Monday, February 18, 2008

The ‘eyes’ have it

More than three-quarters of the readers of this blog think two or more people should edit an article before it goes in the newspaper, according to the poll asking how many editors it takes to vet a story.

Of the more than 400 respondents to the survey as of this evening, 55.2% favored two editors per story, 21.9% advocated three or more editors per story, 20.4% said a single editor was sufficient and a mere 2.5% said reporters didn’t need anyone looking over their shoulders. So, those favoring lots of “eyes” on a story handily carried the vote.

Anecdotally, the comments to the post below produced a general – and well founded – consensus that I am a lousy typist, as demonstrated by the frequent typos appearing herein. The suggestion that I hire a copy editor to safeguard my work, while thoughtful, is not going to be economically feasible, inasmuch as this is a volunteer undertaking and I am the only volunteer.

A fair number of reactions to the post cast me as an evil guy because I identified the obvious problem that newspapers bear awesomely higher production costs than the websites building substantial businesses by reusing their valuable content for free.

Take aim at the messenger if you like, but please understand that the staggering level of economic inequity is a real and indisputable problem threatening the long-term survival of newspapers as we know (and love) them. Those responding emotionally to my observations aren’t doing themselves, their colleagues or their readers any favors.

I share everyone’s commitment to quality journalism. But that’s not the issue.

The question is whether newspapers can afford to continue producing quality content in the traditional fashion at a time when sales, profits and the underlying business model are facing unprecedented and alarming challenges.

That’s what we ought be worried about, not my lousy typing.

22 Comments:

Anonymous Daniel Hunt said...

Alan: Although I whole-heartedly disagree with you, I applaud the fact that you brought this discussion to the Web.

More often than not, thanks to the Web and our ever-shorter attention spans, we gravitate to people with whom we share beliefs and convictions. We've stopped listening to others who say something we don't want to hear, and in the process we've dumbed down our society.

I think after your post we're all a little smarter. And you've got one more person who will look forward to reading future posts.

As a copy editor, I'm also glad most people still believe we're indispensable -- for now.

1:23 AM  
Blogger Aron said...

Alan,

I think the bottom line is exactly what people here are worried about when they answered your poll.

Copy editors, at least in my shop, aren't passive participants in the process. They write headlines, trim for content and length, spot holes, rewrite cruddy leads AS WELL AS being the last set of eyes looking for slander and libel. (And nothing cuts into that bottom line like a good libel suit, right?)

In short, they ensure quality, consistency, accuracy and fairness -- the very things that make a great news organization great.

People aren't turning away from good newspapers because the quality is too high. They are turning away, at least in part, because news barons are doing exactly what you are suggesting they should do: carving away at the core of the business, the people who make their news organization great. Imagine if Google stopped hiring engineers, how long would that business last?

The problem is the industry hasn't figured out how to transition to the new medium...yet. Some will; others will fail. The ones that succeed will do so because they maintain the high standards so lacking on the web -- not in spite of it.

Yes, holding onto seemingly anachronistic institutions seems like bad business. But you tell me: If newspapers are indistinguishable from Wikipedia, how would that affect the bottom line?

5:57 AM  
Anonymous John Robinson said...

What I didn't say in my own post about this is that the number of editors will continue to dwindle in comparison with the number of reporters as print continues to decline. Probably not fast enough, though.

My observation is that, as with so many other things, print readers expect a different experience than online readers. Not a higher standard, understand, but a different standard. One of those expectations is correct grammar and spelling.

Despite the number of people who corrected your grammar -- they did the same on my post -- most people online read right over that stuff to get to the core message.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Typing skills may not be relevant to you, but proofreading and editing skills most certainly are to the kind of regular readers that online and print media hope to retain.

The idea of putting junk copy out and having your readership correct it -- a common cop-out in the blogging world, I might add -- shreds the competence and authority that authors hope to portray.

In short, clean copy is a necessary cost of the communication business. If we don't produce quality work, we can't expect our audiences to accept it as such. I know this can be taken to extremes. My local paper, for example, photographed the "award-winning team" for its annual award-package series. It contained two reporters and six editors.

