Tag Archives: editors

The magazine editor’s loss of stature

Last week, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan created quite a stir within the journalism sphere when he published a rant decrying the tyranny of the editor, describing this gatekeeper between the writer and the public as nothing more than an unnecessary figurehead whose sole purpose is to justify his own existence by marking up otherwise-acceptable writing copy.

The grand traditional print media system—still seen today in top-tier magazines and newspapers—in which each writer’s story is monkeyed with by a succession of ever more senior editors is, on the whole, a waste of time and resources. If you believe that having four editors edit a story produces a better story than having one editor edit a story, I submit that you have the small mind of a middle manager, and should be employed not in journalism but in something more appropriate for your numbers-based outlook on life, like carpet sales. Writing is not a field in which quantity produces quality. Writing is more often an endeavor in which the passion and vision of one person produces a piece of work that must then be defended against an onslaught of competing visions of a series of editors who did not actually write or report the story—but who have some great ideas on how it should be changed.

It also seems to be an increasingly vestigial trait of a bygone era when publishers raked in enough cash to justify such a top-heavy editorial system. I thought of this while reading New York’s profile of Time, Inc, particularly the part where the newly-minted CEO questioned whether he even needed an editor-in-chief:

[Time CEO Joe Ripp] had plans to blow up the Luce culture and was getting resistance. “When I came back, I found an organization where almost 8,000 people could say no. And no one seemed to be able to say yes,” Ripp says. Last summer, he invited Martha Nelson, the editor-in-chief, to his Nantucket home and told her he was thinking of doing away with the editor-in-chief title and creating a chief content officer. In this scenario, magazine editors would no longer report to her. Instead, they would work for the titles’ publishers. It would be a tectonic shift for a company that had all but pioneered the concept of the “church-state” separation of journalism and business. “I could not be a part of that,” Nelson told Ripp.

 Back in New York, Ripp invited Pearl­stine to breakfast. Pearlstine, who at the time was working at Bloomberg LP as chief content officer, showed none of Nelson’s reservations. “I thought there were so many layers in the editor-in-chief job,” Pearlstine says. “It actually infantilized the editors, and they were being second-guessed on everything from cover shoots to whether the covers had too much yellow in them. I just thought that the editors would be much stronger if they felt really responsible for the brands. If you don’t like what they’re doing, then you change editors.” A few weeks later, Ripp called Pearlstine with an offer. “It took me about five seconds to say yes,” Pearlstine says.

Why even casual Wikipedia editors are extremely important

Though Wikipedia is widely known as the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit” (for cynics, this is a pejorative description), anyone familiar with the community knows that most of the heavy lifting on the site is done by just a few thousand volunteers. These are the users who create new pages, upload images, and police the edits day to day. If you’re not part of this elite circle that’s obsessed with citations and notability and neutrality, and any number of arcane Wikipedia rules, you’re unlikely to ever do more than add a sentence or perhaps correct some grammar on a Wikipedia article.

But perhaps these casual editors are more important than we might think. Clive Thompson tracked down such a casual user (a woman named Sumeera Younis) who had made a quick correction to Marissa Mayer’s Wikipedia article, and reached this fascinating revelation:

From the perspective of dopes like me, who are prone to believe erroneous info—and who rely on the beneficence of people like Younis to fix mistakes — there’s another lesson in this tale: The value of “microcontributions,” as the author Michael Neilsen calls them in his book Reinventing Discovery. If you want to have diverse input into a big collaborative project, you want to encourage tons of people to pitch in, even if only for a teensy bit of labor, as with Younis. The broader the base of people pitching in, the better. If a billion people each bring a grain of sand, you can build a beach in minutes. In fact, the single most common edit on all Wikipedia pages is a grain of sand—someone changing a single word, phrase, or fact. A microcontribution. Now, most microcontributors probably behave the way Younis did; they get intrigued by the collaborative project, intrigued by Wikipedia, excitedly do a bit of work, then drift away. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s the nature of microcontributions.

Of course, in an ideal world you want to diversify not just the population of microcontributors, but the heavily-involved pool of “active editors”. These are the 31,000 Wikipedia volunteers who do more sustained work on a weekly, daily or even hourly basis. That group, and the even more rarified coterie of volunteer “administrators” (there are only just over 600 now), have even more influence on what happens at Wikipedia. But the thing is, heavy contributors begin life as microcontributors, too. That’s the gateway in: noticing an erroneous fact, fixing it, and feeling awesome about contributing to world knowledge. The more often people can easily walk in the door and quickly do something fun and useful, the more likely it’ll be they hang around.