Friday, April 16, 2010

ACES2010: Are editors necessary?

It was a provocative title put forth by outgoing ACES President Chris Weinandt for one of Thursday's ACES sessions, and it apparently stemmed from a blog post I made last summer from the journalism profs breakfast at AEJMC. At the time I wrote about remarks by Josh Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab:
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 Benton's response (after noting he was once a reporter who "had copy editors as friends") is that it is no longer valid to say there is just one metric for quality - what copy desks do to stories.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.
At the time, I remarked after talking with some folks afterward, that some had left upset.

This time it was Benton engaging with Charles Knittle, chief copy editor for world and national news at the New York Times. By the end, it seemed to me that there was more closing in on some consensus than division.

You can read more detailed reports from the ACES blog and here, so I'm not going blow by blow. But a couple of things stood out:
  • Benton's basically arguing that newspeople need some unedited channels - think Twitter and blogging (but maybe not the latter in all cases, depending on the amount of mischief that can be done) - to reach audiences directly. He says his writing improved because as a blogger for the Dallas Morning News he had to think a lot more about his audience.
  • Knittle said copy editors "have got to get in and fight for our place." That place is much more in the middle of the process, not just at the end. Copy editors should realize one of their purposes is "to help civilized discourse." And later: "I don't think there's any writing that gets better without an editor."
 Benton sees the job changing substantially. He notes that many online startups actually have more editors than reporters. But the jobs are far different. They are more like the skills of a wire editor, sifting through large quantities of information and finding important connections. They also are like the skills of editors at smaller papers, working as mentors, working with people not especially strong in journalism as user-contributed content grows. They are "engagement editors" like the ones Albritton's new D.C. startup is hiring editors before reporters. In short, the "multipurposed editor."

Benton also noted that the traditional role of a unified voice for a paper goes away online.

There were two key points of insight I took away, the sorts of things I will think a lot about:
  • Knittle: Copy editors were unnecessarily smug when pagination rolled into newsrooms in the 1990s. Hundreds of printers and backshop makeup people were laid off. A few copy editors were hired. But what the editors actually were learning was a "machine skill," the same kind of skill those printers and makeup people had, the same kind of skill that is easily displaced.**
  • Benton: It used to be there was a financial penalty for having an error - especially a mechanical one like having too much copy, because it could displace advertising in the limited pages of a newspaper. In that environment, copy editors played a vital role in policing the production process, which in a sense includes style (often put in to save space) and brevity. It could cost seriously to break up a page if errors were not caught early in the process. But, "for better or worse, we are at a time when the cost of an error ... is coming down in terms of correcting it." Now, having people in the production end instead of the content creation end has the greater financial penalty.
That latter observation, I think, is especially important and thought-provoking.

** In an earlier session on the future of editing, Susan Keith, a professor at Rutgers, outlined a rather dismal outlook based on depth interviews looking, among other things, at editing consolidation in Australia and Canada. She sees some reflection of Braverman's "de-skilling" theory and routinization of editing. One thing she concluded, in talking about the continued separation (philosophically and operationally, if not physically) of online operations from main editing desks, was that audience demand for well-edited Web content -- at least in a way to attract online ads -- has not been great enough to influence the predominance of the "get the paper out" mentality she still found among most of those she interviewed.

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At 4/28/10, 4:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I meet people who say, "Don't worry, I'm a multi-tasker," it often turns out they only think they're multi-taskers. The loss of effective editing - content and copy - means the loss of the last few percentage points of quality that can mean the difference between the pedestrian and the sublime. The real point is that few news organizations, whether online or in print, can afford to care about that distinction, just as newspapers could never afford the kind of fact-checking the magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic won't do without. You can get away without it, but that hardly means it makes better writing, or journalism. Josh is, in essence, arguing for lower quality. Indeed, writers communicate differently when blowing hard in the local bar than when submitting copy to editors, even though each has its charm. It's about outcome. "I learned more sounding off to the drunk on the next stool because I was trying to get him to buy the next round."

At 4/28/10, 5:10 PM, Blogger Doug said...

All this is interesting in the context of my school, where we are about to take a longstanding and long-recognized copy editing program and turn it into a "directed elective." I doubt we'll get those who really need it. But I should have smaller classes :)


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