A Digital-Age Editor’s Lament
The other day I got an email from an editor for an online publication, one that stuck in my head. Here’s the relevant portion, with some details changed to preserve anonymity:
When I started in journalism more than a decade ago, my job was to find a good story, do the interviews and research, write it well, and get it filed on time — The End. Today, I have to constantly justify my professional existence via a thousand different performance metrics culled from traffic reports (the pulling together of which takes up half of the time I could be spend doing real work), manage a Web site — write, edit, research, crop and upload photos, clean up XML, manage SEO, syndication, repackaging, and do the brunt of any sort of promotion or relationship building with other sites that needs to be done — plus manage a Facebook page, and, ideally, a Twitter feed, to support said site. STOP THE MADNESS.
I suspect this isn’t an atypical job description for the modern editor of a Web site. To me it shows — in rather stark detail — how much the industry has changed, and how much help journalists need to keep up with those changes.
Technological changes are like riptides — you swim along and before you even realize it, you’ve been hauled way down the beach to an unfamiliar place (and may have to paddle like hell to get yourself to shore). Not so long ago it was an ironclad rule that writers and editors didn’t dirty their hands with traffic numbers or other measures of readership. Not so long ago, photos were handled by specialists; syndication and promotion was the exclusive province of business types on some other floor; and SEO, Facebook and Twitter were unknown. Now, those things are run-of-the-mill parts of a modern editor’s job.
The problem is that mill is grinding up editors.
On the one hand, I think newsrooms will be better with many of the walls between editorial folks, designers, photographers and business people torn down. Reporters, editors and writers will tell better stories once they regard pictures, video and other storytelling components as integrated parts of a whole instead of as things that get bolted onto their writing somewhere down the assembly line. Understanding what stories connect with readers and what don’t will make journalists serve those readers better and drag back any scribes who attempt to take up residence in an ivory tower. (My approach to being a columnist changed dramatically after a couple of months singing for my supper as a blogger.) The entrepreneurial lessons of building brands via Facebook and Twitter will drive much-needed innovation in newspapers and prove valuable to journalists in an age of diminished job security.
But it troubles me to think how many editors will get chewed up trying to add all these new duties to everything they already do. With journalism jobs being eliminated left and right, editors like my correspondent complain quietly and reluctantly if at all — but they face a steep learning curve, and the danger that all that time checking traffic and massaging SEO headlines and fueling Facebook outposts will cut into the time needed to craft stories that engage readers while maintaining journalistic standards for fairness and accuracy.
Perhaps this is a temporary state of affairs for digital-age editors — it may ultimately be more advantageous for newsrooms to let specialists handle things like SEO, social media and brand-building. But I think a lot of those expanded responsibilities and heavier workloads will remain.
This isn’t just a problem of newsroom culture and job descriptions — it’s a technological issue, one I think demands that newsrooms look hard at whether their technology is supporting where they’re trying to go and what their people are trying to do.
Technologically speaking, many newsrooms are still a Rube Goldberg machine of awkward handoffs between different systems, code thrown over walls of incompatibility (often with messy landings) and people forced to be human bridges across technological gaps. Feeding the Web, news alerts, email lists, promos, mobile sites, Facebook and Twitter may not be one process but seven, a ceaseless blizzard of copying and pasting and retyping. Editors may pick photos and work with them in another system entirely, and resize photos for multiple Web destinations. Same for video and audio. Material for print may need extensive rework for the Web. And that’s just the core editorial work — now throw in Facebook and Twitter and monitoring traffic and everything else. How many systems is that for editors to work in?
When I was an editor, my left thumb and ring finger would naturally drift to the ALT and TAB keys, because I spent so much time using that keyboard combination to switch between applications. Every ALT-TAB demands that an editor shift mental gears and refocus — and over the course of a day, gears inevitably slip and focus is lost. Mistakes are made, which is bad enough. But good editors are burned out and opportunities are lost, which is worse.
To be sure, technology won’t solve everything — in my old newsroom, I was quasi-notorious among our developers for preferring safeguards based on policy rather than systems, and for advocating that the technological fine print come from smart people doing daily work rather than from guys whiteboarding scenarios in conference rooms. But having the right technology is the foundation for everything else. Reinventing the newsroom is hard enough; doing it without a solid technological foundation is much harder.