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How to Get Rid of a Problem Editor

Posted on Sunday, December 30, 2018 at 12:37 PM

By William Dunkerley

Q. I'm at the end of my rope with the executive editor I hired three years ago. He was brought in to raise the level of professionalism here. But now he's got so many of my staff annoyed with him that he's a liability instead of an asset. We're a professional association with a $20 million publishing program. We produce two magazines, several newsletters, and a line of books. Our editorial staff is made up of experts in the business field we serve, and my board members are volunteers from the industry we're in.

A few years ago I thought it would be great to spiff up our publications graphically and editorially. Our editors are subject matter experts, not professional editors. The design people are self-taught without prior experience.

I believed hiring an executive editor with publishing experience would be the way to go. So I got one and put him in charge of production and handling nontechnical content. The expert editors still report to me, as do the ad director and the audience promotion manager. They all pretty much run their own departments. I spend most of my time on my association executive duties.

The problem with the executive editor is that he started trying to raise the journalistic standards for the expert editors. He thought their writing was stilted and unclear. He also insisted on strict deadlines. Previously the editors were chronically late. All that made the executive editor unpopular with the expert staff. They came complaining to me about him. I really had to sympathize with them. They even complained to members of my board about it. That put me in a tough place.

Our members have been pleased with the changes they've seen in our publications. We've even seen a rise in our renewal rate. But I just can't tolerate this near revolt by my expert editors. I say the executive editor's got to go. What do you think is the best way to handle the matter?

A. Thank you for your detailed explanation of your situation. I think you were wise to try improving the professionalism in your publications. You seem to be serving an audience of professionals. They have a right to expect a high level of professionalism in the publications they read. Bringing in someone with a solid background in publishing was a good move.

The way you implemented this new approach is, however, very problematic. Here's the situation as I see it:

You have a good-sized publishing operation. But it does not have a full-time leader. You said you spend most of your time on association matters. The publishing process requires close coordination between departments. That's a full-time job for someone, and right now the position is vacant. There is no one actively in the position of publisher.

Of course the expert editors turned up their noses at the executive editor's attempts to professionalize things. His intervention is likely requiring that they learn new skills and become more compliant with important deadlines. It's natural for staff to resist change, especially if the push is not coming from their direct boss.

The executive editor has no line authority over those editors. And you've let them go around him and get to you. That undermines the very thing you set out to do in improving your publications. And to bow to pressure from your board that was instigated by the editors was also self-defeating.

It seems that right from the start the executive editor has not received the support from you that he needs to fulfill your expectations.

It also seems to me that the position you should have created is that of publisher. That person would have all the publication-related departments reporting to him or her. This would be a better structure for implementing the changes you desire.

But there's even more that's needed. Bringing in a publisher to implement change by fiat would be a poor approach. My recommendation would be to hire a publisher and then together initiate a planning process with the rest of the staff. The objective would be to create a shared vision of what needs to be done. You've got to get the expert editors to buy into it. It's important that they understand the importance of upgrading the quality of your publications. A frequent source of failure in making changes is when staff sabotage an initiative they don't believe in. You'll also need to bring your board into agreement. That will make it difficult for staff to undermine your program for change by involving board members.

Now, what should you do with the current executive editor? It's not his fault that he ended up in a no-win situation. Does he have the development potential to fill the publisher slot? Can the strained relationships with the expert editors be repaired? Perhaps offering him training opportunities for the new position would be a step in the right direction. It's usually preferable to solve a problem via that route rather than resorting to a termination.

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

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