Listen First: The Key to a Good Edit

Jun 17, 2014

Every edit NPR Western Editor Jason DeRose does begins with him listening to the reporter read the story aloud while he/she plays the actualities on tape. "Each piece has to work as radio," DeRose says. It's important to remember that the listener will not have the reporter's script in front of them. 

During a "first edit," DeRose listens and times the story, but he says that he's also thinking of his emotional response. This leads to the "macro edit", during which he addresses problems with the structure, narrative, flow, fairness and/or balance. When it comes to actualities, DeRose says, "Keep people together, don't bounce around with your sources."

After what should be no more than a 15-minute edit, the reporter is expected to spend the next hour re-working their piece. 

DeRose demonstrated a first edit in front of a live audience members during a session at the PRNDI conference in Washington, DC. Deena Prichep, a freelancer based in Portland, OR called in with her story on raw milk.

After we hung up with Deena, DeRose explained the next step -- the '"second edit." After the reporter reads his/her story aloud again, the "micro issues" are addressed. DeRose says, "The editor and reporter begin sentence-level work focusing on narrative flow, information and clarity."

Fact-checking is also discussed. It's important to "remind reporters they need to verify facts, even the well-seasoned reporters," DeRose points out. He even suggests that each newsroom have their reporters become comfortable with the reference section at their local library. 

This second edit shouldn't last longer than 15 minutes. Now, the reporter has about a half hour to fix their piece.

Finally, the reporter will call DeRose back for a "third edit." And again he listens through the first time. "Changes at this point will be minimal," DeRose says. This final check should take about 5 to 10 minutes of their time. Then, the reporter can send his/her the final script. It's NPR-ready!

DeRose says he's found it's crucial that the reporter has written to the assigned time. If they're way over, DeRose will have a conversation for decision-making. He won't even begin an edit. 

As for tips for station editors, DeRose stressed the importance of allowing the reporter to develop their own voice. One of the challenges of editing is making sure the editor doesn't push his/her voice too much into the piece.