Twilight of the Editors

As I’m in high job-hunting mode, I have spent a fair bit of time poring over job listings on Media Bistro, Craigslist and the like, and am noticing a disturbing trend. Yesterday, I read an ad for an editor job that listed “dog owner” as a prerequisite. Today I saw an ad for a technology editor job at CNet that required the applicant to know how to install car stereos.

Another variant is setting the expectation that an editor be a “fan” of the subject matter. “Are you passionate about the mobile space? Do you ask strangers what they think of their phones, the services on them, how it could be better?” reads another craigslist ad for a copywriter for a phone company. Yeesh, do they want to hire a professional writer, or a phone fetishist? There is no such thing as a specialized phone-writer, as this breathless and witless ad suggests, no more than there are chefs in the culinary world who prepare only eggplant. And I doubt that this same company required their lead developer or their graphic designer to be a phone phreak. So why do companies looking for editorial staff think that they are hiring a hobbyist or a fan, rather than a professional?

Great writers and editors are experts in one thing–writing and editing. The best are passionate about ideas and the technology of communication, driven by an allegiance to the great institutions and traditions of literature at one end of the spectrum, or to the grace and economy of commerce and professionalism and the promise of the information frontier on the other.

I spent several years as a beauty writer for InStyle, working for a beauty editor who never wore so much as chapstick. Part of an editor’s job is to “get” their subject matter on a higher plane than personal engagement. If anything, the absence of personal preferences and passions could be construed as a plus–you want an editor to be making decisions based on the gestalt of the publication, not personal interests. One of the best editors I have ever worked for confessed to being essentially indifferent to the subject matter of her publication, but she was passionately engaged in making it the best publication in the country on that topic, and she was doubly passionate about working with writers on stories they cared about. I myself have written a parenting column, a business intelligence column, a pop culture column, and a nightlife column, at various points in my career, not because I’m some kind of evangelist for those topics, but because I’m a writer and it’s what I do.

My mother, who is a graphic designer, experienced a similar thing when desktop publishing was first the rage in the 80s. Suddenly, design was something “anyone” could do, and the profession was devalued…. until people began to tire of ugliness and the resultant inutility, and quietly hired the designers back. I do think that much like the dip in the graphic design profession, this de-professionalisation of the editorial arts is a natural response to the democratization of media–and that like design, the pendulum will swing back for us one day. I do feel a bit sad about my lousy timing–selfishly, I’d far rather be alive during a heyday than a twilight, but there you have it.

Thanks to Nancy for fueling my discontent by turning me onto the dyspeptic genius of our fellow journalist Kevin Allman on this same eerie topic.

One Comment

  1. Posted June 5, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the core thesis of your post and also believe that the ability to abstract is rare.

    I think these super-specialised job descriptions miss that crucial point, to their own peril.

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