A world without editors

A world without editors

: Nick Denton and I were taking on IM sometime back about why we liked blogging so much and with typical Nick understatement, he popped this simple reason onto my screen:

“No editors.”

Amen, blogging brother, amen.

I just had an unnerving encounter with an editor — print, of course. I was debating whether to blog it and whether to be coy about the publication. But, what the hell, it’s a publication about journalism that was asking for a piece about blogging and so they should expect a journalist to blog it.

Nieman Reports, a thumbsucking quarterly out of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, asked me and many others to write pieces for an issue about weblogging. Be happy to, I said, without a moment’s hesitation. For the good of journalism. For the good of blogging. Anything.

So I wrote the piece. You can see it here. To most of you, there’ll be nothing new in it. But I wasn’t writing for a blogging audience. I was writing for the audience of 10 journalism machers who actually read these wet-thumb periodicals and many of them apparently don’t yet know what blogs are. So I tried to tell them about my happy experience with blogs — my own blog, Iranian blogs, and my company’s blogs.

The edit I got back was a ham-handed butchery that also betrays plenty of print prejudices about this, our new medium. For example:

: I said that weblogs have the “potential to unlock a treasure of audience content.”

: She said, “a treasure of audience interactivity.”

: And that’s essentially insulting to weblogs; it devalues them. This isn’t just another way to chat, damnit. This is content as much as any newspaper’s or magazine’s content.

: I said: “Weblogs are conversation.”

: She said, “Weblogs are a tool for creating conversation.”

: There’s a difference. Again, this isn’t just another community tool. It’s a content tool. Besides, her sentence was wordier. First rule of editing: Take words out, don’t add them in.

: I said: “Weblogs can also change the world.”

: She said: “Weblogs … can also expand the way we think about and experience events around the world.”

: Well, that’s poorly stated and wimpy and wordy and it’s not what I said. I meant what I said. This isn’t about viewing the world. It’s about changing the world. Again, the apparent aim is to defang weblogs.

: I said: “Weblogs are revolutionary.”

: She said: “In Iran and other nations where people are repressed, we are learning that Weblogs can be tools of revolution.”

: Once again, wordy and obtuse and diluted. Weblogs are revolutionary much closer to home — in America … and in newsrooms.

: I said: “Webloggers are also being given credit for at least keeping up the pressure that helped bring down Majority Leader Trent Lott (thanks mainly to Josh Micah Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com). Bloggers are influencers.”

: She said: “Webloggers — in this case, Josh Micah Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com, in particular

  • Charlie

    Robert Heinlein’s advice on editors was to the effect of “the editor wants to pee in it first. After doing so, he’ll like the taste better, and buy it.”
    So now you know why she doesn’t have a job with a real magazine.

  • http://hackjammer.com/weblogs/bc B.O.

    I suppose she did those edits in order to pretend she was serving a function, like some executive writing unneeded policy memos in order to justify his position.

  • http://beebo.org Michael S.

    (Your link doesn’t work but I will comment anyway:)
    “Weblogs are conversation” doesn’t convey very much to me either. It’s a grand-sounding pronouncement but really, it means (and adds) very little. Weblogs aren’t any more or any less “conversation” than Usenet posts, bulletin boards, bumper stickers, t-shirt slogans, advertisements, songs, movies, … Anyway, why do you want to say that weblogs “are” conversation–why is this a big deal? It’s not like conversation is rare…

  • Mike G

    Oh fine, now you’ve burned your bridges and you’ve lost out on the audience of 500 who read the Nieman Report and will have to fall back on the 10,000 who read your blog. Smart move, Mr. Blogger-guy.

  • Mike G

    By the way, click to go to their page and this is priceless, I can’t resist a brief Fisking:
    Looking for insightful criticism about the media?
    (As long as it doesn’t actually criticize the media, apparently.)
    Would you like to know what key decision makers are saying about their own craft?
    (Once our editors have finished changing it?)
    Then you should turn to Nieman Reports, a quarterly publication that helps you stay on top of the debates affecting the news industry.
    Launched in 1947 in response to a national commission that deplored the state of journalism in the United States
    (And it’s time for another one! Only we don’t bother with blue ribbon panels any more, we can just blog it. Guys, you’ve had 56 years, I think you’re no longer part of the solution, whatever it was.)
    Nieman Reports was the first journalism review in the country. In it you’ll find articles written by Nieman Fellows and reporters like David Halberstam
    (How about Westbrook Pegler, while we’re at it? H.L. Mencken? James Gordon Bennett? 56 years and they can only come up with one, rather long in the tooth famous name?)
    on topics such as objectivity in reporting, welfare reform, South Africa and ethics in journalism.
    (This is such vital reading I’m going straight to bed.)

