What is an “editorial line”?

Journalism isn’t the most transparent of trades. And a trade it is — despite the best efforts of all involved in my working education, I’ll never think of journalism as a profession. But like all trades, it has its methods and modes of action, and people who aren’t journalists often don’t know what they are. One of the elements we don’t talk about is the editorial line, what it is, and how it manifests itself in publications.

An editorial line is a set of beliefs about what is essential to your audience and desires to make that audience understand that certain things are important. Good journalism is balancing the two. Journalism which is only about what the audience cares about, is really just entertainment. Journalism which is only about what you believe is vital for the audience to start thinking about, is really just propaganda.

Editorial lines have an impact in two places. First, there’s the selection of stories you choose to publish. “Magazine” comes from the Middle French word “magasin”, which means a warehouse or store, and like a warehouse, it’s a collection of disparate things chosen by humans. And, also like a warehouse, it’s not finite: you can’t publish every possible story. So instead, you must decide what stories to put together in your collection. So you are always choosing which stories to publish based on that balance of what the audience wants and what you believe is important for the audience to know or believe.

The second place the editorial line manifests is in the angle of the story. Every story has an angle, a direction which the writer wishes to take the reader along. Although the first duty of any reporter is to report the facts, you can’t write all the facts: facts are interlinked and often rely on more facts to prove they are true. So you have to choose what facts to report.

And, of course, you have to interest the reader, which means moving them along in the story, keeping them engaged with it as you go. This is why salaciously-written stories are often so successful: salacious comes from the word salire, which means to leap on something with lust. Salire is also the root of salient, as in “the salient point” — something all good reporters get to as quickly as possible to draw the reader into the story.

How you draw people into a story — how you choose which points are salient, whether something needs to be salacious, and so on — depends on the editorial line. But, of course, you might not have an explicit editorial line on every topic. Still, you have a good idea of what the audience is interested in, which is how the audience feels about the world and what things your publication believes they need to care about more (or less). Based on that, you can understand what points are salient to them in a story.

Are editorial lines set by the politics of the owner and editor? Partly: but more important in any publication is the politics of the intended audience. Remember, you’re not trying to brainwash them: if you are, then you are propagandists, not journalists.

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