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Traverse City Record-Eagle editor embraces newsroom leadership

By Carolyn Willis

Nathan Payne is the features editor at the Traverse City Record-Eagle. (Photo courtesy of Keith King)

Nathan Payne is the features editor at the Traverse City Record-Eagle. (Photo courtesy of Keith King)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln 

To Nathan Payne, newspaper editing is a lot like shepherding.

Payne, 33, is the features editor at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a daily newspaper in Traverse City, Michigan. Though Payne’s job pulls his attention in a dozen different directions, he prioritizes the care and development of his herd: the newspaper’s reporters.

“It’s a leadership position,” Payne said in an April phone interview. “You can learn your AP Style manual and become a confident copy editor, but there’s a huge difference between copy editing and leading reporters in news and features coverage on a day-to-day basis.”

This leadership begins before dawn. Each day, Payne arrives at the office before his reporters. The silence allows him time to work on his own feature stories before the bustle begins. Arriving early also helps Payne and the other editors set the pace for the newsroom. If reporters enter a work-conducive atmosphere in the morning, they themselves are more likely to buckle down and start writing.

“The best editors lead by example,” Payne said.

Payne’s daily agenda varies, but he typically spends a few hours consulting with reporters and directing photographers. He budgets and edits stories and photos for the Traverse City Record-Eagle’s four feature sections. Payne spearheads communication between the paper and about a dozen freelancers and columnists who contribute to the paper’s feature sections. Payne assists the news clerk and executive editor in his rare free moments.

Payne said he helps his reporters become stronger writers and harder workers by challenging them to develop a wide-ranging set of skills. Payne, in an email, stressed the importance of reporters becoming jacks-of-all-trades. He said reporters need to embrace the idea that they will likely preform many duties that land outside of their degree field or job descriptions.

Each reporter is expected to have a base knowledge of every beat. Payne holds his writers accountable to this standard by occasionally asking reporters to write a story on behalf of another beat reporter. A sports reporter may be assigned a story on a local concert or vice versa.

“That’s the way to figure out if someone knows what they’re doing,” Payne said.

This knowledge overlap helps reporters collaborate on stories.

A new workspace design also encourages collaboration. Within the past year, the Traverse City Record-Eagle’s newsroom was rearranged from a cubicle-style setup to a synergetic, low-walled environment where workers can hear and talk across the newsroom.

“There’s really an environment of collaboration and teamwork within our newsroom and part of that is our workspace design,” Payne said.

Helping people succeed is Payne’s favorite aspect of his work. Changing the design of the newsroom and challenging reporters with varied beats are just a few of the ways he accomplishes this. Additionally, Payne identifies the strengths and weaknesses of his reporters and works to improve them. He goes great lengths to learn each reporter and photographer’s quirks. Understanding workers as individuals helps Payne determine what they need to do to capitalize their talents.

“You have to know when to let people do their job and and when to step in where they’re going to need help and guidance,” Payne said.

The newsroom leadership of Mike Tyree, the executive editor at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, sparked Payne’s passion for helping reporters grow.

“Mike’s probably one of the best I’ve seen in the newsroom,” Payne said. “He’s always encouraging reporters to drive hard after stories. He’s supportive and backs up reporters when he knows they’ve done their job and they’ve done their job right.”

Payne has a journalism degree with a concentration in photojournalism from Central Michigan University. His editing position causes him to use the journalism side of his degree more frequently. While he still enjoys photography, he has embraced his grammar-oriented role.

“I am proof that not all photographers struggle to construct a coherent sentence,” he jokingly said in an email.

Before Payne started at the Traverse City Record-Eagle in 2013, he spent eight years at the Gillette News Record in Gillette, Wyoming. He was hired as a staff photojournalist. From there, the paper promoted him to photo editor and eventually to city editor. Payne credits his Gillette News Record experience with helping him build the skill set he uses in his current position.

Payne said the modern, 24/7 newsroom demands significantly more of every person involved than newsrooms did 10 years ago. The Traverse City Record-Eagle breaks stories online throughout the day and into the night. Sometimes they publish several updates before the final version hits the Web and print. Each worker holds an essential role in this fast-paced newsroom setup, and some aspects of the roles cannot be taught: They must be experienced.

“You’re going to learn 90 percent of what you know about editing and working with people on the job,” Payne said. “You can teach someone perfect copy editing skills, but you can’t teach somebody to be a stabilizing force in a leadership role.”

Still, Payne said that editors and reporters can undergo training, receive mentoring by older staff members and work in a newsroom for years and still feel the pressures of a modern news cycle. Small staffs and tight deadlines sometimes equate to failure.

“There are just days where you can’t get everything done that you want to finish,” Payne said. “That’s probably the worst part of my job.”

Though the work is tough and never-ending, Payne is thankful to have a great staff to guide through every turn.

“We are a tight-knit newsroom full of hard-working writers, photographers and editors,” Payne said. “We don’t let down for anything. You’d be hard-pressed to find a harder working and more talented staff anywhere.”

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