Omaha metro editor works to refine ideas, improve stories
By Chris Dorwart
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Metro Editor Cate Folsom talked about her job at the Omaha World-Herald in a phone interview.
A: I started here in 1979. I’ve spent my whole career at the World-Herald. I went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and I double-majored in English literature and journalism and got a job here out of college and never left.
Q: What does that entail?
A: I work with a team of reporters, I have a variety: statehouse, military, Douglas County, watchdog … reporters. Then I oversee the K-12 and part of the higher education beats and city hall. City hall has their own editor but they report to me as well as the Washington reporter. Both have bureaus: Washington and Lincoln.
Q: What goes into distributing assignments?
A: Things aren’t specifically distributed; it’s really a process. Reporters on beats should be producing a wealth of story ideas. Then sometimes, people call in with story ideas, sometimes my boss comes up with a story idea, sometimes I’ll have a story idea and other times, through the brainstorming process of talking with each other we produce or develop story ideas. A lot of it is refining story ideas…. A lot of times, what an editor does more than handout story ideas is to help reporters prioritize their story ideas. You might have five things on your list and we can help them decide what’s the most important thing to do today.
Q: How often will you sit down with reporters to go over stories?
A: It depends on the story and the writer. Some things are very quick and clean and there’s really no need. Other things are … complicated and it might go back and forth several times between reporter and editor. Then I have a kind of added layer of complexity because I work with four bureau reporters either in Lincoln or Washington. The guy in Washington works pretty much by email. Other reporters, it does help to sit down side by side and look at it together and work through my questions or suggestions or changes. So it depends a lot on the type of story…. What I do as an editor is raise my questions. When I go through a story, it comes back looking kind of battered. At least that’s what some reporters tell me. I will ask questions, I will leave notes about structural concern, I will suggest different wording, I’m always looking to tighten the story, so I’ll make a trim, but I do it all in a way so that the reporter can see what I’m doing. What I don’t want to do is make changes that they can’t see. I don’t want to make changes that are wrong. I want to improve the story, I want them to understand why I’m making changes and I want them to be able to learn from the process so that they can see if I think there is something to improve on and they can move forward. You can see everything that happens. My philosophy is that if I can’t explain my reason for change then I shouldn’t be making it. If I’m making it because I write this other way, a different way from what the reporter writes, it’s really not the point. I don’t need everything to be in my style of writing. I should be able to defend the changes that I’m proposing or making.
Q How are you able to keep bias out of a story?
A: I hope for the most part it’s not a matter of keeping it out but not putting it in. I think you have to come to a story with neutrality. You might have a working theory but you really have to review that every step of the way. The key is to gather a variety of viewpoints. If you talk to people from one side of an issue then you are going to have a bias whether or not you put it there. You need to assess who might have a different point of view and go find them. The more you can do that, the fuller the understanding you have of it and more fair and accurate you can be. You’re trying to get at the truth, which is very hard. You’re trying to represent it as fairly as you can. You want to make sure that you get everybody’s viewpoint in there. So they can look at it and say, “Yeah, that represents what I told that reporter,” and not look at it and say, “Wait a minute, where’s my point of view, that’s not fair,” that’s biased. You also have to look at it from the content perspective, down to the word choice. You want to make sure that you’re not using slanted wording. It’s really all encompassing, as you approach a story make sure you’ve got the facts, you’ve got the comments from all sides that you’re providing in a fair way. Even if it has a conclusion that not everybody likes, if they can read it afterward and say well there’s nothing inaccurate here and it represents my point of view then you’ve achieved your purpose.
Q: What goes into the decision process for prominence of stories?
