Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wednesday roundup

So many good things to chew on today: Journalism's value and journalists' pay, the raison d'etre of copy editors and the never-ending debate over style, usage, language and just the general idea of getting it right.

For starters, read Robert Picard's column in the Christian Science Monitor, "Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay."

Picard is simply one of the best, if not the flashiest, thinkers in the arena of journalism, media and the economics of it all. He says more elegantly what I have repeatedly argued here - journalism as we now commonly practice it has little to no economic value, or the value is so fleeting that to capture it is not feasible.

Of course, he says it better:

Journalists are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such as professors or electricians. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others. In this process three fundamental functions and related skills have historically created economic value: Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively. ...

To create economic value, journalists and news organizations historically relied on the exclusivity of their access to information and sources, and their ability to provide immediacy in conveying information. The value of those elements has been stripped away by contemporary communication developments. Today, ordinary adults can observe and report news, gather expert knowledge, determine significance, add audio, photography, and video components, and publish this content far and wide (or at least to their social network) with ease. And much of this is done for no pay.

Until journalists can redefine the value of their labor above this level, they deserve low pay.


So, then, what is the value of copy editing? Copy editors, of course, have suddenly discovered that they are not indispensable, as they once may have thought. In fact, again as argued here many times (use the "copy editing" tag to see many of the posts), to most managers they are a cost, not a benefit.

In "Copy Editing: Who are we anyway?" David Sullivan produces one of his usual perceptive posts that acknowledges all facets of the issue - not just the quality argument, but the reality that too many copy editors have done little to promote themselves or their craft:

It strikes me that one of the problems copy editors have is that at too many papers, their jobs consist of: Whatever no one else wants to do.

The majority of copy editors I have known combine a high level of skill, a perfectionistic streak, an incredible work ethic, and a combination of shyness and a sense that "if I can just keep my head down, maybe they won't give me even more to do." But as surveys have shown, such as the one that led to the founding of ACES more than a decade ago, copy editors are often the most alienated people in the newsroom -- not the most negative, not the most critical, but the ones most detached from what is going on elsewhere. In part that is their job -- to look at things with a fresh eye. In part that is the hours at a morning paper, which separate them from most of the reporters and top editors.
Sullivan has a good prescription:

Go to the top editor in your newsroom and say: I'd like to talk to you about what you see copy editors' role as. Don't start off talking about staffing levels and page throughputs and all the "production" stuff we do. Most top editors are bored stiff by "production." So talk to them about what they see the job of a copy editor as a journalist.
I'd quibble with him on only one thing: As said here before, yes, you need to try to get editors and other managers to understand what you do, but if you want to quantify your worth (and in the current business climate, you MUST quantify your worth), the real people you want to get to are the libel insurers. If they think their risk increases because there are fewer copy editors or because they are not being used properly, they'll quantify that by raising the rates.

Maybe the leadership of the American Copy Editors Society is moving on that front. If so, it's very quiet. So far, I'm not sure they've gotten that message.

Sullivan's ruminations can be contrasted with those of Penelope Trunk in "Good grammar might derail your career" and the earlier "Writing without typos is totally outdated."

Trunk's posts are fine exhibits of the postmodern debate between grammar as snobbery and grammar as communications skill.

Most grammar rules don’t matter, though. That is, if you get them wrong, the reader still can find the meaning. For example, few people know when to use effect and when to use affect. But it doesn’t matter because the first is a noun and the second is a verb so the likelihood you'll mistake the meaning of a sentence because of a grammar error in this case is extremely low.

Here’s another example: Find me a sentence with the wrong version of it’s that you can’t understand due to the error. Wait. No. Forget it. Because you can’t. So a lot of grammar does not clarify meaning, it just serves to show you are good at grammar.

There are a couple of logic holes here. First, she confounds, as do many people, grammar with style, usage, spelling and punctuation -- they are not the same thing. Grammar is the way words go together to create meaning (actually, you can say symbols, not just words, because there is such a thing as visual grammar). The other stuff is there to help the process along or shape it in whatever way the predominant dialect that you are using supports.

Second, she is using only one real frame for her argument - that of more informal communication. As many of those commenting point out, writing occurs across may spheres - some more formal than others. Trunk complains, for instance, that as an English major she had been published in literary journals, but had to learn the AP Stylebook to manage a Fortune 500 company's Web site.

Yep, shur 'nuf. When communicating in business, where that communication may be seen by many different audiences and stakeholders, consistency in meaning and application are not just important, but critical. Just ask Rogers Communications, for which a misplaced comma cost the company $1 million (CAN). That's why business (and journalism) use the predominant -- and I will concede, hegemonic -- conventions of "standard written English." Layered on top of that is whatever style the organization wants to adopt.

Good writers (and editors) know when and how to break the "rules" and for what audiences. By and large, those commenting on Trunk's post seem to understand that. Hers would be lots more useful if she put her energies into delving into that.


And while you are at it, tool over to Alan Mutter's Newsosaur blog and read the guest post by David Boraks, proprietor of the site. A good look into a startup doing hyperlocal journalism.

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At 5/21/09, 11:41 AM, Anonymous Penelope Trunk said...

This post is full of good links (including to my own blog, thanks :)

I especially like the piece by Picard. I hadn't read him before - thanks for providing the treat.



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