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/.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Have they no decency?

My former colleague Claire Abt tells me that there were so many things wrong with this that she had to share it:

New Jim Beam Red Stag black cherry-flavored bourbon

Kentucky apple martini — a unique cherry-apple flavor:
Jim Beam Red Stag bourbon, DeKuyper red apple liquor and sweet & sour, topped with squeezes of fresh lemon

[A brief pause to permit you to shudder]

This is still the land of the free, and it ill becomes anyone to disparage another man’s tipple, but, great Caesar’s ghost, this is monstrous.

My first alcoholic drink was bourbon and Coke, but when I became a man, I put away childish things. You can mix vodka with what you will, and you’re free to imagine that you can distinguish one kind from another. Gin as well can be mixed with many things, though tonic water is one of the better and gin achieves its apotheosis when combined with a little dry vermouth. Rum seems designed to mingle with fruit juices.

But whisky and whiskey — Scotch, Irish, and bourbon — with which only brandy can compare as supreme achievements of the distiller’s craft — should be granted their dignity.

If you like your bourbon with a little something sweet, mix it with a little sweet vermouth and enjoy a Manhattan.

But bourbon flavored with black cherry and mixed with red apple liquor and sweet and sour mix? [You may shudder once more.] Good Lord, it’s enough to drive a man to drink.

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.