Front-end editing: The 'secret ingredient' of great audio storytelling

I’m biased, but I think the editorial process is the secret ingredient in NPR’s great storytelling.

In fact, I’m going to go back and emphasize that word: process. That’s because editing is a collaboration between the reporter and the editor that begins even before the story is assigned. Over time, this collaboration makes for better reporters and better editors. I used to think editing was that thing that happened half an hour before I had to track my piece. I was wrong. That’s triage. It’s scary. Avoid it whenever possible.

Throughout the story creation process, two heads are better than one. The editor is the proxy for the audience. In that context, my job is to be pretty dumb about everything. Not because the audience is dumb, but because reporters — especially experienced beat reporters — know so much more than real people know. They are experts and they can get in the weeds. For all the reporters’ knowledge, they often struggle to tell a story we understand. It’s the job of the editor to set them on the right path.

The starting point of the editor-reporter collaboration

Editing begins with a conversation about what the story is (and isn’t).

We’re telling a story about stray dogs? What’s interesting about them? What facts and data do we need? Who will we talk to? I don’t think I care about dogs. What scenes will make this the best radio story it can be?  Hint: sound of barking dogs is not the answer.

When I have these conversations about reporters’ story ideas, here are some of the things I’m thinking:

  • If this is a news story, why is this on our news agenda? And why today? Beware the agenda driven by press releases! In a newsroom, we must always ask, “What are the best stories we need to tell today?”
  • Where is the reporting? If the pitch is, basically, “This is happening,” that’s not enough. And, while the reporter hasn’t yet finished gathering information, does the premise pass the smell test?
  • Does this idea take into account the audience and what they need or want to know? Let’s say the reporter is immersed in a beat, such as… uh… animal care, and justifies a story idea this way: “This issue about stray dogs is really big in the veterinary community.” That’s not good enough; the reporter has lost track of the audience. As the editor, guide them towards a story that could intrigue a listener who has no built-in interest in stray dogs.
  • How can this story be told? Does it have a focus or a specific question driving it? Every story needs a center. Otherwise, it’s just a collection of sound bites. It is the editors’ job to help the reporter refine and focus the idea — and it’s best achieved through conversation. Ask the reporter lots of questions. (Simply inquiring, “What’s the focus?” rarely results in a clear answer. Like I said, it’s a process.)
  • If there are several elements — how do they fit together? It is never too early to talk about story structure. When reporters think structurally on the front end of the process, they can focus on gathering the elements they need rather than throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. (More on structure below.)

Do not short-change this conversation! The editor must think about these things as the story idea is being generated, not after a draft has been written. Questions like these allow you to guide the reporter in the right direction. You should get on the same page about the mission of the story, its potential structure, and the possible challenges of telling it. This collaboration avoids surprises later and makes the reporting and editing process more efficient (no last-minute triage!)… and more enjoyable.

The editor and reporter make a plan

Now that the editor and reporter have done some deep thinking about the story, you make a plan together. Editors and reporters should walk through these questions together:

  • What makes this a good story for our audience?
  • What voices and scenes are we planning? (Don’t forget to think about “active” sound.)
  • What information and context do we need?
  • What role will experts or other outside voices play in our story?
  • How will we address balance issues?

Think of it like a shopping list, or a recipe (with some required items and some optional): worried people, animal lovers, a ride along with the van that picks up strays, a quick check on how other communities deal with the same problem. And yes, maybe sound of those barking strays in the pound. 

And remember, these elements are not set in stone! They can change during the reporting process — as tape is gathered and more is learned.

At this point, it’s good to write a brief description of the story — a sort of contract between reporter and editor. Think, 2-3 lines max. (One form this takes at NPR is the “DACS line,” which is shared with programs and stations and serves as web copy.) It’s a good test of the strength of an idea. If the description is hard to write, that’s a sign the story might not be focused enough. And, during the story process, it helps to return to this description. If you stray from it, you can remind yourself what the mission was or reshape it if the story seems to be changing.

The importance of structure

The best reporters have a story structure in mind before they start gathering audio. That means they have thought about what needs to be laid out at the beginning of the story (and what tape or scenes might achieve that), what the order of the narrative might be (e.g. is the story told chronologically?), who they’re following (a character? an idea?) and maybe even where they need to end. Of course, these elements can always change in the course of the reporting process. But it’s good to start out with a “hypothesis.”

It’s not easy, even for experienced reporters, to figure out structure. Once again, two heads are better than one. Here are some guiding questions an editor can use:

  • What intro do you hear in your head?
  • What would be the best first bite of tape (or scene) in this story?
  • How could this story unfold — what’s the narrative arc?
  • Who/what is the main character?
  • What about the last bite?
  • What final thought do you expect to share with listeners in the last track?

By having a conversation like this before reporting, you increase your odds of getting the material and the tape you need to tell a memorable, clear story.

Think about time frame

It’s good to set a target length ahead of time. One of the editor’s jobs is to give the piece the time it merits. Based on the front-end conversation and continued discussion throughout the reporting process, the editor should have a sense of the story’s scope. You would not report an eight-minute story the way you’d report a four-minute story. (And an eight-minute story on stray dogs had better be darn good!) A sense of timing helps the reporter know how much tape to gather and log, how many scenes might be needed, etc, so he/she can plan accordingly.

And timing is, of course, important in another form as well: How much time does the reporter have to report? It’s a different process if you have one day versus one week or one month.

And now… let the reporter report

Recipe in hand, the reporter goes out. Sometimes things change in the field, or reporters learn something critical that they hadn’t expected. If that happens, the reporter should talk with you. The pound changed its policy. There were no dogs today. The tape I got with the veterinarian is terrible, but this one dog-trainer was amazing…

Again, ask lots of questions: What are you finding? Does your initial focus still make sense? What detail or information is really sticking with you? Update your plan together.

If all these things have happened reasonably well, the actual EDIT should be a piece of cake.

Some final thoughts

I learned most of what I know about being a reporter and most of what I know about being an editor from a few very fine editors at NPR. I’m still learning from reporters every day. This process is time-consuming. Sometimes it feels a bit like dragging a dog into the vet’s office. I can hear the reporter’s toenails slipping along the tile. But over time, it gets easier. Reporters and editors get to know each other. Reporters channel their editors in the field. Editors learn what has to be said and what doesn’t. And, most importantly, we all get a little better at what we do.

Andrea de Leon is a Senior Editor and NPR’s Northeast Bureau Chief.