Monday, November 29, 2021

Decline, fall

 Someone has seen fit to post on Facebook a statement by the late Joseph Sobran: "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college." 

This is the kind of trope conservatives have favored since Cicero complained that no one spoke good Latin any longer.* There is always a Before Time, often associated with the point at which the complainer reached puberty, when people were better educated and things were done properly. That everything since is degenerate, of course, bolsters the complainer's status as standing above the herd. 

Even so, a remark as fatuous as Mr. Sobran's commands attention. 

A century ago a college education was a privilege for a limited segment of the population, and students headed for college typically attended schools with a curriculum shaped toward that end. It was only after the Second World War, particularly with the G.I. Bill and increased federal aid to education that the college population expanded enormously, including students from families that had never previously aspired to a university education. To speak sweepingly of two quite different student populations, with different backgrounds, needs, and preparation, obscures relevant facts. 

Moreover, even in that nonexistent golden age when every high school student had conned Latin and Greek, the university faculty was seldom impressed. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quotes John Warner saying, "Professors lamenting about student writing is as old as professors and students. ... I have a quote from Harvard professor Adams Sherman Hill from 1878 complaining about his students 'making blunders which would disgrace a boy 12 years old.' ” As reliably as conservatives bemoan the present decadent age, university faculty members kvetch that students do not already know the things they have come to learn. 

The time to which Mr. Sobran alludes was one in which English classes taught the traditional grammar, which took with a handful of students but eluded the majority. Then in the second half of the twentieth century, as the deficiencies of that approach became apparent, many schools dropped the traditional grammar. The consequence was that students did not know technical grammar but still did not write very well. Exploring how students could be better taught would have been interesting, but belittling schools and students was apparently easier for Mr. Sobran. 

The fundamental thing that he chooses to overlook is that writing is difficult, and very few people ever become adept. We probably should have always known that, but now the internet puts the evidence before our eyes every day. And now that many publications have essentially abandoned copy editing, everyone can see how professional journalists actually write. 

In one hundred years we have come from conservatives saying the things they always say to conservatives repeating the things they always say. 

* Not a joke. In Brutus: "People in general, who had not resided out of the city [Rome], nor been corrupted by any domestic barbarisms, spoke the Roman language with purity. Time, however, as well at Rome as in Greece, soon altered matters for the worse: for this city, (as had formerly been the case at Athens) was resorted to by a crowd of adventurers from different parts, who spoke very corruptly; which shows the necessity of reforming our language, and reducing it to a certain standard, which shall not be liable to vary like the capricious laws of custom."

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Just the phatics, ma'am

When I expressed dissatisfaction recently with what I called "phatic journalism," a few people quite reasonably asked what the hell I was talking about. 

Phatic speech, in which we all indulge, is casual comment on inconsequential matters -- the weather, last night's game -- to be sociable and acknowledge another party as a fellow human being. It is a form of harmless social lubrication, devoid of substance. 

In what I would call phatic copy editing, what purports to be editing is merely inconsequential edits -- changing "like" to "such as," "over" to "more than" -- rather than a focus on substantive issues in the text. Phatic copy editing yields stories that conform to standard grammar and house style despite being superficial, incomplete, or dull. (Grammar ain't everything.)

Phatic substantive editing yields the kind of political horse racing story that we see all the time: The president's popularity was up two points yesterday but is down three points today, with positive or negative implications for the midterm elections. Hot yesterday. Colder today. Could rain tomorrow. 

This is how we get supposedly "balanced" stories in which Party A asserts something and Party B asserts the contrary, without enough information for the reader to evaluate the worth of either. This is how we get reports of a "trend" that involves three people. This is how we learn the views of minority groups from the same half-dozen representatives who are quoted every time. 

So that's the news. Think it'll rain? 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Wasted words

 You would do your readers a courtesy to omit from your writing some of the words tediously overused in journalism. 

Battle "Politics," said Mr. Dooley, "ain't beanbag." But neither is it an armed conflict. Neither are sporting events. And neither is the experience of having cancer. If you were to forgo military metaphors, you might discover how impoverished your imagination is. 

Controversial Conflict, they told you in your newswriting class, is one of the fundamental news values. If there were no controversy, there would be no news and thus no story. 

