What does an editor do?

The question came from the mother of my son’s friend.

And because she is the kind of person not trained to wait for answers, she went ahead and answered the question herself.

“The owners must have you there to make sure there are no mistakes."

I didn’t bother to correct her for two reasons. One, a correction and the ensuing explanation would have taken too long and I wasn’t feeling particularly talkative then. Two, in some ways, she was right.

It wasn’t the first time I had been asked that question. And it definitely wasn’t the last. My usual response is to make a joke. “It’s like being the office boy," is one preferred answer. “I man the phones," is another.

In a 2001 or 2002 issue of Red Herring, the magazine he edited then, MIT Technology Review’s editor Jason Pontin said: “What editors do is not much understood outside publishing. Editors make choices; this story but not that one; this narrative device but not that; that cover photograph; those words. Editors set the style, tone and level of intellectual rigor for a publication; it can be low or high. Most crucially, they define and sternly police an editorial mission…"

Not too many editors here would agree with Pontin’s definition.

There’s nothing about networking and glad-handing in it. Nor does it include daily appearances as an expert on television channels. And it seems to over-emphasize the production aspect of the job, and production is a pejorative for most print editors in India (and that probably explains why their publications end up being the way they are). Indeed, most Indian editors seem to overemphasize the networking aspect of the job, but while the proximity to power, political or financial, does help them build their own brands and, sometimes, bank balances, it does little for their papers.

Still, while I’ve rarely seen a better description of an editor’s role than Pontin’s, and the description has aged well in a decade when the world has changed for most newspapers and magazines (and moved on for many of these). An integrated newsroom does make some interesting demands of an editor and I thought—in a burst of self-indulgence—that it might be illuminating (to whom, I am not sure) to list these.

The first one is the ability to understand what kind of story works online—and online, what story works with a video and which one doesn’t need one—and what works in print.

Straight news works online, for example, India’s approval for Ikea to open stores.

News with a twist works online too, for example, the fact that Ikea’s famous meatballs won’t be sold in India because the company didn’t get permission to sell food.

Instant analysis and opinion is something that does well online too—for example, India’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back shuffle when it comes to most policy measures including allowing foreign firms to open retail stores.

The news itself, with more in-depth analysis, background, perspective, and a strong what-now angle works in print (journalists like to call this a Day 2 story, only now, it needs to be done on Day 1).

It’s not as complex as a travelling salesman problem, but it needs to be done, and an editor is usually the person who ends up doing this.

The second one is the sensory bandwidth to deal with and process everything that’s happening and which is being aired on 24X7 news channels, Twitter timelines, wire feeds, and internal memos from reporters (For instance, counting the TV and the iPad resting on its dock on my desk, and not counting the phone, I have five screens in my office). Of course, it’s even more important to not react but respond selectively.

Given the first two requirements, being the editor of an integrated newsroom takes considerable physical (the days are long and intense, around 12 hours on average) and mental stamina, and that’s the third requirement. I would have said being editor of an integrated newsroom is a young man’s job, but because I know a certain 53 year-old editor who’s far more physically fit than I shall ever be, I will refrain from doing so.

The fourth requirement is an understanding of the digital medium, not so much in terms of technology (although that would help), but what the technology can do for content and for readers.

Then, there’s everything else mentioned in the Pontin definition, although I would like to expand it to include being the moral compass of the newsroom—not just in terms of professional conduct, but also personal behaviour.