Here’s an article on editing by Ray Long, one of the top American magazine editors of the early 20th Century. The article originally appeared in the January 1927 issue of The Bookman. At the time that this article was written, Long was at the peak of his career, editing Cosmopolitan magazine, a very different magazine than the one today – full of fiction. His annual salary was reputed to be about $180,000, approximately two and a half million dollars in 2016.
|Magazine Editor Ray Long c. 1910|
A LETTER TO A YOUNG MAN WITH AN URGE TO EDIT A POPULAR MAGAZINE
ONE may be much more direct in addressing an individual than when one is addressing a crowd. Therefore I am putting this article in the form of a letter to a cousin of mine who thinks he wants to be an editor when he gets a bit older.
The fact which most impresses me about your desire to become a magazine editor is that you feel the urge so early in your life. I know of no successful editor of a general magazine who did not have an editorship as his goal long in advance of taking his first steps in the work.
While S. S. McClure was running a little newspaper down in Illinois, he always had before him the vision of a day when he would edit a “McClure’s Magazine”. Quite a few years intervened before “McClure’s” was born, but when it did come along, it changed the field of general magazines. (By “general” or “popular” I mean such publications as “The Saturday Evening Post”, “ Liberty”, and “Collier’s” in the weekly field; “The American”, “McClure’s”, “The Red Book”, and “Cosmopolitan” in the monthly field. ) When Frank Munsey was a telegraph operator, he had before him continually the determination to publish magazines. He also influenced greatly the type of publication in the general field. George Horace Lorimer was secretary to one of the packers in Chicago, and undoubtedly destined for success as a meat packer, but he could not resist the call of printers’ ink. From the day he became editor of “The Saturday Evening Post” that publication changed, and with it changed the scope of the weekly magazine. As a newspaper man in Cleveland, John Siddal dreamed of the magazine he some day must produce. When he got his chance on “The American Magazine”, he put into that publication an individuality which carried it to circulation beyond the expectations of those who were associated with him.
My ambition to be an editor developed in two stages. While I was delivering telegrams for the Western Union in Indianapolis — I was not quite fourteen at the time —I determined that somehow, some way, I must become a newspaper man. To me reporters were the most picturesque figures in the world. I kept a newspaper portrait of Richard Harding Davis over the dresser in my bedroom, and made a sort of deity of him. At the end of three or four years I had made such a pest of myself in trying to get a job on the Indianapolis “News” that finally the city editor made a place for me at eight dollars a week. I have always felt that he did this on the theory that I would demonstrate that I was not qualified for the job. Then he might fire me and be rid of that persistent kid who was so determined to come to work on the paper but who seemed so absolutely unfitted for the work.
I fooled him by making good.
But hardly had I made good — it probably was several years, but as I look back at it now, it seems only a short time —when I took down the portrait of Davis and substituted one of John Brisben Walker. He had then founded “Cosmopolitan Magazine”, and from his picturesque offices at Irvington-on-the-Hudson was issuing a publication which was startling in its vigor and enterprise. I determined then and there that someday, somehow, I must be editor of a magazine like “Cosmopolitan”. Quite a few years were to pass, and quite a lot of absorbingly interesting work to intervene, but lo and behold, one day I became editor of “Cosmopolitan” — and, as they used to say in the novels, lived happily ever afterward.
Therefore, let’s say that of the primary qualifications for entering this profession, you have the most important: a burning urge to be an editor. I consider it the most important qualification because, if you do achieve the position and lack that urge — that love of the work itself — there is no vocation which can be such absolute drudgery. But if you have it and keep it and it grows within you year after year, there is no work which can bring you such absolute happiness.
Having that, there comes the question of the training which best will fit you for the career. Opinions on this subject are as varied as the number of individuals whose opinions you may ask. Some advocate long preparation in college. Some wide travel. Some thorough newspaper experience. Frankly, I don’t think any particular training is important. Whether you go to college, travel, work on a newspaper, it is what you do during your years of preparation that counts.
