In defense of a good edit

Oct. 12, 2010 2:26 pm

Overheard on Overheard in the Newsroom: “Student in basic reporting class: ‘I think my major in English and my minor in journalism is a conflict of interest.’ ”

One can’t blame the thought. It’s possible to find people talking about editing online, but it often seems like you’ve got to be specifically looking for it. Copy editors aren’t immune to layoffs, nor are they immune to the job market. The nature of their work — traditionally uncredited — means they’re often overlooked. And many bloggers and start-ups are often solo or skeleton operations. As a result, a great deal of content is posted online without a second pair of eyes.

It’s tempting to claim that this is natural, inevitable, even better. Technology has brought us to the point where a typographical error can be fixed with the click of a button, where many content-management systems come with built-in spell-check, where Google will fix your prompts for you — that is, when it’s not coming up with them itself. We live in a fast-paced, competitive news environment. To succeed, people say, you must beat the competition through attrition. Get your content through the pipeline before your opponents do. Being relevant means being first. It’s all about time, and every second counts. Who really has time for editing?

You may agree with Lawrence Downes of The New York Times, who wrote the following in 2008:

Copy editors are being bought out or forced out; they are dying and not being replaced. Webby doesn’t necessarily mean sloppy, of course, and online news operations will shine with all the brilliance that the journalists who create them can bring. But in that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly — old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.

You may agree, but you’d be wrong. Editing isn’t suddenly less important when you replace ink with pixels. It’s more important.

With an Internet connection, you have access to billions of pages. One set of statistics claims that 21 exabytes of data — the equivalent of 1.4 billion DVDs — are moved across networks each month. You can discount a lot of this information — not your particular niche, not well-done, not relevant. But there will still be plenty of data remaining, more than you could possibly hope to read in your lifetime.

How do people cope with this flood of information? They curate. They get picky. They let some in, keep some out. Just how people do this varies from person to person, but one criterion you’ll find in most people’s list is quality. And what are editors for, but to ensure quality? This need did not disappear with the Internet. It intensified. In addition to editing text for online writing, accurate and direct headlines, summary items, tag words and other metadata all play a role in how end users will find your article, your video, your photo gallery or your interactive graphic. Web operations need editors:

• Editing makes readers trust you. There’s a glut of information but no glut of trust. And you can’t blame audiences. Gallons of spam content are dumped onto the Web per hour like so much sewage. Don’t think that the spammers are editing; it’d take precious time away from spamming people. A step up, but still subpar, is content that’s been stitched together quickly in order to capture clicks. It’s rarely edited; the idea is to get there first and get there fast. Of course some people will be satisfied with content like this, but others will come away vaguely disappointed, hungry for something with substance.

People make subconscious decisions about credibility and authority when consuming content. Too many errors, or overly dense copy, or obviously rushed work can turn those decisions into negative actions. It isn’t just about spelling and grammar, either; subtle errors, perhaps in word choice, or regional or niche expertise, affect these subconscious decisions just as much as the mistakes that can be corrected by software or algorithms. Careful editing, however, will help readers decide how much credibility and authority they will allow your site. Careful editing makes people like the work you do, instills trust. Careful editing makes people return to your site.

• Editing assures readers that you’re accurate. We live in a world where information, once published, can be disseminated to even millions of people within seconds. But the sheer speed of the process means that it doesn’t discriminate; information flows as freely as misinformation. Retweeting, reblogging, aggregating or e-mailing takes seconds; as the saying goes, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets a chance to put its pants on, and it’s never been truer. There are more and more ways to create misperceptions. Image manipulation is getting more sophisticated by the day. Video editing, as Shirley Sherrod recently learned, can distort countless facts.

Provided accuracy matters to your site, dedicated editors and fact-checkers are the best way to help ensure quality and precision. People who can take some time — few will fault you for this — to stand back, take a look, and make sure everything is right. The more people can do this, the better; what one set of eyes misses, another might catch.

• Editing helps readers see your work in its best light. Sound familiar? It should; it’s exactly the same purpose as editing for print. But this purpose isn’t declining with newspaper circulation; it’s increasing. There’s the prose that shows up in RSS feeds and in the promotional language on your site, prose that must be sparkling if it is to capture readers. There are the headlines that show up there too, and Facebook, Twitter, mobile devices, far and wide, headlines that must both be crisp and comprehensible to search engine spiders. There’s search engine optimization to think about, and who better than editors, fluent with wordcraft, to make it sound natural to humans as well as the bots?

It isn’t just words, either; There are links to check and curate, context and new information lurking out there on the Web to track down and incorporate. There are videos and graphics and databases and an entire smorgasbord of journalistic content to round up, polish and produce.

My title at the Reese Felts Digital Newsroom isn’t “copy editor” or any derivation thereof. It’s “platform producer.” No one should read this as a sidelining of editing, however; it’s an expansion. It recognizes that editors in the digital world have greater responsibility to ensure accuracy and quality across the site.

In reality, all of these reasons are the same: editing ensures that your work will take root with the audience you’re targeting. Think of Cory Doctorow’s dandelion metaphor:

“If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, the net itself will take care of the copying costs. Your fans will paste-bomb your works into their mailing list, making 60,000 copies so fast and so cheaply that figuring out how much it cost in aggregate to make all those copies would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the copies themselves. What’s more, the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have — given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday find its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing.”

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The culmination of days or weeks of work, floating out there to find an audience. But audiences are picky. There’s another side to the dandelion story: for everyone who latches onto your work, giving it a place to flourish, there are others who will pass it up. The seed hits the pavement and dies there. What makes the difference? Having the right work. Having content that is good and pleasing, accurate, concise and worth reading. If it’s not, your audience will know. They’ll remember, and the next time people see something of yours floating on the wind, they may let it hit the pavement in untold numbers.

And that would be a mistake. One a good editor could fix.

Sarah Morayati, a senior from Burlington, is a platform producer for the Reese Felts Digital News Project. View her profile here. Two of our favorite blogs on editing are UNC assistant professor Andy Bechtel’s “The Editor’s Desk” and “You Don’t Say,” authored by veteran copy editor and wordsmith John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun.