John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

After the storm

Despite the distresses of the day, I have not lost hope that journalism will return to the importance of editing.

Much of my attention and energy over the past three decades have been devoted to upholding the importance of editing: first in developing my own mastery of the craft, in both micro- and macro-editing; in establishing and upholding high standards for my colleagues as a manager, then in hiring and training promising candidates; in spreading the word about the importance of editing to individual publications through workshops and to the industry at large as a president of the American Copy Editors Society.

It was, you may imagine, a sad occasion to post yesterday that much of that effort appears to have been futile. Editing at newspapers and magazines and publishing houses and Internet sites is much diminished, and the argument for quality has succumbed to the brutal realities of the marketplace.

Here is what one reader, “Captain Nemo,” had to say about yesterday’s post:

I think the whole quality issue is overblown. Each morning I quickly check about half dozen sources: Huffington (liberal) Drudge (conservative), NYT headlines, AOL breaking news, facebook feeds, and maybe the Post. I don't "read" these sources, I skim them rapidly to get an idea of what's going on in the world. If I see an article I like or am interested in, I bookmark it and read it later. I don't analyze the "quality." I'm moving fast. I have no time to worry about how crafty a headline is or how well the lede pulls me in. It's like going to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. When I'm satisfied, I stop eating. I don't think I am alone in this information consumption habit, as current print circulation data vs. Internet hit rates attest. Accuracy is now a process of simple accretion of various sources. Were 17 or 19 people shot in Baltimore over last weekend? Does that matter to the basic human guts of the story that a pregnant woman an a2-year-old girl were shot?

I suspect that the captain’s reading practices are quite common, and I doubt that they arose with the Internet age. Newspaper readers have always been notorious for scanning and skimming, and anyone who has had to deal with readers’ complaints knows how frequently those complaints came about when a reader reached a conclusion from a headline without looking at the story.

I further suspect that the captain’s indifference to errors in the details is also fairly common. The New York Times had to publish a lengthy correction about errors in Alessandra Stanley’s article on Walter Cronkite’s career — the latest examples of a pattern of sloppiness in the writer’s work that Craig Silverman examines for the Columbia Journalism Review. But most readers would almost surely slide over the errors — and shrug at seeing them pointed out. They are embarrassing to The Times, particularly to its copy desk, but not of much moment to the ordinary reader.

So, if the publisher can’t afford to spend money on editing, and if the reader doesn’t really care that the articles are as stuffed with errors of fact as Strasbourg geese are with grain, why worry?

One reason is that errors and low-grade writing have cumulative effects that readers begin to notice. As Gary Kirchherr commented on Facebook about yesterday’s post on quality, “Readers may not be willing to pay more for quality writing, but they also will abandon the publication that goes too far in the opposite direction. Rock, hard place.”
They will notice errors in articles about subjects that touch them, and they will be quickly bored with unfocused, slipshod writing.

Let me suggest a parallel. When General Motors emerged from bankruptcy this month, its CEO, Fritz Henderson, proclaimed that GM would be committed to producing “high-quality” automobiles for consumers. He didn’t say that GM had previously been manufacturing crappy products — he didn’t have to; the emphasis on “quality” spoke for itself. Degrading the product is not a sound long-term strategy.

Once journalism, print and electronic, has stabilized in a business model that no longer requires the ceaseless cuts in staff and reductions of product that have marked the past few years, it will begin to reconstruct itself. As it does so, some publishers will once again aspire to credibility and quality. Some, as always, will happily churn out junk so long as money can be made off it, but a few will seek more dignity. Some always do.

Those who so aspire will come to see that editing is indispensable and will begin to employ more editors as revenues permit. Those editors will not likely work in the structure that newspapers favored for more than a century, but whatever structure develops will take cognizance of unchanging principles:

Credibility rises from accuracy; accuracy requires checking.

Readers want clarity; clarity and focus come from editing.

Writers, who are not necessarily the best judges of their own work, benefit from a dispassionate analysis of their prose before publication.

The best writers benefit from editing; the less-accomplished require it.

18 comments:

  1. I would add, "The best writers most appreciate editing; the worst writers most abhor it."

    And then I would run it by an editor.

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  2. Comment from my editor: "'But first' sted 'And then'."

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  3. John, would you please forward this note to Captain Nemo?

    Dear Captain Nemo,
    None of us has as much time as we'd like to have to read all we'd like to read, so I understand your way of learning what's going on in the world. However, I do worry a bit about the idea that "Accuracy is now a process of simple accretion of various sources." What if none of them gets it right? And how would you even know? And even if they simply differ, who do you trust to track down the facts (assuming the topic is of any importance to you)? I'm sure I'm just over-worried about it (since perhaps it is true that as the number of sources accrues, the likelihood of error decreases), but I know that crucial errors in meaning and understanding are quite often made in unedited work (not just the types you might consider insignificant like the number or ages of people killed). But back to the topic of our limited time: As editing decreases, you may have to waste more time figuring out which sources are correct and even what you're reading or "scanning." That's the thing that always bugged me about minor errors. They are not always inconsequential, at least not as far as my time goes. For example, in reading your comment, I spent as much time going over "an a2-year-old" (because to my tired eyes the "a2" looked like "32" and even that didn't make sense after "an") as I did reading the rest of the comment. So the time it took to read the whole thing was essentially doubled because of one insignificant typo. So, in the interest of saving time, I say we need more and better editing!

    Best wishes,
    Tracey Chen

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  4. Allow me to emend my statement: "Accuracy is now--as it always has been--a process of simple accretion of various sources."

    "And how would you even know?" Seriously? How does anybody know anything? You look around. You look it up. You ask questions. You check various sources. You tell the reporter to go back and get corroborating statements from the police chief and victim's mother.

    Editors are necessary, don't get me wrong. (E-editors--hey that's catchy...) But in the future when the newspaper is something they show in museums (newseums), when everything's electronic on blogs like this one, we will have the luxury of instantly proofreading each other's work (thanks for catching my typo, BTW--and sorry) without the tedious interference of the protracted delay of the drag of ink across the printed page.

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  5. Thanks Cap't. I need to learn more about all this. But who is telling the reporter to go back and do anything if no one is reading his work before it's published?

    And does this mean I can believe anything I read on Wikipedia now (since the whole world can add to it and edit it)? Just teasing: I don't believe most of what I read anyway.

    However, I definitely do not look forward to the days of having to proofread (more than it already happens, like up here where we are all so casual and quick) when I just want to be reading. To me, that won't be a "luxury."

    Last question (in response to "the protracted delay of the drag of ink across the printed page): Does anyone still edit hardcopy? Really? Wow. I still have green pens, but I haven't used one in probably 15 years.
    Cheers,
    Tracey

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  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  7. Tracey, wow, you are parsing my comments closely, eh? If I'm going to be taking up so much of your time, don't let me be opaque; let me try to respond to your questions in reverse order.

    When I referenced "the tedious interference of the protracted delay of the drag of ink across the printed page" I was attempting to refer to the increasingly outmoded, expensive, and dirty practice printing of newspapers, not the editing of hard copy, sorry. (Your green pens could be in that newseum, couldn't they? Right alongside a copy spike and waxing machine.)

    I guess I was trying to be ironic, as well, when I used the word "luxury" in the third graph. Sorry my teasing wasn't obvious.

    And Wikipedia? You're such a kidder! Sure, you can use that as a starting point for quick reference, can't you? Not everybody on the Internet is an idiot, contrary to what a lot of journalists we know think--and funny thing--most of them are bloggers now.

    Finally, the "you" in "You tell the reporter" is you, Tracey.

    OK? Well, surf's up! Gotta go check out Reuters.

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  8. Like Capt. Nemo, I daily visit/skim a number of news and political websites for my information. Even if I am just whipping through a post, however, grammer/spelling/punctuation mistakes still jump off the screen. When they do, I start to wonder what else the author of that particular piece got wrong.

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  9. John,

    Thanks for being one of the folks bringing to the forefront of discussion the whole issue of the decline in editing.

    Here's the thing:

    Readers read to learn something they didn't already know. Do you folks not care whether or not the facts you learn are true? Why bother reading them in the first place?

    Readers in a hurry are the ones in the greatest need of clarity and conciseness. A written piece is ALWAYS vaguer, more confusing, less organized, and harder to remember than it is after it's been well edited.

    Editing didn't evolve because publications in days of yore had so much excessive time and money lying around tripping people up. It evolved because readers have always had the same priorities: clear information fast.

    Those who don't value editing don't understand what it is.

    best,
    Victoria Mixon
    Author and Editor

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  10. Victoria, I love your comment. That's what I was trying to say to dear Captain Nemo, but I'm not nearly as eloquent.

    Captain, I don't have access to the reporters to send them back to do anything, and I wouldn't want to have to waste time on that even if I did (although spending a little time on this site is fun and thus worth it). I like having access to the results of well-run, well-known, reputable organizations that I know have taken the time to hire teams of well-trained, well-supervised editors and journalists, in a form that is easy on my eyes (i.e., printed newspapers, not computer screens) and easily portable (i.e., to my comfy chair in the sun) and is not dependent on my internet connection and computer functioning reliably (which they do not). Even if I got a laptop that kept working (last one died), I really can't stand the light from the screen for too long or having to scroll down or wait for pages to load. Seriously, I may be old-fashioned, but printed news is so much more comfy and quick, and I hope there are enough of me out there to keep them alive till I'm dead at least.

    I'm not sure I understand what your initial argument is though, since in a subsequent post you do say editors are necessary, and you have clarified that you were teasing about our having to be distracted (and thus, at least in my case, slowed down) by errors in things posted on the internet.

    Maybe we DO agree that editing is a necessary and good thing (again, at least to me, whether the work is printed on paper or posted on the internet). Was your initial post really just about the future being online reading only? That wasn't really clear to me. And I wouldn't understand why editing would be any less necessary for work posted on line than for work printed on paper, since (IMHO) the point of editing is respect for the reader and his or her time.

    When you said "I don't analyze the quality," you touched on an important point: readers shouldn't have to slog through horrible writing; good editing protects them from that. And even if you don't consciously analyze the quality of what you're reading (which is what editors do), I'm sure you're doing it at some level: how else would you decide to keep reading or believe what you're reading or read anything from that source again. For example, I doubt you read the National Enquirer and the like and think it's presenting information as valuable as other sources.

    Hang ten!

    Tracey

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  11. My original point, to rephrase it, is that quality is overrated. (Not by you, of course, and maybe not by me and the crew.) Most newspaper, magazine, Internet source, and blog readers aren't very good readers to begin with (Why else would they edit the newspapers to a 8-9th grade reading level, in the main). They don't notice the flaws and lack of focus writers and editors concern themselves with.

    In his original post above,even Sir John McI. says "...But most readers would almost surely slide over the errors — and shrug at seeing them pointed out. They are embarrassing to The Times, particularly to its copy desk, but not of much moment to the ordinary reader." Agree with that? Most people just don't see what you and I see. And what's more, they really don't care.

    I repeat, editors are necessary. But you and Victoria seem to think that I'm surfing around the web looking for all the crap to read. Why do that? On the contrary, I'm pretty discriminating.

    Here on the Nautilus, we don't get print delivered and our WiFi network is iffy, so when we can, we skim and scan and surf for the information we need.

    I guess the word is eclecticism.

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  12. Dear Captain: I agree that most readers probably don't notice many errors (there's a reason for that unrelated to the readers though: editing) and even that many of those who do are probably not bothered by some of the types of minor errors that the writers/publishers could consider embarrassing.

    Also, I'm sure you're not surfing for crap. In fact, I think you are discriminating enough to be reading primarily content that has been edited (at least to some extent). And that may be why you are under the impression that "the whole quality issue is overblown." That is, because the best editing is invisible, you may not be seeing it and, thus, are less able to appreciate it.

    That is, you are reading edited content, so you don't think the available content needs to be any better. But what about being as good as it is now? If editing (and the "quality issue") continues to be devalued and decreased, eventually there won't be much quality content available to read.

    Sincerely,
    Tracey

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  13. When I read I notice errors and add them to an internal tally associated with the organization that allowed them to reach me. That tally determines the credibility I assign to the source and content of the piece. My tendency to research further is directly proportional to the errors I find. Grammar (misspelled in an earlier comment) matters, sentence construction matters, correct use of words matters and accuracy to the Nth degree matters.

    I am, if anyone is, the prototypical average reader so please don't deign to speak for me when you say that the average reader will notice little and forgive much when it comes to editing. I notice and when I find poor editing I ascribe it to being taken for granted by those in a position to make a different decision.

    As long as I'm on the the soap box please spread the word far and wide that any writer that misuses the phrase "Home in on.." by saying/writing "Hone in on.." should be given his/her walking papers.

    Get it right.

    Sincrely,

    An average reader.

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  14. Tracey:
    Agreed: Good editing, when it takes place, is invisible (not self-evident). God love them, editors are true unsung heroes.

    But let's talk about "quality content." Editing aside for a moment (for I am sure no copy editor alive can make a seaweed purse out of a sealion's ear). We cancelled our print subscription to The Baltimore Sun here on the Nautilus when one morning we held in our hands a newspaper of a skinny 40 pages (4/5ths advertising) that had three locally written stories--three(3). The balance of that newspaper--it may have been a Monday, yes--was all wire, syndicate, stringer, and Trib copy. This caused the chef to over-chafe the Squid Benedict in the galley; the crew had had it. We dropped the paper like a hot abalone.

    Quality content? Who wants warmed over squid?

    Maybe, unfortunately, (and in the context of this discussion about Internet content) what is original/interesting/worthwile may not be perfect/seamless/error-free. (All blogs, good case in point. Bloggers are forced to self-edit, right John?)

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  15. Dear Captain,
    I hate squid in all its forms, as well as the giants who have been capturing, slowing squeezing, and then gutting local papers across the country. We are all suffering now, being forced to surf for our meals instead of having them delivered fresh daily (unless we want frozen fish sticks day after day). And I hate surfing while hungry. OK, now I'm seasick.
    Dive, dive, dive!
    Tracey

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  16. "We are all suffering now, being forced to surf for our meals instead of having them delivered fresh daily (unless we want frozen fish sticks day after day)."
    Yes.

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  17. I take issue with Douglas MacIlroy's contention that anyone saying "hone in on" is misusing the phrase "home in on."

    Language Log has discussed the matter here: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000378.html

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