Tuesday, February 15, 2005

You need to read this

For those of you in the newspaper business who don't already read Tim Porter, make an effort to get to this post.

Porter has been reviewing Philip Meyer's "The Vanishing Newspaper," chapter by chapter. He gets to Chapter 8 today, and it hits home.

It's on copy editors.

Meyer helped design a survey of copy editors at 169 U.S. papers and found out what we all know: Copy editors are discouraged. Meyer wrote:
"They felt less respected by their newspapers' reporters, they saw fewer opportunities for professional development, they liked their bosses less, and there were less likely to feel reward for their work."


That much we all know. But what's interesting here is that Meyer looked to see whether copy editor happiness and skill on mechanics translate into better circulation. Porter summarizes:
Yes, because Meyer finds a correlation between the way copy editors feel about their work and success in the marketplace. Newspapers where respect for the rim is higher "hung on to an additional 1.5 percentage points of home county penetration" for the three-year period Meyer examined. That "half percentage point a year adds up mighty fast," says Meyer.

What doesn't matter, though, to readership or much else, is how well copy editors do their jobs - at least the part of their jobs that involves ensuring accurate and grammatical copy ends up in the newspaper.

Meyer dove into the databases of 20 newspapers and searched eight years of stories for common spelling and grammatical errors, such as "miniscule for minuscule" and "general consensus for consensus."

The result? Plenty of errors, about 4 percent on average. The San Jose Mercury News published the cleanest copy (1.14 percent errors), the Boulder Daily Camera the dirtiest (11.08 percent).

Big papers were generally more correct than smaller ones, a condition Meyer attributes to staff size: More editors, more time per story, fewer gremlins.

Big papers were generally more correct than smaller ones, a condition Meyer attributes to staff size: More editors, more time per story, fewer gremlins.

But, regardless of where the copy fell on Meyer's accuracy scale it didn't affect any of the other indicators he examines for sign of connectivity between quality and success. He writes:
"If editing accuracy is an indicator of general newspaper quality, then it should predict all sorts of things, including reporting accuracy, credibility, circulation penetration and robustness. It doesn't. Whatever readers want in a newspaper, spelling accuracy appears not to be a primary concern."
Porter addresses the fact that we're not going to like that result. And, no, I don't.

But what does this mean? That there shouldn't be copy editors? I don't think so. I think it means that copy editors need to consider that the really important stuff we're doing is more substantive than grammar and style.

We need to start thinking about how that affects the type of editors we hire (critical thinkers vs. wordsmiths) and the type of training we get.

Let's start asking these big-picture questions. Porter offers us a starting point:
Should there even be a copy desk? The traditional rim is now overburdened with duties ranging from gate-keeping the copy to wrangling the pagination system. Let's separate the manufacturing jobs from the journalism jobs.

Why bother chasing typos and proofing pages? Getting the content right counts, ... but type lice don't bother readers or move the circulation needle, says Meyer, so why put much energy into eliminating them? Doesn't it just reinforce the perfection-minded culture in newsrooms - much effort on little things, little effort on big things?
These are big questions. Any takers?

5 Comments:

At 9:09 PM, February 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read what?

 
At 9:14 PM, February 15, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Well, that would be one of the longest posts I've written here, on the future of copy desks and the nature of our jobs.

As happens with such work, it was eaten by technology. I'm trying to come up with a way to restore it. But in the meantime, I don't want to mess with it by resaving it (in order to make the blank entry disappear from the published version).

I'll hope for a technological fix. (This is the first time I've lost a post like this.) And it that doesn't come, I'll hope for the patience to try to write the post again.

 
At 9:29 PM, February 15, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Success! (And relief. I'm not sure I had any more proselytizing in me.)

 
At 10:14 PM, February 15, 2005, Blogger Phillip Blanchard said...

"If editing accuracy is an indicator of general newspaper quality, then it should predict all sorts of things, including reporting accuracy, credibility, circulation penetration and robustness."

***I am reluctant to comment on a snippet of a book I have not yet read, but on the face of it, I would suggest that there's no reason to think that "editing accuracy" would predict "circulation penetration" or "robustness," whatever that is.***

 
At 2:23 AM, February 16, 2005, Anonymous ana sahafiya said...

Knowing Phil Meyer, I'm sure he defined the terms at the start, including "robustness."

He's spent a lot of his news and academic careers trying to scientifically measure things that you'd think couldn't be scientifically measured. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. My favorite was the series of experiments designed to compare the "niceness" of people in Chapel Hill and Durham.

I haven't read the book either, but from what I've read about it, and from knowing Phil back in my j-school days, I believe he's arguing that the "quality" of a newspaper is related to sales. The point would be to convince newspaper execs that, in the long run, cutting costs and cutting corners will hurt their bottom line, even if it helps it in the short term. In other words, investing in improving your newspaper rather than gutting it will pay dividends, as more people will read it, ad sales will rise, etc.

But Phil Meyer isn't the kind of guy to just argue that something's true without trying to prove it. The way he does things, I believe he'd decide on a list of factors indicating "newspaper quality," and then test his hypothesis to see whether the papers that score higher on his quality scale also sell more copies, or have higher ad revenues, or something like that.

So I think "editing accuracy" is one of the factors he's using to measure newspaper quality, but it's not the only one.

Nicole, thanks for the post, and for the link to Tim Porter's review. I'd seen the first three installments, but I didn't realize he was reviewing each chapter. I'll have to head over & catch up now!

Cheers.

 

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