What are the priorities for a new editor?
Someone asked me just that question the other day. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the first two things that came to mind are perhaps the most neglected aspect of the job for folks who, like myself, have been rooted in place for a while. That’s weird, isn’t it?
First, get to know the staff: The first job for any new hire (I suspect this is more or less true across industries, regardless of whether you are hired is a manager) is to meet your coworkers. As it relates to new editors, I don’t mean simply getting the names straight. You have to understand your human assets in a much deeper way.
I might suggest three approaches. First, you’ll want to have formal meetings. Make notes on how the beats are carved up. Ask yourself whether they seem rational. Take note of body language and enthusiasm in these meetings. Who speaks up; who is demure. Next, meet with everyone in the department individually. Learn their outside interests. Ask after their family. Understand the pressures that drive them at work. Finally, read their work. Do your new charges have a handle on their beats? Does the writing sing? Do they use real people as sources or just the mayor and police chief? Do they think outside the box for graphics and presentation?
All of this is just a start, of course. Consider these initial observations sort of a baseline. …
Get to know the community: Simultaneously, the new editor will need to better understand the hyperlocal world around him. Even if you already live in the community, the worm turns when you are the local newspaper’s editor. Your friends begin to pitch you stories in line at the Piggly Wiggly. Acquaintances at church may suddenly choose another pew. And the need for understanding is even more urgent if you have moved to an entirely new community.
I don’t think there is a short cut. It’s not as if you can take a tour of the town, shake a few hands and call it a day. We’re simply never done meeting people and connecting the dots around town, are we? One thing you can’t do is lock yourself in the office and bury yourself in work. You have to go to lunch, play in pick-up basketball games, join a club or two, volunteer for stuff. And be gregarious. You have to like people and appreciate the quirky ones who more rational professionals avoid.
These two top priorities likely seem obvious with a new hire, but I think it’s a good reminder for the rest of us. It’s easy to keep your head down from day to day and forget to ask after your sportswriter’s son or to skip the chamber function. It’s natural and we can’t be everywhere. All I ask is that you remember that assessing staff and community are ongoing and fascinating parts of an editor’s job. Resolve to keep learning.