Thursday, August 6, 2009

And now the bosses

After alluding to the taxonomies of copy editors and writers in yesterday’s post on stars and incompetents, I realized that I had neglected the managerial class. Here, then, some specimens categorized.

The reader should understand that most of these types are male. And white. Despite more than three decades of affirmative action, most newspapers are still run by white guys. I regret that I cannot recall the name of the writer who, being told some years ago of a proposed support group for white males, said that there is already a support group for white men: it’s called the United States of America.

The Fonctionnaire

The French understand the nature of the inevitable gray civil servant who will endure until the universe winds down in entropy. Stars burst into novas and burn out, corporate owners come and go, and management fads succeed fads, but The Fonctionnaire endures. Cunningly, The Functionnaire, unobserved, occupies some obscure office with a nebulous title and obscure duties, biding his time until the more talented colleagues flame out, and then occupies the chair of authority because no one else is left. To sit in a meeting with him is to perceive the processes of a wasting disease.

Great Is Caesar

Great Is is an empire builder. He knows exactly the splendid things he wants to accomplish, and he is ruthless in their pursuit, though not openly so. Superficially magnanimous and agreeable to those who can be useful to accomplish his aims, he sets his face against those who obstruct him — and they wither and perish. He does, in fact, accomplish great things, and his empire expands. But, like Julius and Augustus, he leaves no worthy successor. He will be followed in time by The Fonctionnaire.


Pharaoh, like Great Is Caesar, has grand designs. Unlike Great Is, he is clueless about how to accomplish them. So instead he is dictatorial. He hardens his heart. His voice is the only voice that booms out in meetings, and lesser folk are misguided if they imagine that his invitations to discussion are open invitations; they are opportunities to agree with him. When the plagues rain down, he will not know what to do about them, except to bluster.

The Regular Guy

He’d like to drink a beer with you (domestic, light). He might bestow a nickname on you. He wants to be your pal. He won’t ask that much of you. He has, like Richard Nixon, read the manual on how to be a Regular Fellow, and he follows its specifications to the letter. Anything you do is fine with him, just fine. Keep in mind that when your interests get in the way of his, you will find yourself out at the curb.

I Know Better

I Know exists to demonstrate his superiority over his subordinates. (He therefore prefers and promotes subordinates over whom superiority can easily be demonstrated.) When any story or proposal is put before him, he instantly identifies its defects, and he orders it to be worked over again. I Know’s criticisms are typically delivered before an audience, the better for the common people to experience a proper awe of his acuity. I Know’s advantage over Pharaoh is that he actually has some judgment, not that that will endear him to his frazzled subordinates.

Out Of His Depth

Out Of got promoted because there is no possibility in the known universe that he would ever be a threat to anyone above him. Understanding at some dim, reptilian level that the job is beyond his limited abilities, he is fiercely loyal to his protector, his only hope. Out Of would inspire pathos if it were not for his unaccountable vanity about his position; his feeble pronouncements, like Pharaoh’s and I Know’s, are not to be challenged.*

Eager Beaver

Eager, out to prove himself to the High Command, will put in fourteen-hour days. Sixteen-hour days. Eager will take on any assignment, absorb any feckless twit into the staff, meet any deadline, bear any burden. Eager will produce the story dictated to him at ten o’clock in the morning, learn three o’clock that it is not what was wanted, reassign it as the shadows of evening gather, and edit and rewrite it himself to meet the most recent diktat. He will show up early the next morning to repeat the process.

Tee Time

Tee Time doesn’t really have any interest in the operation. He would rather be on the golf course, or playing darts in a saloon, or intriguing for a position higher up in the corporation than overseeing the paper. So he leaves Out Of His Depth in charge. When he has collected enough coupons, he will move on to a higher sphere of endeavor.


OCD cannot let go of anything. The story needs to have corrections and updates and refinements and tweeks — oh, and the photographs don’t match the story, and the graphics have to be redone. Maybe this should have been seen to a couple of weeks ago, but there was all this stuff in the story that had to be recast and reorganized and — no, it has to be taken back from the copy desk now because the writer wants to make some changes; you’ll have it back in five minutes. Maybe ten. And are those the headlines you put on it? They’re all wrong; here are some suggestions. How soon do you have to have it for tomorrow? There are fixes and changes in it that you have to make? Can I have it back for just a minute?

