In Praise of an Editor

By: Shane Harris

I'd like to take a moment of personal privilege here and congratulate my friend Patrick Pexton, who yesterday ended his two-year tenure as ombudsman of The Washington Post. Patrick was my editor for five years at National Journal, where I was the intelligence and homeland security correspondent. He was the magazine's deputy editor and oversaw all our national security and foreign affairs coverage, mentoring and editing some of the best journalists in the field, including James Kitfield, Sydney Freedberg, Bruce Stokes, Corine Hegland and others over the years. I can honestly say that every reporter who worked for Patrick did ground-breaking work, and nearly every one of them won an award of some kind from their journalism peers. 

Patrick wrote a farewell memo to the Post staff, picked up here by Jim Romenesko. It has some invaluable advice for journalists, particularly young ones. 

"Strive always for quality. Make the extra phone call, double check the fact, make the sentence clearer, more precise, more artful."  

Having worked for Patrick, I can testify that he practiced his own advice. And he demanded that his reporters do to the same. More and more these days we find examples of reporters not going the extra mile, of not taking the time to find what more there is to know. No one is perfect in this regard, and we all have deadline pressures. But reporters should all take note of Patrick's advice, and remember it, especially in the moments when we think we've got all the bases covered. 

I was 29 when I went to work with Patrick; not exactly a rookie anymore, but still young enough to get a huge benefit from the hands-on attention that seems rarer in newsrooms today. When my mentor at the time, the editor who taught me reporting 101, learned I was taking the job at National Journal her only advice was, "Make sure Patrick is your editor." 

I have no doubt there are more young journalists out there who will get the same chance I did.