What Is Editing?

Editors are an invisible presence shaping everything in the media.
Who are these people behind the scenes, and what do they do?

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 46
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Virtually everything you read, watch, or hear in the media has been edited. Editors don’t just fix commas – they decide what gets into your consciousness, at least through the window of their medium, and in what form. The power they wield in the media is reminiscent of that old TV show, "Outer Limits": "Do not adjust your television set. We can make it go horizontal. We can make it go vertical."

To make these invisible presences a little more visible, we invited a group of editors in the alternative press to comment on their work. What makes your magazine "alternative"? we asked them. How do you decide what gets into it? What, in essence, is your philosophy of editing? Their answers were as varied as their publications.

Two caveats should be mentioned here: First, by dealing only with magazine editors, we have skewed this round table in the direction of print (as opposed to radio, video, film, etc.) This does not imply that magazine editors are the only real editors – we just know more of them. Second, the following comments have themselves, of course, been edited.

Executive Editor, Utne Reader

Bimonthly, $24/yr, The Fawkes Bldg, 1624 Harmon Pl, Minneapolis, MN 55403

The Utne Reader publishes "the best of the alternative press" (it’s like a Reader’s Digest for the cultural adventurer) and has grown so fast in its five-year history that it has been written up by many as a publishing phenomenon. Dealing with everything from progressive politics to postmodernism, and drawing upon the 1,700 or so publications that regularly pour into its offices, the Reader is an excellent sampler of the many riches to be found beyond the territory of Major Media and his army of mainstream reporters. Jay Walljasper dug his way out of a mountain of magazines to write this report.

As a romantic and slightly ambitious journalism student, the last job in the world I wanted to have was that of editor. I couldn’t imagine being stuck behind a desk all day, poring over other people’s dispatches from world hot spots. What excitement, glamour or social impact was there in doing that? Ernest Hemingway didn’t waste his time polishing other people’s ideas. John Reed didn’t worry about where commas should be placed.

A few years out in the world as a freelance writer dramatically changed my views. I came to understand that writers and reporters resemble oboists and tympani players – or in special cases, first violinists – who play the notes while the editor orchestrates the whole sound of a magazine. While still not a profession dripping in glamour, editing provides me with plenty of excitement and a sense of social impact. In editing the Utne Reader, a whole world of information crosses my desk – much of it timely, important, urgent information that cries out to be heard by a broader public.

There’s an awful lot of big news that doesn’t rate much attention from the mainstream media in the United States, and it’s my mission to uncover this news and publish it. The excellent work of hundreds of fellow editors on alternative publications of all sizes across the U.S. and Canada allows the Utne Reader to present ideas and information not commonly found in The New York Times, Newsweek, or CBS News.

For example, in the course of my five years at the Utne Reader, I have seen hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of news stories about Nicaragua. This small nation has been overrun with U.S. journalists chasing down every conceivable detail about the Sandinistas’ economic policies and the contras’ firepower. Yet I saw almost nothing reported about the environmental impact of the Nicaraguan revolution and the contra war until a small organization in San Francisco, the Environmental Project on Central America, published a fascinating report detailing how impressive environmental initiatives planned by the Sandinistas had to be shelved because of the contra war. Even with squadrons of reporters in Managua, the mainstream press missed this critical news story.

The major media miss a lot of important information that the American people ought to know before forming opinions on topics such as Nicaragua, acid rain, or whether to buy a bus pass instead of a new car. Some of this news is left out for reasons of space and some is suppressed for political or economic reasons. A lot of it is simply overlooked. But thankfully editors at alternative publications dig for news stories in places where many mainstream journalists don’t. They provide the public with a different perspective on the world.

Editor & Publisher, The Black Scholar

Bimonthly, $30/year, PO Box 2869, Oakland, CA 94609

Robert Chrisman is on leave as the editor and publisher of this 20-year-old journal of critical opinion and analysis that he helped to found. He recently moved to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he will teach and train others to continue the important work of making the invisible visible through writing and publishing. When we told him we were talking to editors about editing, he remarked, "It’s a lonely club, isn’t it?" We agreed, and asked him to elaborate.