Currently If it's not happening now, why are you writing about it?

Dramatic This is a show-not-tell violation. If the circumstances you describe are not dramatic, using the word will not make them so to the reader. 

Firestorm The Allied attack that destroyed Dresden, which Kurt Vonnegut described in Slaughterhouse-Five, involved such a multitude of incendiary bombs that the heat of the fires created great winds that made the fires doubly destructive. A group of ill-informed people shouting at a school board meeting does not constitute a firestorm. 

First Are you sure of that? Are you really sure? You looked it up, didn't you?

Iconic Just don't. If you picked up a dictionary, you would be hard-pressed to find a common or proper noun that has not at some point been called "iconic." A word used to describe everything describes nothing.

Ironically Good idea to check whether what you actually mean is coincidentally

Prestigious See Dramatic

Saga Yes, you have a long, involved account. That does not make your story the Elder Edda. 

The public may wish to comment with suggestions of additional words you could shun. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The misterectomy

 When I joined The Baltimore Sun in 1986, the paper, seeing itself as a country cousin of The New York Times, used honorifics in its news stories. Men were mistered, unless they had military, civil, or ecclesiastical rank, and reporters had to determine whether the women they wrote about were to be Miss, Mrs., or Ms. 

But the main burden of enforcing the style rules fell on the copy desk, which, in addition to maintaining courtesy titles in local copy, had to insert them in wire service copy. 

Then there were the debates on the desk. Historical figures did not get titles (no Mr. Caesar). How long did a notable have to be dead to shed their title? I once suggested when there had been time for the flesh to fall from the bones. 

House style also denied courtesy titles to criminals. More debate. Did the person have to commit a felony, or did a misdemeanor count? The title could be restored once the debt to society was paid, but was the mister restored after a prison sentence was completed, or when probation was completed? Engraved in memory was the case of the governor of Maryland who lost his title after being convicted of a felony but got it back when an appeals court overturned his conviction. 

In the early 1990s, the paper went on a brief binge of asking the employees how the work could be improved. (It worked well in the pressroom, where employees suggested many efficiencies, less well in the departments whose managers clung tightly to their authority.) Even the copy desk was included. 

When the copy editors brought forth their proposals, courtesy titles topped the list. While the justification of using courtesy titles was that the formality conferred respect, the copy editors argued that the practice was stuffy and archaic, and also busywork that distracted from more significant editing. The editor, John S. Carroll, nodded, and with a wave of his hand courtesy titles were dismissed from The Sun

The remain, as a lingering mark of formality and respect, in the paper's obituaries, when the staff remembers to include them. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Work history

 In 1968, when I was a junior in high school, Lowell Denton invited me to work for the summer at the Flemingsburg Gazette, the weekly newspaper in Fleming County, Kentucky, that he and his wife, Jean, owned and operated. 

That turned into six summers of practical training in journalism: attending meetings, interviewing, Englishing the country correspondence, writing profiles of notables, reading proof, taking classified and subscription orders over the phone, addressing and bundling the papers for the mail, and sweeping out the office on Fridays. 

Lowell and Jean made a comfortable living, and though there were only a few thousand subscribers, they were loyal. The paper, now owned by a small regional chain, is still being published. 

In 1980, abandoning pursuit of a doctorate in eighteenth-century English literature (though not yet acknowledging to myself that I had done so), I took a seat on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, learning the craft while working with an experienced band of editors. I thrived. 

The Enquirer had recently been acquired by Gannett, and soon Gannett's practice of cycling its apparatchiks through all its papers became evident. In six and a half years I worked under two editors and five managing editors. (The in-house term for these worthies, "Gannettoids," was not a mark of esteem.) But the copy desk was a haven of mild subversion and gallows humor. Our motto was "They can make us eat it, but they can't make us say it tastes good." 

In time they decided that they wanted us to say that it tastes good. The day my supervisor told me that henceforth my annual evaluation would be based half on performance and half on attitude was the day I began to look elsewhere. As a native Kentuckian, I was of course interested in the Courier-Journal in Louisville, and the editors were enthusiastic about me on the first day of interviews. The second day was the day was the day Gannett purchased the Courier-Journal and Barry Bingham handed over the keys to Al Neuharth. 

