Editing the New Media

Writing handIf Doug Fisher's opinions on turbulent times are any indication—and I'm sure they are—upheaval in the news business is just getting started. As a Journalism professor and former broadcaster, newspaper reporter and wire-service editor, I figure he knows more than a little about the business. Although his recent Sobering thoughts for copy editors discussion was aimed more at those whose job it is to fix and improve commercial news copy, I thought his comments on self-editing bloggers were interesting.

But it's plain, and getting plainer all the time, that this [digital] revolution is allowing reporters and writers to speak directly and instantaneously to readers and online users. There is less need for the middle man (and woman), though I'd guess that many a sub-editor who has laboured over a reporter's tortured prose, sloppy fact-checking and poor spelling will disagree. In truth, though, all journalists in future will need to have all those skills. Hundreds of thousands of bloggers post perfectly readable copy hour by hour without the need for anyone to write a snappy headline or insert a semi-colon. They are the future, and both their input and output, seen in purely commercial terms, is cheap.

There are a lot of very impressive blogs out there, but I'm sure we've all seen the more unfortunate results of blogging, too; there's no shortage of tortured prose, sloppy—or absent—fact-checking and poor spelling in the blogosphere. But if Doug's comment concerning future journalists' required skills is applied to bloggers as well—which seems fair if they're the future of journalism—then it seems everyone is doing their own editing in the brave new-media world. That's a big change, but how is this possible?

Maybe it isn't, really. Even the biggest, most popular blogs require editing; in fact, they probably need it more, just because of the sheer volume of words. The Huffington Post, for example, is in that category. It's big and it's popular, but it sure could use a full-time editor. Not that it's poorly written by any stretch of the imagination; it just seems to be overwhelmed by the volume of posts, and comments. This, it seems, is exactly the sort of opportunity a progressive copy editor would be looking for. A March 2006 Editors Weblog article explores the Is the role of editors more or less important in the digital age? question, and to the former president of CBS News at least, the answer is yes.

Former president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, recently touched upon this topic in a speech at the Poynter Institute. "My view," he opined, "is that this complicated world is an even bigger market for editors and journalists who can make sense of it all."

I'd hate to think bloggers are engaged, even unwittingly, in the dastardly act of putting copy editors out of work; I've been on the wrong end of the staff-reduction exercise myself, and it's no fun. Working in the tech industry has been a high-risk proposition for many years, but that always struck me as predictable considering the high level of computer involvement from the start. The mass-media business, on the other hand, seemed a much safer haven—within the foreseeable future at least—from any hostile computer-enhanced takeover. The publishing cycle always required a great deal of human involvement, especially in the initial phase; computers make things quicker and easier, but still can't write anything worthwhile on their own. Now it seems the threat isn't from the machines themselves, but from the largely unanticipated opportunity they provide to communicate directly with the global readership.

But maybe there's no need for carnage. Maybe the answer lies in simply refocusing on the requirements of journalism—and writing in general—with the final goal in mind, which is effective communication. It doesn't matter if the operation takes place in one large building or several smaller ones, or through a distributed network of people working from their home offices across different time zones; the goal remains the same, regardless of the medium, or where and how the editing is done. As the volume of writing increases—and it seems certain that it will—the proprietors of at least some of today's modest, self-edited blogs will become overwhelmed by the workload; they'll be forced to weigh the benefits of high-quality content versus the damaging effects of mediocre—or worse—posts, comments, and associated material. For the large-scale media outlets already in existence, it's the same story; the scale is different, but the final goal is the same. In either case, it seems there's an ongoing need for editors—and copy editors—to sort things out, correct what needs correcting, and in general, make sure the final product is fit for human consumption. New media or old, the need for quality control hasn't changed, and until computers are capable of autonomously doing the job, we're still going to need people who know the difference between a good sentence and one that needs work. Even if there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers who are good with snappy headlines and semicolons, that still leaves millions who are probably not.


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