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.