Media Moves

From reporter to business editor: How to make the adjustment

January 29, 2011


Courtney Sherwood became the business editor of The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash., last year, transitioning from years as a business reporter to being in charge of the section.

Sherwood, a Grinnell College graduate, has been a business reporter for most of her 10 years in journalism, including a previous three-year stint at The Columbian. She left the paper to join the reporting staff of the Portland Business Journal before eturning to The Columbian to edit both the business and features sections.

In addition to editing, she writes a weekly column on business and economic issues, as well as occasional articles on a variety of topics. Her work has been cited by investigative nonprofit ProPublica and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has been featured on TV and radio news programs.
Sherwood is the vice president of the regional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Sherwood talked via e-mail with Talking Biz News about making the transition to editing and her aspirations for the paper’s business coverage. What follows is an edited transcript.

What was the most difficult thing about making the transition from reporter to editor?

After the longtime editor The Columbian’s Business section retired and the Life editor left to embark on a PR career, my boss decided to hired me to head up both departments. That decision freed up funds to add a new reporter to staff, but it also meant that I was leading one team I knew well and another team I knew little about. I support this decision wholeheartedly. Reporters are the folks who keep the rest of us relevant. But becoming an editor was already a big move. I have a number of years experience as a business reporter, no experience in features. Learning the ins and outs of a different newsroom department at the same time as I adjusted to my new editing responsibilities was a challenge.

Adapting to the pace of this job has also been hard. I considered myself above-average at time management as a reporter, but I only had to juggle my own short-term and long-term personal deadlines. The paper’s Life section has a completely different set of deadlines from the Business section. On a typical Monday I’m editing business stories for Tuesday, feature stories for Thursday, and event-related stories that go into our Friday Weekend magazine. I’m also trying to monitor what we need to post to our website. I’m meeting with reporters, photographers and page designers to discuss Sunday cover stories and long-term in-depth projects. And odds are I’ll be interrupted at least two or three times an hour to weigh in on interview tactics, wire selection and other pressing issues. It’s a lot to keep on top of.

What have you enjoyed about being an editor?

I could fill the entire paper with a list of the things I enjoy about this job.

As a reporter, I was always sticking my nose in parts of the newsroom where it didn’t belong. I had opinions about our website, about wire story selection, about reporting priorities, about the best ways to communicate within a department. I love that it’s now my job to think about these strategic choices we make, research what we’re doing, identify opportunities for improvement, and then act on them. I also really enjoy working with reporters, sharing my thoughts as they start digging into their stories, and editing their writing to try to get the best possible work into the paper.

What do you miss about being a reporter?

It’s a editor’s cliche, but I do miss reporting. I’ve managed to find opportunities for quick-hit pieces. I get to help other people make time for in-depth, hard-hitting investigative and analytical work, but I don’t get to do it myself.

I miss getting out into the world and wearing out shoe leather, as well. Instead of meeting people and witnessing events, I’m tethered to my desk most days.

How do you feel like being an editor helps you overall as a business journalist?

It’s given me a broader perspective on the news, and has also made me much more aware of the subtle ways that journalists’ efforts to craft an exciting narrative can distort the complexity of the real world.

On a recent day, two wire stories were released on the same set of economic data. One led with the dour news that the economic recovery is going so slowly that it could take many months for the jobless rate to go down, cited a number of pessimistic economists, and buried the news that private sector hiring is up. The other led with an upbeat assessment of private sector hiring, quoted a few optimists, and ignored and did not discuss the drag of government job losses or the fact that the pace of private sector growth needs to pick up significantly to make a dent in unemployment.

To really give readers a balanced and useful look, we need to get these important caveats high into the first few paragraphs. We all want to tell compelling stories, but we have to balance storytelling with context. It can take vigilance and subtle writing to tell a fair and nuanced story.

How does your staff react to you knowing that you were once one of them?

I was worried that this might be awkward or uncomfortable, but there haven’t been any problems. I left The Columbian to work for another publication for a year before I returned to take this job and that gap may have made it easier for me to return in a different role.

How are your working hours different?

Reporters here are hourly employees generally limited to 40 hours weeks, with overtime only granted in very rare situations. I could probably do my new job in 40 hours, but I’d be phoning it in. So I come in earlier than I ever did as a reporter, often work later, and find myself checking e-mails and voice mails on my days off. I try to find balance by allowing myself to take a long lunch or go home early on slower news days or on days where I get ahead of schedule.

Are there doors opening in the business world for you since you’re the top person for the business news staff?

I guess you could say that I’m becoming a more prominent part of the business community as a result of becoming the business editor. People whose names I knew and whose faces I recognized are now just as aware of me as I am of them.

What changes have you made to the business news coverage since you’ve been editor?

I have not tried to reinvent our business section, but I’ve sought out opportunities to make small improvements. We’ve tightened the requirements for a weekly “business snapshot” Q&A feature that a newsroom assistant produces, with the aim of making it more relevant and less like a free ad. We’re now consistently running product recall notices and business bankruptcy listings in the paper, which we were hit-and-miss on before.

I am most pleased with my ongoing efforts to emphasize depth, importance and context, and to include a broader range of companies in our business pages. To do this, I am pushing reporters to write briefs on news items that we might have written full stories on in the past if a quick hit will get across the basic information that the majority of our readers need.

I’m trying to lighten the daily reporting load so that reporters have the time to bring more thought and analysis to the stories they are writing, and to also free them up to take on large and complex projects. I’ve also offered some hands-on public records training and have encouraged the business news staff to make more document requests. Of course, none of these efforts would succeed without great reporters who are eager to do good work. I create an environment and expectations, but they’re the ones who uncover the news and tell the stories.

Are there any other changes that you’re considering or would like to make?

Our efforts to improve the depth and importance of our coverage are ongoing. In 2011, I’m asking every reporter to aim to complete at least three multi-month, complex reporting projects. We’re building that expectation into performance reviews so that reporters know that a year from now they’ll be measured and assessed based on how well they meet this expectation.

We also need to become more strategic and analytical about our digital efforts. The Columbian’s business team runs blogs, a business and innovation community micro-website, and a daily e-mail newsletter. Most of our assessments of these endeavors have been based on anecdotal comments. I need to better track our Web analytics to measure the real reach of these efforts and to make sure we’re taking advantage of opportunities to increase audience size. I’d also like to work closely with our Web editor and her new social media coordinator to identify other opportunities to improve our digital presence.

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