Editors, you had one job

I love the ‘You had one Job’ meme. Seeing other people screw up the simplest of tasks makes me feel so much better about myself. But I’m just about old enough to remember when people in publishing actually had just one job… Yes kids, once upon a time in publishing writers wrote, editors edited, sales people sold.

Not any more though, not for a long time. Now everyone needs to be a multidisciplinary, cross-departmental, cross-platform, multitasking ninja.

In this series, we’ll be talking to people working in each of the key publishing roles, asking how their jobs have changed over the years, how they see them changing in the future and if there’s anything they miss about the way things used to be.

First up…

Editors, you had one job

I started in magazines as a writer then became an editor, but my editorial career didn’t last long. I didn’t get fired, I just got renamed: Since the Great Job-Title Disruption of the late 20th Century, I’ve had a succession of content-based employment designations.

It’s never really bothered me what my job title was – I’ve been called a lot worse than ‘Content Manager’. But for editors, revised job titles were about far more than a new entry on the phone list. They marked the beginnings of a fundamental shift in responsibilities. From once owning the relatively straightforward task of getting words and pictures onto a page once a month, editors acquired the constant oversight of an ever-expanding portfolio of formats, platforms, schedules and relationships.

The modern editor, or content director, or whatever the designation du jour is, needs to have a handle on words and pictures, video, audio, social distribution, real-time analytics, and complex commercial content deals.

New job titles are the least of it – no one just edits a magazine anymore.

“We’re all creating brand extensions, managing online operations, hosting events,” says Sally Hampton, Editor-in-Chief of My Weekly and The Scots Magazine at D.C. Thomson. “The way we think has become more flexible and fluid. Consumers expect new and shiny things in all areas of life now, so we must constantly evolve and innovate our publications.”

That’s the ‘exciting bit’ for Julian Linley, recently appointed Editor-in-Chief at Hearst’s Digital Spy:

“Great journalism has always been about great storytelling – what’s changed is the platforms we tell those stories on. The new platforms allow us to tell stories in new, different ways – and they allow us to reach much bigger audiences, all around the world.”

Increased reach is real, but Chris Maillard, now a freelance content specialist but once an editor on magazines like Maxim and Restaurant, worries that the unchecked proliferation of channels isn’t always good for editors:

“You’re tied to the whims of management, who are at the moment mostly acting like a bunch of over-sugared five-year-olds in a sweet shop, but with media channels rather than gummy bears.” 

Who’s in charge here? 

Maillard points to altered power structures within the publishing business, saying the battle between the ‘beancounters’ and the ‘creatives’ was comprehensively won by the money people sometime in the ’90s. 

Where editors used to be the captain of the ship, “now they’re fussing around doing the catering. No matter how knowledgeable, well-connected and smart you may be, any fluffy-faced MBA in a Ted Baker suit can boss you about and get away with it.”

Alison Gow, Innovation Editor at Trinity Mirror, also sees shifts in the publishing hierarchy, but she’s encouraged by the changes on the shop floor:

“These days there are people – journalists and others – with senior editorial roles doing impactful, vital jobs in our newsrooms that didn’t exist even three years ago.”

She explains that where the chief sub would have been an imposing leadership figure in the newsroom, it’s now people like the social media editor, and the trends analyst, who are really shaping news content.

These are positive changes for Gow, symptomatic of a drive for increased audience engagement. “Seeing content from an end user point of view helps you build better, more compelling stories.”

Recognising this heightened attention to audience engagement in editorial responsibilities, Linley enthusiastically agrees it’s a good thing:

“A massive advantage to working digitally is that you have instant access to readers and what they think – if we see a story isn’t really working, we can adapt and tailor our content to form a piece that resonates best.”

Nostalgia

Linley first started working as a journalist in the mid 90s, pre-email, pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-mobile phones. “Pretty much EVERYTHING has changed about how we discover stories, research them, write them, distribute them.”

It’s easy to be nostalgic for those more analogue days, when the pace was a little slower and there was more time to chew over mad, creative ideas down the pub. But, on balance, Linley thinks the digital world is better: you can find, research and respond to stories so much faster:

“We have to think faster and react faster – but to be honest, I’ve always found that your first instinct is the right one, so if anything, digital changes have just cut out all of the faffing.”

