Publish and be damned

I think that the editor of the Greensboro News & Record has made a mistake.

In a column published Oct. 9, John Robinson argued that newspaper blogs need not be edited. It was a response to a post on Andy Bechtel’s eminently sensible blog, The Editor’s Desk, asserting the contrary. Here’s what Mr. Robinson wrote:

Every journalist group I've spoken with about blogging has stopped short when I say we don't edit our staff blogs. The editors are more concerned about libel than about the proper use of it's and its. But editing is editing. No good copy editor would stop at editing only for typos and grammar. He or she would edit for style, for content, for libel and for usage. So.... Here's why staff blogs need not be edited:

* Editing slows the process. If part of a good blog post is timeliness, then finding someone to edit it obstructs speed, spontaneity and "striking while the iron is hot." (Yes, I know a good copy editor would tell me to avoid the cliche.)

* Editing promotes uniformity and conformity. Unlike blogs, newspapers have traditionally been built around an institutional voice. The best blogs have a unique voice, the voice of the blogger. Almost by definition, editing would quiet that.

* Trust your staff. Journalists know what libel is, what bad taste is. Trust them to get it right. We tell them, "When in doubt, get someone to read behind you." Yes, we make mistakes in usage, but the point of the post is rarely obscured by the error. And, as previously mentioned, commenters rush to make the correction. Writers are also more careful when they know they are operating without a copy editor's net.

* The cultures of the Web and the newspaper are different. My flip comment is that there are 1,000 retired English teachers scouting for errors in the paper for every one reading the blog. My serious comment is that newspaper readers expect we adhere to the accepted style manuals. Newspapers are used in schools. We're supposed to be right. I know. I get letters every month from readers questioning our grammatical choices. Online, much much less. Or is that fewer?

Well, let’s put a match to a few straw men.

Editing slows the process, for sure. Making things right slows the process. Accuracy slows the process. Unless a nuclear bomb has exploded downtown, an additional 10 minutes for a copy editor to go over the story won’t make much of a difference. (And if a nuclear bomb has exploded downtown, your audience is gone anyhow.) It looks to me as if most blogs are about opining. Explain to me the damage done in delaying a post on how the Ravens stink.

About that institutional voice obliterating the individual voice. We’ve been editing columns and feature articles for years in newspapers, maintaining the writers’ tone. The posts on this blog are reviewed by three editors before publication. (They find errors and raise objections. That’s what editing is for.) Anybody out there think that my distinctive voice has been obscured?

The Web is different. It will be until the lawsuits start prodding editors and publishers into thinking about what they publish. Or until the lack of accurate and clear prose leads readers to look elsewhere.

And finally, trusting the staff. I see those little red spots before my eyes every time I hear someone talking about trusting the staff. I don’t trust any writer, including myself. They don’t pay me to sit in front of a computer screen for hours trusting the staff and admiring the prose. They pay be to be suspicious and skeptical. Is that source reliable? Is that the actual sequence of events? Is that how she spells her name? What is that sentence trying to say? Did you mean to say that the accident occurred on a highway four miles east of Ocean City?

Editing fosters accuracy and clarity. It also takes time and costs money. If newspaper editors are unwilling or unable to pay for quality in editing, if newspaper editors think editing doesn’t matter on the Web because everyone there is too dumb and subliterate to care about accuracy and clarity, then it’s their decision.

But I think there is a price to be paid, and it has not yet come due.



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