First of all, read. First, second, and last, read. Read all the time. Read anything, everything. The wider the variety of the reading, the better. Don’t consider anything too highbrow to read. Don’t consider anything too lowbrow to read. Read philosophy, detective stories, biographies, love stories, history, adventure stories — read anything that you can find on a printed page. Read popular magazines and unpopular magazines. Read “Snappy Stories” and The Bookman. Read “The Saturday Evening Post” and “The American Mercury”. Study the English magazines to see how poorly a magazine may be put out, and study the South American magazine “Plus Ultra” to see how beautifully a magazine may be put out. Read the autobiography of Cellini and the biography of Barnum. Read “Moby Dick” and — if it still is possible to get them anywhere — some of the old Nick Carter stories. Read Tagore and Eddie Guest. Read the short stories of Irvin Cobb and Edna Ferber. They show you how writers may be perfect in workmanship and yet differ as widely as the poles in method. Read Somerset Maugham and James Oliver Curwood for the same comparison in the writing of novels. It doesn’t much matter during this time whether you are in Harvard — as John Siddal was — or working in a shoe store — as I once did.
There isn’t any question, however, that if as your next step you get a job on a newspaper, you will learn more about your business than you can anywhere else. You can learn even more than you could if at this stage you got on a magazine. For on a newspaper you will begin to realize that all successful journalists are successful merchants in reading matter.
Never lose sight of this. A newspaper is successful in proportion to the ability of its editor to sell reading matter to his community. A general or popular magazine is successful in proportion to the ability of its editor to sell reading matter to the people of the United States. The editor of such a magazine is judged solely by the circulation figures. His income will be based on the growth of circulation. And the amount of happiness he gets from his work travels alongside his circulation figures.
The people of the United States are the most catholic in reading taste of any people in the world. That is why I strongly advocate such a wide variety in your reading. Were you to let it get into grooves, were you to specialize in reading only certain things, your inclination, when you got on a magazine, would be to publish only that sort of material. And that sort of material would appeal only to those few people especially interested in it. You must publish material which will appeal to a farmer in Kansas and a banker in Boston. You must sell magazines to a housewife in a Florida village and a feminist in Greenwich Village. Of course, many other factors will enter into your success as an editor, but all those are subordinate to your taste in reading.
I am fortunate in being an editor who can and does build circulation. That may sound boastful, but it is a fact necessary to making this letter clear to you. The manner in which I build circulation is to read a tremendous number of manuscripts — I average more than 500, 000 words per week; I read more manuscripts than all the other people in my organization put together — and from those manuscripts to select the reading which most interests, amuses, thrills, or entertains me. I put this within the covers of the publication and then see to it that the publication is so distributed that it may be bought by the greatest number of people. Having done, throughout my life, the sort of reading I here advocate for you, I find that my taste in selecting material corresponds with the taste of a great many other Americans to an extent that inspires them to go to the newsstands and buy the magazine.
The same thing is responsible for the success of “The Saturday Evening Post”. George Horace Lorimer reads at least as much manuscript as I do. He follows the same process in selecting it. He also has a taste which appeals to a vast number of readers. Likewise John Siddal. During his lifetime “Sid” averaged several hundred thousand words a week. And the first thing one knew there were two million people buying “The American Magazine” to read the words which “Sid” had selected.
The habit which you will have formed from reading so constantly will enable you to examine this terrific amount of manuscript without fatigue.
Not only to read all that manuscript, but to read current books and old books, to read other publications and never to tire of them. As Charles Hanson Towne has said so pointedly in his “Adventures in Editing” — and, by the way, there is one book which you must know — manuscript reading is a game. Each manuscript which you pick up is to be the best you ever read.
If ever you lose that zest for diving into the pile of typewritten pages and that thrill which comes when you find it is the best, you may as well quit and go into some other line of work.
Now, let’s go back to my advice to you to get on a newspaper. How shall you go about that? There is no set rule. You may feel this, however: that there is no sort of business so anxious to get bright, aggressive young men. At first the editors may rebuff you, as they did me. But if you persist, if you show that you are determined to get on a newspaper, they finally will give you a chance if only, as in my case, in the hope that thereby they may get rid of you.