  • http://michaeltotten.blogspot.com Michael J. Totten

    Jeff, you are absolutely correct.
    And, as you know but others may not, there are editors who do not behave this way.
    Nick Shulz at Tech Central Station edited one of my pieces and he barely touched it. Not because I’m some genius writer who wrote a perfect piece that couldn’t be improved upon, but because (I think) he trusts that writing shouldn’t be micromanaged. He and I have differences of opinion (he’s conservative, I am not, and my piece ultimately dissed conservatives) but he didn’t let that get in the way at all.
    Nick Shulz reads Web logs. Soon (hopefully) most editors will read them. And then we’ll see how powerful this medium really is.
    If existing editors won’t read them, they are sure to be replaced eventually by people who do. We are not going to be ignored forever.
    Remember what Ghandi said. First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

  • http://www.gapingvoid.com hugh macleod

    I agree that blogging adds a whole new dimension to journalism, and it’s no surprise that traditional media doesn’t quite know how to respond. Then again, traditional media never knows how to respond to non-traditional media. Same as it ever was.
    In media terms, the evolution of business models is always more interesting to me than the evolution of the actual technology or media format. I’ll pay $5 a week to read The Economist, but a decade into online, I still won’t pay $5 a week to read a website, I don’t care how good it is.

  • Dark Avenger

    An editor’s credo should begin like the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
    Second, good editing, like good managing, produces the best product with the minimum effort needed towards that end. The lady who edited your piece is working too hard, so she isn’t as efficient as she should be.

  • Chris Josephson

    I think blogs *are* conversation. Blogs have made me much more interested in what is happening in our country and world. This is mainly due to the interactive nature, the conversation, that happens.
    I realize many of the news media don’t believe this, but there is a bias in how the news is reported. Can be left or right, but there is bias. Traditional media doesn’t allow the reporter to be questioned. He/she can remain in the ‘ivory tower’, detached from the ‘great unwashed’.
    Bloggers can’t remain detached. Put an opinion out and get challenged. Defend the position. This exchange is very healthy for all who take part.
    You can’t have this conversation via traditional news media.
    I imagine it could cause some journalists to feel uneasy. No longer can ‘ace/star reporter’ from X news pontificate without having their facts checked and rechecked for all to see and debate.
    I don’t see blogs replacing the traditional news media. However, if I were a reporter, actually in any way involved in journalism, I’d want to have a blog, or make it a point to read existing ones daily. Viewed from a strictly Capitalist point of view, blogs can give you an edge on the competition because you’d know what people are thinking and talking about.
    The blog audience isn’t representative of all the audience for traditional news media, yet. Again from a strictly Capitalist point of view, the audience represented is probably an audience advertisers would like to target. I should think the traditional media would like to court the audiences blogs have, not drive them away.

  • Mitch H.

    Heinlein is a spectacular example of why there are editors in this world. He started out as a spare, concise, brilliant writer under the thumb of strong, opinionated editors. In the second half of his career, he got big enough to shrug off his editors, or more accurately, overawe them. His work bloated, inflated, and grew self-indulgent. Heinlein *needed* those editors he was so pissed at. A good editor can be a discipline upon bullheaded writers.
    On the other hand, Jeff’s editor seems to be a classically bad editor. Sort of the anti-Bierce – never use one word where three indirect clauses will fit.

  • http://world.std.com/~mmcirvin/ Matt McIrvin

    Sometimes even the micromanagement can help. A little while back I wrote a semi-technical piece for the webzine MacEdition (regular columnist CodeBitch was out on vacation and I was filling in). It came back with the e-mail equivalent of red pencil all over it from Porruka, the editor. I had the chance to vet the changes, but I simply accepted most of them… and it made the piece far snappier, easier to follow and more to the point. A good editor is priceless.

  • http://nuisance.blogspot.com Alex

    In at least some cases, I think you’re overstating the meaning of the changes – and, I suspect, overestimating the ultimate impact of blogging. But you’re right that an editor who wants to turn short, direct sentences into wordy, vague ones really has failed to grasp the most essential part of her function. There can be times when such editing is appropriate, such as in news stories if a reporter is trying to make factual claims that go beyond the evidence, but in a piece that is clearly a statement of personal opinion, it’s just weak.

  • http://www.poochkiss.com/ Chi Lambda

    Don’t worry too much about the editing. I used to do research for professors — some of whom received Ph.Ds from Harvard. Submitting one’s work to print will always be returned with requests for revisions.
    One thing to note, however, is that the professors that I worked with knowingly left in simple stuff to be edited so that the editorial staff would not attack the big ideas at the center of the content to be published. In other words, you’ve got to divert these people’s attentions away from the content you feel most passionat about!