In 1986 I was hired as a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun, which had recently been acquired by Times Mirror. Times Mirror ran its papers with a loose rein, because the profits were exceptional, partly because introduction of computers into publishing allowed huge savings in labor costs as the positions of craft unions were gradually eliminated. 

During this plush time I was made head of the copy desk and allowed to hire, train, and mentor a cadre of smart young editors, with the encouragement of the editor, John S. Carroll. But top corporate management at Times Mirror was so feckless as to allow agents of the rapacious Chandler family to sell the company out from under them to Tribune. 

Tribune came in boldly, with a too-clever-by-half plan to conceal the purchase of Times Mirror as something else to avoid hefty tax payments, but the Internal Revenue Service was not deceived. Tribune's visionary plan to link its nationwide newspapers to gain a bonanza in national advertising also came to nothing. Corporate cuilture was soon marked by sniping between Chicago and the Los Angeles Times,  the larger, and better, paper, and around 2000 the bottom started to fall out of the paragraph game. 

Instead of expansion, Tribune entered into contraction, reducing staffs, curtailing overage in repeated efforts to maintain profitability and satisfy shareholders. Eventually gormless corporate masters at Tribune were supplanted by Sam Zell and his band of louche bros, who took the company into bankruptcy in a year. 

(In 2009, as revenue plummeted in the recession, I was laid off, along with sixty other newsroom employees, and hired back a year later.) 

Management after Zell maintained the pattern of skimming the cash flow without investing in staff or improvements. The ever-diminishing staff at The Sun struggled to keep doing responsible work in difficult conditions, even managing to achieve a Pulitzer. 

In 2021 Tribune Publishing was acquired by Alden Global Capital, which took the company private. Alden Global almost immediately offered the staff a series of buyouts. I asked for one, received it, and retired, which is the extent of my personal experience with Alden Global. 

So my forty-year career in newspaper journalism, thirty-four of them at The Sun, is done, but I have to say that the itch to edit does not fade. 

Friday, October 22, 2021

Get to the point already

Imagine that your reader is a middle-aged man sitting in a recliner. He has a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. The amount of time he spends looking at one channel before clicking to another is the interval in which you can get and hold his attention. 

That means, in your article, your memo, your report, your release, your email, that you have to say up front and concisely what will interest the reader enough to engage a commitment to go beyond the first two or three sentences. You cannot take the reader by the hand and lead them gently toward the import of what you have to say. Putting the main thing in the sixth paragraph is putting it in a place most readers will never see. 

You know this is true because this is exactly how you read. You do not read every article to the end; sometimes you do not read beyond the headline. (Your editor will read to the end because they have to, and maybe your mother.) You have a limited amount of time and attention to bestow, and so does your potential reader, which makes snap choices inevitable. 

That does not mean that you have to wad your entire content into an unwieldy opening sentence or sixty-word paragraph. You have to identify a single central element that will be meaningful to the reader and focus on it. As they sometimes tell you, if you can't say what you have to say in a single sentence, you don't know what you have to say. 

Accomplishing this will require you to be a ruthless self-editor. The first paragraph in the first draft of this post no longer exists, and nearly all the sentences have undergone some revision. That's how you get to where you need to go. 

If you have read this far, my strategy worked; if you have not, it didn't.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

For what

I see this opening sentence in an article published by CNN: "GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, who was recently indicted for concealing information and lying to the FBI regarding an investigation into illegal campaign contributions, has officially resigned from his committee assignments." 

Anyone care to guess what in that sentence has triggered my boundless scorn? 


In the Former Times, when journalism organizations employed copy editors, we were all schooled that that preposition for suggests certainty, established fact. And because people accused of criminal acts receive a presumption of innocence in our legal system, we never allowed indicted for to get into print, substituting indicted on a charge of. 

Curious whether standards have shifted during my senescence, I plucked my Associated Press Stylebook from its place of repose and found: "To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use phrases such as indicted for killing or indicted for bribery. Instead use indicted on a charge of killing or indicted on a charge of bribery."

It may be a little thing, but following that guideline observes the fundamental principle that journalists are not to put their fingers on the scales. 

