For a profession that purports to explain the whole world to its customers, journalism certainly gets entangled at times in its own terminology.
That was my somewhat cranky response to something I heard on the radio the other day – or rather, to something I didn't hear: the two syllables of the word paper.
It came in a brief reference to President Obama's speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors – oops, make that "News Editors." Three years ago, ASNE voted to drop "paper" into the recycle bin and style itself simply a society of "news editors." The decision came just a few weeks after the Monitor made its own transition from daily print publication plus website to "Web first" plus weekly magazine.
Ah, but a news editor isn't quite the same thing as a newspaper editor or (attention – nuance alert!) as the editor of a newspaper. Confusion buzzes around both elements: "news" and "editor."
At one level, the very top, "editor" is a customary term for the chief news executive at a paper. That's the tradition at the Monitor, three of whose editors (Erwin Canham, John Hughes, and Katherine Fanning) have served as ASNE presidents. Some papers use the term "executive editor" for this position.
A "news editor" may be the No. 2 in a newsroom, as he was at my first real job out of college. Or he or she may be No. 3, behind a managing editor. A news editor may divide the world with a features editor. The two may sit on the same level of the org chart, but the news editor will have pride of place – rather the way the secretaries of State and of Housing and Urban Development both sit in the presidential cabinet, but one position goes back to the founding of the republic and the other doesn't.
"Directing editors" is the term ASNE uses to determine qualification for membership. ASNE members are chiefs of some flavor, not Indians. Their business cards may read "editor," "managing editor," "editorial-page editor," or something similar. "Editors," however, include not only newsroom managers, but also those down in the trenches handling other people's stories – desk editors, staff editors, copy editors, or even, to use one of my least favorite terms, subeditors.
Then there's the question of what "news" is. When our local National Public Radio station asks us to contribute "to keep the news coming," we do chip in, but probably more for our favorite interview programs than for the top-of-the-hour news bulletins.
There's "news" (politics, war, crime) contrasted with "features" – food pages, reviews of all types, "lifestyle" pieces, advice columns, and, God bless, even the comics. There's "news" contrasted with "advertising." There's "news" meaning everything that's not the editorial pages (the newspaper's own view) or the opinion and commentary (op-ed) pages. And "editorial" can mean "not news," in the broader sense (an editorial-page editor may report directly to the publisher, rather than to the editor); or it can mean "not advertising."
The professional organization once known as the Society for Newspaper Design, founded in 1979, dropped its "paper" in September 1981, and is still a going concern, helping entities formerly known as newspapers communicate better via the Web.
What do you call a newspaper once the "paper" is gone? A "news outlet"? Sounds like a newsstand. "News organizations" is my own default term for elements of what was once called "the press." But it's six whole syllables long.
For the paperless newspaper, we could do worse than settle on "news site" as our standard term.