Monday, July 06, 2009

The dying craft

Want to know if you're really a copy editor? Read this sentence:

The joint statement is the result of four months of negotiations between Russian and U.S. officials that began in London on April 1.

If your brain stopped at "April 1" to run a subroutine that subtracted "four months" from the current date and your subconscious reached for the memo-mode key to query whether "April 1" or "four months" (if either) was correct, yeah -- you're probably One of Us.* Likewise if you nodded along in recognition at this one that JJ over at Testy Copy Editors plucked from the Times:

Mr. McNamara is survived by a son, Robert Craig; two daughters, Margaret Elizabeth and Kathleen; TK grandchildren; and his wife, Diana Masieri Byfield, whom he married in San Francisco in 2004.

TK, for you newcomers, is short for "tokum," or "to come," meaning the information will be provided later. Writers use it when they're too busy or lazy to look something up or track it down, and they do it because -- stop me if you've heard this before -- "the desk will catch it." So if you've caught it, or done the math, or patiently fixed the spelling of whatever Allan or Gonzales or McEachern your star reporter is perpetually incapable of either remembering or looking up, or gently coaxed a participle off a tree limb, or reminded the city desk that Nixon wasn't impeached, or explained to yet another new hire why "Killer Arrested" is a really stupid idea, there's a beer in the fridge with your name on it. You can sit at our table.

It's a smaller table every time I look up, which is more or less the point of this week's comment by the Washington Post's ombud, Andy Alexander. The column is worth quoting a bit, because it sheds some light, however imperfect, on an aspect of the general Decline and Fall of journalism that doesn't get nearly enough attention:

Errors ... seem to have increased in recent months. A story referred to the "Democratically" (instead of Democrat-) controlled Congress. Another mentioned the Marine "Corp" (instead of Corps). A story on Arlington County's plans for the old Newseum building misspelled Rosslyn as "Rossyln" four times. A column about plans to fire a federal employee said he had "spitted" (instead of spat) on his boss. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter was described as a "ferocious" (instead of voracious) reader. A photo caption mistakenly referred to a boy with the odd first name of "Jacon" instead of "Jacob" (clue: "b" is next to "n" on the keyboard).

... The Post's copy editors are among the best I've worked with during nearly four decades in the newspaper business. But they've been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs. Those who remain are stretched thin while The Post expands to a 24-hour news operation in print and online.

Between early 2005 and mid-2008, the number of full-time copy editors dropped from about 75 to 43 through buyouts or voluntary departures. It has declined further since then, but Post managers won't provide precise figures beyond saying that six took a recent buyout offer. The need is so critical that most are being hired back on contract through at least the end of the year, and part-timers are taking up some of the slack.

In other words, it's not just "do more with less," it's "do more with about half." On to a bit of the standard tribute-from-the-daywalkers:

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newsrooms. Unknown to the public, and often underappreciated by their colleagues, they're the last line of defense against a correction or, worse, a libel suit.

They're skeptics who revel in the arcane. [It's only "arcane" if you've never heard of it before, ahem.**] They know the difference between median and mean, [some do -- not that it helps when you're trying to convince Star Columnist and his/her editor that it's a distinction worth attending to] and can speak knowledgeably about topics from Methuselah to the Milky Way. [And why the sea is boiling hot, and why alliteration is a tool of Satan, and why that compound predicate shouldn't have taken a comma.] They write headlines, design some pages, check facts and make sure assertions are supported. They spend entire careers working horrible night-shift hours. [Yes. Now imagine that career in a state where last call is at midnight.]

"By definition, you'll see more errors when there's reduced staffing," said Bill Walsh, the A-section copy desk chief. On a typical weeknight a few years ago, Walsh said, the three copy desks handling national, foreign and business news could rely on perhaps 20 editors. Those desks have since been combined into one desk, headed by Walsh. Today, he said, "there are some shifts where I'm looking at seven or eight people total."

That pretty much speaks for itself, doesn't it? Bill runs an outstanding desk, but there comes a point where good doesn't matter; you simply have more fires than you have fire trucks, so somebody might as well break out the marshmallows.

The Post this week began moving to a new, centralized "universal desk" intended to streamline the editing process for readers to get information in print, online and on mobile devices. [Whenever you see "streamline the editing process for readers," be very careful.] Numerous copy editors told me they anticipate more errors will slip through as the kinks are worked out. [Yep.]

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli did not disagree that more errors have appeared lately. But over time, he predicted, a universal desk will be "more effective" in serving print, online and mobile audiences.

Here, I think, we're stepping over the line into the domain technically known as "irrelevant self-promoting rationalization."*** A U-desk will be "more effective" in the way most streamlining efforts are; it moves more stuff more quickly past fewer people with less time to attend to it and less effectively calibrated BS detectors.**** And Alexander is signally failing to push for the follow-up: What level of "m0re errors" have you decided is allowable for the foreseeable future?

It's a tall order. Small errors will continue. Loyal Post readers should continue to note them when they're small and complain loudly when they're large.

But I hope they also show some patience and understanding.

I don't think that's good enough. Loyal readers already are patient; they've earned an up-front accounting of what corners you're going to cut and what areas you're going to preserve. I want Iran stories read by someone who can do a rough chronology of the revolution from memory (and diagram a sentence) and Steve Martin stories read by someone who can tell clawhammer from three-finger (and diagram a sentence). If that means some, or many, stories are 10 minutes later getting to the Web or 20 minutes later going out on Twitter, fine. Give us the chance to be patient with that, rather than with the ever-more-lurid sorts of train wreck you seem to be anticipating.

* If you insisted on making the relative clause read "that began April 1 in London" because of the time-date-place rule,you need to get over it. Ain't no such rule.
** The Times is still fairly well staffed; this might just be a function of not having any banjo players on the right desk at the right time.
*** Or "bullshit."
**** I'm sort of extrapolating from one of those work-smarter-not-harder efforts in which the A/B desk got to cap off its Friday evenings with half an hour of editing and hedding high school football copy. Imagine the fun.



Blogger J.A. Montalbano said...

"A photo caption mistakenly referred to a boy with the odd first name of "Jacon" instead of "Jacob" (clue: "b" is next to "n" on the keyboard)."

Are we sure the kid's name wasn't Bacon?

8:52 AM, July 07, 2009  
Blogger Strayhorn said...

Sigh. I do recall that yea these many moons ago we discussed (over a beer with Fish and Freddie) a recent round of cuts at the Parent Company that seemed to fall heaviest on the rim rats. Even on those heady days, it seemed an evil portent. And it's only gotten worse.

I still say most of what's blamed on "bias" in journalism can actually be pegged on a copydesk too busy with pagination and playing catch-up with copy flow to actually read the edit the stories.

4:17 PM, July 07, 2009  
Anonymous iEditor said...

We built a check into PerfectIt to pick up places where information is still to come. For example, it locates highlighted text or the abbreviation 'NB'. We didn't build TK into the first version, but now that you've pointed it out, we will make sure it's part of the next update. Thanks for the post.

9:42 AM, July 13, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

I can well imagine that in places of less learning the copy might have left the desk as "grandchild T. K. McNamara".

1:45 PM, July 18, 2009  

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