So what’s in a title, and what does it mean? If the legendary backroom politician Boss Tweed were just Mr. Tweed would he have been so powerful and now so legendary? If the president of the United States were instead called the prime minister of the United States would it matter? Would he (or she) still be the leader of the free world?
I considered such matters 28 years ago or so, as I thought about starting up a little newspaper to serve the then new and growing business corridor on Route 1. My first decision was what to call the paper — Route 1 or the slightly more formal U.S. 1. At that point I was usually drawn to the less formal, but when I polled my friends on those choices, I found that half of them pronounced “Route 1” “root” 1 and the other half pronounced it “rout” 1. So I went with U.S. 1 and other than the occasional “U.S. Route 1,” most people get it on the first try.
The second decision was about my title. The best title I ever had was back at the college newspaper in the late 1960s: chairman. Not editor-in-chief or managing editor, but chairman. As in chairman of the senior board. And it meant something. When the showdowns came with the business board, headed in my year by Business Manager John F. “Rick” Stossel, now the feisty voice of libertarian values on Fox News, the chairman usually won. I doubt that an ordinary managing editor or editor-in-chief would have fared so well in those battles.
I’m not sure I was aware just how cool the title was until recently, when a friend sent me an E-mail with a link to an infamous 1939 public opinion poll of Princeton University freshmen that generations of Princetonians since then have had to rue. The poll, reported in the November 29, 1939, New York Times, revealed that, when asked to name the world’s “greatest living person,” the Princeton freshmen overwhelmingly named Adolf Hitler. (Albert Einstein, by then living about a quarter mile away from the university campus, was a distant second.)
There was some bickering at the time over whether the undergraduates were assuming the question was seeking their choice of “most important” man. Nevertheless the headline lives in infamy: “Hitler Is ‘Greatest’ in Princeton Poll.”
I had seen that clipping before, but this time I read the account to the very end, where I discovered another little nugget: “The class preferred a Phi Beta Kappa key to a varsity letter in athletics, and” — get this! — “thought the chairmanship of the Daily Princetonian was the most desirable campus position.”
Ah, the glory days of college. But by 1984, starting up a new newspaper, I couldn’t rest on those laurels. Even though I didn’t have (and never did have) a business plan, I knew I at least needed a title to run my new enterprise.
Editor jumped out, along with the more powerful sounding managing editor and the loftier editor-in-chief. Editor and publisher seemed presumptuous. I had never run the business side of any journalistic effort in my life. I didn’t particularly like the business transactions that often take place with the same people being interviewed for a story. But I knew that sooner or later I would have to take charge of that side or see the entire operation fail. I also knew there couldn’t be any doubt about who was in charge. So, even though I tentatively called the first issue of U.S. 1 a “sneak preview,” I nevertheless proclaimed myself the editor and publisher.
Recently I have had to put myself through these hoops again. In case you didn’t read the news story in our June 20 issue, U.S. 1, publisher of the weekly newspaper you hold in your hands and the bi-weekly West Windsor-Plainsboro News, has merged with Community News Service, the Princess Road-based publisher of eight monthly newspapers. Our new company now puts out 10 newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 160,000 — what an audience!
The co-publishers of the new company are the co-publishers of Community News Service — Jamie Griswold and Tom Valeri. Needless to say (and thankfully for me, given my predilections), the new company didn’t need another publisher. As the three of us talked about the merger over the last 10 or 12 months I was always going to be the “editorial guy,” a perfect complement to the “business guys” but a lousy title.
This time around the challenge was two-fold. There needed to be a title for me as I continue to run day-to-day operations at U.S. 1 and the WW-P News. Then I needed another title for supervising — but not directly managing — the overall editorial operation.
Executive editor was a possibility for the company-wide role. But to me the title had an insular connotation, suggesting a job that was far removed from the day-to-day challenges of the reporters. At a big journalistic enterprise like Time Inc. you would expect to find the executive editor closer to the boardroom than the newsroom.
Editorial director, on the other hand, seemed perfect for my new role. If you think of a director in theatrical terms, then you could imagine a person providing variable degrees of oversight, depending on the particular situation. A director might ask the cast to rethink an entire scene, or re-work a particular line.
Or, to think of direction in another way, with so many publishing companies veering from print to digital like drunk sailors on a sinking ship, some clear editorial direction could be a critical success factor that helps distinguish Community News Service from its many competitors.
As for helping U.S. 1 and the WW-P News manage their weekly and bi-weekly editorial challenges, the title of managing editor came quickly to mind. Too quickly. On second thought, I decided that less would be more, and chose editor. May my performance live up to the title.