Almost a year ago, as AP Stylebook editor Norm Goldstein was preparing to "retire" from the wire service -- but stay on as stylebook editor -- I had the chance to interview him about the job, the stylebook and where the stylebook may be headed.
My Common Sense Journalism column this month (see all CSJs) is an abbreviated version of that interview. But, as promised in the column, here is the transcript. Or, if you'd prefer, you can download or click to hear an MP3 of the interview (about 20 minutes).
Goldstein began his career with AP in Philadelphia in 1963 and transferred to New York three years later. When AP updated its stylebook to the current big volume we now know, Goldstein, who was working in AP Features, was asked to help then-editor Chris French. When French died unexpectedly in 1989, Goldstein became the editor.
The original 1953 AP stylebook was $1 each, 60 pages, 4 ½ for punctuation. Today's runs more than 420. What do you think G.P. Winkler, who put that first stylebook together, would say about today's?
The major change in the stylebook came in 1977 when Lou Boccardi, who was then executive news editor [and later AP president] decided it ought to be something more than what we had and he ... appointed, I believe, two or three editors to work on it, and it took them two, maybe three years, from around '75 till it was published in '77 to put it together in this format, the alphabetical format.
What do you think Winkler would say, though, having put that original one together and now seeing this tome sitting out there?
I think they'd understand that the industry has changed, the newspaper business has changed; it just became the right thing to do. There's more interest in that kind of material. I think primarily it was more of a way to put everything in our service on a consistent basis. Consistency was the big reason for it, I'm sure.
And it has changed some
It's changed tremendously, no question.
Boccardi wrote in the 2000 makeover that the idea was to make it not just a stylebook, but a reference book for busy editors. And I guess that's part of what you're referencing when you say the industry's changed and that sort of thing?
Yes. He had excellent thoughts about that in that he wanted editors to have a handy reference, but he also said in that that if it's not in stylebook look in the dictionary, and that's changed beyond what he ever considered because dictionaries can't keep up with it anymore.
Things change too quickly and they don't update their books, they can't update their books, as often as we can with a stylebook.
That almost puts a little more, I don't want to say burden, but responsibility?
Yeah, pressure is a good word, too. There's no question that it's changed in that sense tremendously in the last five years, certainly, and of course a good part of that is the Internet in that it gets material out there so much quicker and you also have e-mail that people are able to ask these questions and try and work out something that works for all. It's not going to be available in a dictionary for years.
I guess I was going to say ... how has that mixing of style with reference changed how you have approached things? Does it at all? Because when Boccardi had the book made over in the mid-'70s he basically was looking for a reference book as well as a stylebook.
I think the difference in the reference now is that there is more information available on the Internet, and I'm not sure and at least our executive editor is not sure how much of a reference book we ought to be anymore. Certainly it's more important for us to at least set our preferences in style.
So there may be, you could envision, I'm not saying that you're saying it's going to happen, but you could envision some of that reference stuff that's in there now … all the different organization names, whatever, might get slimmed back some?
I do see that coming, yes. I think some of our historical background material like on previous hurricanes and earthquakes, that kind of encyclopedic material that's so easily available on the Internet now might be cut back, yes.
This idea of the book being kind of sniped at isn't really a new one. (Then AP General Manager) Frank Starzell said in the first book that it's impossible to come up with a book to please all newspapers. And I loved Boccardi's line in 2000: "We thought at the outset it wouldn't be possible to please everyone. Of course, we were right." How do you handle this kind of constant sniping because the book is a great target; people love to snipe at it.
I honestly don't consider it sniping. I like the input and I like the fact that it comes from as varied editing as you can find, and that's always the good thing about the AP, too; it's small papers, it's medium-sized newspapers and it's large-sized newspapers, and now it's even more than that. It's blogs and Internet people, so the input has just expanded. I have no problem with that. I think it's good, it's a good thing.
When Boccardi wrote that, even then, you couldn't really say the full impact of the Internet had even hit. Now, as you say, you have blogs: You have language blogs, you have editing blogs, you have ACES bulletin boards, you've got "Testy Copy Editors." Does this make it easier or harder or what?
That's a tough one.
Or maybe just more interesting?
It certainly makes it more interesting. I don’t think it makes it any more difficult because I think you get some good input. It'll vary, of course. Sometimes you'll get somebody saying that's a ridiculous way to go, but most of the time it's very helpful information that comes from new sources these days.
How has it changed how you approach the stylebook? (Refer to 1999 paper by University of North Carolina professional session student with discussion of how it's done, very collegial, take suggestions in discuss, etc.) Is that still the way it is or has the Internet kind of changed the clock on you?
It may change the clock in the sense that we are now online with the stylebook, which makes a huge difference. You have the opportunity to make changes immediately, and we do that online. We take a second look at it when it comes to printing the book for the next edition and make sure all those decisions were right when they were made and if they are still viable, and if they're still important, to tell you the truth. A lot of these new phrases, new words, new spellings, whatever, come in for a couple of weeks and they're gone. So they may not make it to the book, but they're online, and that makes a huge difference as to how we operate. We are dealing with things much faster than we used to and make decisions quicker.
Explain that to me. Talk to me about that.
