Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward some of the lost (or long-buried) profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. Part one of “Ask the Expert” on the editor/reporter relationship was inspired by Matthew Payne, who was inspired by a session at the Third Coast Festival titled “Trust Me, I’m an Editor.” In 2004 Dave Barasoain transcribed and paraphrased that session, which is excerpted below. NPR’s Liaison with Independent Producers, Margo Melnicove, compiled the material for these pages on All About Editors.
A panel discussion at the 2004 Third Coast Festival moderated by Gwen Macsai (Re:sound) and featuring the editor/producer teams of Deb George and John Biewen (American Radio Works) and Ben Shapiro and Emily Botein (The Next Big Thing). To hear the entire discussion, check out Third Coast.
Q: [Gwen] How do you perceive your role as an editor?
A: [Deb] Years ago Neenah Ellis defined the role of Editor at NPR as being the advocate for the listener and making sure that they have everything needed to understand and fully appreciate the story. That to me is still one of the central ideas behind the role of the editor. But I also think there is corollary, and that is the role of the editor is to enter into a collaboration with the producer and the reporter, which can change. It can change from producer to producer, but there are three main things:
1) You are a friend, hopefully a wise one who listens and discusses the story.
2) You are a coach, a mentor or a teacher.
3) The very traditional role, the ‘Perry White’ authoritarian editor…especially with deadlines and news. That’s the editor that has to take over sometimes. We’ll do THIS to get it on the air.
[Ben] Ultimately our job as editors is to help the producer make the strongest piece possible. The editor is often the first audience for your piece. So an editor brings a fresh set of ears. I can also provide some other brain space to do thinking about what is working in the piece and what else it can do.
Q: [Gwen] At what point should an editor get involved with a piece?
A: [John] Deb is involved from the very beginning. And at ARW we talk before we decide to do it and Deb is involved at that level. From there on we’re talking pretty regularly but it isn’t in great detail usually. I don’t send her my transcripts, but we have a conversation about it so she’s always up to speed on what I’m getting and where this thing is heading. So the project will evolve — with two heads involved — all along the way.
[Emily] Ben and I try to do that. We’re often working with an outside producer. And the more we check in, the more helpful it is.
[Ben] Even at the very beginning of conceptualizing a piece, a good editor hopefully will have some sense of what the structure might be and what elements you’ll probably need to have in order to tell your story so you can get the plot points covered along the way.
[John] We’re producing documentaries so often we’ll talk about the issue, and then what are our scenes, who are our characters. We’re not just going to go out to talk to experts and tell people some facts. We have a conversation about how will we bring this thing to life.
Q: [Gwen] How do you work with a reporter/producer who’s really married to a segment of the story and doesn’t want it cut out?
A: [Deb] I was working with an NPR reporter and this was a big story for her, and late in the afternoon we started doing an edit, a fairly long section that I just knew ruined the piece. It just stopped it, it ruined it. She loved it and wanted to keep it in, and since we’re collaborators I could not say to her, I want you to take that out. So I think we finally talked until midnight. We started talking at 5 about the scene for hours and hours and around midnight she conceded and it aired the next day without it and the next day I got some roses from the reporter. Now what that says to me is that I was very invested in having the piece be as good as it could be and I was sure about this and I think at times an editor has to be sure. It’s the reporter’s piece in the end, true, but I went to the mat and spent hours convincing her — or tiring her out — but I think an insecure editor doesn’t work.
Q: [Gwen] How do you know that you’re right? It’s not like anybody here has a PhD in editing.
A: [Ben] For me a lot of the problems are self-evident and sometimes the solutions are clear and sometimes it takes some work.
[Deb] That’s why we’re editors. I was reading there’s this gene that controls for grammar and syntax. Some people have it, some people don’t. And I think I have a gene for structure. It hits a pleasure center in our brains to see alternate structures for a piece and pick it out.
[Ben] One thing I had to learn was to trust and pay attention to my own response to pieces. It’s a matter of how am I responding as a listener and being attuned to that. One thing is if it is clear to me how to fix something, then I’ll fix it, but if it’s not clear to me then there might be a larger structural issue. Film editors talk about how if a shot isn’t working, look to the previous shot. It might be the part before it, the setup that might be the problem. You might have to reassess some larger things. It would be demoralizing to say, it’s not working ‘you go and fix it.’ So I think that an editor should make a suggestion, and it might not be the final answer, but give some kind of tangible feedback.
[John] For the independent, someone just starting out, this is really important: editor equals good. Get yourself an editor. This notion that you’re an artist and no one should touch what you do, forget it. But you have to find somebody whose judgment you think is worth something. But find that person. Not just your best friend who’s there to pump you up and make you feel good. They need to tell you when something is working or not.
[Emily] There are kinds of pieces I wouldn’t bring to Ben, newsier pieces. So there are certain things I think certain people edit better than others.
[Ben] As a producer you’re a consumer of editorial services, and you learn over time what a particular editor is good for.
Q: [Gwen] If you haven’t developed a thick skin, how do you protect yourself against the criticisms of an editor so you don’t take it too personally?
A: [Emily] You have to understand that an editor is paying more attention to your work than anyone else is. They’re giving so much to it. And you have to understand that this is help.
Q: [from audience] What if on a big project you give that reporter freedom, but what if they come back with something that is so much different from what you thought. What do you do? Sometimes you start out on same page, but you end up on different ones. How often should you check in?
A: [Deb] On a long-term project I’ll start with intensive initial conversations then maybe not so frequently, when they’re out tape gathering I won’t hear from them that much, but once a week at least. There is no point in being surprised at the very end when there is no way to make changes. So once a week definitely over the course of say six months, at least. And if they’re sitting down writing, then every day.
Q: [from audience] When I look back on a piece that I’ve edited I can always see faults. Is there a way to find them before the piece airs?
A: [Ben] I know this isn’t much of a tip, but you try to do the best you can. That normally happens when you’re on deadline, especially when the piece has complicated structural issues.
[Deb] Try to relax and give yourself space so that you’re not listening so intensely that you miss the obvious.
[Emily] We all fall into patterns, like some of my pieces are too quick. So I write a cheat sheet of my common problems. So I’ll know what to look for.
Q: [from audience; Sandy Tolan] What are some strategies for working with an editor who may not be gifted, survival tips?
A: [Deb] First is to try not to work with them again, but you don’t have a choice.
[Ben] I’ve found that as a producer, it can be useful to argue your point. If you’re convinced of what you’re doing, then sometimes editors might respond to that if you make your case well.
[Gwen] There’s the underground. Get a pre-edit from someone else. Friends can help you, someone you respect.
[Deb] And then there’s time-honored trick of putting something in the piece that you know is bad, so when the editor takes it out they feel satisfied that they’ve made a major change.
[Sandy] Sometimes the answer can be one of perspective, this is not the last piece you’ll ever do, if you got stuck with a dumb editor and you’re on deadline you just have to do what they tell you to do, get it on the air, and try not to work with them again. The corollary to ‘having an editor is good’ is ‘having a thick skin and perspective is good.’
[Gwen] And if you’re writing a grant, put in funds to pay the editor you have in mind, and get who you want to work with and pay them well.
[Emily] It behooves producers to get editing skills themselves because you end up having to self-edit so often.
• Part two of “All About Editors” is a shortened version of “The Reporter Editor Relationship,” originally written in 2001 for NPR editors by NPR’s executive producer for training, Jonathan Kern.