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Five Lessons from Master Mentors

As the editorial page editor of The Herald-Sun in Durham, North Carolina, Betsy O’Donovan became an evangelist for diversity on the op-ed page of the newspaper. As she invited people from every corner of the city to have their say, she found herself coaching inexperienced writers in the basics of framing arguments, polishing anecdotes, and preparing work for publication. In 2011, Betsy began doing the same work as a mentor-editor for The Op-Ed Project, where she became aware that some mentors are markedly better than others, and began asking how they do their work. This month, she interviewed several experienced producers who have participated in AIR’s mentorship program and distilled five lessons to shape a mentor’s work:

        When Shea Shackelford lends a helping ear to younger producers, they usually come away talking about his skill as a mentor — which is interesting because, when it comes to that kind of relationship, Shea was an orphan.
        “I spent many years wishing I had a good mentor,” he said. “I had people to learn from, I had helpful people around me, but there’s some threshold of learning where you realize you’ve got it, that you are the person you’re looking for. … The way I mentor is based a lot around the sort of mentoring I maybe wish I’d had.”
        Shea, a cofounder of Big Shed Audio, was one of the pioneers for AIR’s MQ2 initiative and he regularly helps less experienced producers shepherd a project through AIR’s structured mentorship program
        I had called Shea for selfish reasons. Since 2011, I’ve been working as a volunteer mentor-editor for The Op-Ed Project, which is working to diversify the voices and views on the world’s editorial pages. When people come out of a short-term, formal mentorship inspired, encouraged, and improved, it catches my attention.
        Like Shea, I used to be a mentor-orphan. Many of my own practices have been informal lessons cobbled together from mistakes made or observed, years in the editing trenches, and conversations with people who are a few steps ahead of me on the road. 
        And, like Shea, a lot of what I do is based on what I wish I’d had as a young reporter and editor — someone to help me cultivate an aesthetic as well as a set of skills, a map of the wider landscape of creative work and journalism, and advice about how to live there. 
        When I talked to Noland Walker a few weeks later — Noland has won a Peabody and an Emmy and a lot of praise from the people he’s worked with in AIR’s mentorships — he framed the question in a different way.
        “I’m reading a book right now by Jonathan Lethem called The Ecstasy of Influence,” Noland said. “That’s how careers are built: Who puts things in your hands, who do you watch and listen to? Who is your influence?”
        The two conversations made me wonder if I could find mentors for mentorship. I consulted with Bec Feldhaus Adams, who runs AIR’s mentorships, and then I made a few calls to people who are known for taking someone else’s good work and making it better.
        Besides Noland and Shea, I spoke to Erika Lantz, an assistant producer for PRX Remix and an editor for PRX’s “Second Ear” project; to AIR mentor Anne Donohue, who teaches radio journalism at Boston University; and to Tom Zoellner, an author, Op-Ed Project mentor, and founding member of the Deca journalism collective.
        I asked them what they do, how they do it, and what advice they might offer.
        They told me five things mentors ought to know:

1. Listen.

        Tom Zoellner: “I want to help them write the piece they want to write. The job of a mentor is not to put too heavy a stamp on the piece, but encourage the writer toward being more clear, effective, and convincing in their own voice.”

        Erika Lantz: “We give them a little space to tell us what concerns them most. We know you’re your own worst critic critic. It’s good to ask, ‘What do you think needs work?’ We always address what’s important to them, and that’s what makes it a mentorship more than an editing session.”

        Shea Shackelford: “It’s funny, but interviewing mentees about things can have therapy-esque elements. It’s not therapy, but it’s helpful [for an inexperienced producer] to have somebody break up the feedback loop in your head. … It’s helpful to have somebody rephrase what you just said and then add two steps.”

        Anne Donohue: “They need to articulate in a very clear way what one question they want to have answered for their audience in their piece. What is the crux of this story? A lot of students start with 100 pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag. Then they start throwing everything out. I say, ‘No, start from zero. What is the one piece of the story that you have to keep?’”

        Noland Walker: “You ask questions and make a diagnosis. Here’s where they say they need help and here’s where I can see they need help they don’t even know. There are problems with storytelling, legal problems with a story, the politics between a maker and subject. As you grow in your profession, you develop abilities to help with some of these things.”

2. Set clear, realistic expectations.

        Anne: “Until they’ve got some tape or some writing I can bounce off of, it’s frustrating because it’s all talk. A lot of people have grandiose ideas about what they’re going to do, and when they trawl the waters, they find out they can’t. … The first few things I edited, I labored over way more than I needed to. At some point, you start to say, ‘You need to give me something more polished before I do a line edit.’ I think people are sometimes afraid to say to somebody, ‘Go back. Start over.’”

        Tom: “I’ll call the person within the first 24 hours and explain that I’m not a magician, and that if their common sense overrides a piece of advice I’m dispensing, to trust their common sense — but that what I’m going to tell them are some of the conventional thoughts about what separates a successful, published op-ed from one that gets rejected.”

        Shea: “I try to find the specific thing that’s brought them to this point. … Sometimes it’s ‘I want broader listenership.’ That’s huge; that’s impossible to address in a short period of time. If it’s too broad, you won’t get it done, and that’s more often the problem. So [I work on] getting a sense of the situation and what’s behind their concerns or curiosities or wants, then getting them to identify specific steps in the short run.”

