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.