Editing is not a frill
I commend to your attention Doug Fisher’s comments on the place and future of editing in journalism. He is responding, with acuity and willingness to face up to difficult issues, to Alan Mutter’s provocative post on the issue, to which there is a follow-up, both with an assortment of comments. Brother Fisher also recommends the analysis of Josh Korr’s Korr Values blog. (I commented on Mutter’s initial post myself, for what it’s worth.)
(Ah, the wonders of the Web, which requires you to jump back and forth among a series of links, so much less irritating than those newspaper articles that jump from one page to another.)
Unable to identify a solution to the problem, I have a few random responses to offer.
One. Quality is indeed notoriously difficult to quantify, which is why accountancy-minded managers tend to disregard it. Philip Meyer attempted in The Vanishing Newspaper to determine whether the quality of the publication was related to its profitability. He was hampered by fragmentary data, but his research suggested the possibility of a correlation. Customers, however, seem to have that ability. That is one reason, for example, that U.S. automakers have lost so much of the market, as customers decided that imports were more reliable.
Statistical analysis aside, I can’t shake the intuition that publications that are factually accurate and readable have some advantage over others.
Two. I haven’t meant to suggest that the traditional newspaper editing pattern — reporter to assigning editor to copy editor to slot editor to proofreader — should be translated to the Web. That structure has proved to be effective for reducing errors and improving clarity in print journalism. But I assigned a single copy editor to work with the assigning desks on daytime copy for baltimoresun.com. This editor catches errors and clarifies cloudy passages quite adequately, and the Web offers the opportunity for continual updating and further correction. We need the additional strength for the print edition, because once those papers are on the trucks, they are beyond remedy.
Three. What is needed is editing. And by that I don’t mean the contemptuous view of uninformed executives that copy editing is the mere manipulation of commas. It is true that some copy editors allow themselves to bog down in trivial points of style to the exclusion of larger issues, but many do address serious concerns.
Editing involves establishing accuracy in the factual details. It involves determining that the information is properly sourced. It involves telling the writer that six paragraphs of throat-clearing before getting to the point will not do. It involves straightening out chronology. It involves identifying passages that are offensive or potentially libelous. It involves dealing with prose effects that just do not come off as the writer intended. It involves being alert to the possibility of plagiarism and fabrication.
You can omit that, but you do so at your own risk: at the risk of lawsuit, at the risk of eroding your own credibility, at the risk of effectively encouraging readers to look elsewhere.
Four. Copy editors have not been very effective advocates of their craft, despite the noble work that the American Copy Editors Society has been doing for the past decade. In common with our newspaper colleagues, we have been slow to adapt to the new environment. Newspapers are struggling, and the conventions of electronic publication are in flux. Decisions are being made by people who do not grasp how the work is done and how it ought to be done. Time is running short, and a good deal of damage has already been done.