Are editors necessary?

(A small rant for the journalists in the room. The rest of you, go visit the LOL cats.)

Alan Mutter, who calls himself a Newsosaur, starts off our discussion with the proverbial “one wag” comment:

“How many people have to read a story before it goes in the paper?” asked a senior editor at a major metropolitan daily who is struggling to sustain the quality of his news report in an era of shrinking resources. “If we have to economize, the editing process is the place. Why do we have all these people processing stories after a reporter writes it? They are not producing anything that will get us traffic on the web.”

No, I guess they’re not. But they are saving your ass from getting it sued off. Also, from becoming a laughingstock. Also, from having your bargain-basement, straight-out-of-college reporting staff embarrass you in print by misspelling the mayor’s name. For starters.

When I read statements like this — As you can see from the chart* below, a half a dozen reasonably well compensated people – or more – are likely to lay hands on an ordinary story bound for the pages of the typical metropolitan daily — I always wonder what I did wrong. I’ve worked at two dailies, one large, one midsize that became small during my time there. First of all, we can quibble over “reasonably well compensated,” but we won’t. Half a dozen editors? On a good day, at full staff, for a Sunday front-page story, maybe. And where are these papers whose reporters can be trusted to put stuff in the paper without multiple layers of oversight?

* The chart has a typo. Snicker.

The following is the full text of a police story submitted to the metro desk at a major metropolitan daily, back when my one of my old pals worked there. (I had to go to the basement and go through old files to find it, so be grateful.)

A mad dog died and an East Side family was happy Monday night, police said.

A pit bull terrier had terrorized three girls and two women Sunday and forced the girls up on a kitchen table to flee from the animals snapping jaws, Anthony King, 30, of [address redacted] said Monday night.

King said the neighbors dog had lurked in the basement apparently ate some drano and charged up the back stairs and into their second floor kitchen Sunday.

An autopsy showed the dog was mistreated and suffered stomach lesions, King said.

“The growling, foaming, spitting, dog chased the kids up on the kitchen table, 5th District Sgt. Joseph Hoellar said.

Like author Stephen Kings Cujo the King family feared the dog was rabid.

“We were concered the dog was rapid, King said.

Family members tricked the dog to go into a locked room while the family waited for police.

The dog went into a final fatal frenzy and when the officers arrived the dog died, Hoellar said.

King praised police who calmed his screaming children.

“The really calmed down the kids and handled the situation nice. The police were so wonderful and handled the situation so nice we want to give them some recognition, King said.

King said his wife, Priscilla, his mother-in-law and his three daughters aged, 4, 5 and 11 fled from the mad dog.

The dog owner was in a hospital and the wife of the owner apologized to the family, King said.

King praised officers Charleen Branski and Timothy Oddsen,

The end. An isolated case, you say. Perhaps. (As I recall, the reporter didn’t last very long. But, I remind you, he was hired in the first place. He’s probably teaching middle-school English now.) This is what he wrote, typos, unclosed quotations, semiliterate sentence construction and all. This is what he turned in to his editors, his my-work-here-is-done statement. This.

Not all reporters are this bad. But more are than you might think. In my experience, the number who check spelling, style, grammar, facts or anything else dwindle by the day. Their mantra is: That’s the desk’s job. Alan had a sorta-intern once (he was on staff, but spent a summer in Features refreshing his creative batteries) who, after being assigned a story on mud-racing, turned in a set of notes. Seriously: A SET OF NOTES, transcribed. Random impressions, a few quotes, incomplete sentences. And he worked on this story for a month.

I could go on: I once edited a first-person column describing a lesson on firing an AK-47. The writer referred to the thing throughout as a “gun,” to the stock as “the wooden part at the back of the gun” and the forestock as “a wooden handle in front of the trigger,” etc. And, let me remind you, I was the third person to handle this story before it went into print. I can only imagine the letters we would have gotten. (As for me, I sent an e-mail to the reporter, sketching out the venerable Marine parade-ground chant.)

I could go on all day, but like the growling, foaming, spitting, dog, you might fear I was rapid.

