Editing like it is
Phil Piña, deputy editor at the Pioneer Press, shares anecdotes, advice and newsroom experience to tell his editing story.
By Zach Walker
Phil Piña paced through the makeshift newsroom in a Red Lake, Minn. hotel lobby. He had just returned from Red Lake High School where, days before, 16-year-old Jeffery Weise killed seven people and wounded five with two semi-automatic pistols and a Remington 870 shotgun. Piña managed news teams from the Pioneer Press, Grand Forks Herald and Duluth News Tribune to cover the massacre. He sent a Pioneer Press reporter to the funeral home where the parents of one of the victims were picking out a casket. It was pink. Piña told his reporter to change the direction of the story to focus on the parents choosing a pink casket, and it was published on the front page of the Press. A few days later, Piña got a call from a friend at the Star Tribune. “How in the hell did you get that?” the reporter said.
Today, Piña holds the position of Deputy Editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he manages a reporting staff to cover the happenings of the greater St. Paul, Minn. area.
Q: How did you get from high school to the Pioneer Press?
A: I went to a Catholic high school and then to Ohio State, where all my brothers went, to study architecture. Then I took Journalism 101 because of a recommendation from a friend who wanted to be a journalist. I was hooked by day one. I was a shy farm kid given license to go up to anybody and ask them anything and then turn around and tell everybody everything I just learned. My first job was at Lima News in Lima, Ohio, as a reporter with a bunch of real good editors. From there, I went to suburban Philadelphia, upstate New York, Cincinnati, Ohio, and then my friend who worked at the Pioneer Press said I had to come work up here. So, I did.
Q: How did you become an editor?
A: I had been at the Press three years covering domestic terrorists and tornadoes. There was a big story that I was sent up to Grand Forks for. A St. Cloud girl named Dru Sjodin was going to school at the University of North Dakota and was kidnapped and murdered. I covered that and there was a lot of controversy, and I ended up coming back and screaming at my boss about my editor. I went out with my best friends for drinks afterward, and one of them challenged me. “You think you could edit better?” she said. “If you think you can do it, do it.” So, I volunteered. And on my first editing shift, a hunter goes on a shooting spree and kills eight people in Western Wisconsin. The next shift, someone killed two cops in St. Paul. When the 35W bridge collapsed, I was the editor in charge of that.
Q: Who is your greatest motivator?
A: You surround yourself with people who have your interest at heart and know you personally. Sue Kimbel, my supervisor was my mentor for a very long time. She took care in what she did and set an example for how I should do my job.
Q: What is the hardest job you have ever had in journalism?
A: Copy desk at the Cincinnati Enquirer in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was almost fired from that job. I had always been a reporter, so I didn’t know what the task was meant to be. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a copy editor. I struggled with writing headlines that were succinct and quick. I would come in an hour early because I worked slower. That was the toughest job.
Q: Which journalism moment of yours is most memorable?
A: I covered a story of a brother and sister who were killed in a car crash for the Lima News. They were pulling out of their driveway on the way to school, and a semi came and crushed them. I talked to the mom, the school district and the cops. I even talked to the school cafeteria ladies. I remember my editor telling me to not be afraid to break away from traditional news writing. So, instead of the typical lead, I started off with this: “The mother waved goodbye to her two kids and watched as a semi crashed into the car and killed them. She scooped her daughter into her arms as she took her last breath.” That mom called me the next day and chewed me out. But then the lunch ladies called me and thanked me for capturing that story and putting it in the right context. The lesson I learned was to take a chance on your writing. Be a writer as much as a journalist. That takes getting details.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
A: I get in before my 10 a.m. meeting to do a little prep and email a few reporters. The meeting is to talk about what’s doing well online and what we need to follow up on. Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., we plan for the paper. We plan for the Sunday paper every day as much as we do for the daily paper. There’s a lot of juggling. “Do I have someone to cover this? Do I have someone to cover that?” I also have to edit a lot of stories to get them ready for the web. Before my 3 p.m., meeting, I’ll check what other news sources have posted so I can get other ideas. For example, I found a story from the Arizona Republic about overtime at the prisons. I sent it to our prison reporter who has been writing about a staff shortage. Now, we want to do a story about the money impact. Then, it’s editing 1A copy and answering some big questions. And I’m out by 7 p.m.
Q: What is your least favorite and favorite part of being an editor?
A: My least favorite is juggling the staff when I don’t have enough staff. My favorite part is working one-on-one with reporters on their stories. I like to go through line-by-line and coach them. Being able to do that with a reporter makes the job rewarding.
Q: What is the most important quality for an editor to have?
A: Ethics. To be accurate, to be fair. Ethics drives all of that. Are you ethical to your information? To your sources? To the truth? Do you take care of the people you work with? Ethics.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring editors?
A: Be a reporter first. And, when you are a reporter, edit your copy. Keep in mind that you’re working with people’s lives and their livelihoods. Don’t just pay attention to your sources, but with the people you work with.
Q: How do you manage stress as an editor?
A: Yikes. Maybe I don’t do it so well. You have to find down time. I tune out when I get home by reading a book or doing a chore around the house. I do enjoy reading other newspapers here at work, too. Sometimes, it feels like goofing off, but I can use the good ideas. I try to not think about work on the weekends. I have a couple of good friends, and we’ll go camping or catch a Twins game. Make time for people in your life.
Q: What strategies do you use when coaching reporters?
A: It’s the art of the conversation. The goal should always be the best story possible that engages someone. The facts of the story should be the facts, but how you get that out of different reporters is the art of your conversation with them, your relationship with them. For example, you need to know about the reporters’ lives and how you can approach them.
Piña raced out of the conference room after I shut off the recorder. He had a meeting to get to. He had news to report. He had editing to do.