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Just good enough

Here’s a start for a profoundly depressing day.

The estimable David Sullivan, my colleague at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has a sobering post at That’s the Press, Baby on copy editing and quality. Reacting to a section of a long analysis of American newspapering by Vin Crosbie, he explores the idea that for most readers, good enough is the only standard that matters.

Much of the video quality on Youtube is poor, he points out, but it’s good enough to amuse people; cell phones are less reliable than land lines, but they are good enough to satisfy the customers; a great deal of the writing on the Internet is less than optimal, but it is good enough for all but the most demanding readers. And it’s all free. You could pay money for a newspaper that is better edited, but why would you, if you can get basically the same information, for free and good enough.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Where this has already been going, as newspapers cut back on all that expensive and time-consuming editing and give the reader the “unmediated” work of reporters, God save the mark. For the past 28 years, I have closed the day in some confidence that the next morning’s paper was better in some respects for my having been on the desk. But the number of people willing to pay for a product with some assured level of quality* — and worse, the number of advertisers confident that such a quality product is the right vehicle for their sales pitches — dwindles.

Mr. Sullivan is probably right in speculating that the novelty will begin to fade from many of the currently popular Web sites. I suspect that the great and painful sorting-out under way among American newspapers will result in products — electronic certainly, and perhaps even in print — that have readers and the revenue to support the enterprise. And somewhere in these emerging enterprises there will be a desire for accuracy, precision and clarity. That will require editing. So maybe it’s not the best idea to cut loose all the copy editors just yet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go into the office and put out a newspaper. If I do my job properly, it will be some better than good enough.


* Before you write about all the ignorant errors you have spotted in The Baltimore Sun and whom do I think I am fooling, let me save time by giving you the answers in advance: (1) You have not seen the ignorant errors that the copy desk caught, and (2) you have not taken into account the quality of most other American newspapers.

** If I can digress — and who will stop me? — I suspect that the slow seepage of deconstructionist ideas from the academy into mainstream culture over the past 30 years has contributed to the difficulties in mainstream journalism. If it is the case that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships, and if there is no external reality to which a text corresponds, then all of us will think what we prefer to think (or what those power relationships have programmed us to think), and the mainstream media’s preoccupation with fictitious concepts such as “objectivity” is merely another sham. That this is the case may be seen plainly in political journalism, in which people read and tenaciously hold on to assertions that are demonstrably false.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:06 AM | | Comments (6)


Conventional wisdom has it that consumers preferred Windows PCs over the more elegant Mac because they were cheaper and Windows was "good enough." But in the past few years the Mac has experienced a resurgence among consumers fed up with fussy PCs.
So perhaps readers of the news will come to the same conclusion about well-edited newspapers, though by the time it happens I fear too few such newspapers will remain.

Something else that "we" (not I, but I have already been told by several people that I am "oldfashioned". I have decided that, although the declaration was not meant as such, I have been complimented) are accepting without pause is that the information on the internet is frequently wrong. When I point this out, along with the aforementioned "old-fashioned" comment is an "Eh!" shrug. We are basing our very lives onwhat may very well be wrong information and we don't care!!

Forgive those who believe they need less copy editing.

Clearly, they're suffering delusions of adequacy.

If I can draw a political and admittedly biased analogy:

We've put up with eight years of "good enough" (and that's being generous) in the White House, but it seems to me voters are ready for better, much better.

I have faith that enough readers will realize, if they haven't already, that 35 or 75 cents is a bargain for something that is well-reported, well-written and well-edited.

Deconstructionist ideas in their time and their proper place -- polemical academic debate -- served a purpose in counteracting unchallenged assumptions that had long been masquerading as certainties. But they are a huge problem in the degraded form in which they have percolated into undergraduate and even high-school thinking. The challenge to unexamined certainties about truth has been flipped into an equally unexamined certainty about untruth, shading into conspiracy theory. Authority or agreement (regarding writing and typographic conventions along with any others) is percieved as a badge of hostility to the truth; and conversely, linguistic ineptitude and lack of concurrence with others are taken as guarantees of authenticity. So improbability becomes a perverse indicator of (repressed of course!) truth...or am I just getting a bit paranoid?

