Producers, linguistic and otherwise

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A couple of weeks ago, Ben Zimmer told me that he was leaving Oxford University Press, where he was Editor for American Dictionaries, to become Executive Producer of the Visual Thesaurus online site. I was happy for Ben's career advancement, but I had another reaction that had nothing to do with him. When I talk with undergraduates about the jobs that studies in linguistics might prepare them for, "executive producer" has never been one of them. Before now.

So I'm sorry to say that the announcement on the Visual Thesaurus web site calls him "Our New Editor". This is an honorable title, but one that I feel is less likely than Executive Producer to appeal to the youth of today. However, the job description posted to Media Bistro was headed "Executive Producer / Content Editor", and explained that

The award-winning Visual Thesaurus is looking for an Executive Producer to manage all editorial of its online magazine on language and the creative process.

Apparently "producer" — executive or otherwise — which I think of as a title for people in movies, TV, and radio, has (long since) been adopted for analogous jobs in internet and other non-traditional media activities. Looking around on the web, I find things like these (emphasis added):

Before that, he worked at The Economist Group's Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) for 18 years. During his tenure there, he was the executive producer and editor-in-chief for eight years, and a senior editor in the London office for 10 years.

Mike Stuckey was a member of the launch team and has been a producer and editor for the Web site since 1997.

I previously worked as a producer and editor at I joined the Web site in 1997 as senior producer for politics, was later Metro editor, and was named editor in 2000, serving three years as the second-in-command of editorial operations.

Ben's former colleagues at OUP are no doubt scrambling (in a deliberate and dignified way, of course) to catch up with this development. The current entry for producer, in the online version of the OED, has

5. A person responsible for the financial and managerial aspects of staging a play, opera, etc., or making a film or broadcast; (also) a person who supervises the making of a musical recording.

and the entry for the verb produce has

2.d. To bring (a performance) before the public; to administer the staging of (a play, opera, etc.) or the financial and managerial aspects of (a film, broadcast, etc.); to supervise the making of (a musical recording), esp. by determining the overall sound. Also occas. intr.

Apparently internet media — even those that strongly print-based — are taken to be among the cetera in "a play, opera, etc." or "a film, broadcast, etc."

Ben assures me that his well-known scholarly probity will not change: there will be no lexicographic casting couch at Visual Thesaurus.

[The Visual Thesaurus job ad says that the Executive Producer will "manage all editorial of its online magazine". At first, I thought this must be a typo, resulting from inadvertent omission of "content". But could there be a new nominal form of editorial struggling to be born? I guess it would be a mass noun meaning something like "content other than advertising", as in "We've got about 20% more editorial than we need for this issue", or "Corporate says you'd better produce some editorial that gets linked on, or else." I don't see any evidence on the web for this development, but I'm obviously not very well informed about insider language on the business side of the new-media industries.]


  1. James Wimberley said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 6:34 am

    From casual inspection of movie credits, I get the impression that "executive producer" in means in Tinseltown "someone who put up some money or is related to one of the stars and would like to be in the credits", i.e. it's not a real job at all. Could someone with real experience in the industry enlighten us?

  2. Ingrid Jakobsen said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 7:11 am

    In the world of fashion magazines, "editorial" means the non-advertising content. I don't know how long it's been in use, but it certainly predates the web.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 7:20 am

    I've certainly seen the use of "editorial" to mean "other than advertising", but (as far as I know) the word in this sense is always an adjective, in phrases like "editorial content" and the like. Do people also use it as a mass noun with this meaning?

  4. language hat said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 9:16 am

    I've seen phrases like "a clear separation between editorial and marketing" for at least a couple of decades. (If, of course, I'm not succumbing to one of the illusions that have been discussed on the Log.)

  5. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 9:31 am

    I am not sure that occurrences of "producer" in with reference to the internet need be assimilated to a shortened version "executive producer". People often speak of "content producer" as in "Are you an online content producer?" ( It seems likely that unqualified occurrences of "producer" in a description of an internet related job is a shortened version of "content producer" rather than "executive producer".

  6. John Cowan said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    Googling for "some|any editorial is|was|here" shows that the expression occasionally makes it to (web) print, though I have heard it much more often than I've seen it. Examples:

    "See any editorial here?"

    "Some editorial is acquired at a high price."

    "Any editorial is placed at the discretion of the Company’s Editorial Director, and not conditional to an advertisement order."

    There are of course collisions with the ordinary count noun "editorial", and with an alternative mass-noun sense of "editorial" meaning "the people who produce editorial content", thus:

    "I've worked primarily in corporate communications, with some editorial here and there."

  7. John Cowan said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    Oh, and as for "executive producer", Wikipedia lays out the ambiguous and confusing uses of the term in various industries fairly well, though it omits the most important point. This and similar titles are negotiated between the person and the organization, and there is no reason to expect them to mean the same thing from case to case, never mind from industry to industry. "Husband" and "wife" have similar properties: exactly what duties and responsibilities go with either title depends on the particular marriage to which they are relative.