Mutter’s post goes on to point out:

While it would be heretical at most major news organizations to “railroad” stories from a reporter’s keyboard directly into print, several publications, including a few surprisingly large ones, are allowing reporters to point, click and post words and images directly to the newspaper’s website. If the work is good enough to slap on the web without further human intervention, why isn’t it good enough to go directly on a web press?

I see what he’s saying, but he’s making the wrong argument. Anyone who’s spent time in a newsroom knows that half the people with “editor” in their job title don’t edit much at all. They’re in charge of thinking outside the box, long-range planning, going to meetings, organizing the redesign of the obit page. (Rumor has it that when the new Gannett sheriff arrived at the Detroit Free Press, he regarded one of these souls across the table at a meeting and said, “Tell me again what your job is?” There’s a wakeup call.) For my money, you could can one-third to one-half the designers at any given newspaper, but they may have different ideas. Anyway, my point is: You don’t take eyes off the copy, especially when you’re originating the copy. Editing is quality control, and quality is all we have.

OK, rant over. March along with me: This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun…

Posted at 12:49 pm in Media |
 

38 responses to “Are editors necessary?”

  1. Sue said on February 18, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    But I don’t wanna go to LOL cats…

  2. Jen said on February 18, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Great post! This (relatively-new) reporter applauds you.

    I work at a small daily, so we don’t have a ton of editors going over our stuff, but I can’t imagine posting or printing anything without at least two other people looking over it. At our paper, the editor goes over every story, then at least 2 people look over it on the page before it goes to press. I know that I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable printing or posting anything that hadn’t been checked by at least one person. I can’t count how many times I’ve made some really stupid mistake that I didn’t see when I read my story over simply because I’d written it.

    And that cop story you posted made me shudder. It looks like it was written by a seven-year-old.

  3. nancy said on February 18, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    I can’t count how many times I’ve made some really stupid mistake that I didn’t see when I read my story over simply because I’d written it.

    This will happen for the rest of your life, Jen. I can’t tell you how often I catch problems on my own blog. (Well, yes I can: Every day.) It’s just the nature of the beast.

  4. Sue said on February 18, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    In the rest of the working world, editors are called “secretaries”. And the awful thing is, when you have a boss that won’t let you proof his stuff, everyone looks at YOU. At least until they find out that your boss is a dolt and place responsibility for the heinous documents in the appropriate corner (office). By the way, that was one boss ago; things are fine now, thanks.

  5. beb said on February 18, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    It there were more copyeditors working at newspapers Jay Leno would have fewer articles to hold up for his press bloopers.

    This reminds me of snipes from paper journalists that bloggers aren’t serious journalists because they don’t have editors to make sure they get everything right. This generally appears as the journalist’s response to a blog-attack over some whopper of a lie the journalist passed along without the slight attempt at fact-checking.

  6. colleen said on February 18, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    This lovely paragraph was in the JG this morning:

    The woman told officers she was approached by a man while she was pumping gas who attacked her, a police report said.

    Whaaa? The gas attacked her car?

    And don’t forget career journalists who think every word with an “s” gets an apostrophe…..

  7. Danny said on February 18, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Rumor has it that when the new Gannett sheriff arrived at the Detroit Free Press, he regarded one of these souls across the table at a meeting and said, “Tell me again what your job is?” There’s a wakeup call.)

    Office Space, anyone? “I’m a people person dammit!”

  8. Kirk said on February 18, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Well-said, Nancy. I don’t recognize that horrid example you cite, though it smacks of something I would have shared with you. If anyone I know is involved, an e-mail would be appreciated.

  9. nancy said on February 18, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    No, that comes from another city, although I probably have a few from you in a file somewhere.

