Thursday, August 06, 2009

AEJMC09: Editors' Breakfast

Catching up a bit. ...

Thursday morning was the annual editing profs' breakfast at the big j-profs meeting in Boston. Some useful thoughts came from Josh Benton, director if the Nieman Journalism Lab, and David Beard, editor of (and a former fellow APer), in no particular order:

I learned a wonderful new word - the "photocracy," courtesy of Beard. He was commenting on how editors are still needed in the online world, but perhaps in different ways. The context was that the staff might get a lot of photos from an event, and it's the staff that has to figure out a narrative, not always what the Globe's "photocracy" favors. Someone needs to read behind all those captions and see the big picture ...

From Benton on future of editing: Many new ventures online are sole person not necessarily hewing to style. Large orgs like Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo have more editors than writers/reporters. But those editors see themselves as curators/aggregators. Some key features he sees of new editing jobs.
  • A key feature of new jobs will be coaxing journalistic-quality work out of non-journalists. Actually, he says, that's always been an important skill on community papers, if you think about it.
  • Solid headline writing with a good understanding of search engine optimization.
  • Curation, much like the old wire editor who combined various stories into one comprehensive report - the ability to ingest large amounts of information and find the nuggets.
  • Not so important: AP style, which tends to promote sameness, and the ability to shape multiple voices into one kind of house style.
Benton says it will be a tough sell, but there are going to be cases where the the path from reporter to audience does not pass through the copy desk. There will be multiple paths, not necessarily through a corporate or editorial filter.

Beard's key features are:
  • An open mind
  • Ability to reprioritize on a dime
  • The ability to be what he calls an "early steward/process maker" who can help build best practices in this new era that incorporate the best of what we have been doing
The question arose from the audience, of course, "Does quality no longer matter?" Benton's response (after noting he was once a reporter who "had copy editors as friends") is that it is no longer valid to say there is just one metric for quality - what copy desks do to stories. If a copy desk is focused on filtering out a voice and creating a corporate style, no, he said.

Benton said many reporters write differently when they know it will be read by editors than when they know it's going direct to readers. "I learned more from blogging because I had to pay attention to readers," he said.

(Note: Some folks walked out at this point, angered upset by his comments.)

A few other random notes:
  • Beard said it actually was a bit scary during the first few years of not to have a copy desk when "we have 40, 50, 60 issues a day" compared with the three or four of the paper (this is where he made his "photocracy" comment)
  • Benton says the future business model is likely to be both content creation and curation. Even in the glory days of papers, only part of the content was local, he said. Large parts were "curated," if you think of the wire editor's job as picking the best from multiple sources and melding that into a coherent, comprehensive report.

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At 8/7/09, 1:03 PM, Anonymous Gerri Berendzen said...

A key feature of new jobs will be coaxing journalistic-quality work out of non-journalists. Actually, he says, that's always been an important skill on community papers, if you think about it.

When I was working as a copy editor at the Suburban Journals in St. Louis, that was at least 50 percent of my job.

At 8/11/09, 10:30 PM, Blogger Carrie Brown said...

Thanks for the summary. I was there and thought it was an interesting and enlightening discussion.

I'm saddened by those who felt they were so upset they needed to walk out. I thought Benton's point wasn't a personal assault on those who work on the copy desk but an honest assessment of what he thinks lies ahead in a future in which, sadly, news organizations have to do things differently, namely, more with less. If you can't even bear to have a frank conversation about it, you are out of touch, in my humble opinion.

At 8/11/09, 11:39 PM, Anonymous Mark Hamilton said...

I find it astonishing that journalism educators would walk out because they disagreed with what was being said.

At 8/12/09, 2:12 AM, Blogger Suzanne Yada said...

I didn't attend this meeting, though I was on a previous panel. I felt the great divide in bits and pieces, but never did I think people would walk out on a reasoned argument. I guess it hit a little too close to home for some. Thanks for posting this.

At 8/12/09, 9:52 AM, Blogger Josh said...

Josh Benton here. Perhaps I was self-protectively blind to reality, but I didn't think those folks leaving were offended or upset. I thought it was because the session had started a little late and was running long -- I figured they had someplace else to be. Or that I was being boring, as opposed to offensive. I didn't see anyone giving me the finger on the way out, at least. But I was up at the front of the room, and Doug probably had a better view.

I'll absolutely stand by the idea, though, that "quality" does not necessarily equal "has been edited by five people." There are plenty of great stories that have been produced through that route, of course, but there's also been lots of great work produced outside it.