  • c monks

    I think good writers write the best blogs, regardless of perspective. (Hi Jeff!) However, most bloggers aren’t good writers and they could stand the aid of an editor’s critical eye. A hyperbole-filled paragraph and a link to another person’s blog doesn’t do much in the way of providing worthwhile content for me. Bad writing underminds worthy content something fierce, so I disagree that blogs offer just as much substance as the mainstream press. Blogs have to tone down their ranting and raving before I’d ever consider them on par with most newpapers and magazines.

  • Mike G

    “Submitting one’s work to print will always be returned with requests for revisions.”
    I have a feeling Jeff has been edited a few million times already and knows how to roll with it. We all benefit from good editing, the editor who can see the muscular 180-lb. article which is inside the 260-lb. blob we submitted, and knows what has to go that we couldn’t bear to part with ourselves.
    The point is that this was the worst kind of editing: his actual points were exactly what she wanted to blunt, she tried to insert new thoughts that weren’t his, and without exception what she suggested was more turgid (and longer) than what he wrote. And– here’s the real point– all this in a piece that was supposed to represent INDIVIDUALS’ views, not a general survey piece on blogging. There’s a difference between editing and meddling, and that’s what she doesn’t get.

  • http://www.AntlerVision.com R. Moose

    Being a “non-journalist” I wonder if it would have been better to just pull your article instead of letting the “editor” do a hack job on it?
    Or change your name to Alan Smithee? :)
    http://us.imdb.com/Name?Smithee,+Alan

  • http://michaelocc.com Michael O’Connor Clarke

    An unpleasant and unfortunate tale, Jeff. This section in particular leapt out at me:
    “…the audience — especially after the last cablecast war — is becoming accustomed to judging news, even news from the big boys, with a grain of salt…They know that they need to look at what CNN says live through a filter just as they look at what webloggers say through a filter.”
    Indeed. We know to look at what all of them say through a filter. CNN, Fox, the BBC, the NYT, the WSJ, the FT, the CBC, the Guardian – all of them and many more of that ilk.
    Therein lies some of the power and importance of blogs. Trusting the intelligence of the audience, and including blogs as one of the many sources of information available to us, we can filter the feeds to arrive at our own balanced, informed POV.
    For every Aaron Brown, there’s a Joshua Marshall
    For every Geraldo, there’s a Salam Pax.
    The important thing is to keep your filters on regardless of what you’re reading and regardless of the purported credibility of the source. It’s a sad thing to have to acknowledge, but these days a New York Times report is not necessarily any more reliable than a Slashdot post.
    The really sad thing, though, is that while most people fully expect to run anything they read on Slashdot through a credibility filter, they’ll still take the New York Times as gospel (or The Globe & Mail, The National Post, The Telegraph, The Australian, BBC, CTV, whatever).
    That’s dangerous. Worse – it’s slack-jawed, sheep-like acquiesence.
    Think. In the name of God. Read everything, then think.
    If we don’t filter for ourselves, we’re letting others do the filtering for us. And that’s just scary.

  • http://www.gawker.com Elizabeth Spiers

    If you didn’t see it when it came out, you should definitely read Simon Dumenco’s “What Would Madonna Do?” essay. ( http://foliomag.com/ar/marketing_madonna_2/ ) He writes about doing a piece for a women’s magazine wherein the above question got inserted into the lede by some editor who thought she was “adding” something to the piece, thereby stripping poor Simon of his dignity before a circulation of several hundred thousand. it’s hysterical. and dead-on. [Then again, I’m biased. I hate being over-edited.]

  • http://www.kaush.com Kaushik

    I agree with the previous poster who said that good writers shine in both weblogging and journalism. But I also think the adherants of ‘The Economist style guide’ :-) write better weblogs because they are more accessible. People writing the sort of wooly Engli found in Academic journals have trouble finding an audience, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
    But then, academic publications are a breed apart and have their own weird rituals …
    I dont agree with a broad generalization of editors = bad. Just like you would not say that all Iranian weblogs are revolutionary. You happened to run into a bad editor.
    I like weblogs. But I also think they are slightly dangerous in the sense that as a category it encourages ‘on the spur’ commentary that doesnt need a lot of introspection or analysis. People who dont have a lot of discipline (people like me!) can easily fall into the habit.

  • http://www.wirearchy.com Jon Husband

    I am my newspaper…and I become my own final edition …. based on what I choose, seek out and stumble across…and the conversations, real or imagined, I have had…at the end of a day, or the end of a week, or when I stop and reckon.
    I am also my blog…which I become as I grope for words, shine bombastically, utter snide asides, question like a cross and scared youngster…and I know it is me and mine.
    I wish I knew that I could trust all the information and knowledge in my newspaper.

  • http://www.gpwgpw.blogspot.com Giles

    On a completely different subject – my blog has hacked and is now mirroring a radical lefty blog. Needless to say Blogspot havent responded to my emails – so does anyone out there know how to correct the code or where I might find out how to?

