For much of the 20th century, the newspaper industry had this curious role filled by “rewrite men” — though, of course, women, too, served these positions. For breaking on-the-scene news, when telegraphs and then faxes couldn’t do the trick, a reporter would get on the phone with a rewrite man and assemble a story live, using notes and standard formatting.
The reporter would speak his story — an impressive feat, actually, having heard a few veterans do this and often trying it to keep up the old tradition — and the rewrite man would record it, transcribe it, clean it up and run it. If you talk to a newspaper reporter of a certain age, she might have stories about the good rewrite men and bad rewrite men. The good ones would take your rough story and turn it into a gem (with the help of other editors too). A rewrite man might go years without ever seeing his byline in a newspaper, never getting any official acknowledgement of his work to put out a finished piece of copy.
Of course, the publishing world has also always had editors, people whose job it is to clean and cut and shape and tighten and strengthen the words of writers. By and large, the writer is the more celebrated role, for the celebrity that comes with a byline — though better salaries and better hours, in addition to the necessary skills, are why editor roles are often filled by those with more experience.
It has occurred to me during the last couple years that people outside of publishing think very little of editors, and with good reason. Aside from the kind of executive editor titles that come with a different kind of prestige, their names appear nowhere with any prominence or direct correlation to specific valued pieces of content. Yet, particularly for a class of young reporters, they are absolutely instrumental in shaping the narratives we consume to help understand the world around us.
It is a curious quirk of the publishing industry that might lead readers to believe that it’s just the listed authors of articles and essays and books and posts who are responsible for what is shared more widely. Though how much influence editors have varies largely by writer, publication and type of content, I’d bet most would be shocked how much and how many people whose names aren’t listed next to content shape it for news organizations in particular — we talked internally of including an editor byline in our redesign, but it felt redundant and self-serving for our purposes now. I’d bet it’s something we see more of in the future.
Think of the food cycle, which includes farmers and distributors and dealers and processors, but most of us only much deal with and think of where we buy that food.
In the fast-paced environment of online news, the expectation that there even is editing is often gone. I’ve had a series of conversations with readers recently that reminded of this, of how much the assumption is that copy comes in the same way it goes out, with nary another eye on it.
Selfishly, that’s hard to hear as it’s a role I now play. I never had much interest in editing being my focus — few young people entering publishing do. The young are vain and eager to establish a kind of reputation that can allow more advanced work in their future. I fully admit fitting in that category, and it’s difficult to get an outside reputation as a good editor. So it’s occurred to me I’ve long undervalued the impact editors have — point of fact, many foundational elements of my early reporting were entirely shaped by editors I never fully thanked because my focus was on my own writing.
Yet as Technically Philly has grown, I’ve taken on different responsibilities as a founder, running the business, selling to keep paying the people around me, constructing its future path. What little time I have left, I am using to fill the necessary role of editor in our three markets, reporting and writing when it’s convenient, but with increasing rarity. Instead my editorial touch is pouring over the work of the very talented reporters who are on our team, pushing them and often adding the kind of context or perspective to their work that comes with covering this space for a half decade. Don’t misinterpret, their work is of remarkable quality. I’m just playing a role that has been done for me and for others in publishing for generations.
Still, I miss being the originator of narratives.
Because of that, whenever I feel that sickeningly human feeling of self-pity coming on for doing less reporting, I think about the rewrite men or other editors (male and female). I have done this for just two years for a tiny niche publication, of no consequence compared to the legends and lions of publishing, but I have learned much in that time. The task requires great humility. There is nobility in it. About being so concerned about getting the story right, about making it good because the words deserve it, that vanity is no match.
It goes the other way too, of course. Like the reporters who knew what rewrite men were the good ones, editors know what reporters are too. “Does she deliver clean copy?” That’s the turn of phrase, what I’ve heard as a way to privately eulogize and chastise reporters around the industry. Any publication of merit is only going to deliver good content, both the information that is gathered and how that information is ordered and delivered. That takes great reporters, but it also takes great editors.
So remember that, when you’re reading an article or a book, or even watching a documentary or listening to a podcast. Often the names most public are just the final deliverers of that work you love. They are important ones, but many others were a part of producing the work and they deserve your thoughts too.