PPA: Rise of the Super Editor

A last minute invite has me on a panel at the Periodical Publishers Association half day conference: The Rise of the Super Editor. It’s largely about talking the range of skills required of a editors in the digital converged age. We’re all being asked to do from producing and editing text content now to producing podcasts and designing websites and now web services. What skills are needed?

“Magazine” editor in a digital age

Jonah Bloom of Advertising Age (USA) kicked things off. He started off just publishing magazines. They publish a ‘newspaper’, e-mail newsletters as well as produce a couple of conferences a year.

We don’t have a magazine at the centre of our business model. We have a consumer at the centre of our business model.

The major difference in the US was the pace of broadband adoption. The first thing that had to happen was that the print publication had to evolve. The first change was a major exclusive on an advertising takeover. They felt they could hold the story until Monday, but someone else broke it on the web before them. It was a bit of a turning point. Frankly, nothing holds. The news will break on the web. The print product had to evolve to become useful to readers in ways than just telling them what they didn’t know. The print product had to go behind and beyond the news, do more service journalism. They had to do more investigative journalism.

They have just under 1,000 blogs in their space. Many of them live off of the content that they produce, which was a slight annoyance. That is one of the threats. (I might disagree with that as a threat.)

He also wanted to talk about the opportunities. They have risen from about 100,000 registered web users to more than 700,000 from Q4 2004 to Q3 2007.

You can ‘slice and dice’ your audience. Ad Age has been able to tailor their content to niches in their audience. They could re-purpose their content their content for their media, magazine or digital communities.

You can hear your readers. Your connection to your readers 10 years ago was when you and your publisher came up with a survey and asked them if your content was ‘useful, very useful or very, very useful’. Now, you can see from statistics, polls and interactive features what people are reading and thinking. They harvest comments on their pieces for new stories. He gave the example of a feature on ‘How would you fix The Gap?’.

They transformed their letter pages, Adages, into a blog. Their ad critic, Bob Garfield, has his own blog, and they are even blogging about the 2008 presidential campaign. They have two blogs created by their readers, a small agency blog and also a blog about multicultural issues.

Five or 10 years ago, it would have been scary to send people to other sources or your competitors. Now, we link out. We try to put ourselves at the centre of the community. They have a list of the best ad sites based on Google and Technorati ranking.

They allow people to share their stories through Google reader, Netvibes, Bloglines and other sites. They built a Facebook widget.

They have three types of video. They set up a video studio in a ‘broom closet’ and spent $20,000 for a two-camera setup. They do event coverage in their space. Editing the video from a two-day conference into three minutes is truly a challenge.


I wasn’t planning to blog this conference, but this is an excellent snapshot into the reality that we as journalists and editors confront every day. I went to school to become a print journalist, and as I’ve often said, the only digital offering when I was at university (graduated mid-year 1993) was a computer-assisted reporting class. I learned web skills, audio and simple video editing all on the job. Most of this, I just picked up on my own. I took the initiative. The BBC does have a relatively good professional development programme, but for many smaller and less well funded (it was well funded when I was there) organisations, training is out of self initiative not necessarily out of structured programmes.

To journalism students, I say that you should prepare for a lifetime of learning, and your job will change over time. The entire industry is in state of flux, and you will be called on to fill a variety of roles.

The same goes for journalists. I don’t really understand journalists who want to freeze their jobs in amber and pine for some glory days of being able to focus on one task. That’s just not been my experience professionally. I’ve always had to multi-task as a journalist even when my only job was print reporter.

I’ve always been excited about multi-media story telling, and I’ve tried to learn lessons from the great print journalists, photographers, video editors and camera men and women and radio journalists I’ve worked with. I took the initiative because I was interested in doing it.

Ryan Sholin gathered up a good list of skills for new media journalism. I think for editors and journalists, it’s always been about knowing the art of the possible. Ask yourself:

  • What is the story?
  • What are the elements?
  • What format – text, audio, video, and interactive – is the best way to tell the different elements of that story?
  • Longer term, how do I put the technology in place to take advantage of digital opportunities?

And digital allows us to not just tell the story and leave it, but tell the breaking story and build on it.

And one final point, as Jonah Bloom said during a Q&A:

If you think that you just want to be a print writer and write 2,000 words, you can still do that. But you better be damn good at it.

Not everyone has to be all things to all digital editors, but the industry really needs digital natives to serve increasingly digital audiences.

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