Sarah Janssen Offers Insights into The World Almanac

Editor Sarah Janssen discusses editing The World Almanac in an age where being attuned to "fake news" is especially vital.

Sarah Janssen is senior editor at the The World Almanac, a library reference staple that has offered authoritative information for the past 150 years

What does it take to become editor of The World Almanac?

Many of our editors are subject-­specific experts rather than generalists, so the path can be different depending on what area you work on. I first worked for the almanac as an intern while I was attending New York University. After the internship, my editors gave me freelance opportunities for The World Almanac (TWA) and other publications, and I found that I really enjoyed getting to research and write about a new subject practically daily. Starting as an intern and working upward gave me an appreciation for how all of the elements of creating a book like [TWA] contribute to its success, from initial brainstorming and sourcing to infographic design and fact-checking.

How has the almanac changed since it was first published?

It has changed in so many ways that it would be more efficient to say how it hasn’t changed! The easiest changes to point to are the most obvious—in 2018 [it] is around ten times longer and doesn’t include any advertisements or endorsements, let alone ads for new­fangled inventions like “clothes wringers” (aka washing machines). We certainly didn’t have an ebook edition in 1868, nor an active Twitter or Instagram account. But [after the almanac ceased publication in 1876], Joseph Pulitzer revived [the work] in the late 19th century with the intention of making it “a compendium of universal knowledge,” and in many ways that’s still our goal, although we use the word compendium a little less these days.

How do you decide what new information to include?

There are certain things [TWA] will always include: a copy of the U.S. Constitution, for example, and comprehensive statistics about every state in the [country] and every country in the world. But we also get to create an enormous number of new features every year. Sometimes these are about a current event or a topic that captures the zeitgeist for one edition only—a hurricane, an epidemic, or a sports scandal. Other times we recognize a subject that hasn’t been covered in proportion to its growing importance—for example, wide-ranging immigration statistics or how health care [changed] in the wake of ­Obamacare’s passage and implementation—and we continue to allocate resources to those topics. We also love hearing from our readers as to what subjects they want to read more and less of.

We hear about the importance of being wary of “fake news.” How do you ensure that you’re presenting accurate material?

It’s helpful, in a way, that this has become a conversation people are having in the mainstream. Long before fake news became a political talking point, librarians and almanac editors were talking about the importance of media literacy and scrupulous sourcing.

[TWA] and its editors have established relationships with hundreds of authoritative sources on the dozens of topics we cover. In many cases, not only do we know where to get the right information, we know whom to contact directly with questions about it to make sure we’re interpreting and presenting it correctly. A large portion of our editorial budget goes toward rigorous fact-checking. And for almost every table, graph, or data point we publish, we list a reference to the source next to it, so anyone can refer to our source directly for their own further research or to double-check our work.

In an age where almost everyone has access to the Internet in their back pocket, where do you see the almanac fitting in?

The wonder of the Internet is that it’s made a whole universe of information accessible while simultaneously toppling so many of the barriers to access that universe. It’s a golden age for researchers and generally curious, interested people. The World Almanac’s editors are constantly unearthing new facts or statistics that we think our readers will appreciate coming across in the print edition, on our subscriber site for schools and libraries, or on our social media.

As a so-called old millennial who got her first copy of [TWA] when it was bundled with the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? computer game, I loved it as a resource then and still do (though I no longer use it to track down imaginary international villains).

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