Fix reporting, not just editing, for our newsrooms to thrive

The Ugandan media has had an early Christmas. This isn’t about food, drinks or other merry-making indulgence.

Big-ticket developments spinning in quick succession in the past week churned a dramatic flood of material in a December month traditionally flat or “dry” on news.

An unlikely contest flared.  There were public tiffs in ink and altercations on social media, for instance, on which reporter or media house broke, or did not break, the story of the return from exile in the United Kingdom of Gen. David Sejusa.

It is not the intent of this article to interrogate the veracity of the claims and counter-claims, except to proffer that the fight itself manifests more of what has gone wrong, than right, with our journalism.

Obvious is the surprising competition for credit on a story, not investigative, after the fact of arrival. The consequences of clamouring for self-validation include hoarding of vital news tips within newsrooms by reporters unable or compromised to pull off a story, reluctance or hostility to share contacts and, in some cases, outright bad-mouthing of colleagues to sources.

The Sejusa story has many angles, even juicer ones. For instance, shouldn’t a better journalist be digging up contents of the spy’s London diaries – whom he met, what they discussed, what they planned to do together, whether his return has left hundreds of individuals both within and outside Uganda exposed/vulnerable and the likely ramifications for the future of the country and region. Put another way, what is at stake? Gen. Sejusa returned. So what?

Interviewing the general will not give the right or fuller answers. But it can feel fulfilling to a journalist seeking a name, and not issues, to be the first to interview him.

The purview of this article is seeking to realign the thinking of and relationship between the editor and reporter, reporter and reporter, and editor and editor.

Conversations on the closed Facebook “Uganda Journalists” page of 800-plus members registers spasms of spats between editors and reporters on who does the heavy lifting, who is superior, who knows more or less. It’s vanity, and worse, an embarrassing low if our individual and collective inputs don’t build highly regarded journalism.

I want to argue that the most significant editing happens at sourcing, angling and writing the story before submission for an editor’s scrutiny. Decisions on what questions to ask, whom to ask, and how to frame and position the issues in the body of an article are not just reporting and writing judgement calls. They are also fundamentally editing choices.

Thus the reporter is really the first editor. If a newsroom encourages and practices briefing and debriefing between editor and reporter, their work in harmony, as opposed to rivalry, produces the finest journalistic product for the news consumer.

Editing must be moved from a normative function of compliance with right grammar, punctuation, in-house style, page layout and word count to broader issues of newsroom mentorship and leadership.  It’s about sourcing, resourcing, retooling, talent positioning and retention.

Some of these require simpler approaches. If in a senior position either as a reporter or editor, do you take the hand of a young up-and-coming reporter to go with and introduce to your highly placed sources?

That way, the cub reporter learns journalistic decorum: ways to approach important people, interviewing techniques. With time, the rookie reporter will build own contacts, earn trust and improve output.

If journalism succeeds at the foot-soldier level, everyone above will succeed because the stories turned in will be cleaner and complete even if submitted on the stroke of deadline.

The notion that the finest writers should be made editors, mostly as the only route for better financial or other compensation, needs to be banished. Remuneration in newsrooms must evolve beyond the hierarchical paper-conformist human resource models pegged to position rather than output and competence.

The second thing that requires ditching is the practice by most editors not to write stories because “it is a reporter’s job”. There is an artificial segmentation and entrenched fallacy in Uganda’s newsrooms that an editing job excludes the editor from authoring articles. Conversely, an editor’s name or voice should stamp authority on an article. That earns credibility for the media outlet. They don’t have to do it everyday, but editors can’t fail to do it all the time.

If we, as media practitioners, overcome ego and extend or receive help with honesty, the newsrooms will discover suddenly how they are saturated with talent.

The hallmark of successful editors or reporters, besides telling compelling stories, is taking rookies under their wings and helping them grow into fine journalists.

Tabu Butagira

The author is a Ugandan journalist and a Fulbright (Humphrey) fellowship alumnus. Email: tbutagira@asu.edu

3 thoughts on “Fix reporting, not just editing, for our newsrooms to thrive

  • December 18, 2014 at 12:20 pm
    Permalink

    Tabu,
    As I was reading your article, it reinforced my position that its not lack of knowledge that is killing the newsrooms, its lack of people who will translate the ideas into practice. We can pin this article on notice boards in newsrooms and board rooms but literally no one will disagree with it but no one will follow it. That is the dilemma. In most cases, even rookies have been made editors and they are the ones supposed to guide the seniors on how to source, angle and write the stories. Yeah, its a cocktail of issues. These days its easier to talk about what good journalism is than to do good journalism. I wish you come back soon and we push again.

    Reply
  • December 19, 2014 at 7:46 am
    Permalink

    Chris,

    Thanks for reading the article and finding time to provide a written feedback. I am aware and appreciative of your long leg in the trenches and animated front line journalistic discharges. My humble article intends to excite discussions on the small things we can individually do within newsrooms, without requiring extra resources. Much of it is software — changing attitude/habits, breaking unhelpful bureaucracy and reviving mentorship.

    There are big gun issues, internal and external, which I avoided not to leap into the dicey zone of excuses and in which Reporters leverage. I decided to be pragmatic so we can have the coalition of the willing to broaden small but significant actions such as picking up the hands of cub reporters who aspire and demonstrate interest in journalism.

    Reply
  • December 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm
    Permalink

    I consider myself a ‘young’ journalist and i highly appreciate the issues you have put foreword especially where you say the hallmark of a good editor and reporters besides telling compelling stories is taking rookies under their wing and groom them into fine journalists. I wish this message sinks, i have seen senior journalist who flourish in trampling on upcoming journalist just to prove that they have been in business for long. Thank you and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *