The Fate of the Purple Spotted Editor: Evolve or Die

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 jobs@babble.com.

15 thoughts on “The Fate of the Purple Spotted Editor: Evolve or Die

  1. as deputy dinosaur-in-chief, i can only say, give me prehensile digits. (though apparently that now involves a facebook fan page, which i’m only beginning to read about…)

    one bit of advice i can lend to fellow editors is that if you can learn how to cook and bring lunch to your office of 20+ colleagues for $1/head, they might keep you on staff. so far, it’s working for me. behind that, i’m just learning to embrace the split infinitive.

    — j

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  2. Pingback: The Editor Is Dead. Long Live The Editor Content Producer. - MediaJobsDaily

  3. Quote:

    “Why is demand for traditional editing skills is going away?”

    Hmm. I don’t know, Rufus, but did one review this before posting?

    😉
    JH

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  4. “The value of tradition editing skills is collapsing, ….”

    And here we see some of the results. I guess only time will tell whether readers will be satisfied with timepieces that don’t keep accurate time.

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  5. Thanks for the feedback and alert copy editing, folks. This is not the only flack I have received for these ruminations. I have had an exchange with Bill Barol of Forbes.com, who takes me to task. Bill writes:

    “Sorry, but no: Editing is the best editing process available. What Griscom’s describing is tailoring your content to produce the most churn. By this standard the best-edited piece in today’s Huffington Post is “More Details Surface In Tony Parker Sexting Scandal.” – http://bit.ly/aTzk2B

    My response to him, and his to me follow. I would like to say, for the record, that I fully understand the sentiments of those, like “writer /editor” above, who feel that these developments are catastrophic. Great editing is inseparable from great writing; I have enormous reverence for the craft. But I also believe that it is shortsighted to oppose the tectonic shifts of industries out of nostalgia for old practices … it distracts one from appreciating the upsides of the new changes afoot.

    “Bill, Rufus here. I agree that editors do great work — my life has been changed by a few great editors I had twenty years ago. And I think great editors provide a great service … there is a tragic element to these developments. But the question is whether the service that editors provide is economically sustainable on a large scale, and I think the answer to that question is no.

    I also think that for eons, in addition to making prose more lucid and concise and engaging, editors have stripped much of the humanness out of writing. When I talk about the science of seeing what drives traffic, engagement and social media success, I am talking about listening to the readers. Editors have had the great luxury of not listening to readers for a very long time, and the luxury is now gone. Churn is not the objective; audience engagement is the objective, and often, we are learning, imperfect, more human prose drives more engagement than the flawless, bloodless, expensively edited kind.”

    Here’s his response to me:

    “Rufus: Thanks for your note. I can’t agree with you about the suggestion that editors make for bloodless copy, although bad ones certainly do. The net gain in having a prosperous, professional class of experienced editors is worth the few who tromp all over good copy. I’m not even sure I agree that the cost of such editing is unsustainable on a large scale. As economies are imposed in production and distribution, the fixed costs of editing can certainly be justified, even in large-scale, heavy-volume settings. Writers will be better for it. Writing will too. Finally, I think we just disagree on what “audience engagement” means. My interpretation of your original post was that you’re defining it in the narrowest and most immediate way, which is to say, eyeballs. I’m not sure readers are more engaged in content if they click to retweet it, Like it on Facebook, or otherwise send it spinning on its way. But I appreciate you taking the time to expand on your blog post, and if I’ve mischaracterized your positions, I’ll be happy to call out any subsequent comments so readers can judge for themselves.”

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  6. Rufus,

    Your enthusiasm for the new science of content production is the glee that a factory owner experiences when he discovers he can cut his labor costs to nothing. So good for you. This trend serves you — and your venture backers — well and I’m sure you all will prosper. But stop pretending that this in any way serves the interests of consumers, or the producers, of information.

    You get what you pay for. Babble could be performing an important service for parents and parents-to-be. You might devote some actual resources to assign an actual reporter to do some actual reporting about, say, the nutritional value of so-called healthy snacks for kids. You might look into the astonishing rate of episiotomies, and how this might be affected by ObamaCare. You might hire a serious essayist to reflect on what it’s like to see her child fall in love for the first time, or beat up his sister, or get arrested, or whatever.

    But I get it: the search engines would not be pleased.

    Instead, Babble serves up barely informed opinions and ham-fisted attempts to piggyback on the buzz generated by silly non-events like Prince Harry’s engagement. And how could it be otherwise? How much does Babble pay its bloggers, anyway?

    Again: No hard feelings. But you strike me as smart enough not to pretend this is anything other than what it is.

    –Old School Editor

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    • Old School Editor —

      Thank you for your candid commentary.

      You say that these trends do not serve the consumers, or the producers of information. Let’s separate the various stakeholders here and be a little more precise about who benefits and suffers. I agree that these trends are clearly threatening to most old media companies, who employ old school editors, so those two parties have much to lose from these trends. The purpose of my post was to share with editors my view of how to broaden their thinking about editing skills to take advantage of the evolution of media, not to suggest that these trends are unequivocally good. If one wants to be a conscientious objector to changes in the industry, I respect that decision, though I don’t think it’s terribly pragmatic.

      Is it bad that old media companies are struggling? Yes and No. I agree that the endangerment of companies that actually report news, a teeny subset of whole, is a terrible, terrible thing for our democracy and humanity at large. The thought of the world without the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and so on, should make us all shudder. This, I suspect, we would agree on.