    Perhaps that example is comically bad, but here’s another, not so funny:

    I’m reading a police brief about a preschooler who was abducted from her bedroom, molested and then returned to bed that night. The parents noted she reeked of cigarettes the next day (neither of them smoked) and pieced it together from what little the kid remembered, and other evidence. The home is located on one “Brimestone Lane.” I’m reading this, thinking many things (like, why isn’t this a full-fledged story on Page One), but among them, jeez, how weird that this demonic act should occur on a street that’s one letter away from “brimstone.” Then I think, hey, what is brimestone, anyway? Never heard of it. I grab the city directory, check, and of course: It was Brimstone Lane.

    I make the fix, and tell the reporter. A shrug: “Well, that’s what the report said.” Because of course no cop in the history of the world has ever misspelled a street name on an incident report. We’ll leave aside the fact he wrote this as a brief without so much as an additional phone call, that it could have been a real story — that’s as much his editor’s fault as anyone’s. But what do you do with someone who lacks curiosity, can’t make the connection, who sees himself as a transcriptionist more than anything? Put his stuff on the web unedited? Don’t think so.

    Back to the funnies: En route to finding that story about the “mad dog,” I found another goofy headline. “Stout students elected,” with Stout the name of their college. Of course, both of them were pretty stout themselves, as the accompanying photo amply illustrated.

  10. MichaelG said on February 18, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    OK, I’ll bite. Is the following typo deliberate? An attempt to see how long it would take before somebody would notice it? Or did I miss something?

    “I could go on all day, but like the growling, foaming, spitting, dog, you might fear I was rapid.”

    I like to think that I’m a reasonably OK writer but before I send out an important email or letter at work I always have somebody else look it over. Seems like simple common sense to me.

  11. Kim said on February 18, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Hey, even spellchecker doesn’t catch pubic school, so why should rapid not pass for rabid?

    It’s tragic, but unexpected. I had a j-student who turned in a story about a “gulf” course. She asked why I’d circled it with the letters “sp” beside it. Her stories were classics, because I could count on ’em to set a new standard for stupid. I’m tempted to go into the attic to find a few to share. Thing is, she was to writing what those really bad, completely mistaken about their talent American Idol singers are to music.

  12. brian stouder said on February 18, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Well, Pam and I make a game out of counting the typos in the weekly newsletters from school – which (we know) isn’t fair (the teachers ARE tasked with much, and silly errors can be forgiven, yadda yadda yadda) – but still! Last week’s reminded us that candy and gum and cell phones and electronic games are not ‘aloud’ (hey – mute ’em, and don’t pop your bubble gum – and they’re ok!)

    One year, a teacher with a surname beginning with a ‘V’ had given the newsletter the alliterative name “The V_____ Voyeur”

    Pam and I discussed that, and decided maybe we should tip that teacher off….when Pam asked the teacher if s/he realized what that word meant, a stricken look came across his/her face…and after a quick visit to Mr Dictionary, the next week it was the ‘V_______ Voyager’!!

  13. nancy said on February 18, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Note the original copy, amusing on so many levels:

    Like author Stephen Kings Cujo the King family feared the dog was rabid.

    “We were concered the dog was rapid, King said.

    I like “rapid” better, m’self.

  14. MichaelG said on February 18, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    OK

  15. redacted said on February 18, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Re the mad dog reporter: This story remains legendary in its newsoom of origin. Personally, I’m partial to another of this reporter’s screeds, which included this closing sentence: “Police refused to release any other details about the 28-year-old woman except to say that she was 37.”

  16. velvet goldmine said on February 18, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    I do like “final fatal frenzy” though. That crackles!

    I have to say that while in concept I was glad my paper had fairly keen copyeditors, in practice the matching set of 70ish copyeditors, one of each gender, were passive-aggressive to a maddening degree.

    We’d get calls from them, with their awful creaky-door voices: “In this fourth graph, did you mean to say…?” and then reel off something that could only be a typo or dropped word (and a word that wouldn’t be hard for a copyeditor to fill in, like “By a of 3-1, the measure passed.”)

    They were just so hostile about any mistake. And yet, that’s like a reporter resenting newsworthy stuff happening* — kinda your job, buddy.

    *OK, sometimes I did resent it. I was always dreading being the one who’d have to go to the car crash site or ask a father why he thought his son might be holding those nice people hostage. But that’s just me….My original point? She stands!

