Saturday, March 04, 2006

The future of teaching editing

I had the pleasure today to sit on a panel of professionals-turned-educators who are concerned about the future of teaching editing and how we adapt to a changing media world. It was part of the Southeastern Colloquium of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.

There were some experts on the panel:
-- Susan Keith, the organizer, who now teaches at Rutgers and has a long line of research into copy editors and their jobs. (A summary of a presentation she, Deborah Gump and Janice Castro presented on a long line of editing-related research at the 2004 ACES conference.)
-- Leslie-Jean Thornton, of Arizona, who has paired with Keith on some projects and whose research includes looking at newsroom teams.
-- Rick Kenney of Central Florida (you have to scroll to his entry), where a three-course editing track has just been put into place. Rick runs one of the Dow Jones summer editing internship prepratory courses (before all the budding copy editors are sent off to their internships).
-- Gregory Enns, managing editor of the Tuscaloosa News, a New York Times regional paper.

So I'm obviously the lightweight.

I think we all agreed that editing in the future is going to require teaching more critical thinking/common sense. Enns, as might be expected, I think speaks for a lot of editors when he says the top skill still has to be basic word use/grammar/style. But he says at papers his size (about 30,000), editors also must have some design skills. Even more, they must be highly flexible; he tells the story of an English major brought in as a copy editor who had to burnish the word skills, but has good design skills and has helped launch a city magazine and some other products. He also urged us to teach "market realities" in this highly competitive world. (Now, that's not a full plate, is it?)

I didn't take copious notes, so I won't attempt to summarize Susan's, Leslie-Jean's or Rick's thoughts, but here were mine for what they're worth:

Editing, especially copy editing, is under attack in some quarters, portrayed as a bunch of hypercorrecting, nitpicking know-littles who follow these shibboleths called grammar and style even when popular usage has long since changed.

First, let me start by outlining the importance of editing. It most certainly is to be a stand-in for the reader and to help perfect communication -- making sure what the writer wanted to say is as close as possible to what the reader (or user or even viewer) receives. But there is another reason editing has a signifcant role at the table -- it embodies many of the standards (and yes, shibboleths) often seen as defining "profession."

We can debate whether journalism is a profession, but let's accept for the moment that some people maintain it can and should be one. Unlike other professions such as law, accounting, architecture and the like, we don't have a licensing exam (a good thing). Unlike the hard sciences, we really do not have a fixed set of baseline knowledge that the apprentice is expected to master with the expectation he or she will eventually progress to a graduate degree. Unlike many of our social science bretheren, we also do not have the developed set of theories leading to expected graduate work (those we do have tend to be borrowed or amalgamated from other disciplines and are most often under the rubric of "communications," not journalism). Many people get political science BAs, for instance, but relatively few become "political scientists." We turn our undergrad product out and immediately call them "journalists."

Instead, we have copy editing.

Yes, we have law and ethics and the other "stuff," but if you think about it, a copy editor about to examine a piece of copy, supposedly as a surrogate for the reader, brings all that to bear, plus our "grammars" and style.

Those "grammars" and style we took to a large degree as "certainties" (when I returned to teaching at the beginning of this decade, having been out of my undergraduate almost 30 years and my master's about 20, many of the same standards and shibboleths still were being taught, and many are still taught today). But they are being more closely examined than ever:
  • Lingusts, a vocal number ever the ridiculers of Strunk and White for instance, consider us well out of touch. (a summary, and another questioner-this one a copy editor) They may have a point.
  • Dictionaries continue to diverge, with Merriam-Webster drawing more and more ire from those of the prescriptivist bent (see numerous articles on Vocabula Review -- unfortunately a subscription site, but even the first few grafs give you the idea). Meanwhile, the AP's favorite, the significantly more conservative Webster's New World College 4th has not been updated since 1999, and even in the 1999 edition, divergences were emerging with AP (see for example, Webster's entries on "staunch"/"stanch" that acknowedge reality of usage vs. the AP's continued insistence on "stanch.")
  • The Internet has speeded usage changes and enabled critics and defenders of various grammar points to make cogent arguments citing historical precedent. Consider the debates about "beg the question" or "none," "another" and "over." (Check out some thoughts by John McIntyre, assistant managing editor at the Baltimore Sun, and look at his post and mine on a dustup on the American Copy Editors Society's discussion board.) It seems clear to me that many of these and other points we have always insisted upon and held dear are about to be toppled.
These are all good debates. In fact, if you look closely at "grammar," you will find a lot of marginal or unsubstantiated stuff or vestiges from different eras. We need to have these conversations. But we also need to recognize that it may well radically complicate what we have to teach. After all, it's a whole lot easier to give an AP style quiz than it is to try to teach a class of 20 or 30 the intricacies of why a piece of copy has structural and logical problems. And don't forget that many of our students spent their high school careers being taught to the test -- they come in with a mindset that looks for absolutes and does not do well when there are a lot of "buts" involved, which any sensitive editing of copy must have.

Some thoughts on where we are going:
  • Is teaching headlines important or an anacrhonism: Vitally important. It might seem like learning to count heds in tight spaces is becoming a vestige, but two things argue against that. 1) Internet sites are putting out dead-tree editions -- Lawrence, Kan., and Bluffton, S.C., are two of the most well-known. Even the Deerfield, N.H., online project funded by J-Lab quickly learned it would need a print edition, too. 2) Headlines are critically important on the Internet, for they often are the only link to an inside story. They often don't have the context of a newspaper headline, which gains additional meaning from placement and surrounding elements. So we find ourselves perhaps having to teach not one but two headline strategies.
  • Links: While they are everyone's job (after all, who but the reporter should know the topic best), ultimately they are the editor's responsibility. So we may have to teach effective linking as yet another editorial skill.
  • New jobs. What we found from work in Newsplex with the Wireless Election Connnection (see a summary presentation I did - scroll down to session 3 on Saturday) is that for multimedia newsrooms to function effectively, new roles may be needed. We call them newsflow editor, storybuilder and news researcher, although more traditional names, like producer, are being used and may well be adopted. (To see a description of these roles, visit the Convergence Newsletter. Starting with the April 6, 2004, issue, we review these new roles.) But unclear was where the copy editing function will come. It is possible, however, the function will be subsumed into one of these other roles.
  • New teams: Journalism at its heart has been a singular occupation: The relationship of reporter to source, the copy editor on the rim still working largely alone on a piece of copy (subject to review by the slot, of course). Teams continue to be a growing part of modern newsrooms, however (Professor Thorton, who did her dissertation on the subject can speak to it more authoritatively than I). Even the way we teach editing tends to reinforce the singular nature of it (through one student working on a quiz or a piece of copy in lab), but we may need to rethink that.
  • The professors: At some point, it becomes impossible for one person to teach editing with all the skill sets that editors like Enns want and do any of it well. So what kind of training and support will we have for professors, or, if the skills are taught across several classes, how will we ensure integrity and integration of the concepts -- words, visual, perhaps audio/video and who knows whatever else will come up?
Bottom line:
Teaching editing remains important. Whether you agree with the idea of professionalism, editing, when done right, embodies (some use the word "enforces," but I prefer to avoid that) the "professional" standards of journalism: accuracy, clarity, fairness, balance and completeness. But what we teach and how we teach it will be under much debate in coming years as those underpinnings of grammar, style and usage often taken as inviolable no longer are so and are likely to change at an even faster rate as the world is tied together digitally. Some of the "old" skills take on new importance, but there are some new skills we may have to add to the mix -- as if there were not enough to do already.
If you are looking for a great resource for teaching editing, try Deborah Gump's

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