The evolution of the editor

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I’ve been in journalism for close to 30 years. As one would expect, my skills, the tools of the trade and the state of the industry itself have evolved dramatically over that time.

Newsrooms that once functioned under a cloud of cigarette smoke now work in a cloud computing environment. Writers who once tucked a reporter’s notebook in their back pocket now wield a digital voice recorder or a Flip camcorder. Editors who once redlined copy and haggled over how headlines matched the lead art now stress over Web analytics and keyword selection.

Here’s a chronology of this journalist’s journey from wide-eyed reporter to squint-eyed digital retread:

1982-83

Role: Cub reporter

Indispensible tools: Reporter’s notebook, ashtray

Key job skills developed: Meeting a deadline, preparing for an interview

Key performance indicator: Number of times a week my old-school editor yelled at me for being a dumb-ass, know-nothing cub reporter. 

A-ha moment: For a series of mind-numbing interviews with dozens of political candidates running for state and local positions in an upcoming election, I relied on an interview guide with a series of stock questions. I thought that was sufficient – until one candidate commented toward the end of an interview, “You’re probably wondering why I switched parties.” As I stuttered a reply, it was clear I knew nothing about his background - and he knew it. From that moment on, I always did my homework before an interview. 

 

1989-91

Role: Department editor

Indispensible tools: 3Com mail, XyWrite, Atex

Key job skills developed: Writing headlines, rewriting leads, developing stories, managing reporters

Key performance indicator: Number of times a week a reporter complained that I “completely changed the meaning of the story.”

A-ha moment: When I made a reporter cry for missing a deadline.

1994-96

Role: News editor

Indispensible tools: Toshiba T1000 notebook (we had a pool of three that the staff of 20 or so had to share and "sign out" for road trips), 28.8K-bps modem, Microsoft LAN Manager, CompuServe forums, Netscape Navigator

Key job skills developed: Writing, editing and filing stories from Comdex and other live events; the beginning of a Web-first publishing mindset.

Key performance indicator: The “scoop scoreboard” – used to track our news team’s performance vs. competitors. The reporters hated it.

A-ha moment: A tie: The first time we published a Page 1 story online ahead of the print publication, and publishing our first audio and video content on the Web.

1999-2000

Role: Executive News Editor

Indispensible tools: IBM ThinkPad (below), 56K-bps modem, Internet Explorer, Lotus Notes (ugh) 

Key job skills developed: Balancing weekly print and daily online schedules; managing cross-over staff; basic HTML

Key performance indicator: Page hits, reporter salaries (the dot.com boom drove compensation through the roof)

A-ha moment: A negative column I wrote about Apple was picked apart and linked to by a prominent Mac proponent. I received hundreds of flame mails questioning my knowledge, my manhood, my right to live. This was my first real taste of the power of online communities and the ease of content syndication on the Web. 

2004-2006

Role: Editor in Chief

Indispensible tools: Microsoft Office, Google Search, Sony digital recorder, Audacity, Quark Publishing System and a god-awful, proprietary Web CMS and blog platform.

Key job skills developed: Assembling an editorial staff, launching a website from scratch, blogging, Webinar production, managing a P&L (mostly L), disassembling an editorial staff.

Key performance indicators: Page views, unique visitors, CPM, CPL, print/online revenue split

A-ha moment: When the CEO tells you it’s time to come up with a new business model, your publication’s days are numbered.

2006-present

Role: Consultant, Editor

Indispensible tools: Drupal, Google Search, Google Docs, Google Mail, Google Analytics, Google Reader, Google Trends, MailChimp, Twitter, TweetMeme, LinkedIn, Basecamp, Bluetooth, WiFi, wireless broadband.

(I don’t know if the growing list of “indispensible” tools has made me more efficient or more distracted. Probably both.)

Key job skills developed: Social media, content aggregation, the “good enough” rule for Web publishing

Key performance indicators: page views, unique visitors, time spent, bounce rate, newsletter open rate, newsletter click-throughs, number of re-tweets, etc. etc. etc.

A-ha moment: Realizing I’ve been a journalist for close to 30 years. 

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