Being an Editor: A Lot of It Is a Balancing Act

By Jack Limpert

An earlier post, “The Yin and Yang of Being an Editor,” focused on the warm-and-cold-blooded duality of being an editor. Most of that post was on the need for an editor to have a cold-blooded side, being decisive about how you spend money and how quick you are to swing the editorial axe. In truth, a good editor is supportive and warm-blooded most of the time, bringing out the axe only when necessary.

Beyond that, there is a lot of yin and yang in what an editor does.

The most important day of the year for me was the annual budget meeting, when the publisher and the numbers people decided how much money the editor could spend in the coming year. At The Washingtonian, it was serious business—the numbers you got that day determined a lot of what you could do the next year. The duality there was short-term versus long-term. The numbers people focused on the next year, keeping costs as low as possible. Can we use a lighter-weight paper? Can we up the ad side of the ad-edit ratio and publish fewer editorial pages? Aren’t freelance writers a lot cheaper than staff writers?

Sure, I’d tell the numbers people, we can make cuts that probably won’t have much effect on next year’s circulation, but a weaker editorial product is going to affect how many readers renew their subscriptions next year and the year after. One of the magazine’s strengths was its dining coverage—covers featuring best restaurants always were among the top newsstand sellers—so here’s the argument I used: A restaurant has good food and a loyal clientele. The restaurant owner goes to the chef and says, “We’re doing okay but our lobster bisque is very expensive to make and we sell a lot of it. Can’t we use less lobster? Can’t you change the mix just a little so the diners won’t notice the difference?” A lot of what the numbers people always wanted to do was the equivalent of watering the soup. I’d point out that you might be able to get away with it one year but keep doing it and some of those loyal patrons are going to walk out one night and say, “You know, this place isn’t as good as it used to be. Let’s go somewhere else next time.” And once you lose a loyal customer, or a loyal subscriber, you’ll have a very hard time getting them back. So let’s not use cheaper paper or run fewer editorial pages. Let’s not water the soup.

The editorial budget always raised questions: How much do we spend on editors, staff writers, and freelancers? Staff writers are expensive—a good one might make $80,000 a year and do four big pieces a year. Freelancers are much cheaper—a  good piece from an outside writer usually cost $5,000 or less, but freelancers usually need much more hand-holding by editors and many of them aren’t as dependable as staff writers. What balance is going to create the best editorial product and strengthen the magazine’s circulation base?

How much should we spend on the art department staff, on photos, on illustrations? Is it worth having a staff photographer or should we freelance all the photography? If we’re looking for a new design director, how important is the ability to manage the department and how important is creativity? How much does the editor want to have the final say on design questions? Designers like to be clever, to break new ground, to impress other designers. How much cleverness is right—a layout may be clever but how many readers will understand it? Sometimes when I pointed out to a designer that the reader might have to work too hard to understand what’s going on, the designer would say, “They’ll figure it out.” It’s one of the great delusions among designers.

How much should the editor tell the ad department about what’s going to be in the next issue? Giving the ad people a general idea of upcoming stories seemed to make sense—selling ads is really tough work—but how do you make sure they don’t commit the  ad-edit sin of having a salesman tell a potential advertiser: Your business is going to be mentioned in the next issue and you ought to buy an ad. My compromise: Give the ad people generalities but no specifics and they aren’t to ask editorial people who’s mentioned in a story.

How many covers should be aimed at newsstand buyers, pushing service subjects such as best restaurants or top doctors with hard sell cover lines? How many covers should be more serious, classier, lower-key, so as to look better on a coffee table? Dick Stolley, the great founding editor of People magazine, came up with his cover rules. Mine included keep it simple—the newsstand buyer has to understand almost instantly what the cover story is about and that left out some wonderful stories that just couldn’t easily be explained on a cover. Broad interest sells better than narrow interest. Photos sell better than illustrations. Upbeat is better than downbeat. And so on.  Stolley always said “Anything is better than politics” and that was generally true but a new president was good for one cover (Reagan and Clinton were great, Obama was spectacular).

What’s the best way to work with writers? You want writers to be enthusiastic about the stories they’re doing, but it’s the editor’s job to decide yes or no. How many readers will be interested in the subject? Is it worth 2,000 words or 10,000 words? Again it’s a balancing act: You want to keep the writer happy, you have to keep the reader happy.


  1. Love these inside the scenes pieces! And I completely agree with the lobster bisque analogy – flash may bring people to your door, but the quality of the product is what convinces them to stay.

Speak Your Mind