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Jan. 1, 1889: What does a managing editor do?

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Newspapers Updated: November 30, 2012 - 4:16 PM
 
More than a century ago, the managing editor at a “great morning paper like the Tribune” had a great many responsibilities. He spent a few hours each day just opening mail, dictating letters, fending off job applicants and pacifying “cranks,” all without the aid of a BlackBerry. The Tribune explains:
 

THE MANAGING EDITOR.

 
Some of the Duties and Pleasures of His Position Briefly Outlined.
 
The managing editor, if he would serve his employers and the public well, must have absolute authority in his domain. His orders must be as instantly and unhesitatingly obeyed as though he were a general in command on the field of battle. He has under his direction hundreds of correspondents and sub-editors, and his field of conquest is the world.
 
To give an intelligent idea of the detail of the work of the managing editor of a newspaper like the TRIBUNE would require a summary of the work performed by all other editors and employes as given in the subdivisions of this article, for a managing editor, other than in name, must be thoroughly familiar with every department of newspaper publication, executive, editorial and mechanical. It is not only necessary to know how to plan his own work, and the work of others, but it is equally necessary to know whether the work has been expeditious, economically and intelligently performed.
 
The managing editor is responsible for the general excellence of the newspaper to which he contributes his services. He can in his profession have no friends or favorites, and while always insistent that justice be done, must see to it that everybody renders the best service that the compensation paid could be supposed to procure.
 
In the TRIBUNE office the managing editor arrives at his office about 9 o’clock a.m., and first consults the editor-in-chief and “the old man” in the business department. From them he receives instructions and suggestions as to the policy and plans for the day’s paper. An hour or two is then spent in carefully reading the morning issue and in comparing the work in every department with that to be found in other newspapers. By 11 o’clock special telegraphic directions have been sent out to perhaps a dozen correspondents telling them how to “cover” the important news events of the day that can be anticipated. From 11 to 12:30 the stenographer and typewriters are kept busy putting in proper form from 10 to 50 rapidly dictated letters. After lunch there is usually a delegation of callers that occupy the time for an hour or more. College graduate applicants for editorial positions have to be told that “there are no vacancies;” spring poets have to be gently but firmly dealt with; cranks have to be pacified; explanations have to be made to the persistent man with a “communication” or the woman with a “grievance.” The politician has to be impressed with the fact that all utterances and actions are judged solely from the news standpoint, and that as the TRIBUNE is not an organ the interview with himself that he has so kindly written out must go into the waste basket.
 
 
  "POPULAR IDEA OF A MANAGING EDITOR."
About 3 o’clock comes the serious work of laying the foundations for the plans for the morning paper. There is a consultation with the city editor, the editorial writers and the heads of departments. It is decided as far as possible which of the many items of news shall be given chief prominence, and the editor in chief is informed of the principal news to be published, that he may direct the proper editorial comment to be made. Then comes an hour or two more of opening mail, dictating of telegrams and letters, the rapid reading of manuscripts and the perfecting of the details of the plans.
 
The Washington, New York and Chicago special correspondents are consulted by wire and instructions are given. Then the 200 or 300 Northwestern correspondents are given attention, and a suggestion is offered here and there as needed. About 6 o’clock the advertising solicitors have made their returns to the counting-room, and then it is decided whether tomorrow’s TRIBUNE shall be an 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, 24 or 28 page paper.
 
Incidental to all of this work there is a constant supervision of the expense account. The instructions must be such that there are no unnecessary expenses incurred in the preparation or transmission of news. The maximum of news must be served at a minimum of expense. The managing editor must have full authority to order to be spent $1,000 for the securing of a single piece of good exclusive news, and absolute authority to discharge any person who incurs unnecessary expense in securing unimportant or worthless news.
 
At 6 or 7 o’clock at night the work of issuing the morning TRIBUNE has been so well planned that the detail of execution can safely be trusted to subordinates. Then the managing editor goes home and returns to the office later in the night to see that instructions are being carried out. When he does retire, (for his day’s work has neither beginning nor end) it is with the consciousness that he will be held responsible for any mechanical defect in the paper or seeming lack of judgment in collecting, displaying or commenting upon its news. If there are any “scoops;” if there is a lack of sympathy between the editorial and news columns; if some offensive paragraph has escaped his blue pencil; if a correspondent has failed to do his duty or follow instructions; if his judgment in “O K-ing” certain articles has not been infallible; if a subscriber “kicks” or an advertiser is indignant, then the managing editor is blamed. The chief and the old man [the business manager] both take the TRIBUNE and read it every day.
 
On the other hand, if the TRIBUNE, as it always does, has two or three pieces of interesting and exclusive news, if its features are bright, its make up attractive, its editorials timely and appropriate; its influence great, its news service unexcelled and its earning capacity large, then the managing editor is sometimes complimented in a way which leads him to hope that his salary will be raised sometime.    

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