Being an editor is peculiar, because it’s an invisible presence – but a forceful one. And it’s a presence full of contradictions. In Deadline, U.S.A., Humphrey Bogart says "Stop the presses! I’m going to blow the lid off this town." Well, if any real editor said that, the publisher would call him into the office, write out two weeks pay, and tell him to get his butt on the Greyhound bus.

That image of the editor or the journalist – the crusader who can be relied upon for justice when the people in the institutions are corrupt – is false. That is not the way the media operate. There are contending ideologies, and what various editors do is arbitrate. An editor is an ideologist in a sense, as I am for the cause of black people, or others for the cause of ecology, or women’s issues, or the rights of Standard Oil.

The only honest way to look at the media is to face up to the fact that media is advocacy. But it can be principled advocacy – that is, without name-calling, lies or distortions. I’m much more comfortable with half a dozen arguments that are vigorously advocated than with a publication like Time or Newsweek that pretends to present you with global truth.

And in the ecology of media, I’m interested in the question of large versus small. The huge, titanic media monopolies are inflicting the same non-material damage on the sensibilities of people as the economic monopolies are doing to the environment and people’s living conditions. It’s the same principle – which is a totalistic control. To secure power and profit you have to control all means of production and distribution. You have to establish a monopoly, which means other folks can’t have a say.

The media monopoly ends up creating a non-existent world, a "truth that is not true." How, in fact, do we decide what’s important? Well, it cranks up every Monday morning: we get about five or six major news stories that tell us that an airplane crash is important, that the Baltic incidents are important, or what have you. Two weeks later they have vanished. They may not have brainwashed us into believing anything, but they diverted the brain by not giving it other stuff.

Now The Black Scholar is a relatively small magazine. It’s geared to dealing in a principled way with the most important issues concerning black people, and it taps into a community of black intellectuals, artists, activists and leaders. But it’s an integral unit that gets a high practical and efficient yield of production for the material resources that go into it.

We are also a magazine of commentary rather than a news magazine, so we deal with a topic or news item in an interpretive way. We believe there are general forces and ideas and principles that underlie contemporary reality. So in editing a magazine like ours, we want to see the systems that are at work. They’re quite large and, in some cases, quite old. For example, we currently export our manufacturing processes to, say, North Africa or Asia. Fifty years ago we were importing the labor and had the same people do it here. And a hundred and fifty years ago, we enslaved the labor and brought it here. But it’s the same game.

This is the advantage that the alternative press has over the mainstream, because we’re not in it for money. We have a chance to get in some good analysis that might guide people in quite different ways.

I’ve noticed in society that a radical idea, if it’s lucky, gets picked up by a less radical interest group, who’ll do something with it. Then it gets picked up by another that’s less radical, until finally it becomes establishment policy. It’s like the little gear that turns the big wheel: you do get a little movement going that way, but the little wheel has to turn very fast to generate one or two big turns. I think that’s the function of a journal like ours.

The New Catalyst Quarterly

$10/year (US$15), PO Box 99, Lillooet, BC, Can. V0K 1V0

Chris and Judith Plant, together with their colleague Alice Kidd, form the editorial collective that publishes The New Catalyst Quarterly, an excellent newspaper-style magazine that focuses on a broad range of issues and on the building of "communities which embody the values of the peace, ecology, feminist, green, cooperative and bioregional movements, among others." We asked Judith Plant why there were so few women editors even in the alternative press, and her reply was laconic: "Well, I think it’s part of a general trend, don’t you?" They spoke with us by radio phone from their home and office in Lillooet, where they produce the magazine on computers powered by their own hydroelectric generator.

Judith: We started The New Catalyst because we needed to connect with other people. The number one issue in our own community is forestry, and we knew that there were similar struggles over forestry going on in other parts of the province. We wanted to share experiences with others and to keep the flow of ideas going in order to keep our own spirits up and to maintain – and create – a solidarity amongst communities who are trying to keep their ecological intregrity intact. And I believe it’s working.

