Many of my friends are editors. We employ editors, or more accurately, former editors. They are a wildly talented collection of people. They have refined over many years a skill that, like making watches by hand, is extremely difficult to acquire. Good editing is a thing of beauty, a high art. And like many painstaking, manual crafts, the market for it is shrinking.
The glass half-empty view is that editors are obsolescent – they are giant pandas in a receding bamboo forest. As the supply of editors outstrips the demand for them, the cost of the service of editing declines. New York is bursting at the seams with wildly talented editors who are under-employed, or about to be.
Many denizens of the print world seem oddly calm, like violinists on the deck of the Titanic, whether because they honestly believe the ipad will save the business model, or because they don’t think there is anything they can do about it. But panic, frankly, is the more rational response. The value of traditional editing skills is collapsing, and the new skillset in demand is evolving quickly. Editors have a tough choice right now: take a pay cut and learn the new skills, or go the way of the hammered dulcimer.
Why is demand for traditional editing skills going away? Three reasons:
1) We have far better data with which to judge the success of writing than we used to, and this data is available to everyone. Traffic, engagement data, and social media success provide a much clearer picture of the effectiveness of a piece of writing than the opinion of a single editor. Refining one’s writing style based on this feedback loop is the best editing process available. We’ve already learned quite a bit from this iterative process – we’ve learned that most readers prefer the raw, opinionated, sometimes emotional voice of a blog post — or an article written like a blog post – to the objective, painstakingly rendered linguistic object that is a finely edited article. The evidence suggests that a portion of what editors have done in the past – removing bias, encouraging a measured consistent tone – makes writing less engaging to most readers.
2) The length of an article or post has become relatively unimportant. Space is free, and it really doesn’t matter whether or not readers finish articles — we need users to engage with what they read, comment on it, and then continue to interact with the website in other ways. Therefore, the age old challenge of honing, trimming and sanding articles until they are the perfect size to slide into precisely shaped slots in newspapers and magazines is of diminishing value. The importance of the title and the lede – the first several sentences in a story – remains paramount, but if a writer chooses to prattle on for an extra page, and the reader finds something else on the site more interesting, the cost to the publication is low. The correct mentality is one of managing abundance, as people say, rather than scarcity.
3) Abundance – the long tail — is necessary to win online, and it is impossible to produce abundance with intensive editorial process. It’s prohibitively expensive. So it’s necessary to develop another skill: the ability to coach teams of people who create an abundance of content, and help teach them how to do three things: (1) read the data to figure out what works from a voice and style perspective, and (2) use the various levers of google trends, facebook, twitter, stumble, and so on to understand what readers are interested in, and (3) push content out to the places where those readers are looking for it, packaged in a way that enables it to succeed in that environment.
The old craft of editing isn’t going away completely, of course. Carpenters still make rocking chairs by hand, and there will clearly always be high value segments of the market where the cost of a full editorial rolfing makes economic sense. Indeed, parenting is a high value ad category, and we continue to do traditional editing in a number of sections throughout Babble.com. But it remains the case that traditional editing is shrinking as a percentage of the whole. If you want to be on the right end of the demand curve, you are going to have to develop some new skills.
THE RISE OF THE CONTENT PRODUCER
The glass half full view is not quite so grim: the role of the editor is evolving dramatically – so dramatically, in fact, that perhaps they should be called something entirely different. The brilliant and prescient Sean Mills, who runs Nerve.com out of the same office as Babble, is talking about calling new Nerve editors “content producers,” which may be more apt.
Editors have historically had two jobs: finding interesting material, and making it better. Next generation editors, if we still call them editors, will do two things: identify great content creators, and help them package and distribute their content in a way that is mutually beneficial. The relative value of the brands of content creators is ascendant, and publishers need to think more like coaches who are also business partners. (I have a number of additional thoughts about this that I am going to put together in a post titled “unsolicited advice for the New York Times.”)
UPDATE: I just had an interesting conversation with Sarah Bryden Brown, Babble’s VP Content, in which she made the case that the new data available to editors makes possible a more effective, hybrid form of editing, informed by both traditional editorial principles and the new science of audience engagement. She makes a great point — even if an increasingly small minority of the total content produced is editing by a third party, the quality of that editing is arguably better if informed by the old art and the new science.
Where can you learn these new skills? There are a handful of online content companies that are doing this well. Huffington Post, NYMag.com and Gawker Media have all figured out how to innovate and scale. Babble, our website for moms, has grown rapidly in our first three years to more than 4 million uniques, passing parenting sites run by Disney, Viacom, Meredith, and other old media companies in size.
In the next year we believe we will more than double traffic and revenue, and our approach to content, described above, is critical to our momentum. If current trends continue, we will be the market leader in the parenting category within 24 months. I don’t mean to be overconfident here, you never know, but we are certainly helped by the fact that our competitors are, for the most part, doing things the old fashioned way.
We have an amazing team of editors – did I say editors? content producers — who are responsible for the phenomenal performance we have seen in the last year, and we are looking for more … we have a lot of work to do. If you are interested, please email a cover letter and resume to firstname.lastname@example.org.