Friday, October 8, 2021

Go, little text, along your way

 Yesterday on Facebook and Twitter I posted a sneer dismissing the fashionable term curation as merely the equivalent of frottage. 

And yes, I meant the sexual sense, not the artistic one. 

On another occasion, I sneered that what usually goes on in newsrooms is not editing but peristalsis.

I have seen this coming for a long time. 

When I sat down at a newspaper copy desk as a tyro in 1980, computers were in the early stages of their introduction in the paragraph game. Reporters filed texts on computers, and copy editors edited the texts, wrote headlines, and did some rudimentary formatting. 

The process had already begun to save money by eliminating the craft, along with the good-paying union jobs, of the composing room. The Linotypes and their operators were already gone. As the software of the content management systems grew more sophisticated, the page designers, photographers, and copy editors slowly took on more and more of the tasks once performed by compositors and engravers. In time the composing room was gone altogether. 

The task for the copy editors I once oversaw was to become so adept at the formatting that time remained for actual editing of texts. By editing I mean more than the stereotype that copy editors were drones obsessed with trivia, comma jockeys. One of my people identified passages in an article that the writer had plagiarized from online sources, and we got the story spiked. One of my people challenged a story with metaphors so excessive as to be unintentionally ludicrous and got it revised. One of my people identified libel in a story so egregious that I used it as an example for twenty years in my editing class (after changing all the proper nouns to avoid perpetrating a libel myself). 

As the operators of newspapers chose to siphon the cash flow rather than invest in the content and the staff, copy desks were decimated, sometimes eliminated altogether. 

What remained, instead of editing, was processing, now gussied up as curation. Don't mistake me; the processing is necessary. Texts and visual elements must be formatted for online and print publication. Getting the content in front of an audience means promoting it on social media. It is actual work. But editors burdened with these necessary but time-consuming tasks have less time than ever for actual careful editing, and the people who determine the resources have determined that careful editing is expensive and unnecessary, a frill.  

You see the results. You see stories with the subject's name misspelled in the headline and text. You see a sentence in the third paragraph repeated verbatim in the fifth. You see stories so thin and flimsy that there is no there there. You see arrant clickbait. You see shallow rumor-mongering and oversimplification. You read paragraph after paragraph of a text that leaves you thinking Why the hell did they decide to publish THAT? 

You see work that was processed, not edited, and processing is what remains. 

Peristalsis, if you didn't know it or look it up, is the involuntary muscular movement of food through the stomach and intestines, and you already knew what the output is.