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Podcast: Susan White on Editing and Working at ProPublica

ProPublica senior editor Susan White (Lars Klove)

Senior editor Susan White has worked on some of ProPublica’s most significant and in-depth stories over the past three years, ranging from our series on the environmental impact of natural gas drilling to the investigation into a New Orleans hospital that won ProPublica its first Pulitzer Prize.

But before she returns to sunny California, we had Susan join us on the ProPublica podcast to gain insight into her editing process.

It seems that her secret to being a successful editor is quite simple: let the reporters do what they’re meant to do – write and report.

“I rarely tell reporters to do anything. I don't think that's the role of the editor. I guide, I steer, and I encourage and I help shape, but I don't give reporters marching orders,” she says.

Part of that, Susan humbly admits, is because, “Editors sit at their desks. Being an editor is not the most adventurous thing. We live vicariously through our reporters. Reporters are out in the field and they have a sense, and a story is sort of an organic thing. Each story is different. It has its own personality. Each story spawns other stories.”

Read the full transcript below and subscribe to all of ProPublica’s podcasts on iTunes.


Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb, and welcome to the ProPublica podcast. It's been widely noted that when ProPublica was first announced, we received more than 1,000 resumes from people who wanted to work here. One of those who made the cut was senior editor Susan White.

During her time here, Susan's overseen several investigations that had real world impact, such as our series on natural gas drilling, and our work reporting on problems with tainted Chinese drywall. She was also part of the editing team that helped us bring home our first Pulitzer Prize for "The Deadly Choices at Memorial."

Sadly, Susan is leaving us to move back to the West Coast and sunny San Diego, but before she left, we invited her on to talk about being an editor, and her work experience here. Susan has had a long and varied career in the news business, including stints as a reporter and television critic at the Lexington Herald Leader, and as the enterprise editor at the San Diego Union Tribune. But before we get to Susan, we wanted to ask ProPublica's managing editor, Steve Engelberg, what made you hire Susan?

Stephen Engelberg: Susan wrote a cover letter that was so passionate and so convincing and so obviously full of energy that I turned to Paul Steiger and said, "I have to meet this woman." And so we flew her in for an interview and she turned out to be every bit as intelligent and energetic and fascinated by investigative reporting as her letter suggested. We delayed a few days, called her up, and offered her the job. She had actually taken another job on the other end of the country, in a much more rural area, and I said, "Well, you have a choice. You can come to New York City, or you can live in a much different kind of climate." She thought it over for the evening and decided to come with us, and we were very grateful that she did.

Mike: So a cover letter actually landed her the job?

Stephen: You bet it did, and she wasn't the only one. You know, we're in a writing business, Mike, and if you can really write in such a way as to catch people's eye, then that's a very good sign.

Mike: And with that special introduction, welcome to the podcast, Susan.

Susan White: Thank you, it's nice to be here, Mike.

Mike: All right, well, let's start in a general way. What do you do on a day to day basis?

Susan: Every day is different. Usually I start talking to reporters even before I take off my coat, if it's in the winter, or before I get to my office. Because things have happened overnight, and so I'll stop by desks and say, "How's it going? Has anything happened today?" And then I go into my office and read the jillion emails I have and look at any stories that I have waiting to be edited.

Mike: From conversations that we've had, I get a sense that you always try to put yourself in the reader's position.

Susan: Yes. I try to ask the most basic questions. My reporters are really good because they don't say, oh, you know, they don't make faces at me. But I will ask the very most basic questions.

Mike: Is that part of your editing process? Do you think it makes you a better editor?

Susan: It works both ways, because during, as they're reporting, it really helps, because I'm asking them essentially the questions that any smart reader would ask. And they can then incorporate the answers into their reporting. In the editing process, I really do that. I mean we discuss that often. "Will the reader understand this?" Because by the time we're in the editing process, I know a lot about the story, too. So by that time, we both need to sit and think each sentence through.

Mike: Why don't we walk through an investigation? How does an idea originate and what do you tell the reporter to do, once you hear that idea?

Susan: I rarely tell reporters to do anything. I don't think that's the role of the editor. I guide, I steer, and I encourage and I help shape, but I don't give reporters marching orders.

Mike: Is that because you think they're wise enough to know the first steps?

Susan: Right, well... The best ideas come from reporters, not editors. I don't think since I've been at ProPublica I have assigned anyone a story. I rarely have throughout my editing career. Usually a reporter comes to me and we have this idea. We vet it at the top here, at ProPublica, because if we're going to work on something for a long time, we want to make sure that it's going to work out.

Mike: Impact.

Susan: Right. And it will have the impact. And not everything is a sure thing. Sometimes you'll go down a road and the story won't be what you thought it was. But once we're in the go mode, the reporter who had the idea of course has all these ideas about how they're going to report. And so we talk about that, and as they start doing the reporting, we start this feedback.