We don’t reach a mass audience, but we’re not trying to do that – we wouldn’t even want to be part of the so-called "mass media." We value the paper that our magazine is printed on. The mass media ought to consider the paper they’re using and where it comes from and ask themselves if they really need to put out a lot of what’s published. That’s an important question for all writers to ask themselves.

Chris: We’re essentially trying to do two things: to keep activists – and others who consider themselves within the movement for social change – in touch with one another and encouraged by one another’s ideas and thoughts and actions; but at the same time we want to appeal to a wider audience and make those ideas more popular. Of course, there’s a tension in that double role all the time – but it only takes a handful of people to create enormous social change. We are content to keep the dialogue flowing among those people, and to bring a few extra people into that dialogue as we go, rather than appealing to some abstract mass.

Judith: We feel the integrity of The New Catalyst comes from its rootedness in the grassroots. As editors, we don’t see ourselves so much as filters, but rather as facilitators for giving ordinary people a voice for real issues which are rooted in their communities. Our location itself acts as a kind of editorial filter, because people who want to contact us really have to work at it.

Chris: Sometimes we go after material that is basically unpublishable in the form that it is written, so that we can get a story out of a particular region or about a particular issue. Then, of course, we work with the text to make it readable. But this is what we mean by being rooted in the key issues or the key thoughts of the time.

Judith: We feel that it’s very dangerous to get into the idea that we’re in this to make money. We hope to gain a subsistence living from our work, but we’re not in it for big bucks. We want to create common ground for dialogue between the various "isms" within the broader movement for social change.

Editor & Publisher,

Quarterly, $18/year, Box 11470, Bainbridge Isl. WA 98110

Like many editors, Robert Gilman didn’t start out as one. First he became an astrophysicist, peering into the mysteries of black holes and Mach’s principle and the geometry of what we (perhaps mistakenly) call "outer space." But then, as he relates in IC #12 ("Stories, Facts & Meaning," p. 5), "I felt the urgency of events in the world around me, and decided that the stars could wait but the planet couldn’t." That led him and partner Diane Gilman to begin experimenting with, and teaching others about, ways to live lightly on the planet and to facilitate a graceful cultural transition from the "Age of Empire" to the "Planetary Era." Interviewed (by Executive Editor Alan AtKisson) in his office – which is always in a state of creative disarray – he explained how IN CONTEXT evolved out of those planetary concerns.

Alan: In the media ecosystem, what metaphor would you pick to describe the role of an editor?

Robert: I guess it’s sort of digestive – somewhat like the intestinal wall that lets through those things that are deemed…

Alan: Nourishing?

Robert: Yes. I think people, in this age of info-glut, want you to filter things out for them. The critical issue is not "Are you a filter," but what kind are you? Do you do it with integrity, do you serve your readers and authors?

I also have the image of the editor as a collage artist. In a collage, no single element stands alone – it relates to the other elements and forms an integrated image, a mosaic. The creative contribution of the artist comes from both choosing which elements to include and designing their relationships. The art of editing is very similar.

Alan: How does this apply to IN CONTEXT? What’s different about us?

Robert: IN CONTEXT got going in 1983 because of a need that I felt for a publication that could provide a more focused look at how to create a positive future. Very early on we decided not to do this in an academic or think-tank style. We wanted to make sure that both the left and the right sides of the brain were addressed and that the mind and the heart were addressed as well. We wanted to have a whole-system, whole-person orientation.

We also, early on, decided to avoid what I consider the two easy ways to do journalism. It’s easy, for example, to take on the role of the critic. A considerable amount of what goes under the heading of the alternative media, especially the more politically-minded media, puts a great deal of energy into criticizing what is. This is a very valuable function within the whole ecology, but we felt that there was just not enough energy being directed towards finding out what the genuine, positive alternatives were. So we chose to take the more difficult path of attempting to talk coherently and credibly about what could be. In any change process, it is important to know the "no’s," but real movement doesn’t come until there is some kind of "yes."

