Tag Archives: Editing

The Washington Post transforms editing (in theory)

Does Leonard Downie Jr. read my blog? (I’ll field this one: no.)

Via Jack Shafer, I see the Washington Post has accepted that the current editing system is outdated, inefficient, and unaffordable. From a memo to Post staff by executive editor Downie and managing editor Philip Bennett:

We will remove layers of editing by providing greater flexibility to determine when a story is edited and by whom. We will create truer alignment of editing for the web and for the paper, recognizing that deadlines for many pieces are defined as the earliest moment they can be edited and published online. We will deepen collaboration among editors on assignment desks, copy desks, photo and the news desk to change how a story, graphic or photograph goes into the newspaper.

Overall, these changes are meant to make our editing model less like an assembly line — moving copy towards the presses on a pre-determined schedule – and more like a network, responding to how journalism is actually created, distributed and discovered by our audiences in print and online.

My main recommendation for keeping copy editors was to give them more responsibility as editors. This is the first element of the Post’s plan:

Several editors will move from the National and Foreign copy desks to take on new roles that begin earlier in the day. These assistant editors will have broad responsibilities for moving early copy to the web and for the next day’s paper. They will provide the first read on some stories and the final edit on others. They will compose working headlines. They will collaborate with the News Desk to assign stories to pages earlier than our current practices allow.

I argued that giving copy editors more responsibility would potentially allow for fewer eyes on a story because a handful of thorough edits can be better than a half-dozen cursory edits. This is the Post’s logic as well:

With the involvement of assistant editors, we’ll reduce layers of editing. Currently, stories in the A section are routinely changed by a half-dozen different editors (an audit by Don Podesta for this project found fingerprints of 12 different editors on one single inside piece). Under the new model, many stories will be handled under a “two touch” rule; they will have a first editor and a second editor.

My next recommendation was to free up copy editors for new roles by giving reporters and line editors responsibility for basic tasks traditionally left to copy editors. The Post calls for this as well:

In addition to supervising their reporters, assignment editors will advance the editing process by doing more fact-checking, and (along with assistant editors) composing working headlines for pieces. Working headlines will also be welcome from reporters when they file.

Finally, I disagreed with copy editor curmudgeons who doubt change is possible because “this is the way it’s always been” or because they think reporters will never learn to write or worry about the little things that copy editors have always had to check. My answer to that argument: make reporters change. So it was especially nice to see this in Shafer’s piece:

The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can’t write. Their copy isn’t edited as much as it’s rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: “Reporters who can’t write are a dying breed.”

If the Post truly follows through, this will amount to a revolution. Every newspaper editor should read Shafer’s story and the Post memo — and consider making the same kinds of changes.

UPDATE: David Sullivan has a much more skeptical take on the Post memo. He argues that this has been tried in the past, and all that happened is dayside people spent their time working on pretty centerpieces and still left all the real editing and too many stories for the night desk. I think he’s right to be wary, but the Post’s plan seems to be different in several ways from similar attempts in the late 80s/early 90s.

According to Sullivan, those attempts came in response to investors getting crabby about poor (or no) earnings growth during a general economic downturn. But the business was still sound; the industry was doing fine; that’s just shareholders doing what they do. The Post’s attempt to transform editing is a response to a crumbling industry whose business model is in peril. It’s less a “hey, where can we shave costs regardless of if it makes sense for day-to-day operations” plan than the start of a holistic attempt to reconfigure newsroom roles in the face of the new reality.

The plan will only work if the Post is serious about rethinking newsroom roles; as I said in my original post, changing copy editors’ roles without giving more responsibility to reporters and line editors for basic stuff won’t solve anything. But the Post’s memo and Phil Bennett’s comment to Shafer about reporters who can’t write indicates to me that they understand that. At least I hope they do.

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Choose your own grammar

In honor of National Grammar Day, John McIntyre has a nice post explaining why much of what we have been taught regarding grammar and usage rules ultimately amounts to a “proliferation of bogus advice on language.” It’s an interesting historical overview that explains how

without an Academy to determine an authoritative English, and without the ability of dictionary makers to “fix” the language, the task of establishing principles of grammar and usage has fallen to a mixed group authorities of varying reliability.

So all those ironclad rules about split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions that teachers harped on, and much of the stuff in the AP stylebook, is basically derived from little more than self-reinforcing cycles of personal preference. Good times.

McIntyre also links to a fun anti-Grammar Day post at Language Log. Both well worth checking out.

Worst. Justification for copy editors’ existence. Ever.

I recently proposed a new vision for copy editors in the newsroom of the future, in response to a provocative Alan Mutter post asking whether papers can still afford editors. My basic prescription: Have reporters and line editors take responsibility for some basic things they’ve traditionally left for copy editors, which would free up empowered copy editors to also take on more responsibility.

