Nothing lasts forever, and that especially is true for any position in journalism, particularly those at the top - editors. As a freelancer, I write for more of them than I have fingers on which to count.
And so earlier this spring I said goodbye to a longtime boss of mine, Rebecca Dravis, formerly of The Advocate. She decided to leave the full time profession of letters to pursue a passion of working with the Girl Scouts. It’s an endeavor she was exposed to while volunteering to lead her daughter’s troop. Honestly, it was the last thing I thought she’d be doing, but people have many talents, so more power to her!
In reflecting on Rebecca leaving the only career she knew since graduating from college, I’ve concluded editors are a peculiar breed.
The toughest of their jobs has to be in daily print journalism. All editors, even freelancers, are concerned with output. Those working at dailies face the starkness of a recurring deadline whose emphasis is not always process, but rather product.
This leaves little margin for innovation, a luxury sometimes left to department editors, or most often to writers. The top gun is something of an anti-Hamlet: Not much rumination, but lots of action, as the papers must be on our doorsteps early the next morning.
To get that product, editors must squeeze as well as stroke their writers. Theodore Bernstein, the late,
Nevertheless, Bernstein recognized that superlative editors tread lightly to avoid changing the meaning of a piece. He concluded that the best talent a confident editor can possess in dealing with a writer is calculated restraint.
Both parties get themselves into trouble when they try to do each other’s jobs. Often they cease to communicate because their perspectives have been blurred by not staying in their respective lanes. Lost in all this is the imperious nature each can assume, often inflamed by the editor as boss, and the writer as producer.
I took my own editorial turn long ago, almost right out of college, for a community newspaper that barely merited that designation. It was a part-time job with a tiny staff. I was curious if I could eventually give up my day job to pursue my own love of word-smithing.
After two years in which I had a lot of fun and learned how much I didn’t know more than how much I thought I did, I turned my focus back to other careers, which provided better security for my growing family.
When I returned to journalism in later life, it took me time to realize how much I had forgotten - both about professional (as opposed to academic) writing, and how differently each new mongoose would stalk my serpent text. So I retrained myself to adjust my writing and now never stop tweaking it to satisfy their needs.
That said, while the editor always holds immediate power, the writer possesses some, albeit more subtle sway: The allegiance of readers. It takes a long time to build, but it counts for a lot.
Writers, particularly at newspapers now facing so many Digital Age challenges, are ultimately at the mercy of their editors. Our best weapon is to keep our fangs sheathed and give the man (or woman) what they want.
As a former editor once told me in full mongoose deadpan: "In journalism, the squeaky wheel doesn’t get the grease; it gets replaced by a wheel that doesn’t squeak."
Wiser words have never been spoken. But in his next breath, that same gatekeeper gave the snake a knowing nod: "If I’ve got a writer in the stable who’s money and produces for me like clockwork, I’m not only willing to forgive a lot, but I’m riding that horse as long and as far as I can."
My ex-boss Rebecca, now in the first weeks of a new chapter in her life, embodied that to the Nth degree. Sure, we disagreed on some minor issues, but whether I was filing a column, feature, or review, she valued my efforts and end results. For that I’ll always be grateful.
But these guys and gals are still tough. I’m not holding my breath for a free box of Girl Scout cookies.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. Email: email@example.com.