What an Editor Can Learn from Two Super Bowl Winners

By Jack Limpert

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Vince Lombardi won the first two Super Bowls with the same fundamentals that create good journalism.

Sunday is Super Bowl 50. Winner of the first two Super Bowls was Vince Lombardi, and editors can learn something from him.

His philosophy of winning: “Football is two things. It’s blocking and tackling. I don’t care about formations or new offenses or tricks on defense. You block and tackle better than the team you’re playing, you win.”

Translated to editing, the keys to winning journalism are good reporting—find out things that are important or interesting or useful to readers—and clarity, present the reporting clearly so nothing confuses or distracts the reader.

Good reporting is hard work. In the early 1990s I had a New York City cab ride with Oz Elliott, the former editor of Newsweek who was then teaching at Columbia. He said he was seeing a shift in journalism from a passion for good reporting to stories that had lots of attitude but not enough reporting. He saw attitude as a cheap and easy way for a writer to get attention but not an editorial strategy that would keep readers. Oz Elliott would have loved the movie Spotlight and how editor Marty Baron demanded more and more good reporting.

As for clarity, remember the question that Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker, liked to ask: What the hell do you mean?

In magazines, the biggest obstacle to clarity often isn’t the writers, it’s the designers. Early in my editing career, I told a designer I thought the layout was too confusing. His reaction: “They [the readers] will figure it out.”

No, they won’t. They’ll turn the page.
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Another Super Bowl coach whom editors can learn from: Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1980 Ed Kosner, after editing Newsweek, was hired by Rupert Murdoch to edit New York magazine, then in a down period. Here, from Kosner’s book, It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor, is Ed talking about what an editor can do to make any journalistic enterprise successful. It’s not clever, quick, or easy—that’s not how you get great journalism. Here’s what Ed wrote:

It was already clear to me that New York was on the way back, but the advertisers were standoffish. The big department stores never lavished ads on Felker’s New York, but once he was history some of them developed retroactive admiration for him and were frosty to Rupert’s magazine. And then there was the urban legend about a Murdoch conversation with Marvin Traub, the potentate of Bloomingdale’s. When Murdoch pressed Traub to advertise in the Post, Traub replied, “But Rupert, your readers are our shoplifters”—or so the story went. It never happened, of course. In fact the demographics of Post readers were closer to the Times then the News, and Rupert offered a $10,000 bounty to anyone who could prove the colloquy ever happened. But as a metaphor, the shoplifter story was irresistible and it lives on to this day.

As it happened, Traub was one of the first skeptical advertisers I had to try to win over. He showed up with his entourage early on and played Scrooge. Traub was riding high in those days. Bloomingdale’s was being celebrated as a model of hip retailing, and he was its guiding genius. He and his underlings faced me in a circle in the New York dining room, grilling me about my plans for reviving the magazine. Traub’s crossed arms and sour expression made clear to everyone in the room that he was unimpressed with my answers.

The problem was that I was telling him the truth: I had no sexy secret formula for reviving New York. I was simply going to make everything about the magazine better: the ideas, the cover stories, the writers, the headlines and captions, the design, the listings, even the crossword puzzle on the back page. Week by week, issue by issue, the magazine would be transformed, and everybody would know it. In six months, all the qualms about New York would be forgotten.

I told him a story I’d heard about Chuck Noll, the pro football coach who’d taken over the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969. The team was one and thirteen in his first season but made the Super Bowl four times between 1974 and 1980 and won more of them than any other coach’s team. Noll’s simple rule was every time he replaced a player on the roster, it was with a better player. Over time, the incremental upgrade in every element of the Steelers—the offense, defense, special teams, and coaches—made them champions.
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Bottom line: Trick plays and cleverness are very overrated in both football and journalism.

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