Journalists don’t often get the best press from historians, and not without reason. The study and practice of history is built on the particularity and specificity of events, on localized facts that we craft into delicate, nuanced arguments. Our colleagues have an eye for detail, and so every detail must be perfect. Each time a journalist borrows part of an idea from a historian, repeats their argument without attribution, garbles it, or meanders into an unfamiliar historiography, there is a reliable outcry: We already did that, and you got it wrong! But whether such objections have merit, whether historians should just be happy to see their work brought to a public audience (whether or not they’re cited!) or have a legitimate professional grievance, the controversies that have arisen between journalists and historians obscure a key player in the drama: the editor.
“Experience,” Oscar Wilde said, “is simply the name we give to our mistakes.” As an editor, I’ve certainly made an experience or three. The wisdom that I earned through this process, painful as it was, is that the buck should stop with the editor, because behind each controversial article stands those who shepherded the piece to publication. The responsibility to check the facts and confirm sources, to ensure a piece adheres to the standards and expectations of quality for a given publication, to make sure an author does justice to their subject, is ours. Nor is this truth restricted to spaces outside the academy. If, as happened recently in my field, you see a 46-page review that, among other things, criticizes a book’s italicization scheme, you might rightly wonder (as the book’s author did) why someone would write it. But the real question is why the journal editor would want to publish it.
Despite the critical oversight an editor provides, we are increasingly viewed as an unnecessary extravagance. The changes to the publishing and print industries in the past three decades, academic or otherwise, have not been kind to editors. After all, we’re expensive, sometimes pedantic or annoying, and if we do our jobs right, you’ll never know we did anything at all. And I have heard tell that some well-regarded presses have mostly done away with close editorial oversight. The results haven’t been pretty. I remember one book, published by a reputable press, that a reviewer declared should “become the standard, English-language introduction” to the field—if and when its “wealth of copyediting mistakes” were fixed.
This trend is not restricted to academic publishing. As a fan of pulp fantasy, I frequently express my futile frustration as books in the genre grow ever larger—each volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (and there are currently five) is only slightly shorter than the entirety of The Lord of the Rings—stuffed with unnecessary asides that add nothing to the plot and that any decent editor would have excised. Perhaps printing the extra pages is cheaper than paying someone to edit them down.
Standing outside news media, I can only infer how the loss of editorial expertise and oversight has affected the industry, particularly print media, as publishing speed and click rates have overtaken due diligence and institutional quality as the coin of the realm. After all, a story can always be corrected online after the fact when someone notices a flaw. Or perhaps an error doesn’t need to be fixed; any one article is quickly swept away, a miniscule drop in the great ocean of information.
As historians, we know that there is never a way to go back to what once was. After all, any claimed reformation (a word whose conservative etymology—a return to a previous ideal state—is often forgotten) is actually a novelty that its proponents justify through history. And so I am left wondering what the future holds for my necessary, invisible profession.
L. Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
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