Editors, with few exceptions, are people who are not much liked. You can get a fair idea of how much they are not much liked by some of the nicer things that are said about them. The American legal expert Thomas Griffith, for instance, once said that editors “may think of themselves as dignified headwaiters in a well-run restaurant but more often they operate a snack bar and expect you to be grateful that at least they got the food to the table warm”.
Adlai Stevenson was even more dismissive of editors when he took exception to their own bloated opinion of their skills: “Newspaper editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff – and then print the chaff”. Mark Twain drove a sarcastic stake through their collective hearts when he suggested that “only kings, presidents, editors and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.”
So it is with some trepidation that I take on the job of editing Online Catholics from Kate Mannix - one editor who was an exception in that she was indeed very much liked. No doubt I have already earned negative comparisons from the dozens of well-meaning contributors whose articles I have over-looked for publication in this edition, from the scores of people who have sent emails to which I have not responded, and from all of those readers who have detected (or are about to detect) some changes in a magazine they have come to know and, I hope, cherish. In defence of my perceived short-comings I would like to offer one more quote, this time from Jonah Goldberg, himself a newspaper man: “Editors exist [because] most people don’t have time to rummage through vast piles of hay for specific needles they’re looking for: we want professional needle-finders”.
No editor can do everything just as no newspaper or magazine can hope to do justice to all the stories and all the articles that it conceivably could publish. And so while it is small comfort to know that I have read and do intend to read all the correspondence that comes across this desk, it will disappoint many of you to know that it is not my rule – nor is it within the realms of my abilities – to reply on every occasion. To do so would mean something else has got to give and that something else is the time that I can put into the quality of the publication overall.
Far from wanting to discourage correspondence, however, I want to do the exact opposite. The most important resource Online Catholics has is its readers. The most important role Online Catholics has to play is as a point of connection between those readers.
By commissioning – and accepting from among the freelance submissions – thoughtful, insightful and, at times, confronting features and news background pieces, I want to encourage a lively exchange of opinion among readers via Letters and the Discussion Board which are provided for all to see rather than between individual readers and this one mere needle-finder. However subtly, the impetus behind shortening the length of most pieces published from now on – one change many of you will note from this week - is to signal that no-one has the last word on a subject and that all articles are meant to promote rather than close debate.
There are a few other changes. Sadly Ed Campion, an old and dear friend, has decided to hang up his quill. Books Etc will continue but reviews from now on will be written by a variety of reviewers. New formats have and will be added to the magazine: Holy Mousepad, which each fortnight will canvass items and issues of interest to readers on the Net; Foreign Correspondence, which will underline the fact that Australian Catholics are part of a global Church, Verbatim, in which prominent Catholics and non-Catholics will talk about their lives, values and personal journeys in an un-adulterated Question & Answer format, and News Specials and Backgrounders, which will seek to explore issues in the news when these are sufficiently compelling to warrant in-depth treatment.
Some readers, I know, fear that a new editor means a less forthright, less courageous, less weighty Online Catholics. If that were the case, I would not have taken on this job. Other readers are curious about to my “politics”. You should still be curious about them when my four-month stint has come to an end because I neither choose nor accept labels.
When I leave, will I be more liked? Probably not. But if Online Catholics is as vibrant then as it is now, I will have done my job.