Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Copy Editors Full Employment Act

The nice folks downtown do make a wonderful case for hiring more editors, don't they? Here are some ledes from the first two inside news pages of yesterday's A section. They're a small sample, yes, but the Freep on non-home-delivery days is a small sample* to begin with:

The 27-year-old Claw­son man whom investiga­tors said caused the fiery tanker crash on I-75 last month has paid his speed­ing ticket.
Him has? Good to hear it.

Police were investigating on Monday the stabbing death and shooting of three people in downtown Pontiac that happened in the hours after the Woodward Dream Cruise.
Quick, how many people were killed or injured in downtown Pontiac in the hours after the Dream Cruise? For extra credit, what happened to each? While you're thinking, ponder the damage done to this story by the tyranny of the news cycle. "Police were investigating" is a second-cycle lede (like "Investigators sifted Monday through the debris ..."); it's a standard way of quietly admitting that the news happened while you were dark. But it was news -- first-cycle news, that is -- to me; I tend to get local news from the radio or the paper, so I'd much prefer a lede that said some people had been shot and stabbed to one that said the cops were actually doing their jobs. (Got your answer yet? One stabbed, three shot, as the lede** on the online version makes clear.)

A Monroe County man shot a po­lice officer Monday outside his rural Berlin Township home, then holed up inside before later shooting himself during a standoff with law enforce­ment, authorities said.
Hate to think he holed up inside (the sort of cop cliche you should really hold down to once a story, if you're wondering) before earlier shooting himself.

I don't mean to suggest that Freep news writing is uniquely bad.*** News writing can be pretty ugly stuff, no matter where it's produced. It's done in a hurry, it's more interested in getting the required news elements in the right order than in producing coherent narratives, and many of the people who practice it think of "grammar" as a vindictive zombie rather than an instrument for turning jumbled facts into a story.**** That hasn't traditionally been a problem, because the same industrial logic that split "reporting" off from "writing" also built in multiple layers of editing: cityside, rim and slot would be the minimum a low-bore three-graf cop story would get. But it's a big honking problem when we try to do 1930s-style reporting with 2009-style editing.

Please, Freep and all the rest of you: Hire your editors back. Then hire more editors. You can be a purveyor of competently processed news or you can be the moral equivalent of a lemonade stand. Which do you want to be?

* Though slightly bigger than at the outset of the non-delivery experiment. Long about the Stanley Cup finals, the powers-that-be decided that sports should be a standalone section every day.
"Police today are investigating the shootings of three people and one fatal stabbing in downtown Pontiac that happened in the hours after the Woodward Dream Cruise" -- still pretty bad, but at least it's not openly misleading.
*** Mitch Albom is a remarkably bad writer, but he's a star, not a news writer.
**** Hardly their fault. That's more or less what textbooks teach.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Monroe County man shot a police officer Monday outside his rural Berlin Township home

Whose home? Pragmatically one might say that it's not likely to be the police officer's home, but it would be news either way.

(And what do the idiots at Google have against "blockquote" anyway?)

1:36 AM, August 20, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

This Google idiot doesn't know the answer in detail, but suspects that it's because it's too easy to wreck the overall page layout if block elements are permitted.

2:10 PM, August 22, 2009  

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