Am I Britain’s Only Journo With Official Job Title – Editor-At-Large?

by martinhesp

Not long ago my bosses at the Western Morning News gave me a new job title – a rather old fashioned one that I am hugely proud of. Editor-at-large might sound odd, but it is a traditional Fleet Street journalistic posting which means…

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Well, let’s be lazy and quote from Wikipedia: “Unlike an editor who works on a publication from day-to-day and is hands on, an editor-at-large will contribute content on a regular or semi-regular basis and will have less of a say on a specific field such as layout, pictures or the publication’s direction.

“However, unlike a writer, they are allowed their own preferences in the content they have to generate and don’t always have to pitch their ideas to the main editor. Though they are still subject to the direction and oversight of chief editors and executive editors, they frequently come up with ideas for other writers to research and write. “At large” means the editor has no specific assignments, but rather works on whatever interests them.”

Some of this job description does not really apply to me – but I am particularly fond of that last line: “Works on whatever interests them…”

It might sound a bit up-your-own-backside-ish – especially to hard working reporters stuck in the office writing endlessly off the back of a diary – but I’d defend this stance to the last breath in my body.  Why? Because if it interests me, it will interest readers – and being interested is why they stick their hands in their pockets and pay to buy the paper.

Of course, you can only say that if you know your readers well – so you could get a little ‘age-ist’ on this one. You really do need to have been around for long enough to know your demographic backwards and have learned through trial and error which buttons to press that will be guaranteed to light up their interest.

In my case that is straightforward – I’ve worked for the WMN for 13 years now and it happens to be a daily newspaper with an almost unique position in the British media – in that it works hard to represent rural life and country people in what is, for the most part, a rural peninsula. I live in the middle of nowhere in that great green swathe, and have done so for most of my life. Two parishes away from my home is a graveyard that plays host to ancestors of mine stretching back hundreds of years. So, I don’t only know the readers – I am, indelibly and inescapably, one of them.

Lots of newspapers used to have an editor-at-large – now I think I might be the only one left, in the UK at any rate. I would dearly love to be proved wrong – and would welcome contact from another journo with the same job title – because I believe it is one that could and should enjoy a renaissance.

In this day and age of digital communications all journalists are asking themselves what comes next.   You only have to be on Twitter for an hour to understand why. Breaking news stories are out there instantly and they are presented free of charge – begging the question why anyone would want to spend good money buying a few leaves of dead tree 24 hours later.

One answer is what some of us might call the value-added stuff – the kind of stories editors-at-large dig up and find when they are out on the road – the tales that wouldn’t get told anywhere else, or by anyone else. Some of these could be termed news-features – others will be out-and-out colour pieces. In my case, I tend to dream up long-running series which appear in the paper as double-page spreads once a week. The present one is about traditional country crafts – which could, I grant you, sound about as fascinating as watching a potter’s wheel go round. Actually, I have become excited about the subject as I am finding all manner of remarkable people up to remarkable things out there beyond the hedgerows. More importantly, the readers are interested – I’ve only done two articles in the series so far and already I’m getting massive feedback.
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Anyway, the bottom-line – the most fundamental thing – about the work of an editor-at-large is that almost all the material is self-sourced. You have to go out and find it. Fail to do that and it doesn’t matter how well you write – you are dead in the water. You need the knack – the nose (and yes, I do have a big nasal appendage) – for finding stories.

I was in the Yukon recently as readers of this blog will know – and while there I learned about the lives of the old Klondike gold prospectors. In a way their lot in life reminded me of the work of an editor-at-large. You are always hunting for that nugget. Mainly you will find gold dust – and that will do handsomely – but every now and again you hit a mother lode. And it might win you some dreary journo award or, better still, might inspire you take the subject further. Some of my humble literary works have been borne from such nuggets – which sounds horribly conceited – but what I really mean to say is that these stories have astonished and excited me enough to nurture them beyond the pages of a newspaper.

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(Gold digging dredge on the Klondike)

Being astonished and excited is why I do the job. It’s the nearest work I can think of which allows you to “live life to the full”, to use the hackneyed phrase. I am paid to be interested, to be surprised and delighted. There aren’t many people who can say that. Which is why I am hugely proud to be an editor-at-large.

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