(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…