First select the newspaper on which you want to work. Then keep your eyes and your ears open for the unusual that happens around you. When it happens “tip it off” to the city editor of that newspaper. Once you land a job with him, never close your eyes or ears except when you sleep — and keep one of each of them open even then. Try to learn every angle of the complicated adventure of gathering news for a daily paper, and don’t be afraid to make suggestions. Which reminds me.
When I was managing editor of the Cleveland “Press”, there came to work as a cub reporter an intensely nervous, high keyed young chap, who immediately began to poke his nose into every department of the paper. He wanted to know why V. V. McNitt, then my city editor, did this thing thus and so, and why I did my managing editing in this manner or that. Apparently he was reading every newspaper in the United States, because he would tell me about something unusual that the New York “World” had done, or the Denver “Post”, or the Chicago “American”. And suggestions! Literally, at the end of a few months we had people following him around gathering the suggestions as they dropped. Most of them were not worthwhile, but about one in ten was excellent.
I left the Cleveland “Press” to go to another paper, and when in less than a year I left that paper to go with “Hampton’s Magazine”, I recommended this young fellow to succeed me as editor. He could not take advantage of this opportunity because of ill health, but there wasn’t any question in the world that other opportunities would come to him. They did. He took advantage of them. About five years ago this young fellow — Harry P. Burton — became editor of “McCall’s Magazine”, It was pretty much a pattern sheet then. Look at it now.
If I were you, I should not plan to stay more than three or four years on a newspaper. In that time you can gain most of the experience which will be of value to you later. And there is danger that, if you stay longer, the thrill of daily journalism will so get into your blood that you may never leave. Which is all right if you want to be a daily journalist. It is a thrilling, dignified, well rewarded life. But in this letter I am assuming that you want to become a magazine editor. How, then, shall you take your next step?
Mr. Lorimer got a minor position with Mr. Curtis and then began to make so many suggestions about the conduct of the magazine that, when the time came for a change of editors, Mr. Curtis said: “Well, let’s give that young chap, Lorimer, a chance.”
John Siddal had been an editorial executive on a newspaper in Cleveland. He gave that up to take a position as promotion writer for “The American Magazine”. (I think he did this at quite a sacrifice in income, but he had selected “The American Magazine” as the publication on which he wanted to be editor. The beginning salary meant nothing to him; what he wanted was a foothold. ) He wrote such unusual promotion and made such valuable suggestions that when John Phillips retired as editor, the management gave Siddal a chance at it.
In my own case, I was editor of a paper in Syracuse. I had selected “Hampton’s Magazine” — then at the height of its popularity — as the door through which I wanted to enter the magazine field. I began by making suggestions by letter to Ben Hampton, one of the most human and most brilliant men I have ever encountered. I realize now of how little value most of my suggestions were, but in them Ben saw something which appealed to him. One day I received a telegram asking me to come to New York for a talk.
When we met, Ben said: “Well, young fellow, when are you going to quit trying to run this magazine from Syracuse and come down here and try it in New York?”
“I don’t think I can get here before Monday”, I answered.
And the next Monday I moved into the office next to him. We had a wonderful two years together, at the end of which I went to the “ Red Book” organization. Seven years later I came with Mr. Hearst as the editor-in-chief of his magazines, particularly as editor of the one that had always been my goal — “Cosmopolitan”.
I could ask nothing better for you than that you should travel the same paths that I trod; that you should have as much fun along the way as I had; and that you should be rewarded as generously as I have been. There was a time, I understand, when magazine editors were not highly paid, but today competition is so keen that the men who can build circulation command substantial incomes. There are at least three magazine editors whose incomes are double that of the President of the United States, several others whose salaries approach that of the President. But each one of these men and women — one of the highest paid editors in the world is Miss Gertrude Lane, of “The Woman’s Home Companion” — is collecting something that to him really means more than money. He is enjoying every minute of his work. If he were not, he could not do the work well enough to earn that much money.