Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sweetheart, get me Ettlin

I wrote briefly yesterday (“Editors? We don’t need no stinking editors”) about an inept little news article from the Charlotte Observer that is sadly representative of the shoddy work proliferating in print and online. Thinking about it yesterday, I realized the problem: It had not been Ettlinized.

David Michael Ettlin was The Baltimore Sun’s veteran rewrite man, and by veteran I mean that it sometimes felt as if he had revised A.S. Abell’s copy. The rewrite man’s job – now largely vanished – existed to deal with certain realities of which the public may be unaware and which many journalists are reluctant to acknowledge:

1. Many journalists are not very good writers. The skill of reporting, of ferreting out information, is very different from the skill of composition, and few reporters are equally good at both. The rewrite man took raw copy and Englished it.

2. Journalism is done in haste, which makes for mistakes. The rewrite man was a first line of defense, cleaning up a multitude of errors before shipping stories to the copy desk. (When you read corporatespeak about reducing “layers” of editing, you are to understand that every layer that is eliminated to save money increases the likelihood that what you read with be less and less reliable.)

3. Journalism is a craft, learned by apprenticeship. It was glorious to watch the incomparable Ettlin take a crew of tyros with journalism degrees and patiently instruct them how to construct an obituary, how to write a police story without convicting a suspect in advance of trial, how to get to the point in the first paragraph instead of the tenth.

4. They don’t know the territory. Tyros come in from out of town, along with other reporters migrating for (they think) better jobs. They didn’t grow up here; they don’t know the local geography, history, folkways, and people. So, over time, Ettlin would patiently point out when they made parallel streets intersect or got people’s names wrong (if R Adams Cowley of Shock Trauma saw his name in the paper with a period after the R, the newsroom would hear about it). He would also, in the palmy days, get the keys to the publisher’s Cadillac and drive the newcomers around town for the day for an instructed tour of echt Baltimore.

It would not shock me to hear a reporter say that he or she learned more from Ettlin about the practicalities of reporting and writing than from a major in journalism.

David Michael Ettlin retired from The Sun after four decades on the job and still posts occasionally on a blog, The Real Muck. The qualities he brought to the work – skepticism, irreverence about Important People, humor, an unerring news judgment, and, above all, a determination to make every text factually accurate and clear for the reader – still exist among the attenuated staffs of our newspapers and online publications. How much these qualities are valued, or even recognized, by the people making decisions is a question yet to be answered.