Monday, February 18, 2008

First Thing, Let's...

Well, one truly doesn't want to wake up on a Monday to this. But one did, so let's look at it.

Because Alan Mutter's argument -- are layers of editors in the editing process now a luxury? -- is not only just the next step beyond outsourcing -- if we can't move these jobs to India, do we even need them at all -- it gets back at a point made in lo this very space:

"If you don't post news on the Web, someone else will. If you do, someone else will anyhow. TV stations, local entrepreneurs, L.A. Observed. All you're doing is doing it with a higher cost structure. Unless you get your cost structure down to their level, you can't compete on the Web in the long run. If you get it down to their cost structure..."

I left that unanswered. Mutter raises the question and offers a Tevyean response ("On the one hand, Mottel is a good man..."), yet in the classic journalistic sense of "I will write this story fairly, but I will show which side I think may be right by giving them the kicker paragraph," he writes:

"All things being equal, everyone would vote for giving newspapers sufficient resources for both gathering news and checking their work closely. But things aren’t equal. Newspapers are operating at an increasingly unequal disadvantage against their online competitors.While there is no doubt about the value of the industry’s traditional values, the question is whether the industry can continue to afford them."

Thus, Gresham's law wins for Alan Nutter. He also raises the point that multiple layers did not stop the Jayson Blair episode. Nor did it stop Janet Cooke, although the redoubtable Bill Connolly has devoted years to a training program showing copy editors where the red flags were in her story. But there is very little in the editing process that will catch a talented liar who is a staff member, because the process is built upon trusting the reporter.

Now, many good objections to Alan's post have been raised already, the best of them being that the chart he refers to shows a process for editing copy that does not exist even at my own large and well-respected metro. A typical story moves through assigning editor to copy editor to slot and is proofread. Others may have input into it or may not, depending on the prominence of the story. Mostly, they don't. The statement that a half-dozen people "are likely to lay hands on an ordinary story bound for the pages of the typical metropolitan daily" wasn't true here even when we had twice the number of people we have now.

And we are, indeed, a big newspaper still. Nearly all of the one thousand howevermany hundred daily newspapers in the U.S. would look at this and simply scratch their heads. Many are the newspapers -- even large ones -- where most copy goes in read by one person, two at the most. If competing with online news means competing with anyone who can post something online, then the only way to compete is to have no editors. To me, that becomes a competitive disadvantage.

Look, we are who we are. The only way we can realistically continue to operate as newspaper journalists is to show how what we offer is better than what someone else offers. That means operating behind a brand. That brand has to stand for something. Quality is a good thing to stand for.

John Robinson of the Greensboro News and Record -- a paper that has been a leader in online journalism and blogging -- responds to Mutter by saying, we need this. He calls for two reads and I would call for three, but that's quibbling. Even with his paper's extensive commitment to online, he also makes the point: Online is not print. That means print has a role. And thus John and I and Alan are back to the question of determining how that role can pay off in the 21st century.

But please go to Newsosaur and take Alan's poll. (Here's the link again.) And since I do know how to write the end of a newspaper story:

"Sullivan recommended that anyone taking the poll should use his or her own conscience. 'Matters are in flux and everyone benefits from all opinions being counted,' he said. 'At a time like this, people should speak their minds.'

"Then he added with a smile: 'Of course, I can always hope that most of those who speak their minds freely are those whose minds are in the right place.'"


Anonymous said...

Copy editors are the quality control employees of the news business. What quality control does in any business doesn't show up as production. But it's necessary. I think about now the toy business wishes it had employeed a few more quality control people last year.

Pam Robinson said...

Well said, David. While clearly newspapers have to make changes, throwing out one thing we know works--editing--wouldn't seem to be the place to continue cutting. Why we are so determined to give up the franchise of quality editing, reporting and writing and trade it in for badly written rants is beyond me.

JHop said...

People are always bringing up Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke as if they showed newspapers were rotten to the core. All that Blair and Cooke showed was that something was wrong at the papers involved, at a certain time.

Next point: We used to hear, don't argue with a guy who buys ink by the truckload. What we need to remember is don't compete with the guy who spends nothing on his product. That is, the news aggregator. Google's news model is no-cost content, snarfed up from wherever and devoid of context or local immediacy. When the newspaper invests in careful reporting and editing, it makes its own playing field on which the aggregator is left in the shadows.