Mike Crist, a Digital First Media colleague at the Delaware County Daily Times, asked recently about the importance of editing as newsrooms change:
@stevebuttry dumb question. We’re still expected to edit work with the same rigor we’ve used for print, right? Grammar, AP style, etc.?
— mikec (@delcomike) February 18, 2014
Good question, actually. I answered in a few tweets, but said it would probably be worth a blog post. So here goes:
Everything has changed in newsrooms and Project Unbolt is designed to accelerate that change in Digital First newsrooms, “unbolting” from our newspaper-factory processes and developing new processes (and standards) for a newsroom primarily focused on producing digital content.
We still want rigorous editing, but how we edit will certainly change. If “rigor” means multiple layers of editing, like newspapers enjoyed back in the day, I believe that won’t be returning. Newsroom staff cuts have already reduced editing ranks, and Project Unbolt isn’t going to change that. If we’re successful in growing digital revenue, we can stop the staff reductions and perhaps grow someday. But unbolting needs to happen, whatever size staff we can maintain.
I do expect every journalist who handles any copy, starting with the reporter, to edit rigorously. Absolutely we need to write and edit grammatically and follow AP style (or a local newsroom’s style) in our stories. And verify our facts.
As I have noted before, reporters (and photojournalists who write cutlines and occasionally stories) need to take responsibility for the quality of their own writing.
Too many reporters with strong news-gathering skills were carried through the years by editors who rewrote and polished and made their writing look better than what they turned in. Well, we don’t have as many layers of editors as we used to, and the editors we have don’t have as much time to do your job for you as they used to, and sometimes you need to file live content directly without editing. Reporters should polish their writing skills and turn in clean stories. They should take a moment to read and edit quickly before tweeting or posting in a liveblog.
So in this sense, I think we need to raise our rigor: Reporters should turn in stories that are ready for publication.
In liveblogging, blogging and use of social media, reporters and photojournalists may be posting content with no editing. That’s not going to be as clean as rigorously edited copy that gets a look from a fresh set of eyes and a professional editor before publication. That’s too bad. We need to do all of those things and editing them isn’t practical. But all journalists should rigorously but quickly edit their own tweets or updates before posting to social media.
But Mike’s an editor and I’m sure he was asking primarily about editors editing copy they didn’t write.
Stories that are not being covered live should be edited with rigor and swiftness. We need to be realistic about what “rigor” means today. Back when I was an assigning editor for the Des Moines Register and Kansas City Times in the 1980s, I would typically read a story three times before passing it along to the copy desk for more editing. I would read once without making many, if any, changes, just trying to understand the story and get a sense for what the reporter was saying. Then I’d edit a second time for meaning and structure, perhaps asking the reporter to clarify a few things, or clarifying them myself, and perhaps moving parts of the story around to make better sense or flow. I might do some grammar and style editing in that first or second pass, but the final pass was putting on the polish: checking grammar and style, tightening wordy or redundant phrases, making every word count, challenging the lead to make it crisp and to the point.
Often on deadline, though, I needed to give a story one quick edit, where I tried to achieve all the work of those three passes I’d make through a story when I had time. I applied a lot of rigor to the story, but I applied it quickly. I don’t think many editors today have the luxury very often of three reads through a story. I think they are more likely applying the kind of rigor I used to apply on deadline.
At the New Haven Register, where I’m working for several weeks this month and next to help in unbolting, the web production team includes a copy editor, whose job is to apply rigorous editing to content we post digitally, sometimes before it goes online and sometimes quickly after it goes online in a breaking news situation.
In at least one respect, I expect editing to become more rigorous: As reporters self-edit their stories and as editors edit, both should watch for places where we should link to sources and other relevant links that can add context and depth.
Another area where I believe editors need to be more rigorous: Occasionally (at least once a day) you should Google a unique phrase in a reporter’s story to confirm that a reporter’s work is original. I believe the vast majority — all, hopefully — of our staff members are ethical journalists who file original work. But editors should not take that for granted. If something in a story raises a suspicion, you absolutely should check a phrase — or a few phrases — to make sure the reporter isn’t stealing from other sources. And occasionally you should Google a phrase or two from the work of reporters you trust. As Ronald Reagan said in a different context, trust but verify.
(For more on detecting and preventing plagiarism, see the ebook Telling the Truth and Nothing But.)
One more respect where I hope that our editing is more rigorous: I hope we are quick to correct errors (including grammar, spelling and style errors) as the public or fellow journalists point them out. I call it the crowdsourced copy desk (I earnestly invite you to point out any errors you spot in this post or elsewhere in my work).
I don’t use that phrase flippantly to suggest that the crowd can replace copy editors. But the crowd has always complained, usually too late to do anything about the errors they caught. In my days as editor of newspapers, I probably received more complaints about seemingly small editing errors (even when we had multiple layers of rigorous editing) than I received complaints about liberal editorial positions or big mistakes. It was always too late to fix those typos in print, which didn’t merit corrections. But we can and should fix typos the public points out in our digital products (and sometimes we’ll get alerted soon enough to fix them before the story makes print). We want our editing to be rigorous enough that the crowd has nothing to complain about, but our last layer of rigor must be responding to the complaints.
I’ll also add that, while I want excellent grammar and want our content to follow AP style (unless we’ve made a choice to follow a different style on some matters), neither of those concerns ranks as high in my priorities as accuracy or clarity. I’ve taught grammar workshops and blogged on how to use who and whom, and I want subjects and verbs to agree. But my priority list is too crowded to fret over a misused who or disagreeing pronoun and antecedent that don’t change the meaning of the story.
I remember plenty of examples of those types of errors that snuck past editors back in the day when we had multiple levels of assigning editors, top editors, copy editors and slots who edited copy rigorously before publication. Rigor never meant perfection, merely the pursuit of it. We don’t have as many editors as we used to, but I still want rigor from every journalist in editing what we produce, even (and especially) in self-editing your own work.
Update: In a meeting at the New Haven Register today, when we were discussing the issues raised here, an editor discussed the importance of news judgment, which I didn’t raise here. I see that as a separate issue, but it certainly is also part of editing rigor. I addressed news judgment in a separate post last year, but I may revisit that issue later and welcome your thoughts on that issue.