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Someone else can clean up the mess

There’s more to it than Luddism.

Every day it falls to The Sun’s news desk to ferret out some article presumed ready for publication that is not visible in the vast NewsGate database. And it turns out that though the text has been “moved” to the copy desk, it lacks a print package, or it has been coded for the wrong date, or it was misnamed, or it was botched in some novel way. This for the basic tasks of creating and coding a text that everyone has performed every day for more than a year.

There is no dispute that NewsGate is user-unfriendly; some problems baffle even the adepts. But it’s also true that the people who stare and sweat and call down blasphemies on it are the same people who struggled with CCI before NewsGate, and Harris before CCI, and SII before Harris.

“I wasn’t given enough training,” some of them will whine when confronted with their failure to perform a basic task satisfactorily. I suppose it would be idle (rhymes with idyll) to inquire why over the past twelve months they did not seek additional instruction.

Lack of facility with computers—a failure to grasp the underlying logic of a system rather than simply perform rote tasks—is only part of the problem. There’s a barrier here.

Part, I think, is the lingering resentment that reporters and editors are now part of Production. Once upon a time, best beloved, reporters simply wrote, and blue-collar typesetters and compositors did the grunt work of transforming their prose into print. No more. Now when you write, you are doing at least the preliminary coding for Web posting and print. It’s an additional set of burdens that are not really part of Writing.*

So we begin to see that what in some cases may be merely a lack of competence—there was instruction, but it didn’t take—in others has deeper psychological roots. Though the attitude may not be fully conscious, it would go like this: “I resent having to do this, so I will, out of passive-aggressive mulishness, refuse to learn how to do it. Someone else can clean up the mess. And I will therefore express my rebellious resistance and superiority to the authority that imposed this system on me.”

As an attitude, it lacks the sonority of Milton’s Satan proclaiming, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” but ours are not epic times.

 

*While I suspect that the most resentful are the sort of people who were accustomed to having other people pick up their clothes from the floor, I do have a fugitive sympathy for reporters. They have to come up with fresh ideas every day, or carry out some editor’s dopey inspiration. They have to plow through tedious documents in search of nuggets, or talk to people who are either inarticulate or hostile. They are expected to meet deadlines—well, after a fashion—and refocus and recast and rewrite to satisfy the whims of higher-ups. Still, dammit, you’d think they could manage to perform two or three basic tasks that they have to do every damn time they sit down at a keyboard.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:39 AM | | Comments (15)
        

Comments

Speaking as someone who cursed CCI but now remembers it fondly as 10 trillion times as good as the new system, Eidos Methode, I have to repeat my theory that while, yes, there is plenty of "end user" incompetence, the computer programmers have just gotten lazier and stupider and less concerned with user-friendliness. To think that these programs, being computer programs, COULD HAVE BEEN ASKED TO DO ANYTHING THE PROGRAMMER WANTED TO ASK THEM TO DO, and yet were asked to suck, truly boggles the mind.

Even moderately well-designed programs in the GUI-interface age have a basic flaw in that they are built for navigability rather than speed. In many cases (CCI, Methode, probably every other example in the world ...) they aren't built WELL for navigability, but they're configured so that a literate and computer-literate person given infinite time could eventually figure out how to do any of the functions without the need for training or a manual. There are drop-down menus with labels.

Contrast this with DOS-era programs, which absolutely required training and/or manuals but allowed a trained and practiced user to zip through his or her chores with blinding speed. I'm thinking SII's Coyote/Roadrunner series and presumably, though I have no more experience than one tryout shift at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992, Atex.

The latter model is the race car to the current model's stupid-ass Yugo. I miss being treated like the editing equivalent of Mario Andretti instead of like a driver-education student.

If new computer systems were truly improvements, copy deadlines could be moved back. Instead, with every program change, deadlines are moved up. When the ultimate newspaper program is created, the copy deadline will be the day before yesterday.

I agree with Bill's first paragraph. The problem is the laziness and incompetence of programmers, not copy editors' alleged two-decade-old resentment over having to do production work.

John: Back in the pre-computer days, reporters didn't even have to write. As many a Warner Bros. film from the golden age of Hollywood bears witness, a reporter was a fact gatherer who, once he had the facts, would race to a phone booth (!), call in to the City Desk and say, "Sweetheart, get me rewrite." And there was some booze loving guy, a dog eared manuscript of a novel buried in his desk drawer, who would take the facts and turn them into rat-a-tat prose in time for the bulldog edition. C'mon, life had to be better then.

