Monday, January 11, 2010

Bungling at the top

Tempting as it is to associate imbecility mainly with the publishing executives who have hollowed out America’s newspapers, there is plenty of that quality to go around, and not just for bankers.

David Zurawik’s article in today’s Baltimore Sun about the ignominious retreat of NBC over its disaster with Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show after a mere four months illustrates some of the parallels between broadcast television and the newspaper industry.

Broadcast TV, like newspapers, faces a crisis. The programming is expensive to produce (hence the proliferation of cheap-to-make but tacky reality shows), the viewers are drifting away to more appealing offerings on cable, and advertising revenue is sharply down.

People in a panic are liable to arrive at bad decisions, and the broadcast executives, like their newspaper counterparts, chose something self-destructive. They moved Mr. Leno into the earlier time slot because his show is cheaper than a series to produce. Their contempt for their viewers is comparable to newspaper executives’ contempt for readers: just give them something cheap while pretending that it’s good.*

Unfortunately, NBC also contrived to damage the affiliate stations, whose screaming over lost revenue could be heard throughout the long winter nights even with the windows closed. It was the affiliates’ threat of outright rebellion that prompted NBC’s hasty retreat.

At this point, the principal difference between the broadcast executives and newspaper executives appears to be that the broadcasters conceded publicly that they had made a bad decision.

*I have no particular disregard for Mr. Leno, who appears to be an amiable fellow who can be amusing on the days that his writers give him something to work with.

Monday, bloody Monday

Not an auspicious start to the week: woke at 3:00 a.m. yesterday, feverish, then chilled, congested, with a sore throat. Had to back out, shamefully, of a couple of obligations to spend the day swallowing ibuprofen and swilling tea. Today? Too soon to tell.

Before embarking on the week’s activities, some reminders and loose ends.

Still time to sign up

You still have a day or two to sign up for McMurry’s Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You audioconference on Thursday. Be assured that I will have pulled back from the edge of the grave by then, not only to alert you to some things about language that it is important to keep in mind, but also to hear what you have to offer. Questions will be taken. Form some.

More than spell-checking

That deeply embarrassing Star Tribune memo last week, the one that implied that the paper could get along without copy editors so long as the reporters ran spell-check on their stories, betrays a widespread ignorance about editing.

There are two levels of editing. Running the spell-check is part of mechanical editing: looking for errors in spelling, grammar, usage, points of fact. These are the errors that readers usually pick up on, and this is what people who are ignorant of the craft — many of them, sadly, corporate executives in the publishing industry — think is all there is to it.

The deeper level, analytical editing, is much more difficult. It involves the things that make articles readable, such as focus, structure, organization within the structure, tone, and the legal and ethical issues that get people into trouble. Readers who spot errors in grammar or street names are unlikely to think about the text in these terms, but they can tell very quickly when a story is hard going.

This kind of editing falls to the copy editor when the writer and the assigning editor get so bound up in their own preoccupations with the story that they are unable to step back and look at it as the reader would. Now that crucial step is missing or suppressed at many publications, which may be one reason that newspaper readership is dropping like a stone.

When I step into my classroom at Loyola tomorrow morning, I will be telling my students in the editing course that they are going to be responsible for editing at both levels. We’ll see how many are still there on Thursday.

President Thursday

Now that has made the older You Don’t Say posts inaccessible, I have no compunction about repeating points that I’ve made before. (Not, as my former colleagues can testify, that I have ever been particularly reluctant to repeat myself.)

The opening sentence of a front-page story in Friday’s Sun began thus:

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake Thursday ordered a

That was the first line, in enlarged type.

Let’s consider first an aesthetic question, whether a writer ought to string together a long series of capitalized words before ever getting to a verb. Probably not.

Let’s also consider the damnable practice of inserting the day of an event between the subject and the verb, which in this case makes Thursday appear to be Ms. Rawlings-Blake’s last name. This is a non-idiomatic bit of journalese that I campaigned against throughout my tenure as head of The Sun’s copy desk and language noodge. Apparently without effect.

Former Assistant Managing Editor for the Copy Desk John E. McIntyre Monday announced that he has not given up the fight against this detestable practice.