Clueless at the top
Perhaps some will take comfort in learning that fatuous remarks about journalism are not limited to American newspaper executives. One is left wondering, as Casey Stengel did of the 1962 Mets, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
A European luminary, David Montgomery, head of the newspaper group Mecom, was widely quoted earlier this month on his views that “sub-editing,” the British term for copy editing, is unnecessary. “Reporters out in the field can call up a page on their laptop and put copy straight onto the page without intervention,” he said. “I see a situation where experienced journalists that can be trusted have no barrier to communication with their audience,” he said. He endorses an environment in which “journalists can be freed from humdrum roles and the sub-editing culture can break down.”
This is, to use a British term of art, a load of codswallop.
His idea that the journalist has some direct interaction with the audience used to be limited to the delusional (“I know that what Katie Couric said last night was meant for me”). It may be of interest to hear the spontaneous reporting of a major event, like the explosion of the Hindenburg, but zoning commission meetings? The first look at a medical study about cancer?
For nearly 28 years, I have been paid to read other journalists’ raw copy so that you don’t have to. What our publications, print or electronic, owe the reader is an account that is factually accurate, relevant and clear on first reading. That is accomplished by editing.
But editing, a fundamental element of journalism, appears to be a mystery to some top executives, who do not understand what goes on in their own shops. Mr. Montgomery again: “Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check …Senior people will always monitor the content, a core group will create the product.”
Of course, we copy editors have contributed to this by not demonstrating adequately to our masters how our obscure craft contributes to the quality of the publication.
But, as always, there is also a darker explanation, one that came to me as I read today’s column by my astute colleague Jay Hancock. He writes that while businesses — retail and service — talk about the importance of customer service, they systematically downgrade it. They understand that while the public complains about bad service, consumers aren’t willing to pay for good service: The cheaper price always prevails.
So too, perhaps, in journalism, what our masters privately think is that quality costs too much and doesn’t matter enough. Get rid of the local copy desks. Tell the reporters to file raw copy to the Web site. Talk cant about unmediated interaction with the public to disguise what is really going on. Gamble that you won’t drive off too many customers or provoke too many lawsuits.
Maybe they do know how to play this game.