That's overkill. But even in a blogging environment, it's important that the quality of the copy reflects the quality of the idea.

6:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re volunteer: Well said, Mr. Mutter. And your volunteer effort is very much appreciated by me and many others.

OT: I volunteer at an animal shelter. When we train new people, we say they'll start at our usual base salary--nothing--and if they perform well, they'll get the standard raise--nothing. One day an adoption applicant called to complain about me. I'm sure she thought she was getting me in trouble. While I took the woman's complaint seriously, my volunteer status (me: maybe I'm not so good at this, maybe I should quit; director: NOOOOO!) blunted the arrow nicely.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Technology now allows people to work from home. Why not have one editor on staff, and then show the copy to one more set of eyes--perhaps belonging to a retired journalist now working part-time to supplement his/her retirement income? Or a former employee now staying home with his/her young children? Surely that would cost less.

7:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The challenge facing newspapers is, as you pointed out, quite real. Why not look at it from a business standpoint? If your competition is besting you, figure out the reason and beat them at their own game.

Technology has allowed bloggers to "steal" newspaper content (and therefore advertisers) without violating copyright laws. However, you don't want a new law addressing this loophole because the links provided by bloggers are increasing hits to your website. So publishers and editors should scrutinize their competition on the Internet and compare it to what their newspaper offers online.

Why doesn't my (large metro) paper sponsor a local version of Ebay? Or Match.com? Most newspapers have personal ads, but the website needs to be more attractive and easier to navigate than its competition. A few days ago I tried to browse real estate on my newspaper's website. It was a joke. I typed in a zip code, and I got the kind of technical glitch I've rarely seen since the 1990s, with text running off the page, text overlapping and no photos. I gave up and went to Trulia and Realtor.com.

At my local paper some writers were told they could NOT blog. I can guess why: Someone somewhere might get offended by something. And readers are responding to this content paralysis by voting with their eyes, aren't they?

Sadly, newspaper editors seem oblivious to the threat facing them. I'm reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit in which Gilda Radner had opened a Scotch tape "boutique" which was, of course, devoid of customers. Radner and her employees engaged in lots of rationalization about how shoppers would eventually get used to the idea of buying tape at their boutique instead of the big box store. Right.

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Dedline said...

Your take is dead-on. We spend too much time massaging and tweaking copy to iron out wrinkles that readers don't even care about.

Readers want stories…lots of them…now.

At my paper we have great reporters wasting their time as editors. We'd be able to put twice as many interesting stories in the paper, if we pulled them off the desk and got them out in the community.

I find that when readers call or write to bitch about grammar or typos, they are so proud and energized.

We help them feel really good about themselves. "I'm so much smarter than those idiots at the paper. Ha!"

It is a public service, the way I see it. Helping people with little or nothing in their lives feel good about themselves.

They love it and they keep reading so they can make those calls.

And the young generation that we want to read the paper, they are texting and don't give a damn about spelling. They just want the story.

To survive, newspapers need a lot more people doing good reporting and a lot less reading at a desk.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Alan, here's an equally accurate way of stating the results:

More than three-quarters of the readers of this blog think two or fewer people should edit an article before it goes in the newspaper, according to the poll asking how many editors it takes to vet a story.

For the record, I think that for most stories, two editors is fine - the section's editor and a copy editor.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lousy typist or poor writer?

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll go with the 2 sets of eyes, and loved the suggestion that papers could better use former editors "put out to pasture" by telecommuting editing.

A growing complaint, though, is there ought to be more "eyes" on a story before it's even written. Editors need to articulate their thoughts and ideas better in the preliminary stages, to take time to help writers plan their stories when it comes to takeouts and projects. Too often, writers are left on an island -- then when the story doesn't meet the editor's idea, a lot of good work is often undone.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Gerri Berendzen said...

It will still take people to get the news up on those Web sites. Will it take fewer people — maybe? I’m not sure any of us know exactly how this will all shake out once the presses finally stop (and once newspapers actually begin making enough money off the web to let the presses stop).

