Can Old Editors Master Young Technology?

Whenever a fellow 20-something complains about how many Luddites work in the magazine industry, I bring up Brandon Holley, an editor who spent most of her career working in magazines. While she was editor-in-chief of Jane, it folded—as so many magazines have in recent years—and Holley took a job editing Shine, a Yahoo women’s-interest Web site, which draws 25 million visitors per month. “I realized that I had to retool my career and take a step back,” she told The New York Observer; she has admitted that when interviewing for the position, she had to Google Web-speak acronyms to follow what her colleagues were talking about. In September, she came back to magazines as the editor-in-chief of Lucky. She announced plans to incorporate her Web experience as a way to improve the magazine’s Web site, by bringing on a team of bloggers and pushing for more new content rather than simply recycling the content from the print edition. Unlike many other editors, she’d glimpsed the future, and instead of running scared, she got on board.

A few years ago, as an assistant working at a glossy, monthly lifestyle magazine in New York City, I was part of a group that tried to make the same pitch: Young readers want better content from magazine Web sites. Over a boozy office lunch, half a dozen of the magazine’s staffers crowded into a leather booth in a fancy Manhattan restaurant, sharing salads and bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. I was new to the world of magazines and trying to soak up everything I could from the editors around me. The other women at the table were all 20- and 30-somethings at various stages of their careers, from assistants to section editors; we were all there because we’d been invited by our boss, a high-level editor who had 20 more years in the industry than any of us. She helmed the publication with a sharp eye for reporting and giving stories a smart, lively voice.

I was proud to be a part of this magazine, but we junior staffers saw one gaping hole in the magazine’s service to its readers: It had almost no Web presence. Which would be fine—except that magazines like ours were supposed to be young, current and relevant to people in their 20s and 30s. The print edition excelled at this; the Web site definitely did not. As readers of blogs and, even, in many cases, as bloggers ourselves, we planned to use our time with the boss to explain how we might improve the Web site. Frankly, we needed the wine. Otherwise, how else would we ever get up the nerve to upset the inherent underling-boss power dynamic by telling our boss what we thought the magazine was doing wrong?

Nothing new there: Certainly offices, no matter the field, have long had a generational divide, with older, more experienced bosses wanting to continue doing things the way they’ve always done them and fresh blood coming in and wanting to shake things up. What makes this generational divide different from any other before it is that print media are in such a precarious position; this time, in this industry, change is crucial.

Generally, I didn’t consider it my place to challenge or educate my boss; she, and all of my subsequent bosses, have known more than me about every aspect of the industry—except for technology. The young women around the table that day, and in other offices where I’ve since worked, log onto social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter daily, read blogs voraciously and use iPads to read the news from NYTimes.com. The bosses, meanwhile, arrive at work with paper copies of The New York Times tucked under their arms. Most have never read a blog and don’t see much value in social networking. Most have no issue with the fact that six months after the iPad launched, fewer than half a dozen magazines had apps, huge money-makers that can also build awareness of the brands, available for it. According to a recent survey by the Harrison Group, a market research firm, people who own eReaders spend 50 percent more time reading magazines than people who don’t own them. Better yet, 80 percent of eReader users say they wouldn’t mind paying for the content. While many young editors reading those numbers think, “Ka-ching!” I’ve noticed that many older editors merely shake their heads in dismay and disbelief that readers wouldn’t want the tactile experience of flipping through paper pages.

To me, and lots of other younger magazine editors, adapting to technology appears to be a clear way—perhaps the only way—back to steady ground. There’s undeniable evidence that if old-timers cling to the old model, there may be no print media for us 20- and 30-somethings to work for during our own middle age.

Back at the restaurant, bolstered by two pieces of frisée and three glasses of wine, one of the junior editors blurted out to the boss, “We need a blog!” As it stood, our magazine had a Web site with a tab that purported to ink to “blogs,” but the link actually led to a collection of articles that were in the print version that month. There wasn’t much reason to visit our site—or check back: Any reader of blogs would know it wasn’t a true blog; any reader of the magazine would know she wasn’t getting any new content online. By constantly posting new content that covers the same issues as the magazine, in the same witty voice, we could comment on issues and news stories that a publication going to press three months out usually can’t. Even more important, the new content would make the magazine’s site a place that readers would want to come back to and check often, making the magazine a part of their lives every day, not just once a month, which would ideally make readers more excited about and loyal to the brand. We all chimed in, promising that we would write the daily blog posts in addition to our work for the print magazine and that we weren’t asking to receive extra pay for it. (Apparently, eager young editors at other magazines promised the same things; both of these conditions are now industry standard.)

To our delight, our boss raised her glass and said OK.

There was only one small problem: Our boss had never actually read a blog. If you’re a reader of blogs, you know that, as with any medium, there are conventions: frequent updates; a reverse-chronological order; language that’s often casual, off-the-cuff and spontaneous; a first-person narrator; and sometimes even a typo or two. Blogs might be best described as “unfiltered writing”; they’re more about stream-of-consciousness immediacy than labored-over perfection—and that’s where the trouble started. We magazine editors spend our days revising, suggesting revisions and line-editing to make text shine—“unfiltered” is the state in which writing arrives, not the state in which it gets published. There was another problem, too: the issue of letting 20- and 30-somethings write unfiltered stories on behalf of the magazine. Though we would speak about our own experiences and opinions, if we ever said anything that could be seen as offensive, racist, inflammatory, politically unwise or simply out of sync with the magazine’s mission, it would naturally be seen as coming from the magazine—not the individual—which could have significant consequences. (Especially online, a gaffe could quickly go viral. It would certainly be picked up, if not by mainstream papers, then at least by major media-happening blogs such as Gawker.)

