Minard winner speaks about editing business stories
John Brecher is an executive editor for enterprise beat reporting at Bloomberg News. He works with reporters on a wide variety of stories, including long-range enterprise.
Before joining Bloomberg in 2011, he worked at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville; the Miami Herald, where he held a number of reporting and editing positions, including city editor; Newsweek magazine; and the Wall Street Journal.
He was Page One editor of the Journal from 1992 to 2000, during which he and his Page One staff directed coverage that won seven Pulitzer Prizes, an unprecedented streak for the newspaper.
From 1998 to 2010, Brecher and his wife, Dorothy J. Gaiter, created and wrote the Journal’s weekly wine column, “Tastings.” The two also wrote four books about wine and were widely known from regular appearances on Martha Stewart’s television show as well as CBS, CNN and NPR.
On Thursday, Brecher was named this year’s winner the 2014 Lawrence Minard Editor Award, named in memory of Laury Minard, founding editor of Forbes Global and a former final judge for the Gerald Loeb Awards.
This award honors excellence in business, financial and economic journalism editing, and recognizes an editor whose work does not receive a byline or whose face does not appear on-air for the work covered.
Brecher spoke Thursday with Talking Biz News about editing business news stories. What follows is an edited transcript. (Also, on Twitter, look at #BrecherStories for comments from current and former colleagues.)
How did you get into editing?
It was so very long ago. I was editor in chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator at Columbia in 1972-73. I loved being a reporter, but I found that I could have more impact as an editor with more people. Reporting was more fun. My own stuff got to go out. But I got into journalism to make a difference in the world, and as an editor I found I could have more impact.
What was the most difficult part about transitioning from reporting to editing?
When I started after college at the Miami Herald, I started as a reporter but then went into editing. The hardest part was not meeting people and talking to people outside of the office. Reporting is a fun job, and you get to ask them anything you want and get to go to anyplace you want to go. It really is fun being curious and going out and talking to people. Giving that up is always hard.
When did you realize that you had a knack for editing?
To some extent, I’ve never been convinced that I do. I come in every day convinced that I can do better than I did the day before. When I would work with reporters at the Miami Herald when they would tell me they felt their stories were better because I had worked on them, I thought “Wow,” maybe I can keep this job. This was back in the great days of the Miami Herald of Edna Buchanan and Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry. To be able to work with people like that who were so famous and who said you made my story better, that made me think, “Maybe I will keep doing this.”
What’s hard about editing business news stories?
I think often when it comes to business stories, I think that sometimes we make them more complicated than they need to be. Any great business story is like any story. It is a human story and is filled with emotion. It has a beginning, middle and end. But because we are so close to the concepts, sometimes we get so wrapped up in the details of the subject that we forget that it is not about stocks or bonds, it’s about people. Bringing us back to remembering that it’s about people and emotions and dramas is difficult with any kind of journalism, but especially with business journalism, because the explanation of what short selling is isn’t the story. The story is the short sellers.
One of the things that I like about Journal stories is that anyone can read them. How does that happen?
The best journalism of any kind, or the best business journalism, is the kind where on one hand Aunt Martha can read it and make sense of it, but it is so sophisticated that Carl Icahn can read it and also feel like he is learning something. That is the trick. The most sophisticated stories are also the easiest to read. There is no trade off. Sometimes journalists talk about how you have to dumb down stories for people to read them. It’s exactly the opposite. If you can’t explain complex issues in a simple way, you don’t know enough about the issue.
What do you do when a reporter pushes back against your editing suggestions?
I give in in a second (He laughs).
The process that I have always used, and this comes from my years as a reporter, is that it is their story, their byline. They have to be happy with it. What I want to do is try to work with them to suggest something and work it through back and forth to where at the end of the day they are happy with it, and I am happy with it. It’s the back and forth and the genuine respect that you have to have between reporter and editor that makes stories better. My hope is that with each time you pass a story back and forth, it gets better. But it has to be a process. It can’t be on either side. It has to be a collaborative process. And if it is, at the end of the day everybody will be happy with it.
How is editing at Bloomberg different than editing at the Journal?
In an awful lot of the things that I work on, the enterprise stuff, it really isn’t different than the old days at the Journal. I am trying to accomplish the same things — great stories with great characters with eye-opening details that people will want to read from beginning to end. And all of the ways that you do that here are the ways that I did it there.
I think that to me the biggest difference here from the Journal is simply the amount of the global resources here are different. I work with some 1200 reporters and editors around the globe. It is just so much bigger than the Journal, and it means that there are more people with more varied talents than I knew at the Journal.
How many stories a day are you working on, either in full editing mode or in discussions with reporters?
Now that I am in this new job, about six months or so, that Laurie Hays created for me, I am not handling as many stories personally. Once I start working on a story, I like to focus on that story and embrace it, eat it up and swallow it. It’s hard to do that when I am getting a million calls and emails. So on any given day, I am working on one or two stories.
But in terms of the stories that I am touching and talking about, it’s a lot. I spend all day talking to people about stories at all stages of development, from “Hey, I have got this crazy idea,” to “Here is my fully formed story idea.” Literally dozens of those come to me every day. More than anything, I just want to keep track of them to make sure all of the good ideas out there are brought to the best story that they can be.
Do you find yourself doing more line editing with longer pieces, or develop the story concepts beforehand?
More of the latter. I am more on the concept side. One of the things that I tell every reporter every time I talk to them is that any time you have any idea, no matter how ill-formed, I am the guy sitting on the office watching CNN and I don’t have anything to do but answer your phone call or email. Reporters just need someone to talk to. And I do have my feet up on the desk right now.
Bloomberg has a reputation of being an editor’s shop vs. a reporter’s shop. Is that accurate?
The Journal had the same reputation. I remember people saying that the Journal was more editor driven and the Times was more reporter driven. But I’m not sure you can make that distinction. In the long run, all of the ideas come from reporters, and all of the ideas come from reporters. Any great organization is always going to be reporter driven by its very nature.
Have you picked out your wine selection for tonight to celebrate the award?
As a matter of fact, for Christmas, I gave my wife a case of Grower champagne from this site called fatcork.com in Seattle. They have this amazing selection. And we have drunk 11 of them and have one left for a special occasion. This is it.