The Graduate

Ever so smarter than you, he has read more books than you, uses bigger words than you, and loses no opportunity to parade his learning before you. You will be expected to nod in silent assent as he unfolds his endless anecdotes and observations, all of which you have heard at least twice, as you beg for merciful death to overtake you. But once you have acceded to his superior learning and sophistication, and endured his endless anecdotes, he is generally content to leave you alone. Because learning is not held in any particular regard in journalism, his prospects for advancement are extremely limited.**

*Out Of is one of the many managing editors under whom I have served. At one prolonged hearing on legal issues, I observed Out Of to with at a table with a little folder containing a miniature legal pad. For the entire afternoon he wrote nothing in it. Then, as the hearing officer brought the proceedings to a close, I watched with intent interest as he opened the portfolio and tore off a sheet of paper.

He spat out a wad of chewing gum into the paper and crumpled it up, then left the hearing room.

**The copy desk is the logical repository for this one.


  1. Every one of the editors you've described sounds familiar. Way too familiar. One other type is the Mystery Editor. Reporters conspire to learn what this editor does but somehow never do. He leaves no fingerprints on any stories. He offers no suggestions, takes no sides, serves silently on numerous committees. Reporters may have the vague impression that they should fear this editor, and time will prove they should.

    I always thought that editors were like mobsters in one regard. To rise, they had to commit at least one despicable crime, usually a hit.

  2. Mystery Editor has photographs that the other bosses don't ever want the rest of us to see.

  3. All of these folks sound familiar. But I'd have to add in the a number of women and minority editors I've worked under over the years--and believe me, they differ not a jot from the white guys.

    By the way, you can definitely mix and match some of these characters to produce a composite. I know an absolutely perfect combo Tee Time/I Know Better with marked Regular Guy tendencies--a real Frankenstein monster whose mood swings tracked like a barometer in tornado season. Thank God he was promoted out of my department.

  4. We actually had Tee Time, Out Of and The Graduate in my newsroom all at once, although The Graduate was the publisher, an offspring of the owners, who never missed an opportunity to remind us about his "prestigious" Wharton School MBA. His nickname among the workforce, newsroom and otherwise, was The Empty Suit. Utterly, hopelessly clueless and spineless, although compared to the MBAs who did a lot of wrecking to this country, I suppose mostly benign.

    Our Tee Time (executive editor) rarely came in when I was there, other than for the budget meeting, sweaty in golf attire, before he left for the day entirely. Out Of was an appalling caricature of a bad editor - overweight, toothbrush mustache, bad 1970s wardrobe that looked like it was picked from a dumpster, perpetual look of dread/befuddlement/pomposity/indignation on his face, connected by soft tissue to his desk chair and phone. I once had to make up a quote on a story about automotive crash data recorders because he demanded it be in the story, even though no source would provide one confirming his addled, tinfoil-hat insistence that said recorders somehow allow the government to spy on people. A jelly-kneed, Olympic-medalist backstabber. Ran into Tee Time's office to tattle on dissident newsroom voices (including mine). Couldn't master a PC enough to attach a document to an e-mail. Announced he was diabetic after I left the place. People then started surreptitiously leaving Twinkies and Ho-Hos on his desk and chair.

  5. Patricia the TerseAugust 7, 2009 at 1:23 AM

    I like the Twinkies bit. In a classroom presided over by a dreadful woman who foolishly had announced that she was allergic to lilacs, a friend managed to put lilacs in the florescent lighting above her desk. She entered the room,sat and immediately began to wheeze, snort and drip. It was an enormous success. (I believe I neglected to mention that this was an 8th grade classroom.)

  6. You forgot The Visionary, an upper-middle management type who (until the money ran out) got sent to future-of-journalism seminars and returned to mire large parts of the staff in half-baked innovations. This editor's contributions in the 1990s contributed significantly to the current circulation meltdowns. This person is now AME for multimedia.

  7. I think you have the general circus described accurately.... Deliver as story to all of these and it will be edited entirely differently. I am still waiting to meet the talented, regular guy who improves a story. Other then me, of course.

  8. You forgot "Old Fezziwig," the truly humane and good boss. Few and very far between--“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” (from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
    Come, come John, you must know at least one 'a twa o 'dem fine swells.

  9. I suppose if one recognizes oneself in one of these descriptions -- or more than one, gah -- one should reconsider management. Or pat oneself on the back for having long ago renounced it.