Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Wonderful Meaning of Me

A few years back, Mickey Kaus wrote a column arguing for the elimination of copy editors at the Los Angeles Times. Kaus mentioned a friend of his and opined that that reporter could write a story on his cell phone and simply download it into the paper with no need of any editor's intervention, the reporter was so excellent and the copy was so flawless.

I would link to Kaus' file, but a link is provided here by, Jack Shafer, who was opining last year about the cutbacks in copy editing at the Washington Post. He said that one of daily journalism's dirty little secrets was that many reporters really could not write well, and that was the reason all these layers of editors were needed -- but that good hiring and an increasing level of literary fluency among reporter candidates could eliminate this problem of "meddlesome editing."

Comes now Roy Greenslade, online guru of the UK, to argue for the elimination of copy editors -- subeditors, as they are known in the Commonwealth world. His salient points:

"He even suggested journalists - who are now 'highly educated' - could sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

"'I write my blog every day, I don't need a sub to get in the way,' said the former Daily Mirror editor turned Guardian blogger.

"'I produce copy that goes straight on screen - why can't anyone else do that? You can eliminate a whole structure.

"'It's not perfect, not how I would want it to be - but the thing is, commercially, we have to do it.'"

Greenslade said some "creative" sub-editors - such as The Sun's headline writers - were indispensable. But others, he argued, could be outsourced.

"'There is value in local knowledge, but what we are doing is putting value in people's writing.

"'We're now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don't need to have their work changed.

"'They can do it, they can have the local knowledge. There's no reason why we need that large group of sub-editors.'"

He also goes on at length about how design can be totally "templated" and all the designers laid off as well.

Oh, gee, where to begin? This is why an edited news product -- call it, archaically, a "newspaper" -- such as The Guardian differs from Roy Greenslade's blog. This is why "Chicago" or "Rent" is not the same as "A monologue by Spalding Gray." This is where a product at all -- in print or online -- differs from, oh, "That's the Press, Baby."

Roy Greenslade or Mickey Kaus may be able to turn out copy that, while "not perfect," at least meets their own expectations. They may even believe like Shafer that while newspapers are filled with dullards and knaves, that increasing sophistication will render those knaves unhirable. (Forget that many reporters are not that great with a verb but are terrific at cultivating sources, or are simply willing to work the night police beat when no one else is.)

But consider this line:

They can have the local knowledge -- "'There is value in local knowledge, but what we are doing is putting value in people's writing.'"

Meaning: It's nice if you know how to spell someone's name or where something is located or what happened in 1978, it's nice to have photo captions, it's nice to produce a newspaper that gives people in Quincy or Manitowoc or Boise a sense of where they are, but all that really matters is: I'm A Great Writer and Don't Mess With My Copy!

Anyone who has worked for a newspaper has known the sports columnist or op-ed writer or occasional star reporter who has demanded: Don't change even a comma in my story without checking with me. Most of us have worked for newspapers where at least one person has managed to bully top editors into going along with this.

In the past, though, these egos were held in check by the fact that the newspaper still had to come out, still had a stylebook, still had length requirements, and still had copy editors who would change things if they were wrong and later bear the wrath of the aggrieved writer or the section editor who had been yelled at by the aggrieved writer.

Now, they can simply post on the blog how good they are and offer themselves as the future instead of simply being raging egotists. "'Of course' they don't need to have their work changed. Mine doesn't need to be changed. And I don't want mine changed." And it's not about where I work or who I write for or anything other than -- it's about me.

Which is the exact opposite of what newspapers are supposed to be about. But there will be publishers and editors who believe this pap in a time of no money.


Anonymous said...

A newspaper without copy editors is a scary thing to imagine.

Anonymous said...

Punditry written in one's own voice for a blog is quite a different kettle of fish than a reported hard news story for print about actual facts, people and events. I am a very good writer and I certainly don't need to have my letters to friends edited, but I do need a copy editor as well as an editor for my day job. Someone needs to check behind the reporter and make sure everything is spelled and punctuated correctly, that the style is consistent with that of the rest of the paper, and that facts are correct. A reported news story is a far more complicated animal than a blog screed on the topic of the day (which Kraus likely tossed off in a couple of hours), which means reporters also need editors--a fresh eye--to catch unclear thinking or wording, holes in stories and buried ledes. Reporters also need editors to help with story structure for a piece that is complex and has several threads to it--especially on deadline.
When was the last time Kaus or the UK guy reported and wrote a hard news story talking about real people and events on deadline? I'm not surprised it's pundits, and not working reporters, advocating for the end of the copy editor.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute. Mea culpa. I just read the Shafer and Kaus stories that you've linked to. Neither advocates getting rid of copyeditors or editors for reported, print stories in them. Shafer points out, rightly, that many papers have too many layers of editors, who each need to leave their, um, thumbprint on a piece--and who suck all the life out of the prose.
Kaus is advocating for unedited or lightly edited blog posts--which I completely agree with.

Davisull said...

As for Mickey, then that was not the piece I thought it was -- sorry. That was laziness on my part. Kaus has opined that he believes copy editors are unnecessary, for the same reasons Greenslade cites -- basically, that he and everyone he knows is a great writer who has had a copy editor ruin the flow by unsplitting an infinitive or some similar hidebound rule, and therefore copy editors are unneeded. The problem with Kaus and Greenslade is, they generally don't hang out with the typical newspaper reporter.

As for "eliminating layers of editing" -- look at newspapers such as the Post, the Journal, the AJC -- when they cut back on these layers, who gets cut out? The copy editors, generally. A department head or assigning editor is not going to give up his or her own right to make changes.

In any event, I don't want to be argumentative, but "sucking the life out of a story" often means making it comprehensible to a typical reader -- i.e. making the point of the story clear by the second or third graf -- or making it less weighted toward one side of an argument.