The magazine brass decided—understandably—to cover themselves. Which meant that every blog post would follow the same path as any story for the magazine: The writer would type it up, print it out and circulate it to a senior editor. One critical flaw in this system was that the editors tried … well … to do their jobs: to make the posts more polished, to make them sound less like the voice of the writer and more like the voice of the magazine. In print, this is what builds a brand, but on the Web, it made for vanilla, opinion-less, voiceless copy, the very thing that renders a blog moot. Language and tone aside, the most fatal flaw with the blogs being top-edited was that the editors also needed to attend meetings and, you know, put out a magazine. We had agreed to doing extra work for free, but it turned out to be extra work for other people, too, and since most of the top editors were not avid blog-readers or internet users, they still considered the paper version of the magazine to be far more important than content for the Web site. If they were going to read one article, it was going to be one for in-book, not online. As a result, blog entries often languished for hours or even an entire day. By the time the writer got the story back, made the changes from the top editor and e-mailed the document to the Web editor to find a corresponding stock image and post the damn thing, any raucous internet discourse—whatever it was about, from the latest outrageous celebrity antic to the finale of a hot TV show or a development in a newsy court case—was long over. With the Web, there’s no such thing as being fashionably late; it’s more like showing up the day after a surprise party and throwing confetti into an empty room. That wasn’t exactly the Web presence we’d imagined having.

Later, I worked for another magazine, which ignored its Web site completely: There were no blogs, no added content, and only two or three stories per issue that were accessible online. It existed only as a place to sell subscriptions—a huge waste of real estate. At yet another magazine, the editor-in-chief talked endlessly about the importance of having a Twitter account, a Facebook page, several themed blogs and an iPad app; he had mastered all the buzzwords The New York Times kept saying were so important for magazines in the digital age. To accomplish all this, he hired a Web editor, someone with nuts-and-bolts Internet skills (certainly, no one else on staff had those skills, myself included), and then checked out.

But the Web editor was lacking some other skills—namely, editorial ones: Basically, the boss had deputized a 20-something who would’ve never been hired at the magazine to sculpt and represent the magazine’s online voice in its entirety, choosing everything from its blog writers to the photos accompanying posts. How did it turn out? In short, the editors who were young enough to look at the Web site were disappointed because it didn’t maintain any of the quality the magazine was so vigilant about; the most senior editors and the editor-in-chief basically considered the problem solved. They didn’t give any feedback about the site; the Web editor suspected they never once looked at it.

Unfortunately, this head-in-the-sand strategy seems to be quite prevalent among editors born long before the digital shift. Many insist on sticking to old strategies of making great in-book content and focusing on the “print takes precedence” credo. Maybe they’re hoping to retire before the Web becomes not only important but also mandatory for the survival of their publications. I’d argue that it already is, but as long as tech-clueless people run these publications, it’s obviously not.

And when I say tech-clueless, I’m not exaggerating. Indeed, there’s stubborn pride in doing things the old way. I know one editor-in-chief who refuses to use e-mail; her assistant prints out stacks of messages, reads them aloud, waits for dictated responses and then types them up. It’s the kind of thing you expect to see on “Mad Men”—not in the 21st century. I once worked for an editor-in-chief who thought Facebook was for losers, even though many magazines’ Facebook pages get more visitors than their official Web sites. In one meeting, she announced, “People who Twitter are twits.” Actually, I wanted to say, 190 million people (at that time; now it’s more) go to Twitter every month; people—among them certified non-twits like Queen Rania of Jordan, director David Lynch, anti-slavery activist Somaly Mam and, you know, President Barack Obama—send 65 million Tweets a day. (OK, maybe I was especially defensive. I post to Twitter about twice a day.) Later in the conversation, the editor admitted she’d never been on Twitter and didn’t even really understand what it is. (Admittedly, she’s not alone in that. It’s a free Internet micro-blogging service where users post links, observations, news, etc., in 140-character bursts.) My point is only that it’s unwise willfully to ignore something that attracts 190 million people, whether or not you personally find it stupid. By refusing to learn the necessary tech advancements in an industry that needs to evolve to survive, these Luddite editors are basically at the helm of the Titanic, shrieking, “Icebergs are stupid—I don’t want to think about them!”

To be clear, this is not an ageist rant. I’m not saying that if you once used a typewriter at work, you should pack up and go home. I certainly wouldn’t want to lose the expertise and experience that someone who’s worked a lifetime in the industry has to offer. I’ve learned essential skills from the editors for whom I’ve worked: how to shape a story, how to edit a piece while maintaining the writer’s voice, how to navigate industry politics and much more. I agree that the younger crop needs to gain insight and guidance from the industry-savvy old guard, but technology has made this less of a one-way street: Now those more experienced editors also have some things to learn, from SEO to how to Tweet. Don’t know what I mean? Ask one of your subordinates—or, like Brandon Holley, feel free to Google it.

About the Author

Sarah Z. Wexler

Sarah Z. Wexler is the author of Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Going Better. Her writing has also been published in Esquire, Wired, The Washington Post, The New York Post, Marie Claire, Allure, Food Network Magazine, Popular Science and Ladies’ Home Journal, among others.

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