Copy Editinng's Rapid Decline: Whom Notices?
Every week, I write two columns that appear in the print Washington Post and here online. And every week, I write five to ten pieces here on the blog on washingtonpost.com.
Each print column goes from me to the Post's Metro Editor, R.B. Brenner, who goes over it carefully and comes back to me with comments about the logic, argument, reporting and writing of the piece. After I make any needed revisions, the piece goes to the copy desk, where a copy editor combs through the column to see if it makes sense, checks facts and spellings, questions points of style and ease of reading, and writes headline and captions. A copy chief also reads the column. Often, I'll also ask several reporters who are very familiar with that day's topic to give the column a look. By the time I give the column a last check before publication, somewhere between four and twelve people will have read it and offered opinions and suggestions.
Every blog item I write goes directly from my keyboard to your computer screen. Not a single other person reads it in between. No one asks any questions, no one screens the copy pre-publication for errors or unusually foolish statements.
Here on the web site, the column and the blog look almost identical. They are promoted on the home page interchangeably. Judging by my mail from readers, most make no distinction between the two, even though in-house, we treat them as utterly separate and unrelated, even incompatible forms.
Like any blogger, I'm probably more likely to make an error here in this form than in the column, largely because speed is so much a part of the ethic and purpose of blogging. But aside from the fact that the column contains far more original reporting, the crucial difference between the two is that in the column, most errors of fact and flaws in thinking are caught by those smart editors, whereas the flaws on blog items are presented to readers, some of whom are kind enough to use the comment boards to act as unpaid editors. (Editors at washingtonpost.com do edit most Post blogs before publication; apparently, Raw Fisher and a small number of others are the exception to the rule. And editors at the web site try to spot-check blogs such as mine after publication, correcting spelling or grammar errors as they come across them.)
Sunday's column by Post ombudsman Deborah Howell lamented the drastic and rapid diminution of the ranks of copy editors at this and other American newspapers in this time of stunningly quick shrinking of the country's news infrastructure. Great copy editors are among the most impressive and brilliant talents in this industry. Unknown to the reading public, they can be wonderfully picky and even maddeningly literal, but the good ones are great quipsters, masters of the art of winnowing a complex topic into a handful of very short words. They have saved me from embarrassment, lawsuits and worse too many times to count.
Do you care? Should you care? Those who love the blog form argue that blogs are self-correcting, thanks to careful readers who jump all over any errors, enabling me to make corrections in a matter of seconds. So, are newspaper editors such as Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett right to argue that in a period of rapidly shrinking staffs, news-gathering institutions should put a premium on holding on to reporters ahead of the folks whose job it is to make our work read more smoothly, look more attractive and be that much more accurate, fair and comprehensible? (Copy editors make the arguments for their survival here.)
As a reader, it drives me nuts when I find glaring errors in books, magazines and newspapers--places where I expect a level of care and professionalism that is too often not quite met. But it's also true that as a reader, I have far lower expectations on the web. The rapid-fire, informal, user-generated nature of most of what's on the Internet has accustomed us to copy that follows few rules, embraces shortcuts that strain the bounds of comprehension, and assumes that errors will be caught and fixed by readers, rather than by those who produce the original material.
I accordingly invest far less trust and respect in much of what I read online, but the tradeoff in immediacy, excitement and novelty is one that I and most of us have been willing to make, to varying extents.
Attending a conference of bloggers, new media pioneers and old media dinosaurs not long ago, I was struck by the explosion of creativity and new forms online. But I think almost everyone at the conference was surprised to hear one account after another from online media entrepreneurs who found that many readers and advertisers would not take their work seriously until and unless the web site found a print outlet for its writing. When two Washington Post political reporters left to start Politico, the Virginia-based webzine of politics, they made certain to launch a print version as well. Similarly, a number of new community news sites all around the country have found it necessary to create a print version of their web operations, both because the business model made more sense that way and because readers somehow grant more credibility to products you could touch and keep.
Those print editions require copy editors. Readers are simply less willing to accept errors in print than they are online. Most likely, print won't always carry more authority, but for now, at least, print's credibility has managed to survive the generational shift toward electronic media.
So those of us in this declining business are kind of stuck. We want to rechannel resources from copy editing to reporting, because only by doing original, exclusive, smart reporting can we remain valuable to an ever more itinerant audience. Yet we cringe along with our readers when dumb errors creep into our stories, undermining our chief asset, our credibility.
Howell urged the Post to keep copy editing as a priority, and I don't know of any reporter who wouldn't instantly second that motion. I'd put copy-editing stars such as Joe Hillhouse (Metro), Pat Myers (Style) and Bill O'Brian (The Magazine) right up there in my pantheon of Post talents along with the renowned, prize-winning reporters and columnists (speaking of which, here's Gene Weingarten's take on the loss of copy editors). But the latter two copy editors took buyouts from the paper recently. Many other terrific copy editors remain, but the total copy editing staff has gone from 75 to 43 in the past three years, a 40 percent drop.
Newspapers in general, like most mature industries, are top-heavy. There are more levels of top editors today than there were even 20 years ago; I'd look to thin out those ranks before cutting more copy editors. This week, for example, The Post has more than 50 people at the Republican National Convention, and a good half of those people do not write stories. Can you imagine how powerfully revealing and helpful it might be to throw an extra 25 reporters at the big issues and events in the District and Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George's counties? But nobody asked me, and in the end, it's the readers' views, not any news guy's, that will determine the future of this business and of an informed democracy.
Does any of this matter to you as readers? Do you see any difference between blogs that are lightly edited or not edited at all, and the main news product of a newspaper, which involves multiple layers of editing? Does the presence of ungrammatical sentences, wrong words, misspellings and blown facts detract from your willingness to trust what you're reading?
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