Editor for News & Observer encourages writing with authority

By Marlena Chertock

May 4, 2011

Steve Riley is an editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. He manages a team of investigative journalists. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

Steve Riley, an editor for the News & Observer in Raleigh, pushes reporters to write with authority. Riley manages a team of three investigative journalists and spoke to communications students at Elon University on May 4.

“Be very assertive, very confident in what you present,” said Riley, who has been in the newspaper business for 31 years. “A fair picture. But not necessarily a balanced picture.”

A balanced story does not necessarily help readers form their own opinion about the issues, he said.

Writing with authority can be done without injecting opinion. It can be done through facts.

“Writing with authority means you’re going to lead them somewhere,” he said. “Because you’ve spent the time, you’ve done the work, you’ve exhausted everything you know to do to be able to tell the reader what the truth is.”

Enterprise reporting, writing with authority

Enterprise reports are often long, in-depth stories on corruption, scandals, money and other subjects. They can take anywhere from eight weeks, three months to one year to complete. Some enterprise stories can take several months to report and publish, and then there are often follow-up stories.

“A lot of the multi-part series take months, not weeks,” Riley said. “Some can be done in four days, if there’s some reason to put it in the paper in a hurry. It just depends.”

When reporters are asking many questions to different people, it’s important for them to try to talk to the people who they would normally wait for earlier in the investigation.

“If they’ve got a way to present things differently, then you want to hear that early,” he said. “You do not want to surprise them when they read the paper. You can diffuse a lot of the readers’ anger this way.”

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Editing is more than correcting errors

The editing process is not just sitting down and playing around with comma splices, sentences and structure, according to Riley.

“It’s guiding the development of stories,” he said. “Reporters will work as long as you let them. One of the management tools is letting them know several deadlines. Reporting can go on forever unless you put some time-frame on it.”

Editors are involved from the very beginning. Some projects are Riley’s idea and some are not.

“Editors help make sure reporters don’t go down blind allies and waste a lot of time,” he said. “And we make sure the stories we choose have a lot of impact.”

Journalism with impact

Meaningful journalism is what the News & Observer investigative staff is aiming for, Riley said.

“We don’t want to waste our time on stories that will just sit there and not cause anything to change,” he said.

Blogger and citizen journalists can’t provide that, he said. They can offer their opinions, sensationalize an event or offer a tip, but they can’t get to the bottom of issues.

Enterprise and investigative reporting is important for the country and world, Riley said.

“Good journalism is indispensable to the good of the country,” he said. “I shudder at the thought of our country and local governments without the kind of news work that keeps citizens abreast of information from their state and country.”

View examples of the News & Observer’s investigations here and here.


Steve Riley on writing with authority

Steve Riley on bloggers