The web has a reputation for being scrappier and looser with its editorial standards than traditional print outlets. But even with fewer formal structures for editing and fewer editors, a handful of websites still publish some of the best, most ambitious writing today. How do those editors do it?
I asked a few of my favorite online publications about their editorial processes.
The Morning News has published long-form writing for eight years, which in internet time makes it an institution. (For reference, the most googled woman in 2002 was Jennifer Lopez.) Founding editors Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin, and managing editor Kate Ortega, have established a compassionate approach to editing that’s as thorough as any print publication.
TMN’s ability to attract and publish great writing can be credited to the care they show each piece and the flexibility the editors have in communicating with contributors. Baldwin estimates that 75% of TMN’s content comes from unsolicited ideas, while the remaining quarter are timely topics pitched by the editors to writers.
“We hear from writers that we edit harder and with more concern for their stories than more established venues,” he said. “Our contributors want that, they respect that.”
When a piece comes in, one of the three principal editors takes ownership of the article from start to finish. Additional editors are brought in if something is particularly lengthy or involved. Communication with writers usually goes through email, but is occasionally by phone, IM, and even Twitter. Similarly, editing also happens in email, using Word documents and sometimes Google Docs (“Paul Ford sends me HTML,” said Womack), and the piece goes through as many rounds as necessary before getting a final grammar- and style-check from copy editor Liz Entman Harper.
The site started with just Womack, Baldwin, and Ortega (who joined as an editor in late 2002), all living in Brooklyn, but has since then grown to a team of a dozen editors located across the country, some even abroad. And with more editorial power, the process is, according to Baldwin, “bigger, longer, more professional.”
“More hands on deck means more extensive fact checking, multiple rounds of copyediting, and art assignments. I’d say that the more professional it gets, in terms of trying to produce the best work, the more fun it gets.”
Surprisingly, as the editorial process has become more professional, it has also become less centralized. Now, Womack lives in Austin, TX, and Baldwin is in Chapel Hill, NC, but they videoconference with Ortega weekly. The editors use the most basic features of Backpack, a widely praised project management tool from 37signals.
“We just use checklists,” Andrew Womack said. “It’s faster and easier, and that’s probably why we’ve stuck with it so long.”
Over the past eight years, the editors have tried out a number of different tools and software. Womack recalled an attempt to work an article in Google Wave, which was, in his words, “a disaster.” When I asked him if there was anything he wish existed to ease the editing process, he said, “a USB-powered caffeine drip.”
But the TMN staff does make an effort to meet up — they go on a group retreat every summer.
“We rent a house on Long Island, put everyone up for a weekend, buy their beer, and play Mafia. It’s like Big Brother, but with more quiz games,” Baldwin said.
Not every venerable web publication needs a dozen editors. McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the online presence of the San Francisco-based publisher, is a two-man operation. Christopher Monks has been editing the bulk of McSweeney’s web content since 2007, and along with his predecessor John Warner, who works part-time handling the 15 recurring columnists, they are the only two on McSweeney’s staff that don’t reside in the Bay Area. (Monks is a stay-at-home dad in Boston, MA; Warner resides in Clemson, SC.)
“I upload to the site every morning right here from the MacBook on my dining room table. Usually my two bleary-eyed sons are there watching me, munching on their Golden Grahams, trying to figure out what exactly it is I do for work,” Monks said.
Monks receives roughly 200 submissions a week, which gives him quite a bit to read. But the upside is that he can be picky — almost all of the site’s content comes from unsolicited submissions — and generally, most of the accepted humor pieces don’t need much editing. Monks usually makes a few tweaks to run by the writer before the article is ready for publication. But there are exceptions.
“From time to time a piece will come in with a brilliant conceit, but not great execution, and if I think it’s worth a major overhaul I’ll work with the writer to make it fit for the site,” Monks said.
Monks communicates with writers, and his co-editor, solely by email. Warner uses Google Calendar to schedule recurring columns; Monks organizes humor content about a week in advance. His biggest technological hurdle is the software he uses to run the site, which is so antiquated that he needs to hand-code all the content, upload everything manually, and he can’t even schedule content to run on a future date — all features that are standard in modern platforms.
“The software we use to upload content is very old, like cart-and-buggy-and-men-with-hats-and-funny-mustaches old,” Monks joked.
The platform has gone largely unchanged since McSweeney’s Internet Tendency went live in 1998. (For reference, that was the year Google was launched.) Luckily, the team is in the process of creating an entirely new engine for the site, a project led by McSweeney’s digital media director Russell Quinn, who also designed the gorgeous and eccentric McSweeney’s iPhone app. When I asked if the site’s classic, Times-New-Roman-on-white look would be getting an overhaul as well, Monks said he wanted to keep it a surprise.
“The site’s new engine will probably be the biggest makeover, he said. “The site will be more user friendly, though.”
Less than two years old, The Awl is another site with a two-person editorial team. Its format is somewhat unconventional — the site balances shorter posts and long-form articles daily — and it has a loose but timely focus on media, pop culture, and politics. But editors Choire Sicha and Alex Balk put their content through just as much editorial rigor as long-established publications.
“We have a pretty conventional process,” Sicha said, “although to be fair to ‘conventional,’ I did just technically edit a piece over IM.”
Editorial direction is given by either IM or email conversation (“We never, ever, ever use the telephone. Editing on the telephone is the single worst thing in the world,” said Sicha), and more in-depth edits are handled through Word’s change tracking feature.
Though The Awl receives lots of unsolicited pitches and full submissions, Sicha and Balk also try and solicit content as often as possible. But they remain grateful for the enthusiasm and attention writers give the site. On the day he emailed me, Sicha said that he had 24 articles to edit.
“I consider us extremely lucky to have people willing to write for us given our limited ability to pay attention to the number of things going on.”
Sicha and Balk rarely work out of the same office and almost never see each other in person. They discuss content by IM and email and have occasional meetings in Campfire (another 37signals product). Sicha uses Gmail labels and Google Calendar to manage content and the publishing schedule, but longs for something more comprehensive. With anywhere from ten to forty pieces at different stages in editing at any time, he admits that he has yet to discover any software to keep the process organized.
“We need a shared way between the editors and the writers to read and talk about and edit things and mark them in the process, combined with a scheduling function and a to-do list.” Sicha said. “I really haven’t found any systems that work and that’s very frustrating.”
Though there are a handful of online organization tools, there simply isn’t anything designed specifically for the editorial process. But a less formal editorial structure doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less thorough. Even a two-person team for a young site like Sicha and Balk are able to copyedit and fact- and plagiarism-check. For an online publication, the editorial process has to be improvised, even invented.