        Erika: “Right up front, we let producers know that this is our opinion on the story. … Real, honest communication makes the discussion more interesting. We’re not always right; they’re not always right. It’s not at all a one-way street.”

        Noland: “Choose your mentees wisely, and encourage them to choose you wisely. In terms of mentoring, I’m looking for people who have something, not necessarily my thing. It might challenge and bother me, but I want to say, ‘I really want to work with this. This is something interesting, and I can learn.’ Choose wisely.”

3. Don’t skip the practical advice.

        Tom: “I’ll make a couple of conceptual suggestions and ask the writer if they’re game to do a rewrite, and they almost always are. That’s when I get in and start doing line edits, which are classified as suggestions. … And then, usually, they’re hopefully happy with at least three-quarters of what I’ve suggested. At that point, I’ll share thoughts about which publications are most likely to be receptive to that op-ed.”

        Erika: “We really dig into the story. It’s down-and-dirty editing; we’re getting in there and sometimes going line by line and talking about the writing, the narrative structure, how we could restructure it to make it better, music, use of sound, writing. Then sometimes we’ll go out and think about how we’re approaching stories in general. We’ll brainstorm a really long list of questions they could use if they’re reinterviewing. … We talk about promotion, what might be a good home for the piece, how to make a good title for the story and how to make it shareable on social media, and the presentation of it on PRX. … Then we take the next step of sharing it, promoting it to the world, writing blog posts about the process. We want other producers to learn something from this drudgery on the story.”

        Anne: “I highly recommend that everybody preinterview subjects over the phone and find out whether a person you might have read about in the newspaper can engage, doesn’t have a thick accent, is an appropriate interview for radio. Preinterviewing saves you a lot of time and trouble. … A lot of newbies worry about the technical process [of recording] and their brain goes out the window with the questions they were going to be asking. That’s another good reason to preinterview.”

        Noland: “I was at a conference a few years ago and a very experienced maker was telling people who had a range of experience to ‘put a little of yourself in your work,’ and I cringed. You have to have real craft before you can do that and make it resonant for other people. The best stuff does come from you — the stuff that scares you or gives you wonder or joy. But self is a tricky thing. In your kitchen, among your ingredients for making a story, the self is a strong ingredient.”

4. Learn something.

        Noland: “When you start thinking about mentorships, that is one of the things that the community of musicians gets right. Musicians are very fluid in terms of the kinds of music they listen to or appreciate. … And musicians are also notoriously fluid in terms of who they play with, jam with, listen to. I think that’s a better way to look at things.”

        Tom: “I’m always fascinated with the folks who come to The Op-Ed Project for help because they’re generally working on things that the average newspaper reader wouldn’t have thought of. These are windows into parts of the world that we’ll never travel to, aspects of society that we don’t have to consider. Every person generally has an amazing, unique perspective, even if I don’t agree with it. Everyone deserves to have their voice in the friendly marketplace of ideas — and I get to be an intellectual voyeur.”

        Anne: “I’m afraid sometimes I’m too efficient and scare the daylights out of people. I will never be known as warm and fuzzy. I’m a tough-love environment, but that’s what works for me. I don’t want somebody to tell me how wonderful I am; I want to know how to fix things and keep going. … But I’m a sucker. I love good students.”

        Shea: “They usually at the Third Coast Festival do an audio educators’ conference. Someone was at the end of a first year [of teaching] and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to do that.’ It seemed important to share right then that, yeah, audio educating is really hard. You’re not trained; all the flops that you’re going through are your training. You don’t think about it that way, but it’s part of the process of becoming an expert. … That’s a beautiful part to me because, like any teaching, it’s where you organize what you’ve been doing in a way that helps somebody else learn.”

5. It ought to be a pleasure.

        Noland: “Apprenticeships are the history of the world. Systems have changed a lot in the last 30 years. People are working as independents, as free agents, and there’s a lot of value in that, but it doesn’t address our need to work with people who have gone before, or to draw sparks from the people who have not yet done the work.”

        Erika: “Personally, there’s nothing more fun for me than dissecting a story, reconstructing a story, bringing it back to life, but the only way to get to that fun of ‘let’s make it together, let’s make it happen’ is that we’re on the same page, that we recognize each other’s talents and skills, and then we can dig in without worrying so much.”

        Shea: “In radio and beyond, there are things that remind you that you’re not alone, you’re doing fine, you’re moving forward, you’re supposed to make mistakes, learning isn’t about doing things perfectly. It sounds trite, but that on top of helping folks goes a long way. It’s not just something you say; it’s something you mean.”

        Anne: “It’s nice to be nice. Somebody said that in some old, crappy movie. It’s nice to help somebody along. It really is gratifying. And that kid you mentored today might be your boss tomorrow. That’s definitely happened to me.”

• Betsy O’Donovan is AIR’s social/media strategist, a mentor-editor at The Op-Ed Project, and a founder of WIN (Women in News), a Boston-centered network for female journalists. She was a 2013 fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. She’s on Twitter @ODitor and @AIRmedia.