  8. M. Dalen said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    Working at a small-town paper, we do on occasion use 'editorial' as a noun: ie, "how much editorial do we have?" or "that goes in editorial". I think it was initially used as shorthand for "editorial content" or "editorial space", and has just expanded over time, although I'm not sure that it's become established enough to be more than jargon at the moment.

  9. Harris Salat said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

    Hi, as Ben's predecessor and the guy responsible for that bit of puffery, a.k.a. "Executive Producer," let me explain: My inspiration was broadcast news, where I once slaved. The EP in a TV newsroom typically sports many a shtreimel: responsible for "editorial" (news jargon, as M. Dalen says, which I like much better than that vanilla "content"), production, budget, technology, personnel, etc. That title translates nicely to the responsibilities of running a website, no? Better yet, it looks damn sexy on a business card! Best of luck with your EP gig, Ben!

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    I think the term used in conversation for what some call "editorial" above is "filler".

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    The traditional use of "editorial" as a noun (meaning what in the UK is called "leader") is probably itself a shortening of "editorial article". It's interesting that this word has been borrowed by French and Spanish, though in these languages "éditeur"/"editor" means publisher, not editor. In Spanish, "editorial" with this meaning is masculine, while feminine "editorial" is a shortening of "casa editorial" and means publishing house. I'm curious if "editorial" with the newer meaning will enter these languages as well ( "contenu éditorial" and "contenido editorial" already get many thousands of Web-search hits).

  12. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    I'm in the department in charge of the Internet presence of a large print publisher (though we're moving to more electronic content every day), and here, "producers" doesn't have anything to do with content creation, i.e., "editorial." Here, the Content Editors (that's me and three others) must have an editorial background, and we create articles, e-mail newsletters, etc. We create the content. The producers, on the other hand, must have a background in Web site design and layout. They are "in charge" of the Web sites as a whole — design and layout and selling ads and the like.

    But that's just here. The Web is still relatively new and is still growing by fits and starts, so the vocabulary used to describe the people who populate the Web with content is also still growing and evolving. The point is that I don't think there are "standard" titles for a lot of online jobs. There are a lot of overlapping responsibilities, and companies are working through nomenclature as they go along.

  13. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

    In the parts of the broadcast world with which I am familiar, a "producer" tout court is a person who works with a news anchor or host to handle the technical details of the broadcast: getting the studio set up for the guests, setting up interviews, in some cases actually *doing* the interviews (into which the personality's voice is later spliced in place of the producer's), building production elements like bumpers and stagers; on some radio stations for some broadcasts, the producer may also screen calls, run the mixing board, and make sure the host takes breaks on time. For news programs, the role of the producer often overlaps with that of editor and reporter; the specific job title may depend on the specific role a person takes in a project and on the staffing situation of that particular station. (For example, a friend of mine used to work at a big station here in Boston. He did lots of (off-air) reporting, but was technically an "editor" because that was the only non-union job title for journalists at the station. He also produced all of the station's annual entries for the national journalism and broadcasting awards.)

    The "executive producer" of a talk show works with the host to decide what material will be covered, how it will be presented, which people to invite as guests, and so on, lining up the appropriate technical resources and staff to make it all happen.

  14. Ed Rowe said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 8:41 am

    My background is in print [trade and consumer] press and here editorial has been used for at least a decade as a short hand for editorial content and also to distinguish it from advertising, or 'advertorial' [the sponsored supplements and centre page features you sometimes see in newspapers]. So, yes, a noun used by the advertising people, in essence.

    The replacement of the incorrect preposition with 'for' would have made it clearer, wouldn't it? Or am I being oversimplistic?

  15. linda seebach said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    At the (four) newspapers where I worked over the last 20 years or so, "editorial" was commonly used as a mass noun, in two different senses. The publisher's responsibility is allocating resources between business and editorial, where business refers to all the paper's functions unrelated to content produced by journalists, chiefly advertising, circulation, printing and distribution. Within editorial (as opposed to business), there is a further split between news and editorial (meaning opinion from various sources). Only at the level where people are referring to the specific opinion pieces written by staff to express the paper's institutional views is "editorial" a count noun with a plural.

  16. Jesse Sheidlower said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

    We do have assorted evidence in our files, going back about 20 years, for editorial as a mass noun in reference to written material (in contrast to its use meaning 'an editorial department; editors collectively'). For example:

    2005 Wall St. Jrnl. (Central ed.) 7 Jan. w9G (advt.) New Mexico Properties will not only showcase New Mexico real estate offerings but will also feature exclusive editorial on this diverse real estate market.

    2006 N.Y. Mag. 18 Sept. 120/2 Pressure on the Times has grown in the last year to add more style and entertainment editorial—from Thursday ‘Styles’ to the array of T magazines—while trimming the core news operation.

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