We'll get an e-mail, we'll get a phone call, we'll get a note or letter. Just a newspaper editor will question how we spell Hezbollah, for example, and we’ll go back to our own correspondents in the Middle East and make sure that what we are using is right. And very often when the news first comes up we will have some discrepancies; we will have some differences in spelling. And so we'll go back to them and make a decision on how we want to spell it, how we think it should be spelled on a consistent basis. And we'll put that online. And then we'll see when the book comes up whether that word, that spelling, is still the way it should be done.
I've written before that if the AP stylebook didn't exist, someone would have to invent it for the industry.
I'm sure you're right, yes. You just need to have some reference that makes it all consistent. Newspapers could do nothing worse than to be all over the ballpark with spelling of names. From Journalism 101 you learn "spell the name right," and it's most important to be consistent in spellings of names and usage all around.
And yet it's kind of an interesting give and take here because a business that wants to be a profession, or at least aspires to certain professionalism – professions have a certain code, a certain central way of doing things, which is what I think the AP has become in a lot of respects for the profession of journalism.
That's what we try to do. We try to set the standard for it, and we have enough membership and enough input from others that we think we come up with the best consensus of all.
And yet it's a funky profession because it's also a profession where people like to say, "We're different." So while you've got this standardization, there's almost a recoiling from it sometimes, if you understand what I'm saying.
I do, but it's difficult to vary from it, it really is. When I talk about basically two things I think if you're going to be a good writer and if you want to be in this profession, two things you have to remember are that there are some rules, and you ought to know them, and the second one is, if you want to break them, have a good reason.
But do you think the AP, de facto, has become those rules in most cases?
For newspapers, yes, and I think we're expanding that onto Internet and online, yes.
Why is that?
We're looking at the differences there, and we're trying to see if we can come up with a style that suits that medium as well as print.
I guess what I'm saying is why do you think AP has become the de facto?
Because it has more of a national aspect than anyone else. There is no other stylebook that I am aware of -– there's the Chicago Manual of Style, but they're not dealing with newspapers; they're not dealing with mainstream media. They’re dealing mostly with publishing. The MLA is dealing mostly with students who are working on research papers. (APA, same way.) Right, right. So there really isn't another stylebook out there that's working on a national basis.
And from what I see to the questions to you is that there is great public interest, and I sense great public trust on what the AP has to say on these matters.
I agree, no question.
The ability to ask the editor has shown that people really do care about this stuff and care about where AP stands on it?
Right. I think people have always cared. I think what the Internet and what the computers have helped with here is their ability to communicate with those who are setting the styles or setting the standards. They now have a way to write in, to complain or help or whatever. Or to ask.
How has that changed your workload vis a vis the stylebook. You used to do other stuff. Are you pretty well 100 percent stylebook now?
Yeah, as you know I will be 100 percent stylebook editor from now on. I'm not going to do anything else. You're absolutely right that it has become, I wouldn't say overwhelming, but it has become a very busy time all year.
It's kind of limited in what you can do otherwise, I gather.
Do you kind of regret that in a way?
No, I don't because the AP has hired some people to handle those other things who are extremely competent …
And I don't mean on that level. I just mean that I know as an editor I always used to like to handle a bunch of stuff.
I think the stylebook is handling "a bunch of stuff" these days. (Doug laughs.) Always. It just doesn't stop, which is fine, which is wonderful, and I really appreciate the input. I mean the questions, the complaints – it's nice to see and hear that people care about the language and care about how it's out there.
Getting back to the idea of the Internet, with all this stuff on the Internet, why even continue an AP Stylebook?
Well, I think again it goes back to the original concept; you ought to have one place to look, and these are things that are more national, they're more mainstream, they're more of consensus than you would get. Most of the Internet material. If I may say, has a point of view that is usually pretty individual.
So even in a fractured age you think there is a place – and maybe even a desire – for a central ...
And also, it's very difficult on the Internet for now, and this may change over the years, but at least for now to have any confidence in the reliability. You're not ever quite sure when you're looking at an Internet site where the information comes from. At least, with the AP, you know it.
Of course there are some sites, Language Log for instance. They know their stuff.
True, but I'm saying you just have to know which site you're dealing with.
Sure, and then the idea of having to go to maybe 10-15 sites to try and figure out the answer.
Right, right, and they're all different.
You are retiring but staying as stylebook editor?
Right. I'll be stylebook editor full time now.
You weren't before?
No, I handled weekly features and some other materials as well. I am officially retired, but on a contract basis I'm just going to manage the stylebook.
And how long do you expect to do that?
As long as it works. It may sound glib, but we decided "if it works for us and it works for you, we'll keep it going." If not, one of us is going to say "enough."
Well, it definitely sounds like it's working for you.
It's working for me so far, yes. ...
Eventually, there's going to have to be a successor. What advice would you have for your eventual successor on this?
Two tough things there. I hadn't thought of a successor here. That's really going to be up to the AP, so I can't decide that. What advice would I have for him or her? Keep it going, keep expanding it.
In what way when you say expanding it?
Some of the things I'd like to do is make it more multimedia than a print book. I'd like to enhance the online in the sense that it can show differences between broadcast style and online style and print style, and maybe even have some visuals in it and maybe even have some sound in it, just to make it full aspect.
It's never been known for its illustrations.
Well, it was a print thing.
And what advice do you have for students or even for journalists picking up this book and really looking at it for the first time?
I can only say that when I joined the AP in 1963, they told me, "This is the book you have to know." I still think that's true. Read it. Keep it around. It's still a good reference. It's 40 years or so that we're talking about it now. I probably look at it more now than I did then, and I wish I had more then.