Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The diaspora of editors

In 1997, when American newspapers were still hugely profitable and it looked as if they might come to grips with this Internet thing, a respect for editing was on the increase.

That was the year that the American Copy Editors Society was founded, with the backing of senior figures in the newspaper industry. Within a few years, a number of major newspapers created the position of assistant managing editor for the copy desk (or an equivalent), to consolidate scattered operations, to achieve uniformity in editing practices, to make clear that editing involves more than formatting for typesetting and running the spell-check, and to give editing a voice within the high command.

You know what happened. The bottom fell out of the newspaper business model and a recession accelerated the decline. Increasingly, desperation and panic led to round after round of buyouts and layoffs. The wolves are closing in, and the children are being tossed from the troika.

Many of those assistant managing editors are gone — Melissa McCoy in Los Angeles, Kay Jarvis in Denver, Leslie Guevarra in San Francisco, Don Podesta in Washington, Merrill Perlman in New York. Kathy Schenck announced last week that she is leaving the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee. Some of them were replaced after they took buyouts, but the position itself has sometimes been eliminated or restructured.

It is not just the ranking editors who are gone. Copy desks around the country have been decimated, and the practice is repeated in magazine journalism and book publishing. Decades of skill and experience have walked out the door, to teach, to consult, to write, to do public relations — but less and less to edit.

But I did not invite you into this post to sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of editing. There is work to be done.

As the economy slowly reconstitutes itself and journalism staggers blindly toward whatever its future will be, it is much more urgent than in 1997 to establish the importance of editing and to give editors a voice.

I see that ACES is working to find its footing again in training and retraining editors for the new environment, and I trust that it will continue reach out to editors and careers beyond newspapering.

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications will be meeting in Boston at the beginning of August, and Leslie-Jean Thornton of the Cronkite School at Arizona State has been inviting colleagues on Twitter to suggest ideas for the Future of Editing session. (You can also make suggestions here; I’ll forward them.)

The Poynter Institute is in the middle of a “Big Ideas” conference to sort out what is working in journalism and what avenues look productive. There’s a live blog.

Those of you who teach composition at the secondary or college level have the opportunity to make a substantial difference by showing your students that writing is more than mere self-expression, that accuracy and precision and focus and clarity can be achieved through self-editing, that precision in grammar and usage is an important skill to master.

Those of you who are readers should consider protesting shoddy work rather than shrugging it off. If an article — newspaper, magazine, online — is riddled with silly errors or shoddily constructed, complain. If the book you purchased is similarly sloppy, complain. I’m not giddy with optimism about the outcome, but I do think that over time, customers’ complaints can have an effect.

And those of you who have any authority over hiring, particularly in the growing online enterprises: When you get resumes that show experience in editing, pay attention to those candidates. They know useful things.