In Britain, the Guardian has reported plans by the Daily Express and Sunday Express to streamline the work flow by eliminating as many as 80 subeditors (that is, copy editors). The plan is that “reporters would fit stories into an editorial template containing the necessary styles. Rewriters and lawyers would then check the pages.” Uh-huh. *
In the United States, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, tells Advertising Age that the Internet has become “a ‘cesspool’ where false information thrives.” His remedy is “branding,” the establishment of products — electronic publications — whose reliability can be trusted.
I doubt that anyone is prepared to gainsay Mr. Schmidt. We’ve seen the development of a wildly credulous audience willing to accept the truth of any fanciful statement that coicincides with its preconceptions and prejudices: the scurrilous rumors spread about the maternity of Sarah Palin’s latest child, for one, or the ludicrous assertions that Barack Obama is a fellow traveler of terrorists.
There’s probably not much to be done about that kind of audience, there having been people willing to believe anything they see in writing since ink was first put to paper, or chisel to stone. But what the wide-open Internet frustrates is the readship that would like to have some assurance that what is being read is also accurate.
Accuracy is established, at least in part, by editing. Any individual writer can misintepret the information he or she has gathered. Any individual writer can be led astray by personal preconceptions or prejudices. Any individual writer can make careless mistakes. The point of editing, of which copy editing is one component, is the establishment of a structure of checks and balances that compensates for individual propensity to error.
Editing is, in short, an essential element of that “branding” that Mr. Schmidt thinks is indispensible. **
The Express papers are free to abandon this costly superstructure and present to their readers that free-range, writing-to-template-checked-by-lawyers product. One suspects what the “brand” will look like. (I don’t know; perhaps British lawyers are better writers than the members of the American bar. You think?)
I can only say to publishers who pursue such measures, and their customers: Verily, you have your reward.
* Anyone interested in determining how much an ornament to the trade the Express papers are can take a look here.
** Unfortunately, Mr. Schmidt was unable to suggest what newspapers might do to generate the revenue to support the reporting and editing structure that gives rise to the brand. We’re all still waiting for that discovery. Sooner would be better than later.