When Longtime Editors Talk About Their Sins

By Jack Limpert

One of the editors I’ve long admired is Dick Babcock, who left the practice of law to become a newspaper reporter, a key editor at New York magazine, and then for 20 years the editor of Chicago magazine. We’ve kicked around a lot of ideas over the years—here’s an exchange from today.

I’m tempted to write about the seven deadly sins of editors—though seven may not work. One I sometimes saw was editors treating writers differently depending on whether they liked or disliked them. Is that something you sometimes had to deal with? The number one sin, of course, is not preserving the wall between church and state—that will have to be explained to the youngsters as a quaint 20th century idea.


Good idea. For all my sins, I don’t think I had much trouble with favoring one writer over another. I really drilled myself and my folks on the principle that the story is all—we just want to make it as good as it can be. That overriding goal doesn’t leave room for favorites.

One of my big sins was to fall into the notion that the world thinks like I do. Of course, it doesn’t. But sitting in an office, surrounded by smart, cynical, verbal folks who all read The New Yorker and watch high-toned cable dramas creates a kind of bubble. It’s easy to imagine that everyone has the same interests and instincts as we do.

In the real world, the marketplace is a harsh master. My classic experience with that was the time we pulled a quote out of a story and ran it on the cover. We all thought the quote was the funniest line we had heard in years and applauded ourselves on making the magazine look hip. I probably got 100 calls and letters asking what the hell that quote was all about.

A P.S. about journalists being in the bubble: It’s okay to stay in the bubble if all you want is a small but hip group of readers. What editors traditionally have done is gather enough readers together to bring in meaningful circulation and ad revenues. The digital question: If you want to pay writers to do good work, where’s the money coming from? The print business model is shrinking but still works. Before you give up on print, ask where the digital revenues are. A clever cartoon now circulating on the Internet has a caption that seems too true for journalism: “The Internet is like nature: it’s very big and it basically wants to kill you.”

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