How Journalists at Two Newspapers View Good Writing and Writing Coaches
Coulson, David C., Gaziano, Cecilie, Journalism Quarterly
Coaches considered most effective in one-on-one work with reporters.
As newspaper circulation lagged behind population growth in the mid-1970s, editors began focusing on good writing as a way to compete with television. Today newspapers across the country are sponsoring writing seminars and hiring writing coaches.
Writing coaches have had an impact1 as editors have begun to recognize the need for them.2 Improving writing quality is "the rightful province" of editors at all levels, but time and organizational pressures restrict their effectiveness.3
Writing coaches fill the void. They help strengthen the skills of young reporters and also assist older hands who know the mechanics of good writing but routinely settle for "bromides and dull sentences."4
Research focusing on the techniques used by writing coaches found one-on-one discussions of writing problems to be most effective. The coaches said other methods-such as seminars, workshops and newsletters-supplemented working individually with reporters.5
Reporters' most serious writing problems, according to coaches, are procrastination, failure to adequately organize and conceptualize their stories and failure to rewrite. Coaches contend writing improvement programs benefit good writers more than average or poor writers and that one person can significantly improve writing.6
Such findings suggest the need to examine the writing coach concept from the perspective of journalists. The goals of this study were to investigate how editors and reporters view writing coaches and to identify factors that affect those views. The research questions that guided the analysis were:
1) What are journalists' attitudes toward good writing and writing coaches?
2) How does the newsroom environment affect journalists' attitudes toward good writing and writing coaches?
3) Are writing coaches perceived differently by journalists with different attitudes and backgrounds?
4) If journalists' attitudes toward writing coaches are favorable, what functions do they prefer coaches to perform?
This study was conceived during the first author's stint a few years ago as a researcher and writing coach for two metropolitan newspapers-which we will fictitiously name the Morning Phoenix and the Evening Eagle.
Questionnaires were distributed to journalists at the two papers during the first week of July 1986. Completed questionnaires were mailed to the investigators by the first week of August. Nine open-ended questions were coded; the co-efficient of inter-rater reliability was .93.7
One hundred-four journalists at the Phoenix were eligible for the survey, and 62 took part, a 60% completion rate. Sixty-three of 85 eligible journalists at the Eagle participated, a 74% completion rate. The total was 125 respondents for an overall completion rate of 66%. Half those responding were from the Phoenix, and half were from the Eagle.
Respondents were all full-time newsroom personnel-reporters, editors, copy editors and columnists-involved in preparation of news. They worked for two large dailies8 under the same ownership in the same city. The papers did not employ internal writing coaches but on occasion brought in outside coaches.
Journalists in this survey are a population, not a sample. Therefore, statistical analysis, which assumes randomly sampled ' data, is not appropriate. Such analysis, however, can be legitimately applied to determine if there are actual differences among subgroups. This was done in this study.9
The majority of those responding were reporters, which had the effect of overrepresenting their perspective. All but eight of the editors represented in the survey (excluding copy editors) held management-level positions.
Length of employment was similar at the Morning Phoenix and the Evening Eagle. About one-third of the respondents were relative newcomers to the newspapers and another third were long-time employees. …