The demise of editors is killing content

This piece explains why editors are such critical components in the workflow of any serialised publication. and what happens when they’re not present.
Essay

This piece explains how and why editors are such critical components in the workflow of any serialised publication. It explores what’s going to happen when they’re not able to do the necessarily tough, hands-on work that is properly within their scope.

This week I saw an absolutely appalling article from an industry body. (It would be unfair to name it.) It was clear that the writer’s skills were substandard. It was clear that the editor wasn’t a hands-on editor, or didn’t have capacity to be hands-on. And it made me realise that most “editors” now are titles instead of roles, and don’t function as arbiters of quality.

After flagging it with the editor, I came to realise that this is also one impact of 2020’s COVID closures. The elimination of staff in a bid to save money is going to have a dramatic, rolling impact on what publications are capable of producing. Without the appropriate resources to support production, awful writing is going to become more common.

Those with the title of ‘editor’ in a major newspaper sense have primarily shaped the direction of their publications (and their journalism). An outstanding example in Australia is Graham Perkin, whose work enabled The Age to pioneer social justice journalism, and who shaped the ways in which public issues are covered in Australia even to this day.

Yet the chief editors like Perkin are not the subeditors whose work is chiefly about ensuring clarity, accuracy, and readability.

It’s the subeditor role with which I am concerned here.

In the digital age, an era in which publishing has taken on the kind of timeline that would have given our grandparents heart-attacks to look at, the biggest failing that we see is in the subeditors’ role. An intense, fast-paced, 24/7 cycle is often unconducive to the maintenance of such a role, and not just because of the time and place it takes in a workflow: Maintaining a subeditor requires an additional salary.

Let’s be clear about something:

When I say ‘publication’, I don’t mean ‘major media’. I mean industry newsletters, journals of every kind, and even those niche, serial publications that are run predominantly by email. In some cases, it’s one person at the helm doing the work of ten men. But in many, it’s one person herding cats in order to hit deadlines. These people simply don’t have the skills or time required to create excellent material, and instead rely on their writers to do that for them.

This pushes the onus for quality back onto the writers. This is necessary, to some extent, because any writer worth having on your team must meet minimum standards.

Except for two things:

  1. All writers require good editors to ensure the quality of their output.
  2. Minimum standards is not equal to high quality output in any sense.

It doesn’t matter whether a writer has been publishing novels for the past forty years, is a columnist for a major publication, is an essayist in his or her own time, or is a freelancer cobbling works together for various clients. Every one of them benefits from working with a skilled editor. (By skilled, I mean: One who knows the industry, audience, or niche; who is au fait with the fundamentals of construction, readability, and engagement; who has demonstrated capability in supporting and growing writers).

This is the entire reason why my magazine’s writers produced high quality work. It wasn’t just that they were edited—and every single one of them was, regardless of what they produced. It was that this work involved the kind of mentorship and development that they would not otherwise receive.

A great editor isn’t just someone who fixes the work and keeps the workflow moving. It’s someone who knows how to develop writers, period.

Since the scope of digital publications has increased to cover a vast range of content types, creators’ roles have been expanded to such an extent that it is almost impossible for someone to forge mastery in a field. The expansion has been driven almost entirely by a reductionist view of business operations and financials.

And it’s why, I would argue, editors’ roles are no longer what they were.

Rather than prioritising quality, accuracy, and readability, publications prioritise speed.

In truth, the editorial process gets in the way of a 24/7 publishing platform. It requires you to pay someone to fix someone else’s work. So if you are focused on cost reduction, you will naturally believe this to be a choke-point in your workflow. Instead of getting someone to fix someone else’s work, couldn’t you just ask people to do better work?

Well, you could. But doing so demonstrates a failure to understand the broader perspective of that role.

By removing the editorial component, you are removing the key role that assures a certain standard of production. Writers, even the most fantastic writers, cannot be held accountable for upholding a standard across a publication. That, truly, is an editorial role. It’s one that must be upheld if your publication is going to claim any kind of a quality standard.

Now, you might argue that quality doesn’t matter. Perhaps, even, that people don’t read enough or know enough to care.

If you think this way, allow me to point out something very basic:

When you have sentence construction that is so poor that a gender referent is extremely unclear (and that pushes the referent onto someone who is clearly a different sex), then you have a problem. When you have a writer who can’t write a paragraph well enough that a reader can scan it, understand it, and move on, then you have a problem. Any quality issue causes readers to stumble. When they stumble, they move on. And when they move on, you lose readership. I don’t have to tell you that your readership is where you make your money, do I?

This trend of poor quality, is what I’m starting see on a daily basis.

It isn’t just that it’s the writer doing a bad job.

It’s that the publication is doing a bad job. It doesn’t have an editor capable (or with enough time) to ensure the removal of all of its readers’ barriers.

Instead, they often rely on automated means by which to handle the work. In what is another issue entirely, an Australian publication relying on an American tool to test for quality of spelling, grammar, or construction, is a cultural disaster.

Nevertheless, my point is that when you put barriers in front of your readers, then your publication is worthless.

It’s easy for me to stand at my desk and bash out little tracts like this, and publish them without so much as a blink. It’s easy for me, at this point in my career, to judge what’s going on out there in other people’s publications. But it’s not easy for me to see the demise of publication quality in any space.

Having worked as an editor in a high-intensity, serial publication, I know first-hand how tough it is to manage the editorial work as well as everything else. Yet, it’s also the one thing that I understood upheld the publication’s reputation. It was that quality that enabled it to stand on its own feet as an icon in a sea of rubbish. To this day, people tell me that they read it because of the quality.

Publications exist because other people find them valuable. A publication of high quality is going to be worth retaining in their already saturated, information-heavy worlds.

The question that I am unable to answer for you, despite years of pondering, is this:

If editorial roles were re-prioritised; if the quality of output was ensured over and above the speed of output; would publications have a stronger subscriber-base and higher circulation?

My gut feel says yes, because it’s inside the quality of the work that the reader finds the value. It’s the difference between an outlet that publishes what is going on, and an outlet that publishes an assessment of what is going on. You can achieve it, but you have to slow down. And most—especially most mass media—will not countenance such a slow-down on the basis that they will lose market-share.

The other issue, of course, is a lack of training. Editors who are trained as editors, for example, rarely work in major media any more. More often, the editor is someone who’s done enough time, been around the block a bit more, had a good career, who finds him- or herself in such a role as a matter of seniority. And yet they get there without any formal training in what it takes to edit any kind of material into shape. On the flipside, of course, is the issue that many editors don’t understand how to work within a serialised publication, for digital output, and as such would never put themselves in the way of such a role.

The challenge for any publication is to find the middle-ground.

I don’t have a lesson for you out of this. Just a warning:

Unless editorial roles are brought back into publications where they belong, as arbiters of quality, readability, and accuracy, it isn’t just the publications and their readers that will suffer. It’s the intelligence and capability of society as a whole. Once the quality of what you read drops to a nadir, you will have no exemplars to follow, and your ability to understand the complexities of the world will drop.

It’s true that the financial imperatives of publications are important, so that they can continue. Yet those imperatives cannot supplant the cultural impact that shoddy production creates. They cannot replace the quality that readers ascribe to the brand, to the scope of the publication, and to the publication’s impact.

And it is not the place of a publication to push the onus for all of this back onto its writers.

Instead, those who manage publications of all kinds must realise that great material comes from writers who have excellent relationships with great editors, who in turn understand how to develop and support their writing teams. If they don’t, then all I foresee is the reaper marching through the landscape of publications and cutting them all to their deaths.

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