Journalism career planning: moving from editorial to publishing

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

There are three possible stages in a journalist’s career, and each transition is very painful and difficult.

The first stage is that of the reporter. You are responsible for your own work, and nobody else’s. Occasionally you work as part of a team, or use a researcher or other assistant. But you’re most often on your own. The goal is to report and write the best possible story within the constraints of your publication’s editorial guidelines.

If you stay a reporter, your career moves include switching to a better beat, or moving to a larger media outlet. You can also write books, give speeches, or appear as a guest on television programs.

Except for the rare star, your salary options are pretty limited.

Those who become frustrated with not being able to achieve the status they’re looking for, or get tired of the stress or not making enough money to live on, often switch to public relations or teching.

The next stage is editing.

Editors move from copy editing, to editing specific sections, to being managing editor, then to editor in chief. Editors can also move from smaller markets to larger or more prestigious or better-paying ones.

Except for copy editing, these are mostly management positions. You assign stories, train writers and other editors, deal with schedules and financial budgets.

Writers who switch to being editors are often very sad to give up the craft of writing, and may return. Some keep their hand in by writing editorials and occasional columns — the productive approach. Others deals with it unproductively, insisting on rewriting their writers’ stories the way they would have done it, even if it doesn’t make the product any better.

Editors are also not on the front lines of journalism, and may miss the rush and excitement of covering big stories, and may resent their reporters.

Editors are also invisible — they rarely get awards or write books about their experiences or get interviewed on television. They don’t see their names on top of articles, just in the mastheads, which nobody ever reads.

Finally, when journalists become editors, they lose the camaraderie of the reporting craft. In the “us against them” world of journalism, editors are the ones who spike stories, make unnecessary changes, deny travel requests — pretty much everything bad that happens to reporters comes from editors. (Or seems to.)

As a result of all of this, leaving reporting for editing is an emotionally difficult decision. Many editors were never reporters, going into editing straight out of college. They probably make the best editors — they picked this career to start with, and they have few or no regrets about not writing.

I’m currently in the process of making this transition, and I do have to say that I like editing better than reporting. I love reporting and am good at it, but I’m certainly not better than all my writers put together, and I very much enjoy the process of producing something much larger than what I could do alone.

Reporters who make the transition within an existing organizational framework get support — other editors to lean on, maybe even classes and other kinds of organized training.

When you run a foreign bureau, these resources are usually not available, unfortunately.

The last phase of a journalism career is publishing. Typically, publishers are hired from the ad sales side, and occasioally from distribution. It’s rare that an editor makes the move to publisher.

Publishers need to be able to raise money — either from advertising, from circulation, or from donations. these are not skills that editors have. In fact, editors are generally kept deliberately isolated from the business side of operations. And for good reason. But it makes for a very difficult transition.

When Nation editor Victor Navarsky made the move to publisher, he took a business class at Harvard Business School to help deal with ths. (You can read more about this in Staying power, a piece in the Guardian that ran in 2005.)

An MBA wouldn’t hurt either, according to ASBPE’s Reinventing your publishing career.

Signing off in Shanghai,