I'm no editor hater -- hell, I edit a lot more than I write these days -- but I think there's something very real gained when reporters start thinking of the audience as their target rather than a chain of editors. Things like blogging and Twitter can do that. And the idea that a story can only have "quality" if it goes through the same process newspaper stories have for decades -- that, in essence, everything born online through some other process is crap -- is highly blinkered.

At 8/12/09, 2:48 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

To clarify: The observation that some left upset was not based on seeing people leave but on conversation afterward where I was told directly why the leaving was done.

But let's not fixate on that. I put it in only as context -- I think it's worth noting that there still is great divide in some quarters over aspects of this -- but not the main point. I almost regret putting it in there now because I think it is detracting from the overall message.

At 8/12/09, 3:25 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Hey Doug -- that's interesting. (And while I understand that it may be off-point for most readers, I'll confess: I'm interested!)

There was certainly a visible divide in the room; from my chair it was mostly a divide between the people vigorously nodding their heads during my talk versus those harrumphing, arms across their chests.

Did they have some specific problem with my comments? I'm curious what the specific pressure points were that would trigger a walkout. (Either here or at

(Also, if they walked out on relatively mild-mannered me, I'd hate to think what kind of heavy objects they would have thrown at a Jeff Jarvis or a Chris Anderson.)

At 8/12/09, 3:39 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

That's why we sweep the room for heavy and sharp objects beforehand. (I was a bit nervous about those CDs, though {grin}).

Specifically mentioned to me as the pea under the mattress is the quality argument. The feeling apparently was that some of this was a "neo-quality" (my term, for lack of a better) - an attempt to redefine quality so that it's acceptable to get crap through, essentially as said to me.

I actually don't think it was personal. I think that after the session earlier in the week on the future of editing and some other conversations, it might simply have been enough is enough.

There needs to be a deep and lengthy debate about what exactly is "quality" now. As you said, if it's defined simply as making everything conform to a house voice, we probably have a problem. By the same token, a publication does want to have some kind of unifying voice/style/vision/whatever you want to call it, so there's a lot to consider here.

At 8/12/09, 5:03 PM, Blogger Jack Rosenberry said...

Josh and Doug:
FWIW, I thought Josh's comments about "curating" content and making sure that quality output is elicited from input by those who perhaps don't have formal journalistic training were among the most sensible and useful viewpoints I've heard on the topic.

But I am curious about one thing. Doug describes some who were unhappy because they thought Josh was being too "loose" about standards. Did anyone offer the view that he was being too tight? -- in other words, were some of them upset because they advocate completely free-form online content creation and objected because "curating" sounded too much like "gatekeeping."

I'm not from that school of thought myself, but a lot of people at the conference were; I've seen several blog posts and Tweets complaining about how "old school" and out-of-touch many people and panels were in Boston.

PS to Josh: I was the guy sitting sort of down front who compared your description to the old rewrite desk. Many things old are new again in this modern milieu.

At 8/12/09, 5:06 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Though if they confuse curating and gatekeeping, they don't really understand the terms.

At 8/12/09, 5:21 PM, Blogger Jack Rosenberry said...

That may be true (about failing to understand the difference in the terms). But I've heard a lot of comments over the years from absolutists objecting to any sort of moderation/filtration as just plain wrong, and antithetical to what online journalism is supposed to be about. It's a view I don't share -- as I said, I'm in line with where Josh is coming from. But it's definitely a view that's out there. Just wondered if it was a dynamic in what you observed; maybe not, after all.

At 8/13/09, 7:50 AM, Blogger Josh said...

Hi Jack: Thanks for your kind words. On the curation/gatekeeping point, I would distinguish between managing comments and curation/aggregation of stories.

With comments, there are certainly people who think you should just let every comment in and that setting standards and knocking out offenders are verboten. (I'm not one of those people.)

But curation in this context typically refers to the task of finding the best stuff elsewhere on the web about or within a given subject. I don't know of anyone who views that act as overly limiting -- you certainly can't link to every story online!

At 8/25/09, 12:02 AM, Blogger Brian B said...

Guy Berger said of the conference in general:

Impressionistically, the overall balance of views at AEJMC seemed to be widespread reluctance regarding change -- thereby echoing what seems to be the situation in the media industry. There was much nostalgia for the old certainties, and a display of defensive fears of the unknown future.

We certainly saw that split at the editing breakfast.

When Josh relates his finding that writers behave differently in common newsroom situations, you'd think a concerned editor would listen closely to better understand the writer's process and thus the copy reaching the desk. (That's a point I stress to my students: Understand the writer to understand the writing.)

If that concept is so foreign that they can't share a room with it, that's a problem with the editors, not Josh or those of similar mind. But they'll tell us the problem is with anyone (everyone) else.

I wrote a term paper on the subject recently; with luck I'll whip it into publishable shape before long.


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