Consider the fifth Beatle. Skip past the tedious Paul McCartney-and-Wings riff. Go back to the core. The Fab Four: John, Paul, George and Ringo. And … ?

The concept of the fifth Beatle is so embedded in pop culture that it has been parodied by “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.” Charles Manson once laid claim to the title. Yoko Ono might as well have, to the chagrin of many fans, as did a long list of musicians who sat in with the band before — or after — it became the band.

But who was it really? The question never fails to launch an impassioned boomer debate, but usually acknowledges four true contenders: Bass guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe, who was, indeed, the fifth member of the group before the band became famous; drummer Pete Best, who kept the beat before the Beatles picked up a contract and Ringo Starr; manager Brian Epstein, the guy who made all the mundane backstage stuff happen so all the magical onstage stuff could, or producer George Martin, a musical savant most often credited with creating the Beatles’ groundbreaking sound.

So what does any of this have to do with journalism? Consider not who the fifth Beatle was, but what it was: a powerful metaphor. The anonymous guy behind the scenes. The genius who pulls it all together and makes the parts work better as a whole. The people who stand in and back up and get things started and go away and never get billing and rarely take a bow.

Now consider newsroom assigning editors. Sound familiar?

If language has power — and in journalism it should — what we call something determines how we regard it. Metaphors shape how the world sees us and how we see ourselves. It is time for some new language to describe the role and value of the assigning editor. Even the job title is dated and limiting. There was a day when assigning editors did that and little more: They assigned, often in a bark: “Hey, you! Press conference starts in five minutes. File in-takes to the desk. Make sure you get a quote from the mayor. Keep it short. And don’t get fancy on me.”

But that job long ago expanded to one that just keeps on expanding. Some newsrooms have given a nod to that change by changing the job’s name: Team leader. Story editor. Line editor. Frontline editor. Supervising editor. All touch on rough aspects of the job — but none speak to the complexities or to the whole. Does a team leader edit? Does a line editor lead? It’s a bit like the old story about the elephant in the living room: People standing around can only touch and describe one part, but no one can get their arms around the whole beast.

Think of the metaphors we default to. The most common: traffic cop. Assigning editors keep traffic moving, minimize fender-benders, clear the crosswalk for pedestrians, and prevent any really big wrecks. (The stories get assigned and into the paper, reporters are kept busy and most names are spelled right, the big story du jour gets a little extra time and — whew! — no one is libeled.)

Put some altitude behind that metaphor: air traffic controller. Same job, but faster pace and higher stakes. They’ve got six, or 16, stories circling for a landing. They need to make lightning-speed judgments: what order to bring them down in, which to hold for midair refueling (more reporting), which to divert to a smaller airport (brief it and put it inside). They’ve got single-engine stories and jumbo jets out there. They’re adjusting for sudden weather or mechanical failures. They’re “managing” the incredible expertise and oft-connected ego of pilot/writers. They work among chaos and cacophony, have little time to plan, are responsible for situations beyond their control, and don’t dare schedule a bathroom break. And talk about deadlines!

But those metaphors lag behind the real life of the 21st century assigning editor, with their focus on crisis management. Leadership, creativity, even journalism get lost.

Language Catches Up to Reality

“Listening to Editors’ Difficulties Helps Find Solutions”
– By John F. Greenman
A small group of assigning editors who met in 2005 at the Poynter Institute as part of the Frontline Editors Project was asked to describe what their jobs have become. Their lists were long, revealing and self-contradictory. The red-meat veteran journalist is now also a coach and teacher. Great reporter-writers must don the hats of administration, management and leadership. News judgment is no more important than people judgment. The pit bull must become sheep dog, herding up, down and sideways. They juggle reporters’ eggshell egos with readers’ needs.

Now ask traditional “word people” to learn visual language. Demand mastery of video, audio and online production. And insist they understand not just journalism — but the business model of journalism.

When asked to put their jobs in metaphorical language, the frontliners at Poynter described a multiple personality:

  • Priest-rabbi-guru-shrink, bartender-cabdriver-scout leader: the people who offer comfort, guidance and wisdom, who listen, drive, nurture.
  • Triage doctors in the emergency room: They decide which stories go to the front of the line, which get a few limbs lopped off, and which die for lack of time and equipment.
  • Salvage artists: They take notebook dumps on deadline and transform them into something publishable.

The frontliners also applied some acerbic wit to their metaphorical roles: The guardrail on the interstate. The oil to the engine. Or this one: Duct tape. (“It’s cheap, it holds things together, and it works in any situation.”)
Senior editors across the United States agree, at least in theory, that assigning desks are the make-or-break center of their newsrooms. Good frontliners can make the day’s report, a so-so idea sparkle, a serviceable story sing. Bad ones can break the flow of production, the chain of communication, the spirit of a reporter. Those same editors will tell you their assigning desks are often the weakest parts of their newsrooms, that the jobs are the hardest to hire and promote into, and that many people in the job move up, flare out, or flounder. How often do you hear a young reporter claim their ambition is to be an assigning editor? Even if they honor the job, they don’t see it as much fun.

The challenges are more than anecdotal. A sophisticated “profile” of assigning editors at the frontliners’ meeting showed that the jobs demand a dizzying array of almost contradictory skills: creative and analytical, administrative and emotional, strategic and fast. The profiling firm said it has never seen a job that included so many vital tasks that all had to be done in a minimal amount of time. In other words: a job in which almost everything truly is a priority.

Good people are stumbling under these burdens. And words alone aren’t going to change that reality. But words might hold the power to reflect the job as it has evolved and to respect the power it has to create the atmosphere in which great journalism thrives. Good frontline editors do much more than shovel and save. They conceive and create. They are patient problem-solvers and nimble jugglers. They do their jobs with courage and compassion. They often do it with a sense of humor.

So how about some new metaphors that speak to that rich reality? Assigning editors are honest brokers, linking the reporter and the newsroom, the writer and the reader, the story and the system. They are forces of nature, providing calm in the midst of chaos and creating energy in the midst of a lull. They are the pilots whose steadiness lets great reporters wing walk and the ground control crew that lets great writers soar. They can be the physical manifestation of faith — the ones who still believe in stories, even when the writers lose their way; the ones who believe in the readers, even when circulation flags; the ones who practice journalism as a public service, day in and day out.

New language might help top editors and reporters alike see that they can’t function very well or very long without good assigning editors. And the right metaphors — positive, creative, powerful ones — might help assigning editors, toiling in those anonymous, impossible jobs, stand a little taller. Which brings us back to the fifth Beatle. Where would John, Paul, George or Ringo be without him? Whoever he, or she, is.

Jacqui Banaszynski spent almost 15 years as an editor at newspapers in St. Paul, Minnesota, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. She holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment