Friday, January 07, 2011

Well said: David Sullivan on paying attention to it all

David Sullivan, whose day job is on the desk at Philadelphia Newspapers, has a nice post (When 10 is really 13) pointing out that while newsrooms shrink their editing but still promise to be thorough on the "big stuff," it's the small stuff that readers actually read - and that over time builds into a bigger problem.

I find it amusing when newspapers write about how they're going to make all these cutbacks but "the really big stories, the projects and major investigations, will still get multiple layers of editing." That's great, but that's not what readers read every day. It reflects the newspaper's sense of what it considers important, but doesn't speak to the reader's experience of the newspaper. A reader may not know firsthand anything that contradicts your six-months-in-the-making, four-part series. The reader knows that 10 best movies should have 10 items. And this has nothing to do with print -- stupidity on any platform is stupidity.

I see the same thing in my local paper, The State, almost every day. As Sullivan points out, however, you can't just blame this on copy editing cutbacks. It's as much about making arbitrary decisions without thinking them fully through, including how they might be perceived by readers.

One of my favorites is the arbitrariness by some papers of listing the man's name first in wedding and engagement announcement headlines or captions on the accompanying pictures, but the picture is almost always set up with the woman left and the man right. Sure, the reader will figure it out, but it takes that extra split-second and just a tad more work that makes us just that tad more unfriendly.

Or  the paper jumps a story to a separate physical section (yes, it still might be labeled "A," but the reader doesn't care about our arbitrary labels; if it comes out of the paper separately, it's a separate section).

Think of going to the bank and getting the wrong change from the teller or being told you can only get it back in quarters, not bills. You don't really care that the teller is having a bad day or about the bank's mechanical requirements. You want it the way you want it.

We are in a service economy, and journalism - and newspapers - have become a service, not a physical product. It's a lesson still being learned in many newsrooms.

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