The second easy way to do journalism is to frame the activities of innovators in terms of exotica – as something eccentric or titillating. This appeals to the built-in circuitry in the brain that responds with attention to anything that sticks out from the ordinary. But to do this, you often wind up exploiting your sources of information, particularly when you’re dealing with people who are trying to develop new alternatives.

Alan: What do you mean by exploiting?

Robert: When people are experimenting, especially with their lifestyle, they get into a lot of things that don’t work. Only a certain amount has continuing value for the society as a whole. And yet the experimenters need to have some freedom to make mistakes. It’s easy, from a short-term journalistic sense, to go in and find those people who are involved in outrageous mistakes and characterize the whole alternative or experimental process through these mistakes. You get lots of sales, but at the same time you make the work of experimenters in general much more difficult because of the public image that you build around that.

I believe this exploits the reader as well. It distances the reader from those innovators and thus disempowers him or her. So we decided that IN CONTEXT should be a voice for the baby that’s in there with all that bath water, a place where those alternatives that will still be of value a decade from now have a place to be expressed.

Alan: In filtering for those things that do have lasting value – or at least the possibility of lasting value – what criteria do we use?

Robert: Of course, it’s not a terribly well-formulated process. A lot of it winds up being intuitive. But there is a certain amount of historical perspective that we’ve developed in terms of cultural change. We try to identify changes within systems, important systems like housing and communities, the way businesses operate, families, these major components of the culture.

Another of the criteria we use is: does this change function in a way that doesn’t depend simply on reacting against? Does it provide satisfaction on its own? And will it work on a planet of five billion? What are the environmental impacts, what are the social impacts of doing things in this way?

Alan: Given that philosophy, what changes would you like to see in the mainstream media?

Robert: There is a set of journalistic assumptions about what is news that I think need real reexamination. Frequently in the major media news is either of the disaster variety or about things that relate to what public officials are doing. Studies show that something like 75% of the column inches in places like The New York Times are devoted to material either directly from or about public officials. This particular special interest group defines what should be on the public agenda.

Yet increasingly, public officials are on the lagging edge, not the leading edge, of society. So one shift would be for journalists to take a whole-system look at what really defines the public agenda. Journalists need to get exposure, for example, to ecological questions and to the social innovation that’s going on within communities or within companies, and to see these not just as human interest stories, but as vital material – at least as vital as the stuff that’s going on on Capitol Hill.

, Daybreak
Quarterly, $12/year, PO Box 315, Williamsville, NY 14231

Daybreak is an enlightening tabloid-style quarterly that’s not just for Indians; in fact, non-Indians are the primary audience. It represents a reaching out by the Native American community to any who want to hear and learn what Native Americans think about a variety of social and environmental issues. "Of course," says editor-in-chief John Mohawk, "if the non-Indians read it, then the Indians will read it to see what we’re saying to the non-Indians." We spoke with him at a noisy restaurant in Seattle.

There are images of Indians all over America, from coins to football teams, but what’s not there is a serious effort at communicating views from an Indian context about what’s going on in the world. Our vision is to provide that Indian perspective, so we can talk about anything. We’re not forced to follow particular Indian issues – and quite frankly, most Americans could care less about those. The Indian world, for all its geographic proximity, is still a different world, and people don’t have much reason to pay attention to it unless they’re living in it. So most people don’t.

But most Americans do want to hear about water issues or animals, and they will read a story about Indians if they can learn something about the world from it and get some insight into our ways of thinking. So the story has to be reflective. It can’t just simply be a story.

Which means, in the end, employing a pretty heavy editing hand, because essentially you’re socializing your readership. You’re choosing what is important for them to know about. You’re selecting what is newsworthy and thought-worthy and trying to stimulate their thinking. That requires quite a lot of selection, because there are volumes of stories we could chase down.