I should have been clearer. It's the reporters and assigning editors who begrudge performing any task that has the taint of production on it. That includes following naming conventions for stories.

Oh, dear! Please, please, not another exculpation of badly-designed software on the basis that the users oughta just suck it up and learn to live with it! When I was doing software usability testing for a major federal agency, my colleagues and I grew extremely frustrated by being told, when we pointed to software features that frustrated users to the point of tears, that "Oh, that's just a training issue--we don't need to rewrite the code." Where's the software development company that's smart enough to realize they could take over this market in a heartbeat by putting out a decently usable product?

Having spent much time in the stables from which badly designed software emerges, I can offer only this: If the product you are using has no competitors, you're screwed. There's no financial incentive to invest in making it better.

I began my labors in the days of the command-line interface, which requires requires users to know an awful lot more than they do know just to get something done. You did not need to be an engineer, but you did have to master and apply a sort of language, and once you did that, you could do many things quickly.

I have found that the graphical user interface, designed to mask all that annoying stuff and make things easier, instead keeps you barefoot and pregnant.

I'm not arguing for a return to the good old days, just observing technology cannot defeat human nature, which is an oddly consoling thought.

Yeah, the slug issue. Assigning editor budgets HILLARY, reporter writes CLINTON, layout editor hears it called STATE and dummies that, and we're just sitting here saying, "YOU'RE the people who chose the name, so why can't you just name it that?"

And an incorrect publication date, in a lot of systems, means the damn thing is invisible to us.

I pushed back plenty. My rationale was that if I spent most of my time not only dicking around with coding, but doing web posting, monitoring web comment threads, preparing online photo galleries and editing videos, the less time I had to give local news stories the thorough second read-scrubbings they desperately needed, I won't claim to be a great copy editor, but I saved my paper from embarrassment more times than I could count simply because I was from the area and knew its history and its esoterica. In recognition, I was given more non-copy-editing tasks to do. I was willing to learn these things to a reasonable extent, but "training," more often than not, consisted of somebody dropping a "cheat sheet" on my desk. That led to a memorable disaster a few years ago regarding online photo galleries for high school graduation ceremonies, which the paper (and yes, the newsroom) had touted as a big revenue-enhancer. After several frustrating false starts following deadline, I gave up around 1 a.m. and went home. I was chewed out the next day, chewed just as hard back, and that was the beginning of the end for me at that job.

Can't remember where I first heard this, but it applies equally well to the copy desk: Just because we have a cleaning crew doesn't mean you get to throw food on the floor.

Programmers deliberately design user interfaces, I was told yesterday, for the "perpetual intermediate" user, the one who is not a beginner but doesn't use the system very often either. Such people know what they want, know it's possible, but have only a half-assed idea how to accomplish it. The systems are *not* designed for people who use them every day, unless to be sure the programmers and the users are the same people -- which is not the case here.

If newspaper companies had worked together in the 1970s, instead of pretending that each paper had unique production needs, a decent system for pagination might have been created. From what I've seen of InDesign, it might qualify. But for decades its eventual maker, Adobe, concentrated on updating its profitable Photoshop and Illustrator instead, leaving lesser companies to create inefficient systems that either needed support they didn't provide, or offered weak support for which they charged fortunes. The newspaper industry went along with this without demanding something better or providing a more united, potentially profitable market.

Wayne, InDesign is a great page layout program. I'm not so fond of InCopy as a text editor, but it has potential.

John, I'm saddened to learn how widespread is the problem of people sitting in front of a box they use to do their jobs for years on end without their showing any inclination to learn how it works. But it is strangely consoling to know our newsroom isn't the only one with that problem.

Well, yes, people who refuse to learn how to use the tools given them are dolts. Stop their grog first time, then to the grating.

But, after all, these are fairly simple errors, of the kind we could all make, and which should have been readily predicted.

Presumably before the kit was ordered someone asked: "And what happens if the reporter uses the wrong catchline?" They didn't? Well, well: then they bear the responsibility. It's the obvious question to ask (or it is if one is buying kit to make journalism with; buying it to help kill jobs with is different, and can lead to a different line of questions).

"That's not a bug; that's a feature."

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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