      But the writers for these publications are arguable more empowered than ever before — there are more New York Times writers with high six figure incomes, sometimes seven figure incomes, from speaking fees, book fees and so on than ever before, I would wager. Indeed, it’s a great time to be a young writer. There may be fewer $2 per word gigs writing hackneyed service journalism, but it’s a more meritocratic world, and those who ascend become brands in and of themselves with enormous freedom and economic upside. Indeed, I would make the case that the brand of the individual writer is rising at the expense of the brands of their employers — I will make this case in a forthcoming post titled Unsolicited Advice for the New York Times.

      I am a bit more ambivalent about the dissolution of print magazines — most of the good ones have subsisted on grants or due to the largess of patrons of one kind or another for decades, and they will continue to exist in some format because of these subsidies. The profitable print magazines I see much as you appear to see Babble — they generally regurgitate gossip or the same service content over and over and do little to contribute to humanity. Nonetheless they are pretty to look at, sometimes useful and will subsist with smaller circulations or inexpensive (perhaps free) ipad downloads.

      Your comments about Babble.com, the website that I work on every day with a team of 25 incredible young editors, designers and programmers, are off base. We publish extensive well-edited content about episiotomies and c-sections and other matters of importance to moms — here’s a piece about the controversy around unnecessary c-sections with several hundred comments, which are themselves illuminating: http://bit.ly/eXjDIY. We have a wonderful weekly science of kids column which is professionally written and edited, among many others along these lines – http://bit.ly/g2CVzP. We publish literally hundreds of thoughtful essays about the experience of being a parent — I challenge you to read this one without crying – http://bit.ly/hDCiEs – or this one without laughing – http://bit.ly/f0xsDM. We pay our bloggers well, thank you, which is part of why we are able to attract some of the best in the category, who have developed audiences of tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of readers the old fashioned way: by writing compelling stuff. You can certainly find material on Babble that will not interest you — we publish more than 100 new posts per day. But if you take some time with the site, you will also find some extraordinary, well written, well researched, and deeply human content.

      Would you rather be a parent 20 years ago with five soulless print magazines to chose from or a parent today with exhaustive online resources and an ocean of interesting blogs? I think the access to quality information, colorful opinion, and moving life experience available online today is dramatically better than the uninspired print options parents had a few decades ago, in the supposed golden age of publishing.

      But that’s my opinion, I appreciate your input.

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  7. Rufus,

    I found this essay of yours fascinating. (And the subsequent tete-a-tete in the comment section.)

    The way that the publishing industry is changing is indeed tectonic and I loved how you articulated these trends. It’s amazing to realize we are living through these changes.

    I’ve noticed the explosion of content (abundance indeed) and I’m so impressed at how fast Babble is growing. Exciting!

    Sincerely,
    Amy

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  8. “Editor” is indeed a ridiculous title for what most of us do. It’s a title applied to no less than a dozen distinct job descriptions: from correcting comma placement, to directing content development. Further, this article didn’t even touch on the other zillion industries in which editors work: book publishing, advertising, theatre, business, and on and on.

    The Editors’ Association of Canada lays out what “an editor” does in their document titled “Professional Editorial Standards.” Even that document doesn’t cover everything “an editor” might be responsible for. http://www.editors.ca/resources/eac_publications/pes/index.html
    (For a more brief description of the various types of editors, see http://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions.html.)

    While you’re there, check out the “resources” which link to similar documents put out by other editors’ groups around the world.

    Many managing editors feel strongly that there will always be a market for intelligent, researched, well argued, and error-free writing. (Something rarely achieved extemporaneously and without some kind of feedback.) I am not so sure. But I am watching with interest.

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    • Great points Another Kind of Editor, thank you.

      In my twenties, in the mid-90s, I was an editor at two small book publishing houses. It was clear at the time that there was a shift in the balance of power away from old school editors — practitioners of the fine art of crafting impactful, pellucid prose — towards people from the sales and marketing side who were good at predicting what would sell. These people, increasingly, were rising to the top. They are quite different skills, editing and picking winners, and it became clear to me that in the final analysis the old school, craftsmanlike editing is a commodity: it can be freelanced out by the hour. And there are quite a few people, in New York anyway, who are good at it. The ability to pick books that will sell: that’s a skill in shorter supply that is more highly paid (although much as with trading stocks, there is a good deal of luck involved, and a tendency to overestimate the genius of a few individuals). Publishing houses used to expect editors to possess both skills; the trend seems to be that they are more and more disaggregated. This was true 15 years ago … I am guessing the trend continues, but I have been less tuned in since.

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  9. Sure, editors will be extinct — as soon as all writers online learn how to use correct grammar at all times, spell correctly, and punctuate perfectly. My sense as someone who reads many blogs is we have a long way to go on that.

    I don’t agree that length no longer matters. I think length has never mattered more. Being able to write a really useful 300-word post, crafting a print-and-save quality 1,000-word post…length on good blogs is as important and intentional as it is when the copy has to be squeezed between print ads. Those who ramble on online without writing tight will face the same fates as many in the editorial departments of traditional papers that don’t change with the times.

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  10. Yes, both writers and editors must become humble “content providers.” We will dump it in (the box, outside of which we are not invited to think), in mass quantities, a la the Coneheads.

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  11. Wow! Such a wonderful, multidimensional discussion. Thank you for the article and for opening a discussion that is relevant for everyone in the writing, publishing, and blogging arenas.

    A great many valid points on both sides. Interesting considerations well worth pondering!

    ~Marissa

    Like

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