(Also see Parts I, II. and IV.)
Alan Mutter has a post making the rounds today bluntly titled “Can newspapers afford editors?” Mutter wonders how many editors really need to look at a story before it goes to print.
There are some obvious rejoinders to Mutter’s post. John McIntyre has a good one:
Dear reader, as a copy editor for the past 28 years, I’ve seen what writers, both amateur and professional, file, and you don’t want to. Unless you have a depraved appetite for factual errors, blurred focus, wordiness, slovenly grammar, peculiar prose effects and other excesses, it is in your interest for someone other than the writer to go over that text to clean it up, identify its point, and make sure that it gets to the point before you lose all interest.
John Robinson writes:
Of course, editors do much more than edit copy. They teach. We aren’t the New York Times. Reporters don’t come to us fully baked. (No one does, actually.) Editors help guide coverage. … We have also developed specialists. A good conceptual editor who can inspire reporters may not be a good technical editor who can find grammatical flaws or write pithy headlines.
But if we’re going to seriously rethink newspaper assumptions and traditions, we have to rethink all those assumptions — including the ones Mutter questions.
My own feeling is that we shouldn’t think of editing as a zero-sum game, as a choice between three edits (or six, or whatever) and pristine stories on the one hand, and no edits but awful copy on the other. Fewer eyes may be absolutely appropriate — if those eyes look at stories differently than they do now.
That means empowering and giving more responsibility to reporters and editors alike. It may be that having copy editors who focus on style, grammar and headlines are increasingly a luxury. But the answer isn’t to fire all copy editors and rush stories to print without thinking about any of those elements. The answer is to change the definition of a copy editor, reporter, and line editor.
(Also see Prelude and Parts I, III, and IV.)
Taking a different approach to news requires looking at the audience in a different way. A traditional newspaper might view its readers as fairly unsophisticated people who have no exposure to news or pop culture elsewhere; as innocents who will faint at bad language; as sponges who will accept whatever the paper gives them, whether or not it’s well-written, well-edited, or interesting. This view ignores major changes in the culture at large.
As Steven Johnson notes in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, today’s pop culture is far more complex than that of even 15 years ago. Shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons have dozens of characters and plotlines, layers of jokes, and a lack of clichéd handholding that made older shows so literal. Video games require players to juggle dozens of objectives while figuring out how a game’s world and rules work. “All around us the world of mass entertainment grows more demanding and sophisticated, and our brains happily gravitate to that newfound complexity,” Johnson writes.
It’s not just shows and games. Consider “the cultural and technological mastery of a ten-year-old today: following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching,” Johnson writes. “… Their brains are being challenged at every turn by new forms of media and technology that cultivate sophisticated problem-solving skills.” Advertising and public relations, too, are far more sophisticated. The media menu has been greatly expanded for anyone with access to the Internet. Meanwhile, people are exposed to cursing, sex, and violence at ever younger ages.
But as the rest of the culture has become vastly more sophisticated, newspapers generally remain stuck in a bygone era — often willfully so. Instead of ignoring the changes in the audience and culture, an aspirationally non-boring newspaper would embrace them in service of a more interesting, lively news report.