One model is that you have a reporter who does it all — report, upload photos and video, push the buttons, monitor the comments and write the headlines. Of course, that's a certain amount of time off the streets and out of the hyperlocal world.

And even unedited copy needs a headline. Isn’t that what really drives people to your web site?

In that model, everyone becomes a generalist. But I suspect in the end, a system with only generalists won’t work. If it did, why doesn’t every news organization do it that way now?

Headline writing is skill — not everyone can do it well — and it’s one of the answers to the question "how does what copy editors do get us traffic on the web."

But I think in every model, it will be necessary to edit the copy on the web. Maybe web readers are looking for something different, and maybe proper punctuation isn't it. I do suspect though that factual errors will start driving people away for any site. Trust is still important.

Quality is a difficult thing to quantify for the stockholders — but in the end it will be one of the things that keeps people coming back to that site when there are multiple choices.

And one thing I can quantify is the cost of a lawsuit when an overaggressive reporter was the only person to see his or her copy before it was posted.

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re headline writing is a skill: You bet it is.

Have you noticed how hard it is to avoid clicking on the list of top ten NY Times stories? The Times has had more than its share of journalism problems in recent years, but they've got headlines down. Two I recall off the top of my head: "Sex, drugs and update my blog" and "What Shamu taught me about a happy marriage."

I believe another one was "OMG my mom's on facebook!" I wish I could remember some hard news headlines. Someone help me out here.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Virago said...

Alan: You are correct when you caution the readers of your blog to avoid "taking aim at the messenger," but you fail to respond to the readers who question the information you present in the accompanying workflow chart.

I'll ask you (as I would any reporter whose writing included unattributed information): What is the source of your data?

9:38 PM  
Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

I'm convinced there will be jobs in the future for editors, even copy editors, but they won't look like rims and slots. To me, the issues you've provoked with your posts line up this way:

Print vs. Web

The print edition is still the one-shot-to-get-it-right-or-it's-wrong-forever process, and it needs more editing upfront. Online publishing allows us to go back to a story and keep making it better, and we should make the most of it. To think that what works for the Web might work for print is as narrow-minded as thinking the Web must be done like print has always been done. How many eyes in your newsroom see a story after it's been posted online? Or the comments? Or the blog reactions? Zero? Why is that? And as long we have a print edition, we have a print process.

Efficiency vs. cheapness

It's possible that two good reads are better than four or five rushed reads, especially if the fourth and fifth are just cleaning up the second and third. It's possible to find efficiencies, when I think about how we can move information quickly through RSS feeds and widgets compared with how many hands have to touch the lottery numbers to get them in the paper. But if the only thing you've changed is to cut costs, if the only change in the process is that fewer people are there to get the paper out the same old way, you're not being more efficient. You're just being worse. With rare exceptions, I don't see newspapers reshaping the paper to survive in this world. They seem to do what they've always done, but with a big hole in the staff, then another hole, and another.

Production vs. journalism

Much of what editors do is based on ancient technologies that are being wiped away. The journalism is not in the pica pole. A reporter who posts to a blog is taking care of layout, paginating and even headline writing. The journalism that editors can still do is in thinking and linking: Providing critical thinking about what the newsroom produces (or a sharp-eyed outside blogger will) and linking -- taking a variety of material in a variety of formats and conditions, some of it already online, and connecting it in ways that make sense.

Casual vs. formal

Deans of the desk such as John McIntyre and Bill Walsh write powerfully about the standards that only well-trained copy editors can provide. They also write about the shibboleths and meaningless distinctions that we get obsessed with. We sometimes forget that there's right, there's style, and there's preference. Just as print is different from the Web, a breaking news blog produced the staff will have different expectations by readers for clean copy than a personality-driven blog by a columnist who's answering a reader's question in a lively conversation. How many eight-hour shifts, with their commutes, should you have to line up at the big building downtown for a reporter to see a question in the comments of a blog and answer it? I wouldn't turn a letter from a Civil War soldier into AP style, and I can embrace the conversational style of the Internet without fearing I'm creating an Idiocracy of teh loosers.