  • Ken

    I see the reasons for being unhappy with an editor who tones down the claims for blogging, but I have to admit that I don’t find the phrase “audience content” very clear and am not surprised to see an editor trying to change it. I think some of the other edits are matters of judgment and could be defended, too.
    For example, Jeff may be right that weblogs are revolutionary, but I’m not sure most of the people in the world have even noticed weblogs, so the editor could defend the decision to be more specific about Jeff’s claim and the evidence for it. That ends up making the sentence longer, but good revision goes that way sometimes. I assume that it was only Jeff’s anger that tempted him to give the impression that good editors don’t add words.
    I also have trouble seeing much of a difference in meaning between the two versions of the Trent Lott passage and would be glad to have the, to me, fuzzy bit about “influencers” removed.
    I respect the calm tone I think I hear in the editor’s follow-up email, too. I don’t think the editor has been fully persuaded by some of the bigger claims about the blogosphere in the draft, or perhaps the editor felt that the piece was talking more to blogging insiders than interested outsiders and assuming a little too much or maybe even preaching to the choir. Whatever the case, I don’t find the editor’s work to be nearly as much of a problem as most of the other people who have commented here. Thanks for asking.

  • http://edit.journals.aol.com/zvx/soundandfury jc

    I won’t comment on the merits of any specific edits, I’ll leave that to the qualified. However, being a (albeit somewhat new) blogger and a fierce proponent of blogs as a true content source — from within a major media corporation — I can certainly second Jeff’s frustration about the approach to blogging taken by the “mainstream” media. Its an uphill battle to get those used to profiting from the application of filters to understand that there is indeed a market for the unfiltered — but at least know it is a battle being fought — in some cases from the inside.

  • http://radio.weblogs.com/0107946 Ed Cone

    “Caution: Check bathwater for babies prior to disposal”
    http://radio.weblogs.com/0107946/2003/07/23.html#a644

  • http://youngcurmudgeon.typepad.com/blog Eric Deamer

    “She also wanted me to address the issue of weblog news coming from often anonymous, sometimes unreliable sources”
    Gee, that’s never an issue in non weblog news.
    The bizarre thing is that it seems like she edited with the distinct goal of making the piece as non-funny and as non-controversial as possible. She seemed to be heavily invested in making it as boring as possible and say as little as possible. Maybe tha’s just standard practice at that kind of academic publication or something?

  • button

    GILES:
    Send an email to Phil Ringnalda asking for his help. He is a very advanced geek who is an expert in Blogger and MT. I don’t have his email address handy, but go over to his weblog, and you should be able to get it from his weblog.
    http://philringnalda.com/
    Hope this helps.

  • Auggie, J-school grad

    Jesus, the editor you describe sounds like the J-School grads I worked with — the ones who went on to teach. About 30 years ago Hunter Thompson produced a wonderful description of J-school professors. (Wish I had it handy to quote now.) You write for something like Neiman, that’s the editing you’ll get.

  • Michael

    Good god aren’t we sounding a little pretentious and thin-skinned. The “big media doesn’t get bloggers” rant is getting so tired. And fact is, some of the stuff she edited out of your piece was snarky and silly. But nooooooo, everything is a grand conspiracy to denigrate the Almighty Blogosphere. We’re starting to sound like religious fanactics here. Blogs are what they are. They’re another way to communicate. Some of them excel at that; many fail miserably. You got edited by a mediocre editor. It’s happened to me countless times. It’s no fun. Deal with it.

  • http://www.modempool.com/nucleardann/index.htm Dann

    Hi Jeff,
    Imagine my surprise.
    First, while I find your basic complaint to be credible, your response seems a bit out of scale. She did a hack job. Nothing more.
    And I’d like to add that after James Lileks and Neal Boortz, your site is my third favorite for a daily read/rant.
    Now the surprising part. You are in charge of MLive (and MassLive and NOLA and….).
    Here’s the surprising (IMO) part. Each of those sites is infamous for being inaccessible when it comes to registering complaints or seeking clarification. Specifically, with respect to some of the more dubious censoring/editing that goes on from time to time.
    I find it interesting that while you are personally quite open and accessible, your professional workplace is limited to using blind webforms when it comes to corresponding with the people that provide a similar sort of user based content that you extol in your praise of blogs.
    Regards, Dann

  • http://hackjammer.com/weblogs/bc B.O.

    I certainly never intended to make sweeping generalizations about editors being a bad thing–quite the contrary. But in this particular instance, I have to side with Mr. Jarvis.
    Just as there are good and bad writers, there are good and bad editors (as he notes in his followup post, most of the editors he has worked with don’t essentially rewrite the piece for no good reason).

  • http://www.kittyjoyce.com/azender/log Anne

    As a professional editor, I agree with some points the editor made and not others.
    For example: I

  • Richard A. Heddleson

    Did you mention Harvard?