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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: The Phantom Client

Copyright: angelp / 123RF Stock Photo

For many editors positive client engagement is central to a project — a good work relationship, frank feedback and response, and, finally, appreciation. Such pleasures, alas, are seldom part of my grind. Often I don’t get close enough to an actual client to cultivate such a connection.

Communications agencies or consulting engineers who outsource projects to me are putative clients, but only because they get my invoice. In reality they’re simply proxies and generally lack intimate understanding of the job, which is why they send it to me. Predictably the relationship is hollow and the client nebulous. It’s in an agent’s interest to maintain such faceless and arm’s length detachment. What if writer and editor could hook up without the go-between?

(Some years ago as an agency supplier I was editing an international corporation’s documents before it decided to take its communications in-house. Because it wanted to retain my help the corporation asked for my name. The agency had nothing more to lose and provided it. I gained a real client and we’re still together, but such blissful endings are rare.)

I’ve tried to discover who our client was when I worked in newspapers. There, no one mentioned client except in reference to someone in trouble with the law. I believe we had no client, even in the abstract.

Certainly editors would not esteem reporters or photographers as such; if anything they were, if you can tolerate an oxymoron, our devoted nemeses. Two camps, but editors ruled. As Jeffrey Goldberg, recently named editor of The Atlantic after three decades’ reporting, told Charlie Rose, “Reporters are children, editors are adults.” No client here.

Well, was our fat cat publisher our client? He did sign our paycheques, after all. But the concept is ludicrous because we never thought of him.

The entity closest to being recognized in the role of client was the reader. As Don Smith, Edmonton Journal news editor, would remind his staff, “We’re putting out a newspaper for my next-door neighbor who sells aluminum siding.” He probably saw his neighbour as a client and for his sake demanded we edit a newspaper that was easy to comprehend. But casting the reader as client is a copout: all editors and writers ultimately toil for the reader.

In fact a daily newspaper or any periodical or news program is just a basic factory. Reporters and graphics people collect raw information, prepare it and submit it to editors who further refine and package it. In this analogy readers and viewers are customers not clients.

If you have clients and can get on with them, rejoice. They can be somewhat elusive.


Previous “Wasted Words” post: A Little Learning.

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About the author

Wilf Popoff

When Wilf Popoff started editing, John Diefenbaker was prime minister, editors used pencils, and IBM mainframe computers were moving from vacuum tubes to transistors. Wilf is a former editor of Active Voice.

2 Comments on “Wasted Words: The Phantom Client”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Thanks, Wilf. Yes, the reader is the real client. We must remember that.

    One of the many reasons I decided to retire: a distance had begun to develop between me and the clients. They were sending me files by email and didn’t seem to want to meet me. I hated that.

    • Interesting…I love email, because it gives me a national (occasionally, international) clientele and asynchronous contact which gives me a lot of flexibility on working hours. Email still feels like direct contact with clients, in contrast to Wilf’s experience. I agree that the reader is in some sense the client, but helping writers get better is a big part of what I do as a structural (not copy) editor, so the writer is really the primary client for me. It’s not even always about the current manuscript so much as the next one…

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