Before anyone makes any assumptions, this is not specifically about editorial issues on E2, although it may have some bearing on that subject (see the last couple of paragraphs for E2-related material).
It is about the editorial stance of publications in general, including real paper publications and those on the web. It is written from the standpoint of someone who has wide experience of business magazine publishing, and limited experience of newspapers, TV and other media.
There are four main groups of people involved in the development of an editorial stance on any publication
A fifth group is sometimes involved:advertisers
The publisher is basically the person who looks after the money. Usually publishers are not concerned with the day-to-day editorial issues, so long as the money is behaving itself. If the thing starts losing money, then publishers can start to get very interested in the editorial content. Often, this interest makes a bad situation worse.
You might think the editorial team is in total control of the editorial philosophy. Yes and no. Certainly they have the power to do anything. The most important power of the editorial team is that they decide what gets published and what gets dropped. This power is far more important than any other power possessed by the editorial team. And basically, the editor makes that decision on his or her own. It is a decision made in a moment, based on all sorts of things, and is not necessarily consistent from day to day or hour to hour. One thing I have seen in all successful editors, however, is that once a decision is made, it is very rarely reversed.
Apart from making those fundamental decisions, the editors usually will tweak stuff that is good, but not quite good enough: things like changing the punctuation and spelling, references and so on so that they conform with some recognisable style; maybe nipping and tucking to ensure an argument makes sense, or fits into the space available. This is mostly house-keeping stuff.
Publications are essentially ephemeral. One version of the publication is forgotten very soon after publication, so the emphasis is always on the next issue, on the future and how one can retain and attract readers with each subsequent issue. If mistakes were made in the past, there is no point dwelling on them. The only useful approach is to look to the future and make sure the next issue is relevant, informative and useful. If there are lessons to be learned from the past, then by all means learn them to avoid future mistakes, but don’t dwell on the past—whether in terms of mistakes or triumphs. That only distracts attention from the real issue at hand: what goes in the next issue?
The readers are the true masters. Most publications exist primarily to serve their readers. What, after all, is the point of producing a publication, if not to have it read?
The trouble is, few readers will give useful feedback on what works for them and what does not. So the editors have to use their skill and judgement to select material the readers want. There are many ways to do this: surveys and market research are common tools in the professional world. More important, in my opinion, is the need to go out there and talk to the readers, to the people who make up your core audience.
The final part of the equation is the writers and contributors. In most commercial publications, these are the least significant part of the equation. There are (almost) always more willing writers than space to publish them. The exception is highly specialised subject areas. In many publications, the editors use a few familiar writers on a more or less regular basis and develop some kind of relationship with them.
Therefore, the most basic analysis is the publisher who has an idea for a publication. She has matched a group of people who want or need information, with potential revenue sources, such as advertisers and those who might pay for subscriptions. The publisher also puts up the money to get the thing off the ground. The publisher’s priority is to recruit readers who are attractive to the potential advertisers, or who are willing to pay subscriptions.
The publisher selects an editor whose task is to deliver the target readership. He does that by finding out what the target audience wants, and then consistently providing it. Even when the needs of the audience change, it is the editor’s job to monitor the target audience, and deliver whatever they are seeking.
This has to be done within a budget, and the budget is split between salaries for full-time staff, other overheads, and freelance payments. Editors have to be a bit commercial and they work out how much it costs to get a well-written piece into the magazine. Given a choice, they will tend to opt for the cheapest option, whether that be through a freelance, or an agency or written in -house.
Sometimes the advertisers will try to influence editorial policy, by requesting favourable treatment from the editors. Most respectable publications reject such advances, but the relationship can be difficult to manage. If the editor is doing a good job in delivering the target audience, this pressure weakens, but if one advertiser is seen to get favoured treatment, then the pressure from others will intensify.
Next, we have the readers. At the risk of over-generalising, they are not really sure what they want, but will usually recognise something useful or helpful when they see it. And once they see it, they are willing to spend time or money or both to see more.
Finally, we have the writers, who, in the commercial world at least, are told what to do by the editors.
How the writing/editing process works
As writers and editors work together, they get to know what works and what does not. In particular, they develop an understanding of the appropriate level of editorial intervention. Editors tend to be lazy or over-worked, or both and prefer to work with writers whose work needs little or no further editing.
Again, in the commercial world, the editorial team has an idea of what works for their readers, and asks the writers to prepare articles and stories which match this idea. The editors tend to know their writers, and their respective strengths and weaknesses, and assign jobs accordingly. Once the piece is published, some money changes hands and all is clear.
In this case, the editor is in complete control of the situation, deciding what needs to be written, commissioning a writer, editing the resulting piece either harshly or gently depending on circumstance, fitting it on the page and often finding images to illustrate it. The author has relatively little control over the final piece, but is rewarded with some money and often a by-line.
Anyone who has worked in this system for any length of time understands the dynamic, and has developed some relationships with writers and editors and knows what works for them.
However, when a new editor takes over at a publication, the old dynamics don’t necessarily work. The new editor may have a different way of working with contributors. She may simply choose to change the contributors, or the writing style in order to put her stamp on the title, or to tweak the readership base in some direction desired by the publisher.