D.C Thomson’s Hampton agrees about the faffing. “We don’t miss those days when you had to go to the library to double check the length and order of Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages,” she says.

Maillard started his publishing career using Graham Greene’s old typewriter in a proper wood-panelled newspaper office, with the printing presses thundering away downstairs and the smell of hot metal.

“It was horrible,” he says.

“Carbon paper? Tipp-Ex? Subs with pencils? Really? I was delighted when desktop publishing arrived, very pleased when mobiles meant no more standing in stinky phone boxes and dead chuffed when email made life easier for those of us who hate transcribing (that’s everybody).”  

On the whole, he says technological progress has been a good thing. “I wouldn’t mind Graham’s typewriter back, though. I bet that’d fetch a bit on eBay.”

Good times?

But what about the ‘Good Old Days’? Gow says she first started hearing about the Golden Days of Journalism 20-odd years ago when she started her apprenticeship:

“Weirdly, no matter where I’ve worked I’ve managed to just miss out on the amazing days of plenty, when the newsroom rolled into a pub at noon every day and came back at 6pm with a belting splash, every journalist was outstanding, every sub was an exacting and fearsome last barrier between any reporter and public ridicule, expenses forms were elaborate works of fiction and the money rolled in.”

More importantly, Gow says past ways of working, real or imagined, are irrelevant to the current situation. As the only show in town for so many years, publishers were largely unaccountable to their audiences. “Now we’re not,” she says,” and that has been a hard period of adjustment for many people in the industry.”

Constant change

In a media landscape where change is the only constant, editors’ responsibilities will continue to evolve. The stereotype of the Luddite, change-resistant editor is alive and well, but Hampton says editorial staff will accept the need for change if management makes the effort to understand colleague’s fears and addresses them head on. 

In 2013, The Scots magazine, first published in 1739, underwent a radical relaunch that saw it change size and develop a deeper digital presence. “We all knew that the physical format of The Scots Magazine was holding it back,” Hampton explained. 

That didn’t mean there was real trepidation around the relaunch: What if they made a radical change to this 275-year-old, well-loved Scottish institution and killed it off?

Hampton says the only way to manage that was to let the team know what was happening:

“Be open and honest while contrasting the risks of inaction versus the risks of action. Celebrate success but don’t be afraid to have a discussion about setbacks, too.”

That scheduling thing

For the future, Hampton sees the need for editors to become more and more nimble:

“That ’scheduling’ thing of buying magazines on a set day once a week or once a month is going the same way as watching a TV programme at a set time or reading the newspaper over breakfast. We need to understand how our consumers’ routines break and re-form – and flex our content delivery to suit.”

The notion of the ‘Always On’ editor looms large where print deadlines are no longer a convenient excuse to hold a story. “Evenings, weekends, Christmas… the news never stops and your consumers rightly demand that you are on top of the agenda at all times,” says Digital Spy’s Linley.

While no one misses the beeping of a fax machine that’s out of paper, Hampton says that sometimes she and her staff hanker for a time when we weren’t drowning under a sea of email.

Maillard shares their pain:

“There’s far more to do. The news cycle is now a 24-hour, 7-day, 52-week blur of blah. The internet is basically a bottomless waste bin; there’s no limit to how much you can pour into it.”

The downside for Maillard is there’s no time to stop and think. But, he says, a great editor like a great footballer, has the ability to create space to think.

“Maybe that’s at an even greater premium nowadays as the demands are far more constant than a once-a-month/fortnight/week deadline, but it’s always been the mark of a good editor rather than somebody just about keeping up with events.”

For Trinity Mirror’s Gow that thinking has to be focused on audience engagement:

“I think the biggest step change for executives is to look past the story idea and ask where the audience is and how we connect with them. Seeing content from an end user point of view helps you build better, more compelling stories.”

Linley agrees, “a good editor thinks like the reader”.

And Hampton believes, “the very best editors view every decision through the prism of what’s important to their reader”.

Like the best editors, Maillard narrows the quintessential editorial skill to one word: Perspective.

“The ability to step back a little and think through an idea or a problem, then come up with a way to make it perfect for their readership, commercially useful for their publication, or prestige-enhancing for their brand. Or all three, if you’re really good.”

 All three? Maybe editors never really just had one job.

By |2016-02-25T00:01:00+00:00February 25th, 2016|Analysis|Comments Off on Editors, you had one job

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