There’s a sense in America that things are coming unglued. This is not an unfounded fear. One could almost call it an observation rather than an inkling. Lots of people are interested in questions like, "How are we living as a people? What does it mean to be human on a planet with finite resources?" There are 10,000 similar questions that the Anglo-American culture simply never came to grips with. It was so obsessed originally with its religion and its sense of itself that it discounted everything else – animals, fish, birds, people, whatever. And now that it’s discovering that it needs to think about those things, it doesn’t know what to think.

So we’ve been trying to fill in some gaps by helping people think about how other people think.

Magazine readers, I’m sorry to say, don’t have a long attention span. They want stories that are less than 4,500 words long, and some things take more than 4,500 words to tell. And the material itself is designed to be consumed, so you have to have pictures and big headlines to draw people into the message. You have to grab them right away by telling them what it is you’re talking about. So I find that in the editing, you’re asking yourself questions like "How many seconds have I been reading this? Am I into it yet?" That’s very different from editing a book, where you don’t have to get to the point until page 68.

But magazine readers are loyal. They want what you’re bringing them. They don’t buy it because it’s got a nice cover or because it’s got good graphics. They buy it because they get something out of it.

We appeal to a well-educated audience, so I pick millennial things to discuss. For example, we did an article on prophesies that gave readers a chance to experience a straightforward, serious discussion about the topic, from a people who take seriously the idea that if humans misbehave, nature will retaliate – that when one commits crimes against nature, there’s a penalty. And there’s no "time out," no appeals process, no nothin’! If you screw up the planet, you die.

There’s a lot to be said about that. The huge difference between us and others who have tried to represent these kinds of positions is that we fundamentally believe people are responsible for their own thinking. We’re not trying to sell anybody any elixirs, and we’re not promising anything. The Indian way that I know says that the most important thing you have is your mind. You’re supposed to take responsibility for it all the time, and encourage other people to the same. The democratic tradition in the Indian world comes out of this respect for everybody’s intelligence, and I think it’s essential to look at an editor’s job in the same way.

Environmental Writing 101

by Michael Frome

Michael Frome is a medaled veteran of environmental reporting and advocacy whose many books (Conscience of a Conservationist; Promised Land: Adventures and Encounters in Wild America) document the emergence of an environmental ethic in the U.S. over the last thirty years. He currently heads a program in Environmental Journalism at Western Washington University (Bellingham) where he is training the next generation of reportorial crusaders. He shared these comments on educating young writers over beers on his back porch.

People are quick to focus on cognitive values – on numbers and lines. I like to quote Einstein, who said "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I would add, "Feeling is more important than fact." I think that’s good science as well as good writing.

You know, writing is tough. That’s why very few people make a living at it. You’ve got to want to do it real badly. And if you want to be an environmental writer, you need to know what you’re writing about. You’ve got to read a lot, write a lot, ask a lot of questions, and go out and research.

But all resource education should begin in the University of the Wilderness. A student came to me once with this little passage he’d found in John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk To The Gulf. Muir had no money; he didn’t need any money. He came to a little cemetery in Georgia, and he found it so peaceful – because it had all these beautiful trees, magnolias and live oak and beautiful shrubs – that he slept there. He commented that death should bring no fear – but he did complain about people being put in pine boxes so they couldn’t get out.

So it occurred to me that in the beginning of training in environmental resource studies – in the ideal scenario – we could all go out and spend the night in the cemetery without saying a word to each other. We’d just listen to the sounds and to the cemetery itself, learn its old thoughts, and think about what they mean. Maybe the next morning we would talk about it, or write about it, or dance about it, or act it out. And then – before we ever got to the science – we’d be ready to read John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

When the Pope came to this country, he said "We need more than social reformists. We need saints." Well I’d say, "We need more than social reformists. We need revolutionaries." We need a revolution in ideas and ideals.

Think of all of the talent that goes into television. Think of all the talent that goes into making cars in the auto industry, and it comes up with a negative benefit. Think how we could use that as a positive. We need to change all of that, and not only because of the ozone layer and the acid rain, but because we ought to live better. We ought to live a more fulfilling existence. If you want to get religious about it, we’re all in search of salvation and redemption.

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