Whatever the reason, when the editorial stance of the publication changes, then the relationship between writers and editors also changes. In the commercial world, there is no great problem, because a new editor can always find writers willing to work for a share of the freelance budget.
Differences between commercial and voluntary publications
In the voluntary world, however, the dynamics are different. Since the writers are not working for money, there must be some other reward to encourage them to make a contribution. Most often, the reward is some kind of publicity, or exposure. Sometimes it is a kind of critique which helps the writer to test out ideas and writing styles in front of a basically appreciative audience.
The biggest difficulties I see in the voluntary sector, is when the editorial stance changes. In the commercial world, things are clear. The economics work in favour of the editors and against the writers. Supply and demand.
In the voluntary sector, however, the balance of power is different. There are plenty of very good writers out there, and if they are not being paid, then they can choose from a large range of showcases, all of which are prepared to publicise good work by good writers.
Again, over time, writers get familiar with the various showcases on offer, how they work and what benefits they offer. The showcases are in some sense competing for the best writers.
The big difficulty, in my opinion, comes when there is a change of editorial philosophy at one of these showcases. And such a change may come as a result of a change in personnel, or as a deliberate decision by the editorial controllers.
In this case, the editors have to be much more careful. They cannot be as brutal as editors in the commercial world, who drop writers on a whim, and pick up new ones at the mention of a paycheck. If the editors on a volunteer showcase choose to change the criteria of what is desirable and what is not, then they will inevitably see a change in the relationship with some of their writers.
Some will decide that the showcase is no longer for them, and simply move across to another showcase. Others will prefer to fuss and argue that the new policy is inappropriate. Still others will struggle under the new regime, and either succeed or fail.
Relevance to E2
Disclaimer I am neither a god nor an editor on E2, and never have been. I have no idea what thoughts are going through the heads of the power structure gang, but from the outside, and from a distance of six months or so this is what I think is happening. It is an opinion. It is not gospel.
I can see some kind of change going on at E2 in terms of its editorial stance. First there are the obvious signs: raising the bar , honor roll and so on. These are the public pronouncements from the editorial powers that E2 discourages poor writing. They are overt changes that, I think, many applaud.
However, in addition to these notified policy changes, there are also changes in personnel. As noted above, many, if not most, editorial decisions are intensely personal. Any good editor makes their decisions and then sticks with them. Being an editor can be a pain up the backside. Doing it for no money is no fun at all. Inevitably, there is a natural rotation of editors on E2 as some get tired of all the abuse they receive in exchange for spending their time and skills cleaning things up around here.
Because of the very personal nature of editing decisions, there will be a small change in the overall editorial philosophy each time a new editor comes on board. Over time, this can amount to a relatively large change.
In the few months I have been on E2, for example, I think I have seen a slight drift in favour of creative writing. Perhaps that is real, perhaps imaginary. I don’t really know. I just offer it as the kind of change which might take place over time, as the interests and idiosyncracies of one set of editors is replaced by those of another set.
As the editorial philosophy changes, some writers will choose to move on. This is not necessarily bad, though it can appear painful. However, if the editorial powers decide to change the rules too fast, or they become too arbitrary and inconsistent, then there is a danger that too many writers will decide that other showcases can better serve their needs. Personally speaking, I don’t think E2 is anywhere near that stage yet, but there are signs that others do feel the recent list of departures should act as a strong warning sign.
Update 19 Aug 2003 I think E2 now has gone too far too fast. The rapid raising of the bar, followed by the new copyright policy were introduced with no discussion and almost no forewarning on a completely unsuspecting audience. This has, I believe pushed many wavering users over some psychological edge. People are now looking hard at E2 and wondering if it is the right place for them. /Update
E2 is not unique on the web, not by any means. Perhaps it has a higher profile among Everythingians, but there are other showcases with similar standards and similar sense of community. Sometimes E2 will gain good users from those other sites, sometimes E2 will lose its best to them. Those are personal decisions by the contributors.
A personal summary
Just as an aside, I think the editorial regime here is (and remains) relatively relaxed. There are some rules, I think spelt out quite well in the FAQ and University. If a contribution does not adhere to these rules, then it tends to get deleted quite quickly. This reflects real-world practice. However, in contrast to commercial publications, there are plenty of contributions which do not adhere to the rules, yet which either slip through the net, or are allowed through.
In the commercial world, editors read every contribution, and as a matter of course tweak it and adjust it, if they do not simply delete it. On E2, such tweaking of write-ups is considered impolite by the editors, who tend to /msg users with any typos they find. Not everyone heeds this advice, and as a result, spelling and grammar errors get through in large numbers.
So here on E2, the editorial philosophy is not clearly defined, except through the actions of the editorial team. Any writer used to the restrictions of the commercial world finds this fluidity greatly liberating. However, I suspect because a lot of contributors are unused to the slightly arbitrary nature of editorial decisions, the combination of an amorphous and evolving editorial team, with no clear guidelines on content, there is some understandable confusion among the contributors about what is encouraged and what is never permissible or acceptable.