About Editing

Something Surprising an Editor Can Learn from Ben Bradlee

By Jack Limpert

For a good close-up portrait of an editor at work, pick up Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman.  It’s a lively, entertaining book, and it is so intimate that some of its characters—notably Sally Quinn and Bob Woodward—are not likely to speak to the author again.

The book has lots of insights into how Bradlee made the Washington Post the nation’s hottest newspaper. Late in the book, Himmelman writes about a part of an editor’s job that doesn’t often get talked about:

Ben often says that the main thing he learned from his time in the Navy was damage control. In a speech in Prague in 1990, he talked about how serving as the assistant damage control officer on the USS Philip during World War II had shaped him as a newspaperman. “In that job, one is charged with thinking about trouble and how to handle trouble before it handles you. I’ve often thought that ability to control damage is one of the essential skills of an editor.”

At The Washingtonian, I found damage control was not just an essential skill of an editor, it’s an essential skill if the job isn’t going to drive you crazy. From the outside, it may look like an editor spends most of his time talking with writers and helping them come up with great ideas and great stories. There is  some of that, but an awful lot what an editor does seems a kind of damage control.

*The morning mail brings a certified letter from a law firm.

*The head of production says editorial’s inability to meet deadlines meant $15,000 in overtime costs at the printer.

*The head of accounting says the art director’s use of his company credit card is out of control and some expenses seem to be personal.

*The editor in charge of the intern program says she’s picked the five spring interns but none are minorities.

*The head of the ad department asks how can we write about fashion and not mention the three department stores that ran at least two pages of ads in the issue.

*The head of a local nonprofit calls to complain about the snarky blog post your social writer did about their fundraising event last night.

*In the annual budget meeting, the magazine’s financial consultant says that using a lighter weight paper would save $250,000 a year in paper and postage costs.

*The publisher says he didn’t like the last cover when he first saw it and it now looks like a below average seller on the newsstand.

And that list of potential headaches doesn’t include the ways in which the editor-writer relationship can fray.

When I started as editor at The Washingtonian, it was my first magazine job and after about a year, it seemed there were many more problems and headaches than successes and I began to think I wasn’t cut out for magazines. Then I made a phone call that changed everything. Back then Philadelphia was the nation’s  best monthly city magazine, and its  editor, Alan Halpern, was seen as very smart and successful. I called him and asked if I could spend a day with him to see how he did it. He said sure, and I took the train up to Philly and got some good tips and developed a tremendous respect for Alan. But what I also learned was that as good as he was, he also had headaches and he had to deal with problems that seemed to come from all directions.

So I settled into the Washingtonian job, always trying not to let the problems get me too down. I’d be listening to someone but also saying one of three things to myself:  You can’t please everyone. You can’t win them all. The third one is something that cannot be said in public. In low moments, I used to think that the job was like rolling a big boulder up a hill for 30 days while small creatures were biting at my ankles and then the boulder would roll back down and you had to do it over again. But mostly I thought positively. I figured that sometimes you got handed lemons in life and what a smart person does is figure out how to make lemonade.

I also learned to not let people drop problems on my desk and then walk away. When someone came in with a problem, I’d always ask, “What do you think we should do about it?” I’d try to help them solve the problem, but not take it off their hands. That approach rarely worked with the publisher, but it did with most others at the magazine.

So it’s worth taking a look at the Ben Bradlee book. You’ll get some understanding of what made him great, but you’ll also realize that even the legendary Ben had to deal with a lot of damage control. It comes with the territory.

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