Why the web made editors’ jobs harder

Replica of Guttenberg printing press from wikipedia
Replica of Gutenberg printing press from wikipedia

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he made the job of making books a lot easier. The Monk monopoly on bookmaking was over, so it sucked to be a monk. Fortunately, monks learned how to make really good beer, and in the long run, that is a good thing, because beer is good. Because the job of making books was made easier, the portable book was born and soon after the precursors of newspapers. With portable books and newspapers came the occupation of editor. (I am not sure if more beer and more editors are a causal or correlational relationship, but it seems a little too coincidental to ignore.)

Publishing was relatively boring for the next 500 years until the invention of desktop computers and desktop publishing. Some bemoaned page layout software, but many saw it as a way to do more with less (the battle cry of publishers). Desktop publishing was embraced by editors and art directors because it made their jobs easier.

Web 1.0: unfunded mandates
Next came the web. The web offered opportunities to reach a wider audience, faster, cheaper, and with constant updates. But many editors and art directors rejected it because it did not make their jobs easier. Instead, it represented more work to do without the associated extra resources to do it (more on that later). At first, media companies hired ‘webmasters’ to build and run the website. These webmasters were nerdy, but nice. They may or may not have fit in to the culture of the print publication, but what the heck, they took care of the stuff editors didn’t want to and they didn’t gobble up a lot of resources, so we kept them around. They were like mascots.

Webmasters gave way to web editors (who were crusty, like print editors) and then web producers (which nobody even knew existed before actually meeting one). Pretty soon, editors and reporters got mandates from their print bosses to ‘spend 10% of your time blogging’ or similar. The predictable response: Really? WTF? 

When web producers got permission to redesign the company websites, they enlisted web developers in the task. It was a career-building opportunity in a new field to break ground and build something really cool. So they did.

Web redesigns: the beginning of the mess we are in today
The developers and producers talked to editors about taxonomies and content management systems, tagging and keywords — none of which the editors (or, I would venture to guess the producers or developers) understood. Because editors are accustomed to having a lot of control over how things look in a magazine, they assumed this translated to the web. They assumed that the home page and the ‘Design’ or ‘News’ landing pages should be curated by a skilled editor. That is how newspaper front pages are built, that is how magazines are planned, why would it be different for a web front page? They also assumed that readers would read the website the way they designed it — like magazine readers do (never mind the fact that many magazine readers flip from back to front — not front to back).

The result was a quagmire website built on an enterprise dotNET platform with eleven levels of folders, and six different image sizes to make every page look ‘just right’ (and six folders to put the images in!). These sites were built by editors and developers who were trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, they complexified their jobs and systems — which may have been OK in the late 20th century heyday of print journalism when money poured through the door, but this all happened right before the economy went to hell; publishers laid off a third of their workforce and slashed budgets by even more.

In order to update those curated pages, someone had to go through the eleven levels of folders to open the back end, resize the photos, choose which stories to promote, write the extra copy, copy edit the extra copy, and turn three keys at precisely the same time to update a home page (the last part is hyperbole — sorry). After the first few months of this, there was no way an editor had the time to do it all. Updating the website was either left for some young web producer (what’s a web producer, exactly?) or it was not done at all. Usually, it was the latter.

This is one way the web has made editors’ jobs harder instead of easier. Editors and reporters are still mandated to ‘spend 10% of their time blogging’ — but the platform sucks, the landing pages are a mess, the web producer moved on a long time ago, and the bosses in the glass offices are looking at hiring ‘young digital-native millennials’ whenever there’s an opening. (The digital-native millennials are accustomed to WordPress, not EKTRON, TRIDION, or whatever 20th century CMmess (oh please, please let me be the first one to coin THAT term…) the company is using — so they’re not interested in working for the legacy brands. Meanwhile, HuffPo, Daily Beast, Vox, Quartz, Mic and a zillion other digital-first news sites have popped up on smooth-sailing CMSs without the baggage of print production, dotNET systems, or grumpy print editors who do not have an extra 10% of time to ‘blog.’

Digital-first is a pipe dream unless digital makes print EASIER
With the push to move print media companies to digital-first, digital publishing needs to represent an easier workflow than print production. It has to make print editors’ jobs easier, not harder. It is my opinion that digital has to be the initial outlet of content and that the content should be curated into magazines and newspapers from there. There is no silver bullet single answer to the workflow dilemma, but all of the solutions lie with recognizing that there is a problem, looking at the content ecosystem as a whole, and rethinking the workflow. Digging in your heels against progress is not a good path forward, and there are already a LOT of great microbreweries out there, so zymurgy is probably not a great fallback option.

What overlap is there in your print and digital workflow that doesn’t need to be there? What steps of the process are you touching content for print and digital that can be eliminated?


2 thoughts on “Why the web made editors’ jobs harder

  1. Hi, Dan, I think there are a bunch of editors from the New Republic who might “like” this post: http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/real-crisis-journalism-new-republic
    Certainly there are business goals that impinge on the editor’s task… just not sure “easier” is the goal. In a digital eutopia (if such a rosy evolution is upon us) I like to think “more effective” …. or “continued effectiveness” reaching folks (informing, enlightening, educating, persuading) is what were after in a digital think-space.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Clayton,
      Thanks for the comment and the link. We can all be thankful to not work for people who are striving for a ‘vertically integrated digital-media company’ (the guy is obviously NOT an editor). The situation seems to be an example from the other end of the spectrum — a digital doofus with more money than strategy.

      I didn’t mean to imply that the web is supposed to be the Bass-O-Matic of journalism. I just wanted to explore why 18 years after I built my first website — and given that the web is so incredibly important to how people get through their daily lives — and with mobile apps trying to make websites irrelevant — why so many media companies are still fumbling with a web strategy.

      Answer: because the web represented more work to be done with fewer (or no) resources.

      After reading the NY Times internal Innovation Report (www.niemanlab.org/2014/05/the-leaked-new-york-times-innovation-report-is-one-of-the-key-documents-of-this-media-age/), I do not feel so bad about some of what I have experienced in the media world — even the big kids struggle with the same problems that I have struggled with.

      Used to be that there was a huge corporate army (including kids on bicycles) who ran a distribution system to get the NY Times from the printer to everyone’s doorstep, corner store, newspaper machine, and Mom and Pop diner every single morning.

      In digital world there is a web producer.

      I agree that quality of content is the most important piece of the puzzle. Distribution and revenue are the other two pieces.

      Delivering information (in digital utopia or the real world) to a large extent depends on being where people look for information. In the old days, the newspaper showed up on your doorstep every morning and (hopefully) the dog would deliver it to the breakfast table.

      Now people stare at their phones, so they do not even notice the paper they are stepping over. But they notice the push notifications coming from DailyBeast, Quartz, Mic, and Vox…


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