Mike: Conversation.

Susan: Conversations, all the time.

Mike: And are you asking them more questions about what they're finding, are you...?

Susan: Yes. And I'm also saying, "Hey, have you thought about this?" And, "What about this?" I may suggest talking to other reporters that I know have some knowledge in that area. I will push them into other areas that they may not have thought of.

Mike: When do you want them to start writing?

Susan: Not until they've asked all the basic questions.

Mike: But does that help shape, give it an outline?

Susan: Well, I think it's hard to write. I've known reporters in the past who tried to write every time they did an interview. And what you end up with, you're just tied up in knots. It's one thing to take notes, take really good notes after you do an interview, and focus your thoughts. That's one thing. But you don't want to start trying to write your story until you really understand the story, because when you go into a story, it may not turn out to be what you thought.

Mike: Why do you have the reporters writing so much?

Susan: Well they're not writing so much. I will send back thoughts. Then they will send back to me. It'll make me think of different things, they'll think of different things. And also, I'm not the kind of editor who says, "This is the way I think you ought to write it." More often I'll say, "Now is this really the right way to approach this? Can you add more here?" In the process, the report becomes deeper.

Mike: OK. And then when you get the final draft, or what you think could be the final draft, what's next?

Susan: Well, in an ideal situation we read it aloud.

Mike: Really?

Susan: Yeah. It's really the best. It's...

Mike: It gives you the flow of the story?

Susan: It gives you the flow, and also, it helps you cut things that aren't necessary, and also, it helps you spot errors. We don't always have that luxury, but when we do, we sure do it. Sebastian Rotella did the two part story on Mumbai. We were on a terrible deadline for that story. It ran in the Washington Post, and each day was about 4,000 words. That was two open pages in the Washington Post, each day. And Sebastian and I read both of those aloud. He was in D.C. and I was sitting in my dining room in Brooklyn. We were on deadline, and it helped so much. It helps him, because he's extremely precise, which is one reason I like working with him. He's so careful of every detail. And when you hear it, it's different than seeing it. I can't stress that enough.

Mike: That's really interesting. Anything else, as far as the investigative process goes?

Susan: Sometimes, too, I'll have someone else read the story, who knows nothing. That's always a good thing.

Mike: Sometimes that's me!

Susan: Sometimes that's you, or anyone who walks into my office I'll say, "Hey, let me read this to you."

Mike: Come here, guinea pig.

Susan: No, and it works. It works because by this time, I know too much.

Mike: OK. Now you said ideas don't come from you? Where do they come from?

Susan: Editors sit at their desks. Being an editor is not the most adventurous thing. We live vicariously through our reporters. Reporters are out in the field and they have a sense, and a story is sort of an organic thing. Each story is different. It has its own personality. Each story spawns other stories. Even in the maybe in the same topic area, or not.

Mike: Yeah. That's happened a lot with Abrahm, I think.

Susan: Yes. And a lot with Abrahm. And the other thing, I said I don't suggest stories, but what I do do is, I may suggest a story that the reporters has discussed with me and maybe didn't recognize it as a story. Because in some cases, something they told me sticks with me, and that becomes a story.

Mike: One of the reporters you work with came to you when you first started working here, and he said, "I came here to work with Steve Engelberg."

Susan: That was Abrahm. We've laughed about that, wow... OK, this is a great example. Abrahm and I did not know each other. This was when ProPublica was a roomful of empty desks, mostly. I was the first editor here, and Abrahm was here and I had met him, that's all. Steve came over to me and said, "I have to go somewhere." He was flying somewhere and he said, "Can you edit this story?" And I swear he said it was about oil drilling. I didn't know Steve very well, I didn't know Abrahm at all, and I said, "Sure." And it was a newspaper story and it was going to the Albany Times Union, and we had somewhat of a deadline.

So then Abrahm and I are working together. Abrahm had primarily written for magazines. It is a totally different world. He had written this story, and we went back and forth and back and forth to get it right for the Albany Times Union, which is definitely not a magazine. It has one sentence paragraphs, it's a very good paper, but it's not a magazine.

So Abrahm and I worked until it was about 10:00p.m. when we finally left. We took a cab home, we both live in Brooklyn, and I could feel him radiating. I think he hated the process, because I was converting his beautiful prose into newspaper style.

So the next day but I thought at the time, I thought, "This guy is so smart, and it would be really exciting to work together." So the next morning we talked and I said, "Oh, Abrahm," I said, "How do you think it went?" And he said, "Well, you know, it was fine." He's extremely professional and extremely dispassionate about these things, and I admire that in him so much. He said, "I really came here to work with Steve Engelberg."

Mike: See, I would've been insulted.

