The cattle

David Sullivan’s excellent blog, That’s the Press, Baby — you really ought to devote some serious time to exploring it if you aren’t already well acquainted with it — has a recent post on that Internet novelty, material published without editing.

He quotes Roy Greenslade of the Guardian and other British papers: "I write my blog every day, I don't need a sub to get in the way. “ And “I produce copy that goes straight on screen — why can't anyone else do that? You can eliminate a whole structure.”

Thinking about it, I realized that the Internet is not so novel, because we have seen the type many times before: the sacred monster. The reporter who thinks that editors get in the way. The columnist who demands an accounting of every keystroke in the editing. The star whose work comes to the desk with the understanding that it may not be questioned.

Some years ago I was the copy editor for a major article for the Sunday editions, written by an expensively acquired reporter of note. About a quarter of the way into the text there was a paragraph of such stunning opacity that I knew it would be one of those stumbling blocks to bring a reader to a dead stop. I suggested a minor restructuring and rewording.

The assigning editor tended to agree, but the writer was a star, and a summit meeting had to be convened in the conference room with the reporter, the assigning editor, a couple of other miscellaneous editors, and me. I went in and made my suggestion in a mild and low-key a manner; the reporter glared across the table at me in mute hostility. The outcome: The story was to run as written, with a tacit understanding that no more questions were to be raised or suggestions offered.

After the story ran, I asked a few readers — civilians — what they thought of it. They had come to that precise paragraph and read no further.

You can be sure when you hear that a publication is “a writer’s paper” that you will find there more sacred cattle than roam the streets of Benares. That herd has been around forever. And now the Internet has become their natural habitat. The sloppily reported story, the overlong and badly organized story, the self-indulgent prose excesses are all there, and increasingly in the print versions, too, as those meddling copy editors are turned out to pasture.

There is, of course, first-rate reporting and writing to be found. And you, dear reader, can squat at the waterside and pan the dross yourself for the occasional nugget.


Coming tomorrow: Part 3 of the Grammarnoir serial



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