A: Our process at the World-Herald, we have assignment editors, I am an assignment editor. I’ll look at stories that my reporters are writing and I’ll make a pitch, ‘This story should be on page, this is first on cover of the Midlands section, this one is OK to run inside, this story I think is really good and will draw a lot of readers: let’s save it for Sunday page one and so forth.’ So I’m going through this decision process everyday where I’m thinking where is the best place to run a story. Then I’ve got my colleagues in the room who are doing the same things with their reporters’ stories. So we’re all kind of competing in a way. So we sit down every morning and have a budget-planning meeting where we talk about the next day’s paper. Sometimes there are too many things that are being offered and we talk through the sales point of our stories and toss it around. Sometimes there’s a long discussion, sometimes there is no discussion. As a group, the various editors in the room are able to come to a decision. Then we kind of revisit that late in the afternoon and make sure there’s nothing that developed during the day that’s going to change our minds. Or we may hold a story because it’s not ready. A lot of different things can influence it. Then midweek, we have a meeting to talk about we have to offer for the Sunday paper. That too, is an evolving process where we on Wednesday, we think we have this coming and then we’ll revisit it on Thursday and Friday before we make a final cut.
Q: What’s the difference between online and editing for print?
A: We actually have an online staff. So they oversee the site and maintain it. They come up with ideas to enhance our online offerings. When my reporters have breaking news that we’d like to post online, it’s really just a matter of getting the basic information as quickly as we can. We still go through the confirmation process and still make sure what we have is accurate but we will usually keep it to a tighter quick story. So the reporter will write that and I’ll look it over and then move it to our online staff and then let them go back into it and develop it more for the print. Sometimes when there are things really breaking we’ll continually provide updates to our online. So we might start out with here’s something happening today, here a few basic details and then as we gather more information we’ll give our readers updates for however long it takes.
Q: How do you think Twitter has affected journalism?
A: I don’t think you can really look at it and say it’s good or bad. It’s an evolution of the communication process and I think it’s the matter of figuring out how to use it to benefit your goals. It’s really a reporting thing over an editing thing. We’re trying to engage reporters more with that. Some reporters like it more than other reporters and use it very successfully. Others just don’t think that way. It’s just a matter of educating everybody and seeing how they can make use of it. I just think communication is such an evolving thing especially with technological changes. It’s interesting to see what’s coming down the road and to see how it develops and see what things are just fads and might pass away and see what’s going to stay and develop.
Q: What are some good tips for editing?
A: At what level, there are so many. I think if you’re thinking about what to write you have to say, ‘Why is this story important and why is it important now? What makes it news?’ Instead of something that could be written anytime between now and 2015. What makes this important now? If you answer that question, then you’ve got a story. If there’s a fire down the street, happening now, we need to let our readers know about it. Other things are more explanatory, the more explanatory they are, often the less pressing they offer to be told now. For a daily publication, you’re always looking for what is important to be told now, so you look at that. As you structure a story you’re always looking for the strongest way into it: Whether that is an anecdote lead, straightforward, most important thing first or writing device. You’re just looking for what is going to pull readers into that story the most successfully. Those are some of the things I look at as I consider whether telling the story the right way. As I said earlier, as an editor you should always understand why you’re making changes and be able to justify that to a reporter. You should think about how much you really need to tell people. Often things are just too long and you’ve just got to think about the attention span of your readers and what really needed to go into that story and how you can write it in the most concise way possible. If you look at word choice, make sure that you have selected the best words, the most accurate words.
Q: What do you do when you see the stories in print the next day?
A: We’re in the communication business and we need people to trust us. If we put out a product filled with mistakes, who’s going to trust us? We’re still in the accuracy business so it’s very frustrating to see errors. When I read the paper, since I was so involved in putting part of it together, I usually flip through quickly to see how they used certain things since I didn’t have time the day before: see how it’s displayed, see what the headline is. If I’m really pleased with a story sometimes I’ll sit down and read through them again and make sure it’s as good as I thought it was the day before. Otherwise, I don’t really have time to sit and re-read what I worked on the day before. This is the kind of business where you’re always moving forward. Another reason I may look at a something in the paper is to see what we should be doing next. Is there another development in this story? I’ll just read and review and try to think of what follow up stories we should be working on that day.