Are editors actually vital?

It depends on what you want to accomplish with your writing.

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Are editors actually vital?

You’ve probably noticed sometime over the last year that a lot of journalists are leaving their full-time, salaried positions to launch their own solo media operations, often in the form of paid newsletters. It also likely hasn’t escaped you that this trend sparks constant debate and discussion about the journalistic role these newsletters will play within the larger media ecosystem.

One of those debates centers on the lack of editors in the paid newsletter space. The argument boils down to this: when a writer leaves the editorial oversight of a larger media outlet, they’ll quickly give in to their worst excesses. Their writing will become bloated and overwrought. Their bad arguments will go unchallenged. Their typos will go unnoticed.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because last week venture capitalist Chris Sacca (perhaps unknowingly) thrust himself into the middle of this debate when he tweeted:

The tweet sparked an immediate pile-on of quote-tweets and replies from working journalists, most of whom expressed overwhelmingly negative sentiments. “With one glaring exception, I can't think of a single time that an editor didn't make my work better,” wrote one. “Editors are demigods in my book.” Others resorted to outright insults: “Maybe stick to shit you know like dressing like a divorced dad from 1999 and being bad on TV.”

It’s easy to see why this tweet struck a nerve; a lot of journalists are openly wary of the tech bros who have wreaked havoc on their industry over the last decade in the name of “disruption,” and Sacca’s tweet represented that tech bro arrogance quite perfectly.

But I do think the question of editor importance is one worth exploring, especially as the Substack revolution carves out a sizable media niche where traditional editors are pretty much non-existent. Are editors as vital to the production of journalism as they no-doubt consider themselves to be, or are they pesky middle managers who stand between a writer and their audience?

First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause and link to Hamilton Nolan’s great Gawker piece from 2014: “Against Editors.” In it, he makes a pretty strong argument that the media industry overvalues editors and undervalues writers, especially in terms of salary growth and career advancement. Too many great journalists have become mediocre editors simply because it was the only way for them to make more money.

Second, when we invoke the word “editor,” we’re actually referring to three different roles, and to accurately assess the importance of editing I think we should address each role separately:

Editors as managers

Every media outlet has limited editorial resources, and editors play an important part in managing those resources. Any given writer, for instance, is limited in how much content they can produce in a given week, and editors are effective at vetting potential story ideas and choosing topics that best align with that publication’s mission. The New Yorker, for example, only publishes a few hundred stories a year in its print magazine, yet receives thousands of story pitches. Editors must sort the good pitches from the bad.

Also, any sufficiently large organization benefits from a hierarchical structure, and editors have the expertise needed to settle interoffice disputes, enforce deadlines, approve budgets, and execute the dozens of other tasks that often fall to managers.  

All this stuff is important, of course, when dealing with a cadre of writers, either full-time or freelance, but what about with solo newsletters? The newsletter writer, presumably, already has an editorial vision for their own publication, and the main resource they need to manage is their own time. When you have a hierarchy of one, then employing a manager just isn’t a good deployment of resources.

Editors as proofreaders

I think there isn’t a journalist in the world who would argue that it’s bad to have a second set of eyes on their writing. Not only will an editor be more likely to spot typos, but they can also help untangle verbose, overwritten sentences so they’re more understandable to the reader. Even the most talented writers simply don’t have enough emotional distance from their own prose to ensure that every paragraph is delivered with maximum clarity.

As a Substack writer myself, I’ve certainly been frustrated many times when I couldn’t quite get a sentence of mine to convey what I hoped to convey. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. 

Editors as mentors

I think this is the aspect of editing that’s up to the most debate. If you work in traditional journalism, you’re subjected to the idea that editors should act as mentors who can spot structural flaws in a piece of writing and then shepherd it to a more perfect form. These types of editors will force a writer to rewrite a lede, interview additional sources, move sections around, and cut entire paragraphs.

In the Gawker piece linked above, Nolan took a pretty uncharitable view of this type of editing:

Go find a story published a few years ago in The New Yorker, perhaps America's most tightly edited magazine. Give that story to an editor, and tell him it's a draft. I guarantee you that that editor will take that story—well-polished diamond that it presumably is—and suggest a host of changes. Rewrite the story to the specifications of the new editor. Then take it to another editor, and repeat the process. You will find, once again, that the new editor has changes in mind. If you were a masochist, you could continue this process indefinitely. You would never find an editor who read the story, set down his pencil, and said, "Looks fine. This story is perfect." This is because editing is an art, not a science. To imagine that more editors will produce a better story is akin to imagining that a song by your favorite band would be better if, after the band finished it, it was remixed by a succession of ten producers, one after the other. Would it be different? Yes. Would it be better? I doubt it. The only thing you can be sure of is that it would not be the song that the actual musicians wanted it to be.

I think if you asked any working journalist about this, they’d be able to point to a few instances in which a great editor took a mediocre draft and transformed it into a real gem. But I’m also confident that they have memories of gritting their teeth when an editor with no expertise in their particular subject matter forced changes that didn’t make sense. I can remember at least a few times when I actually considered walking away from an article entirely rather than let a bastardized version of it hit the web.

Overall, I think this type of editing produces marginal benefits — benefits that become more marginal the further along a journalist is in their career. My first year as a newspaper reporter certainly required a lot of handholding from the editors above me. But now? I’d like to think that I have a stronger grasp for how to package ideas so they’re easy to understand. Or perhaps I’m blinded by the very arrogance that editors are positioned to stave off. 

In the end, it comes down to what you prefer as a writer. Some journalists thrive within traditional media outlets. They enjoy the give-and-take of the editorial process and actively seek out a more structured environment that enforces deadlines and compromise.

But I also think there are a lot of creators out there who enjoy the creative independence that a platform like Substack provides. Sure, our creations are imperfect, but that’s the price we’re willing to pay for unfettered access to your inbox. I think the tradeoff’s worth it.

How a trade show’s newsletter saved the company during Covid

When the pandemic shutdown hit, Ross Douglas’s company faced extinction. Its entire business model hinged on the success of an in-person tradeshow, and he certainly didn’t have the kind of capital that would allow him to absorb the losses resulting from its cancellation.

Lucky for Douglas, he happened to launch a newsletter three years prior that had since grown a large and loyal audience. In a recent interview, Douglas told me how he leveraged that newsletter to launch a virtual tradeshow that helped stem his losses.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.