Tuesday, December 21, 2010

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.
My bottom line here: Buttry's post is valuable for again highlighting the modern realities and issues surrounding editing and the need to develop its value proposition and not just bemoan "quality." But it's too facile in some areas, as much of this discussion tends to be. I can't make the ACES meeting in Phoenix this year (I have to be at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium the same weekend), but I'd use Buttry's as the centerpiece around which to start a serious conversation about where editing goes. So far, most of what I've seen are editors hanging on for dear life, along for the ride, not trying to really take charge of what they can about their futures.

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.”

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    At 12/21/10, 6:02 PM, Blogger Davisull said...

    The reason to me that no one has made it is that no one can clearly determine what it is.

    I am paid to think in terms of money and management more than most people in newsrooms, and I haven't found it, lord knows I've tried.

    We used to, somewhat inchoately, know what it was. Advertisers wanted to be in newspapers because newspapers were viewed as truthful and authoritative, and there was a ruboff of that onto their ads. Their ads were seen as higher-value and more trustworthy because they appeared in newspapers -- particularly in classifieds. Thus the overall quality of the enterprise was reflected in higher ad rates. Thus the newspaper found it in its interest to produce quality work.

    For readers who aren't retired English teachers, it doesn't seem to make much difference now. If people care passionately about the topic, they'll read something no matter how bad it is. If they don't care passionately about the topic and it doesn't appeal to some sense of "huh, isn't that weird," they won't read it no matter how good it is. Not because they're morons; there's simply too much to read, too much to know about.

    Because they come online through all sorts of side doors, they don't care as much who you are and thus no quality halo attaches to your name and your ads. The only real guide to quality today is, "My friend told me this was good."

    Internet ad rates are low enough that the ruboff doesn't matter. And ultimately, you want your cost of "production" to be "zero" if you can get it there.

    In the end I agreee that what Steve is saying is: The reason "clean copy" doesn't matter that much anymore is that the audience is no longer literate enough to know the difference. He may be right. Or it may simply be that "quality" now consists of simply what it's about vs. how well the point is made. Quality=what I want now. Because it's so easily disposable.

    But copy editors didn't just "assume" we were all about quality. We were largely told by our editors that we were, as the last lonely line of defense. Yes, it was a job we wanted to do and would defend to the death if we had it. But if you had an editor who said, "You know, I don't
    care about all this quality stuff, I just want local names in the
    paper," then your job was to rewrite press releases to get local names in the paper. If you had an editor who said "All I want is spellcheck," that's all you did. But most of us were told that our job was to guarantee quality.

    In the space of four years, the concept of "quality" went from "important" to "largely irrelevant" because the competitive arena exploded and organizations without a commitment to it were taking our money and, in the manner of newspapers since time immemorial, we felt the only answer was to have our story
    budget match their story budgets. But you can't match it when the competition is theoretically limitless. It doesn't matter how many feet on the street you have.

    Copy editors did wrongly assume "production" was going to save us. We took too literally the concept of "moving production into the newsroom." Production was moved into the newsroom because it cost less, not because it was editorially better. We used the occasion to make it better, but if it would have been cheaper to pay for Linotypes than computers, it would still be in the composing room.

    At 12/21/10, 7:03 PM, Anonymous Andy Bechtel said...


    Thanks for this provocative post.

    There are some efforts under way to better quantify the value of editing. Here's one:


    As you know, it's not easy to put a dollar sign on this, but I agree that copy editors need to address why what they do from day to day is valuable to their organizations.

    At 12/21/10, 11:15 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


    Thanks for the reminder. I'd written about that IBM research, and there have been other attempts as you know to measure how much effect quality has (Phil Meyer and Steve Lacy having tried and found it darned hard).

    I don't disagree, but sort of sense an unusual resignation in your comment. It isn't just all the audience, much as we might like it to be.

    "Quality" wasn't just something that management led journalists down the primrose path about. It was part of the myth-making (that helps define any profession) as Tuchman and others have shown.

    Also, there were plenty of other times in our history that the country was largely "illiterate," but part of the mission as seen then was to boost literacy.

    I don't think it's just retired English teachers (there are also retired journalists and journalism profs, too). But, seriously, that may be defining caring about quality too narrowly as one of language. I know and have spoken with people upset because basic information was wrong or sentences were so screwed up they could not understand what was going on.

    People do notice more than we think. Whether that "sells,"I don't know. It seems there might on a national or international scale (Economist, Financial Times, New York Times). On a local scale, perhaps not so much because there is little to contrast it to. But there are other factors, too, that are purely a business risk decision, and that's the area where I think editors have to make their case - quantitatively.

    At 12/22/10, 7:23 AM, Blogger Steve Buttry said...

    Thanks for this thoughtful analysis of my post, Doug. I may respond in depth later on my own blog (though I am traveling for the holidays now, and visits with my granddaughter, sons and mother will probably any detailed response back into next week.

    But I should make this clear: I was not setting AP style up as a straw man. My correspondent stressed the importance of "100 percent" adherence to AP style in his comments to a newspaper chain that prompted my original post.

    Anyway, your post here is excellent and I thank you for it. In areas where I might disagree, my heart might agree. And you say important things that ought to be part of the discussion of the future of copy editing. I hope someone makes the business case effectively for copy editing.