It is similar to the guideline of not using murder as a synonym for homicide or killing until after a verdict, because sometimes people accused of a homicide are acquitted, or convicted of manslaughter instead. Again, the AP Stylebook still says, "Do not say murdered until someone has been convicted in court." Use murder only as part of a formal charge, AP advises, adding that writers should say that a person was killed or slain

(If I were still engaged in slapping the AP Stylebook around, I'd be prodding them to drop slain, because every time I see slain in text or slaying in a headline, I want to remind the publication that the 1940s are over.)

When you see that journalists are punctilious in details like these, you can begin to hope that they are careful and accurate in the bigger things as well. When they are not ... 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Take the cache and let the edit go

 I am going to go over this ONE MORE TIME because some of you were not listening. 

The word cachet means "prestige" or "a characteristic feature or quality conferring prestige." We lifted the word and its pronunciation, "cash-AY," directly from the French, because the French are so much better at prestige than the English. 

The word cache also has a French root, but we pronounce it as "cash," because it's our language and we do as we damn please. Cache has nothing to do with prestige. As a noun it means a hiding place for provisions or tools, or the materials being stored in a secure place. As a verb, it means to put things in a secure place. And more recently it became a word for material stored in computer memory. 

We sometimes see cachet spelled caché, the likely reason being that people have a memory of a chain of shopping mall stores selling overpriced vulgar women's clothing that included an accent aigu in its name, Caché, among its affectations. DO NOT DO THIS. 

Don't make me come over here again. 

Friday, October 8, 2021

Go, little text, along your way

 Yesterday on Facebook and Twitter I posted a sneer dismissing the fashionable term curation as merely the equivalent of frottage. 

And yes, I meant the sexual sense, not the artistic one. 

On another occasion, I sneered that what usually goes on in newsrooms is not editing but peristalsis.

I have seen this coming for a long time. 

When I sat down at a newspaper copy desk as a tyro in 1980, computers were in the early stages of their introduction in the paragraph game. Reporters filed texts on computers, and copy editors edited the texts, wrote headlines, and did some rudimentary formatting. 

The process had already begun to save money by eliminating the craft, along with the good-paying union jobs, of the composing room. The Linotypes and their operators were already gone. As the software of the content management systems grew more sophisticated, the page designers, photographers, and copy editors slowly took on more and more of the tasks once performed by compositors and engravers. In time the composing room was gone altogether. 

The task for the copy editors I once oversaw was to become so adept at the formatting that time remained for actual editing of texts. By editing I mean more than the stereotype that copy editors were drones obsessed with trivia, comma jockeys. One of my people identified passages in an article that the writer had plagiarized from online sources, and we got the story spiked. One of my people challenged a story with metaphors so excessive as to be unintentionally ludicrous and got it revised. One of my people identified libel in a story so egregious that I used it as an example for twenty years in my editing class (after changing all the proper nouns to avoid perpetrating a libel myself). 

As the operators of newspapers chose to siphon the cash flow rather than invest in the content and the staff, copy desks were decimated, sometimes eliminated altogether. 

What remained, instead of editing, was processing, now gussied up as curation. Don't mistake me; the processing is necessary. Texts and visual elements must be formatted for online and print publication. Getting the content in front of an audience means promoting it on social media. It is actual work. But editors burdened with these necessary but time-consuming tasks have less time than ever for actual careful editing, and the people who determine the resources have determined that careful editing is expensive and unnecessary, a frill.  

You see the results. You see stories with the subject's name misspelled in the headline and text. You see a sentence in the third paragraph repeated verbatim in the fifth. You see stories so thin and flimsy that there is no there there. You see arrant clickbait. You see shallow rumor-mongering and oversimplification. You read paragraph after paragraph of a text that leaves you thinking Why the hell did they decide to publish THAT? 

You see work that was processed, not edited, and processing is what remains. 

Peristalsis, if you didn't know it or look it up, is the involuntary muscular movement of food through the stomach and intestines, and you already knew what the output is. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Inveighing against changes in language is like inveighing against continental drift

When you get exercised about things you don't care for in English vocabulary or usage, you might keep in mind this passage from Robertson Davies's The Rebel Angels:

"Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Spanish and Italian, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages -- things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way -- becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams."