John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The quality of quality is strained

The remark from my interview with On The Media most frequently quoted, by Romenesko’s media news site at Poynter and others, is that “one of the things on the minds of publishers of online enterprises is a sense that readers on the Internet don't expect things to be accurate or very well done and, therefore, they are used to tolerating a much higher level of shoddy work, a much greater volume of errors and, therefore, you can sacrifice the quality on the web and it doesn't mean that much.”

I feel honor-bound to go beyond that to tell you that, to my deep regret, it looks doubtful that quality pays anywhere.

Professor Philip Meyer concluded, as well as he could from fragmentary data, in The Vanishing Newspaper that on balance, high quality in newspapers increased profitability.

But a year ago Professor Doug Fisher argued — persuasively, I now realize — that the quality of journalism that is enhanced by thoroughgoing editing costs too much and returns too little. Yes, you prefer articles that are factually accurate, grammatical, focused, and organized. You complain about articles that aren’t.

But you are not willing to pay what it costs to produce better stuff.*

Don’t take it personally. You never were. For more than a century newspapers have been a delivery vehicle for advertising, and the news, figuratively as well as literally, rode on top of the ads. The tributes to the late Walter Cronkite mourned the passing of his standard of journalism as well, but CBS gave us that gilt-edged news operation because it was raking in money from ads for deodorant and toothpaste and automobiles. Advertising subsidized news.

The financial situation for journalism has become so desperate with the collapse of the advertising model that some established publications are toying with proposals to set up subscriber fees. My former colleague David Simon argued forcefully for this in “Build the Wall,” a Columbia Journalism Review article urging the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to erect a pay wall as a bulwark to preserve high-quality journalism.

Steve Buttry’s sardonic tweet in response to this article: “David Simon's next gritty HBO series will dramatize the deaths of newspapers who followed his advice.”

The likeliest consequences of erecting a pay wall are the departure of most of the readers and a further drop in revenue: The advertisers want to know that their ads are being seen by readers, who will vanish, and the remaining readers are unlikely to pony up enough to compensate for the lost advertising.

Newspapers are trapped between the accelerating collapse of revenue from print, though print is still where they make most of their money, and the failure to arrive at a sufficiently profitable business model for the Internet. In their desperation to keep going, they have had to sacrifice staff, coverage, scope, and quality. When the house is burning down, you get out with what you can.

Once journalism reconstructs itself on some new model that will produce enough income to support whatever level of reporting and writing and editing remains, there will surely be some publications, print or electronic, that are superior to others. But what quality exists will have to be subsidized, because you and I are not willing to pay for it on our own.

*Dearly as I love you all and grateful as I am for your praise and comments for this blog, I’m perfectly aware that if I asked you to pay to read it, you would melt away like Napoleon’s Grande Armee on the march back from Moscow.


  1. John, re Walter Cronkite, did you see the massive NYT correction on his obit? I think it's up on regrettheerror. Among many other goofs, it had him "storming the beach at Normandy."

    Also, speaking of that war, a recent Wall Street Journal article referred to the use of jet aircraft in the Battle of Britain.

  2. Our 21st century American culture seems to equate quantity with quality, and the quantity seems to have to do with money and/or material possessions. My job is defined as "non-revenue producing" in my workplace. The fact that what I do contributes significantly to QUALITY of life means nothing. The fact that what I do does not contribute to QUANTITY of money is what matters. The only way I stay employed is through the graces of foundations that are willing to fund quality, as you and I understand it...

  3. The first British jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, entered service in 1944. It was used against the V-1 "Buzz Bombs."

    Retired in Elkridge

  4. I am not a journalist, and don't know how it 'used' to work or how it is or is not working now. Having said that, can access to the AP stories be charged? It seems that the political-type blogs are making use of the reporting sent to the AP by traditional journalists (that I guess are being sent around the world with money from print ads?).

    And there is still something in the back of my mind about democracy and access to news. Not that people seem to care about either. I am disgusted by celebrity, fashion, entertainment 'news' and how much money and effort goes into it.

  5. It's true, pretty clearly, that people don't want to pay for web content. But there's something I think people miss in the discussions about quality.

    People on the web do have a certain level of quality expectations, particularly from what they preceive as professional sources. If newspapers think they are going to get as much traffic with an unedited web site as with an edited one, they are going to be disappointed.

    But what I see as part of this problem is that what some editors consider quality is really just personal preference -- and I don't think it's a miniscule percent of the editing work that's done, at least not where I've worked.

    There are editors who spend a noticeable amount of their time changing things such as this:

    seek roads to
    larger profits

    Newspapers aren't making money like they used to.

    "We need to find more business models," said Gazette editor John Smith.

    "We need our newspapers," Mayor Robert Stankowski said.

    into this:

    try to make
    more money

    Newspapers are not making money such as they did in the past.

    "We need to find more business models," Gazette editor Jake Smith said.

    "We need our newspapers," Mayor Robert T. Stankowski said.

    There was only one error. Most of the time spend on this would have been used rearranging letters and words to conform with pointless rules readers never heard of, let along care about. Which means most of that time wasn't used on quality as a reader would perceive it.

    Readers do care about quality, they just have different standards. Newspapers will eventually realize that online readers will get very snotty about basic gramatical errors and eventually turn their backs on publications that make factual errors.

  6. 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?

  7. Becky, I once had an editor--an African American man--who would not allow me use the word "barbecue" in headlines or copy about people cooking out over an open fire, maintaining that the word had extremely unpleasant connotations for blacks. Seems that in some parts of the South, the word was/is a euphemism for a lynching. While I was sensitive to his sensitivity to his personal experience and memories, I thought the embargo on a perfectly good word used in an innocent context was pointless. It was personal preference influencing quality for no good reason.

  8. I like what you say about the importance of editors, John.

    However, there has been a catastrophe in Canada this week (which Craig Silverman who you refer to on another matter commented on in our national media) in which the editor of a small newspaper reportedly made an addition to a story that resulted in a false accusation being made of our Prime Minister. The paper has reportedly fired the editor and demoted the publisher.

    And years ago, when I started my freelancing career, I had an editor change the word "was" to "is" in a quote by someone speaking of his dead brother. The editor had not bothered to clarify why I had used the past tense even though it was certainly alluded to in the story. It highly embarrassed me with the family profiled in the story as it seemed like I had been insensitive to the fact that the brother being spoken of was dead.

    Good editors are great. Bad editors should get a different job.

  9. Becky --

    "...not making money such as they did in the past."

    I'd laugh, except it's too true to be a joke. :(

  10. "are been seen by readers"?