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 the kind of damage control that Bradlee talked about.

So it’s worth taking a look at the 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.
This is a shortened version of a 2012 post.

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