Ask A Pro
Tell us about your job as an assignment editor. How is it different from being a reporter?
There are a lot of similarities: In both jobs, you spend much of your time monitoring the news, thinking up story ideas, trying to write things clearly. The perk of the job is that you're in a position to really shape the way a newspaper covers its community. On the downside, assignment editors don't get out of the office much and rarely enjoy the glory of a byline. And editors spend a lot of time in meetings. Lots and lots of time in meetings.
When do you find your job to be fun, and when does it drive you crazy?
The fun part is when we hit on a brilliant idea before anyone else thinks of it, execute it well, and get terrific reaction from readers.
What drives us crazy is when we're jamming on what we know is great story, only to have it overtaken by news developments. Or, worse yet, printed first by one of our competitors!
What are the key elements to a good features story?
A clever idea. A snappy lead. Lively quotes. Color from the scene. A punchy ending. Great visuals.
And don't forget all that stuff you need in a good news story, too: Why this story should matter to the reader. At least two sources. Facts and figures. A clear, concise nut graph.
What kind of experience and talents do you look for in the people you work with?
Everyone brings different strengths to the team, and that's not just a given but a plus. Some of my writers groove on the research and reporting process and have educated themselves to the degree that they are absolute experts on a topic by the time they sit down to write. Others thrive on getting out of the office and going somewhere they can see, smell, taste, hear and feel the story. Still others love nothing more than teasing out a sharp story angle from a fuzzy idea. Some folks on our staff are into pop culture and shopping; others are turned on by history, art, dining and politics. All of that is great for the mix of the team that writes any newspaper's features.
The one thing that links them all is a particular flair for writing and some experience in writing straight news. Features writing is not a starter job.
During the last school year, you took part in a program in which you mentored two high school journalism classes in northern Virginia. What were the most important things you taught -- and learned?
We talked a lot about how to interview someone and get something interesting out of them. That's perhaps the biggest challenge a student journalist faces -- how do you make the Athlete of the Month profile seem fresh if it's the fourth one of the semester? Everyone has something striking or shocking about them; you just have to ask them the right questions to access it.
What I learned is that high school journalists instinctively have terrific ideas -- they just need encouragement and guidance to help translate those ideas into compelling stories.
What are the most common clichés that feature writers should avoid?
The "express yourself" lead, as in "Jane Doe sighs," "The mechanic frowns," "Bob Jones can't help but smile."
And never use the word "agrees" as a transition, as in "Mary Smith agrees." It's lazy writing. Don't just tell me she agrees -- show me.
The one cliché that really does work: ending a story with a direct quote.
Any tips for coaching writers?
It's a big mistake to go in and fix everything that's wrong with a writer's copy, unless you want to do so indefinitely. The better strategy is to explain what isn't working, then steer the writer in the direction of how to set it right. Make him figure out the words to get it there.
Remember, too, that a story that doesn't read well probably needs more reporting, not just a rewrite.
Should reporters make it a priority to collaborate with photographers and page designers?
Thinking about visuals is as much a part of a reporter's job as interviewing sources and checking facts. When we're mapping out a big feature at USA Today, as soon as the reporter has done a bit of reporting -- at least enough to have a sense of the direction the story is going in -- we'll sit down with a photo editor and a page designer to talk about an art concept. Do we want to shoot someone from the story or is an illustration the way to go? If we're going to do an illustration, which works better in this instance - a photo illustration or an art illustration? Do we need any accompanying graphics or charts?
The important thing is to have this conversation EARLY in the process. Not after the story is written -- and certainly not the day you go to press.
What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
The most frustrating thing I encounter with student journalists is that many of them don't read newspapers or news magazines and aren't very sophisticated consumers of news. When they're in journalism class, they're talking about ethics and theory and the nuts and bolts of how to write a lead, but there's no discussion of current events or how well the media is doing its job on the big story of the day. You need to make a point of knowing what's going on in the world around you and understanding how and why the media is covering it.
And really work hard at generating great story ideas. That's a skill that students vastly undervalue. Newsrooms are full of good writers, but we get really excited about reporters we can tell, "Great idea! Go do it!"