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Monday, March 27, 2006

Editorial Tenure & Editorial Excellence 

The Economist, which I think is the best-written and best-edited business magazine* in the English-speaking world, has made John Micklethwait the 16th editor in its 163 year history. Micklethwait formerly served as the magazine's American editor, with stellar results.

According to MediaLife Magazine:

The U.S. now accounts for almost half the magazine's total circulation, at 515,480 of just under 1.1 million total, and well more than the 160,000 it sells in its home market. Though so unlike U.S. weekly newsmagazines, the Economist has crafted a mystique in the U.S. as a must-read for its global view, especially among business executives, and that led to a doubling of U.S. subscribers in the last decade.

Throughout its history, the Economist's editors have averaged 10.9 years in the top chair. Micklethwait, who is 43, ought to be able to match and extend that average.

I think there's a close connection to be made between length of editorial tenure and the strength of an editorial brand. Recently, I posted about my friend and former colleague Steve Cohn's 20th anniversary at min, the must-read newsletter for consumer magazine executives and advertisers. If you read through the tributes to Steve on the occasion of that anniversary, one pattern clearly emerges--his tenure as editor allows him to serve as the institutional memory of consumer publishing.

I have the pleasure of working with Jim Kristie, the editor and associate publisher of Directors & Boards, who has presided over the magazine for 26 out of its 30 years. Jim's tenure, his memory, his ability to contextualize current corporate governance events and ideas, and his laser-like knowledge of what's really important to corporate board members, makes the magazine a must-read for top corporate directors--who really don't have the time for a typical 'trade' magazine.

In b2b media, we change editors far too often. It gets expensive to pay an editor who's been in the chair for a long time, even if annual raises amount to COLA adjustments. It's hard to keep a top editor interested and engaged when cost-cutting seems to be the only real measure that many publishers use to gauge editorial effectiveness. And ultimately, many owners and publishers (and editors themselves) do a disservice to their magazines and their business by viewing editing as a craft (proper grammar, no run-on sentences, words spelled correctly) as opposed to an art.

Great editors are artists, and great editors edit magazines that are easier to sell and make profitable because they connect completely with their audience.

Will Blythe, writing in this weekend's New York Times Book Review, makes a related point about what makes a great editor in his review of a biography of Harper's editor Willie Morris:

Talents with blue pencil are perhaps less vital than capacities as confessor, backbone, ideal parent and prod to insurrection. Morris's greatest gift to his authors may have been a kind of veneration — he believed his writers could fly, so they flew. "He knew how to feed writers' egos, to make them want to write their best," Bill Moyers, who reported on his American travels for Harper's, once said.

Editorial quality--and the knowledge and experience to know what 'quality' really is--makes a difference. My blog-friend Dave Jung, who is a customer of our type of media, recently offered praise to Martin Rowe of Test and Measurement World for a highly technical piece on the configuration of oscilloscopes.

Says Dave:

As a marketer, you might cringe a little to see a critique of the product offerings, but this is honest, worthwhile writing that engages the reader. And that's what trade publications should be doing, especially when they are talking about the products they cover. It may seem simple, but rarely do trade pubs do this well. T&MW did. Kudos.

I don't know how long Martin Rowe has been with T&MW, but I suspect it's been a while. It takes longevity, and the will to care, to be able to research, write and publish a piece like this.

Publishers: hold onto your best editors and revere them. Make it possible for them to think it impossible to want to do anything else.

*The Economist is veddy British, insisting on calling itself a "paper," rather than a magazine, and staffed with people with names like "Micklethwait."


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