Wednesday, May 28, 2014

No. 8 – No Quarter

Performer: Led Zeppelin
Songwriters: John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Original Release: Houses of the Holy
Year: 1973
Definitive Version: The Song Remains the Same, 1976. The versions from the re-issued and expanded Song Remains the Same, 2007; Destroyer, 1977; and No Quarter by Page & Plant, 1994; deserve special mention. It’s the mark of an extraordinary song that it generates this many outstanding versions.

I guess I chose the original Song Remains the Same version over the re-issue, because it’s uncut and therefore longer. I don’t know why Zeppelin decided to splice two versions for the movie in the first place. (They released the movie amalgamation on the re-issue, of course, to synch up with the film.)

For a long time, I thought Page’s solo in the original version was my favorite guitar solo of all time—bold, brilliant and clean, not a false note in it. I don’t know whether I still would put it No. 1 ahead of, say, Jimi Hendrix’s in Stone Free (good ol’ No. 34), but it has to be in the discussion.

I’ve been at my magazine for eight years. As I mentioned (good ol’ No. 12), the first four years were great—a completely different work environment from anything I’d experienced.

Things started to change in 2010. That year, we hired a copy editor who simply didn’t work out. The woman we hired was a seasoned vet—a little too seasoned. I agreed with the hire at the time, but I also thought a younger candidate might work out better, given the workload. A younger candidate also would be more trainable.

That sentiment was borne out, because the copy editor and I frequently butted heads. A copy editor shouldn’t be afraid to take on superiors, because the job—and I know, because I did for so long—is to be perfect. Any errors ultimately fall on the copy editor’s shoulders, so a good one tends to be a bit of a perfectionist. However, our copy editor fought me on EVERY thing, including issues that clearly were a matter of subjective preference.

That was unpleasant enough, but the REAL problem was that she missed important things—misspellings, punctuation, issues of style—that she SHOULD have caught while she was too busy fighting me over my preference in wording. She also messed up work flow by getting confused about file slugs and working on older documents after revision.

Worse, she kept doing this after I repeatedly pointed out these problems to her. It’s one thing to battle me on small items of inconsequence while missing larger items, but the surest way to incur my wrath is to act as though my instructions are being ignored.

The problem reached the point where the editor took me out to lunch to talk about it one day, because the copy editor had begun to go into his office and complain about me behind my back. Although I was concerned given my ancient work history, the editor made me understand right away that he didn’t believe I was the problem; she was.

While all this was going on, I oversaw a monster project that went badly. When I wasn’t battling my copy editor, I fought the turbulence of this project—all while trying to bring the magazine itself in for a landing on time.

The pressure of all that was too much, and it led me to do something I’d never done before—pull back. When it came time to parcel out assignments for the 2011 schedule, I begged out of the toughest ones. I couldn’t do it any more, I told my boss, now that he had turned over oversight of the magazine departments to me. Work was killing me.

That wasn’t a problem with my boss, but I felt guilty. I wasn’t taking care of the people below me, but … I had to do it. One can be pushed only so far, and I’d about reached my breaking point.

That happened in June 2011. In February of that year, I was put in charge of hiring a new copy editor after the previous one was mercifully put out of our misery. Candidates would be directed to me. I’d handle all communication and the first round of interviews. It was a huge responsibility and time-consuming, but I landed a great candidate. A woman who had been a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal decided to get back into the game after a few years off to raise a family. (She’s been with us ever since, validated my selection.)

However, that still was a stressful time for me, because that also was when Mom entered the final phase of her illness and, thus, life. In fact, our new copy editor started while I was in Columbus, the day after Mom died.

At my review that year in the spring, I told the editor that even though I’d given up the toughest assignments, I still was at my limit. Anything else you give me, I said, you have to take something away first. He promised he would.

In June, he called everyone in editorial into his office. The magazine’s website was finally scheduled to launch after a two-year delay in August, and the publisher wanted fresh copy online to usher in the launch. One problem: The person hired to be the online associate editor was swamped with handling the launch of the website. She couldn’t do the job for which she had been hired, so everyone in editorial had to take up the slack.

I was livid. After everyone else left, I asked the editor, what work are you going to take from me so I can do this other person’s job for her?

In retrospect, I should have just done the story and shut up, but I felt betrayed after he promised I would be given no more work without taking away something first. We talked, and he assured me I didn’t have to do the story I was assigned.

He also said he had to tell the publisher what occurred. I didn’t think that was necessary—this was just between us—but he wanted to use my outburst as impetus to get a fourth senior editor. This senior editor would handle projects in-house as well as take away my final magazine project, so I could handle only the duties of a managing editor.

When I left his office, I felt OK. I did want to be rid of my one project, because I knew the website would create more work for me as it is.

Unfortunately, my refusal was a huge turning point. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out that in that one action, I’d lost my boss’s trust. Consequently, he began to shut me out.

This became clear when the website launched in August 2011, and I was given no responsibility in anything that went online. When we hired a new associate editor for online stories, I wasn’t involved in the interviewing process. That didn’t bother me, because I wasn’t involved in hiring her predecessor either, but I also wasn’t involved with her training or editing her copy.

This seemed at odds with what the editor said to me one day when he noted that my out-of-office message said I was the managing editor of the magazine. He said I’m managing editor of the whole company, website included.

The bigger problem was that her copy in no way matched the quality of the magazine. The editor said he was OK with that being the case. He was more interested in having SOMETHING online, even if it were superficial, rather than continuing the level of content we provided in the magazine.

I thought that was a mistake. Our brand is our reputation. If we aren’t providing the best material on behalf of the reader, that affects our credibility. Plus, it wouldn’t take much more effort to provide that, even in a brief. He disagreed and said he was fine with the quality level. That’s his call, of course, but I didn’t have to like it.

More distressing, I learned that the two-standard approach to quality ALSO pertained to the magazine. The editor handled, for reasons I can’t recall, a project that related to food preservation. The feature article passed through my office—as everything that went into the magazine had done for the past year—and I was shocked by how bad it was. An article in this condition never would fly if it came from a senior editor.

So I did my job and marked it up as I would any other article—without bias or insult. The editor responded with a terse reply that he was accepting the article as is and then took me out of the loop on proofing the article … and then all subsequent articles that came out of his office.

If I had been shocked by how bad the article was, you can imagine my reaction now. How could I continue to apply demanding standards on articles from the senior editors and associate editor when those same standards didn’t apply uniformly? Because, although it never was said in so many words, my job was to do what I was told.

Then I realized the truth: All of the political capital I’d carefully accrued over the previous five years of hard work—working late, working weekends, working on vacation—burned up that one fateful day In June 2011. Of course, if all my political capital burned up that easily, the obvious conclusion is it couldn’t have been worth much to begin with.

(To be continued, again)

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