  17. ashley said on February 18, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Remember, an apostrophe is just a warning sign to the reader that an “s” is coming!

  18. Dexter said on February 18, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    My only paid writing job was when our local small town weekly paid me ten dollars to write up the basketball games.
    I was a player.
    It was easy, however, as I sat the bench most of the time and took notes on a clipboard. I was multi-tasking 42 years ago!
    So I am out of my league here today, for sure.
    I am reading Kerouac’s “Maggie Cassidy” now, a book that could force the most jaded person here back to remembering the sweet parts of generations-ago youth. I mention it only to point out that even after many printings, some books continue to have typos. Today I spotted an “alrady”. I assume it was written to be “already”. And yet, they missed it.
    Oh well, since I have gone off-track here, I may as well get my two cents in: All have heard of Kerouac and most have read “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums”. Great books. And hey, it’s a big world and who has time to read all the works of ANY author?
    I will say I am glad I pursued Kerouac enough to assemble what I believe to be the complete collection of his novels, and it’s been worth the quest.
    Kerouac, dead since 1969, has a way of creating an image stronger than a video.

  19. basset said on February 18, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    turned in a set of notes? who did he think he was, Hunter Thompson?

    and I have to wonder… how did the writer of the AK piece describe actually firing the thing? “The wooden part on the back made a bruise on the bony part of my body just to the right of my sorority pin…”

  20. Dexter said on February 18, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    What the hell…since Thursday marks the 3rd anniversary of the tragic loss of The Good Doctor…I’ll commandeer bandwidth and quote him:

    We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

    Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.~~~Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

  21. Dexter said on February 18, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    nancy: Don’t get swallowed up by the monster!

    http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080218/NEWS05/80218072

  22. nancy said on February 18, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    Oh, you should see the potholes this year. We’ve been through at least three cycles of warmth/rain/sudden hard freeze in the last month, and overnight the roads are like the moon.

  23. basset said on February 18, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    yeah, that was Thompson’s peak… before he started repeating himself. espn.com has put his old columns on the free side of their site, read one the other day and it was just crap.

    and not even in his most addled moments did he mention any women with power-generating ta-tas who knew how to handle automatic weapons…

  24. Dexter said on February 19, 2008 at 12:49 am

    from that story…”Rheeder said another Discount Tire location in Sterling Heights had about 10 customers one day recently, needing new tires because of a single pothole nearby.”

    Now that is one store, one pothole. And potholes are everywhere, 6 to 8 inches deep, every few feet. Be safe.

  25. John said on February 19, 2008 at 8:00 am

    From a Letter to the Editor (The New-London Day, today’s edition):

    “Yes, hundreds of millions of people tossed off the yolk of oppression once they saw the thousand lights of freedom.”

  26. nancy said on February 19, 2008 at 8:02 am

    And that’s some hard stuff to toss off. It always gets stuck on my fingers.

  27. velvet goldmine said on February 19, 2008 at 9:17 am

    John, My parents, who are in Ledyard, say that the wind was pretty fierce yesterday. Of course, it was garbage day, so my mother was chasing trash and bottles all over the driveway. And Pfzier’s had to evacuate workers because of dangerously-swaying smokestacks! Maybe that was in their Viagra sector? Anyway, hope you didn’t get blown away….Gotta look out for a fellow nutmegger!

  28. jcburns said on February 19, 2008 at 9:34 am

    That example story reminded of me of stuff I’ve been asked to edit where I basically don’t know where to start…my instincts are to rip it up and start from a white page.
    More adroit and empathetic editors (like, say, Deb) would be able to recraft that into a thing of beauty in a minute or two without leaving fingerprints. Always amazing.
    Me, I seem compelled to correct usage out in the vast sea of internet bloggage, in the hope that these microfixes will carry the English language along more or less intact for another decade or two.
    This morning, I caught “he hoped the new image would fair better.”
    I’m sure folks are always grateful for my attention.

