When Editors Are Used by Their Editorial Tools

Even the fussiest, text-driven editor has to admit that the boom in interactive, infographic, and other visually engaging content has greatly enhanced the value of what publishers of all stripes are now able to offer readers. “How can we show what we say?” is a question that publishing professionals now routinely ask themselves as they develop material. That’s a good thing, for the most part.

But with the allure of what’s possible comes the illusion of what’s necessary. Many editors, intoxicated by the power of new tools and techniques, have begun to assume that visually arresting presentation adds value by default. Got information to share? Create an infographic. An interactive feature worked here; let’s use it over there. The availability of the medium starts, in effect, to drive — rather than to serve — the content.

Witness “Infographic of the Day,” a feature on Fast Company’s website that I was amused, but also disturbed, to come upon last year. The title says it all: We’re creating an infographic every 24 hours, come hell or high water. Quite a few of my editorial colleagues got all jazzed by this initiative, like they were rooting for the local sports team’s new rookie.

One of these daily infographics that made folks swoon was called “McDonald’s Heat Wave,” a U.S. map in which points of light were used to visualize the distance to the nearest McDonald’s from any given location in the lower 48 states. The result was an eye-catching image of, for lack of a better term, “Big Mac density” in the U.S. It looked cool and kind of made you go, “Wow, dude, you really can’t get away from Mickey D’s east of the Mississippi or on the west coast.” But then I quickly realized that if I put this sparkly thing next to a simple population-density map, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between McDonald’s density and pop density. And if there were a difference, where was the comparison population infographic to prove it? In short, if something new could be learned from the map, the map makers hadn’t bothered to teach it. But, hey, it was an infographic — a picture worth a thousand … no, a million — maybe a billion … served. I mean, words. Are you swooning yet?

You see the phenomenon on TV, too. CNN developed a truly excellent, interactive, wall-size U.S. map, deftly manhandled by John King during the 2008 election season. But then the so-called “magic wall” started being employed, in an enlarged form, for every two-bit display of information that the network could force into it. We viewers lapped it up once, maybe we’ll keep licking our chops every time the thing gets used. The tasteless CNN news editors now seem to pay little mind to whether the tool actually helps to illuminate the substance of a given story. The magic plaything entertains the kiddies, so go ahead and crack the lid of that toy chest again. And again. And again.

So does this unrelenting blitz of the at once brilliant and banal mean we should pout and whimper as we pine for the editorial substance of yesteryear? Of course not. Besides, yesteryear had its own overused dazzlers, even if they weren’t quite as glitzy. Today’s have the power to do much more, though, and in the hands of folks with sound editorial judgment they really can turn good content into great content. But it’s incumbent upon editors and publishers — and everyone in the chain who works for them — not to allow themselves to follow “hell or high water” dictums about when and how the new tricks of the trade should be used. If tools drive your material, haven’t you, in effect, become the tool?

About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

One Response to When Editors Are Used by Their Editorial Tools

  1. kate hallen says:

    This is so true, and the “ruled by tools” idea applies so broadly, on a personal/time/energy level as well as the dilution of informative quality of which you speak–This strikes me often, at the times I realize I’ve been on the computer for hours, choosing, editing, tinkering… sometimes the more-&-more refined/tweaked-info is truly useful, sometimes I feel its only destined to be lost in the void of who notices the diff !

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