Journalism: The Best Job in Town

You people have the best job in town. You're editors, you're journalists -- you meet exciting people. People love to invite you to their parties because you're bon vivants.

I saw the following want ad not so long ago: "Opportunity for bold, energetic, self-assured, self-starting professional to run magazine. Must be part financier, part diplomat, part crusader, part lawyer, part psychologist, part sociologist, part fortune teller, part Republican, part Democrat, part human. Must be active member of at least three civic groups, four advocacy groups, five minority councils and six non-profit boards of directors. Must be an avid reader of everything from Moral Majority Report to Doonesbury, must have personal contact with other editors, environmentalists, labor groups, feminists and consumers. Must know everything that's happening, manipulate this information, and then tell the world."

This is what we are about in the world of editing. Lewis Lapham, who is the editor of Harper's, has said that editors occupy a position comparable to that of a literary critics, forever evaluating the passing human parade from a perspective and with a moral agenda that is often invisible to the reader. That perspective and moral agenda is what we are about.

The philosopher William Arthur Ward once said that genius is recognizing the uniqueness in the unimpressive. It is looking at a colorless caterpillar, an ordinary egg and a selfish infant and seeing a butterfly, an eagle, and a saint. If you can, you're a genius. If you can, you're an editor. A good editor is a genius because he does see the impressive in the unimpressive. That's what our job is really all about. Our job is to remind the reader of that miracle, to enable them to see it in words.

The French word for magazine means department store. That's a place where you purchase variety. So is there variety in your publications? You have a committed audience, and that is what separates you from daily journalism. Newspapers and television and radio news are customs and habits. But a magazine is different. A reader commits him or herself to it. Therefore you have an opportunity to reach committed people. That's why magazines have been in the forefront of helping to change the world. You know the term "muckraker"? Muckrakers were magazine writers and editors at the turn of the century who raked muck to change society for the better. We're muckrakers. I'm not suggesting that you rake muck, but I'm suggesting that you remember a certain missionary crusading zeal.

I think you have an unwritten contract with your reader. It says if you read this publication every issue, you will be touched by everything and anything of consequence in the world of our shared subject matter. Anything and everything of importance will be made available to you. We cannot do it all in every issue, but in the continuity of coverage over a series of issues you will get to know what you need or want to know.

Like the newspaper editor, you consider impact, timeliness, eccentricity, proximity, prominence, and the onus of news. But as a magazine or special publications editor, you also consider slant, and enduring, far-reaching appeal, and surprise and style, and voice and point of view. I'm not necessarily talking about a political or sociological or even moral point of view. I'm talking about an atmosphere that pervades all the editorial matter in your publication, that separates your publication from all others, that imbues your publication with individuality.

Editing is not a writer submitting a manuscript and the editor saying, "I don't like it" and the writer asking, "why" and the editor saying, "I don't know, it stinks, work on it." I've had editors like that. They're around. Think of writing as a conversation in which one person has a lot more knowledge than another about the topic at hand and is therefore doing most of the talking. And think of editing as being the listening. As a listener you ask questions when the talker starts using jargon or skips a key point. You seek more information on interesting points and send signals when you're bored. If the talker takes a cheap shot you demand documentation. If the talker raises a question, you press for answers. All of this you do when you're editing a story. You are listening on behalf of your audience and doing what they would do if they had had the opportunity.

Encourage your writers to see writing as a four-part process.

Part one is to have an idea clearly in one's mind. It may change, but if you don't start with it, then everything that follows will be done is fuzzy way.

Part two of the process is the research, the gathering of information. Unless you have clear cut idea while your gathering the information, you may be changing the idea because you're not getting the information you expect.

Part three is to find a structure for what you've gathered.

Part four is to write -- but not until you've taken care of the other three aspects. They'll make part four easier.