Plaintiff vs. defendant

"We keep you from getting sued" is the strongest argument copy editors can make, and a business model based on flawed products is not likely to succeed, whether it's ground beef or Ford Pintos. Even so, companies sometimes try to cost-justify even the calamities. And the lawsuit-prevention desk is not quite the same as the headline-writing, caption-writing, wire-editing, page-layout, modifier-hyphenating, and serial-comma desk. Copy editors need to nail this argument, without the trappings of production and tradition: "We keep you from being sued, and in between we make you look sharp and professional."

I salute you for warning copy editors to anticipate the future before they're reduced to wandering the Internet correcting Wikipedia entries, or working in a supermarket putting apostrophes in the right places and making the signs that say "10 items or fewer." Now if I can only schedule a venture-capital meeting for my concept of Google NewsEditor.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Dedline said...

Well said, Brian.

News is still king, but all the king's men in the newsroom should be thinking about trading in their muskets.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Michael Josefowicz said...

Well said, Brian.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Brian B said...

I've lost track of the references in this discussion, here and elsewhere, in the past few days to the "we save you from lawsuits" justification for our continued existence.

News organizations have been putting lightly or un-edited copy on the Web for 10-plus years now. How many lawsuits have resulted? Seriously? Also in that time, how many lawsuits have been filed over print stories?

We say it and we say it, but that doesn't mean it's true. Numbers, anyone?

7:20 PM  
Blogger Peter Fisk said...

In the poll results chart, "3+ reader" needs an "s" on it.

Also, the poll itself has no statistical value whatsoever, and any effort to glean useful insights from it is a waste of time.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Michael Josefowicz said...

Dear Peter,
With all due respect I must disagree with your impression. I'm thinking you may have a blind spot without realizing it.

First, I agree that the poll has little statistical validity.

But,I strongly disagree with your impression that "and any effort to glean useful insights from it is a waste of time".

To make this more clear, here's what I found interesting and why it wasn't a waste of time for me.

Here's what surprised me and what I think I've learned:
1. There are 400 people who took the time to answer it. I had no idea that many people had this blog on their radar.
2. I was surprised that Alan's original post "touched such a strong nerve". Clearly there is something about the words on the page that got alot of people do stuff.

At the minimum, it got 400 people to choose to respond.

At a greater scale, it got lots of very, very busy professionals to invest the time.energy refer to it on their blogs.

An unanticipated benefit was that by following the links that Alan so graciously posted, I learned more in a couple of minutes about how experienced newspaper people look at the problem today, than I probably would have found in a month of googling, and years of watching TV.

In addition, it relieved my very low level - but real none the less - natural stress created by "wasting time" at a blog. Plus it gives me ammunition to defend myself when my wife asks.."Are you still playing with blogs?"

I never participated in the discussion with the expectation that I would hear the TRUTH. That would be silly. Just that I might find osme interesting. So I'm never disappointed not to find it.

Pretty good return for a little time.energy invested. Plus no money needed.

Wouldn't it be cool if I could get the same experience - anticipating that something of value might happen - by paying for a print newspaper.

I'm curious if this seems sensible to anyone else out there.

8:47 AM  
Blogger G-Fin said...

Asking the general public how many editors should look at a newspaper story is about as useful as asking them how many people should inspect sausage as it goes down the assembly line.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Michael Josefowicz said...

Just a comment from "a member of the general public". I prefer the word citizen, but as a "professional" you get to choose the word. That's fair.

In any case, on the question of "how many people should inspect sausage as it goes down the assembly line." Not interesting to me. If I were, my bet is that I could google it, find out enough information to get a considered impression. But as I say, it's not interesting to me. So I would probably not submit my opinions.

With all due respect, the attitude that "professionals know best" does sound right to me. Sort of has the ring of Father Knows Best.

I'm basing my impression on the evidence that the smartest, most hardworking, professionals in thhe newspaper business seemed to be pretty stressed about figuring out what to do next.

Any thoughts?

5:10 PM  

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