This is going to be long. I apologize in advance for my prolixity.

I find the idea that consumers are compromising on quality on the principle of “good enough” fascinating because considering it as a consumer, I have come to something of the opposite conclusion. I have neither the knowledge nor the expertise to productively and publicly analyze the problems of the newspaper industry (and though sorely tempted, I shall avoid the realms of deconstructionist theory), so I speak simply of my own habits and preferences regarding information gathering (and perhaps a little bit in self-defense).

Let’s begin by considering for a moment the cell phone example. Yes, the reliability and sound quality of cell phones are poorer than those of land lines. But in exchange, I have a means of communication that I can take and use nearly anywhere. The quality of sound is good enough to make it useful to me, but in addition, it grants me a mobility that a land line cannot. I can take it to work, on trips, into meetings, and across state lines. I can call all the members of my family, from Oregon to Minnesota to Maryland, without special long-distance charges. And when I need to decide with my limited budget whether I will buy the land line or the cell phone, I will compromise on quality of sound and connection for all the advantages of portability. The value of the cell phone comes in how I am able to use it, not in what I use it for.

Extend this idea to newspapers. There is a great deal of factual information that I can access for free on the internet, and that information is often present in multiple locations.* So when I make the choice of how to collect information, that choice is driven by multiple factors. I like the BBC because it serves as a personal research librarian and provides links to associated information with the story that I am reading. I go to the City Paper website to search for restaurants because their search function is easy to use and extremely well organized. I once subscribed to breaking news e-mail alerts from and the New York Times, but I cancelled my NYT subscription because the Times was consistently 30 minutes behind CNN (and CNN is generally 30 minutes behind the BBC). I read the physical newspaper when I want to skim the day’s headlines and read long articles over a cup of tea at the local café. None of these factors is related to the quality of the content within; they are instead components of how I use the product. So when deciding where to put my money (and the opportunity cost of my time), all of these factors come into play.

Yet, quality does matter, and I would argue that it in fact matters more than ever. Consider again the cell phone. When compared not to land lines but to other choices of cell phone, the sound quality issue returns as a determinant of my economic behavior. I select which cell phone of the many cell phones to buy based on my ability to get reliable connections and high-quality sound. Thus, I think you’re right, John, in saying that a sorting-out is underway. In my narrow universe, the Sun is not competing for my attention with the other paper in town; it is competing with the writing quality and subject matter of the New York Times, the Economist, and the Washington Post. It is competing with the rapidity of, the BBC Online, and local television news websites. Its entertainment listings and classified ads are competing with the searching and browsing ease of City Paper and Craigslist. Its ability to provide analysis of local news and current “hot topics” is in competition with magazines like the Urbanite and even local public radio. And in many ways, the physical Sun is involved in an ironic competition with the electronic version of itself. (After all, why would I pay money to get something that I also get, along with almost all the other products mentioned above, when paying for internet access?**) I as a consumer am looking for excellent writing, rapidity in breaking news, strong and in-depth analysis, thought-provoking topics, and absolutely accurate information to the level of the city’s, nation’s and world’s best news sources. And I want the product in a medium that fits the way I wish to use it.

This may seem like asking too much of the local paper. Perhaps it is, and perhaps the local paper is destined to go the way of the town crier. Moreover, there are ways in which the Sun cannot and should not try to compete. But I believe that it’s possible for newspapers to actually win some of these competitions if they allocate their resources correctly, and from my standpoint as a consumer, I will only say that I don’t think those elements contributing to the quality of the written work are the wisest places to skimp.

*An analysis of how “free” this information truly is is another topic for another day.

**There are, I think, valid answers to this seemingly rhetorical question. But again, another topic for another day.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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