Am I necessary?
I am an editor, and the main thing I do every day is change (a little or a lot) what other people have written. That’s not all I do, but that’s the part that other people seem to focus on, such as in discussion of changes like the ones under way in Gannett to reduce the ranks of editors.
Writing for Gawker, Hamilton Nolan seems to make the case that editors do nothing but hurt the writing they touch and make it worse. I’ve heard that before, indirectly. A reporter of mine about 15 years ago was working at the General Assembly in Raleigh, talking casually with other reporters, and the subject of editors came up. One said that he had never written a story that was improved by an editor. Others agreed. My reporter said she didn’t agree, and when talking to me she actually sounded stunned, and saddened, that the sentiment was so widespread.
I wasn’t that surprised.
It’s true that if you are a really good writer, the odds that your editor will improve your writing by much are small.
But it’s also true that if you think you are a really good writer whose work is so good it doesn’t need editing at all, you’re probably wrong. You might be right, but the odds are against it, partly because you probably are not as good as you think and partly because even good writers have blind spots and weaknesses – and if they are lucky, they are aware of that and seek someone else’s perspective.
As an editor, working with a good writer is a pleasure not because there is nothing to do at the end of the day but because from morning to evening you get to focus on what can elevate that person’s work. Maybe that’s in the writing or an angle of the reporting, but maybe it’s in the headline, the presentation, the art, a sidebar that can be drawn from a small but interesting element in the story.
One of the best reporters I ever worked with knew he needed an editor for one simple reason: He couldn’t stop himself. He would write 40 inches of copy because he felt the need to write everything he gathered, but he knew the average reader would never plow through it. Some editors couldn’t trim his stories well. He thought I did and that I made them better. He also liked to have a trusted ear to bounce ideas off of, someone who could challenge them or add to them.
Some of the most important work an editor does is editing the idea for a story, which happens in talking with a reporter about the story before or during the reporting process. I would hope this is not the “looking over their shoulder” that Gannett feels its papers no longer need, but it sure sounds like the part that “listening” to readers and data will replace.
In truth, a good editor – like a good reporter – is always listening to readers, whether or not corporate says to, with whatever tools are available. The question isn’t whether listening is good, it’s what do you mean by “listening.” If it’s, “Stories about neglected dogs get a lot of traffic and comments,” and the intention at corporate is to then produce a lot more stories about neglected dogs, then that isn’t a helpful definition of listening. If the intention instead would be to look seriously not only at neglect but at the issues surrounding, contributing to and spinning off of it, that could be a good thing.
And maybe that will be what Gannett’s “content editors” do — Kate Marymont, Gannett’s VP of news, told CJR’s Ryan Chittum: “We certainly are not looking for clickbait. We’re not trying to drive empty clicks. We’re trying to build loyal returning customers by giving content we know they want by following over period of time.” — which would make the elimination of assignment editors just another bit of corporate double-talk to justify cutting the editing ranks.
But whatever you call it, can fewer editors improve more reporters’ storytelling skills across platforms? It doesn’t seem likely.
Coaching is actually more time-consuming than simple editing. That’s why any discussion of coaching usually starts at the assigning stage. If you are going to coach-up someone’s storytelling skills, that person has to enter the reporting process with a sense of what exactly he or she is after; otherwise the coach can only point out after the fact what would have been nice to have so that next time the reporter gets it.
No, by sharply cutting editors to maintain reporting strength the calculation clearly is that content by itself is the main value and that the value-added benefit of most editing is, considering continuing decreases in advertising revenue, expendable; that you have to maintain your content level, but you have to cut expenses, so you keep the content-creators and cut those who enhance it. Then you hope that whatever errors and omissions result don’t undercut too seriously the perceived value of your product.
This line of thinking would be equivalent to a furniture company keeping the factory workers who produce the furniture but no longer selling it stained and finished; it’s still sturdy furniture, just as well made, but more raw. (The thinking is incorrect, because editors do some of the furniture making, not just the polishing, but that would be the equivalent.)
And to some extent, especially in larger markets, that kind of thinking may work out for a while.
But good writers (or content creators) do not just appear in a publication’s newsroom like driftwood carried in on the tide. If they did, no one would need editors at all. Someone hires them. And while some very good writers may truly believe their talent is self-evident to all, that would tell me they haven’t spent enough time around people who don’t know good writing when they see it.
Thinning the ranks of editors necessarily increases the dependence on the talent-evaluation skills of whoever is left.
All the way around, it’s a thinner margin for error.
Ideally, that higher dependence on more talented individuals – each reporter standing more on his or her own, each of the remaining editors or coaches responsible for that much more – should translate into higher pay in order to retain and reward those who are capable of maintaining quality in a more high-stakes environment.
But it won’t. Don’t get me started on that.
UPDATE 8/25/14: From a related post by Ken Doctor:
“Sure, we can add in coaching — mentoring has always been a key ingredient in the best newsroom cultures. Coaching and editing, though, don’t equate, especially in newsrooms increasingly populated by underpaid, relatively inexperienced younger journalists. Even as we recognize the value of the more amorphous community intelligence, and attempt to add it to the news report, greatly diminishing editorial intelligence is a recipe for disaster — and business failure.