More Thoughts on Being an Editor-at-Large

by martinhesp

The longer I hold this title – editor-at-large – the more it seems to intrigue people.

A pleasant old chap came up to me at a major country show the other day and said: “Love that new job title of yours – it sounds like something I remember from the heydays of Fleet Street.”

Many readers, however, ask exactly what it means – to which I reply: “I’m paid to go sticking my nose into things all around the Westcountry peninsula.”

What I should really say, of course, is that my job is to observe – and I mean, acutely observe – the highs and lows, dips and peaks, stories and anecdotes, the everyday and the extraordinary, mundane and curious, the pleasant and the horrid…

Perceive, then regurgitate. Clock, and scribe. Take on board, then spill out. Understand, and describe. Notice and make noteworthy. Apprehend and interpret.

I could go on, but that would be to make it all sound too vainglorious. Because what an editor-at-large does – in my opinion, at least – is set themselves up to be a kind of litmus paper upon which everything must stick and somehow show.

Every journalist will have his or her way of doing things alongside professional preferences – and I’m not in the business of criticizing anyone. But for a long time now an adherence to bare quotes has loomed very large indeed in some parts of media reporting – and I wonder if the kind of kit-form journalism that universally calls for a brief intro, followed by a bald series of comments from interested parties, is really the full and final extent of what we should be doing.

It is right that the voices of people concerned with a story should be the foundations upon which reporting should be built – and undoubtedly there are many readers, listeners and viewers out there who would be content with just that. But I’m not that sort of consumer when it comes to learning about the world around me – which is why I’m not that sort of journalist.

What I want to know when I read or hear something that intrigues me – after the basic details, of course – is what it must be like to be there. What does it look like, sound like, smell like, feel like? Is there an atmosphere surrounding the place or thing? What’s the mood? Often the telling of this can be done by noting the seemingly unimportant fragments, shreds of evidence and idiosyncrasies that an untrained eye might not see.

Please note that I say: after the basic details… Which means sane, sensible, unbiased, and hopefully erudite reporting must always come first.

After that, though, there is often a picture to be painted – and people like me are hired to paint such pictures in words.

This requirement for a bigger more holistic canvas will, I hope, will give journalists some longevity in a world in which bullet-point news comes machine-gunning out of every screen like the rounds fired from a gatling-gun. Twitter, for instance, will not draw you illustrative sketches, let alone paint you big pictures.

Yes, it is the ultimate vehicle for the sound-bite and nowadays Twitter is beating traditional news organisations for speed hands down – which is why so many reporters are breaking stories on social networking sites first.

Alas, though, Twitter doesn’t pay – and journalists and the organisations they work for need to make a living. Some of my colleagues worry about this – but surely the human need for understanding will never be sated by a speckling of 140-character messages?