‘The secret sauce behind so much powerful work’: How editors shape education coverage

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They may not receive much credit, but editors are making magic happen behind the scenes.

By Mareesa Nicosia

Editors rarely get the glory of a byline, much less an award for their work. Many are thrown into the job without any real training in how to do it well. But any reporters worth their salt will assure you that deep reporting and stellar storytelling are rarely a solo accomplishment.

The behind-the-scenes wizardry editors regularly perform is crucial to producing high-quality reporting. And, whether it’s tangible or not, the best editing usually considers the specific needs of the reporter and the story that’s being worked on.

An editor’s most influential act could be encouraging a reporter to lean into their knowledge on a topic or advocating on their behalf with slow-moving higher-ups. Often, they are most helpful when they provide critical background context on a complicated education issue.

As This American Life’s Ira Glass put it during a May 2018 graduation speech at Columbia’s Journalism School, “Very few editors, in my experience, are awful. The overwhelming majority are solid, decent, helpful. And then if you’re lucky, you get somebody like the people I work with… who make everything they touch so much better.”

Here, according to a handful of education journalists who spoke with The Grade, are vivid examples of how and when an editor’s expert touch made an education story so much better.

A sounding board for field reporting

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WBEZ Chicago’s Lutton (left) and Cahan

WBEZ Chicago public radio editor Cate Cahan is “the secret sauce behind so much powerful work at WBEZ,” says reporter Linda Lutton, who covered the education beat there from 2008 to 2018.

Cahan has been involved in “just about anything I’ve made that people think is worth listening to,” Lutton says. Among them: a local story about a principal who had seen 27 students or former students shot, 8 of them killed. That story led to the Harper High School series, which examined how gun violence permeates students’ lives on the South Side of Chicago. Cahan also played an important role in the hour-long documentary The View from Room 205, which explored the impact of poverty on students during a year in a 4th-grade classroom.*

What exactly is it that Cahan does so well?

First and foremost, she is a patient, finely tuned sounding board for the hours of tape that Lutton brings back from the field, the veteran reporter says. That was indeed the case during the reporting process for The View from Room 205, where Lutton says Cahan’s perspective served as a check on the reporter’s emotional filter.

“She played that role of listening to tape,” Lutton says. “I played her so much tape … and just was like, ‘This is the storyline, here on this kid, and how are you perceiving him or how are you perceiving the teacher?’ … Radio is so subjective that you really need a surrogate for the listener. That’s a key function that radio editors play.”

With her editor’s input, Lutton knows that what she intends to transmit is actually coming across, both content-wise and emotionally. And it also serves as a check against a reporter’s emotional attachment to what she’s reported.

*The original version of this piece mistakenly credited Cahan with having edited the Harper High series, rather than a preceding story.

A spirit for passionate, respectful debate

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The Tampa Bay Times’ Solocheck (left) and Tobin

The Tampa Bay Times’ reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek values the open and direct line of communication he and his editor, Tom Tobin, have cultivated, whether it’s working on a daily story, an episode of Solochek’s podcast, or a long-form feature.

“He knows what we’re talking about, [and] he knows what kinds of questions to ask,” Solochek says. “And also, if I wind up writing something that maybe jumps into jargon too much or gets a little too into the weeds, he knows how to decipher it.”

It helps that Tobin was an education reporter before he became an editor.

Solochek, who started at the newspaper in 2000 and has covered regional and statewide education for most of his career, says Tobin has also been a consistent advocate for his ideas, even when they weren’t getting much traction with decision-makers at the top.

“We weren’t getting approval to do the podcast even though we’d been wanting to do it for a long time and so, I just went to him and said, ‘We’ve been talking about this now for a year and a half and nobody’s giving us any green light,’” says Solochek. Tobin’s response? “‘Just do it.’”

So he did. The podcast recently marked its 100th episode.

Despite their strong rapport, the two don’t always agree; in fact, the ability to debate a tough judgment call is something Solochek appreciates most in their relationship.

When Solochek was working on a sensitive story last fall about a district’s policy relating to transgender students’ rights, he and Tobin realized they had very different opinions about the use of the term “sex assigned at birth.”

