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Stephen Adler: 'How my colleagues made me a better journalist'

Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler has been sharing his thoughts on a lifetime of learning about journalism - and confiding how he met his wife Lisa on a blind date.

Adler (photo) listed his six lessons - “one attribute they have in common: I learned them all from colleagues” - on Relevant@Reuters, an internal blog, under the title “How my colleagues made me a better journalist.” They are:

  • Read the competition

“In my first job, at the Tampa Times, all my friends were journalism nerds whose idea of a good time was lugging every paper in the state to the beach on Sunday mornings and reading and discussing how front-page stories - especially the ledes - were written... It was especially illuminating when someone else’s story was better than ours. That’s how we learned, and it remains a great lesson in how to get better.”

  • Schmooze the assistants

“My first beat was the county courthouse, and I was lucky that my predecessor had moved to a new assignment at the paper and was happy to introduce me to the major players in the courthouse. He was the first person to show me the importance of the executive assistant as door-opener and door-slammer, and sometimes a great source in his or her own right. I went out of my way on that beat, and all that followed, to get to show respect for the assistants, who were excessively harried but hugely knowledgeable.”

  • “No” is just the start of the conversation

“Steven Brill, founder of The American Lawyer, was the best and toughest journalism teacher I ever had, even when he wasn’t yelling. Among his many lessons, which he taught by example, was to take a source’s unequivocal ‘no comment’ in stride and to keep at it until he got the information needed. That usually involved going away, doing more reporting - lots more reporting - and coming back to the source better-armed. Since Steve wouldn’t take no for an answer from us either, we reporters ended up emulating Steve’s reporting tactics so we wouldn’t disappoint him with the lame excuse that everyone we called had stone-walled us. With enough persistence, it usually worked.”

  • Reporting style is as personal as a fingerprint

“Sitting in the open pit of The Wall Street Journal newsroom, I could eavesdrop on dozens of reporters’ phone interviews. I quickly discovered that, among the very best journalists, no two had the same reporting style. One eagerly swapped personal details, another shouted out his pure delight when someone told him something interesting, another bored in forcefully with fact upon fact, yet another was so smooth that she seemed to pick a source’s pocket of delicious details without the source’s even noticing (hint: she works here now). What I realized was that each shared one attribute: authenticity. It turns out that great reporting is highly personal, requiring each reporter to tap his or her own personal strengths and to avoid imitating anyone else. For me, unsurprisingly, the trick to getting people to talk was to be the earnest student: showing that I had done my homework and that I probably wouldn’t miss the significance of their words, or gloss over the nuances. It worked for me, but there’s no reason it should for you. Your style is yours.”

  • Never be intimidated by the person you’re editing

“This, too, was an American Lawyer insight. The first chapter of the lesson came with the first story I edited: one by now-New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. Jill was a great reporter, but this story - like any I would write - needed some work. I realized this but held back and did a very light edit because I knew of Jill’s great reputation. I was rewarded with the words ‘Pretty bad first edit’ scrawled by Brill over the copy. I took it back, hunkered down, and did a much better job for myself, for Jill, and for the reader.

“The second chapter came a couple of years later when I became the editor of Brill’s front-page column. One month, he wrote a very tough piece about then-Time Editor in Chief Henry Grunwald. The piece - headlined “Say It Ain’t So, Henry” - was a bit of a diatribe, and didn’t seem entirely fair, but I didn’t push Brill nearly hard enough to strengthen it. Shortly afterwards, entirely coincidentally, I was set up on a blind date with his accomplished daughter, Lisa, to whom I had a bit of explaining to do. I must have talked my way out of it ok, because we ended up getting (and staying) married - but that’s hardly the point. I should have done a better edit.”

  • Share credit generously, and then some

“Reuters’ extraordinary global collaboration brought this lesson home to me. Yes, bylines and tag-lines proliferate, but that’s a credit to an organization that understands that there’s a team behind every successful story. I’ve marveled at how quickly anyone who gets praised in a hero-gram writes back to name the many others who contributed - and often to claim that someone else actually deserves more of the credit. This is a staff that understands that passing on the credit is better in the long run both for the group and the individual. This has been one of the most inspiring lessons of all.”

Adler joined Thomson Reuters in January 2010 as editorial director of the professional division, which served legal, healthcare, science, tax and accounting professionals. Previously, he had been with The Wall Street Journal for 16 years and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek. In February 2011, he succeeded David Schlesinger as Reuters editor-in-chief. His blog was posted on Tuesday 13 May, just one day before Jill Abramson, his former colleague at American Lawyer, was fired as executive editor of The New York Times. ■