Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Magazine Errors: Guest Editors

A thankfully infrequent but unthankfully not extinct publicity stunt that some magazines pull is the use of a celebrity guest editor, someone who helps plan, write, design and -- of course -- promote the issue.

I'm tempted to try to come up with some fake guest-editor/magazine pairings, but the reality has been even sillier: Remember Roseanne guest editing The New Yorker? Or how about the latest: comedian Stephen Colbert guest editing an issue of Newsweek?

Yikes. Now, I love Colbert's work. He's not only funny, I think he's got real intelligence and rare understanding of the importance of the things he targets with wit. (Yes, count me among those who thought his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner was a rare act of valuable court-jestering in a country that has come to believe that film and television is only for entertaining, not for actually making a point.)

But Newsweek? I also like the new Newsweek, as I've noted here. So this isn't a case of me disliking either the guest editor or magazine. But I think Newsweek will undercut its credibility as a serious journalistic enterprise with this stunt. A few more 25-year-olds might pick up that issue, but probably a few less 50-year-olds (you know, the consumers with all the money) will do so.

Empire magazine, a large film monthly from the UK, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a special issue guest edited by Stephen Spielberg. Again, I have no problem with either the magazine or the guest editor; Empire is consistently a high-quality publication that probably only errs in occasionally giving more attitude than substance; and Spielberg is an extraordinary talent as well as being a man of brave social conscience. But one can't read Empire ever again and think it's providing an independent look at the film world. How much can you criticize a film if the director is a potential editor? How much can a reader trust your positive review of a film from a potential editor? How important is the magazine's independence compared to the extra copies they expect to be bought because of Spielberg's involvement?

My biggest problem is just that the practice of using guest editors undercuts the very magazine it's trying to promote. A magazine is not an internet public forum. It is a particular world view designed and shaped by a team of editors and publishers. It's their take on whatever subject matter is the focus of the magazine (the week's news, the music world, science fiction films, whatever). And readers need to be able to think that they're getting that point of view (however broad or narrow) straight and not filtered through too much whoring for money (yeah, not through too much whoring -- everyone knows there'll be some).

So, what about Meryl Streep guest editing Vogue? Or the Octomom guest editing The Economist?

Nah, I just can't top Roseanne and The New Yorker.

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