I took issue with some responses to Mutter’s post that essentially argued for the status quo because a)”that’s the way it’s always been” and b) reporters and line editors are so lazy and useless that copy editors are needed to pick up their slack. Now comes an even lamer version of the latter argument, in the latest American Copy Editors Society newsletter. ACES president Chris Wienandt writes:

I’ve just been hit with another reason copy editors are indispensable: We know how our computer systems work. …

When a story goes missing in the system, who’s the person who can find it? When a reporter doesn’t know how to generate the character ä, who’s the person who can tell her? When two versions of a story are floating around, who can spot which one is actually going into print?

[large snip]

So when these little glitches … no, snafus … crop up in your newsroom, it’s great that you can fix them. But be sure to take that next step: Let someone in authority know … that there was a problem, and that it was the copy desk that solved it. It’s another demonstration of how valuable we are. (italics mine)

Is Wienandt serious? Newspapers are hemorrhaging cash and he’s trying to justify keeping copy editors because they possess the most basic technological knowledge? I’m sure Wienandt has written plenty of other pieces about why copy editors are important as editors rather than as IT cheat sheets, but come on.

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Jimmy Kimmel is engaging in coital relations with Ben Affleck

The New York Times provided a hilarious example of newspapers’ selfenforced irrelevancy the other day, when they attempted to write about Jimmy Kimmel’s “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck” response to Sarah Silverman’s “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” video. The article is meant to show the Times is totally plugged into the viral vidgeist — but of course it serves only to show how out of touch and prude newspapers are.

As Vulture points out, “The entire article is a masterpiece of tortured syntax that deftly removes all humor from the videos.” Here are the best parts, as flagged by Vulture:

“A satiric video in which Mr. Kimmel, the host of the ABC late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, talks enthusiastically — jokingly, we are led to believe — about his sexual relationship with Ben Affleck, has been a huge hit online. …

“After Ms. Silverman revealed that she was hooking up with Mr. Damon — everywhere, it seemed, and all the time — Mr. Kimmel vowed to take his revenge. … Most of the lyrics of Mr. Kimmel’s and Ms. Silverman’s songs are too graphic to be repeated here. One vulgar word describing the coital relations between, on the one bed, Ms. Silverman and Mr. Damon, and on the other, Mr. Kimmel and Mr. Affleck, was repeatedly bleeped out for the broadcast of each video.”

Never mind the priceless juxtaposition of New York Times second-reference style with the subject (Mr. Kimmel is fucking Mr. Affleck — must show the proper deference!). Could the Times possibly have written a more unironic, monocle-wearing ode to their own dowdiness? It’s not just the language dodge, which is bad enough. They’re still writing about comedy bits with a straight face — the way the Times probably wrote about that just wonderfully droll Church Lady in 1988.

This was a one-off (two-off, really) viral video attempt. Proper responses include laughing and forwarding to a friend; watching a second time; ignoring; and writing a blog post about the inevitable and annoying response videos. Responses that show you don’t get it include: writing a long article simply summarizing the videos — even while blushing and hiding from the central joke — and treating them like big productions that need to be explained and reported on.

The linguistic idiocy of TV meteorology

I know I said recently that newspapers should stop worrying so much about AP style and other copy editing minutia. But I have to add a large exception for jargon — particularly, as John McIntyre notes in a great post, redundant meteorological jargon:

Listening to the radio in the car yesterday, I heard an announcer warn of the possibility of “rain activity” later in the day. How, I wondered, does rain activity differ from rain?

McIntyre also gives a nice rundown of the many unnecessary words TV weatherpeople use for snow:

snow event, snowfall, snowstorm, snowflakes, sleet, slush, wintry mix, blizzard, precipitation, icy pellets, powder (for skiing), blanket and the apparently irresistible vulgarism white stuff.

Ah, mid-Atlantic winters. One of the great things about living in New Hampshire (lots of snow) and then Florida (no snow) is not having to watch TV newspeople go nuts over the hint of flurries and report from the supermarket on people rushing to buy bread, toilet paper and milk — just as they (both newspeople and shoppers) have done every single other time ever that there’s been snow in the region.

And yet, you never hear anyone worry that TV news is going broke. No justice, I tells ya.

Why can’t news be interesting just for the sake of it?

I came across two blog posts yesterday that offer reminders of how the prevailing view of what’s news needs to change.

First, Alan Mutter calls out The Oklahoman for wildly overplaying a story about a U.S. Geological Survey project mapping out where burmese pythons could survive in an ever-warmer U.S. The study found that the pythons “could colonize one-third of the USA, from San Francisco across the Southwest, Texas and the South and up north along the Virginia coast,” according to USA Today. The Oklahoman’s story examined the finding that most of Oklahoma is now a possible python habitat, and concluded in the fourth paragraph that

Even though the pythons might find Oklahoma’s weather suitable, local wildlife experts don’t expect to run into any of the massive constrictors any time soon.

Nonetheless, the piece ran as the front-page lead story with a large, two-deck headline reading: “Big snakes could slither into state.”

The story, of course, says no such thing. Mutter asks, “why did the Oklahoman play this non-story in the sensational fashion it did?” I think the answer — besides simple bad editorial judgment — is that papers fear running interesting stories just for the sake of running an interesting story. There has to be some ostensible “news peg” or other timely reason for running the story.

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How to fix newspapers III: Don’t cut editors, change them

(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.

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