New tools, old tricks

Last month, I wrote a post about Contextly, a new venture that plans to offer more efficient and effective linking tools to journalists. Its founder, Ryan Singel, recently left Wired to focus full-time on the company.

On Twitter, Singel and I got into a productive conversation that I'm still thinking about. Toward the end of our exchange, he forwarded a link to a post by Paul Ford, "Real Editors Ship", that makes a case for the role of editors in an increasingly web-centric world.

I think the end of my post prompted Singel to connect me with Ford's work. I'd made some suggestions that I thought might help Contextly meet the needs of an emerging market, adding:

"These approaches provide a hedge against the decline of traditional publishing models. That's very much needed if you believe (as I do) that a focus on "editorial control" and containers won't prevail in a networked world."

For his part, Ford feels that editors are not appreciated as much as they should be:

"Editors are really valuable, and, the way things are going, undervalued. These are people who are good at process. They think about calendars, schedules, checklists, and get freaked out when schedules slip. Their jobs are to aggregate information, parse it, restructure it, and make sure it meets standards. They are basically QA for language and meaning."

In the post (deprecatingly self-critiqued as "tl;dr"), Ford goes on to observe that hiring editors to solve the stickiest parts of a content problem can be much cheaper and more reliable than trying to perfect an algorithm with the same goal. As we try to sort through the mix of skills, old and emerging, that journalism needs, that's a useful observation.

After reading Ford's work, I was struck by how much I agreed with him. Barriers to entry are gone, content is abundant and the gatekeeper function diminishes by the day. The thing that has changed is not the need for editors, but the roles that they can play.

What remains for editors are the things that Ford highlights: process, schedules and quality when facing a mountain of data. As Ford points out, to make that work, we'll need to teach editors new tools but not necessarily new tricks.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.