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Editing in the Digital Age: Alum John Swansburg at Slate.com

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

John Swansburg, GUS ’92, Phillips Andover ’96, Yale ’00, wrote his college thesis on Edmund Spencer’s 16th century Faerie Queene, a far cry from his current work as Deputy Editor of Slate.com, one of the world’s premier online culture and news magazines. But even in his college days, Swansburg knew he wanted to go into the magazine world of long form writing and editing, though he may not have envisioned himself in the digital age.

The route to Slate.com started with writing for The New Journal, a Yale student publication modeled after The New Yorker, followed by a post-college summer internship at Harper’s, after “an application process that was more grueling than to get into college,” according to the Beverly native. At the end of that summer, Swansburg applied, at the suggestion of Harper’s managing editor, to be assistant to New York Times columnist Frank Rich, one of the most popular writers on the newspaper’s Op-Ed page. Landing this job provided the young journalist with “an incredible mentor” who taught him about writing and culture.

Three years back in New Haven as senior editor of Legal Affairs, a startup magazine out of Yale Law School, then led to Swansburg’s next job as deputy editor of the Boston Globe’s Ideas section and the opportunity to hone his skills on his home turf before settling in at Slate.com where he has been for the past eight years.

Editing for digital media is a much faster and more interactive process than for print publications, says Swansburg. “We can respond as fast as we can write them. When I’m satisfied a story I’m editing is ready for publication, I send it to the copy editors. They get back to me quickly, and I push the button and publish. Obviously, if you are a print publication, you can’t do that,” Swansburg explains. “All print publications now have digital versions too, but we are only digital, so we try to make the most of the medium. Any given story can also have interactive video, a map, or a chart to make the best kind of storytelling. We have more weapons in our quiver. Because we are a web only publication, we can concentrate on these efforts.”

With digital journalism, unlike print, publishers know exactly what is being read and by how many people. “We can tell if they get to the bottom of pages, whether they are coming from Twitter, Blogspot, Facebook, Reddit or wherever. For me as an editor, this is great,” says Swansburg. “We don’t want to pander to readers, but we want to know what they are interested in. We are constantly making decisions based on data. Something unpopular never gets taken down, but it might get moved from the home page. Every day we are balancing what stories we need to tell because they are what our readers want to see and what stories we need to tell to be the best magazine we can be.”

Though Swansburg’s primary job is to edit, he still writes when he can find the time. “It makes me a better editor to write, but I went into the business to be an editor,” he explains. “The nice thing about Slate is that everyone can write as much as they want.” When he was the culture editor at Slate, much of his writing was about television, film, and other popular culture. “Nowadays, what I am most excited to write about is history. Four or five years ago, I went to visit Shiloh, the Civil War battlefield,” he says. After doing extensive reading about the Civil War, he took a leave of absence from his editing responsibilities to pen a long piece about Lew Wallace, a Union soldier who became a scapegoat for the loss of the Battle at Shiloh. Wallace later authored the novel, Ben Hur, one of the most popular novels of its time. Swansburg’s writing and research on Lew Wallace led to another long piece about the myth and reality of the self-made man in American society. When is it possible to succeed? What are the inequalities that make success easier for some than others? What is the essential American story and how true is it? As he wrote in the article, “I’ve traced the evolution of the self-made myth through the lives of six men and one woman, each of whom lived a version of the self-made story while also participating in its reinvention for a new generation. Their stories demonstrate the undeniable allure of the myth and the shocking ways in which it often diverges from reality.” John’s own father’s story, as well of those such as Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie, are analyzed in “The Self-Made Man.”

Did Swansburg’s years at GUS influence his way of thinking, his goals, achievements, and values? “I think GUS had a huge impact on me in a lot of different ways. My love of reading and writing was nurtured and deeply informed by GUS, especially by Penny Randolph. I think often of her class. Not a lot of schools teach close reading in that way. I went on to be an English major and do a lot of that as a student, and it made me a keen reader. As an editor, matching writers and story ideas is part of it, but so is fixing sentences. I learned to do that from my teachers at GUS. The school encourages free thinking and creativity. My own predilections were shaped by that. What was also hugely important was the caliber of classmates surrounding me. It boggles my mind. There were only 14 kids in my class. Every one of them was super talented. It made me work my butt off because I wanted to be as smart as they were.”

They undoubtedly felt the same way about him.

Swansburg lives in New York with his wife, Happy Menocal, an artist and illustrator, and their one-year-old daughter, Daisy.