comes back and fills me in on how things went: ‘They said this, and they said that. And I found out this, and I found out that.’ That’s the part where the thought partnership starts to become really useful. My job in that situation is almost to replay back to them what they said, like, ‘What I hear you saying is the story seems to be about X thing and that it makes X point.’ They’ll either go, ‘Yeah, that’s just it,’ or they’ll go, ‘Oh no, it’s not that. It’s this.’ Together, we get to the right — or a more right — idea of what we’re doing. We may go back and forth a few times. They may have to report quite a bit more. We might have a conversation at my desk, or over lunch, or by phone or by text.

Ideally we’ll have a conversation before the writer starts writing, probing for the heart of the story. Sometimes I ask them to think conceptually: ‘If there were a headline for this story, what do you think it’s going to be?’ The goal is to help us focus on whatever it is at the heart of the thing. Then they go off and write. Their writing process may take them on a straight line to where we think we’re going, or it may make them realize they don’t know enough, or it may reveal a fatal flaw in the way we’ve been thinking about it.

Some editors are more hands-on than others. How do you balance engaging with your writers and shaping their ideas or copy, and also maintaining a light touch? What is your approach to that tension in general?
I’m very hands-on. I come to the act of editing as a writer. But again, not with the aim of getting my words into the story. Most stories come in — especially the ones I still write — and they’re like a quilt with holes in it, with light showing through. What I’m doing as an editor is stitching up those holes in different ways, connecting one piece of fabric to another, in a way that feels right. But when it goes back to the writer, I always say, ‘This is your story. If I’ve done something here that isn’t you, or is just wrong, God help us, then fix it or show me a different way. But the idea we’re going for is X.’

I’ve had very effective editors who made me very uncomfortable and got good work out of me by doing that. But that’s just not what I do.

I’m a diplomat by nature, as an editor and as a person, which means that I like people to be comfortable and feel good around me. I’ve had very effective editors who made me very uncomfortable and got good work out of me by doing that. But that’s just not what I do. I like people to feel that they’re okay, that this is going fine, that we’re going to get there together. There’s an old definition of being a diplomat, which is, ‘You tell someone to go to hell in a way that they’ll enjoy the trip.’

While I’m a diplomat, I also have standards and expectations that I try to convey in a way that people can hear.

What bigger-picture thinking does your job involve beyond working with writers directly?
I edit people, right? My collaborations with writers have to do with everything that’s happening to them. Often that includes what’s happening in their life. How are their kids doing? How are they feeling about their job, their professional lives or anything going on personally that they want to share? You have to make room for people to have a freakout during a difficult story, or talk about how they don’t know what to do next or that they feel like they’re never going to get that interview they need. I try to support them through that process.

It sounds like you’re a little bit of a coach, counselor and therapist, kind of guiding and nudging them along.
Definitely a coach. Hopefully a friend. I’m certainly not qualified to be a therapist, but I recognize that it’s a person doing this job. As much as you would be more efficient if we were all just perfectly professional all the time, I’m not and they’re not. We get there as a team.

Where would you direct writers looking to gain editing skills, or editors who want to become better editors? For folks on staff and freelancers, what are some good ways to practice the needed skill set — both the diplomacy and also the act of conceptualizing the story?
It really starts with reading. Obviously reading a lot of the kind of journalism you’re practicing. But also reading books. Reading good writing is essential training for editors — paying attention to how the great ones do it. I would recommend an editing stint of some length of time — even three months — for any writer, because I think you grow so much as a writer by being an editor.

As a writer, you’d have one perspective on how to do it. Once you edit even a half a dozen people, you see how differently each one approaches the reporting and writing processes. Maybe they outline and maybe they’re winging it. Maybe they have to be in a panic in the middle of the night before they can write anything. People create all kinds of situations in which they thrive. You learn a lot of empathy from being an editor.

I’ve often said that I spent my first year as an editor atoning for the sins I committed as a writer. I think I was cavalier about deadlines and story length. I didn’t think about the pressures editors were under from their bosses or what else they had to worry about besides me and and making sure that my facts were right. I was a little too casual about those things. Becoming an editor and having that happen to me made me feel a little bad about not being more careful as a writer.

It’s been the most important personal growth experience I’ve had outside of being a husband and a parent.

In terms of where to practice — in a lot of the history of our business, you became an editor because you were a good reporter or photographer. It was kind of a promotion and there was not a lot of regard given to whether you had the technical skills — or, God knows, the personal skills. But I will say, as a proud member of the National Advisory Board of the Poynter Institute, Poynter and other institutions have some really good programs for people who want to make that transition. For anybody serious about it, I recommend even an online Poynter course about what to expect in your first year as an assigning editor. I also know that a lot of newsrooms have started to recognize that putting people in editing jobs without any training is a little fraught. Some are now having discussion groups or even formal training programs.

I’m struck by the fact that an editor is a thought partner to the writer, but you’re also standing in for the reader while balancing organizational concerns and top-down mandates. Can you tell me a little bit about the managerial skills that come with this job and how you serve the interests of all those different parties?
There’s this fundamental change in your work when you move from writer to editor. As a writer, you’re basically managing a one-on-one relationship with an editor. As an editor, I think of the Harlem Globetrotters routine where the one guy is in the center of the circle. He’s passing the ball and all of these people are passing the ball back to him. As soon as you become an editor, you’re orbited by all these other people: other editors, your bosses, other writers you work with, the photo editor, the social media people. Suddenly, you’re managing all these other relationships. It requires a lot of patience, skill and understanding.

What are some essential qualities to having an aptitude for this work and also enjoying it?
Being able to listen and willing to listen, to really hear what a writer is saying, and then to play it back to them and ask if you have it right. I do think that developing really good word skills, both as a writer and an editor, is important. If you’ve been a great police reporter, for example, and all your stories have been rewritten since the beginning of time — because reporting is really your thing and not writing — then you can go so far as an editor, but you’re probably not going to be a really good narrative editor or investigations editor, where long stories have to be crafted. Developing those fine writing and editing skills is really important.

What has surprised you most about this path?
The amount of self-discovery. Not so much what I’ve learned about journalism, but what I’ve learned about myself, and how I operate and think. It’s been the most important personal growth experience I’ve had outside of being a husband and a parent.

The questions that come up for me every day in my work are things like: How patient are you? How well can you express a conceptual thought to somebody else? How effectively can you express a criticism so that a person will hear it, and still have the strength and will to go on? Those are all tests of me personally. Every day is full of these ways in which I’m challenged to be a good person, and a good word person.

These are ideals I’m talking about. I’m aware I need to do these things, but I totally leave it up to other people — my wife, my family and all that — to say, ‘Am I doing any fucking good at any of it?’ But I enjoy the challenge of trying to do those things: trying to be a good guy as I’m being a good editor.

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Carly Stern is an award-winning enterprise journalist based in San Francisco who covers health, housing and economic security.

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