The Editorial Veto: Saying No As an Editor

Yesterday at work, I did something I had never done before.

“I hate to do this to you after you’ve been so accommodating and willing to talk to me today,” I said five minutes into an interview, “But I don’t think this story really applies to our audience.”

And with that, I exercised what I call my editorial veto power.

There are very few entry-level positions where you can say “thanks, but no thanks” to an assignment (and if you do, chances are you probably won’t be in that position for very long). In journalism, it’s a little different. It’s not only a right that comes with the job, but also an integral responsibility of being a journalist.

Remember that early-2000s quiz show The Weakest Link?

Of course you do. Anne Robinson used to haunt your nightmares, remember?
Of course you do. That woman used to haunt every 10-year-old American’s nightmares in 2001.

Being a journalist is like being moderator Anne Robinson. She gets paid to listen to what everyone says, determine if they’re credible and tell the ones who don’t fit “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” I’m sure if you asked Robinson, who hosted the original UK series for 12 years, if the power went to her head at all, she would look at you over those dark-rimmed glasses and dash your dreams with that six-word phrase before shooing you out the door.

As a journalist, I get paid to talk to people, find out what story they have to tell and judge whether it’s an appropriate one to give our readers. Most of my work at Mediatec Publishing revolves around the professional learning and development industry, so I’m always looking for stories about new psychological theories, learning methods, companies who have adopted unique training techniques, etc. When I found a story on why the learning pyramid is wrong, I immediately jumped on it. This was a dissenting viewpoint (or so it seemed) about something that (again, seemed) to be an accepted method of looking at learning.

But after I asked the Chief Learning Officer LinkedIn group what they thought and got two responses about how the learning pyramid isn’t even that widely accepted, I started to have my doubts. Those solidified into confidence that this was a non-story as soon as I started talking to the author of the piece, who immediately stated he was writing about the K-12 educational range and didn’t know how it could apply to organizations’ learning initiatives.

Actress portrayal.
Actress portrayal of me during said quotation.

A year ago, I probably would have continued with the interview and prayed that with every question would come a nugget of something that would appeal to my readers (or at least my editor). But that was pre-career Kate — the one who at Vox figured out a way to turn even a bad pitch into something malleable enough to turn into something for the weekly edition.

*I turn your attention to the story I ran as a green department editor on pick-your-own farms. It’s no longer on the webpage, but the small (and more successful) sidebar on Pick-and-Pick is still live. 

I don’t know if it was time, maturity or just the fact that now armed with a paycheck, Editor Kate is far more willing to wield her editorial battle ax in the face of non-stories. Five minutes into my interview, I knew I didn’t have a story, and I ended the interview. During my daily mental debriefing on the train home, I came to a few conclusions:

  • Exercising my editorial veto power showed that I am finally getting my toes under me when it comes to understanding my audience.
  • By not producing the story just for the sake of putting more text out there for readers (and meeting one of my deadlines), I saved my audience time they would have spent reading an article that wouldn’t have made any difference to their lives.
  • By cutting the interview short, I saved my interviewee a lot of time that he wouldn’t have gotten back.
  • By cutting the interview short, I saved myself a lot of time that I wouldn’t have gotten back.
  • Being an editor is a damn fine job.

But most importantly, my reaction to the situation harkened back to what I’ve always said of my goals as a journalist: it’s my instinct to want to produce content — print, digital, multimedia, etc. — that keeps people informed and interested in the life around them. I remember in a Vox issue critique that our guest critic, Amanda Hinnant, told us that we shouldn’t be writing for the source — we should be writing for our readers. In my Vox diary, I referred to the conversation as an epiphany: an important development moment for me as an editor and journalist in general.

And that brings us to the root reason that Editor Kate minus a year would have been afraid of killing the story minutes into the interview. I would have been afraid of offending my source. He had made a point of putting time aside for me to talk about something he’s passionate about, and I was about to renege by saying I didn’t have a story. But fate often finds me, and after hanging up with him feeling like I had let him down, I checked my Twitter feed and saw this golden quote from an interview between Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot and Charlie Rose:

“It’s stupid to be afraid,” she had said.

She couldn’t be more right.

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