Buttry: Time to weigh the value of clean copy
Steve Buttry, former copy editor, trainer for the American Press Institute, editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and now director of community engagement for TBD.com, weighs in on balancing the value of clean copy to today's digital realities.
To summarize (but you should read his entire post because a summary never adequately picks up the nunances) and my thoughts (in italics):
- "But as someone working on journalism innovation, I know that costs and value propositions are a critical factor in financial success and even survival." Yes, and much of this falls at the feet of copy editors. I still haven't seen them make an effective cost/value argument in the language executives use: Dollars and cents. In some quarters, I still sense a sense of fantasy - a fantasy that somehow there will be a massive lawsuit somewhere that will make "the industry" stand up and notice. Not going to happen.
- "My first newspaper had no copy desk and it was nowhere near as good as the Register, but it was good enough. ...I knew the city editor was just going to give my copy a quick glance, so I had to take responsibility for the quality of my copy, and I made it pretty good." "Good enough" still scares me as a standard because I don't know what it means. "Perfection" also scares me because it is a) not attainable and b) as a result tends to lead to paralysis. But striving for a level of perfection seems to be a useful glide slope if we are wise enough to know when the slope is too steep. But Buttry's ultimate point here that we MUST inculcate in all staff that editing is now everyone's responsibility is well-taken.
- "We have no copy editors at TBD (and got criticized for that after a famous correction). While the newsroom staffing was Editor Erik Wemple’s decision, I fully support it. You can’t do everything, and a digital operation can correct after publication with less damage than a print publication (very few people saw the original error that we were correcting; it was the correction that went viral)." Too facile. That original error is likely to be cached somewhere, and even with "very few" (please define - hundreds, a few thousand?), the network effects power means it still can get into the digital bloodstream. Errors have long tails just as much as corrected copy does. Yes, I agree we have to rethink - the digital environment is more plastic than print. But there are some realities that the "we can correct it quickly and few will notice" camp also conveniently overlooks. To TBD's credit, the correction is prominently displayed, something you are less likely to find elsewhere.
- "Erik gave everyone a writing test in the interview, so we could see their raw copy. You do need to screen for copy quality. If copy editing resources can’t be what they used to be, then maybe you can no longer afford that staff member who’s a good reporter but a mediocre (or even bad) writer. Or even a good writer but a lousy speller. (Or you need to demand that they get better and start compensating for the weaknesses they know they have.)" Amen. Unfortunately, in most newsrooms it's not the case, with reporting and content creation valued far more than the integrated writing/editing skills. Dan Conover even has made a case that journalism's future lies more in a data-intensive model that should value reporting at least equally if not more than writing/editing. As he puts it: "A print journalist is supposed to do both things well, but truth be told, if you can't tell a good story in a compelling way, your print-reporting career is toast. Weak reporter? We'll coach-you-up. Fundamentally clueless as a writer? Consider another line of work. ... Journalism is a profession for storytellers, and our newsroom culture celebrates romantic myths that are generally hostile to structure."
- "Quality has always been a relative matter, with publications deciding how much they could afford to spend in pursuit of unattainable perfection. I hope the value equation continues to support copy editors at most operations, but that’s a decision individual editors, publishers and group presidents will have to make with their budgets, their value equations and their communities." See my above comments about perfection and groups like ACES yet to make the value proposition.
- "Here’s a practical question: Has the chain consolidated editing functions? That’s not as good a solution, in terms of quality, as having copy editors at each location. But if an organization doesn’t have or can’t afford quality editing at each location, consolidation might provide better, more efficient editing and design." If you define editing as "production," this makes absolute sense, and that's where copy editors failed to see their blindside. They assumed they were all about "quality," a squishy, largely unmeasurable term. Their bosses saw them as "production," a very measurable cost. If editing/copy editing is to find a new equilibrium in the digital age, editors are going to have to rethink how to reframe the quality argument.
- "Another thing to consider is whether an organization is spending too much time editing wire copy. I know local copy editors add value when they edit wire copy, having done it myself. I also know that wire copy has already been edited by professional copy editors. The local editing can and should be cut back or nearly eliminated. Or certainly wire editing could be consolidated among affiliated newspapers." I was a wire-service correspondent and later editor. Trust me, consolidate the editing, but don't abandon it.
- The truth is that grammar and editing skills are declining in the population and among journalists. Newspapers are in a difficult spot. Readers are older and learned grammar in a different era when it got greater emphasis (though you’d be amazed how many arrogant, critical letters I received from readers, taking us to task for our errors but containing errors of their own). But many staff members are young people who grew up txting “lol, omg” and the like." Newspapers have always been in a difficult spot - how much to follow and how much to lead. That's why you had editors. I'm unclear what Steve is trying to say here - abandon ship because grammar and editing skills are declining overall - or take a more measured approach and try to lead more? What is the role of media in all this? I tend to favor a leadership role because what I hear from others in the business community outside of media is a great wail about declining language skills. So it would seem there is some value proposition in this. If you have any doubt that business does and will influence things, consider the language/writing changes in the SAT. (And here's a quiz question - find at least one language error in that article I linked to - hint, look for the apostrophe misused to make a plural.)
- "Anyway, I think in today’s value analysis, clean copy (especially AP style) isn’t as valuable as it used to be (or has been surpassed in value by some other factors). As an editor, I did occasionally field calls from people complaining about grammar and spelling, but never about AP style." Why do these things always come down to the straw man of AP style? I agree with Buttry - people who obsess about AP style need to get a life (click on the "style-AP" tag below to see some of my suggestions for removing some of AP's inanities). On the other hand, many publications, not just newspapers, still use it as a unifying element (you want to talk about inefficiency, especially with consolidated editing, try dealing with multiple styles - local variations are bad enough). So for now, in j-school, we probably are still obligated to teach some style (just as we have to teach APA, MLA and Chicago, if those writers are doing academic papers - style is just a fact of publication), but teach it in a balanced, enlightened way, not one that turns people into style enforcers.
And editing educators should have the same conversation - continually.
(Disclaimer - I have no editor on this post, so there probably are some errors. I'm happy to correct them if you point them out.)
Update: One might also consider this article from across the pond by Allan Prosser commenting on some of the editing cutbacks and rearrangements there. Not only does he manage to get in "Gadarene," he has this wonderful quote from his boss when he asked for a pay raise for handling the especially difficult copy from a star reporter: “His job is to provide the words, but your function is to provide the music. Now piss off.”