Death of the Editor

Riepl's Law states that "new, further developed types of media never replace the existing modes of media and their usage patterns. Instead, a convergence takes place in their field, leading to a different way and field of use for these older forms."

I don't think that quite covers the whole picture. While "old media" doesn't die, elements of it do.

Today, the 244 year old Encyclopaedia Britanicca announced that they would no longer be printing. Instead, they will continue as a website.

Obviously, that isn't the same thing. Competition from the internet – probably most notably, with Wikipedia – changed the way we use encyclopaediae. This has clearly changed the business of publishing an encyclopaedia to the extent that it is no longer profitable enough to print those 32 leather-bound volumes. The 2010 version of the 15th edition looks like it will be the last.

Wikipedia certainly isn't without its problems– there is some very interesting discussion around some of the issues with its central philosophy in John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin's Hypercritical podcast (episodes 52 and 53) and its focus on notability over truth– problems which would be very difficult to overcome without fundamentally changing Wikipedia's (highly successful) editorial structure.

The problem for Wikipedia is that it doesn't have an editorial voice – a consistent, dedicated point of view. Instead, it uses the editorial voice of others as a measure of "notability", and a system of rules that guide huge numbers of volunteer editors in how to control the even larger numbers of contributors' content.

Although a large part of the £1,195 for the full set must have gone into the costs of printing, binding, storing and shipping the books themselves, its hard to see how the costs of supporting 100 full-time editors and "over 4,000 expert contributors" will be maintained by a £50 a year subscription.

If the important part of a business is the physical, tangible product (ie. the paper on which the words are printed), then the transition of the content to an intangible, fleeting electronic product is a difficult one.

I hope that Britannica survives. The fact is, the business of the print and electronic editions have been separate since 1999, and the electronic version has seen some significant changes over the years (notably, the ability for members of the public to contribute.) But for me, it highlights the importance of the editor – and the struggle that the skill/profession of "editors" is facing.

Elsewhere on the web, the "Curator's Code" has received a fair amount of attention, asking 'writers' on the web to use the symbols "ᔥ" and "↬" to represent where links have been discovered "via" a source, or as a 'hat tip' for 'indirect discovery, story lead or inspiration.' I think its a well-meaning initiative, but Marco Arment has a good breakdown of the problems with crediting sources online – and how the real problems that exist aren't the problems that the Curators Code is aiming to fix.

I see examples of this problem on an almost daily basis; a blog post one day that becomes a bigger story a few days later without any additional thought or insight – often without credit to the original source. Or a minor celebrity rant on Twitter that becomes a newspaper headline. An entire television programme made up of nothing but trawling YouTube for popular clips. (Or worse, outright plagiarism from supposed professionals…)

Just a couple of examples I saw today; took a page from Quora and turned it into a 17-page slideshow In fairness, they provide a link to their source at the start, but the only real "content" they provide in their version of the article are some pictures that don't really add anything to the story. What this illustrates quite clearly is that the value being created by Quora contributors is being absorbed by the unrelated writers/editors at Business Insider. No real contribution to the content, but taking in financial rewards. (I have to wonder how the writers of the answers on Quora which were quoted feel about it. Maybe I should ask the question…)

Perhaps an even clearer illustration of the problem is highlighted by a couple of reaction pieces to the Daily Mail today; a Gawker Media blogger, frustrated by their policy of 'stealing' content without credit or links while being rewarded by becoming the most highly trafficked online newspaper tells the Daily Mail to fuck themselves.

In short, the rewards for holding onto visitors to your website, rather than sending them off to read your source are that you keep their attention (which more often than not translates into advertising revenues.) The rewards for telling people about the content – and giving them a reason to go to the source to read it – are less clearly tangible; for example, the reputation you build, and the respect of your readers. Fine values, no doubt – but not as easy to cash in on as page views.

So, on one hand the "aggregator/content farm" models – pulling in content and ideas and republishing it quickly and cheaply. On the other, the "curator" model – guiding an audience to the interesting parts of the web which a search engine would be unlikely to send you to because you didn't know what you were looking for. All revolving around freely available online content.

I'm just not sure what the role is that this leaves for the professional editor.