Monday, October 27, 2008

Template-driven writing and editing

This came to me this morning under the subject line "An amusing link on the lack of creativity in sportswriting."

Let's play along. Before you click on the link, fill in the template:

Philadelphia waited _____ to host a World Series game, so what's another _____? The Phillies/Rays won a rain-delayed ..."

Jamie Moyer waited _____ to pitch in his first World Series game. The 45-year-old didn't mind waiting another _____ Saturday night before ..."

If you answered the first one "15 years" and "91 minutes" or the second one "22 years" and "91 minutes," then you, too, can be a Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist. (Or an AP sports writer or one for any of several other outlets as you'll see if you follow that link.)

The point is that this lede was thoroughly predictable, yet it appeared in numerous publications/news wires. Which means anyone - well, far more than a journalist - can do it. And if anyone can do it, then you have become a commodity, and if you have become a commodity, you eventually will be replaced by a machine, digital or otherwise.

So do we wonder as journalists why all this is happening?

Which brings us to David Sullivan (a copyeditor who happens to work at the Inquirer) who vets recent reports by the Suburban Newspapers of America and the Canadian Newspaper Association on a trip to Norway. The SNA, in particular, returned all starry-eyed over "template-driven editing," roughly translated as turn all the copy editors into reporters and hope for the best.

Here's my comment on his post:

One of the scarier things I've read in a while, but expect more of it. After all, the Web runs on templates.

Copy editors are simply not going to win the argument of quality vs. dollars. Hundreds of years of human history argue against it -- we tend to follow the price (be it explicit or a social cost) till it becomes a crisis.

Think of the current economic malaise. The "cost" of regulation (i.e. quality) was too great till all hell hit.

The environment was the same -- until the Love Canals of the world, no one was forcing companies to internalize the costs. And look at how they still rail against things being too costly.

Unfortunately, I think copy editors need to steel themselves to a continual thinning of the herd. If they are not willing to do some reporting -- and I have some students for whom the thought of dealing with an unknown person freaks them out -- they probably need to seek another career.

These days, unfortunately, it doesn't take much deep thought to fill in the blanks.

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