Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why Copy Editing Is in the Trouble It's In

Howard Owens quotes from Vin Crosbie. The post is about video but it applies to print -- heck, it applies to any medium.

"The overabundance of suppliers of news and information ... leads to another corollary, one that might seem to be counter-intuitive: the ‘good enough’ beats perfect. The overabundance of suppliers leads to competition that actually lowers the threshold of acceptable quality. When there were few suppliers, they used higher quality content (i.e., ‘high production values’) as a competitive weapon against each other. But now that there is an overabundance of suppliers, their competition levers towards being the first to produce content that is at least of acceptable quality.

"Millions of videos are viewed billions of times each month on sites such as YouTube.com (+3 billion per month) not because of high production values, but because the videos are at least ‘good enough’ to watch. The production of higher quality delays distribution and widespread usage. This corollary runs against the grain of traditional Mass Media organizations, which tend to delay release of their content until it is perfect, but the effect of this corollary is an observable phenomenon."

A lot of the problem we copy editors have been having with Web content is: How can you put that stuff out there? It's not good. The problem is that most of it is not really awful, either. It's just not very good, as good as it could be, as good as we know we could make it, and that makes us uneasy. But, without seeing all of Crosbie's post (for some reason I can't get to it), there are two things not addressed in this excerpt.

The ubiquity of digital communications has led to a change in attitude: Why SHOULDN'T I read it, look at it, whatever. It's free! If I'm bored in six seconds, I can blink it off. No charge. "Good enough" becomes good enough not just because of the ubiquity of content but because my investment is nearly zero. Whereas, if I actually had to pay for it, in money or time, I'd set a higher standard and ignore more of it. "Higher production values" were not just a way for NBC to try to trump CBS or AP to top UPI; they were a way to get you to stay put for a half-hour news show or pay more for a wire service for your newspaper. (If you've watched a bush-league TV station on a holiday weekend and found yourself laughing, you know that production values matter; but you've already made the investment of time in sitting down in front of the television. On the Web, you're probably doing something else, or able to do something else, at the same time, so your investment is much less. In so many cases, it's simply providing you with something to do to avoid doing something you don't want to do.)

But think of digital phones, which have worse sound quality compared with most landlines -- not awful, just not as good -- and are far more prone to skips and disconnects. And while it depends a lot on what sort of peripherals you buy, for years the quality of sound coming out of a computer was worse that the sound even a 1980s stereo system could provide. Yet -- it didn't seem to matter. Immediacy clearly trumps quality -- I can barely understand you, but I'd rather be frustrated by the phone than miss your party tonight. What is unknown is if this is transitory. Three years from now, will people just be looking at YouTube videos because someone sent them a link saying "You should watch this," or will that appetite have been sated (hey, honey, there's nothing else on TV, let's watch the test pattern) and there will be renewed competition on quality, particularly as each cohort passes out of adolescence in which everything is new again? Or does "anything other than being bored or out of the loop" hold the trump card?

So this is part of why copy desks are not faring particularly well, even though one would think a newspaper would say, "Our selling point in this media landscape is: Quality." The O.J. car chase proved that people will watch or read anything in which something might happen, for fear of missing it if it did. Most newspapers just started posting stuff on the Web without benefit of copy editors -- doing it on the cheap, not any thought-out strategy -- and thus discovered that "good enough" stories are just as effective on the Web as "really good" stories. And if there, why not everywhere? If the typical print newspaper is being read and disposed of in 20 minutes, what level of quality is really necessary? I can't recall a newspaper ever selling itself as "America's best copy edited."

But it was the concept of the newspaper as the most trusted source of news and therefore of its ads as carrying added value from being in the publication of record that led to newspapers' fixation on accuracy and quality. You trusted The Salt Lake Tribune, therefore you trusted its ads for ZCMI and Auerbach's -- and you particularly trusted its classified advertising, which could have been placed by anyone. (You also trusted clothes from a department store more than you did from Jack's Low-End Shirt Shop. Once the quality of nearly everything became about the same, this began to matter less.)

We have not yet really grappled as a culture with what it means when there is no fixed record, no stopping and starting point, just an endlessly mutable conversation. We do know which medium makes an ad incredibly cheap. But what sort of environment today makes one advertiser's message be seen as more trustworthy, a traditional added value of newspaper advertising? Or is that no longer material? It seems from some early research I've seen (and am not going to take an hour to find it and link to it, you just have to trust me) as if newspapers still have some advantage in that realm, both in print and online; that the brand is still seen as "reputable" and that that counts for something; but for what? Any ideas?


Anonymous said...

Speaking of copy editing, you can't get to the original posting because the URL that Howard gives for it starts "http://http://".

The correct URL is http://rebuildingmedia.corante.com/archives/2008/08/24/transforming_american_newspapers_part_2.php

Brian Cubbison said...

The nature of trust is changing, for better or worse.

Some people trust Jon Stewart or Fox News more than they trust what they see as the lifeless pseudo-objectivity of traditional editing.

Some people might find The Economist or the BBC thoughtful and determined enough in the pursuit of truth to be trusted, while others view these as just as partisan.

These days, the "trusted brand" might be a friend's instant message with a juicy story about John Edwards, which turns out to be mostly true despite its origins, instead of the high-minded and archly edited but distracted, incomplete, late-to-catch-on traditional journalism. I sometimes find that sad, and sometimes I consider it a challenge.