Who’s Who in the Masthead?

QuestionSometimes job titles are self-explanatory, but things can be tricky in a publication, where nearly everybody's job seems to include the word "editor"? How do associate editors, managing editors, executive editors and plain old unadorned editors fit in the grand scheme of things? This article clears away some of the confusion.

Sometimes job titles are self-explanatory. It's obvious that a vice president answers to a president, and that an assistant manager answers to a manger. But how do things work in a publication, where nearly everybody's job seems to include the word "editor"? How do associate editors, managing editors, executive editors and plain old unadorned editors fit in the grand scheme of things?

Here's a quick look at different jobs: the who does what, who answers to who, and basic organization of the leadership of a magazine or newspaper. This may vary from place to place, but these are general guidelines that will help you understand who does what.

At the top is the owner. Freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns the press. Ultimately, everybody else on staff answers to the owner through a chain of command. In some cases the owner may be a publicly held corporation or a non-profit organization, but you still usually have somebody acting in the role of principle owner and calling the shots. Of course, unless that owner is independently wealthy, they ultimately answer to the readers – no readers, no magazine. So an editor's ultimate responsibility is to readers. (Sometimes as editor you have to explain that to your publisher.)

Below the owner is the publisher. Like a lot of these jobs, this may be combined with something else. For instance, in a smaller publication the publisher is usually the owner. The publisher runs the business side of a publication. The editor answers to the publisher, but usually is given free rein to run the editorial operation. The best publishers understand that they've hired an editor to make a whole class of decisions for them. As long as they're generally happy with those decisions, they keep paying the editor. When they don't like those decisions, they find another editor. The publisher may also have a general manager or business manager who answer to them and runs the business side.

Publications have a business side and an editorial side. These are usually kept separate, and are sometimes even located on different floors, or at least in different parts of the building. Why do we keep these apart? It's because of ethics. One of the important ethical principles in journalism is that journalistic decisions are not made for business reasons. You don't do a feature story on somebody because they buy a big ad, or print negative stories about people who owe you money. People on the business side and editorial side have little to do with each other for this reason. In practice, people on the business side constantly try to co-opt the editorial side, and editors constantly rebuff their efforts. There's an ethical wall between business and editorial, but it's the editorial side that keeps the wall from crumbling. The business folks tend to lean against it.

Answering to the business manager or publisher on the business side, you often have a controller – somebody who keeps track of the money, monitors spending, and helps everybody stay under budget.

Another business-side position is circulation manager. This is a big job, and if you can do it well you can make serious money. It involves sales and marketing – attracting new subscribers and also convincing current subscribers to renew their subscriptions and pay their bills. These are both ongoing tasks. In fact, a typical magazine has to sell half of its total circulation each year just to stay even, to make up for people who let their subscriptions lapse.

The advertising director also answers to the business manager or publisher. The larger ads that run through the publication are called display ads, as distinguished from classified ads and directory advertising. Under the advertising director there may be somebody in charge of various kinds of advertising. Salespeople work under these ad sales managers, whose job it is to motivate the sales staff, monitor progress, hire and fire, etc. Ad sales is a tough gig – you spend most of your day listening to people say "no." Ad sales people usually need a lot of encouragement. The ad department may also have its own layout people who put together the ads and lay them on the page. The space that's left after the ads have gone in is called the "newshole" – it's the hole that's left to be filled with stories. From the business side's point of view, the purpose of the publication is to carry ads, and the stories are just what goes into the space that's left over. From a business perspective, they're right. Many publications have a certain percentage that's figured into their budget, so the number of pages editorial gets depends on ad sales.

Then there's the production manager and the production staff. They'll run the press and pre-press operation, and they work with both sides of the aisle – editorial and business – because both sides need their services.

On the editorial side, you have the editor. Sometimes this used to be called "editor in chief," but that's kind of gone out of vogue and sounds a little old-fashioned now. Sometimes it's called "executive editor" – especially if you're supervising editors of multiple publications. But there's a simple elegance to just "editor" – a classic one-word name, like Cher or Elvis. The lack of modifiers on your title means you've arrived. I was always happy just being "editor," although when they were putting me out to pasture, they started calling me "senior editor." The editor runs the show – she's in charge of everything.

In a daily newspaper the editorial page editor answers to the editor, and is usually completely independent of the news operation. It's another one of those ethical walls. Opinion and fact and different animals, and we have different staffs in recognition of that. Editorial writers and editorial cartoonists answer to the editorial page editor.

Then there's the managing editor – the chief operating executive of the editorial operation – apart from opinion. They're making the day-to-day decisions about what's in, what's out, what's on the cover, etc. At a daily newspaper there's a morning pitch meeting where editors of different sections pitch their best stories, and the managing editor decides who gets how much space and where that space is – this is called the newsroom budget.

There are other words that can be tacked onto "editor" to slightly change its meaning. An "associate editor" would answer to an editor. An "assistant editor" would be a step down from an associate editor. A "contributing editor" often isn't an editor at all, but is a sort of glorified freelancer who regularly contributes material. A "senior editor" if often removed from the day-to-day operation, but still helps shape overall editorial philosophy. And an "editor emeritus" is often somebody who is mostly retired but whose name was in the masthead for so long that it seems wrong to leave it out. (Note: The "masthead" is the box in a publication that lists the staff. This should not be confused with the "flag," which is the nameplate on the cover or front page.)

Each section of a publication may have its own editor, who handles assignments related to that portion of the periodical. You might have an entertainment editor, or a columns editor, or a news editor, each of whom would be responsible for pages in their particular area.

Editors work with freelance writers. These are writers who aren't employed by a publication, but who produce individual stories on assignment, or who pitch stories to a publication on their own. They're treated as independent contractors, and don't generally play a role in editorial decision-making for a publication.

In magazines a lot of the stories tend to come from freelancers or people who aren't full-time staffers. But some magazines and most newspapers have reporters on staff who answer to section editors and produce stories on assignment. Some reporters are generalists, and we call them general assignment reporters – their specialty is in journalism, and they can tackle whatever story comes their way. There are also many specialized reporters, people who have training in specific areas or long experience covering those areas – or both.

One more kind of writer is the stringer – this is a glorified freelancer. They're not on staff; instead you pay them by the inch or by the article. Stringers got their names because they were paid by the inch, and they would clip their stories and paste them into a long line, then measure the line of copy, which was called a "string."

Then there's the copy editor, who works with copy generated by others. This person supervises the editing of copy, writing of headlines and captions, and layout of pages.

Copy editors answer to the news editor or to section editors, and their job is to hammer the copy into reasonable shape.

Artists and illustrators answer to the editors, possibly through an art director. You may have a graphics editor who handles infographics, charts, graphics, etc. Photographers also answer to editors – and usually get their assignments from an editor, or are assigned to a story with a reporter. On a larger publication they'll answer directly to a photo editor.

Then there's a layout editor who directs the pagination staff and works with the priorities the editors have assigned and with the material produced by reporters, photographers and artists to put together compelling pages with whatever is left after advertising is finished. Layout editors make things fit – adjusting headlines, trimming stories, etc. as needed. The layout editor is a member of the editorial staff but works on the production end.

That's a quick look at "who does what" on a publication staff. As they say in the car ads, your mileage may vary. Different publications do things different ways, but what's presented here is fairly typical.