  29. John said on February 19, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Velvet,

    The wind was fierce, only surpassed by Hurricane Bob (recent memory). The wife and I are departing the state this evening, for a trip to Jamaica where I hope it is not raining! I will be thinking of the NN.com peanut gallery as I relax on the beach.

  30. LAMary said on February 19, 2008 at 10:48 am

    This morning my local CBS station had a guy on the street asking folks about Castro stepping down. Across the bottom of the screen was written, “Fadel Castro Steps Down.”

  31. Jim said on February 19, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    One of my favorite editing stories comes from when I was working for a small daily in northern Indiana. We produced an annual section called “Partners in Progress,” which still makes me shudder. The purpose of the section was to feature (and promote) local business and industry.

    One of our reporters was assigned to do a story on a local plant that manufactured automotive parts. Throughout the story, she referred to the company’s main product, a fuel rail. After reading this fine piece of journalism, I looked up at her and asked, “Just what is a fuel rail?” Her reply: “I don’t know!”

    This is why editors are necessary. It’s also the distinction between rookies and pros: Rookies resent editing; pros appreciate it.

    It remains to be seen whether or not blogs and news websites will maintain quality. It’s hard for me to understand why it’s OK for a reporter to post content directly to the website, if we wouldn’t allow that for the print edition. The quality should be the same.

    And I share LAMary’s pain about the constant misspellings in television graphics. I noticed one last week on the NBC Nightly News — it stayed up for about two seconds before someone saw it and took it down. Makes you wonder if someone in the control room was screaming, “Come on, people — this is network television!” or if it was met with a yawn.

  32. Dave K. said on February 19, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Thank goodness that “rapid, rabid” dog wasn’t raped!

  33. paddyo' said on February 19, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    I love the various references to “going up in the attic” and digging out old examples of cringe-worthy writing/editing. We all have ’em, don’t we?
    I can’t lay hands on my file-of-infamy just now, but it also contains typographical/design/nonsense gems. One fave:
    The Casper Star-Tribune ran a story back in the ’90s about the cattle business, and apparently to break up the gray type, somebody dropped in a one-column “sig” or mugshot of, well, a cow.
    Because the S-T’s style was a last-name/surname caption for every such photo used . . . yes, this one was labeled: “COW”

    P.S. — Not to inject politix, but I was struck by the following passage in Nancy’s follow-up comment:
    “But what do you do with someone who lacks curiosity, can’t make the connection, who sees himself as a transcriptionist more than anything?”
    Hmm, were you referring to a reporter? Sounds to me more like the president.
    Let the countdown continue: 11 months . . .

  34. brian stouder said on February 19, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Here’s an editing question: your political reporter files a story on Barack Obama ‘plagiarizing’ a speech, wherein the original deliverer of the speech says he and Obama frequently collaborate on and and share speeches, and wherein the speech itself is an overt celebration of famous lines from American political speech (such as “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”, and “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”), and wherein the accuser (in this case, the Clinton campaign) shamlessly ‘borrows’ everything in sight, other than red-hot stoves.

    As the editor, do you:

    a. Refer the reporter to the Op-Ed page editor

    b. Assign the reporter to write a sidebar defining plagiarism, and another sidebar on American political traditions of echoing and enlarging upon past generation’s political traditions

    c. Instruct the reporter to analyze the accusing campaign’s own rhetoric, to see whether their actions differ from what they are accusing others of doing

    D. Spike the whole thing as un-newsworthy tripe

    E. Refer the story to the advertising sales department, to see if the accusing campaign wants to buy a half-page ad

    (I say “E”)

  35. velvet goldmine said on February 19, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    John: That’s a pretty nifty avoidance technique. Travel safely, and Bobspeed.

    Mary’s Castro reference reminded me, shallow babe that I am, that among the current American Idol “guy” hopefuls (singing tonight!) are a Castro and a Noriega. Unless the Castro hopeful decides to step down, of course.

  36. LAMary said on February 19, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I’ve hired two Castros and a Guevara this week.

  37. velvet goldmine said on February 19, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    It’s the next big thing, Marx my words.