    At 12/22/10, 11:53 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


    Thanks for the comments and clarification.

    As you can tell, I get agitated when folks like your correspondent seem to stress style without context or leavening. In my classes I have to teach AP style - it's still the industry standard - but try to do it in a way that puts style in context. Bottom line: The only style you have to follow is the one of the person signing your paycheck.

    I've been doing a lot of wondering about AP style, but also about style in particular. It used to be the (unfortunate) backbone of too many editing courses. That's understandable because, in the context of a classroom it provides a framework of relative certainty, of something easily testable.

    (I've always maintained there is a bit of teaching envy for those who teach math, the sciences and most other professions. Their "verities" do not fluctuate like the tides as ours do. From a university professor's standpoint (remember, I'm an instructor, not a professor), that makes life a lot easier and frees more time for research, which is the reason for their being if they are on tenure track.)

    I've wondered how we'll teach the essential concepts embodied in style without anarchy and in a way that still prepares the student for the professional world. Were I going to ACES this year, I might propose a panel on "What do we do post-AP style?"

    Maybe next year. And since panels on the future of editing - and changing skills for editors - are now a fixture at the meetings, I'd love to have you participate. I think you've done a service by bringing the camel much more explicitly out of the tent, so to speak.

    Be safe for the holidays.

    At 12/22/10, 12:41 PM, Blogger Chris Wienandt said...


    First of all, let’s give the term “value proposition” a rest. That’s the kind of jargon a copy editor should be putting into real English.

    Are we asking how the desk justifies its existence in terms of cash it generates? It can’t. In terms of how many readers we don’t lose because of the errors we fixed? Good luck quantifying that.

    You are right – copy editors do need to make a case for why they’re relevant and important, and we haven’t done a good job at that, as I’ve said again and again in speeches at just about every ACES conference I’ve presided over and every regional meeting I’ve attended, as well as in many of my newsletter essays. We need to point out to the people who run things how we’ve saved the paper’s ass from embarrassment over and over – multiple times per day, for most of us. In the past two days, I’ve prevented my paper from saying that a city was considering “farming” its own school district (twice); from saying that retailers were expecting “descent” Christmas sales; and from printing incorrect figures for the S&P 500 (twice in the same graphic). And I’m sure my colleagues have made similar saves. Can publications continue to support copy editing? Can they afford not to?

    But we’re too self-effacing to mention all those fixes we make. We don’t want to embarrass our reporters and line editors. And we don’t want to look like jerks who are pointing out other people’s shortcomings. As a friend of mine once put it, our job is to find fault with others. And that’s not a nice way to be. But we have to, if we want the bigwigs to see what they’d be losing without us.

    I’d challenge managers to go a week without copy editors. Give us the time off – with pay, of course. Send us on a cruise. Send us to one of those fancy resorts where you have your board meetings. And watch the errors pile up in your pages or on your website – errors of spelling, grammar, logic, fact. It may not cost money, but I guarantee it will cost credibility. And that’s what sells papers. That – and the ads!

    At 12/22/10, 1:04 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

    I can live with "value proposition" in this context among friends ...

    You miss my point - no, actually you reinforce it. You can point out all you want how you have saved the paper's butt. Won't make a difference until you figure out a way to convert it to dollars and cents.

    I told you when you were ACES president that the organization has got to develop bridges to libel insurers - that's why they exist, to translate risk into dollars and cents. No indication that ever was truly done, but ACES should seriously consider it and a concerted research effort to match what was done at IBM and elsewhere to try to build the case in terms business managers use every day - money.

    Translate your assertion that a loss of credibility affect sales - and put it into numbers. Otherwise, it's a loser's game because managers already build in "acceptable risk," and you have to show yours is greater than that.

    At 12/22/10, 2:26 PM, Anonymous Dennis Tuttle said...

    Excellent post, Doug. And thanks to sButtry for the link. I am genuinely concerned about the loose standards of copy editing (meaning, almost none) among the online community and believe it's a flippin' dream to expect such a widespread skill set among today's young journalists. Maybe in the future, but not now—and the problem is now.

    Please say pass along a hello to my old media softball pal Charlie Bierbauer.

    At 12/22/10, 2:53 PM, Blogger Davisull said...

    Well, yes, discouragement. The problem isn't "how many libel suits did you save us from." The honest answer is -- not that many. Libelous things may have been printed, but few bring libel suits. And you're right, that's a cost of doing business and we have insurance for that.

    A news organization wanted to be seen as a leader in its community. As such it set standards. Some set them very high, some not as much. But that role of civic responsibility was an intangible.

    If it were just dollars and cents we wouldn't do half the investigations -- yes, they draw reader interest, but so do weepers. Sports draws in male readers but little advertising. As an accountant's son I know that you can make figures back up whatever you want to do.

    Quality is a comparative virtue and flexible. "Reader engagement" can be quality just as easily as "getting it right." If you believe that in the 21st century there is no need for a last line of defense because it's all ephemeral anyway, you'll make the figures show that you don't need the last line of defense.

    But the problem for me is that the business always believes itself to be better than it is. We are doing right, therefore what we are doing is right. In the end you need to build in copy editors for the same reason you need Internal Affairs for the police: We aren't as good as we think we are, and we want to be better. If you think you're pretty damn bitchin' as it is...

    At 12/25/10, 3:51 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


    Charles says "Hi" back.



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