Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Watch Your Count, Part 3: Who's Right?

In their recent essays on the decline of newspaper copy editing, Tim McGuire and John McIntyre both referred to the subtleties of the craft. In particular, John noted the difference between the sort of nuts-and-bolts editing that spellcheck programs can purport to replace -- although they are of course useless if the person operating them doesn't know what's right to begin with, or the differences between various homonyms and homophones, or basic subject-verb agreement -- and what McIntyre calls analytical editing, which he describes as:

"It involves the things that make articles readable, such as focus, structure, organization within the structure, tone, and the legal and ethical issues that get people into trouble. Readers who spot errors in grammar or street names are unlikely to think about the text in these terms, but they can tell very quickly when a story is hard going."

John, my heart is with you. That's what I do just as you have done and taught. The late and great Steve Klock, longtime slot editor at my paper, would say that if he had to choose he'd take a rim editor who could fix the deep problems in a story and didn't catch most of the style problems. He, as the slot, could catch those, but he didn't have time to re-argue the story.

But one of the themes of this blog is that newspapers continually hear their customers' complaints and then say, "Well, we don't want to do that. We want to do this, and we deserve customers who appreciate that." Part of my job involves being the reader-feedback editor for corrections and clarifications. While few of those hang on copy editors' work, people with general complaints find their way to me as well.

I pride myself on my ability to eliminate excess words from a story -- "in order to" becomes "to," "at the intersection of" becomes "at," "early yesterday morning" becomes "early yesterday." I have never heard a reader complain about a story in which that has not been done.

We have, as most publications do, extremely specific rules about style, capitalization and the like. I have heard two categories of complaint about this: One, from companies wanting us to use their style (all-caps or the like) as opposed to ours, and two, from people who don't like our style of referring to the mayor and governor as simply "Gov. Rendell" and "Mayor Nutter." I have never heard a reader object to a story in which "City Councilman" was not capitalized before a name or in which "Street" was spelled out in a numbered address.

Like most papers, we aim to make names in captions consistent with names in stories. Occasionally we fail, and "James K. Fox" becomes "Jim Fox" in a caption because that's what Mr. Fox told the photographer. As long as the photo is of James K. "Jim" Fox, I have never heard anyone complain.

And while people are annoyed by typos and complain in general terms about their number, they often are unable upon request to actually cite any, and almost all of them seem to accept the view that typos just happen.

Most important, while certainly many of the calls pertaining to issues of deep editing would go to the reporter or the city desk, I never hear about them, anyway, unless they involve a story that ran on Fox News.

What I do hear about are all variations on "If I can't trust you on these small things, how can I trust you on the big ones?" -- the actual meaning of this being, "If you do something that I know is wrong, how can I trust you on something I don't know anything firsthand about"? The reader does not know firsthand the situation in Haiti. Most readers are not wordsmiths who can craft flawless English, or see a gigantic difference between Dan Brown and Ernest Hemingway. Many readers do know the difference between "who" and "whom." Spellcheck programs do not. Many reporters also do not.

The reader does not know much more about the "cash-for-kids" scandal in Luzerne County, Pa., than what he or she reads in the paper. The reader does know that "a annual publication" is wrong and cannot believe that anyone who is paid to write does not. Spellcheck programs generally do not, and it doesn't matter that it was written as "a semiannual publication" and you found out it was yearly and forgot to change the "a" to "an."

The reader in Philadelphia does not know what happened yesterday until he or she is told by the media, but he or she does know that Calumet is a Street and not an Avenue and where the Calumet Street bridge crosses. We recently ran a double correction. In a story we located this bridge in the wrong neighborhood. In preparing the clear, I had a brain freeze and wrote it as Calumet Avenue because, well, it's Calumet Avenue in Chicago. I had to write another clear the next day after readers pointed out that there is no Calumet Avenue in Philadelphia. Nothing can catch this other than having someone whose job it is to check this and who actually does that job. (A colleague of mine often checks the corrections, but they don't move as a slug through the copy desk.)

Readers "know" that in Philadelphia addresses are given as "Eighth and Market," not "Market and Eighth," and that we have "expressways," not "freeways" as they have in California. Readers know what TV stations Larry Kane was the news anchor on. Some
know that the supermarket on the Black Horse Pike across from Audubon Park was not always Acme but once was Penn Fruit. When we do not, they know we are wrong. They usually do not know if we are wrong in reporting on Pakistan, even if we report it in pedestrian and graceless prose lacking focus or structure.

Readers may get bored by a story that is overwritten, or with too many hanging clauses. They may find it lacking in depth or subtlety. Some of this may cause them ultimately to slip away from the paper. What causes them to distrust the paper is when it simply seems to be stupid. Even in an era of everyone's a publisher, people still expect the paper to know what they know, and more. Misspelling "cooperatively" is an error. Saying "The priest are praying" appears to be ignorance. They can understand mistyping, but they do know their own lives.

So I have to admit that the most important function of what I do is not the stuff I most enjoy doing -- the "honing" of stories, the subtle word choices, the playing with nuance, the oh-so-clever headlines. If people are interested in a story and believe it, they'll read it even if it's lazily written. What's most important about my job is to look at a story and say -- is the typical person going to find anything wrong with this story? (One of the things the typical person looks for is that any politician is identified by party, for example. Some just want to know, and others assume you are trying to hide it. Reporters can forget to put it in, because, you know, everyone knows that.)

Newspapers dispense with that at their peril. As McGuire and others have noted, the laugher in the Minneapolis cutbacks was not the laying off of vast numbers of copy editors; that was a personal tragedy for a bunch of good folks. It was the belief -- which even the editors' note showed little faith in -- that somehow, spellcheck and reporters reading their own stories and the like were going to take care of the problem this layoff created. If that were the case, newspapers would never have hired copy editors in the first place. (Well, OK, someone had to know spelling before spellcheck.) Need new evidence? Ask Rip Torn.

McGuire is right that the system that we have was not actually created to catch problems; it was created to get edited copy to the composing room efficiently and monitor what the composing room did, and morphed into something else as the composing room went away, something that may not be economically sustainable after the loss of at least one-third of ad revenue by the newspaper business. So there may need to be a revised system with more definite priorities. But trusting in faith and good works is not a system.

So the answer for newspapers isn't just "get rid of all those people who are sitting at desks giving a second read so that all we have on staff are people who are creating content." It ignores the context of newspapers. Rightly or wrongly, legacy newspapers have to meet a different standard in the public mind than a blog or even the Huffington Post. People expect newspapers to use accurate English. People expect newspapers to know about their communities. That's what newspapers sold themselves for years as doing. Online, whatever its charms, has never sold itself in this manner.

Institutions such as newspapers, department stores, mainline churches and temples, symphony orchestras, stood for what a community aspired to. All are in trouble now. All are undergoing radical change because of changes in public tastes and preferences. But the only competitive advantage they can have, I believe, is to try to respond to those changes while holding onto the strengths that have distinguished them. You can be High Church and successful as long as you are providing a High Church answer to what people want. If not, they'll go with the Low Church. But it's not inevitable.