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On Hiring a New Editor

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 1:32 PM

What degrees and work experience do top editors look for when hiring new staff?

By William Dunkerley

At several conferences I've heard editors debate whom to hire as a new editor: a j-school grad or an English major. Some top editors have a preference for one or the other. Perhaps their opinions are colored by experiences they've had with past hires. Or maybe they are influenced by an education path that has worked out well for them personally.

Yet another point of view favors hiring subject matter experts. An engineering magazine editor said he preferred to hire trained engineers. He believes it is easier to teach an engineer how to edit than it is to get a neophyte editor to understand the engineering field. Also, he said his engineer journalists get more respect and acceptance when they are sent out on assignments to interact with engineers in the field. On the other hand, a different engineer-editor looks at it differently. She prefers to find someone with excellent editing skills and give that person the opportunity to assimilate the technical jargon and concepts.

We conducted a quick survey to gather EO readers' views on these issues. Here is a sampling of the comments we received:

In Favor of J-School Degrees

Melissa Ward Aguilar, a senior editor at Houston Chronicle Media Group, said she'd prefer none of the above. Experience is most important. But she says, "Without experience I guess I would favor a j-school grad, because one would probably have gotten some editing experience at a college paper."

Jon Radulovic, VP of communications at the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, is quick to point out that he would never base a decision on just one item. But if pressed, he said, "having a j-school graduate would be the one we would single out."

There was a lot of support for the j-school route. Kerri Hatt, managing editor at Advance Healthcare News, is one of the advocates. But she adds that she herself was an English major. Concrete International managing editor Keith Tosolt, with a BA in journalism/communications, favors j-school grads, too, especially those with some marketing and PR as well.

"A journalism school grad is a must" for Jane Sutton-Redner, editorial director at World Vision magazine. She adds, "I have degrees in both journalism and English. In my experience journalism school gives you the practical experience to hit the ground running with publishing, whereas English majors need further training." She explained that she did English first and was then "whipped into shape in journalism school."

Editor-in-chief of Massage magazine Karen Menehan favors a bachelor's in journalism. "Without it," she says," I have found that incoming editors think of themselves as content managers rather than truth-seekers. They believe sources should be protected, and that editorial material is a commodity. It is a growing problem."

Rounding out the j-school advocacy is Jef White, executive editor at The Shop magazine. He says, "With today's extremely tight writing windows, numerous publishing deadlines (print, website, social media, etc.), and the lean editorial staffs, there's not much time for senior editors to help new editors with the writing process -- rewrites and major structural edits -- if they don't know it already. I think it's much easier for new editors to pick up the intricacies of a specialized technical area than it is for them to learn to write well in a business environment. Hopefully, j-school takes care of the latter for them before they are even hired."

In Favor of Other Degrees and/or Experience

But some editors, like Melissa Ward Aguilar above, are less fixated on j-school grads. Jeanne McIntyre, director of communications for Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery, would prefer a liberal arts grad. Marydee Ojala, editor-in-chief at Online Searcher, says, "It would be a combination of an English major and expert in the subject area of my publication without editorial experience." Robert Lodder, PhD, editor in chief of the astroanalytical chemistry and astrobiology journal Contact in Context, is expert in the subject area of his publication. He prefers an English major.

Several majors meet the requirements for Jennifer Kilpatrick, VP of editorial at Health Care Books and Journals. She explains, "We are a health care publisher, and our journal and book editors perform tasks such as copyediting, proofreading, and page layout (unlike larger publishers who outsource this work). The graduates she looks for "are generally detail-oriented individuals who like and have an aptitude for this type of work. The medical terminology is learned via on-the-job experience." Her own degree is in English.

A couple of editors pointed out that an applicant's major is not the most important factor. "Academic background is really a small fraction of the considerations. Particularly in hiring senior-level editorial, I look for experiences that parallel the work to be done, apparent curiosity, and demonstrated ability to grasp the field to be covered, and ability to translate that understanding into compelling and useful content," explained Keith Skillman of ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

Gary Vasilash, editor-in-chief at Automotive Design & Production, takes a philosophical look at it and ties things into his own career launch: "It all comes down to whether the person in question is curious and engaged.

"I've hired j-school grads who were completely indifferent to the subject of the publication, so that didn't work out for all involved. As I was an English major (journalism minor), I'm biased in that regard.

"Liberal arts and any ol' grad categories reflect back to the 'curious and engaged' requirements.

"When I was interviewing for my first job -- as an editor on a technical magazine, a technology that I know nothing about -- the man who became my first editor-in-chief said to me, 'I can hire an engineer and train him to write, or hire a writer and teach him engineering.' He opted for the latter, which seemed to work out for both of us."

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.


"I'll take a writer with interest in a magazine's subject area any day over a subject matter expert who is a writer wannabe. Reporters can and do learn city hall, farming, technology, hiking, cooking. But if you don't have the flair for writing, forget about it! As an editor, I don't want to invest my time in fixing basics or adding life to toast-dry copy. --Curt Harler, Freelance Writer/Editor

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