Sins of Editors: Not Getting Out of the Bubble

By Jack Limpert

Dick Babcock 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 ideas over the years—here’s something on the dangers of listening too much to other journalists.
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Dick

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.

Jack
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Jack

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.

Dick
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Dick

Another sin, related to your “the world thinks like I do,” is the tendency among editors to pay too much attention to feedback from fellow journalists. I saw it often: We tend to hang around with other editors and writers, listening to them talk about what stories they like or don’t like, what’s new, what’s different. Those conversations can be heavy on cynicism and cleverness.

Phil Merrill, the magazine owner I worked with for 30 years, admired the great football coach Vince Lombardi. Phil said Lombardi’s teams won because they blocked and tackled better than the other team. He felt the same way about journalism—you get good journalism and readers with good reporting and writing, not by trying to be clever.

Social media can be lots of fun, full of irony and cleverness, but journalists who depend on Facebook or Twitter for feedback are kidding themselves.

Meaningful feedback? An editor should have a cup of coffee with the people who are readers. Talk to someone who runs a charity that’s doing good work, to a lawyer who represents people in trouble, to a teacher or physician —see what they think of your journalism.

Get out of the journalism bubble.

Jack

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