Things got “pretty heated” as they hashed out whether the wording could be perceived as being aligned with the preferences of an advocacy group; Solochek thought it could be. At the end of the day, Tobin made his decision — that the phrasing would stand — and they moved on.

“If you can’t have a conversation like that, then you have a bad relationship,” Solochek says. “If you are able to work toward such interactions without anybody being insulted or offended then the relationship is working properly.”

To learn more about how the media covers education, follow The Grade on Twitter and Facebook.

A push to write more authoritatively

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KPCC Los Angeles’ Stokes (left) and Walz

When Maura Walz became the editor of the newly created Chalkbeat Colorado bureau a few years back, she had little formal training and little in-person support. Her fellow editors were concentrated in the New York office, so she ended up learning a lot of what it is to be an editor on the fly, all while navigating a new coverage area.

“Part of my job was to train reporters, and I sort of knew how to do that because I’d had that done to me” as a reporter, she recalls. “But whose job is it to train editors? Nobody really has that job.”

Her experience isn’t that unusual. That’s often how the editor pipeline works, or rather doesn’t work.

A few years later, when Walz moved to edit the education team at KPCC in Los Angeles, one of her biggest challenges was to help reporter Kyle Stokes take a more authoritative tone in his stories.

There was a specific day “where I basically told him to write something because he knew it to be true,” Walz recalls, adding that it was likely a story involving charter school politics or the internal workings of the school district.

The moment set the stage for Stokes’ continued growth in that area.

How does she know? Amid the goodbyes she received when she announced she was leaving to freelance, Walz got a letter from Stokes telling her how much she’d helped him build the confidence to write authoritatively.

“It was really gratifying to hear him say that that was a thing I helped him with,” says Walz, especially since she’d learned that same lesson back at the start of her career.

When editors are the difference between basic reporting and nuanced analysis

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Chalkbeat’s Kebede (left) and Mosle

Sara Mosle, New York bureau chief for Chalkbeat says that a deep bench of editors can mean the difference between simply reporting on an event and producing a nuanced analysis.

For example, she recalls a recent instance when the network’s Tennessee bureau was reporting on a proposed plan to hold back Memphis second graders who can’t read at a certain level.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede was able to “jump into an in-house chat group and quickly plumb the collective knowledge of editors and even reporters” in the various Chalkbeat bureaus about how these kinds of programs work.

The information they provided to Kebede informed and deepened the final story.

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A willingness to ignore a reporter’s ego to deliver the best result

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The Washington Post’s Mathews (left) and Robinson

Sometimes the best thing an editor can do is rethink a reporter’s early draft, allowing a better version of the story to emerge.

That’s exactly what the Washington Post’s Gene Robinson did when tasked with editing a draft of an article written by veteran reporter Jay Mathews about the two teachers who founded the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school network.

Robinson “tore the piece apart,” Mathews writes in an email. “The bottom part became the top part, and vice versa,” according to Mathews. “Characterizations were sharpened. Bad paragraphs were rewritten. In his hands, the piece came alive. He did what great editors do. He saw what I was going for and made the structural changes that were necessary, without worrying much about my ego.”

The revisions were “one of the most thorough and consequential edits I ever had on a big piece,” according to Mathews. “I will always be grateful to Gene for that.”

Robinson went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Mathews’ story grew into a 2009 best-selling book “Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.”

Respected allies

Great editors aren’t necessarily our friends, but they certainly ought to be regarded as respected allies.

Truly great editors are the ones who make us want to work harder to tell the story in the most informative and engaging way possible, whether through print, radio, or digital mediums.

When you’re fortunate enough to have one lacerating your copy or sending you out three times to get a stronger quote, you’ll know it.

And if you’re smart, you’ll look for opportunities to work with them — and acknowledge their exceptional contributions — every chance you get. Take it from Mosle, who was a reporter for many years before she began editing:

“When you find a great editor … do everything you can to work with them wherever they go. You’ll do your best work writing for this person — not a particular place.”


Related posts:

‘Just knock on the door’: Mentorship moments that changed these education journalists’ trajectories

Favorite education bylines, teams, and outlets for spring 2018

Mareesa Nicosia is an independent journalist based in New York. Her education coverage has appeared in The Hechinger Report, The Atlantic and The New York Daily News, among other outlets.

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