Susan: I wasn't insulted at all, because he didn't do it it wasn't like, "I don't like you." I came here to work with Steve Engelberg too, so I was fine. But I went home to my husband that night and I said, "Boy, I really want to work with this guy." Well, since then, Abrahm and I work great together.

Mike: Why, what happened?

Susan: Well, it wasn't anything that happened. We just started working together. I began to understand him and he began to trust me, I think. The great thing is I've learned a lot from him, and I think he's learned from me. It's the perfect relationship that you don't have very often. If he needs a sentence filled in, I can write it in Abrahm's language if I need a sentence for him.

Mike: What happens when it is more adversarial, or the reporter isn't meeting the standards you'd like them to? Then what would you do?

Susan: We just keep going back and forth and back and forth. I've never had a problem... Even at the Union Tribune I was at the San Diego Union Tribune before. I think people there knew that I was pretty intense. The people who wanted to work for me, I mean they were intense too. And so they came to it like that, expecting to do a lot of drafts, having a lot of rewriting. The people who didn't want to do that didn't want to work with me, and they never signed in to my area. I can say I always had there were a lot of people who wanted to work with me, but then I know there were others who never would've done it.

Mike: OK. Now, you worked as a reporter and as an editor. Is one more appealing than the other?

Susan: Well, you know Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, announced recently he's stepping down and he is going to be writing again. I think some people who don't understand this world think that's just a cop out. Why would anyone who's been editor of the New York Times want to write again? I understand that fully. I never cared about being an editor. I only wanted to be a writer, all of my career. I became an editor, it was totally accidental. I think writing is the hardest thing, and that's why I admire Abrahm and Joaquin and Sebastian Rotella, all of my reporters. Because I know how hard it is to do what they do. It is the hardest thing.

Mike: Yeah. So it probably makes you a better editor, having been on the other side?

Susan: I think it makes me a better editor, and I understand why Bill Keller wants to be a writer again. There's always that part of you that wants to do that.

Mike: How is being an editor here at ProPublica different than at a newspaper?

Susan: We have time, and that's really a gift. Not only do we have the time to edit things, but we stick to things, stick with things. At a newspaper, the attention span, not just of the public, but of the newsroom itself, wanes very quickly. You might be into a subject, and the subject has not been done to death. You have not explored all the possibilities, but the institution is ready to move on to the next thing. That's just the nature of newspapers. Here, I really when I see something that's not quite right, or that people need to understand better, it bothers me personally to leave it too early. And we can stick with it.

Mike: So you don't think the Union Trib or another newspaper would've stuck with the fracking stories or the drywall stories? Because we've done innumerable...

Susan: No. You couldn't. I don't think many newspapers can afford to do that. Maybe the New York Times. I don't know of other newspapers that can do that. It's just not possible. It doesn't mean... I think there are a tremendous number of very talented reporters and editors at newspapers. The difference is that they don't have the opportunity to do this, just because the nature of the beast is so different.

Mike: What advice do you have for reports and editors?

Susan: I think for editors, I think that unless you love the craft and you really respect the reporters, I don't think you should be an editor. I think the most important thing is that you care deeply about the reports and want them to do their best, and that you want your path in their work to be invisible. You don't want their stories to be your stories. You want to be their supporter, their champion. The person who nudges them when they need to be nudged.

Mike: Susan, before you go, do you have any closing thoughts about ProPublica and the work we do?

Susan: I do. Not just about the work we do, but the work that any newspaper, any reporter out there who is trying to do in this era of cutbacks. I think that investigative journalism is hugely important to our democracy. There is no way that people can understand the inner working of government without this kind of reporting. There is no way. Reporters at newspapers can do this on a smaller scale, and I don't think they should be discouraged. I think that, even in this time when their bosses may not appreciate what they do, I think the thing to focus on is their readers, because readers do care.

Mike: Well, Susan, thank you so, so much. We're really going to miss you here. You were one of the first people. You helped get ProPublica off the ground, and we're very sad to see you go, but wish you the best in everything.

Susan: Thank you.

Mike: This is the part where I normally say, "You can read Susan's work at blank URL." Instead, spend some time reading our fracking, Pakistan, Gulf oil spill, or drywall coverage, and you'll get a feel for the velvet touch of senior editor Susan White.

Now on to our "Officials Say the Darndest Things" Tumblr quote of the week: "Since your announcement to seek the presidency, you have consistently attacked the honorable profession of lobbying. Lobbyists play an important role in the legislative process, serving as educators to elected officials."

Who said it? Howard Marlowe, the president of the American League of Lobbyists, in a letter to President Obama, opposing a proposal that would require federal contractors to disclose political contributions.

OK, that's it for this show. Thanks to Minhee Cho for producing it, and thanks to you for listening. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you soon.

Transcription by CastingWords

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